What were you thinking?

The precise rules for dealing with thoughts are not recorded in standard grammar and usage books. There are opinions on how to do this based on current trends, which may become dated in a few years. One of these is to use italics without quotes to distinguish internal thoughts. If the writing is from the third person point of view, there should be no need to use “he thought” or “she thought.”  For example: 

Frowning, his mother motioned for him to come. So, Garth trotted up the tenement stairs. She just wants me to stop talking to those guys because they’re not “our people.”

In this case, there is no need to insert “he thought” before the italicized words as this phrase is obviously going through Garth’s mind. The quotes are not spoken but used to emphasize words his mother would have said.  But, I could have easily written “So, Garth trotted up the tenement stairs thinking…” It would not have made any difference. It is something that I normally do not do. But, I’ve had beta readers ask, “Who is saying this?” when I didn’t.

There are different ways to deal with protagonist’s thoughts written in first person. One is to not differentiate thoughts from the rest of the text. This view is defended by the view that the entire story comes from the thoughts of the narrator. The difficulty is that not all conversations are vocalized. What if a voice speaks inaudibly to the main character? The text should indicate the distinctiveness of this kind of thought. Usually, italics without quotes are used for the actual words.

I slipped into the worn red rock crevice to check out the size of the cave. Do not go any farther. I twisted around with an involuntary shiver at the words.

What if a protagonist thinks in words but does not actually utter them during a conversation? This thought may be in the present tense while the story is related in the past tense. Again, I use italics to distinguish this thought. 

“Hello Patricia!” I called from the open door, but she turned her head and said nothing. Okay, don’t talk to me if you don’t want to.

What if the protagonist recalls words that other people said while he is thinking? The memorable phrase was spoken aloud in the past. But, at this point in the story, the point-of-view character is remembering them. I use italics and quotes to separate these words, just as I used for the words that Garth would remember in the first example.  

In places other than the United States, single quotes may be used for thoughts. Within the U.S., they are used for emphasis within a spoken conversation, or when a character quotes someone else when speaking. Some authors use italics for emphasis when speaking when they should be reserved for use of foreign words in conversation. However, there is no requirement to put foreign words in italics. This way of distinguishing foreign words does not work well if you use a lot of them. Your major concern is to be consistent in the way you use italics and quotes. 

Finally, do not be afraid to let the readers know whose head they are in. The reader should not have to struggle to tell who is thinking and who is speaking aloud.

Posted in Literature, Style and voice, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Leave a comment

Language fashion trends

Speaking a language is a skill that we continue to do all our lives. If a child hears the language spoken properly, they will learn to speak it correctly without thinking about it. At least they will be speaking it correctly according to those that decide what is proper speech. 

How we speak has been determined by history, especially the history of empires. When the Anglo-Saxons came to the British Isles their brand of English was considered the right language and the Celtic language of the Britons was considered the language of the less educated. When the Norman Conquest occurred, old French became the correct way to speak and write, while the Anglo-Saxon version of English, which had changed quite a bit since they arrived, became a  lower class language. However, when the Norman nobility fell out of favor people stopped speaking old French even though a lot of this vocabulary remained in the English language, and we even use it today.

One of the artifacts of these changes is the number of irregular conjugations in English. For example, the past tense of verbs are formed in numerous different ways without much logic. “I see” becomes “I saw” and “I sing” becomes “I sang.” Some people have failed to learn standard verb tenses because they heard English spoken incorrectly and therefore, they say, “I seen” and “I been.” You notice those last two verbs should rhyme but don’t. French people who learn English struggle with our inconsistent pronunciations. Theirs are much more consistent based on how words are spelled. But, the French did not get a huge influx of English vocabulary into their language, at least until recently.

How we learn to speak cannot be separated from the way that we write. Authors often compose their sentences similar to the manner that people speak. But, language is always changing. People now may think that ordinary ways of speaking from as little as fifty years ago is pretentious. The difference is even greater for language used more than a century ago. Each author needs to develop their own style, while still using enough current language for their writing to be intelligible to readers. 

When I write dialog, my characters do not speak the same. Some don’t use proper English and say “I seen.”  One character frequently used filler language such as “actually” or “on the other hand” to create emphasis. An editor marked these out as unnecessary phrases, but I protested. If all people in fiction spoke the same way as prescribed by some famous writer, dialog would be boring.

Unfortunately, we pay too much attention to the advice of a few best-selling authors. I find some current writers using phrases that are not sentences, or including slang understood only by a small percentage of the population. Someone from one hundred years ago would consider that poor writing. So, we should not judge the writing style of past authors so harshly. Like the switch in Britain centuries ago from Anglo-Saxon to Old French which was reversed later, the preferred style of writing may swing back to what it used to be.

Posted in Literature, Style and voice, Trends in books, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

The need for criticism

W. Somerset Maugham said, “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.” These were the words of his character, an artist in the novel Of Human Bondage, so it may not be Maugham’s real view. Or, was it? Honestly, we don’t know, but enough other authors have repeated a similar idea to make me wonder about it.

As a teenager and young adult studying art and creative writing, I grew up with the idea that a critique was useful to provide other’s opinions about my work so that I could improve it. I found some of the comments made during class critique sessions pretty useless. But, feedback was necessary, so I listened to both that which was helpful and that which should be ignored. I noted some people did not make any response to negative criticism because they believed that was not allowed.

When reviewing others’ writing, if I point out what works first, and then what doesn’t work and why, this should increase the number of people that will receive criticism without defensiveness, but it does not do it by much. Over time I have concluded that many people make decisions based on feelings. Using logic to deliver the good and bad news doesn’t make it any easier for them to receive, and I have yet to figure out an emotional way to provide feedback.

For me it was hard to understand why a certain percentage of people tended to reject all criticism until I realized that this was a developed attitude. These people had put in their time and had survived the onslaught of those above them. In their hierarchical view they had risen to above criticism. Anything other than praise was no longer acceptable (unless it was offered by someone far more famous than they were). However, I moved around frequently and was not always aware when I encountered a person who had risen to that status.

The cost of this is unavoidable payback. But that kind of criticism is not all bad. For creative people it results in a desire to be even better. While interviewing college art and education majors about factors leading to creativity for my own research, both groups placed willingness to take risks high on their lists. The art majors said being around creative people was the most important factor. The education majors gave high self-esteem first place, but this did not match the results of students in creative fields. Self-esteem wasn’t even mentioned by the art majors. They preferred honest critiques of their work. Evidently, building self-esteem does not build creative thinking. Those people who have reached the point of only receiving praise may no longer be interested in improving.

Posted in Creativity, Literature, Self-awareness, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

How well do you know your characters?

Why is it difficult to write complex and interesting characters? Because I must resist the temptation to simply tell about them. I cannot get upset by readers who expect to jump into immediate action and learn all about the character by the end of the first chapter. Only flat simplistic stock characters can be described that quickly. Some readers are intrigued by well-drawn individuals full of their own specific quirks, while others simply cannot get into anyone that well-developed and prefer the unrealistic action hero.

I described one of my protagonists as chubby with a pyramid-shaped nose, fat eyelids and frizzy hair. I also indicated that she did not consider herself attractive. Some readers assumed she just didn’t know how to fix herself up and was really very appealing. They thought she had to be—she was the main character. But, my main character was not self-deluding. Other people in the story did not consider her to be good-looking either. So, I realize that some readers see what they want to see, no matter how I paint characters’ portraits. That is beyond my control.

This brings up an important question. How much should I describe the exterior appearance and traits of the people in my stories? The sister of the chubby and ill-favored protagonist is seen as beautiful by other characters. I actually say little about her appearance other than she is slender with long dark hair in loose curls. If I explained what the younger sister looked like in detail, some readers might not agree with my assumption of attractiveness. So, it is more important to indicate how the other characters react to the person’s appearance than it is to describe the details. This helps readers get past preconceived notions about how certain kinds of body shapes, skin tone, hair or eye color, or even facial features look in their mind.

My insight into my own fiction characters? I know them well, their thoughts and traits. My major characters are based on real people, so I have a good idea of what makes them tick. I have insight into their passions and their fears and I even create their family tree. Although, that is not included in the story. But, they don’t decide their own destinies and commandeer the story. Instead a voice in my head warns me that my character is not really behaving as a person like that should. At that point, I start rewriting the story.

My main problem is remembering exactly how I spelled the character’s name each time. Was it Mackenzie or McKenzey or MacKenzy? So, I know my characters; just not their names.

Posted in Characters, Literature, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Leave a comment

Mature content

As a grade school child, I read a book called Black Beauty. It was actually written for adults. In the first chapter the son and only heir to the family dies of a broken neck in the foolish sport of fox hunting. After this tragedy, the parents decide to sell their estate, and this begins Black Beauty’s downward plunge into the increasingly abusive world of the working horse.

If this were to be depicted as “mature content” the writer would have described every gory detail of this young man’s deadly fall, shown the psychotic cries of his parents, described memories of everything they had done wrong concerning him in the past, including dealing with his or their own sexual indiscretions. All of this would obscure the foolish waste of life caused by his hobby of fox hunting.

Those kinds of explicit descriptions are not there to inform adults but rather to entertain them by immersing them into a dark world that drags emotion out of us. When this kind of story is written for YA, the author deletes some of the explicit description and adds magic, so the son can be brought back to life. No tragedy would be so dark that it could not be completely reversed. The glut of fantasy works for YA today may prevent them from seeing the actual world through books that describe real tragedies.

We often think of mature content as too disturbing to present to teenagers or someone younger. We may deal with it as a badge of honor showing our toughness that we can read these texts. But, many people are affected in a way that they do not realize as they become jaded or hardened to such content. I heard one person bemoan that even slasher horror films no longer terrified her. I do not know if this was a brag or actual plea to find novels and movies that would  affect her deeply. 

Mature content should preserve the impact of the event without resorting to being written in a titillating manner. One way to increase the emotional impact is to create characters that matter to the reader. Larger than life characters, such as the chosen one who will succeed no matter what or the broken alcoholic who is still very competent at his job despite his struggle with booze lose their realism. They also fail to gain the reader’s concern.

People will still read to escape sometimes, but a constant diet of violent and explicit escapism may also lead to a dose of unnecessary detachment. We leave behind a part of ourselves when being “scared to death” doesn’t seem frightening anymore. Then, I return to the book I loved as a child. I realize that Black Beauty’s downward spiral did halt with a satisfying (if not unquestionably happy) ending. I see this book as an inspiration on how to deal with mature content.

Posted in Characters, Trends in books, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Plotting against yourself

The plot may not be the most important part of the story. A plot cannot exist without characters. There are novels that meander so that the reader has a hard time unearthing the conflict. But, if this novel has interesting characters, some parts of it are still enjoyable. The same thing is true for rich descriptive passages. Poems may not have a plot, and yet I enjoy them for the imagery, especially the juxtaposition of normally conflicting ideas.

However, plots are still important. What are some plot  problems that make me cringe the most?

1) Repeating clichés

The first page is an exciting introduction and I continue to read until I realize that I’ve seen this all before, multiple times. To be true, there is nothing new under the sun. The plot that I am using has been used before. However, if it has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning, the reader will start yawning. They have read it so often that it has no effect on them.

2) Using plot armor

The protagonist is in really deep trouble. How is he going to get out of this fix? By magic… and the story is not even a fantasy. He will survive impossible odds simply because he has to. He is the hero. I need to carefully consider the logic of each action that my main character takes. If I cannot figure out a believable way to get him out of a particular problem, I should not put him into it.

3) Telling the story without creating scenes

Whether I plot the entire story beforehand or do this as I write, I need to consider constructing scenes in which the actions occur. Each scene should take place in a specific location and within a limited time. Each one has a distinct beginning and end. Otherwise, the story will keep rolling on without breaks. I can intersperse expositions between the scenes and often do this at the beginning of a chapter. But, I better be saying something important to the plot when I do this.

4) Characters who flip back and forth

This may sound like character development because people in your story should change. However, there must be reasons for a character to turn from one side to the other beyond adding interest to a dragging plot. I should be aware of the temptation to change a major character from the right side to the wrong side to pick up the pace. One change of heart is good, if that is the major point of the story. It requires immensely more skill as a writer to get by with doing this multiple times with the same character.

5) Too much or too little action

There is a wide range of actions that work. The more poetic your words are, the less action you need. However, there must be a conflict and the main characters need to struggle to overcome this problem; even if it kills them (as in a tragedy). On the other hand, if I repeatedly use similar events (such as surprise attacks) in which the protagonist wins by the same strategies this gets very repetitive. I need to plan arcs in the action, so that the novel goes through a few cycles of rising and falling action.

A good plot makes a hefty contribution towards crafting a novel worth reading. If I am not aware of my shortcomings with plot development, I may end up with a novel not worth the reader’s time.

Posted in Story structure, Writer's resource, Writing trends | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How do you say that?

The debate on how to write dialog well is often an unnecessary one. Our opinion of what makes good dialog depends on how we and the people around us speak. My stories tend to have a large amount of conversations. I could say that I write what I hear when people talk. But, that’s not true. I must condense their words into a much shorter form without the meandering and repetition that exists in normal speech. Also, my dialog is not as polite as usual conversations because it is often the first clue of the existing conflict.

I attempt to imbue characters with their own particular eccentricities when they speak. The cocky young man does not sound the same as the timid one; nor does the intelligent high school girl use the same speech pattern as the flirtatious one. A reader might comment that one person sounds normal and another does not. Perhaps this is more of a reflection of the reader’s personality, than the realism of the dialog. People often cluster in groups that speak the same way. Fictional characters should not.

When I write dialog, I start with a format that looks much like a play script. The words in the conversation follow the characters’ names. Afterwards, I will add the dialog tags and, if necessary, the character’s expressions and movements. Too much description of these during a conversation breaks into the flow of words, and so does using a lot of deep point of view to express interior thoughts. 

The words characters speak may not reflect exactly what they are thinking. For example, parts of my stories concern romance, but the dialogue itself is not romantic. The couple will begin to speak to each in an unguarded manner, sometimes bragging, sometimes critical, but still paying attention to what the other person says. Listening to details of the other person’s life shows more care or concern than any pledge of enduring love. Persuasive sweet talking or syrupy language is what a con man uses, and characters seem manipulative if they do that.

This snippet of dialog introduces how one couple meet each other. 

“There is no ticket for your car, Ms. Montelongo.” The young mechanic grinned at me.

“Where’s Uncle Marco?” my friend asked. “He called her and said it was ready.”

“Picking up a water pump.” He paused and smiled even wider. “Montelongo…. that is not a common name. Are you related to Stefani?” he asked.

“Unfortunately,” I replied. “So, why is my car not ready?”

“The water pump is for your car. It went out during the test drive to make sure your gas feed problem was fixed. Sorry!” he apologized. “So, your sister is a cheerleader. Are you going to the game tonight?”

Now, I had to deal with a young mechanic with a crush on my sister, who didn’t seem to care whether or not I had a car to drive.

Note, that I summarized the conversation in the last sentence showing internal thought. Obviously this pair has a long way to go before they get together. However, readers will not always pick up subtleties in conversation. There is no guarantee that they will talk the same way as you or your characters do.

Posted in Literature, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Extended time generator

Time for reading and writing both come from the same pool of time. During one phase of my career I created training for an application called the Extended Time Generator. This allowed manufacturing supervisors to move chargeable time to different phases of a project. It did not really extend the total time in which all the tasks could be done but shifted it.

As much as we would all love a device to increase our time, it doesn’t exist. With this in mind, it quickly becomes apparent that I can read too much, and not have enough time to write. This often happens when I am doing research. I discover another intriguing aspect to chase after and emerge from that rabbit hole hours later without accomplishing much.

I don’t read to entertain myself or to become more educated but to quench my curiosity. Therefore, I don’t attempt to keep track of books I’ve read or movies that I’ve watched because I tend to remember them. Perhaps it is because I am picky with my reading time and put thought into choosing books. I will read more than the first page, usually up to five chapters. However, books that I start, I can close and never finish if they lack quality for me to continue. I do not keep reading just to find out what happens.

Inspiration from reading novels written by good authors provides me with much more insight than following a book with rules about writing. So, I do take notes on fiction books occasionally. There is no other way to read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Solzhenitsyn if I don’t keep track of the characters. (However, I never found this necessary when reading Lord of the Rings.) If the plot becomes too complex, but I still find it intriguing, I create notes. I used to jot down ideas that occurred to me in a notebook, but illegible handwriting means sometimes even I can’t even read it. Now, dictating notes onto my phone has replaced this habit. Even when I read a poorly constructed story or piece of convoluted nonfiction it is not a complete waste of time. This clues me into what I should avoid when writing.

But, no matter how efficient I become when reading, it still subtracts time from writing. What I attempt to do is prevent it from subtracting as much energy from writing. I reserve the times of the day in which I’m most creative, which are mid-mornings and evenings. I spend increasingly more time writing than reading as a novel or another writing project continues. In fact, I’ll just dispense with the time spent reading completely near the end of one, unless I feel my creative well is drying up. In that situation, there is the other factor beside reading to inspire my writing, and that is actually living life.

Posted in Writer's resource | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Try a little name dropping

Imagine you are discussing a current government situation with a friend. You mention an insight you learned about behind-the-scenes working of government while in our capitol. Perhaps you briefly mention that when George Bush explained this the first time, you didn’t quite catch it, but now you understand. 

You’ve implied that you talked personally with the former president. However, you could have simply heard his explanation while sitting in a hotel room in Washington D.C. listening to the evening news. What you are doing is leaving a hint about a famous person that you hope will be understood in a manner to make you seem more important—name dropping.

Allusions are also a type of name dropping. They make your writing—the setting, the situation, and the characters—seem more important because of their relation to famous ones. However, a weakness in current writing exists because the allusions often refer to a person (real or fictional) of temporary fame, a person who will be forgotten next year. Because of the visual nature of  the internet fictional characters are compared to others based on appearance. However, if allusions are going to help your reader connect to the character, they should have staying power and reveal motives.

Shakespeare was a master of using allusions as short-cuts in developing characters. For example, in Hamlet, Shakespeare makes allusions to Greek mythology, Roman literature and the Bible. Hamlet despises his uncle who has stolen the throne by marrying his mother within a month of his father’s suspicious death. (The whole plot to Lion King is a retelling of this play, without the tragic ending.) 

Hamlet decides to keep mum and not to tell everyone that he suspects his uncle was involved in his father’s death. But the prince has a hard time not letting his feelings leak out. Rather than a direct verbal attack, Hamlet compares his father and his uncle using the phrase as “Hyperion to a satyr.” Hyperion was the Greek sun god, a fairly noble one; the satyr (more familiar to modern audiences) was a lecherous, half man-half goat creature.

During the play the Prince Hamlet requests itinerant actors perform a play at his palace for the “entertainment” of his mother, among others. For this play within a play Shakespeare uses Hecuba’s stirring funeral speech as written by the Roman poet Ovid. According to the ancient legends, Hecuba was the Trojan queen who grieved eloquently at the death of her husband and son. The purpose of this illusion was not just to throw around Shakespeare’s knowledge of classical literature. It was to portray a parallel situation so the audience could see how Hamlet was trying to embarrass his own mother because of her hasty marriage to a questionable man.

Hamlet also refers to Cain murdering Abel, from Genesis in the Bible so almost everyone in his audience could get this allusion. The less learned people in Shakespeare’s audience would realize that Hamlet was stating that his father’s murderer was none other than his own brother. The majority of modern readers would catch this last reference even if they missed the other two.

In Shakespeare’s day, literary allusions were flung left and right during a play. The Baird didn’t underestimate the intelligence of his audience and they appreciated that. If you were watching a play and caught the meaning of an allusion, you thought of yourself as a learned person. For those that didn’t, well, there was plenty of lowbrow humor and sexual innuendo to keep them entertained.

Posted in Characters, Literature, Trends in books, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

Does being well-read help you write?

Despite the flood of self-published books, there are still agents searching the field of writers attempting to discover the next best-selling author. I read a long list of short blurbs written by these agents describing what they required of those submitting to them. Although most didn’t specify a shelf life for “comps,” some would only consider writers with submissions comparable to more recent well-known books.

However, one insisted that writers not bother him if their comps were published before 2000. The agent wanted an author who was producing a sure thing, which emulated what currently sold. This short range of years for comps increased his likelihood of receiving works with synopses that sounded much like many others. I was certainly not going to interrupt his little bubble by submitting my own attempts to create unique novels.

Some authors want their work described as similar to a currently famous writer, while others fret about writing a novel that imitates another work too much. This second group wants to be well-read but not so influenced by their reading habits that they regurgitate something too similar. Their concern is that a reader with access to the real thing would not want to read an imitation. The best way to avoid producing work which simply mimics other author’s is to have a wide-range of reading, a range that goes well past twenty years and encompasses the work of five centuries or more. However, I have noted an increasing disregard for notable authors of the past centuries.

Before my first writing conference I read the biographies of all the speakers. One question asked of each one was “Which classic novel is on your want to read list?” There were a number of different answers, and with one exception I had read them all. Before that time, if asked, “Does writing well depend on being well-read?” I would answer with a confident “It definitely helps.” But, I’m not sure of that anymore. Over the years the question growing in the back of my mind is “Does being well-read actually hamper a writer’s ability to publish popular books, today?”

At that same conference, I sat across the table from an editor who described seeking a new kind of book, “dark” adventure and fantasy works. The keynote speaker stood up and inquired if any of us had the experience of reading the work of an author and wanting to write like that. Softly I blurted out, “That would be The Idiot,  the first book I read by Dostoevsky. The editor snapped “Nobody writes like that anymore.” Perhaps not, there is not a lot of concern about the soul of man in much current writing. However, The Idiot introduced a naïve Prince Myshkin into a corrupt society that was pretty dark. One man was dangerously obsessed with the love of a woman, and that woman was growing merciless to the man who had abused her. Perhaps a modern version of these struggles might have been exactly what the editor was looking for. But then, Dostoevsky wrote classics, not current best sellers.

Knowledge of classic authors from past centuries is not necessary to be well-read today. It doesn’t matter if their works have survived the test of time. Authors can copy ideas from them without too much concern about people recognizing the content, because nobody writes like them, or evidently reads them, anymore.

Posted in Education trends, Literary devices, Story structure, Trends in books | Tagged , | Leave a comment