A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Talking about the Weather



I keep hearing people say that yet another detail you should never include in your fiction-writing is reference to the weather. Nobody wants to hear about it, they say. Just get straight to the action, don’t bother setting the scene, nobody has the patience for that, just go, go, go.

  And most importantly, never ever open a scene, or (flinching) a book with weather.

  Again, I could be completely weird, but I personally am not all that offended when an author takes note of the atmospheric conditions. People, especially the kind who write cash-fiction, seem to have lost all regard for the idea of mood in writing anymore. Also, unless your story is set in a ridiculously temperate climate, it’s very likely that weather will actually affect the plot. Even if you are the kind of writer that only writes down what happened in the story, and nothing else, remember that blizzards, droughts, ice-storms, and hurricanes also happen.

  I like meteorology, I’ll admit that. I also love richly atmospheric writing. Mood in writing isn’t just a disembodied emotional or mental feeling, it can be intensified and symbolized by the physical world. Weather is a very natural and artistic way to do that. Wind blows restlessly down the empty streets as the sky darkens, the heat intensifies in the afternoon and purple haze stifles the distant trees, the hero wakes up from a bizarre nightmare to the sound of thunder, and lightning blazes over the snow-covered world. Please!!! We can’t stand reading about this. Edit that out, you’re losing your readers!!!!!

  Really?

  The Stardrift Trilogy opens quite unabashedly with weather, as does the Rhapsody Threnody series. I honestly don’t see why that would be such a drawback for anyone. Don’t omit details if they can be used to make your writing strong. Ever. Details don’t have to be boring or irrelevant. Try manipulating them to see if they can work for you before throwing them out.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Children and Families


Here’s something to know: if you can’t write about children, don’t. Children are extremely complex creatures. Though everyone has been one, some have them, some work with them, and others are barely not them, they’re still some of the most difficult people to portray realistically.

  I see it all the time, even in ‘real’ novels by ‘real’ authors. Children, especially when in groups tend to be sort of…wrong. Sometimes it can be hard to put your finger on, other times you know exactly what the author did wrong.

  Let’s talk about some common issues that I can often spot. Here’s a big one to start off with: Children don’t always say the right things at the right time. That should be pretty obvious. In fact, who does? But what I’m actually referring to is a different kind of “right thing” than you might be thinking of.

  Authors do this all the time. I can’t stand it. You’ve got you’re couple standing there talking along until Mr. White Smile-Nice Hair says something unrealistic to Miss Love Interest. About this point Adorable Child with Bouncing Curls says “Why is your face all red, Miss Lovey?”

  Mwaaaa!!! (Do you like that expression of disgust?) Have you ever known a kid to notice when somebody was blushing? They don’t do it. No, I’m not saying kids don’t notice details or recognize shifts of emotions, they certainly do. But why would a kid ask such a silly question, even if, for some reason, they were carefully watching the color-saturation of Miss Lovey’s face?

  Oh, and that’s another thing, unless they’re under three years old, and really can’t pronounce somebody’s name, children don’t make up nicknames for people. The only reason a kid would call somebody a nickname is if they heard other people calling them that. Got it?

  Children don’t try to be cute. They just are. This is a place where age comes in to play a lot, though. This rule isn’t very strict, but if you have a moment where a kid is trying to be cute, keep it fairly isolated. In spite of what we my think, the motives behind children’s actions are not often to be cute.

  Children will do all kinds of things to get attention. Being cute is just one of them, small ones go up and hang on adults and say things over and over. Often start making mischief or showing off when there’s company in the house.

  Keep in mind that an awful lot can change from year to year in a child’s life in reference to their behavior. Be familiar with the age group you’re writing about. Also, aside from being a child, children are also individuals. Don’t forget to map out their character just as much as you would any other. Think about where they’ve been and where they’re going in their development into a grown person. Don’t make them into little adults, but think about their hopes and fears at the present time in reference to how those will manifest themselves in the future.

  One final note, if you must write a story about a large family, don’t be lazy. Every sibling is going to be unique. Don’t let them blur together. Don’t make their relationships fake or stereotypical. Invent based on experience. Build off of your own experiences growing up, or watching other children close to you grow up. Every family is different. Some have problems with sibling rivalry, some don’t. Some are very demonstratively affectionate, some aren’t. Some definitely split into “the boys” and “the girls” others mix and match in their choices of playmates. Make your fictional family different and entertaining, but keep them relatable. It’s great when someone accomplishes this in a book. Shoot for it.  

 

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Word on Editing


First of all, happy Halloween.

So. I’m in the process of publishing my first trilogy, as you know. Since I was going to be putting a lot of time (it won’t be available until March of ’15) and money (I’m subsidy publishing, so I’m out $2,000) into the project, I thought it would be in my best interest to produce the best possible product in the end. I decided I would look into purchasing line-editing from my publishers.

  Then, I found out that to line-edit my whole trilogy would cost me $8,000. In a words “no”. The company admits that is pretty over-priced. A standard line-editing job costs about $2.50 a page, which, for my rather large manuscript comes to around $1,500. That’s a lot, but it isn’t $8,000. If the manuscript wasn’t a whole trilogy even my publishing company’s price might not kill anybody, but when it comes to line editing, here’s a hint.

  You know somebody who can do it.

  I’ve handed the job over to my parents and siblings. All you have to do to catch typos, misspellings, and obvious grammatical errors is read the manuscript. If you’re not incredibly knit-picky about the subtleties of English grammar, you won’t even need to hire a retired English teacher, (though that’s much easier to do than you think.) The company gave me some valuable information about my books: there’s nothing wrong with the plot structure. Score. All I really needed was line-editing.

  So, I’m saving myself anywhere from $1,500 to $8,000 and having my family help out. I think they can get it pretty clean. Check out the Stardrift Trilogy in March to see how this worked out!  

   

 

 

 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Realistic" Dialogue


For me, one of the hardest things to master has been the art of writing dialogue. This comes up all the time in discussions of writing. Despite the fact that we hear and engage in dialogue every day, when it comes to putting it down on paper, we tend to give up on writing and set to drawing something called a blank instead.

  Readers often complain that dialogue that is poorly written in a novel sounds unrealistic. That is often the case. Try reading a bad section of dialogue aloud. If you can even get the inflection right, it’s not too far gone. Some dialogue is so unnatural that you can’t even tell what’s supposed to be coming across. Dialogue is a terrible thing to botch.

  So, what makes dialogue sound right? There isn’t a definite set of dos and don’ts here, a lot of it depends. Check out my previous post on character voices for further discussion on this. There are a few things, however that should be avoided in conversational dialogue.

  Be careful with sentence-structure variation.  Varying sentence-structure is a good thing in the narrative text, but how often do you hear somebody start a sentence with an adjective in conversation? Do people usually say “Happily, I took the goldfish home,” or “I happily took the goldfish home,?” There are exceptions, of course. People start sentences more comfortably with the adjective “finally”. Also double-check when you start a sentence with a prepositional phrase. You might say “Under my bed, there is an egg-beater” if you wanted to emphasize the location of the egg-beater.  But would you say “Beside ourselves with excitement, we forgot what we were doing”? Well, you might, but not every day.

  While we’re talking grammar, don’t worry so much about grammatical correctness in dialogue. Real dialogue is full of fragments. People leave out words and don’t finish sentences. That’s a good thing in dialogue, it’s often much more efficient.

  At the same time as I’m telling you all this, let me mention something that you may or may not have ever thought about: Good dialogue, while natural-sounding, is not actually that realistic. And readers and critics are just fine with that. 

  So, what does this mean? Think about it. If you sit and listen to people having a casual conversation, what do you notice? Generally, people are very ineloquent and, without context, almost impossible to understand. On top of unfinished sentences (which are not the same and fragments), randomly mispronounced, misused, or skipped words, people interrupt themselves, use sound effects, expressions, gestures, and forget what they were saying for no reason. There are probably avant-garde authors who write their dialogue like that, but it might be a pain in the neck to read, and would probably hinder the flow of the plot, at least in the readers’ minds.

  The trick is to sound natural. Dialogue has to be effective above all, not true-to-life.

  I’m excited to bring up the subject of profanity. You know why? Because there’s a lot of discussion among authors about the use of it, and I tend to disagree. Let me tell you something right now, You do not have to use profanity to write good dialogue!  There. I said it. I said what commercial authors are all afraid to say. If you don’t believe in saturating your writing or even your speech in four-letter words, rock on, tiger. Like I said, just because that’s how people talk in real life, doesn’t mean you must reproduce it in your dialogue. If you go out among people who swear in every other sentence, something should strike you eventually. Profanity is more often than not used because they couldn’t think of a stronger word. As funny as that sounds, if you think about it, the way people use profanity today is extremely empty. The words mean nothing. What are authors instructed to do with empty words? Don’t do anything with them.

  One word of caution only here: If you don’t use profanity, don’t use euphemisms in place of it. That is the only time it would be considered awkward dialogue not to swear. If somebody’s really murderously angry, don’t let them say “darn it.” People will laugh.

  Some authors have argued that not using profanity will hurt your ability to sell your work. That’s stupid. Can you imagine getting a rejection slip from a publisher saying “Hated it. There was no profanity.” That would be their problem, not yours. No one will even care if there aren’t any four-letter words, and some might not even notice if you heed the previous paragraph. People who insist upon profanity in literature are either (1) snobs who think they’re so sophisticated with their overuse of empty words and phrases, or (2) they have a slight issue with being addicted to reading dirty words. Either way, it’s not your problem, you don’t need their money that much anyway, and you can jolly well find another publisher. Their loss.

  So, remember, realistic isn’t actually the goal. Effectiveness, the ability to relay action and portray character. It’s not about just sounding like what we hear every day. We all know talk is boring.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Publishing Update

I'll break from my fiction advice series for a moment to tell you that I'm still hard at work on subsidy publishing my first three novels, The Stardrift Trilogy. I'm not absolutely certain that I would advise subsidy publishing after what I've been through, but on the other hand, I've run up against a great deal of unfortunate flukes in the process that people with normal luck might never encounter.
  I've actually had to switch publishing companies in the middle of everything. I'm pretty sure we're getting back on track, but I imagine it won't be until at least December before the trilogy is finally released. This process is supposed to take about four months and it's taken me over a year. Typical.
  My enthusiasm to see my work made available to the public is undiminished, through it all. This blog is going to get a bit more meaningful, (and hopefully, a bit more traffic) once I can start using it to discuss themes and nuances of my novels.
  It will be really fun when I start publishing other books as well. I may or may not get bold and try to traditionally publish A Hand with Five Fingers. You know something I realized about that title? It's a lot like The Beast with Five Fingers. But in my defense, I didn't know about the creepy old movie until a while after I had named my book. And it isn't nearly as bad as the two classic books, The Invisible Man and Invisible Man. I mean, really, that's terrible.
  Just musing along. Do you know what I think could be a problem for me if I tried to publish traditionally? My books are totally not commercial enough. They always have you define your target audience. Who is my target audience? Like with Stardrift, for example, it's classified as sci-fi, but it really isn't sci-fi. The sci-fi audience expects laser blasters, light-speed, robots, technology gone rouge, and women in metal bikinis. Most of the fighting is done with steel-bladed weapons, light-speed is technically impossible, technology is strictly coincidental, robots are cliché, and I don't believe in bikinis, metal or no. I don't even know if my audience is male (it is sci-fi, after all) or female (the protagonist is a girl.) I imagine it would be considered young-adult reading, but it isn't necessarily as fluffy as you might expect for that age-range.
  I consider myself a speculative fiction writer. That's kind of vague, but that's probably good, since it makes it so basically all my books fit into the genre. Even Rhapsody Threnody could be considered spec-fic for the supernatural undertones, (though it's technically more on the Christian fiction side.) A Hand with Five Fingers, what with the time-travel involved, could also be included, as could, of course, the new sci-fi/fantasy trilogy I recently started called The Art of Lightplay.
  Anyway. This is a rather disorganized post. I may be posting again as soon as tomorrow or as late as two-weeks from now. I think you're getting used to my inconsistency. Thank you.
   

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Creating a character to drive the plot


 

One of my favorite parts of writing novels is making up the people who will populate it. I don’t understand those authors who seem to use the same basic types for every novel they write. I will admit that there are people that just end up turning up in different roles with slightly different faces. (I think I mentioned the prevalence of Franz Liszt in a previous post.) But you have to take into account that each story is unique. And the characters make the story.

  A story is the interaction of the characters with a series of situations. How the story goes is determined largely by how the characters react. Of course, things will happen that the characters had nothing to do with, but how they play the cards dealt to them is the essence of the plot.

  So constructing these characters should be a well-thought-out process. It’s possible to create a character while writing your book, but it will help you a great deal to prepare one ahead of time, so they can be fully developed from the start. I’ve done it both ways, and since I tend to write quite slowly, going so far as to edit as I go along (a lot of authors strongly discourage this behavior) it’s not too disastrous to introduce aspects of my characters as I think of them. Still, I would recommend some planning beforehand. It will make it easier to focus on the plot.

  What do you need to know about your character to make them affective? When I’m creating a character, there are four things that I make sure I make for them. They are: a body, a personality, a background, and a moral character.

  Let’s look at these one at a time. First off, every character needs a body. Writers differ on how important this is, which I think is funny, since you might as well do it. It’s really the easiest part of your character-making, and, like in real life it is often your first impression of who a character is. Write up a detailed ID for your main characters. How old are they? How tall? What coloring do they have? What’s the length and style of their hair? How do their facial features look? And, what is their overall body type? That last one carries more weight than you might think. (No pun intended.) It really helps to have the general physique in your mind’s eye. In fact, it almost runs over into the next element.

  Personality.  This is what is going to get your readers attached to your character. This is their humanity. This is probably going to be where the outside world comes into your book most. You want your readers to feel like they’ve met this person somewhere before. More than any other element in your entire book, the personalities have to be real.

  And by the way, God doesn’t copyright. Those people you know and love—they’re all in the public domain. Rarely, if ever does a personality spring purely from your imagination. In fact, almost all the characters in my Stardrift Trilogy are based loosely on a facet of myself. If you wonder if such a person could actually exist, check it against the standard you know best: your own personality. If this person is acting the way you might act, chances are, you’ve got a realistic character.

  In spite of  the fact that we observe personalities all the time, this seems to be one of the hardest parts of character-developing for some people. How many times have you complained that the people in a book just didn’t seem like anyone that would ever actually exist? One of the problems is sometimes people try to base their characters’ personalities on their morals or their stereotypes in reference to their respective roles in the plot. Here’s a bad guy. Here’s a love interest. Here’s the hero’s meddling mother.

  No. Think about these things instead: How do they smile? How do they laugh? What do they smile and laugh at? What scares them? Are they introverted or extraverted? Optimist or pessimist? Focused or distractible? Do they have any obsessions? Talents? Disabilities? What’s their default emotion? How would you describe them in three words?

  Sometimes, a character’s personality has been developed in some way by their background. Depending on your story, the background of your character may need to be developed more or less extensively. Sometimes a character’s past is vital to the plot. Other times (and quite often with my stories) not much has happened to the protagonist up until the novel starts. (In any case, you might want to make a note of that.)

  Think about your story. Might you need to include your character’s parents, or mention the town where they were born at some point? Is there some important event from their past that left a permanent mark of their views or understanding of life? Is there something that started way back when that might come back to haunt in a significant way during the course of the plot? Use discretion in thinking out just how much you need to know about your characters’ pasts.

  Finally, moral character. This is going to be quite important for those big moments in your story where the characters have to decide what to do. Your character is going to be driven by the principals her or she believes in, the things down at the heart of their existence.

  So, what kind of a person are they? Here’s where roles become something to consider more than in your other elements. Are they a hero? An indifferent side character? The villain?

  Choose virtues and vices for all your main characters. Remember that your hero can’t be perfect, and your villain can’t be totally evil. They’ll both be flat and unrealistic if you forget that. Think about your story again. Chances are you’ve got a good idea of what your hero and your villain are going to do. Why are they doing that? What drives them? What do they value? What character traits do they possess or not possess?

  Is your hero heroic because they’re selfless? Courageous? Compassionate? Loyal to their friends? Can they feel the pain of the afflicted? Find the truth in the confusion? Stick it out when everyone else gives up? Stand up to people who are used to doing whatever they want at the expense of others? Where’s their weak spot? Can they be distracted from their purpose? Do they sometimes just want to stop fighting? Maybe there’s something that they’re hiding that they’re afraid will be found out. Maybe they’ve got guilt over something in the past. Maybe they’re tempted to take revenge.

  What about the villain? Why would they do a thing like that? What’s their messed-up philosophy? What’s the main thing that makes them despicable? Are they deceivers? Do they take advantage of people? Are they self-seeking? Power-hungry? They can’t have all the problems though. There’s probably a good side somewhere, even if it’s just that they’ve never hung up on someone while they were still talking, or are nice enough not to throw things at the neighborhood cat. Maybe some of their terribleness grew out of some good quality that got blown out of proportion some time back. Maybe they wanted to protect someone they cared about. Maybe they were outraged at some injustice and overreacted. Another likely scenario is that they’ve been hurt somehow and were too weak to handle it correctly. Could they be redeemable after all? 

  Basically, the thing to remember when you’re creating a character is that they can’t just be a role with a name. You have to create w whole person that your readers will connect with, and want to hear more about. Great characters can cover a multitude of literary sins, and an extraordinary character is something your audience will never forget.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Are What You Read


Some of the information in this post relates back to former posts, such as “How Not to Write Like A Girl…or a Guy.” You’ll notice when a person is asked to write a creative work, they’ll often fall back on what they know for inspiration. In other words, what they read.

  I’ll use myself as a case study because my case is rather interesting. First off, as an author of almost eight novels, it might be imagined that I like to read. Well, that isn’t necessarily the case. At least, I really haven’t been a big fan of novels. I read all the time, but I’ve always preferred science books. I spent this last summer reading Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe. I like theoretical cosmology. (Actually, all cosmology is theoretical, but it sounds more impressive to give it an adjective.)

  I also recently enjoyed a rather hefty biography. I don’t read a lot of biographies, there aren’t a whole lot of historical figures that intrigue me that much, which is probably my problem, but I had a great time with Alan Walker’s Franz Liszt trilogy.

  When it comes to fiction, I read almost nothing but classics. Of course, all Christian fantasy authors read Tolkien and Lewis, it seems, and they probably will always rank as my favorite authors, but I try to vary what I read. I enjoyed in no particular order:

Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man

Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins

All of which I would recommend, along with many others. But only you know what turns you on. It’s important to find writing this inspires you. Not all classics are the same. Know what fascinates you in the way of subject matter. I have preferences for out-of-the-ordinary elements in stories, adventure, survival, plots twists, fantasy, etc. These are the things that are likely to show up in your own stories.

  One thing I don’t recommend is imitating another author’s tone. For one thing, it never comes across the same with from a different writer’s pen, neither does it allow you, as your own person, to express yourself in your own voice. You have your own voice as an author, and if you spend your career trying to sound like somebody else, no one will ever get to experience the magic of your natural style. Don’t sell yourself short.

  Something else that is a danger particularly to new Christian authors is starting to sound like the last devotional they read. It’s awful when two characters are just talking along, and all of a sudden all their dialogue is practically copy-and-pasted from the latest Randy Alcorn release. It’s even worse when the narrator does this. Remember, these deep truths are so much more real when the action of the story tells them, not the characters or the disembodied author.

  So there are pros and cons to the fact that what you read has influence on what you write. One of the most effortless ways to improve your writing is to read good literature and observe what you like about it. As long as you don’t fall into the trap of losing your originality to it, what you read will inevitably build your writing skills.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Voices


Think about the people you know. When you start a conversation with one of your friends, you have certain expectations. You’re familiar with the kinds of things they say in various situations, and how they say them. You tend to have a good idea of how they converse. You can tell when they’re in a weird mood because they tend to say things that are out of character.

  Characters have voices. You can open a well-written book and read a conversation, and deduce things about the personalities behind the words. There’s an art to establishing character voices, of course. I know I could do better myself, as sometimes I catch myself just having all my characters talk like I do. There are some things that I try to keep in mind while writing dialogue that may help you.

  Keep in mind that different people have different vocabularies. Your education, line of work, areas of interest, social circles, and age are some of the factors that influence what words you use in casual conversation. You personally might be studying anatomy and physiology intensively, but the character you’re writing about doesn’t necessarily know the technical names for his different bones or muscles. If you are writing about an expert in a certain field that you aren’t so familiar with, study a bit and pick up some useful terms. Think about you’re character’s social life, and the time period when they probably established most of their conversational skills. Watch out that you don’t have an old person who uses a lot of millennial slang, unless he’s trying to be that way, or something.

  Which brings us to the subject of period writing. I tend to be critical of historical fiction. I wouldn’t exactly recommend imitating the way people talk in historical fiction paperbacks. I’d recommend reading some original sources from the time period in question. Don’t assume that the more awkward and wordy a sentence is, the more authentically historical it will be. You might be surprised by the informality that sometimes shows up in dialogue from the past. Take note of the words used, and be careful not to fall into using obviously modern expressions.

  The setting where your story unfolds also will have profound effect on dialogue. Phrases and terms are different in different countries, and even different regions of countries, sometimes. We all know a few U.K. terms: the trunk of a car is a boot and the hood is a bonnet, etc. Americans might make mountains out of mole hills, but a Pole can make an ox out of nothing, top that.

  It isn’t important to obsess over regional things like that all the time, casual readers probably won’t notice or care. What any reader will have opinions about is the use of dialect cues and phonetic spellings when it comes to foreign accents. My feeling here: just don’t do it. Go ahead and tell your reader that a character has a certain accent when they talk. Don’t try to write it down. Why? Because it almost never captures the essence of the accent portrayed. For example, I once read a book by one Jean Stratton-Porter called Freckles. (The only romance I’ve ever choked down.) In it there was a Scotch-Irish couple. Apparently, the word “well” with that accent sounds like “Wheel.” Somebody help me here. It that right?

  Even if the author is pretty good at it, (like Mark Twain) it tends to be really hard to read when all the words are grossly misspelled. It can be so distracting for an important character to have an accent that it detracts from the whole book. (At least for me.) Listening to a foreign accent is one thing, trying to decipher it in print is quite another. 

  I just wrote a book (A Hand with Five Fingers) in which the main character was from the United States, but everyone else was foreign. There was an Englishman, a German, and three Hungarians besides. Imagine the fun I could have had with phonetic spellings and how chaotic that might have turned out.

  Lastly, I want to point out how much the character’s intrinsic personality makes a difference in their speech. I wrote a series that spans three books so far called the Rhapsody Threnody Series tentatively, and in my opinion the characters in it are some of the strongest I’ve ever developed.

  The main character, Carmen Hess is cynical, and often depressed, but is carried through by her resolve and sense of humor. The books are written in first-person from her perspective, and therefore the whole narrative as well as her own dialogue are in her voice. She utilizes deadpan sarcasm and a lot of negative asides, and the whole text is embellished with weird analogies and unusual observations.

  Her best friend Candace Leonardi is colorful, upbeat, and always ruining Carmen’s bad moods. She tends to tease other characters good-naturedly, and uses a lot of informal language. She calls people things like “tiger” and “chiquita” and tells them not to give her “that jive”.

  Cecil Vorosvari, Carmen’s young ambitious piano teacher is emotional, obsessive, sensitive, and highly intelligent. He’s also foreign, and throughout the series is speaking his second language. His English is very good however, and he only “losses his English” on occasion, and, true to his personality, he is extremely eloquent. Another note about foreigners: just because they might not know a lot of English, doesn’t mean they don’t use complex words. Depending on the language, complex words may actually be easier to understand for them because they’re often similar to a related word in their own language.
  Now, this has been an incredibly long post. Sorry. I hope it was helpful enough to make up for it. As one final tip I advise that you read your dialogue aloud to yourself without the narrative to see how it sounds. Your ears don’t lie. If it sounds wrong, it is wrong. Tweak it, you’ll get it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dictionary and Thesaurus


One of the easiest ways to make your writing stronger and more artistic is to broaden your vocabulary. It’s natural for people to know the definitions of a great many words in their own language and quite a few in others, but the percentage that we actually use in speech or writing is pretty measly. We tend to favor certain words.

  That’s okay, until certain symptoms of limited vocabulary arise. I don’t like using the same word twice in a paragraph, especially a descriptive word, like an adjective or adverb. There’s a little more leeway with nouns. And, of course, if there really is no other word for a particular noun, there’s not much you can do about it. Verbs should only be used twice in a paragraph intentionally for emphasis, in my opinion.

  When you turn to your thesaurus to find a better synonym, there is something you have to be aware of. First, let me illustrate the problem. I was once working on a group English comp. project in college. (I hated it.) There were three of us and we were writing the paper “together”. We were writing a business proposal that supposedly was trying to solve the problem of over-crowded prisons by re-opening Alcatraz. (I hated it.) We kept having to use the term “violent criminals” over and over. The forensics major who was sort of spearheading the whole idea noticed this and suggested we find a synonym for “violent”. She decided she liked the word “vehement.” (I hated it.)

  Red light. A slightly more wordly-wise writer knows that a “vehement criminal” is by no means the same thing as s “violent criminal”, or a “pugnacious criminal”, or a “ferocious criminal.” The point here can be summed up in a definite fact of life. There is no such thing as a synonym.

  This is why you also will need to keep your dictionary handy. There are really two reasons to vary word choice: for color and variation, and to be sure you’re getting the best word for the situation. Clarity is generally considered to be a virtue in writing of any kind. In the interest of the clearest possible description, you want the word that means exactly what you want to say. When we say “violent criminal” we mean a criminal that has committed a violent crime such as murder, or assault. We do not mean a criminal that shows intense feeling. (Another so-called “synonym” for “vehement” was “convicted”, but it might have taken from my point to say we didn’t mean that.)

  You can use a thesaurus to take the ambiguity out of your writing and to make your descriptions more vivid. Think about the word “fight.” Somebody says, “Oh, they got in a fight” and you’re not absolutely sure how you are supposed to take it. Depending on the context, you may be able to make a safe guess. If we’re talking about a couple of girls who used to be friends, you might imagine they argued over some issue that was important to them. If we’re talking about a couple of cats, they might have clawed each other’s faces viciously and make horrible noises. Or it could be the other way around, but we don’t really know.

  The mystery is cleared up a little if you say, “they got in an argument”, or “they got in a wrestling match.” You can also imply things about the nature of a character by the words you use on him or her. “He walked in” is one thing, “he stalked in,” or “he shuffled in,” or “he swaggered in” have different implications, entirely.    

  I still prefer physical books to online sources. Online dictionary and thesaurus tools vary quite a bit in quality and usability. I still use them when hauling giant books with me is impractical but at home, I stick to the paper. One thing I like about using books versus the internet is I often end up finding other words that I wasn’t even looking for alongside my target. Whatever you prefer, getting in the habit of utilizing these sources is guaranteed to improve your writing overall. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Don't write like a girl...or a guy.



You can’t always be sure by reading a piece of literature whether the writer is male or female. Subject matter, plot, and the gender of the main character can, but don’t always offer clues. But there are particular style problems that arise more often in female writers, and others that are more typically male. I’ve observed them for a while, and thought it might be of use if I made a note of them.

  Aside from things like choice of subject matter and certain writing nuances that they obviously picked up from the literature that is targeted at them, guys and girls also have different downfalls in their ability to carry a story altogether. My observations on this subject may sound familiar, or they might surprise you.

  As I was taking a creative writing course last semester, I noticed that boys and girls often have different overall tones they naturally fall back on when they have to write something off the top of their head before planning a full story. There was almost an equal amount of girls and boys in the class, which was good, since I have a feeling guys might be a little under-represented most of the time in the world of amateur writing. We had an exercise where we were all asked to develop a setting.

  Without a single exception, (besides me) the males portrayed a gritty, dark, imposing atmosphere, and the females created a sunny, fun, breezy atmosphere. I thought this was kind of funny. But aside from default settings, the way the two genders wrote stories, when we got to that, made it evident that there were certain things that they struggled with apart from each other.

  Ladies first: In that particular class, the worst writer, and the best were both boys, the girls weren’t as noticeably bad or good. They weren’t real big on creativity for plots, though. One did a story on a teenage girl with anorexia, one on a girl who made some bad decisions and ended up in bad situations with some guy she shouldn’t have fallen for in the first place, another wrote about a grade-school girl enjoying summer break, and another tried a different genre and surprised us all with a thriller involving a cursed doll. (Really, how many times has that been done before?)

  But I keep getting side-tracked from the thing I’m actually criticizing. The thing that girls do that makes a story hard to read is they often get so wrapped up in the moment they’re describing, that the reader is unable to actually see what’s happening, or what it has to do with anything. Especially in romances, where the couple is talking, and all of a sudden…her eyes were shining…their hearts were beating…he was glad he had polished his shoes before going out today… “Do you truly believe me?”

  Wait. Believe what? Who? Who’s talking? I thought they were having problems of some kind. Why’d the action just, like, totally stop? That’s kind of an example of what I’m talking about. What makes it even more confusing is when that sort of disintegration sets in, not in some emotionally intense scene, not when she’s staring up at her man, but rather, staring at her coffee, or her car keys, or at some other mundane moment. You can’t just trust your readers to understand the significance of any point in your story just by letting your writing fall all apart. Keep the narrative intact, please.

  Now for the guys. I have read both rather lousy amateurs and published, famous authors who write the way I’m about to describe. I think it would be easier for some publishers to let the male mistakes slip because you can still understand the story, and it also is a rather serious-sounding way to write. However, I think most people would agree that if the story isn’t truly extraordinary, it’s extremely dull to read this kind of writing.

  Here’s the gist of it: some male authors have major trouble conveying a very essential element in writing, and that element is—believe it or not—suspense. I recently picked up a sci-fi novel that was written by none other than Buzz Alden. I generally enjoy reading things that astronauts wrote, but I had never read a novel written by one. The book is called The Return, and there were some rave reviews on the back cover.

  But what I found inside frankly bored me. Alden wrote the story as if it had already happened. Even before he said what happened, you already knew it had happened and were just waiting around to be surprised by something. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that he foreshadowed, or hinted. You just already knew that at least that one really nice guy was going to get killed on the shuttle, and that the main guy was going to lose his job, and blah, blah, blah. And it didn’t matter after the fact, because we weren’t there when it happened and we didn’t care if it did before it did.

  There was that guy in my class who wrote like a guy too. Now, his writing was considerably worse than Alden’s, but it was the same problem. He never put the reader into the course of the story. It’s more like he gave them a bird’s eye view of the maze. With the correct course already drawn out. I can’t remember what any scene in that story was like. I have no visuals and no feelings, and zero atmospheric impressions looking back on it.   

  I’ll inevitably end up talking about and criticizing sources of inspiration for authors and blame them for bad writing across the board. Most of the time people are just writing what they’ve read, with a few little variations and combinations. I won’t pretend to be an expert, and of course there are probably guys who write poorly “like girls”, and girls who write poorly “like guys”, but generally, this is what happens. And lastly, there are probably people who really like authors who write like this. Apparently there are, because these people do get published now and then, but you, personally have more potential than that, and know better now.
No pressure.    

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Description


Hello everyone. Sorry about the lack of action, my access to internet is limited. However, I’ve decided to try my best to start posting regularly from now on—at least once a week, I hope. I plan to start a series of posts this week on the subject of writing. I’ve recently started writing my eighth novel, and in the process of all that writing, discovered a few things that might be of interest to other writers. I have very few readers to date, so spread the word that I’ve started up this series if you like it, or know somebody who might benefit from it.

  Without further ado:

The Art of Description

  I’m aware that right now, mainstream authors generally are looking down on highly descriptive writing. A lot of modern authors, novelists, and even poets discourage over-description but little is said about the issue of under-description. I was reading an article in a writers’ magazine giving something like “The Ten Rules for Success”, written by some author whom I frankly doubt that I would ever enjoy reading. One of his tips was to describe your characters as little as possible. What!?!?

  In matters of art, it’s of the essence to work in a way that is natural for you. If you really feel uncomfortable describing your characters, don’t do it--but as a general rule for success?  There may be readers who prefer to have a character left entirely to their imagination, but I’m not one of them, and as a writer...I really, really, want to tell you what I see.

  And they’ll say, “Oh, no! Don’t tell us, show us.” This is usually good advice, but spending an entire book implying what a character looks like is a waste of time. I use my characters’ physical appearances to imply other things. I’m extremely visual in my writing. That same article said, similarly to be sparse with your descriptions of settings. Again, if that’s you’re natural style, fine, I just won’t probably make it through the first chapter of your book, personally, but don’t think that when these “serious” authors say it’s the only way, that they have any idea what they’re talking about.

  Remember that I’m something of a sci-fi/fantasy author, myself, and that surely effects my viewpoint on this topic. You could never spend the whole of a science-fiction or fantasy story implying what the people and places looked like and come out with a particularly striking piece. You don’t particularly enjoy reading a story that takes place on multiple planets that you never actually get to see, unless that supposed to be the point of the story. The antagonist in my hopefully-soon-to-be-available sci-fi trilogy Stardrift, would not be nearly as effective if you didn’t know he was seven feet tall with very fair skin, eerily pretty hands, and hair down to the middle of his thigh.

  If you don’t trust the examples of my own writing, let’s look at a few others. Suppose Emily Bronte never told us what Wuthering Heights, or Thrushcross Grange, or Heathcliff, or the moors looked like. What if Ray Bradbury didn’t tell us how the hound looked in Fareinheight 451? What if James Barry didn’t describe Neverland, or Captain Hook? Success!!! Yep.

  Don’t think I advocate describing everything though. I can’t stand it when authors start giving the reader a laundry list of all the…laundry a character is wearing. Sometimes it really is important how a character is dressed, but not always. Have you ever read any Nancy Drew mysteries? Don’t do that. But there actually are reasons for describing  attire, it can be a great way to “show and not tell” a character’s mood, or what they’re doing, or as a symbolic element, if you do that kind of thing.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Red Robin

I always stare at graffiti on train cars and wonder....

The Red Robin

a red robin is traced in bleeding paint
 not red like a rose or a ruby
like blood--thin blood
not bright and fresh, but not dry yet
the silhouette of the perching thrush is a shadow on the tanker car
a bird that migrates by train
 the symbol of something
 someone perhaps
 the rainy Midwestern underworld speaks in hieroglyphs
images that fade quietly in the sun of early spring when the trains move
 among formless scribbling of illegible nonsense
and words in garish blocky lettering like crumbling concrete
stains like blood run down the cars
it's only rust that bleeds from bolts and hinges
 there's also a robin
a bird from Europe
messages that migrate by train
 as they drift farther and farther from where they began
their meaning fades quietly in the sun of early spring
 it's only a red robin
traced in bleeding paint
not like a ruby
like blood
in the rain

Monday, February 24, 2014

Quantum Heartbeat: at a loss for words? Find some!

This is something everyone should do from time to time. It's a great way to open your mind to new metaphors and break with old cliches. What I've done is, I've taken scissors to magazines and impulsively cut out words that appealed to me, then I arranged them into this poem. There's just enough thinking involved to make it stimulating and just enough chance involved to make it fun. This poem is called "Quantum Heartbeat."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Hand with Five Fingers

Yesterday I embarked on what is to be my seventh novel. Though I've written two trilogies, (the soon-to-be-available Stardrift and the more recent Rhapsody and Threnody) this new book is going to be my first stand-alone novel.
  A Hand with Five Fingers begins with the sentence, "It had been one of those dark days." First sentences, you know, are highly important, almost as important as final sentences. So the story goes, our protagonist, an author, is driving home from another discouraging consultation with her literary agent and almost hits a kid crossing the road in the middle of a bleak and lonely moor. The unidentifiable foreign teenager eventually reveals to her that he is a half-remembered concert pianist...one-hundred twenty-eight years dead.
  So, that's the premise. The pianist, is a real person whom I've been researching extensively in my spare time. Franz Liszt was a Hungarian piano virtuoso, conductor, and composer during the early-to-mid Romantic period. For some reason I got inspired and started to base characters and drawings off of him.
  Actually, Franz Liszt's influence on my work can be seen as far back as Stardrift, where a character named Wyvhern Earafanhisk was based roughly on him, physically. My character's hair is actually about six inches longer though. Men should have long hair. They really should.
  Anyway, in my upcoming book, there are actually no less than three characters that are meant to resemble him. It's quite strategic on my part, actually. I'll warn you that the plot is just border-lying creepy. You probably couldn't expect less from a book called A Hand with Five Fingers.
  (But A Hand with Six Fingers would be creepier. Sequel? :)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Insomniac


  It's a strange thing watching the night creep by through the dimly glowing windows, not quite aware that you've been still for hours and hours, silently staring like a corpse, not caring that all the clocks in the house are listening to you breathing. Slowly, midnight passes. It doesn't matter. Gradually, the stars move toward the blackness of the west. You don't even feel it.

  Events occur in a massive block of an element we call time. There has been debate in intellectual circles whether the past is at all moments just as real as the present, which is in turn, just as real as the future. I think it's true.

   You don't even realize it, but you've lain awake, pretending, for the rest of the world's sake that you were asleep, for seven hours. Then, as if in a dream, you see sunlight--or something like it--filling the negative space around the dead fingers of a black tree outside your window. The birds are singing. The watery twilight swells to dawn. It doesn't matter.

  Then, the sun rises. Someone's alarm clock goes off. You sigh, suddenly realizing it's happened again, and then, you pretend to awaken.

Monday, February 3, 2014

here is a NEW POST!

Hello. I suppose anyone watching thought I was dead. I'm still alive, sorry. I would promise that this blog was about to get more active, but that might be funny. I don't do humor on this blog, see? Anyway, I hope everyone is enjoying their own lives. If somebody happens to be enjoying somebody else's life, that's interesting as well. Stay tuned, coming up next, drawings that may or may not have to do with anything.
  Thank you for reading.