Tag Archives: Structure

Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

1 Comment

Filed under Articles, Images, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles, Research, Writing Exercise

Euphemisms

Euphemism 1Language is a fluid concept, constantly changing, adapting, creating, compensating and inventing itself.  Euphemisms are a prime example of that fluctuation and adaptation; successive generations come to know only the euphemism which in turn ceases to be one by that very definition, and which means that new ones will be invented to skirt the issue once again. For instance, there are hundreds of words for smell or stink, yet only a handful of satisfactory synonyms for words like fragrance, simply because hiding the ugly requires far more creativity than hiding the lovely.  For that reason alone, writers who fall back on expletives like the highly offensive F-word (a euphemism for, well, you know) are simply lazy in my book; they’re missing a great opportunity for creativity!  Interestingly, that word’s meaning has never shifted over time – it’s been in the English language since before the fifteenth century, and even then it was only written in cipher because it was too offensive to record in ink.  In my opinion it still is, and one should consider very carefully before offending unknown numbers of readers from continuing to read your book or blog; more than once have I ended reading a book when they used the word several times in the course of the first few chapters, because honestly it says something about the extent of their language abilities and their spectrum (or lack thereof) of creativity.

As a society’s norms shift, so do the euphemisms that they use to communicate.  In the Renaissance, corpulent women were considered the height of beauty; curvy, curvaceous, and shapely were instances of positive euphemisms; today they might be used by some idiot in the media to insult a Hollywood starlet who (by any other standard would be considered normal if not a little thin) gained a pound or two. Now idiot might be too strong a word; I could say brain cell-deficient, or someone who has delusions of adequacy.  I would like to point out the obvious here:  If you’re going to insult someone, at least spell it right… more often than not, you see people calling someone “dumn” or “dumm”, which smacks of the pot calling the kettle black…

For an extensive list of euphemisms, please click on the image.  That website also has lists of anagrams, clichés, metaphors, oxymorons, palindrome and pleonasms, so it’s worth bookmarking for writers!

For an interesting TED Talk (13:00) on the topic of euphemisms, please click here.

4 Comments

Filed under Articles, Cartoon, Etymology, Grammar, Nuts & Bolts, Writing Exercise

How To Boost Your Focus

I’m probably the most organised person I know; I’m not OCD about it, I just work better when things are organised.  Writing a book means that I accumulate bits and pieces of information, research facts, website links, editing tips, formatting guidelines, historical trivia that I can integrate into my plot (but only if I can find it when I get there), maps, diagrams, lists of names in various languages, grammar points to remember (I’ve made up a word for “points to remember” – poitrems – you heard it here first), How-To cheat-sheets for PhotoShop, publication checklists (pre- and post-), Shelfari to-dos, and… need I continue?  I’m just getting started.  And that’s my point.  If I’m not organised, I’ll waste half my day looking for something… where did I put that note about the dimensions of a modern casket?  Was it hot arsenic or cyanide that smells like garlic?  Are blue diamonds more valuable than pure white?  What kind of micro-organism poops arsenic?  A friend of mine complimented me one day when I told her some of the things I was researching; she said, “You’re just weird.”  And it’s something my husband repeats fondly on a regular basis.

So, I’d like to share a few of my organisational tips with you:

1)  Know thyself.  Know your weaknesses (You know, those distractions, procrastination excuses, time-eating habits like “just checking into Facebook for a minute before I sit down to write” and an hour later you’re hungry, then you see that the kitchen needs cleaning… you know who you are.).  Recognize those time-wasters, and nip them in the bud before they mushroom into a day wasted.  Keep your cell phone at a safe distance; wear earplugs if you need to; turn on music if it helps you focus, turn it off if it distracts you.  Write down points to research and only dive into research when you have 5 items on the list (and stay away from time-monster sites like Facebook and Youtube while you’re working!)

Character Profile Worksheet 12)  Find a system that works for you.  I organise my notes, etc. in various ways:  I have pocket-sized Moleskin books for quick reference character profiles, lists of words, family trees of characters, etc.; I also have lined notebooks with those heavy-duty post-it tabs labelling the sections (that are well-spaced apart for future additions); I write the section names on the front and back of those tabs so that I can find it from either way the notebook lands on my desk.  For instance, one notebook I always have at hand has sections like publications, pre- & post- publication to-dos, paperback formatting checklist, KDP guidelines, CreateSpace guidelines, grammar, PhotoShop Elements helps, editing checklists, proofing checklists, Beta checklists, and step-by-step guides for various publication formats.  Another notebook I keep on hand has things like time-related notes (Julian calendar terms, Ages [Stone Age = ~6,000-2,000 BC], etc.), medical notes (that’s where I put that note about modern casket dimensions), glossaries for archaeological terms, 18th century England notes, lists of museum curators’ names, phone numbers and emails, etc.  Besides notebooks, I keep “cards” – here’s an example (to the right):  I type up the information in PowerPoint, then save each “card” to .jpg format through MS Paint.  These cards are then saved onto my Tab through Dropbox, and Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got them handy whether I’m writing on the couch, on holiday, or in a café.

Pomodoro Time Management Tips3) Learn to focus.  I’ve recently found a great way to focus better through those hours of the day and night when I know I’m going to be most distracted:  It’s called Focus Booster.  It’s basically a timer on your desktop that counts down time increments, with an additional break-time at the end of each cycle.  The standard unit of time is 25/5, though you can adjust it to your rhythm.  The thinking is that anyone can focus on a given task for 25 minutes, even those who struggle with ADD.  In using it, I’ve realized how often I get distracted by a thought that comes into my mind while writing and I get up to do something quickly.  This way, I stay working for a solid amount of time, and use that 5 minutes to switch gears and get other things done; it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in 30 minutes.  I’d encourage you to download it and give it a try if you struggle with concentration.  Here’s a second card I’ve made with the basic principles for the Booster.

Those are just a few ideas; if you struggle with a specific area, or would like suggestions on dealing with specific challenges in focusing, just ask away!  Focus well, and your writing will flow so much more smoothly and swiftly.

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Articles, Nuts & Bolts, Research, Writing Exercise

Affect vs. Effect

aardvark - affect vs effectAffect and effect are probably two of the more confusing words in the English language.  Or should I say the use of them is the confusing bit.

A general rule of thumb is that affect is usually used as a verb, and effect is usually used as a noun.  As with other parts of speech, when in doubt try to replace it with a word you know the function of (i.e. clearly a verb, or clearly a noun); if it still makes sense then you know which one to use.

Example:  “The arrow affected the aardvark.”  “The arrow injured the aardvark.”  Injured makes sense here, so you need the verb form.

Effect is a noun, so try to replace it with another noun, e.g. “outcome.”

Example:  “The outcome was eye-popping.”  If you place these substitute words in the other sentences they wouldn’t make sense.

I hope that helps!  If you’re confused, just think of the aardvarks…

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, Nuts & Bolts, Writing Exercise

Paraprosdokians. Parawhat?

Paraprosdokian is not a word I would readily remember.  I can even admit freely I’d never heard of it until recently.  Maybe I’m just weird, but I can remember a word much better if I know where it came from; this one actually makes sense: (Greek) para– meaning “against”, and prosdokaō meaning “I expect.”  Against expectations.  It’s not actually that old, and is thought of by some linguists as a bogus term; but there are a lot of words that have crept into the English language on just such a pretext, and have hung around for centuries (thereby gaining loyalty from linguists).  I’d say that sounds like a bit of cosmic humour.

A Paraprosdokian is a phrase or sentence that ends with an unexpected twist.  Now it may be as common as rain where you live, but not here.  I tend to think of these sentences as one-liners, and with good reason – this figure of speech is popular with comedians as it’s short and ends on a punch.  Some Paraprosdokians use a familiar phrase and twist the ending such as the first sentence (“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”).  So I say, call them what you will – just use them well!

Crabby Road

Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.

I sleep eight hours a day and at least ten at night. (Bill Hicks)

The last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it’s still on my list.

Since light travels faster than sound, some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they have tried everything else. (Winston Churchill)

If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat. (Will Rogers)

We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly.  It should be thrown with great force.

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

They begin the evening news with Good Evening, then proceed to tell you why it isn’t.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. (Variations on this phrase are attested as early as 1884.)

There’s a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can’t get away.

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

If I am reading this graph correctly… I’d be very surprised. (Stephen Colbert)

I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long. (Mitch Hedberg)

Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

Buses stop in bus stations. Trains stop in train stations. On my desk is a work station.

I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.

In filling out an application, where it says, ‘In case of emergency, notify, I put DOCTOR.

I like going to the park and watching the children run around because they don’t know I’m using blanks. (Emo Philips)

I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.

Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.

Behind every successful man is his woman. Behind the fall of a successful man is usually another woman.

A clear conscience is the sign of a fuzzy memory.

You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.

He was at his best when the going was good. (Alistair Cooke on the Duke of Windsor)

You’re never too old to learn something stupid.

To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit, the target.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it. (Groucho Marx)

A modest man, who has much to be modest about. (Winston Churchill, about Clement Attlee)

If I could just say a few words… I’d be a better public speaker.

She was good as cooks go, and as cooks go she went.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Cartoon, Grammar, Humor, Nuts & Bolts

Stop Apostrophe Abuse

Okay, grammar pet peeve time:  Apostrophe abuse.  It needs to stop.  Now.apostrophe Puppy

There are only two instances in the English language in which apostrophes are used:

1) Contractions, as in:  you are = you’re, or have not = haven’t, or I am = I’m.  Just keep in mind that the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letter(s); if you take a letter out to combine (contract) two words together, place the apostrophe where the missing letter would have been written.

2) Possessives, as in:  Steve’s hat (the hat belongs to Steve), or today’s specials (specials on for today)

Apostrophe Tombstone

Alway’s there for us. Who is Alway?

Never, I repeat NEVER should an apostrophe be used to indicate a plural!!  Never, EVER.  If you see it used as a plural, it’s wrong – even if it’s on a tombstone (see the image below). Apostrophe Tombstone 2

In the illustration on the right, “Alway’s there for us,” it obviously means “Alway is there for us.”  But who is Alway?  I thought Mary was trying to rest in peace here…  It’s just wrong on so many levels, because it’s not even a plural (which they were aiming for), but an adverb.

Let’s (as in “let us”) look at another very common mistake:  1) it vs. 2) it’s vs. 3) its:

1) “It” is fairly straightforward; it is the third person singular pronoun (used in place of a noun) for objects or gender-neutral references; e.g. The chair is red = It is red.

2) “It’s” is the contracted form of “it is”, as in It’s raining or “it has”, as in It’s been a long time since we saw each other last.

3) “Its” is the possessive form of the third person singular pronoun:  “the dog’s paws” = “its paws”  REMEMBER:  You would never spell “his shirt” as “hi’s shirt”, or “her skirt” as “he’r skirt”; in the same way you should never use the contracted form as the possessive form of it.

It’s not “CD’s” or “DVD’s” as the plural form; this is actually the possessive (which therefore requires an object for that subject’s possessive form, as in the CD’s case), and I find myself asking, “CD’s what?”

If you want more examples, from tombstones to shop signs to tattoos that are embarrassingly wrong, take a look at  www.apostropheabuse.com.  Okay, pet peeve appeased.  Glad to get that off my chest.

5 Comments

Filed under Articles, Cartoon, Grammar, Nuts & Bolts, Writing Exercise

That Low-Down Word

That Word CloudI run a forum on a British writers’ website for grammatical problems, and answer questions that come up in the course of their writing projects.  This week the question came up about that little word, “that” – when to use it and when to lose it.  When do you use that?  When do you use a comma instead?  And when is neither one necessary?  Ah, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice proper grammar.  Hey, just kidding – it’s not that complicated!  Sometimes it doesn’t matter, and sometimes it can be confusing without it.  So, here’s the low-down:

1) Remember Rhythm:  How does your sentence flow?  Read your sentence aloud; does it have a better rhythm with or without that?  When in doubt and rhythm / comprehension is fine with or without, use it – inclusion may benefit the understanding of the sentence as a whole, and omission may cause misunderstandings.  Sometimes using that is a matter of personal taste.  Here’s a sentence that could be understood with or without:  “Fiona thinks (that) Alistair works too hard.

If you’ve already got a that in the sentence elsewhere, consider how your sentence can be reworded to avoid an overload. A double that is usually unnecessary.  In the sentence, “I realised that that would not be a good idea” the first that (acting as a conjunction, whereas the second acts as a pronoun) could be eliminated, aiding the flow but not impeding the comprehension.  Sometimes that is required in one part of a sentence, and when a second that comes up a choice needs to be made:  Take this sentence, from an AP report:  “Ford Motor Co. warned that it no longer expects to return to profitability by next year and that it is trimming North American production of pickups and SUVs for the rest of this year because of high gas prices and a shaky economy.”  The second instance could be eliminated thus:  “…next year; it is trimming…”

2) Comprehension:  Sometimes a sentence can be unintentionally misleading, and using that can help clarify.  For example,  “Fiona maintains Alistair works too hard.”  Does Fiona maintain Alistair and he works too hard? If you insert a that after maintains, it becomes clear that maintains refers to an opinion, and not maintenance of Alistair.

Sometimes in our writing, however, we want to intentionally lead the reader or a character down the garden path toward the wrong conclusion.  It’s a fine art, and understanding how another person interprets what you’ve written or could interpret it goes a long way toward walking that fine line between misdirection and deception; the first will leave a “gotcha” smile, and the latter might leave your next book unread….  As a plot element, it has its uses; but as a badly written sentence, it only results in confusing and frustrating the reader, who has to find the beginning of the sentence and read it again to understand it properly.

3) Commas:  Commas can sometimes replace the word that.  In this example, “Peter Coveney writes that ‘[t]he purpose and strength of . . .’” it would never be “Peter Coveney writes that,” or “Peter Coveney writes, that…” though it could be, “Peter Coveney writes, “…”

I hope that helps some of you dealing with similar issues in writing!

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Nuts & Bolts, Research

Musings on the Unsexy Side of Writing

WordItOut-Word-cloud-223251When someone discovers the avenue of writing as a way of expressing their creativity, I can guarantee you they don’t think, “Gee, I can’t wait to get to all those technical details it will take to launch a book!”  That technical nitty-gritty is what the Swiss would call the “unsexy” side of writing.  If you’re a writer, and you’re anything like me, it’s the last thing you want to spend your time doing – I’d much rather be working on the next manuscript than tackling things like blurbs, bios, and summaries, all in various lengths.  I’d rather not have to tackle the issues of pricing, cover art decisions, marketing (most writers enjoy the isolation it takes to be a good writer and concentrate on their craft – we are not born me-salesmen!), networking and promotion.  But that’s the phase I find myself in right now.  And perhaps my situation is a bit more challenging because I am an English-language writer living in an area of a country that speaks an unwritten language:  I live in the Swiss-German speaking area of Switzerland.  There are a variety of dialects here, none of which have an official written structure or spelling (it is usually spelled phonetically, which varies according to the dialect).  High-German is the language of the newspapers and magazines and television (for the most part), but it’s not the language you hear on the streets.  And I certainly don’t have a local writer’s group from which to draw inspiration or encouragement.  I can’t just zip down to the local bookshop and see which publishers are interested in which topics.  It’s just me, myself and moi when it comes to getting it done.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ve got several irons in the fire at any given time:  At the moment I have no less than six novels at various stages of completion.  The second novel of a trilogy is on next, but will soon get put on hold as I travel to Norway for historical research this summer, for another novel in the making.  Focusing on one project at a time is the most efficient way to work; but sometimes it’s not possible.  I actually like the variety, from 18th century fiction, to 8th and 21st century fantasy fiction, contemporary fiction, science fiction… I’ve got my fingers in a lot of pies.  For me the key is self-discipline; setting goals, priorities, and daily schedules so that I can reach those goals one step at a time, all the while not letting any of that quench my creativity.  It would be great to have a support network of writers with whom I could bounce ideas around, or glean encouragment from, or be inspired by.  But life is where it is, so I’ll take the encouragement in any form it comes.  And I’ll slog my way through the unsexy side of the craft, and maybe even learn to enjoy it along the way!

 

10 Comments

Filed under Nuts & Bolts

Thoughts on Writing from a Reader’s Perspective

Card - InsomniaFor me, reading a book is about escaping to a new world, diving into that world through the medium of the senses that are stimulated by well-chosen words, precision instruments that play a symphony of emotions, smells, sights, sounds, touches, tastes, balance and harmony.  I’ve never really appreciated books that are written with gratuitous scenes of violence or sex; sometimes it seems to me (as a reader) that writers throw in scenes willy-nilly to spice things up or to patch over the fact that they haven’t researched and developed their characters thoroughly, or because they run out of plot ideas and just spin their wheels.  Such scenes grate against my senses just as much as random punctuation or bad spelling does.  If such elements are not organic, logical, and a natural development of the plot, they do not belong there.  Period.  It’s an insult to my intelligence and a brazen demand on my “believability credits” that is frankly not the author’s to demand… those credits are something that I as a reader give gladly to a good writer, but a writer has to earn them, and has no right to demand that I suspend disbelief to dive into their story when they haven’t bothered to make it believable.  The writer’s job is to earn those credits through good writing, good writing, and good writing, i.e. plot, character development, grammar, syntax, orthography, and structure.

Don’t misunderstand me:  There are times when the darker scenes are organic; they are necessary to portray the character, or are a natural outflow of the character’s flaws or decision process, or lack of positive input earlier on in life.  Sexual scenes can be sexy without being vulgar, sensual without being slutty.  Sometimes I read books that deal with such issues, but more as a writer than a reader, to see how they are structured.  I read part of a book recently (I gave up quite early, which not a good sign for the writer) where the author had seemingly tried to cram as many vulgar terms as they could into one chapter, or one page, or one dialogue.  It got so ridiculous that I started reading as an editor, slicing out entire passages to improve the script.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s not really a point in publishing something that will likely offend half your demographic sector away from buying a second book.

Give me something to read that’s intelligent, entertaining, witty, smart, deep, and that I can come away from the experience wanting more – not just another book with those characters, but that I come away having learned something about myself or the world around me, having been positively changed, encouraged, enlightened or satisfied.

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, Cartoon