Classic: Breathing Life Into a Character

>> Monday, May 31, 2010

More classic writing stuff as I kickstart my brain from it's brush with my son's near death experience.

I am not a morning person. I, in fact, eat morning people for breakfast, at least the really perky ones who say, at the crack of dawn, “Isn’t it a lovely morning?” If you hear me crunching at 7 am, somebody was a little too peppy for my tastes and had to die. OK, not really (and, sis, you’re safe since you don’t overwhelm me with peppiness).

What’s this got to do with rocket science? Nothing, but I could feel eyes rolling back into heads all over the place and decided to take a side trip into something else I love: writing characters.

I talk and will talk much more about science and fantasy, but I’m really all about characters. Science fiction and fantasy are just my favorite settings (which is another topic I’ll probably write about), but the key element is characters.

This may not make much sense, since many of my characters seem larger than life (as is often the case with fantasy and science fiction). What would I have in common with a muscular short woman who can shoot errors with Olympian precision and swim under water for 100 m? Well, she’s still human. And, when making characters there are three things I try always to remember: (a) they’re human and therefore have flaws and shortcomings, (b) they have to grow or the story stagnates and (c) nothing makes a character as approachable as humor.

Admittedly, that last is mostly for my own entertainment, but if I don’t like what I write, no one else will either. I think that’s the mistake with much of today’s literature. Everyone’s too good at everything. Let’s face it, no one can do it all. If you’re good at twenty different things, let’s face it, you’re unlikely to be the foremost expert in any of them. And if you are the foremost expert in something, you probably suck at any number of other things. So, give your person some flaws. Perhaps they’re physical - a limp, a “handicap”, bad skin. Perhaps they’re mental: absentmindedness, dyslexia, retardation. Perhaps they’re psychological: depression, phobias, extreme jerk syndrome. Not only do they give characters dimension, they enable the reader to identify with the character, whether they’re a bad guy or a good one.

Growth is another things too often overlooked. Sometimes, the growth is implied, but not clear. I can’t speak for the world at large, but a good book changes me. I like to see the events I’ve enjoyed change the character, too (preferably for the better). Not only does it make for a better story, but it makes the reader and characters companions, working their way through the adventure together. And it ties back to the flawed characters. When you’re perfect, it’s hard to grow.

For me, though, humor is my favorite method for seeing people quickly. A very short excerpt that’s funny can make a character come alive in ways that seven paragraphs describing the exact shade of hair or details on her life can’t. It’s one reason I depend so much on dialog, but it can be done without.

Here’s an example of a character I wrote, and, as you can see, Lofar shares my feelings on getting up early:

Lofar stopped suddenly, for no apparent reason. “Well,” he said to himself, evidently as confounded as any passerby would be that he was there, “I’m here. Now what?”

As usual, the mysterious voice that brought him here was silent. Lofar sighed. He should be used to that by now. He took a moment to turn on his heel and survey his surroundings from every side. Aye, just as he thought. He was in the middle of the forest, in the dark hour before dawn with only a ghost of the moon glowing behind the thin clouds, and he was cold, covered with dew and shrouded in pre-morning mist.

Lofar shivered in his worn linen cloak, which wasn’t much protection against the early morning chill. Why did he leave his uncomfortable, but warm, cot at that ridiculous hour? The voice, content to have gotten him there, didn’t appear to feel the need to explain itself, for there was no reply. “You know I’m going to get a beating for leaving without permission again. I don’t mind—much—but I would like to know why. I know it is of no concern to you, but he’ll surely ask me and, even if I don’t feel inclined to tell him, I would like to know: why?”

Like a breath of wind, he heard only in his mind, ‘You will.’ Whoever his impetus that called him, she surely had a sexy voice. That, of course, explained how she could rouse him from a deep slumber, since nothing else had ever worked.

Lofar, who has almost nothing in common with today’s modern man, has something we can identify with: sometimes, he wakes up and/or does something without knowing why. I’d like to think I’m not the only one this happens to and I’m betting at least some of my readers will know the feeling. And,by knowing the feeling, they start to know Lofar.


Classic: So, What Makes a Good Story

>> Sunday, May 30, 2010

In an old blog (now gone) I wrote a number of posts addressing writing, how and what I write. It seemed fitting to repost them here over time rather than at Rocket Scientist. Enjoy.

I know writer wannabes (and writers) ask that question all the time. Or, at least, those of us addicted to fiction do. What makes a good story?

People frequently ask me what kind of stories I write, what kind of stories I read. I have quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy on my shelves, but I have historical and romance and even murder mystery and horror. No western though. But it’s more about the authors than the genres because the authors on my shelves are all people who know how to tell a good story or , at least, know how to tell a story well.

Naturally, that’s my own goal. In fact, I can’t remember when I didn’t want to tell stories. Prose and essays assignments were as likely to turn into stories as anything else when I’d slip out of my own skin and put myself in someone else’s. Oh, they were a little like me, perhaps a facet of me that I took out and warmed in my hand, then planted to see what might have grown if the garden were different. The tendency toward science fiction and fantasy was as much laziness on my part as anything - you can make more than a character to suit your fancy, you can make a whole world. And why not?

But I don’t tell the story to give a reader a world. I tell a story so I can give the reader what I get from the very best stories: a chance to wear a new skin for a while, to understand myself better by pretending, if for only a bit, to be someone I’m not. That’s why my heart thunders when Val Con senses that Miri is in danger. That’s why I sobbed when Moreta disappeared in the colds of between. That’s why I laughed with Beautiful made that newbie thank Captain Redhead for nearly spitting him on his own knife.

And I want to give that to others. I want you to thrill when Venetia rides the wind to her lover’s bower. I want you to wipe away a tear as Charley waits for eternity for the little girl that will never return. I want you to feel the lightning dancing from your fingertips with Stormna as she calls the storm to replenish a land stricken with drought. I want you to stumble with Tander trying to follow his stealthy wife as they infiltrate a mountain fortress. I want you to ache for Laren and the mother he lost - and the mother he spurned.

I’d like to think I’m doing you all a favor by writing all this, but I love doing it. Painting the pictures with words when my hands are too clumsy to do them in reality, setting the sky or the world, hitting the right phrases so that, when you read it, you can hear the voices talking. Perhaps these skills are all in my head and I miss with words just as I do with paint. But, if I can give one person, just one, what I want them to see, to hear, to feel. If I can make one person cry or laugh or gasp, well, that would be worth it all.

So, what makes a good story for you?


Progressing Along Nicely

>> Monday, May 17, 2010

It's always gratifying when writing goes swimmingly along. Added a bit of action today, just a touch, a hint of what's to come. And, next, I'm adding one of my favorite type of elements to read: a kid.

I'm a little intimidated. I can count the writers I know that write children well on one hand (and some of them don't do anything else I like nearly so well). And I'm hampered by the fact that I can barely remember being a child. I suspect I was born somewhat middle-aged. I do, however, have children, even if one is a teenager (which is not the same thing as a child, NOR the same thing as an adult). The other two, however, don't talk.

So, I'll be winging it. In many of my "next in the series" books, I will have to address children, so I'm going to have to get this mastered. Still. Fortunately, as I have an overdose of adult, my husband is an overdose of kid so it might work out after all.

We'll see how this all goes along. Since I'll be gone this week(presenting a paper at a conference), I'll have plenty of time to think about it.


Condensing Exercise #3

>> Saturday, May 15, 2010

Nathan Bransford, agent, novelist, blogger, has an interesting exercise on his blog yesterday. He noted that queries (and other venues) would require one condense one's beloved novel into tiny tiny packages as pitches. He also noted it was difficult. (And it is, terribly difficult).

Trying it "his way" seemed to work better, than the way I originally started with (assuming, of course, that the novels are equally thrilling). I'm game. Here are some synopses of my third novel as Bransford suggested: (a) single sentence, (b) single paragraph and (3) two paragraphs.

Novel: Tarot Queen

(a) The world of Roxell, the Tarot Queen, is turned upside down when her fated lover whisks her into adventure to save his soul and her life, and find a way to fulfill the destiny the cards have foretold.

(b) When the 400-year old Tarot Queen, Roxell, finally finds her fated lover, Dante, she is nonplused to realize he is a demon. She must abandon everything she knows to find a way to remove his demon curse while they are chased by the army and Dante can be whisked away at any moment by anyone with his demon name, but consummating the love the cards have foretold could bring her life to an end. She will have to find capabilities and strengths she never suspected within herself if she is to help them find their destiny and the opportunity of a life together.

(c) When the 400-year old Tarot Queen, Roxell, finally finds her fated lover, Dante, he is everything she ever wanted—and a demon. She must abandon everything she knows to find a way to remove his demon curse or forgo her own humanity and accept his demon curse herself. She is ill-prepared for the real world and, though Dante is capable and protective, he can be whisked away at any time by anyone who knows his demon name. And it is apparently very popular.

To save herself and Dante, she will have to develop and use skills she never envisioned, find capabilities and strengths she had not suspected. She will have to be bold, even when it distresses her protective companion. In the end, she will have to save Dante from the army that wishes to control his skills and look within herself for the answers that will allow her to fulfill their joint destiny.
You know, I think this is a great exercise, if only to remind me what's most key in my own novels. I almost enjoyed that. :)


Condensing Exercise #2

>> Friday, May 14, 2010

Nathan Bransford, agent, novelist, blogger, has an interesting exercise on his blog yesterday. He noted that queries (and other venues) would require one condense one's beloved novel into tiny tiny packages as pitches. He also noted it was difficult. (And it is, terribly difficult).

I tried it with my first novel yesterday. It's hard to tell how the results panned out. Jeff didn't like them, but I'm not sure he's recovered from the notion that I have kittens as central characters (though they are). Actually, almost as a trademark, I have at least one cat and one dragon (or dragon-like beastie) in every novel. But that's neither here nor there.

I need to try it again with the second novel, which I haven't started trying to market yet. Since I'd had a query on Curse of the Jenri, I had used that as a jumping off point and tried to whittle it down. Today, I'm going to try what Bransford original suggested. Start with (a) the sentence and then expand to (b) one and then (c) two paragraphs.

Novel: Beast Within

(a) When their ship of youthful refugees maroons on a strange and dangerous new planet, Xander and his shapeshifting clan, the Bete, will need to protect the rest of the humans from the planet's dangers, without being discovered by those humans who would treat the Bete as monsters.

(b) When their ship of youthful refugees maroons on a strange and dangerous new planet, Xander has to take charge of his shapeshifting clan, the Bete, and protect the healer they found among the humans on board. Somehow, Xander and his family will have to use all of their knowledge and supernatural skills to protect everyone from the man-eating plants and animals that about without revealing their true natures to the humans who would kill the Bete for being "demons."

(c) When their ship of youthful refugees maroons on a strange and dangerous new planet, Xander has to take charge of his shapeshifting clan, the Bete, to protect the healer, K'Ti, from the humans as well as his own clan. After Xander convinced the captain to let them be the first to set up camp outside, the healer quickly becomes key to survival and Xander defies his clan to let her live when she discovers their secret shapeshifting abilities.

Among humans, shapeshifting is equated with evil and their lives would readily be forfeit if certain fanatical factions discovered their ability. To defend themselves from the vicious predators of the new planet, the Bete are going to need every skill, shred of knowledge and capability they possess. How can they use them, however, without revealing their secret?

You know, I think that worked better. I'll try again tomorrow. Again, feel free to leave your opinions or suggestions.


Exercise: Condensing for Marketing

>> Thursday, May 13, 2010

Nathan Bransford, agent, novelist, blogger, has an interesting exercise on his blog today. He noted that queries (and other venues) would require one condense one's beloved novel into tiny tiny packages as pitches. He also noted it was difficult. (And it is, terribly difficult).

Just from the work on my query, I know it's true. Since I'm now sitting on three completed novels and need to get cracking on marketing (instead of falling prey the siren's song of "new" writing), I thought I'd try the exercise here. I'm going to need these short versions anyway. The idea is to condense the story into (a) one sentence, (b) one paragraph, and (c) two paragraphs.

So, today, I'll try it with my first novel: Curse of the Jenri.

(a) Tander has no choice but to use his unwanted magical ability, his six obnoxious kittens and a dangerous band of cutthroats, knights and sorcerers to rescue his wife and her sisters from an unknown villain.

(b) When Tander the swordsman is adopted by six kittens who demand he's really a sorcerer, Tander refuses to consider the possibility until his wife and many others from their camp are kidnapped. Now, he has to depend on his magic, his kittens and an angry mob of sorcerers and cutthroats to find her and even to save her. Too bad he has no idea what he's doing.

(c) Still stinging from the humiliation of being rescued by his wife, Tander, the swordsman, is adopted by a litter of demanding familiars who insist Tander is full to bursting with magical ability, as if he wasn't humiliated enough. Tander has no intention of lowering himself by dabbling in magic or spending his life saddled with six critical kittens, but, when his wife (and many of her camp) are kidnapped, he's going to have to depend on his magic to save them.

Tander has no idea who he’ll face or how long he has to get there. He’ll need to embrace the magic he despises, master it well enough that it’s a boon and not a liability. He’ll have to slog through near impassable mountains in winter, fighting fearsome creatures he didn’t even think existed. He’ll do anything he has to to reach Layla before the Jenri are destroyed. And, he'll need to get there before the impatient band of assassins, soldiers, and sorcerers he leads kills him—or each other.

Hmm. It is harder than I like to think. Feel free to give criticism and suggestions. I wish they were funnier. May have to revise and repost later. Any ideas would be welcome.


I'm In the Zone

>> Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ever written anything that just gelled? Where you felt you were able to paint exactly you wanted exactly the way you wanted? I'm loving this scene.

On the third pound, the door was opened by the ugliest man Raven had ever seen. Well, the ugliest one he'd ever seen in a dress, a sleeveless number in virulent turquoise that showed a huge expanse of shoulder stubble ill-concealed by pancake makeup. Raven wasn't sure what was holding the dress up. Perhaps the beer belly.

The creature grunted. "You Raven?" The voice was like gravel. Given the unlit cigar clenched between the man's teeth, Raven could guess where he got it.

Raven scooped up the bag handles. "I am. Is this 13C?"

The man grabbed his arm and gave him a yank inside. "I hope you brought beer. Lucy didn't bring nuttin' but wine."

"Sorry, no. I did bring milk."

The man narrowed his eyes at Raven. "You some kind of crazy?" He shrugged his stubbly shoulders and turned away. "This way. Hey, watch the train!"

Raven took care not to do so, as he didn't want to find out what would happen if he tore the apparition's dress, and stumbled into a living room full to bursting with men in feminine garb.

"Raven, darling!" Lucy exclaimed, mincing forward in a one-piece pantsuit of electric blue lamé and silver sandals with six inch heels. "We've been having such fun. Let me introduce you. You met Phoebe. This is Norma Jean, Priscilla, Carla and Bella Blaze. Isn't that dress something?"

As Bella was dressed like a flame in red and orange sequins that made the most of his chocolate colored skin, Raven had no hesitation in saying, "You bet." Raven was no connoisseur when it came to professional cross-dressers, but he suspected he was looking at a room full of the elite, Phoebe excepted. If he had not been quite so perceptive, he would have seen a room of fine-looking, if rather lanky, women. Lucy was undoubtedly the star, but several others were nearly as stunning, if on the flamboyant side.

"Hey, Suzy, would you take these into the kitchen?" A graceful sprite with startling purple hair took his bags. "Isn't he thoughtful, girls?" Lucy was hugging Raven's arm as he led him 'round the room. "That was Suzy, of course, and this is Cha Cha and Antionetta, then this is Lana, and, of course, you know Chloe. We gave her a make-over."

Raven had found nothing to complain of with her appearance, other than a dearth of body fat. After a professional level polish, however, she was only an iota short of the glamour when she was projecting power in every direction. Raven had to swallow. And it took him two tries.

She was dressed in blood-red with a cowl neckline that dipped between her magnificent breasts (the only natural ones in the room). Her tiny waist was picked out with a wide black cincher, laced with a red ribbon in the same shade with a black belt over it, dripping with draping silver chains. Below was the briefest of black skirts, slit up one side, with black stockings—and he could see they were stockings because he could see the top edge of them through the slit— that covered impossibly long and curvy legs, ending in black pumps with a strap across the ankle.

He gave himself a moment to appreciate the length of the legs and the gorgeous body before he found her face. Her hair was up in the sexiest little bun that left curls to frame her face and another burst of curls at the apex of the bun. His fingers ached to wrench through her hair and send her pins flying. A velvet choker with an enamel rose, in the same blood-red, circled her slender throat. Her lips were tinted the same color, making their full kissable shape hard to miss. Her huge shimmering brown eyes were framed by sooty lashes of improbable length. Raven could hear his breath back up in his lungs.

If he hadn't been surrounded by curious men—in more than one sense of the word curious—he would have... Oh, Hell. Screw 'em.

He was to her in two strides and plucked her from her perch on the arm of a sofa. His fingers did not tear out her hair pins, but one hand buried itself in her hair as his mouth descended on hers to plunder. His other hand slid to the small of her back to jerk her against him and he groaned as her softness impacted on his hardening body. Her hands, flat against his chest, slid almost immediately around his neck and into his hair. Then fisted.

This is a mistake, the irritating part of his brain said, but the rest of his brain was standing down and his body wasn't listening. Actually, even the irritating part of his brain wasn't talking very loud or he just couldn't hear it over the ragged sound of his own breathing or the pounding of his heart.

But he heard Phoebe. "Whoa, break it up! Don't make me turn a hose on you two." Whether he would have responded, Raven couldn't say, but Chloe took the decision out of his hands by stepping back out of his arms, her cheeks blazing. She sat back on the sofa arm with the air of someone who was too wobbly on her legs to stand. Raven was more than a little light-headed himself and sank into the chair Suzy placed behind him gratefully. He even took the glass Phoebe handed him without noting what was in it. He regarded Chloe bemusedly. Even with all the color kissed off her now swollen lips and her hair beginning to tumble down, she looked fantastic. Perhaps even better.

Bella hovered over Chloe with lipstick, but Lucy waved him away. "Don't bother, Bella. It will never last." Lucy favored Raven with a sly look. "And it's already served its purpose." Turning to Chloe, Lucy fidgeted with hair pins and said sweetly as Chloe's sleeve slid off her shoulder, "Fix your blouse, darling, or we'll have to put Raven on a leash."

Raven actually blushed and tried to cover by taking a gulp of wine, then choking as he was unprepared for champagne. Phoebe helpfully smacked him on the back.

"Told you you shoulda brought beer. You ain't going to look at Chloe like that all day, are you? My old lady's out of town and you're killing me."

"You—You're married?" Raven gasped. "But I thought..."

"That all trannies are gay? Not hardly. If I wasn't already taken, I mighta taken a shot at Chloe myself. Cha Cha and I are both ladies' men and many trannies are bi. We just like to be pretty." Phoebe neatly kicked his train into a beefy hand and sat down, chewing on his cigar.

"No kidding?" Raven said faintly.

"No kidding," Bella said with a wink. "Cha Cha's got nine kids. His wife is a genius with stage costumes. I'm so jealous!"

The muscular queen with blue feathers in his hair—Raven thought his names was Antoinetta—said, "So, tell me, I've been dying to know. How did you get a name like Raven?"

Lucy clapped. "Excellent question! I've been wondering myself."

Raven shrugged, taking a more careful sip from his flute. "Dad named me something horrible. Some of my on-line gaming buddies took to calling me Raven because that's what I always named my characters. When I got old enough, I had it legally changed.

"To Raven?" Bella said, throwing up his hands. "I love this guy. What was it before?"

Raven blushed again. "Not sayin'."

"Even better. Lord knows I love a mystery," said Norma Jean. "Was it Clarence?"


"Tiberius?" Lucy asked. "Was your father a Trekkie?"

"No and hell no. Though I liked all the versions, even Enterprise."

Suzy and Lana looked at each other and said, "Lame," at the same time.

"What about Quinby?"

"Nope." Raven decided that, as champagnes went, it wasn't that bad.


Raven clenched his teeth.

"Hogarth, really?" Norma Jean said, "That doesn't sound too bad."

"Try going to school on a Navy base as an undersized shrimp ahead two years with a name that begins with 'hog.' By the time I got through with them, they were calling me Raven in self-defense."

Silence greeted this. When someone spoke, it was Bella and not in the affected falsetto he'd used earlier, but a vibrant baritone that would have been the envy of many an opera star. "Try getting caught by the rest of the basketball team slipping into a lacy pink thong after practice."

Couldn't top that, Raven decided. There were nods all around the room. Chloe patted Cha Cha's shoulder comfortingly while Phoebe burst into tears. "Kids can be so cruel," he blubbered, and several of the others offered him dainty hankies to mop his eyes.

"State boxing championship," Suzy explained.

"Adults, too, I wager," Raven said. He opened up his barriers and looked at them with his inner sight, not surprised to find that they were all, to varying degrees, much like Lucy—kind, tolerant, helpful. "Pity. You're such lovely people."

"I knew I liked 'im the moment I saw him," Phoebe sobbed. "Even if he didn't bring no beer."

Admittedly, it's not for everyone. But then, I do love to make people think.


Inspired Again

>> Saturday, May 8, 2010

I'll have to move my stats around again. All three of the books I was trying to work on just weren't inspiring me and, if I write on something uninspired, well, the results bite big time. So, I'll take those off the list - for now - until something clicks for one of those again. I'm hot on another story.

But it's all good. As I was trying to figure out how to get the creative juices flowing (and dealing with a never ending series of personal anxieties), my subconscious was on the job, putting the final touches on a character I had thought of some time ago that was appealing to me. I hadn't yet put him to paper, largely because I thought I was disappointed with the way I'd started that story some time ago.

So, I reread it. Know what? I thought it was pretty good after all. A few really minor tweaks and I was ready to run. I threw in my new character and I was sprinting. Oh, yeah, there's my story.

I'd mentioned I like romantic elements. I also like diverse and colorful casts of characters and often have a "friend" character who can steal every scene he's in. Lucy Lush is just such a character. Wanna know more?

Too bad. I'm going to tell you about him anyway. Lucy, born Lucifer Lushinski, the son of a career Marine and Warrant Officer, is a Drag Queen (and yes, in his case, it's capitalized). Lucy's tall, he's gorgeous, he's slim as a wand, he's exuberant and effusive and completely comfortable with himself. Tell him the most outrageous thing, he's completely unfazed. He's a protecting and a healing influence on all around him. He's also direct and manipulative by turns, doesn't worry about what anyone thinks of him. Good people are always won over in the end. And the rest - well Lucy doesn't care what they think anyway.

I don't know about you, but I think we could all use a friend like Lucy.


The Power Of Description: Part Four (Misuse)

>> Thursday, May 6, 2010

So, if adjectives and adverbs are so great, why do so many writing books and mentors tell you to go back and cull?

Well, because misuse of adjectives and adverbs is rampant among amateur writers. Too many (not all) amateur writers do not work on honing their craft, understanding the language, appreciating the nuances. As with any work of art, there are at least three key elements. (1) technical skill, (2) Inspiration/talent and (3) the quality of the material you're using. I'm not saying an incredible artistic genius can't make something timeless with newsprint and crayons, but it takes a great deal more work.

Understanding one's language, for writing, is key to both 1 and 3. You have to be supremely talented (or inordinately lucky) to make it on 2 alone. In my opinion.

So, here are some problems with misusing adjectives and adverbs, the kind of things that make editors and readers slap their heads or, worse, close the book.

Too many adjectives.

Hugo von Thirdenburg rode swiftly over the rolling verdant hills of endless carefully tended succulent spring grass, soft and freshly mowed, a deep emerald green in the warm golden glow of the sun.
Ouch! Aside from the redundancy (which we have in abundance), what have we really said? Hugo's riding over a nice lawn. And, truthfully, what does that really tell us about the story? How does it help us? We don't know why he's riding, whether he's riding swiftly to exercise his horse or because of urgency and, since we don't even know if the lawns are his, it's hard to tell if their state is important. It can help set the scene, but we don't need all this and there are other ways, using far fewer words, to tell us much more.

Hugo von Thirdenburg thundered over his pristine lawn, heedless of the damage left in his horse's wake.
Ah. In just over half the number of words, we know more about Hugo. He's still riding over a nice lawn (succinctly yet exhaustively described as "pristine"), but we know he's well enough to do to have gardeners handle their care and, either too self-important to care about the damage done with his riding or inflicted with an urgency. This sentence also has an urgency lacking in the meandering of the first.

Great description lies not in the number of adjectives, but how well they convey the meaning intended. If you want to describe the Thirdenburg estate, do so, but use only what adds to the meaning. But, if something important's happening, don't lose focus to add detail that will not enhance the story.

Using adverbs instead of speaking verbs/adjectives.

An adverb can be quite a fine addition to a sentence, but it often becomes a prop to allow for unimaginative verbs or adjectives. Strong speaking verbs can add considerable power and make the needs or action far more immediate.

Hugo rode swiftly vs. thundered.
Lance stared longingly vs. thirsted.
Violet was becoming desperately hot vs. grew feverish vs. wilted.
Margot said furiously vs. hissed.*
Malcolm shouted furiously vs. raged.
Kada swung her sword forcefully vs. sliced.

This is particularly important during action where clean writing is essential, especially if the action individual is also the POV. A bystander might note the beauty of the glimmering arc of a sword before decapitation, but the actual swordsperson is probably too busy to worry about stuff like that.

Using the wrong damn word.

If I knew how, this heading would be flashing, too. This is one of my all time biggest pet peeves and will turn me off a writer almost instantly. I call it the thesaurus syndrome and, far too often, I'm convinced a writer looks for impressive-sounding alternatives to a word without a real understanding of the nuances of his synonym. Vermilion, ruby, maroon, puce, scarlet, crimson, garnet, and burgundy are all reds, but not the same shade of red. They are specific reds or families of reds. For instance, burgundy and vermilion should not be used interchangeably. (Vermilion, in fact, is a particular shade of ink that only the Chinese Emperor was allowed to use, bright or orange red) In fact, even describing blood as scarlet or maroon is significant (arterial vs. venous). Don't use the words if you don't know which one you want (or which shade of red a term denotes).

This is not just true of adjectives and adverbs, of course, but they are among the most readily misused this way. (For Heaven's sake, folks, ogle has a specific definition. If you don't know what it means, don't use it. It is a synonym for "look" only in the loosest sense.)

Know what your words mean. Describing a simple barmaid as pale and ruddy is not only confusing, it's a good way to advertise one doesn't know what ruddy means (red). A man might be old, but his features aren't grizzled - grizzled means gray-haired, so only the man or his hair can be grizzled. Let the features seamed or wrinkled or worn or lined. They seem like small things, small differences, but they suck the power of these specific little words, skew the meaning, and muddy the picture instead of painting it.

If you don't know what the word means, don't use it.

Not that I'm opinionated or anything.

*"Saidisms", using other words instead of just "he said" or "she said" during dialog is frowned on by quite a faction. I am not one of them. The "saidisms" and bits of actions interspersed through dialog (and I'm a dialog-heavy author) keep it moving and give visual clues. The right "said" verb (and/or actions) can add the inflection you can't write into the words themselves. So, I'm not in that camp.


The Power Of Description: Part Three (Descriptive Verbs and Nouns)

>> Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You thought I was going to tell you what the problems were with adjectives and adverbs - well, I will, but not today, or at least, not entirely.

One reason why how-to books and experts suggest trimming down the adjectives and adverbs is because it can make you lazy and also because, with the right noun or verb, you give a wealth of detail. I can describe someone as rigid and brave and wearing a uniform and armed. Or I can say, a soldier, a martinet, a regimental, a GI, a drill sergeant.

By being specific with nouns, I can instantly convey a wealth of information. I don't have to explain the garb of a nun nor mention she's unlikely to be wearing make-up or guzzling scotch. I don't have to mention that babies are drooling or somewhat bald or short or desperately cute and largely helpless. All that comes with the word "baby". An atl-atl is a weapon (though most readers would probably appreciate a description), but a sword tells a reader more than a blade and a rapier or broadsword says more than a sword.

Verbs are one of the best ways to bring a scene to life. The right verb can add subtlety to movement, or add meaning to a gesture.

Let me show you what I mean:

The man walked across the room and laughed before he taking her hand.
The man minced across the room and tittered before clasping her hand.
The man strode across the room and guffawed before gripping her hand.

Same action, but the reader knows a great deal more about the type of person, the setting, the time frame. Better nouns would also help, but I could still surmise the second example is a supercilious official or a drag queen while the third could readily be a cowboy or a lumberjack.

Either could also be ordinary men in a situation made clearer because the verbs have defined how they are acting with increased precision.

But, there's a dark side to this. Using language that provides nuance and definition requires a much better understanding of vocabulary, making sure things work together in harmony to convey exactly the image desired. As words become more precise, there is a risk of conflict if words don't work together or are used outside their true meaning.

Take, for instance, this sentence:

The man strode across the room and tittered before clasping her hand.
The man minced across the room and guffawed before gripping her hand.

Now, the messages are mixed, contradictory. Instead of readily visualizing the action (and the kind of man described), the reader is left confused, perhaps wrenched from the story.

Precise language saves words and allows one to use a modicum of words when one would might otherwise require a bucketload. But, to use them effectively, to make the most of an extensive vocabulary, one must understand what the words mean so they enhance the context, not contradict it. More on that (and a few other things) next time.


The Power Of Description: Part Two (Adverbs)

>> Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Everything adjectives can do, adverbs do, only more so. Adjectives can only describe nouns, things. Adverbs describe other adjectives and verbs. Adjectives tell you about something. Adverbs tell you how it's done and to what extent.

And adverbs are frequently vilified even more than adjectives, ironically.

Naturally, I love adverbs, too, in case you missed it. I love the nuances and depth a single word can add to a sentence, how it can vary things, make it stronger, weaker, even twist the meaning. Few words will give you the bang for the buck that a single adverb can give. Few verbs or nouns can add as much meaning or flavor to a sentence like an adverb.

Shall I demonstrate? Oh, you know I'm going to whether you want me to or not.

Under the feeble light of the crescent moon, he waited for her.
Under the feeble light of the crescent moon, he waited helplessly for her.
Under the feeble light of the crescent moon, he patiently waited for her.
Under the feeble light of the crescent moon, he always waited for her.
Under the feeble light of the crescent moon, he waited for her, hungrily.
Under the feeble light of the crescent moon, he waited for her, hopelessly.

You note, I hope, the differences. A victim at helplessly, abandoned at hopeless, a predator for hungrily. Just the right words can paint a picture of someone early or set the scene in but a sentence or two.

Adverbs are wonderful. They can denote certainty (surely, possibly, improbably), frequency (often, occasionally, never), states of mind (impatiently, adoringly, uncomfortably), methods (quickly, silently, clumsily), intensity (very, marginally, excessively), well, really, the list goes on.

So, if adverbs and adjectives are so useful, so wonderful, so key to effective writing, why are editors and how-to-write books so often eschewing their use?

Good question, which I'll tackle on a different post.


The Power Of Description: Part One (Adjectives)

>> Monday, May 3, 2010

I love adjectives. I know, I know, they're not "in." I don't care. There's nothing wrong with using descriptive verbs and nouns -- I'm all over that, too -- but I like adjectives as well. Why?

One can write with minimal adjectives, admittedly, but adjectives enable one to be more precise than not. My father was a demon for precision and I learned to speak precisely (that means adjectives and adverbs, but adverbs I'm saving for tomorrow). And I have, you'll be pleased to know, turned around and tortured my daughter the same way (Four year old brings me a pair of socks, "Put these on, Mommy." "Oh, darling, these will never fit." "Put them on me."). Of course, now that's she's a teenager, she more than pays me back. She could be a lawyer now on her ability to make a point on a less than any fuzz on ANY sanction or decree. (Technically, you said I had to come home by ten. I left before ten, even if I didn't reach home until 10:20).

A laugh or chuckle can be evil, deranged, derisive, shy, uncomfortable, boisterous, relieved, etc. One can use giggle or titter, but use is limited to character and situations. That distinction isn't always necessary (XX tells a joke and his date laughs), but it can be helpful when the type of laugh is giving us some insight into a character or situation. Here's what I mean:

"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed. She was surprised at his laugh.
"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed. She was surprised at his embarrassed laugh.
"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed. She was surprised at his derisive laugh.
"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed. She was surprised at his relieved laugh.
"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed. She was surprised at his hollow laugh.
"I can't believe you did that!" she exclaimed. She was surprised at his vicious laugh.

Now, this is not the best written pair of sentences, but how different the situations seems by just adding the adjective. In the first example, we really know nothing about the situation. Is the "he" a good guy, a bad guy? Did he run across the road to rescue a boy from a runaway car? Did he kiss her when she thought he was just a friend? Did he throw his pregnant daughter from the house without a dime? Truth is, there's no way of knowing from just the snippet.

Truthfully, we can't tell on the other snippets either, but we get (hopefully) a much better sense of what happened and who he is at least.

Now, obviously, you can add more words around it and you need to to tell a good story. But, especially with short stories and even with novels, every word should add something or it should go. Even if we describe "his" daring rescue, his embarrassed laugh tells us something about who he is without saying "He was a modest individual, uncomfortable with her gratitude." I've said it all with "embarrassed."

My point is adjectives can add nuance, color and flavor. That doesn't mean you have to paint in every aspect, describe every leaf on the wallpaper or each action in excruciating detail, but I say not to eschew adjectives when they serve you well. Adjectives are part of the arsenal writers use, and I say use them if it makes the story better.

Next: Adverbs



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