Monday, January 11, 2021

Print Dictionary: A Useful Addition to a Writer’s Library

Sometimes, we don’t know the exact word we want so we look it up online. While online dictionaries are a great resource, I’ve noticed they sometimes offer the briefest of definitions. Not so long ago, I was reading a book that used the word recognizance when the writer meant reconnaissance. I’m not sure if the writer didn’t know the meaning of the two words, or if an editor changed it and the author didn’t notice the change, or if they were both unaware. 

Recognizance and reconnaissance both stem from a French word “reconoissance" which means recognition, but they have completely different meanings. Recognizance has to do with the court system. When someone is arrested, a judge may are may not set a bond. If no bond is set, the person is released on his or her own recognizance. Basically, the judge has decided you are trustworthy and will appear in court when called. There will be a penalty if you don't keep your word and appear in court, but the judge believes you will. This word dates back to the 14th century so it's been around a long time.

The word reconnaissance, on the other hand, doesn't show up in the English vocabulary until 1810. This is the time frame of the Napoleonic wars which makes sense because
reconnaissance originally referred to a military survey to gain information about the enemy. It can also mean gathering information.

Reign in or Rein in?

I’ve frequently seen “reign in” used to when the writer meant “rein in.” The verb “reign” means to hold royal office, be a monarch, or maybe hold as much power as a monarch. A character cannot “reign in his emotions.” You would in essence be saying, “George held royal office in his emotions.”

The correct word phrase is “rein in” his temper because a rein is one of the leather straps attached to a horse’s bridle and used by the rider to control the horse. To stop a horse, the rider pulls on the reins, thus “reining in” the horse. If you want your character to hide or control his emotions, you would write, “George reined in his emotions.”

Why a Print Dictionary?

It never hurts to research the meaning of a word in a reliable print dictionary, especially if you're unsure of the correct usage. A reliable dictionary will give you extensive background on a word, when it entered the English language, examples of how it is used, and all the various meanings of a word. The English language is highly adaptable and there are words used every day that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Or they had a completely different meaning.

The only cure I know for expanding your vocabulary is to read, read, read! Need I say, all kinds of stories? Just be sure they are well-written. Embrace the English language, or whatever language you use when writing your stories. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Characters and Situational Awareness

I was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) one day when a man began recounting an incident in his life that led to a group of teens beating him up. I didn’t listen to the complete story because I couldn’t get past the beginning.

Here’s how he set it up:

  • It was midnight. 
  • It was Brooklyn, NY 
  • He was walking home alone. 
  • He was talking on the phone with his friend. 
  • He was wearing earbuds. 
  • He was in a deserted industrial area.

There were so many things wrong with this story. Rather than think, poor guy, he got beat up. I thought what were you thinking? Of course, you got beat up.

Let’s step back from his story for a moment.

I worked on ten Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handbooks–writing, editing, and proofreading chapters. One topic the FAA hit again and again was situational awareness. What is situational awareness, you ask? Pretty much what you think it is: being aware of the situation around you.

Being aware of what is happening around you deals with whether anyone or anything is a threat to your health and safety. In the big scheme of life, women are often more aware than men of threats to their safety. If your heroine is a nurse who works a night shift, she is going to be very aware of threats to her safety when she leaves the confines of the medical facility and walks to her car. The 6’ 2” male nurse who works the same shift may not be as uneasy or as situationally aware during the walk from the building to his car.

Between an early job with the U.S. Army Aircraft Accident Board and research I did while working on the FAA handbooks, I’ve read a lot of aircraft accident reports. While there may be contributing factors for accidents involving small airplanes, investigators often point to pilot error as the cause of the accident.

Today’s airplanes come equipped with computer assisted

instruments and often the airplane knows more than a newly-minted pilot. Which is why the FAA stresses the need to pay attention, to be situationally aware. It is not wise for a pilot to text friends or play a computer game because the sky looks clear and empty. Distractions mean the pilot is no long situationally aware. Weather conditions, for example, can deteriorate rapidly and disorient even the most experienced pilot, leading to an accident.

What does this have to do with the man who was attacked late at night in a lonely part of Brooklyn while talking on a phone? He set himself up to be attacked. He wasn’t situationally aware. He failed to look out for his own safety by remaining aware of his surroundings and the potential hazards he faced.

What does situational awareness have to do with writing stories?

It adds another layer of interest to your story and characters. Different characters will have differing degrees of situational awareness. For example, a Navy SEAL will be trained in situational awareness and practice it without conscious thought. His life may hinge on being able to prevent bad things. It’s an important part of his worldview. On the other hand, a yeoman, who is an administrative clerk in the Navy, won’t need or practice the same level of situational awareness. Sure, when driving to work it’s important, but his or her work involves computers, not bad guys with guns.

Situational awareness is only as accurate as personal perception or reading of the situation. In other words, what we think is happening may not accurately reflect reality. How a person reads a situation can be influenced by many things such as personal experience, correct or incorrect information, family or work pressures, and other distractions. A person can become so absorbed in their own thoughts or problems that he or she fails to even realize they face a serious threat to their safety until it is too late.

Like our guy who was interviewed on NPR. He’s walking alone through a deserted part of a big city late at night while he chats on the phone with his buddy. To ensure he gets mugged, he plugs his ears with earbuds. Talk about lack of situational awareness…

A writer can fill pages of back story on a character like this.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Pantser or Plotter: Do Writers Have to Choose One Over the Other?

In the writing world you’re either a “pantser” or a “plotter.” Pantser derives from the well-known idiom “to fly by the seat of your pants.” It dates from the early days of aviation when pilots had little to guide them during a flight. Aviation was a new frontier, pilots didn’t have any instruments or even good weather reports to rely on when they flew.

Plotters are as the name implies. Writers who figure out the plot in advance of writing the story. Plotters favor spreadsheets, story grids, and  in depth character charts.

Pop psychology says we have two hemispheres in our brain. The left hemisphere is the rational or logical side, while the right hemisphere is the creative or offbeat side. Plotter side versus Pantser side. The writers who outline and plot every scene in their novel (left hemisphere writers) and those who go blindly forth and just write, molding a story as they go (right hemisphere writers).

Plotter, Pantser, or Hybrid

Obviously, the fact that I have steps I like to follow consigns me to the plotter category. Oddly, I don’t think of myself as a diehard plotter. I like to think of myself as a hybrid–someone who pulls from both styles of writing. While I like to know where I’m headed, I don’t mind taking side roads to get there.

For me, the writing process often involves writing my thoughts in longhand, i.e. cursive. If you’re tied to the keyboard, you might be interested to learn there is a connection between writing and thinking. The act of manually writing down your ideas gives your brain time for reflection which is helpful when crafting a story.

It’s easy to outline and list plot points and then utilize free writing to flesh out the ideas. In free writing mode, grammar doesn’t matter, spelling doesn’t matter, punctuation doesn’t matter. What matters is getting your ideas on paper. Again, this is a rough draft. Obviously, if you’re not paying any attention to all those grammar rules English teachers pounded into your head, you won’t want to share this draft with anyone, especially an English teacher.

The Plus of Being a Hybrid Writer

I think relying on both styles of writing helps to keep the story fresh while reducing the time lost in rewriting. Over the years, I’ve often read articles by pantsers who bemoan the fact their story sprawls all over the place. They basically spew it out and then spend a lot of time in edit and revision modes to obtain a story that makes sense.

Then again, plotters often bemoan the loss of spontaneity, because they think they’ve lost their creativity in the planning process. Some types of writing demand detailed plotting. For the mystery novelist, a well-plotted story is essential. How else can she plant red herrings at the right time? How else can he sprinkle the clues that lead to the villain–something the mystery novelist knows from the beginning, but tries to hide from the reader?

Whatever your approach to writing, it’s important to keep in mind that each of us have a natural mindset that influences the way we write. It behooves you as a writer to experiment until you find your own path. The best way to achieve that goal is to write!


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Title Control: Coming up with a Title for Your Story

I hope you enjoyed my Story Steps series. I’ve decided to wander back into writing more randomly about writing. If that makes sense? The idea behind the Story Steps was to help you get started with a project. Now I’m going to return to random topics that I hope you will find helpful.

As usual, I had a little more to say about my experience with story titles than in my Story Step 6 blog. Disclaimer: I’m not the world’s best title maker upper. Although I am proud of several of my titles, they are usually hard fought battles as I try to find the one that best reflects the story I’m telling.

In Story Step 6, I wrote about choosing a title for your work in progress. My advice being that if you’re struggling with a title, don’t let that sidetrack you from writing the story. It’s not uncommon for traditional publishers, as I also mentioned, to change the title of a contracted book if they don’t like your title.

My thoughts wandered back this way because the rights to a short story reverted to me last month. The editors had retitled it when they published it. I didn’t care for the title and it even got pinged in a review, justifiably so. Most readers, and I guess many reviewers because they are readers, don’t realize an author doesn’t have control over elements such as title or cover with traditional publishers. Especially with early books.

When I was writing Ransom’s Bride, a Victorian era novel, I titled it Champion’s Bride. Then one of my valuable beta readers told me it sounded like a horse’s name. Oh dear! I dropkicked that title out the door, choosing to use the hero’s first name instead of his last. It was a good move because the editor who bought the manuscript kept the title.

That isn’t always the case.

If you’re new to the crazy world of writing, keep in mind that traditional publishers aren’t always on the mark with titles. It broke my heart when the editor, without any input from me, retitled my first book Tennessee Waltz.

I felt like Tom Hanks’s character in a League of Their Own and wanted to say “There’s no waltzing in this book!” The title seemed downright cruel because the heroine was lamed by a fall from a horse when she was a young girl. There was no dancing in her life.

I called the editor and told her why I thought that wasn’t a good title choice. Especially since Kensington already had a book by that name in their catalog! She told me to come up with other titles and she’d see if it could be changed.

I brain stormed with my agent, we sent a list, but no, it was too late. The covers were already made. To avoid confusion, they removed the other author’s book from their catalog. I always felt guilty about spurring them to take that action, but the book was about 6 years old and probably out-of-print. (The Good Ole Days!)

Way back when I began writing the story, I titled it Destiny’s Revenge. As the story took shape, I realized the word revenge probably didn’t belong in a romance. I retitled the story Destiny’s Angel, but then decided I liked D’Angelo’s Destiny better. I think it was a good title because under that guise, the manuscript won the Historical Romance Category as well as Best in Show in Authorlink’s New Author’s Competition. I was treated to a cash award and a free conference at the Harriette Austin Writers’ Conference at the University of Georgia.

When I got the rights back to this book and decided to Indie publish it, the first thing I did was change the title.The book revolves around different people stealing a horse named Destiny and finally the perfect title popped into my head: Stealing Destiny.

This title feels right. It fits the story better than the title of a country song about a woman losing her honeybun to another. Just remember, you wrote the story, you know it better than anyone else. It may take awhile, but if you follow Goldilocks’ lead and try different titles out, you’ll eventually find the title that’s “just right.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Storyboarding: A Useful Writing Management Tool

Story Steps 10

Suppose you decided to use my Story Steps to get started on your latest project. Let’s recap them:

  • the idea for a story 
  • a theme or message you want the reader to take away 
  • compelling characters 
  • a working title 
  • the essential story ingredients of a story–protagonist, antagonist, situation, motivation, goal, and conflict 
  • appropriate character names 
  • writing a narrative synopsis

Today, we’re going to look at storyboarding, a technique that helps with the actual writing of your book. For starters, let’s look at the definition:

Storyboarding is a sequence of pictures created to communicate a desired general visual appearance. Although storyboarding has been traditionally associated with cinema, its beginnings can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci, who put his ideas on a wall and examined the layout prior to producing the final painting. (She Sat, He Stood: What Do Your Characters Do While They Talk?)

Popularity of Storyboarding

Storyboarding has become popular in many professions. If you’ve seen any documentaries on making a film, such as The Mandalorian docuseries, you’ve seen examples of story boards. I discovered storyboarding way back when I took a web design course. It made me realize one doesn’t have to be an artist to utilize the story board concept.

It helps to own a computer and have access to the Internet which abounds with pictures of everything you might need. Need a character? Plenty of photos of all types and ages of people are available. Need the picture of a space ship? The photo of a Bernese Mountain dog? There are millions of photos from which to chose as you visualize your story.

Writing Management Tool

Here’s a little background on my storyboarding evolution. I used the old fashioned 3” x 5” index card system for a long, long time. What is this system? You use an index card for each scene. This tool helps you see the big picture in small doses.

The size of the cards makes it easy to shift them around as you’re trying to decide the best way to tell your story. You can design them to reveal whatever information you want. And of course, the neat typed cards often end up with hand written notations all over them.

My transition to computer generated cards was gradual. At first, I wrote story information on the cards. I would cut character photos from magazines or newspapers and copy photos of period clothing from library books, journals, or my own library. All this pictorial information was kept in file folders because the index cards were too small for them.

Then, I learned how to set the page size and run off computer generated 3x5 cards. At first, I continued as before and the cards were text only. But as I became comfortable using computer graphics, I started adding small pictures pertinent to the scene: a carriage, a pretty hat for my heroine to wear, or a piece of antique furniture. Items that helped set the scene for me.

Here’s a sample index card from Scene Two of Butterfly Bride (Saderra Publishing, 2019).

As you can see, the lack of artistic talent doesn’t prevent a writer from using this technique. Storyboarding is a fun way to better visualize your story and it’s easy to tailor storyboarding to your needs. 

However you chose to use it, storyboarding is an excellent writing management tool.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Narrative Synopsis: A Tool for Story Writing

Story Step 9

Writing a short narrative synopsis of my story is another step I take in this process. What’s a narrative synopsis? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, a narrative is

  • a spoken or written account of connected events

while a synopsis is

  • a brief summary or general survey of something.

In my mind, a narrative synopsis is a summary of the connected events that will take place in my story. I like to think of the synopses as short stories of my novels written in a compelling format that will catch editor or reader interest.

Preliminary Writing Tool      

Many writers dislike writing a synopsis and save it for last. I followed that school of thought in the beginning of my writing career. I didn’t write the synopsis until I finished the manuscript. Eventually, I began writing a short narrative synopsis during the early stages of my story writing. Now I see the synopsis as a powerful preliminary writing tool, because it makes you pare the story down to the essentials. 

More importantly, it unveils the theme.

How can a synopsis do all this? Think about it. If you’re planning a 100,000 word novel and condense it into 500-1,000 words, you have to strip the story down to its essence. The exercise helps you find the dreaded “theme,” because to find the core of the story, you must think in terms of one overriding idea which, of course, is the theme.

Components of a Synopsis 

The seven essential ingredients I mentioned in Story Steps Seven (protagonist, antagonist, situation, motive, goal, conflict, and resolution) offer a good starting point for writing a narrative synopsis. It’s also helpful to have major turning points or plot points in mind. These are the obstacles or events that are going to cause your characters to “turn away” from the path they were following. It always helps to have some idea of why your main character(s) can’t reach their goals easily.

Remember this is a short story of your novel. It should contain the prerequisite beginning, middle, and end.

A narrative synopsis provides material from which to draw your pitch for that all important editor or agent meeting. Or to write the 100 words or less ad. Or hook visitors into reading an excerpt at your website. Or write press releases and advertisements.

Six Reasons I Love the Narrative Synopsis

Here are six reasons I love to write the narrative synopsis:

  • It gives me the opening paragraph or hook for my query letter.
  • It makes me think about the story from beginning to end which helps me organize the story line.
  • It forces me to create interesting characters with viable needs, goals, and flaws.
  • It makes me think about the middle of the book.
  • It gives me vital turning points so I have specific places to go with my story.
  • It gives me an ending to write toward.

What I love most about the narrative synopsis is that it eradicates the problem of blank pages. Each sentence in the synopsis is a scene waiting to be written. I now have the bare bones of a story just waiting to be fleshed out.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What to Call Your Characters

Story Step 8

In Story Step 6, I suggested you don’t need to have the perfect title before you write your story. Working titles are fine. Stumbling across the perfect title during the process is always fun.

On the other hand, choosing names for your characters is an important early step when writing a story. Assigning names helps you bond with your characters better than calling them Male #1 or Female #2.

Names carry a lot of weight. This is as true in real life as it is in a story. Choosing the right name for your characters is important.

I love names and have a spreadsheet of several hundred male and female names I’ve collected over the years. I’ve visited cemeteries to record names and life span dates from gravestones. I’ve found unusual names in obituary columns and news articles, and I’ve plucked names off the identity badges of sales clerks.

I’m not shy about name gathering or asking the story behind an unusual name. After complimenting a person’s name, I often ask him or her about its origin. The stories vary, but often their parent is paying homage to a relative or friend, or they’ve taken the name from a story by a favorite author.

I also regularly access the U.S. Social Security Administration’s baby names web pages. This site comes in handy for researching the popularity of names by the decade. Did you know the girl’s name “Emma” was not only the most popular name for 2018, it was also the top contender in 1880?

I write historical romances and one way to keep characters’ names true to a certain time period is to check the bibliography of nonfiction books. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, a memoir edited by C. Van Woodward, offers a treasure trove of mid-nineteenth century American names. Historical biographies or memoirs from any time period provide the writer with many choices for character names.

When selecting the names of your characters, be sure you have a variety of names that begin with different sounds. If you pepper your story with too many alliterative names, it can be confusing to the reader. Your goal is to keep your reader reading, not confuse him or her. If you’ve ended up with a Polly, a Paula, a Patsy, and a Petunia, you need to rethink your characters’ names.

Now, I realize parents sometimes get a little carried away when naming children and some love the idea of all the names beginning with the same letter. But think about the classic Little Women for a moment. By giving the four sisters completely different names (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy), Louisa May Alcott ensured we’d be able to tell them apart as we read their story.

Another pitfall for writers when naming a character is to pick hard to pronounce names. To be honest, if I can’t figure out how to pronounce a name, I just come up with a nickname to use. I know I’m not the only one who substitutes an easier version when faced with an unpronounceable name.

My suggestion, think twice about wasting a lot of time coming up with a name your readers can’t pronounce. If you just can’t let go of an odd name, you have two choices: use it on a supporting character or supply its correct pronunciation as soon as possible. If you chose option two, weave it into the story. Perhaps another character stumbles over the pronunciation and the main character corrects him or her. Using an easy to pronounce or well known word as a synonym will probably help readers the most.

For example, this character’s name is Terry Lough.

“Ms. Luge?” The nurse looked up from the file she was reading to scan the waiting room. The mispronunciation of her name grated across Terry’s nerves. She stood and headed for the nurse. As she drew closer, she said, “Not the toboggan race. Lough, as in a tree log.”

Always remember, your goal as a writer is to write a story that captivates readers. When the reader gets hung up on the pronunciation of a character’s name, unwillingness to continue reading is the more likely response.