Category Archives: Writing Exercise

Saturday Riddle #1: A Five-Letter Word

Just for fun, I thought I’d toss you a riddle; try to figure out the answer without using a search engine!

Take away my first letter, and I still sound the same. Take away my last letter, I still sound the same. Even take away my letter in the middle, I will still sound the same. I am a five-letter word. What am I?

Write your guesses in the comments below, and I’ll give the answer in the comments tomorrow!  Have fun!

Riddles

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In Other Words – Make Every Word Count!

I’ve been out of WordPress-land for the past week or so; I’ve been focused on editing and didn’t want to blog until I had something worth writing about.  I thought I’d tell you a bit about what I’ve been working on & thinking about:

One golden rule in writing is to make every word count; along that yellow brick road are all kinds of signposts and potholes.  Signposts are things like “make verbs do the actions”, while potholes are “watch out for unnecessary words” – either for the sake of padding word count (e.g. for a short story or report that needs to reach a certain word count), or words that slip in needlessly.  Examples of unnecessary words are -ly adverbs (if we use the best verb, the adverb will be superfluous), strings of adjectives, really, very, and there is/are/were/was.  Recently I’ve been scanning my current manuscript for the kinds of words that slip in easily while writing in a flow; I have a list of things that I watch out for personally, and one item is “there”.  While I try to catch them as I write, sometimes I will intentionally use them as a “place-marker” – knowing that I’ll come searching for them later, find it, and re-write the sentence or scene with a fresher eye than I had at the time I originally wrote it.  That’s just me – I know myself, that I won’t leave things like that long.  If you’re not sure you’ll catch those sentences you want to improve on later, then mark them with a different coloured text, or an e-post-it, or something that will jump out at you.

Mark Twain - Very, Damn

Here are a few examples of sentences (from my current manuscript) with “there” before and after editing:

…there was a crisp off-shore wind… —> …a crisp off-shore wind blew…

…there was no recollection in his eyes… —> …no recollection flickered in his eyes…

…there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes… —> …amusement twinkled in his eyes…

…there was no sign of the HMS Norwich… —> …the HMS Norwich was nowhere to be seen…

…there would be dire consequences… —> …dire consequences would follow…

…there was a smirk on the captain’s face… —> …a smirk spread across the captain’s face…

Tightening up the wording makes the sentence less clunky and more precise.  Making every word count is not about reducing word count, although that will be a natural consequence sometimes; at other times, by changing the sentence to mean more precisely what you want to convey, it may result in the word count actually increasing.  Just make sure that the words you use carry their weight.  Waffling, rambling & repetition will not win us any brownie points; I could easily go into detail about the ropes of a ship of sail, but it would probably bore most readers to death!  Sometimes “less is more”; it’s enough to say “ropes”.  If I describe a surgeon’s table and list the instruments he’s about to use, it may be TMI (“too much information”) if using the word “instruments” is enough; if I want something more specific, then I could name a tool at a particular moment in the scene.  Though I like the (audio) book “The Host”, by Stephenie Meyer, my one gripe with it is what I call the “roll call” scenes – where the characters present are listed, as if in a roll call.  It’s TMI – it would be enough to say something like, “those I counted as allies were with me”.

Other times, a list of words may become a linguistic collage, painting a picture in the reader’s mind of a character, or a place, or a mood.  A classic example of this is Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky; most of the words are nonsensical, non-existent words, but they nevertheless paint a clear image in the reader’s mind.

It’s why writing is never an exact science, and why, as a writer, I can always learn something, always hone my skills.  If I ever become satisfied with my own level of writing, to me that’s a warning sign that I’m missing a significant moment of improvement.  That should never stop someone from publishing – from letting their baby grow up and go out into the world to make other friends – but in the writing and editing process, be prepared to let go of pet scenes, or even some characters, in favour of an improved manuscript.  Making every word count requires that we learn to recognise what counts, and what doesn’t.  So keep writing, and keep honing your skills!

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Interconnectivity

interconnectivity-internet

Interconnectivity

This weekend I led a singing workshop; at the time I was focused on the instrument as such, and the amazing, complex expressions the voice can produce.  I covered topics like anatomy, and the psychology of singing, as well as techniques and choices – the “paint palette” a singer can learn and use to produce a desired impact on the listener, painting an image before the mind’s eye through the choice of vocal colour and tone.  For me, the truest sense of interconnectivity in the context of vocals is that they are an expression not only of an individual’s anatomical uniqueness but also the personality, and even the spiritual condition.  I believe that we are created in the image of God – that is, a trinity:  We are body, soul, and spirit; and as such, when one area is facing challenges it will affect the other two areas, as well as the expression of the voice, tone, attitude and even the extent of the performer’s control over their vocals at any given moment.  [I also touch on this topic in my article about layering.]

Afterwards, the writer’s side of my brain kicked in and I began thinking of such things in terms of character development.  As I build a character’s profile, something must challenge that character or they’ll come across as flat and lifeless.  If a character had a traumatic experience with water as a child, they may have to face their fears through swimming across a lake, or getting into a rickety boat; if they’ve been abandoned by a parent, they may need to recognise a paralysing fear that keeps them from committing to relationships, and their arc may have primarily to do with overcoming that fear or not – it may be a side issue, but it will still add depth and humanity to the character.

Whatever weaknesses or challenges I decide on for a given character will guide the story to some extent; they will also influence their attitudes, responses and reactions in connecting with other characters.  These things will in turn influence the way they dress (rebellious, reserved, bold, fearful, quirky to keep people at a distance, etc.), the way they might walk or talk, or certain quirks like mannerisms or ways of speaking.  I might go through a list of a hundred related items (if they’re the main character, especially) to narrow down who the character is, even though most of it might not make it into the final cut.  The more I understand my character, the more consistent their responses, dialogues and actions will be throughout the story.

I just thought I’d share these thought processes with you, in the hopes that they can inspire you in your own characters’ developments.  Give them challenges, and find ways they can overcome (or be temporarily overwhelmed) in the midst of other more pressing issues, and (if you’ve chosen the path of hero-success over hero-failure) still find a way for them to triumph in the end.

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Buying Credit

No, the title is not referring to money or cash cards, but writing.  Stick with me.  If you’ve made yourself at home here and nosed through my cupboards, you’ll know that I do a LOT of research.  I love it.  It adds spice to my character’s meals, salty spray that blackens the redcoats of marines aboard a royal navy ship, tells me that heated arsenic smells like garlic, and makes the ship creak so loudly you’ll swear you’re going down to Davy Jones’ locker.  But there are times when, as an author, I’m required to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

There are certain things that people erroneously assume (such as Viking helmets) that I may need to adapt in order not to lose a reader’s trust (though trust me, I will never add horns!):  The sentence structures of bygone days were far more complex, with vestiges of Germanic linguistic influences – for my current manuscript (set in 18th century England and mostly aboard a Royal Navy ship of the line) I need to modernize the syntax without losing the High English flavour, and without compromising on the linguistic purity of my story’s time-setting; modern sensibilities (in social ladders, issues such as slavery, war, etc.); laxer standards (in, say, relationships or politics or social ranks), and so on.  A modern reader will most likely not appreciate the complex social mores of a time when men and women were never alone in a room – even when the man wanted to propose to the woman, and the parents wanted it to take place; and so, such things need to be adapted at times, to a certain extent, to reach a modern audience without alienating the audience that revels in bygone literature.

If I, as an author, want my reader (who is perhaps a stickler for all things historical) to give me the permission to bend a few social rules of the 18th century, I must first buy credit with them – prove to them that I’ve done my homework – so that they won’t get ripped out of the story in disbelief when I contrive to leave a man and a woman alone in the same room without a chaperone.  In my current manuscript, the husband and wife come from opposite ends of the social ladder, and the husband becomes a captain in the royal navy at the tender age of 20 or 21.  Both of these situations have many historical precedents; I know that from countless hours of research.  But most people who read historical novels might think, “But Viking helmets always have horns” – or something to that effect.  If written well, these disparities in understanding can be smoothed over, so that when I really DO break historical moulds, I am allowed to do so without offending the reader “in the know”.

1761-joshua-reynolds-lady-elizabeth-keppel

1761, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This portrait illustrates an important point:  Many people, when thinking of the British rule of India, perceive it through postmodern lenses; we see it from the hindsight of Gandhi and the independence of the country from the imperialistic rule of British paramountcy.  But the other aspects were the children and wives of British soldiers, diplomats, and tradesmen, and the loneliness faced, the friendships struck with Indian men and women… these are important aspects to weave into a story, too, and thus require research.  Notice the pearls adorning the Indian woman below?  The researcher in me wants to know her story far more than the story of Lady Keppel (who died of a broken heart at the age of 29, just months after her husband had died of injuries from a riding accident).  Some readers may get jolted out of the world you create by the pearls, though it is historically accurate – so you’d still need to buy credit by setting up that aspect well.

These same credit-buying rules apply to any genre, even science fiction:  If you create a world set on another planet, that world will have laws – physics laws, indigenous social mores, etc. – and you as a writer must know what they are, and if or how they can be broken if need be.  You can’t claim that all liquid on the planet is frozen, and then have your character drinking from a fountain or stream, unless you explain how that’s possible.  If you do, you’ve taxed your believability credits and pulled the reader out of the world they’ve agreed to follow you into.  The manuscript that I’ll work on next (after the current one is published!) is science fiction; the air of the planet is toxic to humans, so I need to create a way for facial expressions, dialogue, etc. to come through even when the characters are outside in their suits.  I have done a lot of preliminary research into geology (that told me about heated arsenic, among other things); I also need to explain how a planet with multiple suns can have a stable enough orbit not to be drawn into one of the stars and burn up – i.e. I need to follow known physics laws, or explain how they are suspended for my planet.  I think you get the idea!

So if, as a writer, you want readers to believe what you write about a fictional character set in British India, you first need to buy credit with your readers by doing your historical homework and sculpting the landscape and characters in the rich tapestry they deserve.  If you are writing science fiction, establish your world and stick to your rules so that, if you need to bend them for a plot development, the readers will be willing to follow you on the adventure.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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Filed under Articles, History, Military History, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles, Research, Science & Technology, Writing Exercise

On Perceptions and Perspectives

I saw this image a few weeks ago on Pinterest, and found it fascinatingly creepy.  It’s a great example of perspective, thwarting assumptions, and the fact that the image automatically raises certain expectations – until you see the caption.  What our minds initially perceive may or may not be accurate; only when we see the bigger picture, or have more pieces to the puzzle, does that perception or perspective change, or get adjusted to a more accurate overall understanding.  Doing this with words is an art form:  It’s about building expectations and thwarting them without making the reader feel like you’ve drawn them in under false pretences.  If they can look back through what they’ve already read and realize that only their assumptions were wrong – that the writer never misled them, but they misled themselves – then you’ve managed to find that fine line!

 

kitchen-sink

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Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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Filed under Articles, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles, Quotes, Writing Exercise

Just Smile

smileHave you ever stared at a word for days on end?  I have, and coming to the end of the tunnel is bliss.  When writing, I tend to use “place-markers” – anywhere from a single word to a rough-sketch of a scene that I know will need to be fleshed out, moved, replaced or “cannibalized” for a concept.  Some people like to use special writing programs, and I’ve tried a few over the years, but I tend to do all of my writing in Word; it’s got review “post-its” I can type into the side margins, and I’m usually more organized than programs like Scrivener anyway.  When I go back over such sections, I take off my writer’s hat and put on my editor’s cap, and dive in.

I’ve been editing a manuscript, and at the moment I’m focusing on repetitions; the most recent word was smile.  Each time I came across the word, I needed to read the context, think about whether it should be removed, replaced, the sentence reworded, or left as-is.  I’ve discovered that there are not actually that many synonyms for “smile” in the English language; smirk, sneer, grimace, simper, scowl, grin… they each have their own connotations, and are not simply interchangeable – each choice will effect the overall meaning in distinct ways.   as William Blake once said, “There is a smile of Love, And there is a smile of Deceit, And there is a smile of smiles In which these two smiles meet.”  Sometimes it can simply be left out – the context informs the reader about which emotions are being displayed by the characters.  Characters in love have a different smile for each other than for frenemies, or antagonists, or superiors, or subordinates, and each situation in which various characters are combined might result in a different word for smile.  And does one smile warmly, or coldly?  Broadly or tight-lipped?

theoden-king-of-rohan-lord-of-the-ringsSometimes I wonder if I think far too much about such details; but I’d rather think about it once too often and get it right than not.  It might have seemed a tad extravagant for Weta Workshop to emboss the inside of King Théoden’s breastplate armour for the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Return of the King (in which the character appears), knowing it would never actually be seen in the films; but Bernard Hill, who played the king, said that such details helped him easily slip into the role, even feeling the nobility of a king, and it thus enhanced and influenced his performance.  As visuals matter in epic films such as LoR, words matter in writing a novel, drawing the reader into the imaginary landscape of the world the author creates. ever-after

They also matter in script-writing:  In Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott, some of the dialogue lines are just downright embarrassing – especially those of Anjelica Huston:  They go to the trouble of being opulent and period-accurate in costumes, locations and scene dressings, and then throw in lines like Relax, child and I’m management!  The editor in me cringes.

One man’s smile is another man’s smirk; one woman’s grin is another woman’s sneer.  Now, on to the next item on my list of editing revisions!

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Say It Well

Let’s face it:  When writing dialogues between characters, repetition can tend to sneak up on us:  He said, she said, he whispered, she whispered, and so on.  There are a few tricks I’d like to share with you that I’ve learned along the way; one is regarding grammar, and the other is my own twist on dealing with the issue.

Regarding grammar, action verbs can often take the place of the more passive verbs (such as said):  “He said, ‘I’d like that.’” can be spiced up by giving him an action to do (“He picked up the travel brochure and flipped through it:  ‘I’d like that.’”)  The second sentence gives more context, and is more visually engaging for the reader.  Keep in mind that every word should count; don’t pad out the sentence just for word count, or make each exchange in the conversation a prop advertisement; but punctuating a dialogue with such moments can bring it to life.

My own twist is a literal one – a CD:  I took an old one, covered both sides with blank CD labels, and wrote all of the synonyms (listed below) for say and said in a spiral, starting in the centre, changing colours for each new letter of the alphabet.  To use it, I just put it on my finger and spin it around as I read through the spiral until I find the word that best fits my sentence.  I have several such CDs within reach of my computer (another CD, for instance, is for walk synonyms, and another for lie/lay); if you make enough of them, you could keep them in a CD pouch.  Here’s my list of the words around Say (click on the image to enlarge):

say-list

A word of advice to those of you for whom English is not mother-tongue:  Depending on the word, the sentence structure may need to be adapted.  If you’re unsure how to use a word, I would recommend looking it up on Wordnik, and reading the examples on the right-hand side of the page; then choose the sentence structure, prepositions, etc. that are more frequent than not.

I hope that this list helps you say what you want with the variety and precision you’re aiming for!  Feel free to reblog!  Feel free to print this list out and use it; if you pass it on online please put a hyperlink back to this blog, or recommend my blog if you pass it on by word of mouth… thank you!

If you can think of any words or phrases to replace say or said that I missed in the list above, please put them in the comments below!  Keep writing!

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Musings on the A-Z Challenge

After a month of daily posts, A to Z plus weekend excursions into “Odd Jobs”, I can say that it was worth it; I’ve enjoyed the challenge of writing to a word limit, which meant that I could really only focus on one aspect of any given topic… that’s not something my brain does by nature, as it’s usually deep into networking ideas and possibilities long before I’ve finished typing the first sentence.  Along the way I’ve enjoyed spending more time surfing around cyberspace, discovering other WordPress blogs, reading into what makes others tick.  At the same time, I’ve felt the detour of time usually spent in writing manuscripts, editing, researching, and even housework and administration bits and bobs.

Would I do it again?  Probably.  When?  After my next novel is published, and I have more time again!  The feedback from my beta readers is starting to come in, and my own read-through has begun with the fresher eye of passed time and distance, so some other things in life will slide onto the back burner once more.  Through the challenge, I’ve been reminded of why I only post 1 or 2 blogs per week:  Real life is busy!

I hope you enjoyed the challenges along with me, and the breathing room once again afforded by my resumed “schedule”!

blogging-quote

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Musings A to Z Challenge: Z

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Zenith

Astronomical zeniths are easy enough to calculate; it’s the metaphorical ones that get tricky.  How do you know when someone is at the pinnacle of their career, or their success?  If someone could precisely know the zenith of stock prices and when to buy and sell, they’d make a handsome fortune.  The thing about zeniths, on a personal level, is that the word implies an end to growth or progress, and as such, is not something to be desired.  When we stop growing, learning, and maturing, we die.  Seen in that light, I suppose you could classify know-it-alls as zombies.

Zenith

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