Voice–Your Character & Yours

VoiceI’m linking to an excellent post on Deep POV at Live, Write, Thrive that got me thinking about voice. Writers need to do more to guard their voices–too often I see writers looking for outside validation or trying to write like someone else. Now it’s fine to have those experimental phases–I certainly did. I had my Edgar Allen Poe phase and my Ray Bradbury phase and my Dorothy Sayer phase and my Georgette Heyer phase. I finally wrote enough to start developing my own voice, and I can now look back at my past work and think “at last” because it all sounds like my voice. And like my characters voices.

Character voice can be tough. Some characters show up right away, others have to be coaxed into revealing their voice. Character voice can be there on page one or may not be there until page one hundred. A common mistake I see as well is a writer inserting the writer’s voice into what should be the middle of the character’s thoughts or dialogue–that’s an interruption that can throw the reader. That’s where editing comes into play–and developing the writer’s ear.

This is where I think writers can develop their own voice–in editing. Voice comes out through word choice and through structure of sentences and paragraphs. All that is best tuned in editing. I will often to an edit just on one character to make sure that character’s voice is there on the page–and that I haven’t stepped on that voice with my own. I’ll save my voice for places where narrative is more important, as in transitions, setting up scenes, or places where I may need to slow the pace a touch or weave in vital plot exposition. Character voices need to show up in their dialogue and their thoughts–and that’s where I need to make certain I am not putting in that very clever phrase that I thought up, which doesn’t match the character’s personality, mood, or step on what their attention should be focused on.

An example of this is where the writer says something like “she never noticed the gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe”. Well, if she’s not noticing this and we’re in her POV why is this here? Much more effective to write, “she heard the snick of the gum sticking the sole of her shoe to the polished wood floor–with every step, her face heated, but she couldn’t stop to scrape it off.” Now we’re in the character’s POV.

This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” comes into play as well. We all come up with those oh so clever lines that just don’t fit a character. Wonderful descriptions are great–but they should be there to serve the character’s voice as well. They can be revealing–and not just darling lines that we fall in love with that really need to be cut. Again, we’re back to learning to edit your own work.

Self-Editing For Fiction WritersFor that, I recommend Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers–a wonderful book. The other thing I do recommend is protect your characters’ voices and your own–that means you want to be careful about how much advice you take in from others. Some folks will tell you how they would write a scene–that’s not going to help you. Others will tell you about not liking a character–and that’s actually good if that character is meant to be tough to like. That doesn’t mean you want to change the character. And this means a writer needs to learn what advice is useful and what should be accepted with grace and then thrown out.

Voice matters–it’s what makes a reader want your stories above all others. It’s worth the time to develop and to guard.

Regency England Winter Fare

In this modern era, we’re accustomed to a huge variety of foods year ’round—we have freezers for storage, air shipment to move food from one hemisphere to the other in any season so the usual fruits and the expected veg are always in stock, and we always have canned good. This was not the case in the Regency-era England.

While there was some cold storage in ice houses, and meat could be hung to be aged, the art of food storage was time consuming. It required skill, space, and money enough or land enough to purchase or grow the food. The most common means to store food were the age-old ways to pickle, salt, or dry. Canning food wouldn’t really take off until the mid 1800s—and would start off being an ordeal to get any sealed-with-lead can open. This meant the seasons mattered when it came to food.

For meats, besides beef and mutton which the English always seemed to have, there might be what was called “house-lamb” or lambs born late in the season and kept inside. Pork was a staple for many, as pigs were low cost to raise. Wild boar could also be had in the country-side. Venison might be served, if you had the land to hunt, and it was no longer held that all the deer belonged to the king. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, pheasant, duck, guinea-fowl, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, and grouse to eat. Dotterals, or a type of plover, could be eaten (also came to mean an old fool), and widgeon, a fresh-water duck, another word with a double-meaning, coming to mean someone feather-brained.

Rabbit came into season in January, and in February there might be duckling, and chicken is noted as by Mrs Rundell in her book Domesty Cookery as “are to be bought in London , most, if not all, the year, but are very dear.”

domesticcookery

The months ending in “R” held that these were the months for shellfish, and cold months meant seafood would be kept cold as it was transported, so long as the roads weren’t blocked by snow or mud. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon, gurnets, dories, and eels joined the list of fish in season in December. Gudgeon might mean a person easily fooled, but it was a small whitefish often used for bait, and was eaten.

Lobster came into season in January, as did crayfish, flounder, plaice, perch,smelts, whiting, prawns, and crab. Oysters were very popular with the English, with oyster houses in London. Oysters were cheap, plentiful and even sold on the street.

Winter was the time for root vegetables such as: leaks, onions, shallots, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, and potatoes. Hardy vegetables—and those from hot houses—included cabbage, spinach, cress, chard, endive, cress, lettuces, and herbs. Herbs could also be dried. Some of the vegetables that are not so common now were in season in the winter, including: skirrits, a white root vegetable similar to a parsnip; scorzoneras or black salsify, which is said to taste similar to asparagus or to oysters; cardoons or artichoke thistle, which tastes like an artichoke but you eat the stems.

Nuts are another crop easily stored, and were gathered in September. Walnuts and chestnuts would be available in winter and are native nut trees in England, along with hazelnuts. Acorns from oaks were consider a food fit only for pigs. Beech trees also produced a nut, but they’re tough and more work than considered worth the time. Other non-native nuts were not as popular and are not noted in many recipes from the era, although they could always be imported by those with the money and interest.

Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables, and could start to arrive in later winter. Stored apples, pears, and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Besides the dried or stored fruit, the rich might have hot houses that might produce oranges, grapes, and pineapples, which had arrived in England in the 1600s. There were also medlars and bullace. The medlar is a member of the rose family and produces a brownish fruit that appears in winter and which can be eaten raw like an apple or used in recipes. It has been cultivated since Roman times. The bullace is another member of the rose family and is also called a wild plum. It can be used to make bullace wine, or can be used for pies, but was out of season by December.

By late winter, preserved fruits would be running low in all but houses with large orchards or those with greenhouses that could force fruits. Stored apples and pears would have to serve for families and guests until the expensive forced strawberries of February appeared.

December was also the month when all events seem to lead up to Christmas. Around the third century there was an attempt to fix the day of Christ’s birth by tying it to a fesival of the Nativity kept in Rome in the time of Bishop Telesphorus (between 127 AD and 139 AD). While it was believed the Nativity took place on the 25th of the month, which month was uncertain and every month at one time or another has been assigned as Christ’s mass. During the time of Clement of Alexandria (before 220 AD) five dates in three different months of the Egyptian year were said to be the Nativity. One of those corresponds to the December 25th date. Although various dates were questioned for several generations by the Eastern Church, the Roman day became universal in the fifth century.

First reports of people bringing holly and pine branches into their homes at Christmas-time date from the late Middle Ages. Symbols of life in the dead of winter were placed on windows, mirrors, and in vases, and may have served to keep evil spirits away. Over time, this mythical function of the greens became simply decorative. Evergreen ropes (garlands) were draped over staircase railings, mantels, picture frames, and along ceilings. Fearful that dry branches would catch fire from oil lamps or sparks from the fireplace or heating stove, families waited until almost Christmas Eve to hang the garlands.

Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies are traditional foods of the season. According to one variation, plum pudding—an old English holiday treat—gets its name not from plums, but from the process of “plumming” meaning raisins and currants are plumped up by warm brandy then molded with suet and a bit of batter.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, “…Christmas pudding, the rich culmination of a long process of development of ‘plum puddings’ which can be traced back to the early 15th century. The first types were not specifically associated with Christmas. Like early mince pies, they contained meat, of which a token remains in the use of suet. The original form, plum pottage, were made from chopped beef or mutton, onions and perhaps other root vegetables, and dried fruit. As the name suggests, it was a fairly liquid preparation: this was before the invention of the pudding cloth made large puddings feasible. As was usual with such dishes, it was served at the beginning of the meal. When new kinds of dried fruit became available in Britain, first raisins, then prunes in the 16th century, they were added. The name ‘plum’ refers to a prune; but it came to mean any dried fruit. In the 16th century pudding variants were made with white meat…and gradually the meat came to be omitted, to be replaced by suet. The root vegetables disappeared, although even now Christmas pudding often still includes a token carrot…By the 1670s, it was particularly associated with Christmas and called ‘Christmas pottage’. The old plum pottage continued to be made into the 18th century, and both versions were still served as a filing first course rather than as a dessert…”

Mince pies made from mincemeat, which originally had meat in it but shifted from a savory to a sweet, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir for luck. From the Middle Ages and on it became common to stretch the meat in the pie or mincemeat by adding dried fruit. The reduction in meat continued until only beef suet was left in the mincemeat.

In The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in the mid 1700s, Hannah Glasse gives this recipe:

“Take three Pounds of Suet shread very fine, and chopped as small as possible, two Pounds of Raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible, two Pounds of Currans, nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the Fire, half a hundred of fine Pippins, pared, cored, and chopped small, half a Pound of fine Sugar pounded fine, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, a Pint of Brandy, and half a pint of Sack; put it down close in a Stone-pot, and it will keep good four Months. When you make your Pies, take a little Dish, something bigger than a Soop-plate, lay a very thin Crust all over it, lay a thin Layer of Meat, and then a thin Layer of Cittron cut very thin, then a Layer of Mince meat, and a thin Layer of Orange-peel cut think over that a little Meat; squeeze half the Juice of a fine Sevile Orange, or Lemon, and pour in three Spoonfuls of Red Wine; lay on your Crust, and bake it nicely. These Pies eat finely cold. If you make them in little Patties, mix your Meat and Sweet-meats accordingly: if you chuse Meat in your Pies, parboil a Neat’s Tongue, peel it, and chop the Meat as finely as possible, and mix with the rest; or two Pounds of the Inside of a Surloin or Beef Boiled.”

Gingerbread cakes were also a common holiday treat that had come to England from Germany. Seven Centuries of English Cooking gives this recipe adapted from Hannah Glasse’s book:

  • 1 lb. (3 1/3 cups) Flour
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 1 Tbsp. Ground Ginger
  • 1 Tsp. Nutmeg
  • 6 oz. (3/4 cup) Butter
  • 6 oz. Caster (confectioner’s) Sugar
  • 3/4 lb. (1 cup) Treacle (or Corn Syrup)
  • 2 Tbsp. Cream

(Note: She gives tablespoon as Tabs, but this has been changed here to the more common tbsp.)

Eggnog possibly developed from a posset, or a hot drink in which the white and yolk of eggs were whipped with ale, cider, or wine. The nog in the name came from a noggin, or a small, wooden mug. It was also called an egg flip from the practice of rapidly pouring the drink to mix it, or flipping the drink. It was a rich drink with milk, egg, brandy, madeira or sherry and fit for any celebration but came to be associated with Christmas.

Trifles are also traditionally associated with Christmas, although they might be had for any special occasion in the Regency, or any elegant dinner. Elizabeth Raffald included a trifle recipe that is very modern sounding with macaroons, wine, cream, and sugar. The difference comes from adding cinnamon and “different coloured sweetmeats” which are not generally found in modern trifles.

Another English tradition were sugarplums, a confection traditionally made from sugar-coated seeds. The earliest mention dates to 1668. The Oxford Companion to Food also lists comfits as, “…an archaic English word for an item of confectionery consisting of a seed, or nut coated in several layers of sugar…In England these small, hard sugar sweets were often made with caraway seeds, known for sweetening the breath…”

Cakes of all shapes and sizes were included at festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many Christmas cookies we know today trace their roots to Medieval European cake recipes. According to foodtimeline.com, “By the 1500s, Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe. German families baked up pans of Lebkuchen and buttery Spritz cookies. Papparkakor (spicy ginger and black-pepper delights) were favorites in Sweden; the Norwegians made krumkake (thin lemon and cardamom-scented wafers).”

Foodtimeline.com also notes, “The fruit cake as known today cannot date back much beyond the Middle Ages. It was only in the 13th century that dried fruits began to arrive in Britain…Early versions of the rich fruit cake, such as Scottish Black Bun dating from the Middle Ages, were luxuries for special occasions. Fruit cakes have been used for celebrations since at least the early 18th century when bride cakes and plumb cakes, descended from enriched bread recipes, became cookery standards…”

Households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, local customs in the countryside might well be used for the celebrations.

For one of my books, Under the Kissing Bough, I needed a Christmas wedding and customs that suited the countryside around London. In ancient days, a Christmas wedding would have been impossible for the English Church held a “closed season” on marriages from Advent in late November until St. Hilary’s Day in January. The Church of England gave up such a ban during Cromwell’s era, even though the Roman Catholic Church continued its enforcement. Oddly enough a custom I expected to be ancient—that of the bride having “something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe”—turned out to be a Victorian invention.

English Christmas customs are those carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Viking winter solstice celebrations, the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into a kissing bough. The wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink—was another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.

Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which combine the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, Hogmanay is the special New Year’s celebration. But Twelfth Night celebrations for the Epiphany (when the wise men came to see the baby Jesus) are the big event. This is followed by Plough Monday, which is the traditional start to the new agricultural year. Since there’s not much work for a farmer in the winter, plough men would blacken their faces and drag a decorated plough through town asking, “Penny for the ploughboys.”

Molly dancers (a black faced Morris dancer) also came out in East Anglia on Plough Monday. And many towns, such as Whittlesey, had the tradition of men or boys dressing up as Straw Bears to add to the entertainment.

Shrove Tuesday fell in February (the last day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday). Traditionally, Shrove Tuesday was the day to indulge, so pancakes were a traditional food as the butter, fat and eggs might all be things to give up for the forty days of Lent.

Why You Need a Theme in Fiction

Theme is perhaps one of the most neglected areas of any writing instruction. This may be because it’s highly personal–or because some writers instinctively know how to weave in theme, while others don’t. I had to learn about theme, and its importance to make a story resonate.

I learned about them when I learned about story structure. It’s a vital element. Theme is a writer’s touchstone. It not only makes a story resonate, it tells you want needs to be in a story, and what should be left out.

Using theme in all major turning points makes a story structure work. It creates the main character’s arc.  Think of the movie Casablanca where Rick has the papers of transit–and keeps getting hit with choices about who is he going to give these to–and he starts off all hard-nosed and making choices about selling them, not giving them to anyone who is desperate….but at the end he gives them to Ilsa and her husband so they can escape–those papers are used to SHOW Rick’s changing through the choices he makes and becoming the hero we really want him to be. That’s theme at work.

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on theme for Hearts Through History this October.

We’ll cover:

  • What is theme—a clear definition.
  • Why does a story need a theme?
  • What is too specific, and what is too vague?
  • How to find your theme.
  • Distilling your theme to one sentence.
  • Relating theme to characters.
  • Developing goals and motivations around your theme.
  • Weaving theme into turning points in your story structure.

A great theme can be explored over a lifetime of work—but if you’ve never thought about what theme can do for your stories, or if you struggle with keeping a story on track, this workshop can give you some new writing tools.

Dialogue–What Your Character Doesn’t Say

V for Vendetta QuoteI’m teaching my workshop on dialogue this September, and so it’s a good time to bring up some tips on dialogue. A story can live or die just on dialogue. Bad dialogue will make a character flat and uninteresting, and may even send the reader running from the story–no amount of great action or terrific plot twists will save a story with weak dialogue. But great dialogue can make a reader forget to look for plot holes or poor pacing. That’s because great dialogue is where you characters can shine.

Now, learning to write great dialogue is no easy task. It takes time to figure out how to make fictional dialogue sound better than how folks talk in real life but still sound possible. All of this starts with your characters.

The workshop will go into detail on dialogue–and exercises to improve dialogue skills–but here are a few tips.

1-Get to know your characters. I don’t mean charts or lists, and I mean beyond a few scenes. How does that character lie? What are the verbal habits? Is this person a talker or not? Spend some time away from the story just getting your character talking.

2. Become a habitual eavesdropper. Listen to how real people talk–and jot down notes. Notice how real conversations usually make for terrible dialogue–there are pauses, jumps, repeated phrases and words. It is still useful to pay attention to all this stuff because this is what fiction mimics. Notice how rarely people stick to one topic. Notice slang, and how words are used as leverage. Notice how one person will speak differently to the different people in that person’s life.

3-Close your eyes in the next movie and just listen to the words. Pay attention to how dialogue–and the pauses–are used to reveal character. Listen for the emotional words. Use just your ears to get a sense of rhythm, and so you won’t be distracted by flashy visuals or the actor.

4-Take apart your favorite writers’ works. Yes, this means getting out some markers and marking up the book–ebooks readers also let you mark up books. Pause over the really great dialogue moments and look at how the words are used. Look at word choice, at sentence structure, at paragraphs and how they link.

5-Write a lot of dialogue. Write pages of the stuff. Write just dialogue–fit in any description later. Nothing helps you learn faster than writing–a lot.

6-Get the technical stuff out of the way. Dialogue can clunk with periods in the wrong places, or commas that are missing, or with quote marks that don’t make sense. All of this can trip up the reader. Buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and nail the punctuation so it becomes invisible.

7-Look to give your characters great lines. Think about your favorite actor playing that role–wouldn’t you want him or her to come up to you and gush about having wonderful lines. Let your characters be more witty and better than anything in real life.

8-See how long you can have a character talk and not mention the real topic. This is the art of subtext. Make what the character doesn’t say important. Make the reader want to know what the character isn’t putting into dialogue.

9-Punch and polish, and then polish some more. Great dialogue often comes with revision, rewrites, edits, and then even more edits. Polish those words. Say them aloud to see how they sound. Fall in love with those words and make them wonderful.

10-Keep learning. Some links to help you with that:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/crafttechnique/tp/dialogue.htm

http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Dialogue&Detail.htm

Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue

Got Subtext? Writing Better Dialogue

Dialogue: Don’t Let’Em Say What You Mean by Shannon Donnelly

 

OCC Book Buyer’s Best Finalist – Davinia’s Duke

Davinia's DukeI am so behind things–that’s what happens when you spent the summer teaching an EMT-Basic class (you end up reviewing lectures and tests, as if you were taking the class yourself). But that’s done–everyone passed (yeah!). And now I can catch up on new.

Some of the best news is that Davinia’s Duke is a finalist in the OCC RWA chapter’s Book Buyer’s Best contest for novellas. This is delightful not just because OCC was once my home chapter back when I lived in California, but because it’s a contest judged buy booksellers and readers.

So thank you, OCC, and thank you readers and book buyers!

The novella took longer to write than it ought to have–life interfered, and then the story stalled out, and shorter is always harder than longer. It’s also a quiet story–mostly just people on the page talking, which is one of my favorite kinds of stories, but not everyone thinks that in a world where if there’s not an explosion or a big fight scene it’s just not exciting. It is nice to know there are other readers looking for something a little quieter.

Point of View — The Value of Variety

InkyI finished Dean Koontz’s book Devoted not that long ago (wonderful book by the way–I highly recommend it), and it got me thinking about how omniscient point of view is sometimes a neglected art. The POV, by the way, is expertly handled by Koontz who uses the point of view–changing/shifting and swapping–as only a master can. (How lovely to have the dog’s POV–actually, several dog’s POV–as a main element in the story. The story wouldn’t have worked without that.) And that left me wondering if it really is a matter that omniscient POV can be tough to pull off gracefully.

Now…first person is easier in some respects. One person, one point of view, and that’s that. However, I’ve read really weak first person that gets stuck in too much I…I…I. The best Urban Fantasy pulls off great first person ( Rebecca Roanhorse springs to mind–fabulous books and great writing that pulls you in).

Then there’s third person, most commonly used for romance, since it lets you swap between characters but you can still do deep POV. This is my preferred way to write viewpoint. However, I’ve often dipped into first person for a scene and then switched it over to third person to get that deeper point of view. I find this lets me dig more into my characters’ emotions, which is important with any romance (or almost any novel).

But I’ve heard from young writers that they’ve been bashed when using omniscient, and accused of “head hopping” which is not really a valid critique if you’re using omniscient, which can be a powerful tool.

I think part of this is a stylistic choice. Urban Fantasy–first person. Thrillers or suspense–omniscient. Mystery–pretty much first person, but some will go for third person. And romance–third person, except for those break-out books that dare first person, but rare to find omniscient unless you step back in time. I’ve been enjoying the reissues of Elizabeth Cadell’s books which are a delight, and were written decades ago when a novel was a novel and she’s not shy about mixing up point of view, as well as putting in romance, suspense, mystery, a murder in some, and even paranormal if the story goes that way. A true story teller with a gift.

All of this boils down to what does the story need? What’s the writer’s preference? And how is the story best told. Thankfully, with self-publishing the world seem to be getting back to a good story well told, and “the rules” can be bent to suit the tale. It’s about the writer using their skills to the best purpose. Which is how it should be.

Is a Synopsis Too Old School?

I’m teaching my synopsis workshop at CRW this month (June) and wondering if I’ll actually ever teach it again. Once upon a time, a synopsis was mandatory–you needed one to pitch editors and agents, and you needed one for just about any writing contest. Now the world is more about self publishing, and I’m there, too. But I still actually end up doing a synopsis.

Maybe it’s habit, maybe training, but I find a synopsis actually has a lot of use.

First off, it helps me when I get stuck or lost, which happens every book. I need to have something to remind me that ‘oh, yeah, that’s what I was thinking.’

I generally do the synopsis by hand, not computer. You just think differently with a pen and paper, and ideas can be a little more loose, and I can let my mind wander a bit. I don’t have to worry just yet about putting things together.

Then I need to to clarify my thoughts in general. Until it’s on a page, ideas are like vague mist–they dissolve way too easily. If I write it down, the ideas become solid, and the flaw also show up so I can fix them.

Which brings up the next thing–it is far easier to fix plot holes, and lack of character development, and an unclear theme, and weak motivations, and all the other structural issues in a synopsis. If I fix it there, I avoid massive rewrites. I may have to tweak the structure once I get writing, and it may drift a little, but I know the character arcs are solid, and so is the pacing.Davinia's Duke

I did this with Davina’s Duke, my most recent novella (which was awarded the Indie BRAG Gold Medallion for independently published books. I got stuck, remembered, oh, yeah, I don’t have a synopsis, and went back to figure out what the heck I was doing. Maybe some folks can keep that all in their heads…I certainly can’t. Once I knew where I was going again, I was able to pull the novella back on track and get it done.

And these days, if you are self publishing, you need marketing copy. Yes, you can hire this out, but that is one more expense. I’d rather develop, edit, revise and polish my own copy to make sure it is just what I want and need.

So maybe a synopsis is old school, but so am I. So I think I’ll keep doing them. Which reminds me, I’ve got to get one done for the novella I just started….

It’s About Craft – Showing More, Telling Better

I’m teaching my Show & Tell Workshop for OCC Romance Writers this March. It’s a workshop with a lot of hands-on, because I believe that learning to show more and tell better is a vital part of any writer’s craft.

Now, I know the advice is usually “show, don’t tell”. However, narrative has it’s place in fiction. Writers need to know when to show more, and how to make the telling (or narrative) compelling. Some tips for writers;

1 – Show more by eliminating dialogue tags that tell everything. This means no more tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show how a character expresses emotion–readers want to see the characters in action.

Replace every telling dialogue tag with an action that better shows the character expressing an emotion. To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character pout? Does she stick out her lower lip, or bat her eyelashes? Does she fold her arm, or twirl a curl around her finger? How does your character leer? Does he overdo it, making it into a joke, or does his stare strip a woman bare? Show the emotion with actions.

2 – Show more, also, by eliminating places that simply tell the reader information. This is where you the author slip in to add a note.

For example, maybe you want to say something about a man’s grin, that it’s infectious, so you write: His grin widened and Sally found it infectious, so she smiled back.

This is you, the writer, are telling the reader the exact information instead of showing and letting the reader figure things out. Again, you have to know your characters—and this is where you show the grin being infectious, as in: His grin widened. Sally’s lips twitched, lifted; laughter rose like a bubble in her chest. Now you are showing Sally smiling back instead of telling the reader.

3 – Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blond, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of showing the enmity between these women. This is where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for information that shows these two women being bitchy with each other.

4 – Do remember to show; get the emotion onto the page. A lot of novice writers forget about this vital part of the story. This is where you’ve got action, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about all that action.

For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops should show emotion?

Again, you have to know your characters—and you have to give your readers a chance to get to know your characters, too, by putting in those emotions. Once you’ve finished the book (or any scene) go back and look to see if you wove in all those emotional reactions—or did you get just the action?

5 – If you show, don’t tell. Repetition shows insecurity—it means you are the master of your story. Trust the reader to get the information you’ve shown. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. Trust your readers to get what the actions mean.

6 – Cut the clichés. We’re back to needing to know your characters—and needing to know them as unique individuals who do not have cliché actions and reactions. You want to show who your characters are by having them reveal their personalities with their actions and reaction—if you go for cliché actions, the characters become walking clichés, too.

This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again.

7 – Show your character in action right away. This is vital. If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super right off. This is why a crazy cop has to do something crazy right off so that everyone “gets” this is one crazy dude.

Start off by showing your character’s strengths and weaknesses right away—get those onto the page. It’s no good saying your hero is a healer—you have to have the guy heal someone. And it’s no good saying the healing costs him some of his own life each time—you have to show him aging or losing strength each time he heals.

8 – Use narrative to slow the pace. Telling will slow the pace of any story, so it can be used to help you transition the reader into a new scene, or to convey passage of time, or it can be used to set a mood.

9 – Revise, revise, revise. Remember that if anything that is first draft (and sometimes even second) may be rough, and will lean on your own habits. Do you habitually overwrite–that means you need to cut. Or do you habitually underwrite–that means you need to flesh out your scenes.

10 – To quote Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug in a jar.” This goes back to editing your work, and in particular your narrative passages. Is every word the right word? The right mood? The right meaning? And, yes, even the right spelling. Read your work aloud to catch errors, places where a reader will trip up, and just awkward spots.

More tips and tricks in the workshop, but these ten will help bump up your writing.

Wounds & Warriors Workshop

Early AmbulanceThe idea for a Wounds & Warriors workshop for writers after I became an EMT in New Mexico–because too often our characters get hurt and either recover ridiculously fast or have injuries that are just not plausible. What I realized was that most of us get our ideas from movies and TV–and boy do they get it wrong. Which means if a writer wants more accuracy it helps to know what are the common misconceptions and how do you go about better research.

In the Wounds & Warriors workshop I’m teaching in February for the Hearts Through History writers, we’re going to go over a lot of different information—and you’ll have a chance to ask about specific situations, including how your protagonist might care for himself or herself after something bad happens. But it’s good to know a few basics:

  • A person can bleed out quickly. The average person has about five liters of blood—loosing even one liter (one large soda bottle) of blood is bad. Confusion and weakness sets in. That person the bleeding to stop and fluids to be put back in.
  • Head traumas are dangerous—some of the most dangerous ones are those where the person feels fine but was unconscious. This can mean there is an internal bleed and that could kill within forty-eight hours.
  • Almost everything causes nausea—hit on the head, you wake up throwing up or wanting to throw up. Getting shot—your body tries to dump the stomach so it can focus on other things. This is never pretty and so gets skipped over in most fiction.
  • One issue can hide another—and people aren’t always honest about what is the real problem. As Dr. House said, “Everyone lies.” And not always intentionally. Sometimes folks just forget, and this is particularly true when stressed.
  • Children are not small adults—their bodies can’t compensate as well, so when they use up their physical resources, they’re going to crash fast. A sick kid is often a critical kid.
  • Extreme heat and extreme cold are deadly elements—and any injury makes them even more so. If you want to add more tension to a scene, use the weather.
  • CPR can and does save lives. Even more importantly it can mean the difference between someone coming back fully functional or with permanent damage. But a lot of folks are afraid to dive in and help—it take training to make sure you just do what you’ve trained to do.

Ultimately, you want to know what’s plausible for your situation—even if you’re writing about vampires and werewolves, know the rules so you can know how you can break them. Research your injuries before you write them and never assume. You’ll be able to get away from the cliché of that flesh wound in the shoulder that the protagonist survives or the knife fight that somehow ends up with no one disfigured or with permanent damage.

The other thing to keep in mind is for your own safety. What should YOU know (just in case)?

1-Document your medications and history (and get your loved ones to do this). Paper, phone, whatever—just have it written down (VialofLife.com)

2-Keep your document/medications handy! It is so hard in an emergency to make sure these are not forgotten.

3-Do an DNR if you do NOT want CPR or extreme life-saving measures.

4 –Wear a medical ID bracelet and/or necklace for those REALLY important things (as in allergic to penicillin).+

5-Put “ICE” in your phone—“In Case of Emergency” contact, just in case you are in an accident and cannot talk.

6-Educate yourself! Take a CPR class! Know how to stop a bleed. Keep children’s aspirin around if you’re not allergic. (1 in 20 deaths from stroke, heart attacks are the no 1 cause of death in the US, what do you do for allergic shock?) The life you save may be your own.

7-If you—or a loved one—is allergic to something (anything), keep an EPI pen on hand.

8-Keep a “survival/emergency” kit around and fresh! (www.ready.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/checklist_1.pdf and http://www.redcrossstore.org/item/321406)

9-Remember your pets! They have emergencies, too, and in a disaster they’ll need water and food, and possibly first aid.

‘The Past is Prologue’

BoomI usually blog only about writing, but the RWA debacle deserves comment—and it has applications to writing. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in RWA, there are a dozen or more sources out there, including:

RWA IMPLOSION

HAS RWA LOST ITS WAY

And others, including…

https://nypost.com/2019/12/26/romance-writer-courtney-milan-suspended-over-racist-mess-claims/

https://www.houstonchronicle.com/entertainment/books/article/Houston-based-Romance-Writers-of-America-sees-14935112.php

Other writers have also commented upon events—some to say they are leaving RWA, some to pull out o the RITA awards, some to return their RITA awards, and some to bring up past problems of discrimination, some to say they are simply sick of the whole mess, and some who think this is Twitter-bullying.

Basically, the whole thing started when one writer criticized another’s book. Now, that’s nothing new. It goes on all the time, and certainly readers in general are apt to say if they think a book is good or bad, or racist, or whatever else they think of it. Here’s the thing—this was an opinion expressed about a book. A book depicting Chinese and half-Chinese characters in stereotypical ways, which is a racist thing to do. So, calling the writing racist is a valid opinion, particularly when the person expressing that opinion is half-Chinese.

Instead of the author of that book either sucking it up, (let’s face it, all authors get reviews and criticism) or saying “yeah, I did that, I’ll do better,” or pushing back straight to the person who said this is racist with her own reasons behind what she wrote, the author filed a complaint with RWA, and RWA acted on that complaint. Which brings up the next problem—in acting, RWA violated it’s own policies and procedures (there is nothing in the bylaws about slapping down a member for posting on social media or for expressing an opinion about a book—the writing, mind you, not the author, was called racist).

And that brings us to the next problem, and why this is not just a tempest in a teapot. RWA presents itself as an organization of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” which is the exact quote off the RWA website. This statement is undermined by the actions RWA undertook. The response from RWA of a ban for social media comments on a book has the appearance—if not the actual intent—of trying to silence an author who called out racial insensitivity. Meaning it is the exact opposite of supporting diversity.

On the other side are those now fearing that their writing might be also put to the test of are they, too, portray stereotypes. And how is that a bad thing? Getting called out for writing racial stereotypes is going to make anyone a better writer—if that writer is open to critiques. This applies to getting called out for having characters that come across as one-dimensional, for having poor dialogue, and for setting up situations and scenes in a story that smack of discrimination.

All of this to mean means that it is a very, very good thing to have a little fear when facing the blank page. You may have to think more, dig deeper into creating real characters, and you may even have to pull in readers of greater diversity to make sure you’re getting it right and keep from falling into the pit of wrong assumptions.

It is also far too easy to go for the stereotype and think we’ve got an archetype instead. Or to think we’ve avoided anything because we’ve not gone to the extreme of blackface—racial and slights for others different than us can be so minor we don’t even realize we’ve had so much exposure to them that we now believe that is a truth.

It’s also too easy to skip lightly over the research and think you’re okay with what you know. Write what you know applies not just to your personal experience, but also to where you’ve gone looking to find out what it is you don’t know. That is the bigger problem—very often, we don’t know that we don’t know something. We’ve not been made sensitive. Which means getting slapped down can be a great wake-up call.

I love the stories of others pulling in more experience into their writing by pulling in readers who better know that world and that experience. Even more, I love it when writers dig deep into their own lives to bring the truth of what they know to the world. I love it when writers do not go for the common assumption but look for the deeper truth.

I’m also of the opinion that writers need to be a little uncomfortable in general. It’s a good spur to make us want to write about either a better world, or to make us want to write to know what it is we really believe. And if we’re in this for more than a paycheck, our art should make others a little uncomfortable.

Which brings us back to RWA and its problems—it is now a very uncomfortable place for many. Personally, I think this is a good thing. Comfort can breed complacency—as in just let us go on doing what we’ve always done, as in it’s good enough. Well, it’s not good enough, and this is an opportunity to do better. This is a chance to stop smoothing things over. RWA had controversy over the RITAs and the stench of discrimination in the judging and seemed to be making strides to correct that. But this blows the lid off the appearance of doing better and shows there is even more that must be done.

That decision won’t be one I’m making—at least not on my own. But I am hoping the RWA membership demands better. I am an RWA member—have been for many a year—and I am hanging on in the hope of better, so that I can be there to vote for better, and to demand better. (Yes, I signed the recall petition, too.) RWA has put forward brave words. Now it is time to live up to them.

This event has created a split in RWA—but it has also pulled out into the open much that has been wrong in RWA, and to say otherwise is to be aligned with that wrong. This is not about personalities. It is not about Courtney Milan’s personality—it’s not about whether you like her or loath her. It is not about the other personalities involved, and taking sides because you happen to like someone. This is about RWA living up to the principals it has said it upholds, including that the organization is one of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is about RWA saying policy and procedure was not followed, here’s why, and here’s how it is being fixed. And it is about removing those from leadership who are tainted by the actions undertaken that damaged RWA.

There now must be actions to support that diversity, equity, and inclusion. Words are a great place to start, but as every writer knows, it is in action that character is revealed. So what actions are next?

For me, one of the actions is joining the Cultural, Interracial, Multicultural Special Interest Chapter of Romance Writers of America—CIMRWA.org. This chapter has been leading the petition to have president-elect Damon Suede recalled from office. He put himself in the middle of this mess. For RWA to even begin making a start to clean things up, they’re going to have to start following procedures for this recall. CIMRWA is also following up with a letter to RWA to confirm the petition has been received and is being handled according to RWA procedures.

The other action I’ll be taking is to stay abreast of developments. Things may happen slowly or fast—but one thing must be made clear. This is not going to be forgotten. This is not a minor problem. This is about RWA’s future and if RWA does indeed live up to its brave words.

But can RWA recover from this series of blunders? The organization has lost members, and relationships with other organization. It’s recived more than a little bad press with just about every major new organization covering this story. As RWA has noted, trust has been damaged. Can RWA rebuild and rework it’s future? Is the past but a prologue to even more issues? I would like to think that the more apt quote is, ‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’