Writing Romance: Crossing into Act Two

Welcome, Campers.
Last month we approached the turning point that launches our duo into Act Two.

By the end of Act One, your characters will likely have stated - either in their heads or actually out loud - that they want nothing to do with the other, nothing to do with a relationship with the other. No way, no how. But the final plot point of this act will not give them that choice. It will make it impossible for them to walk away. Not until. . . So at the end of this piece, your hero and heroine are completely “up a tree” with no way of escape.

In Hero’s Journey language, we’ve established the ordinary world of our hero and heroine. We’ve sent them a call to adventure when they meet each other. They’ve said NO NO NO - the Refusal. And sometimes they’ve met with a mentor or friend that has nudged them into the adventure.

And, at the end of Act One, they’ve begrudgingly Crossed the Threshold.

According to Jami Gold's Beat Sheet - which we’ve been following as a loose outline - in Act Two, “the protagonists react to the new desire, but suffer from one step forward and two steps back.”

As you can see in this beat sheet, Act Two is sandwiched between Pinch Point 1 and Pinch Point 2. Act Two is usually half the book and divided in half itself with an important Midpoint.

Up until that Midpoint, the hero and heroine are confronted by “tests, allies, and enemies.”  And up until that Midpoint, the hero and heroine are still trying to live their lives with their old pre-romance ways. They may give lip-service to working together, might even try to work together. But when the rubber meets the road, they’re working alone. In a way, they’re trying to get back to their ordinary world unscathed. Have they got a surprise coming.

An Ordeal at the Midpoint will force them to admit that the road they’re on doesn’t go back to that ordinary world. Something big has changed and they move forward through more challenges, learning to approach life differently: together. Sometimes this moment is capped with The Kiss.

At the end of Act Two comes another turning point. This one will drive a huge obstacle right through their relationship. Often, it leads to a breakup. And then it’s on to the last quarter of the book in Act Three.

Next month, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of getting your couple to that Midpoint.

Your homework: get out those romance movies. See if you can map the story with the information you have right now.

Oh, and BiC-HoK - Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.  (And Merry Christmas)

My NaNoWriMo 2017 Roadmap

After spending nine months on a first draft and another year and a half on revisions, I resolved to make my next book a more streamlined process. That’s why I’m spending October of this year on research, outlining, and pre-writing, and I hope to use NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to write my rough draft. As November approaches, I thought I’d share the roadmap I’ll be using.

This is an in-depth outline adapted from the books Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld and Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson. It’s just one of countless outlining methods available. I’ve studied several, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing—but for some reason, this one clicked the most with me. It breaks your novel into four parts, each taking roughly 25% of the total word count:

  1. Beginning
  2. Emerging Middle
  3. Deeper Middle
  4. End

It also focuses on four “energetic markers,” which can be thought of as key scenes or turning points:

  1. Point of No Return
  2. Rededication
  3. Dark Night of the Soul
  4. Triumph

The Beginning introduces the main character in her normal world. It sets up the central story conflict, as well as the protagonist’s flaw or wound—in other words, how she will need to change over the course of the story. The Beginning ends with the first energetic marker, the Point of No Return, a critical juncture where our heroine decides or is forced to plunge into the new world of the middle. She can no longer return to her old world and status quo. She may be physically trapped in a new world or situation, or she may make a promise or commitment that she can’t renege on.

When she emerges from the Point of No Return, the protagonist is thrust into the new and mysterious world of the Emerging Middle. Here, the action is controlled by antagonists and obstacles. Our heroine faces many setbacks, but is still winning in this stage. Her shadow side begins to reveal itself, both to the reader and to the character herself. She must begin to face her flaws and wounds, which will eventually force her to change. The Emerging Middle ends at the midpoint, a.k.a. the second energetic marker, the Rededication. This is where the main character is forced to reevaluate her progress toward her goal, and either recommit to that goal or identify a new one.

After the Rededication, the protagonist enters the Deeper Middle. This place is even more mysterious and challenging than the Emerging Middle, and our heroine is no longer winning—instead, the antagonists take the lead. The mindset and techniques that served the main character well in her old world no longer work, and she is forced to change her plan of attack. She faces greater setbacks and higher stakes than in the Emerging Middle, and her emotional outlook becomes increasingly bleak. Then, just when she thinks she’s about to reach her goal, she loses everything at the Dark Night of the Soul. This energetic marker turns the story in a new direction. It also awakens the main character to her flaws, strips away her old self, and gives her what she needs to succeed in the upcoming climax.

The protagonist enters the last quarter of the novel, the End, by formulating a plan and gathering resources. These include external resources (information, allies, tools, supplies, etc.) and internal resources (bracing herself emotionally for what’s to come). She no longer hesitates or second-guesses herself—she knows exactly what she must do and why, if not how to do it, and she moves toward her goal with courage and determination. This leads to the final energetic marker, the Triumph, a.k.a. the climax of your story. The Triumph is the heroine’s final confrontation with both the external antagonist and her own internal flaws. In order to succeed at the Triumph, she must come to terms with her shadow side and complete her character transformation. She is now fully united with her new self-awareness, understanding of the world, and sense of responsibility. The Triumph is followed by a brief resolution or denouement, which wraps up any last plot threads and provides a glimpse of the transformed protagonist in her new world.

What I like about this approach is that it’s a roadmap, not a formula. It helps me find the bones of my story before I start writing, while giving me the flexibility to discover the rest as I write. It also forces me to keep in mind both central story threads, action and character arc, and how they work in tandem. I’m looking forward to trying it out in November. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, good luck, and I’ll see you there!

Yada Yada Yada: Give Your Characters Distinct Voices

Just like real people, your characters have unique personalities, backgrounds, and worldviews—they should also have unique voices. Newbie authors often miss this lesson, and as a result, all 15 characters in their novel end up sounding exactly like the author. Here’s how I took my writing to the next level by giving my characters their own distinct voices.

There are two layers behind character voice: how they speak, and why they speak that way. Here are a few examples:

How                                                  Why

Big vocabulary                                 Insecure, trying to impress

Big vocabulary                                 Highly educated

Longwinded                                     Used to work as a teacher or lecturer

Longwinded                                     Arrogant

Blunt                                                  Doesn’t care about others’ feelings

Blunt                                                  Comes from a country where directness is valued

Loud voice                                        Lives with a hard-of-hearing relative

Loud voice                                        Attention-seeking

Notice, from the list above, that each how has multiple why possibilities. Also note that some of the whys on this list are personality traits (such as insecurity and arrogance), while others are related to the character’s environment (such as occupation and hometown).

Your job is to first understand your character’s whys, from both personality and environment perspectives. There are many factors to consider: character traits, education, upbringing, location, sense of humor, political and religious views, and overall attitude toward the world. Are they a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person? A leader or a follower? What are they afraid or superstitious of? Do they appreciate sarcasm, puns, or black humor? What kind of local slang or colloquialisms might they be exposed to? What job or hobbies do they have? Are they timid, assertive, or brash? Self-confident or insecure? How old are they, and how emotionally mature?

Next, determine how these whys inform how the character speaks. This means vocabulary, grammar, sentence length and structure, directness and subtext, just to name a few. This also includes verbal tics, similes and metaphors, and references to history, pop culture, etc. For instance, a college professor will likely have a wider vocabulary than a high-school dropout. Someone who studied abroad in France might exclaim “Mon Dieu!” while someone who grew up in Alabama might say “Criminy!” A professional engineer may use words like “delta” and “deviation,” while a hobbyist gardener may make analogies to roots, leaves, and flowers.

Then make a list of each character’s key hows and whys. Your lists might look like this:

Allison                                                                           Xweebob

12-year-old girl from New Jersey                               Middle-aged alien from Neptune

Hates school, but loves athletics and gym               Expensive education, has traveled extensively

Uses lots of slang, sentence fragments                    Speaks more formally, full sentences, big words

Makes references to sports                                        Makes references to home planet

Sarcastic sense of humor                                            Doesn’t understand Earth humor

Once you have a rough list for each of your important characters, do a round of editing just for dialogue. Print out your manuscript and skim through the whole thing, highlighting each character’s dialogue in a different color (you can do this digitally, but I much prefer doing it by hand). Then go back to page one, and read through only one color of dialogue. You’ll notice immediately if that character is repeating himself, saying things that don’t fit his voice, or using a verbal tic too often. Make edits as needed, then go back to page one and start reading through the next color. It’s time-consuming but well worth it.

And remember, crafting distinct voices doesn't mean slathering on the dialect or slang. For instance:

Character A: “Well, hawney, sun’s a-settin’, so yew’d better git on down the road thurr.”

Character B: “Croikey! Is it dusk a’ready, mate? Oi’d better get outta here ‘fore Oi get eaten boi a croc!”

Character C: “Dude, I’ve never seen, like, a real crocodile. That would be, like, super intense, like, you know?”

For one thing, no reader wants to wade through this jungle of phonetics. For another, this is so heavy-handed that the characters come across as stereotypes rather than real people. The art of good character voices is much subtler. Here’s a better example:

Character A: “Gettin’ dark out there. You better get on home.”

Character B: “You’re right, mate. Hope the crocs aren’t out tonight.”

Character C: “I’ve never seen a crocodile—you know, a real one.”

See how these lines give a flavor of the characters behind them, without choking readers with dialect?

As with dialect, verbal tics and pet phrases will add depth to your dialogue, but be careful not to overuse them. If a character says “I dunno” or “Holy crap!” every other paragraph, readers will notice—and not in a good way. Same goes for references, analogies, and metaphors. As with anything, moderation is key.

Hopefully, this gives you a good starting point for your own character voices. Now dive into that story and start talking!

 

Novels Are Like Onions

When I started writing, my biggest hang-up was the misguided notion of Writer with a capital W. If I’m a real Writer, I thought, I should be able to sit down whenever I feel like it and write something good—nay, groundbreaking! If I’m a real Writer, the words should magically pour forth from my sweat glands onto the page! Right?

Wrong. And as a result, I spent years just trying to get off the ground as a writer. I would get a spark of inspiration, sit down to write the Next Great American Novel/Short Story/Poem/Whatever, then give up half an hour later when I realized the first draft wasn’t even close to perfect. I would then decide “I’m not a real writer” and quit writing for months—before coming back to repeat the process all over again.

Then a couple of years ago, when I started my current novel, something finally clicked. I was watching Shrek one night while working on my first draft, and I realized that novels, like onions and ogres, have layers. Many, many layers. This applies not only to book-length fiction, but to any form of writing, including memoirs, short stories, poems, and even this blog post. It takes a lot of time, thought, and effort to get all those layers in place and working together, so no first draft is going to be perfect. And guess what? That’s okay.

Imagine building a house: you can’t paint the bathroom until you’ve installed the plumbing. Some budding writers (including me, at one time) think that being a writer means pouring cement, wiring electricity, and picking out drapes all at once. But in fact, writing anything requires multiple drafts so you can put all those layers into place and make sure they’re working together. This, dear writer, is why the writing gods created revision.

Here are some of the many layers I’ve seen in my writing:

  • Premise
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Pacing
  • Characters
  • Physical description
  • Emotion
  • Motivation
  • Character relationships
  • Suspense
  • Foreshadowing
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Mood and atmosphere
  • Setting
  • Worldbuilding
  • Dialogue
  • Body language and facial expression
  • Internal thoughts
  • Themes
  • Symbolism
  • Writing style
  • Word choice
  • Imagery
  • Metaphors and similes
  • Chapter breaks and cliffhangers

I’m sure there are more. But from this list alone, can you see why it’s unrealistic to expect to do it all at once? Start with a single layer, or a handful, then let the others fall into place as you revise.

Which layers to start with? That’s up to you. In my experience, it varies from one writer to another and from one project to the next. My current novel started with a premise and a main character—they were the foundations of the house. Then I added elements that came relatively easily to me, like pacing, foreshadowing, and dialogue. It wasn’t until several drafts later that I finished fleshing out my worldbuilding and added my best imagery and metaphors.

Because there are so many layers, it can be hard to spot the ones that are underdeveloped or missing altogether. This is where critique partners and beta readers come in. If they’re reading for big-picture stuff (i.e., not copyediting for you), they’ll notice if something is lacking. I remember finishing what I thought was the final draft of my current work-in-progress, only to have readers tell me I had left out my main character’s thoughts and feelings. That’s a huge layer to omit—and because I was so close to the work, I never noticed it myself.

So don’t fret over these layers. Start with what feels natural and just keep going, getting help from your trusted readers. Like peeling an onion, let yourself discover the layers as you peel them back one by one. And yes, there will probably be a few tears, too.

Details, Details

Go find a copy of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Find “Point of View” within.

(Actually, okay, read the whole book or maybe one short story a week for as long as it takes. The title story is a masterpiece of humor and narration.)

But “Point of View” is a short story about writing, empathy, perspective, and the use of detail.

It’s like Lucia Berlin saying, "hey, here’s how it’s done."

“Point of View” has many layers to it and is a bit of genius, I would suggest, because of how effortlessly Lucia Berlin makes her point. It’s a short story in which nothing happens. The point of view is a writer. I don’t think we believe the narrator is Lucia Berlin herself. Might be, might not. The writer is writing about a woman named Henrietta and nothing much happens to Henrietta, either.

Joyce Carol Oates (New York Journal of Books, March 2016) has called “Point of View” Berlin’s “most complexly imagined short story.”

But “Point of View” is also a short story that is a note to writers about the power of detail. In fact, the main character comes right out and says that her story about Henrietta would be quite boring on the page but with the use of “intricate detail” she will “make this woman so believable you can’t help but feel for her.”

From “Point of View:”

“Most writers use props and scenery from their own lives. For example, my Henrietta eats her meager little dinner every night on a blue place mat, using exquisite heavy Italian stainless cutlery. An odd detail, inconsistent, it may seem, with this woman who cuts out coupons for Brawny towels, but it engages the reader’s curiosity. At least, I hope it will.”

The first-person “writer” of the story goes on to give examples of the details she uses from “her” life (the narrator) to bring her character, Henrietta, to life.

There’s a tug to these details. We care because the writer cares about Henrietta, has given her three dimensions through details and then slips into her point of view with attitude about her surroundings, too (even when she’s doing almost nothing).

“She lies in bed, sipping Sleepytime tea. She wishes she had her old electric blanket with the switch Lo-Med-Hot. The new blanket was advertised as the Intelligent Electric Blanket. The blanket knows it isn’t cold so it doesn’t get hot. She wishes it would get hot, comforting. It’s too smart for its own good! She laughs out loud. The sound is startling in the little room.”

You can almost feel Lucia Berlin breathing life into the story.

Through detail.

No brilliant new point here. There’s nothing you don’t already know, that the little objects and colors and stuff of your story add up, that your characters are reacting to the objects and colors and stuff of their lives all the time, that bringing the world of your characters to life will, in turn, deliver your character to your readers.

Reading Lucia Berlin will give you a jolt of inspiration. Your own life has ample material from which to draw, as “Point of View” suggests. All of Berlin’s story are quasi-autobiographical. Some, apparently, not so quasi. The detail is right there around us every day. We just have to see it. And write it down.

A full review of A Manual for Cleaning Women is here.

++

Details? On a side note (and very much related), the late Gary Reilly’s The Detachment was #2 on a list by Westword's Alan Prendergast for holiday gift suggestions among local writers. The novel is 154,000 words long. It is, if you read it, 154,000 words of documentary-level detail turned into a brilliant narrative piece of fiction.

Here’s what Prendergast wrote. Note the last two words.

2. The Detachment, Gary Reilly
Veterans who enjoy fact-based military fiction should take to Gary Reilly’s The Detachment (Running Meter Press), the second installment of his Vietnam-era novels featuring Private Palmer. Published posthumously last winter, the book is reminiscent of James Jones’s work—a look at the tedium and gut-checking that plagues an MP who, while not part of the frontline troops, still feels keenly the absurdity and madness of an unwinnable war. We’ve written about Reilly’s semi-comic “Asphalt Warrior” series of novels about a Denver cabbie, but the Vietnam work is of a different order: sober, poignant and harrowingly detailed.

A crutch, a hat and a nightcap

Memorable character tags from A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is one of the most endearing, enduring redemption stories ever told. Written by Charles Dickens and first published in 1843, it’s now 173 years old and is still entertaining – and teaching us. It reminds us of the power and joy of redemption, and it’s also a great example of a fictional  character’s arc—and a clear example of character tags.christmas-carol

I attended a musical version of A Christmas Carol last week at The Stage in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. I’ve seen it several times on stage. I proudly own the Mickey Mouse and Muppets versions, the Alastair Sim version, and most especially the George C. Scott version, lush with its scenes and of course the brilliance of George C. Scott.

The version I saw this year is a relatively new adaptation by Richard Hellesen. Those attending can identify the differences quickly. In the beginning scene, the actors appear first as narrators, then step into scene and assume their characters roles. Scrooge is no less miserable than in the older versions, but in the Hellesen version, he’s comedic and includes the children in the fun. The ghostly apparitions are still there, but even in his fear, Scrooge pokes fun into the dialogue.

We want our characters to be memorable. There are several ways to accomplish that—in-depth character studies, psychological analyses, applying enneagrams and such—to be sure our characters are interesting and multi-dimensional.

A Christmas Carol makes full use of physical tags. In written form, the story comes alive with images that help the reader remember the characters. Dickens wrote them so well that, even if you’re given nosebleed theater seats, you can still recognize the characters as they come on stage.

Character tags from A Christmas Carol

Physical tags

Scrooge’s stovepipe hat

His long black coat

Tiny Tim’s crutch

Bob Cratchett’s scarf

Cratchett’s wife’s bonnet

Marley’s chains

Mrs. Fezziwig’s outlandish party hat

Verbal tags

“Bah. Humbug!”

“God bless us, every one.”

The actors have readily identifiable voices, as well, using tone, vocabulary and pace to differentiate one from the other.

In addition to what one can visualize, tags identify characters through sound – a gruff policeman, a nasal-voiced girlfriend, a foreign spy with a heavy accent. One who stutters.

I often write down “EYE PATCH:” and list potential character tags early in my plotting. A character can wear so much perfume that people tear up and sneeze when she gets on the elevator. Another character can stink so much that people can smell him before they see him. A female character can have silky red hair that reaches her waist. An aging brunette can have a perky bob and whenever she flips her hair, her neck cracks. The possibilities are endless. Have fun with your writing, and ...

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Holidays!

And God bless us, every one.

 

PS: The DCPA presentation of A Christmas Carol plays through Dec. 24.

A final note on Hellesen (replace “theatre” and “Play” with “novel.”)

When an interviewer asked what kind of theatre excites him, Hellesen replied, “…given the abundance of falsity in our world, I simply want to witness engrossing moments of recognizable human truth, things I knew were true but forgot until the play reminded me--and if possible to be allowed to feel genuine emotion in doing so.”

For a holiday treat to yourself, you can read Hellesen’s interview at http://aszym.blogspot.com/2013/06/i-interview-playwrights-part-588.html

To the Best Actress, a Vampire Breast Lift!

Oscar
What the Oscars reveal about good writing

As Oscar Night nears, I’ve been movie viewing. Two years ago I decided I had approached this awards night unprepared too many times. Movie after movie was highlighted and praised, and too often my viewed flicks were limited to Disney and Pixar.

Then our daughters left home and I found myself no longer watching any theater movies at all.

My new MO is to list the Best Picture nominees and see as many as I can before the show. My current tally: 6 viewed, 2 still on the list.

I started with The Revenant (Leonardo DiCaprio). A “revenant,” BTW, is someone who comes back from the dead. Based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass, it’s the story of a man who, after being mauled by a bear, is stripped of his weapons and left to die in the wilderness by his friends.  Message for Novelists (MFN): Man Against Nature plots still work. Also, with an appropriate Author Note, the plotline of stories based on a true story can be massaged and altered to give a more complete character arc. (No spoilers, but after viewing the movie, look up the true story of Glass and see how they tweaked the ending.)

Next up was Bridge of Spies (Tom Hanks,  Stephen Spielberg).  With this talent, I knew it had to be good. Based on the true story of attorney James Donovan, which makes it even more incredible and appreciated. No tweaking with the story for arc’s sake—Donovan really was amazing. MFN: Look to this and similar true stories for inspiration, because they successfully define “hero.”

Then I saw Brooklyn (Saoirse Ronan) and fell in love with love. This is the romantic’s romance, a beautiful love story oozing with the charm, uncertainties and sacrifices of a bygone era. MFN: Love is timeless, and the movie reminds us that plotlines need not be complicated, convoluted or sensational to make a reader care, to make a reader cry.

The Big Short (Brad Pitt) surprised me. It tells the story of the banking industry’s collapse in 2008. From first glance, it seemed to be a distasteful topic. Who would want to revisit a flaming failure that left the middle class people bleeding, unemployed and homeless? MFN: The screenwriters triumphed with this by demonstrating that with care and creativity, a complicated story can be told in layman’s terms so everyone can understand it. I’ll still need to view it a few more times, just to absorb it all, but it’s a movie everyone with assets should see.

Spotlight (Michael Keaton) tells the story of the in-depth news team from The Boston Globe that broke the 2001 story of an unfrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. I admire films that tell the story after the fact. Everyone enters the theatre knowing the ending, so the strength of the story has to lie in the story’s middle. This film is classified as a drama/thriller, and the creativity and strategy with which the team overcame obstacles to find the truth may inspire writers of mystery and intrigue.

Room (Brie Larson) is another inspirational survival story, but with a twist. Jacob Tremblay is magnificent, an outstanding new child star. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue. MFN: a static setting is not at all boring when presented with a compelling character study and the bond of mother and child.  A memorable example of really getting into the skin of your characters. It’s definitely a book I’d like to read.

My journey continues as Oscar Night nears. Oh, and about the Vampire Breast Lift? It’s one of the gifts in the goodie bags that will be distributed to all the nominees. I’m sure the topic will be raised during the awards program.

What’s your pick for Best Film?

Guest: Jason Henry Evans – Craft Corner, The Passive Voice

Welcome to the Craft Corner. I am relatively new to the world of writing fiction, so as I step into landmines and blow up another writing convention, I will be sure to write about it here.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about the passive voice. What is it? Why is there such an uproar over it, and why are there so many older books written in the passive voice.

OK, let’s begin with the agent and the patient. In English grammar, there is a subject and an action, or verb in all sentences. That subject can alternatively be an agent of action in the sentence, or can be a patient of action. You can also add a clause, and add a patient, or agent.

EXAMPLE:

Agent:

Johnny ate the apples.

Patient:

Apples were eaten by Johnny.

In the second sentence, Johnny is no longer the agent, or subject, of the sentence. Apples is the subject of the sentence. Johnny is also part of a prepositional phrase.

OK? Here’s where it gets interesting. In English you can write a perfectly grammatical sentence without the agent in the sentence.

Example:

Apples were eaten.

It’s got a subject and a verb, just no agent. Who ate the apple?

This, boys and girls, is the passive voice. So why is it so bad?

First of all, I need to apologize to all my graduate school professors at UC Denver for never getting this into my head. Sorry guys!

It can be awful for fiction for two reasons. 1.) It isn’t clear whose doing the action. 2.) It slows down the readers.

You, as the author, may know everything going on, but if you confuse the reader, there are literally thousands of other books that person can read. You want your prose to be clear. Don’t confuse the poor reader who's taken time out of their busy day to read your book!

Slowing down the reader is a bad, bad thing. If the reader gets bored, they might decide to put your book down and never come back to it. (Not me, I’ll struggle through. I’m no quitter!)

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. You want a character to burst in to announce another character is dead.
The dinner party had started. The guests sipped a cucumber soup when Nurse McKenzie burst in, “Philip has been murdered!”

OK, not bad. But now the guests will have to play twenty questions about who. Was it the butler? The shifty eyed gardener? The duke? Who? What do you mean you don’t know? It might take a half of page of unnecessary dialogue before we find out the nurse doesn’t know who murdered Philip.

Wouldn’t the scene read better this way?

The dinner party had started. The guests sipped cucumber soup when Nurse McKenzie burst in, “Someone has murdered Philip!”

See? I don’t know about you, but this at least implies Nurse McKenzie doesn’t know who. Now the search for the killer can begin in earnest. (I still don’t trust that shifty eyed gardener.)

You know what my question is? Why was this sentence structure so popular?

Well I think there’s two reasons. First of all life was slower fifty, seventy-five, or one hundred years ago. I would imagine those who did read for leisure usually had more time to read and so could think longer about the prose they read. But really, I think it has more to do with polite society.

I woke up about a month ago before dawn and opened my laptop. I was receiving an update. The screen said.

WE ARE UPDATING YOUR COMPUTER.

It definitely freaked me out. Who were “We”? Why were “they” messing with my computer? No, I was much happier with the old updates.

YOUR COMPUTER IS BEING UPDATED.

Of course I knew someone had written the code that sent updates to my computer. The active voice just scared me for some reason.

Now imagine you’re working in a company in 1897 and money has gone missing. You have a suspicion, but you don’t want to accuse someone out in the open yet. Besides, that would be rude! So you tell the police “mistakes were made in accounting.” Assuming this is a true statement, then all eyes will fall to the accountant, without making you look like you’re accusing that person. (Assuming there’s only one accountant, of course.)

See, passive voice is a great way to imply something about someone without saying it directly. It can be a great tool in your writer’s tool chest. Just make sure to use it judiciously always with dialogue, never narration or an argumentative essay.

It’s also useful when you’re in a conversation and you’re talking about a person. You don’t have to constantly refer to him or her while talking.

“Mary is a horrible cook.”

“yeah, the steak was awful.”

“The chicken was burned.”

“Dinner was ruined.”

I hope this helps people get their heads around the passive voice. It’s an archaic way to structure a sentence. It also confuses readers and slows them down. So avoid it if you can. If you can’t, use it sparingly.

 

Jason Evans always wanted to be a writer, he just diJason Evans Photodn't know it. He grew up in Pasadena, California, in the 1980s, living vicariously through movies and television. He earned two bachelors from the UC Santa Barbara and a Masters from UC Denver.

He is an educator, a writer, and a Bon Vivant.

Jason currently resides in Denver with the Fetching Mrs. Evans, his three dogs, and his cat.

You can read his blog at www.jason-evans.net

Like his author page on Facebook at Jason Henry Evans (Author)

Or, follow him on Twitter @evans_writer

 

Words of Warning …. by Kay Bergstrom

Kay BergstromThere are no bad words...only bad writers.

Some words, however, set off warning alarms, signaling that the writer is venturing toward a danger zone and should back away slowly. Before you use these words (if you must) be aware of what you’re doing.

Here are a few examples:

Suddenly: The word is okay to use in children’s books because children’s books are limited in word length. The author doesn’t have time for motivation, transition and goal. “Suddenly, I came upon a dragon” is perfectly fine. In fiction targeted at grown-ups, “suddenly” might indicate that the writer hasn’t made a transition. Where did the dragon come from? How did you find it? Or “suddenly” could show a lack of motivation. What does it mean to find a dragon?

Almost: Catalogued with almost are: nearly, kind of, sort of, a little bit, and so on. Check these qualifiers. You’ll almost always (sorry, it got by me) find a stronger way to say what you want. “A little bit of scotch” becomes “two fingers of scotch.” “Almost afraid” becomes “afraid.” “Kind of greenish-blue” becomes “jade and teal.” Almost isn’t accurate, i.e., almost pregnant.

Very: Consider the same warning as almost but in the opposite direction. A “very large kitchen” becomes “a kitchen as big as a basketball court.” There are times when “very” is accurate. As any mother who has been even a few days overdue will tell you that there is a state of “very pregnant.”

Laugh: The phrase “we laughed” doesn’t make the reader want to laugh. We laughed so hard that we all fell down and peed our pants is worse. Pointing out humor doesn’t make it funny. As writers, we have accept the fact that much of our cleverness and wit will go unnoticed by the reader.

Smile: Imagine the variety of emotions Meryl Streep can convey with a smile. She could be sad or loving or menacing or nervous or angry, etcetera. And the observer would understand because he could see her face and hear her tone of voice. Alas, as writers we don’t have a Streep to illustrate what kind of smile is being given. There are many words to describe facial expression. Pick one that more clearly indicates what the character is feeling.

Walk: While we’re on the topic of finding the best word to suit the action, “walk” is a warning word. Whenever I use “walk,” I visit Ms. Thesaurus to look for something better: sashay, stride, shuffle, dance, leap, bound, skip. Each of those words conveys an image that plain old “walk” doesn’t show.

Exclaimed: It’s hard to think of a situation when “exclaimed” isn’t redundant. Use an exclamation point! I have two digressions here. 1) There’s nothing wrong with exclamation points as long as they aren’t popping up on every page. 2) In dialogue tags, using “said” doesn’t become redundant. Similar to a script where each piece of dialogue is labeled, “said” disappears.

Phat and other cute slang: Slang that’s current now is dated in a couple of years. I’ve never thought of my books as something that would be read years from now, and so I have been known to indulge in slang. At times, I threw around “dude” like Wayne’s World. The joke is on me. My first book was pubbed in 1984 and is available as an e-book.

“Ah jist knows dat’s de bestest.” Dialect should be used very gently. Consider whether you want the reader to stumble.

F-Bombs and all their x-rated friends: I love the f-bomb and use it frequently in first drafts to convey down and dirty rage. In final draft, the profanity usually comes out. There are too many readers that get pulled out of the story by cursing.

Not a car: If you’re writing anything set in Colorado, your character will probably be in a vehicle. Be careful not to identify the character as the car. “I made a U-turn” isn’t accurate. The car turned, you didn’t. Nit-picking, but why not?

Feel: As a writer of romance and suspense, my characters are feeling all the time. They’re scared, sexy, courageous, seductive, outraged and hurt. Whenever I use “feel” (guilty admission: yes, I use it), I stop and think about another way to say how the character feels. Better yet, I need a better way to show how they feel. Is it worth a scene to show? Where did the feeling come from? Do I need a flashback?

It: Not the Stephen King novel. Each and every time you use “it,” you’re missing a chance to say something more descriptive. Unfortunately, “it” is one of those necessary words that can’t be totally avoided. “It” is always there, like Pennywise the Evil Clown. When you see “it” on the page, let it be a warning to you. There might be a better way.

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Kay Bergstrom (aka Cassie Miles) is the author of 79 novels of romance and suspense, has been on the USA TODAY Best-seller list and has twice been RMFW’s Writer of the Year. Her next book, Colorado Wildfire, will be available in January 2016.

Kay is starting a developmental editing service. Contact her at: kaybergstrom (at) hotmail (dot) com

Writing the Gender-Flipped Character

By Susan Spann

Good fiction requires both male and female characters, and every author needs to learn to write both types convincingly in order to put a compelling cast on the page.

Few authors have experience living as both a male and a female. Most of us are only dealt one hand of gender-cards. The trick, as an author, is learning to how to peek at what the other side is holding (pun intended). Successful authors, like successful gamblers, often cheat.

My shinobi mysteries features dual protagonists, neither of whom is female. However, I was born with "indoor plumbing" -- facts which, taken together, create a conundrum:

How can a woman write a book from a man's perspective? And, for other authors...How can a man see life through a woman’s eyes?

Pervasive gender stereotypes and snide remarks aside, it’s not only possible to write from the other gender’s perspective … authors can do it very well, with a little time and practice.

Here are some tips for writing from the “other plumbing’s POV":

1.  Character first, gender second. Trying to write “like a man" or to "sound like a woman” will get you in hot water, no matter which direction the gender flip is rolling. Instead, consider your characters as if they were real people. Learn as much about them as you can—personality, backstory (most which doesn’t make it into the novel), likes/dislikes, phobias--everything a "real" person needs to become a unique individual. The more well-rounded your characters become, the more convincing they’ll be—regardless of gender.

2. "The Ability to Speak Does Not Make You Intelligent.” (Bonus points for those who can identify the quote.) Dialogue is key to gender differentiation. Men and women speak differently. Many of those differences relate more to personality than to gender, though gender also plays a role. Men and women both speak referentially, but references differ according to gender, personality, personal preferences, and experience. An athlete doesn't sound like a stripper, and neither of them will sound like a ballet dancer, male OR female.

Statistically speaking, more men than women will recognize the quote that leads this paragraph* because the “sci-fi/gamer” contingency contains more men than women. That said, many of my female friends would know the quote immediately. That's the circle in which I run...and it points out another important facet of gender-swap in writing: don't let your preconceptions about gender control your writing. Investigate how the other half really lives. 

3. Tell Me About Your Feelings. Men and women often express emotion differently. My ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, considers his feelings only rarely, and almost never discusses them. By contrast, many of my female characters express emotion with less reserve. (Ironically, the era in which I write--medieval Japan--results in far less emotional display by both genders than you might see in a modern novel--once again, research trumps preconception.) Beware of stereotypes, and individuals do differ, but as a rule men spend less time discussing emotions, especially when talking with other men. Women (again...as a rule) relate better to emotional topics and tend to discuss them in more detail.

4. Observe. Listen. Take Notes. And Share it on Social Media. OK, maybe not the last bit, but the rest of this is important. Listen to conversations in public places. Watch how people interact. Pay special attention to the "other gender," especially when the people in question are similar to the characters you're writing. Watch the way they stand, the way they gesture, the way they move. Pay attention to word choice and rhythm when they speak. People act most naturally when they don’t think anyone is watching, so try to observe without being noticed...or arrested. Note: STALKING IS BAD, MMMKAY? Police mug shots look really bad on the inside cover of novels.

5. Cheat. Find a beta reader and a critique partner of the opposite gender. (Note: that's two different people, not just one.) The beta reader should simply read, without editing the manuscript, and tell you whether the characters of his or her gender sound like "real" people. Critique partners should read and also offer edits or suggestions. Both are important, because they will notice different things. Tell them you want to know if anything sounds wrong or out of place … and then pay attention to what they tell you.

My now-adult son acts as my alpha reader for every novel, and I also have a male critique partner. Trust me when I tell you that nothing—NOTHING—critiques your work as bluntly as a college-age male. (My critique partner is far more polite about telling me something's amiss.) However, I can rely on them both, and if Hiro or Father Mateo says or does something "wrong" I can count on one or both of them telling me: “No guy in his position would say that. EVER.”

Note taken. Revision made.

One of the most difficult parts of writing gender-flipped characters is avoiding stereotyping (it’s hard to do, even--or maybe especially--in posts like this). Knowing what men like, and how they act, helps woman write the male POV, and the opposite is true for males writing inside a female mind. (To whom I say...God help you all.)

What helps you write from the other gender's perspective?

Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, will release in July 2015. When not writing or practicing law, Susan raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.