Is a love of writing the mark of an amateur?

A long, unbroken, solitary afternoon before me; sunlight in my window or rain and a fire laid in the stove, as the case may be; a cup of tea at my elbow; and best of all, a blank screen in front of me—that’s what writing is on a good day.

There are few prospects I relish with more delight. But that isn’t something you want to admit lightly among writers.

It isn’t just that it’s fashionable to play the tortured writer persona. I’ve seen dozens of blog posts about the grueling nature of professional writing and the amateur nature of all enthusiasm. Writers forums are full of the self-important, who will tell you that the easiest way to tell an amateur from a professional is to ask if they really enjoy writing.

The typical explanation goes something like this, “When a small child first encounters a piano, they bang away at the keys in delight. It’s great fun and they think it sounds beautiful. They want everyone to be quiet and listen to their noise. But it is only painful, boring practice that can turn that banging into real music worth listening to. Writing is the same way.”

Creative Commons image by Richard Patterson

Creative Commons image by Richard Patterson

The proponents of this line of reasoning also like to insist that there is very little real artistic, musical or writing talent innate to anyone. Everything is learned and can be learned through practice, they insist. Writing at a professional level or playing music at a professional level must always be a carefully calculated task. and while some satisfaction in one’s skills is permitted, enthusiasm and passion is the mark of an amateur. And this holds some internal logic.

Except that it doesn’t fit my experience.

My daughter first got to sit at a piano when she was two. She’s a particularly active child and I was concerned that she would bang away at it. Instead she gently touched the keys, heard the sounds and began working her way up and down the keyboard. I have seen countless numbers of children pound on a keyboard, but not her. She immediately found that some notes go better together than others. Within a few minutes she was making cords.

I can’t do today what she could do at two. I can’t hear the sounds that way. Once in a while, I come across a writing student who is that way with words and story. The sense of it is there before any teacher. So, I don’t believe in the “talent doesn’t exist” theory.

At the same time, I know that talent isn’t everything. Talent won’t get you much of anywhere without practice. And for most people both solid musical skills and good writing proficiency are there for the learning. There are countless technical assists in writing, things that could almost allow a computer to generate infinite variations of entertaining stories using standard plots, characters, devices, dialogue norms and tension points.

A lot of modern fiction reads like that too. I could swear someone plugged in an algorithm and churned out a series of thrillers or romantic mystery novels with artificial intelligence. They all have perfect pacing, neat and tidy plots and snappy dialogue. But they also have predictable characters, transparent plot devices and lack-luster climaxes.

And yet. as the purveyors of writing as a miserable profession are eager to tell you, those cookie-cutter novels make money. Publishing houses recognize the same elements I do and readers are so accustomed to the standard fare that most of them, those who still read books at all, continue to read them.

There is a lot to be said for practice and the rules of the craft. Without a lot of practice my daughter will never have the full freedom and experience of music. And without a solid understanding of the rules, writers who break them do so badly. I have no quibble with that.

And there have been many times when i didn’t want to write and had to anyway. I would go so far as to say that that experience—writing under pressure when you are tired and disoriented—is probably a necessary step in honing the craft of writing, or at least a way to significantly speed up the process. I spent ten years as a journalist, forced to crank out endless “copy” on subjects that I usually found boring and almost always on too little sleep.

It was called “copy” but we never copied anything. Every sentence had to be crafted and polished. It took energy and determination and focus. Doing it while tired and bored ingrained the rules deep.

I learned the trade, so that I could sit down and write anything quickly and easily, conforming to whatever standard was required, short or long, technical or atmospheric, any structure, any voice. But that doesn’t mean that all writing must from then on be unpleasant or that all of the learning and practice was unpleasant. I still remember my days as a young reporter fondly. Despite the difficulty and tedious stories about small towns and the machinations of the ministry of transportation, I got to go to work every day in a room where I sat with other people furiously writing and I got to write all day long.

I grew up doing heavy chores. Then I spent years in academia, studying and taking tests. I worked at jobs that didn’t give me purpose or fulfill my intellectual needs. And the reality of writing every day, even if it wasn’t very exciting writing, was wonderful for several years.

Even today, while I prefer to write things closer to my interests, if offered a job at a cash register or a job writing technical manuals, I’d still take the technical manuals any day. But sitting down to an afternoon of writing on a subject I enjoy, or better yet fiction—that is pure pleasure.

Is it always easy? Certainly not. That is a good part of why it is fun. I don’t really go in for easy, even in my hobbies.

That feeling you get when you’ve been writing for two hours and you get three quarters of the way through a key chapter and the plan you had isn’t working and you feel a heavy drag on you because you ,know you’ve got to go back to the plotting board and probably rewrite several major scenes to make it work—yeah, that feeling—that’s when you know you’re in the thick of it. I do tend to go get another cup of tea but I eagerly plunge back in. It’s a challenge, a battle with word counts and plot holes, and victory is that sweet zing of a successful line of tension running through the story from beginning to end.

The preachers of the miserable writer theory probably believe what they are saying. It seems likely that they have followed a path of genre writing that leaves them burnt out and frustrated but in possession of certain skills. They assume that these two things must necessarily coincide. If someone comes along and argues that writing can be a lot of fun, even at a professional level, it is the easiest thing in the world to paint that writer as an amateur. No one wants to risk that, so few ever try to argue.

Winning fans is more than just hooking readers

As a senior in college I bombed out of my first journalism job interview on the question, "What is the most important thing in a newspaper story?" posed by a small-town newspaper editor.

I had given up on figuring out the "right" answers because the editor had already told me he didn't think a legally blind person (or even just anyone who couldn't drive) could be a newspaper reporter. He only asked this question to confirm his biases, so I told him my actual opinion.

"Good research and real facts." 

And arguably for many readers that is the most important focus of a newspaper story. But of course, I was wrong in journalism orthodoxy.

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

The standard answer to that question is "the hook." The hook is technically part of the lead, the first paragraph. The hook is often, though not always, the last sentence or phrase in the lead, something surprising, snappy, intriguing or shocking enough to force a good portion of readers to keep reading for at least a few more paragraphs. 

Journalism theory has it that it doesn't really matter if readers finish the article. The important thing is that they read enough of it and other articles in the paper to A. see the ads that fund the paper and B. decide they actually need the paper and subscribe. At least that was the theory, back when print newspapers were the primary form of journalism. 

There is a similar theory in the book industry today. The cover art, the blurb on the back of the book and the first few paragraphs of chapter one play much the same role as the hook in the days of old. And we still talk about "hooking readers." 

The idea is to give the reader a little thrill of recognition—"Ah! This is a book I'll like"—a sense of tribe. You play into the desires of the given genre and provide enough momentum and adrenaline to keep them reading. If you want to catch today's readers, swimming around in a bookstore or at an onlilne shop, you need something with some punch because there are a lot of distractions. 

Both the old journalism version and the modern book-selling version are true as far as they go. The journalism lead and hook got readers who were just casually perusing a paper to actually read it. I did eventually go on to learn to write a pretty good hook as an international newspaper stringer. Thank you very much, Mr. Small-Town Editor. 

But there is something that the doctrine of the hook does not take into account—a crucial factor that is the deal breaker in today’s book industry.

Let me illustrate with another story from the trenches. In 2007, I landed a prestigious Manhattan agent for a memoir. The agent loved my book but didn’t love my hook. She insisted that I rewrite it to put the most suspenseful and violent scene first and then handle the rest of the book as one giant flashback. This is done a lot and it isn’t actually as bad as it sounds, if it is done well.

Most of my memoir was about being a blind kid from the back of beyond who got scholarships and somehow ended up in the high-pressure world of international journalism. I started it at a crucial point of no return, while the agent wanted me to start it almost at the end of the chronological story because there was an incident that involved me running from a machine-gun toting mob in the midst of an interethnic skirmish in the Balkans, which is sadly a good part of my journalistic claim to fame.

I love to read memoirs in general. It’s probably the genre I read most and I am not the kind of reader who looks for shock and awe in the hook. I look for character and an engaging narrative voice. But I’m probably not the norm. So my opening, which focused on drawing the reader in through character and voice, made the agent nervous.

I rewrote the hook and made the agent happy. But the book still isn’t published.

It was well written as far as it went, but it was a journalistic memoir by a journalist who was never famous. It should have been a memoir of self-discovery by a blind person with too much to prove, because that would have at least stood a chance in today’s book industry.

But that would have required a different kind of opening, less the traditional hook and more voice and character.

What the editors of 42 publishing houses told the agent, which both of us should have known from the beginning, was that as good as the book was, no one cares if they don’t know the author. If it’s a book about a journalist, that is even more true.

In newspaper journalism “back in the day,” you were assuming the reader already had the paper in their hands. And many readers had no real choice about which paper they were going to read. They read the local paper and possibly one national paper. They could choose among the national papers but they weren't likely to switch just because of less than snazzy hooks. They were much more likely to switch if a paper proved to be either boring overall or full of shoddy research. 

No, the purpose of the hook was first and foremost about the ads around the article. Get eyes on the article and you had eyes on the ads. That’s what advertisers wanted and because they funded the paper, their interests were paramount.

Reporters also wanted to hook readers into their particular story, so their interests coincided with those of the advertisers when it came to writing a good hook. It was more important to a writer that a reader start reading their article than that readers would love them specifically. Bylines were small and usually unnoticed.

Today writers have to contend with a very different landscape. Audiences are much less captive. The hook may get a reader to start reading but if they stop reading immediately afterward because the writing is bad, the content is non-existent or the voice is boring, nothing is gained.

No matter how good your hook is, readers can and do pick up ebooks and stop reading them within a few pages. In some ebook systems, this even means that they don't have to pay for the book. Similarly blogs are only really helpful to the writer if readers come back again and again to the same blog. Hooks are still part of the equation but they are no longer the defining skill of a writer. 

Some ad-dependent bloggers will still use hooks in much the way old-school newspaper reporters did. There are snazzy, intriguing hooks and often a sad lack of any substance or resolution of the mysteries raised.

That isn’t my blogging strategy. The reason for that--beyond the fact that I'd rather work my day job as an ESL teacher than write boring copy--is that things have changed. Today the focus is on readers rather than on advertisers, and that's a good thing for writers. Frankly, writing to the taste of readers is much more fun than writing to the taste of advertisers.

Today a writer's job is not so much to hook readers for a few seconds but to win fans for years to come. We want readers to finish the post or the book and then reach for another one and another one by the same author. That is what keeps the lights on so that writers can keep writing. 

Don't get me wrong. There are still gimmicks out there and people making money off of gimmicks but ultimately readers will figure out when something is a gimmick. There are people cranking out "ebooks" which consist of just a few pages of new material, while the majority of the pages in the book are stuffed with the author’s old material, old blog posts, promos of other work and so forth. The writing, even what new material there is, in these "books" is also not great. For some strange reason, the Amazon algorithms favor lots of releases by the same author in a short period of time, so there are people making some money that way until readers catch on. 

But what is it that will win real fans? What will grab the people who will remember an author's name and seek out the author's work or recommend it to their friends? 

Three things:

  1. Good writing craft,

  2. Consistent delivery of what a specific group of readers wants. 

  3. And a distinct and addictive author voice.

Readers become fans when the book or other material they are reading holds them in a kind of spell that feels very comfortable and which calls to them enticingly when they are doing something else. The elements that go into this spell are voice, character and story, usually in that order.

It can be argued that grammar, punctuation and spelling, the nuts and bolts of writing are an inherent part of voice. If your work is littered with typos, it is like your voice is squeaking. It isn't pleasant and it breaks the spell, no matter how lovely your characters or story are. But of course there is much more to voice than nuts and bolts.

Essentially, "voice" refers to the tone, humor, cadence, dialect and closeness of your narration. People read for a kind of human contact. It's like being friends and as such winning a fan is like being a good friend.

I don't say It's like "making a friend" because it isn't. Writers aren't friends with every reader. But readers feel a bond of friendship with favorite authors nonetheless. And if you, as a writer, can provide the kind of voice that your readers need to hear from a friend, then you're halfway home.

Naturally not every reader needs the same kind of friend or even the same kind of friend at all times. I sometimes read straight forward thrillers, sometimes epic fantasy and sometimes humorous YA, even though I'm over forty. Each of these genres plays a different role, much like different kinds of friends. Sometimes I need a more humorous friend, sometimes a serious one who gets the heavy despair I'm feeling in the world right now and has resilient grit.

So the first thing to remember about voice is that you can't please them all and you shouldn't try. The worst thing you can do to your writing--other than litter it with typos and convoluted grammar--is try to make it for "everyone." Something that is for everyone is necessarily bland. And while some authors may get away with bland, you'll notice that they are already famous. Not-famous writers like me and you will have to stand out and that means deciding who we're talking to (our target audience) and what kind of friend we're going to be (wry, dark, gritty, whimsical, etc.). 

Beyond that, voice is about making the reader comfortable. You don't want to be too long-winded but neither is this a contest to see who can use the least number of words, the way it often was in newspaper journalism. Readers today read to relax more than anything else. So your voice should be one that matches what your specific readers need and makes them feel good.

You want to have a clear and identifiable voice, so that a reader can pick up an unlabeled page of your writing and be able to name the author. That would be the ideal.

Just as the nuts and bolts of writing are a prerequisite in voice, understanding the specific needs and expectations of readers in your genre is crucial. It is possible to write in the gray areas between genres, though finding your readership will take longer. Genres need not be restrictive boundaries, but be aware that readers will latch onto you for something specific and the more you can consistently provide their the fix they need, the longer you’ll keep readers and the more they’ll turn into actual fans.

An old axiom says beginnings hook readers and endings create fans. My last post told you my low opinion of endings. I don't agree with the axiom anyway. It's a cliche that may have been true in another would where reading had a different position in our entertainment industry. Today, when you can access just about anything, anywhere, right this second, you need quite a lot of good stuff between the beginning and the ending.

On the bright side, what is hard for you is also hard for other writers. You don’t need all the fans, you just need your own tribe.

Fiction isn't life but a good book should make us live life more fully: The final book of the Kyrennei series

Light of the Shield (Book 6 of the Kyrennei Series) has been released.

I have never liked endings in books. I usually don't like them even in my favorite books. I don't mean that I don't like happy endings or sad endings. I don't even mean that I don't like when a good book ends because then it is over, although that has been an issue a few glorious times.

No, I just don't like what endings have to do.

In fiction, when you write an ending, you have to tidy things up, tie up loose ends, bring subplots in, show why this or that happened and wrap up neat little packages. Everything needs a reason or at least a purpose, even if that purpose is to show randomness. That's what fiction is. It's a way of making sense of life. 

But something in me always rebels.

Life isn't like that! Or at least the logical, linear part of me clings to that belief. If life was like fiction--if everything made sense--it would be an even scarier world than it already is. Maybe that's one reason why I don't like endings.

Beyond that, I find them to be too predictable, too convenient and too unrealistic. Endings are like sex scenes. There just aren't very many creative, original, non-cliched ways left to pull one off. 

Ending the Kyrennei series, a story I started when I was less than fourteen years old, was admittedly tough from a technical writing standpoint. This story grew and evolved with me, and traveled in the back of my mind as I became a freelance journalist. It's a story I poured so much of my imagination into for so many years that ending it by putting the last part down on paper where it no longer changes was one of the hardest tasks of writing I have ever completed.

I was determined to make the ending as emotionally real and creatively honest as the rest of the story, even though I often feel endings lack in exactly those qualities. In short, that's why it took so long. I know a lot of readers have asked me where the ending is. And I finally have your answer. 

The story that started with Aranka Miko and bound you to a dozen other characters in the process finally has it's conclusion. It's one that meets my high standards and I hope it will both entertain and satisfy you. 

This is the final book in an epic series. The fifth book was almost an ending, more so than some of the cliff-hangers early in the series. At the end of Path of the Betrayer (Book 5) there was some resolution. Kai Linden and Elias Miko completed an insanely risky mission and saved the lives of hundreds of Kyrennei. Although their world is tenuous and J. Company is forced to take refuge in underground caverns, they do find refuge. Aranka and Kenyen are also safe for the moment. Many readers told me they thought that was how things would remain.

The idea that the the resistance could truly overcome the Addin is as unthinkable as our chances of achieving world peace, healthy democracy and ecological sustainability in our world. It is what we want but there are forces that stand in the way that are far stronger than any of our known weapons.

The one major piece that is unclear and still really sad at the end of Book 5 is Maya. Kai did manage to rescue Maja during that terrible mission. But she is unconscious or at least unresponsive and has clearly suffered a lot. There are also plenty of loose ends that haven't been tied up throughout the series.

Thus Book 5 provided the ending we see as possible in our world. If we fight hard, we might be able to achieve a measure of safety for a few of those closest to us. We will then stand vigilant against the darkness and aggression in the world and mourn our losses. Many questions never get answers. And there are some who we cannot save, even those we love the most. 

The challenge of the final book in the series is how to create a vision of hope and also make it one that will not betray the authenticity and realism of The Kyrennei Series. How can Maya survive what she has undergone? Is this all we get? Like Kai, we are stripped of everything that truly matters, even our core principles, and left with survival and survivor guilt? Can those who fight for freedom and justice ever win a battle that actually matters in the long run?

These were the questions I set out to answer in this final book of the series. It begins with Kai as he enters the rebel base in an underground salt mine, holding Maya unconscious in his arms. His parents were taken by the Addin. He is a fugitive and because of the success of their mission, he knows the Addin leader Marti Bloom will expose the fact that he betrayed the resistance and the Kyrennei in his apparently futile attempt to save Maya. What little has been won came at great cost. 

While he waits for Maya to come out of a comma, Kai begins training as a scout, learning Kyren and the rest of Aranka Miko's dearly bought secrets from Elias Miko and other teachers. But he keeps to himself and spends every available minute sitting at Maya's side, even though she is unresponsive. 

It isn't a situation that can last and when Maya is finally taken from him, Kai has only one thing left to fight for, one person he might still be able to save. But with martial law declared across the United States, the attempt is an obvious suicide mission.

That might not sound like a promising beginning for this end game. But keep in mind what I said before. The situation is hopeless given the weapons we know we have at our disposal. It is easy to forget the weapons of solidarity and mutual defense. They have been lost in time, both in today's world and in the world of the Kyrennei Series, but they did exist once. And if such solidarity can be found, then hope will arise in places we never imagined. 

Read Light of the Shield, the final book in the Kyrennei Series, here. It is available in Kindle and paperback formats.

Advanced Writing Tips: Problematic and irritating disability tropes to avoid in writing

I'm going to make an assumption here. I'm assuming you as a writer, whether you have a disability or not, want to write pedal-to-the-metal, amazing plots with characters that grab readers by the throat and don't let go until they cough up cash for your next book. 

Or something like that. 

So this is not a whiny post about all the bad, prejudiced books out there that treat disability issues poorly. This is an Advanced Writing Tips post to help you avoid pitfalls that distract, lose and piss off readers. I happen to be legally blind, but I'm a writer first and I have to think things through when I write about characters with disabilities just like anyone else. 

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

We want our writing to be fresh and original. That goes without saying. We don't want to rehash the same stuff people have been doing for decades. That's boring. We also want our characters to be emotionally realistic (i.e. relatable for readers).  When it comes to writing about characters with disabilities it is all too easy to get sucked into cliched tropes that not only drag the story into old ruts but also make the characters more annoying than relatable.

And in many cases, even when the writing is good, tired tropes simply piss off readers with disabilities, who are at least 15 percent of the reading population and thus a hefty chunk of your market. An even heftier chunk if you count their close family members, who will likely be just as pissed off by annoying tropes.

One of the sticky problems of disability tropes is that avoiding one cliche too vigorously can make you stumble into another by accident. The most important thing to keep in mind when writing about a character with a disability is that people with disabilities are much more like abled people than they are different.

So if your character has a disability, that probably isn’t their main characteristic. It’s something of side importance most of the time, even if the story centers on something related to it. Your character has many interests that aren’t what you would expect from that sort of disabled person.

For example, I am legally blind but I’m pretty good at graphic design because I happen to have a brain wired for visual thinking. Bad combo but I didn’t get to pick. I’ll never be great at graphic design, which I might have been if my eyes weren’t screwed up. I am, on the other hand, terrible at music, which is often a stereotypical interest for blind characters. I do like music and I tried hard to play the flute for five years as a child but I was never very good. It was way harder to memorize all that music than it seems when blind musicians do it.

Other than that, here are the most common story pitfalls to avoid when dealing with a disabled character:

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

  1. Bounce-back magicians: Characters who become disabled and immediately (within months, weeks or even days) are able to function in amazing top form, handling everything without help and having better developed other senses or muscles. (Yes, people with disabilities find other ways of accomplishing things and can function fast and happily in almost every situation a abled person can but it takes years to learn the specialized skills, to develop different muscles and to learn to read other senses to compensate for a sensory loss. It takes years and often specialized training and education. There are already way too many stories and movies out there about a disabled character's miraculous recovery and given the propensity of fiction to speed up medical miracles, we come across characters who adapt unrealistically quickly. This is not only old and boring, it is also highly annoying to people actually struggling with these issues. There are very few stories or movies that portray a realistic struggle and show the grit of real people with disabilities. Possibly a good plot line or six there.)
  2. Superheroes in non-magical stories: Characters with super powers or super sensitive senses where they don't belong. (I am legally blind and I can throw pebbles across a ditch to tell how far I have to jump by sound, I can often sense obstacles by echolocation and I can almost flawlessly tell what my young children are up to in the other room by hearing. But I am sick to death of the cliched character who is a martial arts master and totally blind, who can hear how their opponent is swinging a sword so precisely that they always win easily. Yes, blind people sometimes appear to have super hearing to sighted people but controlled hearing tests show that we have no better technical hearing ability than anyone else. What is true is that people who have lived without a particular sense for a long time (think decades) learn to pay much more attention to their remaining senses and interpret meaning from things others would ignore. People with various disabilities have adapted skills that abled people have because they are not forced to practice such specific skills minute by minute for years. But this is about skill and muscle, not super powers. Despite my abilities in interpreting sounds, I'm still pretty tone deaf and have a terrible ear for recognizing voices. There are things you can train and things you can't. Keeping this realistic and ensuring that your disabled character has had years to adapt to their disability, if you want them to be really skilled, are essential to making characters relatable.)
  3. Gracious suicides: Disabled characters who nobly commit suicide to escape their unbearable existence and reduce the burdens on abled characters. (This is another type of trope entirely and it is the kind that will get your book or movie thrown across many rooms with enough force to break the binding. The movie success of "Me Before You" has made this trope famous recently but it has been around for decades, probably centuries. If you have any confusion on this, here's the crux. Being disabled is not an unbearable existence and portraying people with disabilities as a burden whose best shot at heroism is to commit suicide to lift their burden from others is wrong in so many ways. But from the writer's perspective it is just cliched, overdone and old hat. It is also maudlin and melodramatic, and it relegates a major character to a paper cutout prop for other characters. Just don't do it. Euthanasia can be explored in much more realistic and mature ways.)
  4. Inspiro-porn stars: Characters whose primary purpose is to inspire others through their stoic courage despite suffering. (There’s a term for this. It’s called “inspiration porn.” It’s like porn because it is designed to generate a strong, involuntary emotional response in the reader/viewer and it makes the reader/viewer feel good and almost euphoric for a short time at the expense of reducing another person or character to a prop for the edification of others. People with disabilities are not any more stoic than other people and they shouldn't be expected to be. Disabled characters should be allowed to become overwhelmed and emotional about difficult things in their lives, related to disability or not, just like any other characters. Certainly, if you are writing about a hardened detective or other James-Bond type hero who happens to have a disability and he/she is stoic and doesn't complain when their arm is severed in a fight because that's just what kind of individual he/she is, that's a different matter. But it is not “courageous” to simply live with a disability and not go kill yourself (see trope #3). Most people with disabilities live pretty happy lives where their struggles are often not related to their disability. It can be irritating to deal with a society that isn’t ready to include our differences, but it isn’t like we lie in bed in the morning and muster the courage to live. We muster the patience to deal with ableist barriers and weird social reactions but that’s more patience than courage. It can take a lot of mental struggle for people who are newly disabled to see that their new situation is livable but people handle it in various ways due to temperament and all of those ways are normal and acceptable. Here too there are several good potential plot lines that have rarely, if ever, been explored.) 
  5. The crip in distress: The dependent invalid or the one who must be saved. (This is less common today but it used to be a big trope. It is still very tired. No one really wants to read stories where a secondary character is a disabled child or other who the hero is going to save from their terrible fate. I'm not going to belabor the point. Just avoid doing this. When you need a hero to save someone in order to be heroic, it is always better to make the person being saved a three-dimensional character as well. What would be a cliched "rescue plot" can gain immense punch with more careful characterization.)
  6. Last-minute cures: The plot arch in which the cure of the disability is the solution to the plot problem. (This is a huge one today,, which has kind of taken over the 19th and early 20th century trope number 5. I see stories far too often today where the plot revolves around a character wrestling with the psychological and physical effects of a disability. Sometimes the character is a mess and has to learn the courage and stoic fortitude in trope number 4 or the adaptations in trope 1 and toward the end of the story he or she does adapt and things look okay, tolerable and the disability is mastered. But the author betrays their internal belief that disability is still too terrible and the disability is cured in the end. So the character finds that they could live well with such a disability and then they are rewarded with a cure that takes the disability away so they don’t have to. This isn’t impossible in terms of a realistic event narrative but it has been done and done and done and it is far from the norm of disability. It displays an underlying assumption in society and on the part of the author that no adaptation or psychological resolution is actually good enough and the only positive outcome is to get rid of disability altogether.)
  7. Pre-adventure cures: The disabled character who is magically cured at the beginning of the story so that they can go on an adventure or be a hero. (This is a minor but highly annoying fantasy trope. Sometimes my pulse will quicken as I read the blurb on a new fantasy book that says the main character is disabled, only to find that the initial plot point is that the disability is magically cured, so that now the formerly sedentary protagonist can now go off on an adventure or become a hero. That's what happened in The Last Words of Will Wolfkin by Steven Knight. The message in stories like this is all too clear. People with disabilities are seen as helpless and useless. They can only be victims or people to be rescued, never a hero in their own right. This is a problem and the whole premise of the disability being cured in the first chapter is just weak and disappointing as a plot spur in any case.)
  8. Fakers and manipulators (This is one that will send me and many others into vicious bad review mode faster than any other. In fact, I’ll give a bad example right here as a bad review. Yes, I’m naming names. The Netflix series "The Good Wife" would be a fairly decent dramatic lawyer show except that it uses this trope several times. The one disabled major character in the show is a lawyer who slyly and manipulatively uses a tardive dyskinesia disability to derail arguments, manipulate judges, plead for sympathy from juries and so on and on and on. It is really all his character ever does. He is the only major disabled character and here this is finally a show with a disabled lawyer as a character. Another minor character is the son of a rival politician who has leukemia. The child is used as a media gimmick to gain public sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic politician. The fact that this show uses both these "faker" stereotypes without including other people with chronic illness or disability points to some serious bigotry somewhere in the production chain. Abled people are likely to protest that “Well, this happens in real life!” In fact, it almost does not happen. It is exceedingly rare for people to fake a disability in public to gain sympathy and it is impossible to fake a disability medically given medical technologies today. People with real disabilities do not fake or exaggerate their difficulties to get attention or sympathy. Yes, I know some beggars pretend to be missing a limb or to be blind to get sympathy and donations. These people are rare anomalies who you see relatively often because they place themselves in highly frequented areas. They are a tiny fraction of reality. The trope in fiction and the stereotype in real life that some non-disabled people fake a disability and some disabled people exaggerate their difficulties to get attention, sympathy or advantages is so tired that the dead horse has decomposed. Furthering this trope is unforgivable today in a society where everyone should know better. Works that promote it actively harm people with disabilities and cause us to be accosted and accused of faking at random moments in public. Every time an book or movie portrays such a stereotype, real events result in which disabled children and adults are mocked and dismissed. Do not do it. It's like portraying a black person as a monkey. Sure, some black children eat bananas and jump up and down pretending to be a monkey, just like some white children do. It happens. But we don't do it in fiction for very good reasons. The same goes for fictional portrayals of people faking disability. Disabilities are extremely varied and you won’t always understand why a mother with a white cane on the train who uses a disability transport card is reading a printed book to her children (that would be me). But it is just the way optics work and no one is faking.)
  9. Charity applause: Disabled protagonists who are good "for a disabled person." (This is a particularly tired one but it still comes up sometimes in children's literature. Much may be made of a character's accomplishments because they are pretty good at something "for a disabled person." There is a legitimately difficult line to walk for writers here. It is natural to write about the accomplishments of someone against the odds. We all know that it is an achievement for a wheelchair user to play wheelchair basketball. And a sports story about a kid's dream to be a star in wheelchair basketball is fair game. But it isn't attractive or interesting if the point of the story is that everyone claps for little Jimmy who tries to play with the abled kids but he's really very bad at it and the climax of the story is the one time he makes a basket. He was so good, considering he's disabled, but really he was awful by any other standard. Boring.)
  10. Automatic no-threat sign: A character's disability used to show that they are not a threat in competition. (Sometimes a secondary character in a story has all the hallmarks of a good, positive disabled character. It's often the best friend or sidekick of the main character. The thing is that the secondary character is disabled, and the assumption is made clear in the story that this means the disabled character will always be the follower and is never a competitor for top jobs. This character is a great confidante when it comes to love interests because he/she is "obviously" not in the running for romance. This is overused and obviously annoying. It's also very boring.)
  11. Prince or princess Not Sexy: The disabled hero who wins everything except love. (This is a special little trope that crops up every now and then. The most famous example is probably "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Disney musical. The hunchback did all the things most Disney princes do and won but instead of getting a beautiful princess and everlasting happiness in the end, his great prize is that he is tolerated in public. Causing your readers/viewers to gag on vomit during what is supposed to be the heartwarming end is usually not part of the plan. Don't do this.)
  12. Gimpiness as the evil trope: The villain who is obviously a villain because of a disability. (I am personally simply perplexed by this one. There are so many villains in modern culture who are disabled. They far outnumber the number of disabled protagonists. If any racial group was so universally portrayed as "the bad guys" it would be a topic of anti-discrimination activism. But today disability has replaced the dark visage as the quick and easy way to show who the villain is. They walk with a cane, breathe with a machine, need magic to keep their body together or whatever. There are theories about how this is related to a hard-wired human fear of deformity and disease. The first zombie movies were about AIDs victims and I am sure the cheap play on people's fears has something to do with it. But quick and easy or not, it is just as problematic as having all your villains be dark-looking. At the very least, we need to balance the number and major positioning of disabled protagonists.) 

I know this list might feel overwhelming. And contradictory. You shouldn't portray people with disabilities as too good but you can't make them villains either. You can't make your disabled characters too strong and resilient without risking them having "super powers" but you shouldn't let them become weak two-dimensional props in need of rescue either.

It often seems like it would be a lot easier to just not include characters with disabilities at all... which is what most writers have done for ages. The worst trope of all isn't actually on the list, because the worst message about disability that we can promote in our writing is voiceless obscurity. When we don't give a character here or there a disability we contribute to a society in which people with disabilities are ignored, dismissed and isolated. 

It may be hard to avoid the pitfalls, but it is worth it. Including a character with a disability in your story, even without making the story about that disability, opens up a large and hungry market for your work. When there is too little of something in books, readers want it. Write well about characters with disabilities and you'll get a boost in reader loyalty and discoverability. 

So do write about characters with disabilities. Just do it smart.

Writer-to-writer critique: the boot camp of the craft

The simple technique that will teach you to write better than any other method, class or book

For as long as there have been story-tellers, we have commented on one another's work. Writers, poets and bards alike--we are a mouthy bunch.

Sometimes these comments have taken the form of criticism, ridicule, jealousy or insult. And many writers and story-tellers have been greatly harmed by the comments of others, suffering blows to confidence and motivation. 

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

And yet, the comments of fellow writers can contain gold. I know of no other way to learn the craft of writing faster or better than through the sincere cooperation between two or more writers. And based on the comments of some of my favorite famous authors, it seems clear that no writer is ever "beyond critique" or at a level where the comments of colleagues can no longer help. 

Critique--the term used to differentiate constructive criticism from tearing down another writer--isn't just useful. If done correctly it can also provide great motivation and pleasure. It is very rare that anyone, other than another writer, wants to discuss in detail the ins and outs of your writing project.

Even your most avid readers (and your immediate family) are likely to grow weary of your writerly obsessions. This isn't that different from any other profession. My husband and his buddies can bore me to tears with endless technical discussions about surveying and cartography. (Just measure it and draw a line already! What is the big deal?)

My husband assures me that even though I think my profession is creative, vastly more fun and endlessly interesting, he finds long conversations on the finer points of writing just as boring. And this is why we need fellow writers. 

While the practical method of writer-to-writer critique may be well-known and may in fact seem intuitive to many, I have found that parts of it strike fear in new writers or lead others to abuse the trust and claim authority they don't have. Beyond that readers often don't understand the tenants of the system through which their favorite books, movies and TV shows are made. 

It is worth setting down the rules for critique. This is a starting point for writers' groups as well as useful information for everyone involved in the process.

1. There are skills that can be learned in writing. Experience is to be respected.

2. At the same time, a writer of any level can usefully critique the writing of a writer of any other level. The critique may have different uses, but even the critique of a novice can be helpful to an open-minded master. It is at the very least the honest impression of a reader. No such critique should be dismissed out of hand or ridiculed. 

3. Critique may be done for compensation, in trade or simply in good faith. Critique does not have to be reciprocal but the terms should be agreed upon in advance. Critique is always of value, even if it is not compensated in which case it is a valuable gift of time and attention.

4. On average, about seventy percent of comments in any given critique will be useful or pertinent to the writer. No writer is obligated to agree with or to use suggestions made by a critique partner. 

5. Rules of grammar and style vary geographically, culturally and between genres. Arguments about the absolute correctness of a change have limited use. It is worth stating clear reasons for one's belief. Style and grammar guidebooks are useful sources. However, in the end the final decision of rightness in the given context is the prerogative of the entity taking responsibility for publication--be that a publisher or a self-publishing author. 

6. Differences of opinion are inevitable. There is no single best POV, tense, voice, distance or style. Intentional grammatical errors are not illegal and have their uses. Questions over dialogue tags are a matter of continued debate. It is worth listening to writers of long experience, but in the end each must form one's own path. Insults do not become us. 

7. Keep in mind that, as in any creative profession, a minimum experience of ten thousand hours of active writing is considered the initiation level for a professional. However, this line is arbitrary and denotes only a level of experience, not the rightness of one's arguments or the marketability of one's work.

8. By the same token, what is correct and most seemly in writing is not always what is most marketable. Each writer has his or her own goals for writing and it is not the place of a critique partner to judge, only to give the most honest advice that individual can give.

9. We all have biases. I love first person narratives. I recently met a fellow author who hates first person. It's just personal taste. We can't help but have such biases and when we read the work of other writers those biases will get in the way. The more aware you are of your own biases the more useful your critique will be. When unable to entirely get past biases it is worth stating that you are biased on a particular issue, so that the writer can keep that in mind. That said, completely avoiding critique partners with biases against your POV or stylistic choices can weaken your writing. Remember that readers have biases too and our goal is hone our craft in every way possible.

10. Critique means honest advice to improve a piece of writing. Pure and simple. That can mean spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, voice, plot or description advice and more. It does not ever mean judgment upon the abilities or prospects of the writer. That is beyond the bounds and is never an appropriate topic for comment. 

How to write dialogue readers will devour

When we read, what we really want is human speech--yelling, chatting, laughing, screaming. The reader's heart yearns for companionship and adrenaline.

If you can bamboozle the reader into the fictive dream and give them fantastic conversation within it, they'll never want to leave.

Good dialogue can be achieved by following some basic rules. Excellent, grab'em-by-the-pituitary-gland-and-never-let-go dialogue takes preparation. 

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Here are the basic rules:

  1. Dialogue needs to be less formal than narration, even when it is between formal adults. Vocabulary should reflect spoken vocabulary, which is about one fifth of a character's reading vocabulary. You will not make your character sound dumb by having them use normal words. Overly formal dialogue with sentences too complete and words beyond the natural spoken vocabulary level of the type of character is the most common dialogue mistake by beginning writers.
  2. Reread lines of dialogue out loud and see if they sound natural. Use incomplete sentences, pauses, vague terms, extreme specifics and poor grammar where it is obvious that they would be used in real speech. But within reason! Dialogue must first and foremost be familiar and real to the reader. 
  3. Keep dialogue lines short. Most dialogue should be one sentence or less. Occasionally use two or three short sentences max unless your point is that the character is going on and on. And even then be cautious. Who wants to read in detail about a character giving a lecture?
  4. Dialogue should be more coherent and more concise than real speech. But remember "all things in moderation."
  5. Speech differences, slang and accents can be hinted at but do not change every word or sentence to match the difference or your text will become unreadable. Mark Twain was an incredible linguist and even so many readers have a very hard time deciphering his dialogue. Don't try this at home, folks. 
  6. Avoid obvious phrases of greetings and pleasantries unless you're emphasizing them to develop cultural setting (and even then do so sparingly). If two characters meet and each says "Hello, how are you?" hint that they did so in narration. Don't spell it out unless you have a damn good reason.
  7. "Late in, early out" applies because conversations are essentially scenes. Enter the conversation as late as possible while still giving all necessary information and leave as early as possible. Don't drag the reader through extraneous scaffolding.
  8. No "as you know, John" please! Do not have a character tell another character something both should logically know already simply in order to tell it to the reader. There are better ways to get facts across.
  9. And along with that last, don't "info dump" in dialogue. Work it in. Yes, "work" is the operative verb here. It is hard but it can be done. Information contained in dialogue must be primarily that which is natural for one character to tell another, not things the reader needs to know. Information for the reader can be contained in narration, setting and most importantly the behavior of characters.
  10. A note on tags: Mostly use the word "said." This is the exception to the rule you learned in high school language arts about using varied vocabulary and the most specific verb possible. The word "said" is almost invisible. Readers will simply understand who said something. Use other tags such as "stated," "argued," "cried" sparingly and only with good reason.
  11. A note on not using tags at all: In moderation, the tags can be cut altogether in some modern styles, especially in two-way conversations. As a general rule, tag the first lines of each character and then allow them to switch off. However, don't create strings of tag-less dialogue more than four switch-offs long. It forces readers to calculate rather than read. Try reading the dialogue aloud in a monotone and see if you would be confused about who is talking. The point is not to make the reader work. Readers are supposed to be in the fictive dream. Period.
  12. A note on actions as tags:  An even more advanced trick is to do away with standard tags involving "said" or an equivalent and use action and expression sentences instead. The key is to leave no doubt who is speaking without actually saying it. Example:  She ducked her head, looking at him out of the corner of her left eye. "I don't know. Do you think we should?" He coughed and spots of pink bloomed on his neck. "I... I..."
  13. On that note, consider the narration sprinkled in with the dialogue to be part of the dialogue itself. There have been some experiments with "dry dialogue," meaning using only the actual spoken lines without any indication of the character's actions or expressions. Usually these experiments also rely on a minimum of tag lines and they fail spectacularly. I'm not saying don't experiment, but gaining readers through this kind of experiment is equivalent to winning the lottery. It's extremely unlikely but writers do it anyway because experimenting is how everything good got invented.  When you're done experimenting and ready to write a story, make sure your dialogue includes lines of action. It is best if something is happening in the plot while the characters are speaking. But if your characters must have a conversation in which they are mostly just sitting there, you still need actions and the more sedentary the characters are the more detailed the actions need to be. Show the minute motions of hands, a flicker of emotion or picture what your character is reaching for. Watch people talk in real life. Very few people just sit motionless while they talk and if they did we would definitely notice it and put that in narration.
  14. Use the time warp. Finally, there is a strange sort of time warp that happens in fictional dialogue. Usually it means time passes more quickly in the story than the lines of dialogue can account for. Let's say ten minutes passes in your fictional world while your characters have a leisurely conversation. That conversation will probably only be four to five dialogue lines long. You then assert that ten minutes passed and the reader will feel like ten minutes really did pass. The exception would be if there is extreme tension, such as characters waiting for a timed bomb to explode in their faces. In that case a lot more than four or five dialogue lines will be noted. It has to do with the attention to detail in a suspenseful situation. Subconsciously readers know that in a scene without life-and-death tension  you aren't reporting every motion or word spoken to them. They expect you to tell only the important parts. But in a scene in which utter disaster and/or death is imminent, you are expected to tell much more. Doing that well is a matter of maintaining tension, however, and that's another post entirely.

That's how you write tolerably good dialogue. But if you want to write sizzling, page-burner dialogue, you'll need more and the ingredients are difficult to put into hard and fast rules. This is more about preparation of the writer than it is about a list of tips.

First, read a ton of the type of fiction you want to write and other types of fiction as well (for balance and perspective). Pay attention to the dialogue. When you really love some dialogue, stop and analyze it. Look at how long the dialogue lines are, what kind of phrases they use, if they use any complete sentences.

Think about the characters you most love in fiction and go through books, looking specifically at their lines of dialogue. Dialogue is much of what makes character. Observe how the character speaks. Is it consistent?  Again, what types of phrases and sentence structures does the character you love use?

Take note of these things either in your brain or on paper and keep reading and noticing. In time, the simple act of paying attention will improve your writing.

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Record conversations and listen to them. Today in the world of smart-phones this has never been easier. Record a family argument. Record a boring meeting. Record your friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Then transcribe some conversations. Write down EXACTLY word for word what was said. Include all the messy stuff, um's... repetitions, confusion. Notice how simple the vocabulary is and how incomplete the sentences are.

Then take those transcriptions and change the statements to make them as short as possible while still containing all the important information. Remove repetitions. Leave sentence fragments and a few important pauses that carry meaning. Clean up the grammar just enough to make it understandable. Do this for as many hours as possible. The awesomeness of your dialogue will be in direct proportion to how many hours of transcription you do. 

Then before you sit down to write a scene of dialogue, sit back and imagine it. Close your eyes if necessary and play it like a movie in your head. At first this will not be easy. The better you know your characters and the emotional undercurrents going on at that moment in your plot, the easier it will be. But keep at it.

The first dialogues with new characters may need revision later, but don't worry about it. Do the best you can with your mind-movie in the beginning. Play it out.

Then write. If you can, let your mind hear the voice of the character as you write the line of dialogue. If your brain doesn't do that, reread the lines as yo go, imagining your character's voice and the expression on their face and on the faces of those listening. Get the emotion of the moment in your own head, even if it is hidden between the lines of a constrained setting or repressed by formal characters. 

Finally, after you have written the dialogue go back over it in editing and read it aloud. Try reading it in a monotone and ensure that you still know who is supposed to be speaking by context, tags and word choice. Also read it with a semblance of the voices and emotion appropriate to the scene. Does it sound realistic? Do people of that type actually talk this way?

If the answer is "No, but I want them to talk this way," you need have a long talk with yourself about what your goals in writing are. If you want to create dialogue that will reach out and grab your readers and hold on with unbreakable tentacles, then you've got to face the fact that readers will read what puts them into the fictive dream. And that dream is broken when characters sound fake. No if's, and's or but's about it. 

If the answer is "I don't know," go back to the beginning of the preparation. The problem may be that you don't have enough experience with people in whatever specific cultural, age or professional category you're writing about. Start specifically reading stories about people of the type your characters are. Analyze how they talk. Let it absorb into you. If possible, record some conversations involving people of the type you are writing about. Transcribe. Keep doing it and great dialogue will come. I promise.

This method works. You may have to modify bits of it to suit the way your own brain works, but in essence this is it. Dialogue is very particular. To be good, it has to follow some pretty strict rules. To be spectacular, it needs to make the reader forget they are reading and feel like they are in the conversation. That takes time, practice and quite a bit of intuition. 

Best wishes and keep writing!

Using the full power of language in description and metaphor: Advanced writing tips

The roar ravaged his ears, the cacophony deafened him, and he swooned into mindless unconsciousness...


Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

Creative Commons image by Brandi Redd

That is what happens to readers who read purple prose, if they don't just toss the book and find something better to read. Fortunately for the readers, most of them do toss such books.

And the writers cry in lonely despair, "But it was such a beautiful phrase!"

Writing students often justify embellished prose by claiming that they wish to use the "full power of the English language" or that they refuse to "dumb down" their writing with common and simplistic words. While using the full power of our incredibly versatile language is a worthy goal and I am not in favor of dumbing down writing to the lowest common denominator, neither of these goals really have anything to do with the use of purple prose.

Purple prose is something to be avoided. Period.

And yes, as with many things in writing there is a fine line between purple prose and style. But we can get to that.

What is purple prose?

Purple prose arises when a writer:

  1. Uses unknown words from a thesaurus in order to appear sophisticated or learned or simply to vary word choice. The key issue here is the use of UNKNOWN words. A thesaurus is a good tool and varying word choice is a good idea. But the words you choose must be words you have seen in use and are comfortable using, not one you just looked up today. 
  2. Repeats the same information in multiple descriptor words. This is one reason why writing "mindless unconsciousness" is a bad idea. When a writer is first thinking through ideas, descriptors will often be repeated in verb, noun, adjective and adverb. This is what first drafts are for. Experienced writers nail these repetitions in editing and make sure each word says something new.
  3. Exaggerates or creates logical impossibilities with description. The key to good writing is allowing the reader to experience and usually to visualize the scene. Exaggerations don't help and logical impossibilities stop visualization cold. I know that mostly we're talking about fiction, so you might ask how I know if someone is exaggerating in fiction. Take for example my statement that  "the roar ravaged his ears." While certain extreme body metaphors are permissible--"Her voice was strangled," for instance--we have to be careful with that. Trying to picture a sound that ravages someone's ears throws the reader off. Test such phrases by visualizing them. If it looks like a cartoon and you aren't writing a cartoon, then don't do it. 
  4. Employs more and longer words than necessary to impart information, atmosphere and style. This is the most thorny of the issues, because some styles do call for a bit of "flowery" language. Where would fantasy and historical fiction be without a good turn of phrase. But there are ways to distinguish style from purple prose. They usually go back to the first three problems in this list in some form. Purple prose often over-describes in multiple ways, uses a longer and less-known word when a shorter one would do just as well and/or drives all descriptions to extremes. But there are times when a writer simply wallows in description, dragging the hapless reader along until the reader gives up and goes to find something with more plot (i.e. conflict).
Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

No reader enjoys purple prose. Some writers will argue with this because writers sometimes enjoy their own purple prose. But writers don't really count as their own number one reader. Purple prose isn't legitimate description, which may bore some but inspire others. Purple prose is always boring, annoying and embarrassing. 

That said, almost all writers go through a stage of purple prose and many of us struggle to weed it out in editing even as professionals. Struggling with the demons of purple prose is no sin. Allowing them to cavort drunk and unhindered through the temples of our word gods is.  

Fortunately, the methods for stamping out purple prose and making your descriptions shine twice as bright are relatively simple. Here are the basics:

  • Say what you mean. Get the image or other physical sensation of your scene in your mind and show it.
  • Know the full (surface, secondary and deeper) meanings of words. Study dictionaries, notice how words are used, and use words you know well. 
  • Be specific. Use the most specific noun or verb you can think of. If you write an adjective or an adverb be aware that you do so only because you do not know a noun or a verb that can replace this particular combination of adverb and verb or adjective and noun. If you mean "hurry," don't say "go quickly."
  • Whenever choosing between two words that mean the same thing, use the shorter or more common of the two. This isn't primarily about helping a wide range of readers to easily understand your story, although it may help with that. It isn't the same as dumbing down, which is more about content than anything. This rule really just makes your writing better, smoother and more intelligent. It is an odd but undeniable fact that too many long words make a writer appear unsophisticated and pompous. 
  • When editing, read through your paragraphs and cut out any word that can be cut without changing the meaning of the paragraph. At first you'll have to experiment with taking out a word and rereading over and over again, but eventually your brain will start identifying likely culprits automatically. Start with adverbs, interjections, prepositions, adjectives and exclamations. Always look at "really," "just" and "still." There are many times to use these words. But if you can take them out without changing the connotations of the sentence, do it.
  • Identify words and phrases you personally use too often. Then do a search with your word processor and look at each instance in your story. Try to get rid of any repetitions of the same word or phrase that are unnecessary. Each of us has a certain style and more over we go through phases in which certain words or phrases pop out constantly. This is normal, but it should also be kept in check. Repetition, when used, should be deliberate and purposeful, not accidental.

On top of these common guidelines, there are a few specific tips professed by George Orwell, the father of the genre of dystopia and a writer of extraordinary clarity and descriptive prowess: 

  • Don't use any metaphor or analogy, you've seen more than once. A good general rule, though there are times to break it. If you set that as your goal, you will be much less likely to riddle your story with cliches. 
  • Use active voice whenever you can and use passive voice only when you have no other choice. Beginning writers learn that "passive voice" is bad. And it usually is. But when you need it you really need it. If you need to show the unwillingness of characters to disclose who did something, you will definitely need passive voice. It is said that you identify passive voice by looking for the word "was" but that can be misleading. Don't confuse passive voice with past continuous. You can recognize passive voice by asking "Who did it?" as if you're a detective. If the answer is not at the beginning of the sentence or phrase, the verb is passive. So "she was shocked" is passive. But so is "she is shocked."  And "they were shocked." Who shocked her/them? It's not at the beginning, so it's passive. However, "Her mouth was gaping open" is not passive. It is past continuous and depending on the context and style, it may be correct.
  • Don't exaggerate, especially if it's "only" fiction. This bears repeating. Say what you mean. Give the reader the true image of your story.

Finally two advanced tips from my own hard won experience. 

  • Never use a phrase or word because it "sounds good."
  • And kill your "babies."

These two rules are related. In the professional jargon of writers a "baby" is any word, phrase, plot twist or device that you are unreasoningly attached to during the editing stage. You will notice the pull of these bits. They are the parts that make you smile when you run across them and yet they rarely entrance anyone else. You know for sure that you have a "baby" when you find yourself thinking or saying, "But it just sounds so good!" or "It's only that I really like it that way."

These are red flags. 

Sure, we are allowed to have preferences, but if your only defense against problems with a word, phrase or plot twist is that you like it, then you should almost certainly get rid of it. This is painful but will vastly improve your writing. It is called "killing your babies" because all writers know the pain of it but we have to laugh at ourselves a little in retrospect. If you look back on the "baby" phrases and words you were so attached to a year or so ago you will know what I mean.

This is a safe place for writers and readers alike to discuss these issues. I read all comments and I love to hear from you. What are your experiences with using description and metaphors? Any particularly harrowing stories about "killing your babies?" Comments of your own experience are always welcome. We are concerned with improving our own writing, rather than judging others. 

The #1 secret to writing gripping characters

When I was in high school my teachers, mentors and family members gushed praise over my talent as a budding writer. I'll bet that if you're reading a post about the secrets of the writing craft, yours did too... or perhaps they still do.

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of

Creative Commons image by UNC CFC USFK of

I have seen many talented students in writing classes and writer's critique groups over the past twenty years. And there is one terrible affliction that affects them all at some point--the same one that has at times afflicted me. That is the belief that I had made it. 

I don't mean financially. There are only a handful of writers in the whole world who have made it financially through their craft. But I'll admit it. I've suffered through times when I thought I had become such a good writer that I had little left to learn of the craft. I'm glad to say that as I've gotten older, that particular affliction has recurred less and less often. 

Before you get offended and go off certain that you are the exception, sure that you have learned all the basics of writing and only need to polish the brightest jewels in your prose, please stop and consider. I was seventeen when an article I wrote in a small-town newspaper won a statewide competition. I didn't even have to submit the article. It was noticed all on its own. My first writing professor in college initially scoffed at the idea that I would double his required word count and make it all high quality as well. He wasn't scoffing after two semesters in which I delivered before every deadline. And yet when I look back on my writing from that time, I can only cringe and laugh and tell myself it is good that I've improved.

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof

Creative Commons image by Stuartpilbrowof

I had the spark and many others do too. I am not saying you're a hack, just that many new writers who are good still don't have the best skills of the craft. And after twenty years of writing non-stop, I stand in awe at all I have left to learn. 

So, don't despair. Keep your current writing in good clean folders and notebooks. Make sure you keep it safe. You will need it in ten or twenty years, when you will look back and be astounded by how far you have come. It will make you cringe but also give you courage. 

But I promised you the big secret of writing gripping characters, not all this blather about how much you have yet to learn. Don't worry. That wasn't click bait. 

It's only that my writing students have been teaching me that new and talented writers who can dance with language, produce dazzling sentences, craft sturdy and beautiful paragraphs and plot a snappy narrative believe they have it made and often refuse to consider technical terms. They assume they know the "rules" already, even when they don't. 

My writing students recently swore to me that they know what P.O.V. means. Their manuscripts tell another tale. 

So, I decided to put this out there. The single most important key to writing gripping characters is the correct and deft use of Point of View. As you probably already know, Point of View (abbreviated to P.O.V.) refers to the perspective your story is narrated from. It goes beyond the difference between first person versus third person. Or the mandatory caveat that stories can technically be written in second person, but that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean you should. 

There is also the difference between limited P.O.V. and omniscient, i.e. whether the reader feels like a bug sitting in your character's brain, listening to his/her thoughts and watching the action through his/her eyes, or feels like the God of monotheistic religions, sitting on a cloud and viewing the whole thing from above. As the terms hint, the former is called "limited" P.O.V. and the latter is called "omniscient."

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

Creative Commons image by Dennis Skley

If the terminology of "first person" and "third person" gives you trouble, here is an excellent beginner's guide to P.O.V. But what I am discussing in this post goes a bit beyond the bare bones. 

Many writers think of P.O.V. as a simply a technical decision you make at the beginning of a writing project, like the verb tense you will use. You decide whether or not you will tell the story as "I" and in the present moment, so that the reader feels like they are the main character and the events are happening right now OR if you will tell a story about another person--a guilt-ridden old man, a reckless young woman or some other "he" or " she"--and in some long distant fantasy age or possibly a yet unforeseen future.  And ,many writers believe that once the decision has been made that's the end of it and that gripping characters can be had with any tense or P.O.V.

Many will argue that P.O.V. is not character development and thus it has nothing to do with how gripping your characters are.

But they'll be wrong.

Deciding which P.O.V. to use is no small thing. It's a momentous choice and not one you can change easily. I can tell you from bitter experience, that if you change your mind two chapters into a story and decide to change your P.O.V. you should definitely not attempt to edit your chapters to reflect the change. You should start from scratch and write the chapters again. P.O.V. affects everything, every turn of phrase and many things too subtle for anyone to consciously edit well. 

The reason for this gets at the root of why P.O.V. is the key to gripping characters. 

Here is a hard truth. Despite all this talk of different P.O.V.s in fiction, there is in reality only one P.O.V.:

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

Creative Commons image by Jimmy Baikovicius

The reader.

I'm serious. At the very least, it's the only one that matters. When you read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you are presented with a myriad of different P.O.V.s but they all meet at one point. They all meet in the reader. The reader feels and understands the various characters, knows their fears and anger, grits their teeth in frustration and clings to fleeing hope. 

How does Martin manage to get readers so hotly engaged in the characters and the story and keep them that way for years... a lot of years?

It is primarily because when Martin wrote, he clearly took the position of each character in turn, put himself in those shoes and smelled what that character smelled, felt what he or she felt, burned with the anger of that character and knew the history of that character--even the history not specifically stated in the pages. 

New writers make P.O.V. mistakes a lot, chief among them being what we call "head-hopping." You can technically avoid head-hopping by learning what it is and how to avoid it from a technical standpoint. But there is an easier short-cut to avoiding it and one that will inevitably make your characters grip the reader more.

Try this exercise. After you finish reading this, take your hands off your keyboard, close your eyes and form the image of the character who you want to tell your next story. I don't care if this is the kennel boy, the vapid alien, the plucky rookie cop or an omniscient God.  Make up an image. Then make up an image of a video camera in your hand. Put your eyes into the camera and then your ears and lastly your heart. Make sure they are firmly inside this camera. And then hand the camera to your character.

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Creative Commons image by Ed Brambley

Good. Now, go write. But write ONLY what that camera in the hands of your character sees and hears and feels. 

If you are writing the next big thing after A Song of Ice and Fire and you need to jump from character to character, take a moment each time you want to make the switch to a different character. Envision the next character and clearly see within your mind the character who had the camera last handing the camera to the next character. Then continue writing. 

Don't just switch without taking the time for this exercise or some similar moment of concentration and visualization. You must take this time and engage in a conscious process of switching. That is the key to writing gripping characters.

Not just deciding on a P.O.V. and not just choosing the "correct" one for your type of story, which is a debatable issue. But rather the clear understanding of what your P.O.V. can see and hear and feel.

Your book may not be a movie and you may not even want it to have a film-like feel. That doesn't matter. Your narrator still can only experience what he/she/it experiences. No more. 

You can have the camera held by one person and thus see all closely from that person's perspective, including understanding their inner world and feelings of that one character and misunderstanding and guessing at the feelings and thoughts of other characters. Or you can give the camera to God and point it at the characters, seeing all of them more objectively, yet not delving deep into their inner thoughts and emotions. But you cannot have it both ways without a clear break.

Keep in mind that characters cannot actually see themselves, unless they are looking in a mirror. You cannot start a sentence describing a character's facial features and ending with his inner, unspoken fears. Well, physically you can of course, if you really want to. There are plenty of examples of a character looking into a mirror and noting their appearance and then continuing with their inner thoughts. But this is an overused technique and should only be employed if it comes up as a completely obvious choice for your character. If you create this kind of sentence without the mirror and thus imply looking from the outside and then the inside of the person at the same time, you will destroy your reader's experience and turn readers away from your character. Such a character does not hold interest or empathy. 

When I explained this in classes, one student responded by pulling out examples from classical literature in which this rule has been broken by famous authors of the distant past. The question was plain. Do I dare to challenge the titans of fiction?

Well, in some ways I do. We don't look down on the great medieval painters because they painted stiff, portraits of children with faces that appear middle aged. But neither do we emulate them. Crafts progress and P.O.V. is one way in which the craft of fiction writing has developed over the past several hundred years. 

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of

Creative Commons image by Isawkins of

On the other hand, many early works are quite good and have a magic of their own. I didn't claim that P.O.V. is the answer to everything, just the key to gripping characters. Engaging character development was not always the highest goal of the fiction writer. In the ages before Facebook and on-demand TV, fiction could take at least a little longer to get around to the point and characters could be a bit less gripping in favor of other virtues of the prose.

Today, however, they can't.

Either you grip your reader or you die. All writers must die as George Martin would probably say. The question is whether or not you will die in obscurity without your stories being read.

If you want to grab readers, make your characters grip. And in order to make them grip, be absolutely certain of your P.O.V. and stick to it. Never forget who is is holding your camera at any given moment and be firmly inside their experience as you write. 

There is more to writing gripping characters of course, things like character description, motive, character arc, background and believable interactions--all things I will discuss in other posts. But getting the P.O.V. right and sticking to it is more important than any of that. Without a solid and steady P.O.V. there is no character to develop. 

I love connecting to fellow writers. Let's share our experiences. Drop me a line below and tell me and other readers about your experiences with writing P.O.V. Have you made any dramatic mistakes with P.O.V.?  What is your favorite P.O.V.? Are these terms new to you or have you been wrestling the beast for some time?

Be well and keep writing.

How to market on-line... from someone NOT selling a book on the subject

I’ve got to be honest here. This is unlikely to be the most popular blog post about social media and on-line marketing. That’s because I am not going to tell you this is the best time to be an author, entrepreneur or creative artist and there is a ton of money just waiting for you once you buy my book on marketing and use my simple five-step plan. That’s what a lot of sites say and it’s a more palatable message than the truth.

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

I’ve spent the last three years busting my butt looking for answers in this field, trying out quite a few things myself and watching many of my fellows crash and burn. I have no intention of writing or selling a book about how to market on-line. So I don’t need to make things sound better than they are in order to sell you something.

And yet I want to tell what I have learned. 

“Why?” I can hear you asking. “If you know so much about it, why don’t you just write your own book on marketing?”

I’m not writing my own book on marketing because I don’t see any quick or easy ways to do it. The whole rigmarole around selling such books by promising unrealistic fantasies of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps makes me physically ill and tempted to violence against innocent pieces of computer hardware (because the authors of said drivel are out of my reach). 

The real impetus behind me wanting to blog about how to market on-line is that I get spammed every day by dozens of new entrepreneurs and authors tagging me in their posts about their new cover, their new jewelry line, their new Amazon discount deal or some such as well as new the same people force-adding me to their fan groups and fan events, thus dumping dozens more emails in my inbox before I have a chance to opt out of these spammy groups and events. I mostly just delete these spammers, sometimes unfriending them if I have time. Occasionally I vent my frustration with irate messages asking them to stop spamming me and suggesting that this is an unwise marketing strategy for books or anything else. 

But the other day I took a different tact. I was in an especially good mood, so instead of ranting and deleting or even ignoring, I simply sent the spammer a concerned note, explaining their tagging tactic was going to backfire and make people hate them. And instead of an irate response back, which is usually what you get for your trouble, this one thanked me, said he was very new to marketing and asked for advice. 

He was the author of an erotic thriller—something I would read AFTER I finished all the technical manuals and pukey romances, if I were stranded on Mars for years without access to any other reading material. In case you can’t tell, I find erotic books excruciatingly boring. I know. I’m weird, but all readers are weird in one way or another and this guy seriously had the wrong reader demographic going. I had to tell him.

So in the interests of reducing spam and of having a blog post to send future newbies, here is what I know about on-line marketing.

What doesn’t work

Spamming doesn’t work. I know you’ve probably read marketing things that say a person has to see your book or product X number of times before they’ll be likely to buy it and so you’re trying to fill that number by making sure people see it on social media. 

Here are the problems with that concept:

  • “Likes” not the number of posts determine what people get to see. When you start out you post about your new book or product a few times and your enthusiastic friends and family “like” the post. That gets you an initial boost but after awhile not even your friends and family are going to “like” or actually enjoy your repeated marketing posts.
  • So if you continue posting about your book or product the algorithms determining what your “friends” on social media see in their news feed will almost never choose you. 
  • There is way too much noise. Those marketing books were written about an era when advertising meant billboards and TV commercials, possibly direct mail leaflets. At that time, people were presented with one advertisement at a time and if there was a snappy logo involved, it would eventually sink in after several exposures and they would have the general feeling that this is a known (and thus inherently somewhat trustworthy) brand. That’s the whole rationale behind the X-number-of-views theory.
  • In 2016, you can toss it out, right along with your old TV. Today the on-line environment means multiple ads coming at us all the time from the top, bottom, sides and often the center of our screens. People’s brains get used to skimming and jumping.
  • Add to that the fact that there are billions of on-line products and logos being marketed and the chance that anyone is going to subconsciously get the sense that your logo is trustworthy simply by encountering advertising is minuscule, even if you have a fairly large budget. 

That’s why many on-line marketers turn to tactics that cause potential customers to remember them with hate rather than trust. These tactics primarily involve ensuring that your message gets specially delivered to the individual.

These marketers use whatever Facebook or Twitter or other social media happen to be directly delivering to people at the moment. Right now on Facebook this means adding people to groups and events without permission and tagging people in posts. Both of these tactics are legal on Facebook and they result in the person added or tagged getting a special message about it—a message that always gets delivered rather than just sitting in the news feed que and possibly not being seen at all like regular posts.

Some marketers feel that they have somehow “earned” the attention because they have to input each name to be added or tagged individually and it is actually quite a bit of work. But whatever the marketers think, the result is still the same. They are forcing the random people they target to deal with yet one more message in their already swamped on-line environment. This either results in the person swiftly dismissing the spam or in the person taking a moment to notice and hate the product presented.

Don’t do these things.

Don’t post tons of posts about your book or product, don’t in fact try to get random people to see your message X number of times and don’t send random people special messages about your book or product, so that they have to take the small action of deleting your message and/or opting out of your spamming group or event.

These tactics don’t work. If they worked for someone else it was before 2011 or they are a celebrity of some kind already.

What does work… sort of

There are no quick fixes. The book market is completely saturated--over-saturated by orders of magnitude. Many other on-line markets are similarly flooded. It is very unlikely for a new author, artist or innovator to break in without several years of work, unless you have some prior celebrity and a big publisher or distributor (and even then it isn't a done deal). But from three years of hard full-time work, a ton of reading and discussions with more experienced marketers, I have observed a couple of strategies that provide some returns:

Creative Commons image by 401(K) 2012 of

Creative Commons image by 401(K) 2012 of

Strategy 1: Find a clear-cut genre and write A LOT of books in that genre (more than ten, twenty books is better) following genre standards to the letter and write snappy, easily read prose.

This is not about writing “well.” It is about writing what the largest group of readers wants and that is not actually in line with good prose. It is instead about keeping everything ultra simple, both plot and prose. Characters must fit popular beauty standards and the problems and solutions in the books must pander to the current trends of the age group of the your ideal readers. Avoid controversial subjects or main characters representing minority groups. 

Then give away a few books for free, sell the rest cheap and blog about your genre incessantly. The same might be applied to music, I suppose, but with physical products this mainly requires producing the cheapest and least environmentally-responsible product you can. I’m not saying this is a good tactic. It’s a soul-destroying tactic for either writers, artists or other businesses, but I have observed that it has some merits as a marketing strategy. It can make someone a living.

Strategy 2: Choose an underrepresented non-fic topic and write a book or two about that. Alternatively specifically include characters representing minority groups or other demographic niches (not genre so much as demographics). Sell those but blog incessantly about your topic, minority or nich and advertise your books in each blog post.

This can be applied to physical products as well. Simply choose to sell something that is unavailable or not widely available on-line but needed by a specific group of people (even they are only 0.2 percent of the population) and then blog the hell out of it. It takes several years to break in and you need some luck. First, you had better be right that your product or book niche is both underrepresented and needed. And you have to hope that several other businesses don’t come up with the same idea at the same moment or slightly earlier than you.

I recently found exactly the product I needed for my hyperactive child who legitimately needs to chew on something in order to focus. I found one on-line company that could demonstrate a track record and had nice-looking chewies designed for older kids (not babies) made from materials that don’t pose a health risk. I had never heard of the company before but they got my business right then, because I searched and they had a blog and it demonstrated knowledge and a track record. I bought $50 worth of products from them immediately. No X number of views. Just a niche need met. This is a much better strategy than the first but it does require you to have a niche and to blog for free for months, probably years before you ever see payday. 

Strategy 3: Finally, you can write or make only what you are passionate about, blog incessantly about the topics and themes connected to those books or products, advertise the books or products beside each related blog post, offer a free book or sample for subscribers to your blog, blog at least once a week, post your blog posts on social media where people may actually really want to read them, such as matching-topic Facebook groups or Twitter tags.

Thus I write fantasy and blog about herbs because fantasy readers often like herbs and there are herbs in my books. I write dystopia and I blog about social exclusion and social justice issues related to the themes. This has gained me a mailing list of five hundred truly interested people in one year and favorable Facebook and Google algorithm ratings. Some people now come to my site by searching Google for some of my keywords. I don't have to rely on having a huge number of Facebook friends or on manually inputting their names into spam methods, because I can reach people who aren't friends with me at all by putting interesting posts into Facebook herbalist groups that will actually enjoy them.

Creative Commons image by Pictures of Money of

Creative Commons image by Pictures of Money of

One reason I actually encourage you to indulge your own passions and write about what you love is that you won't have to do nearly as much research and the research you do have to do will give you added energy. I could have blogged about the history of the fantasy genre to support my books, but then I would have had to do a lot of extra research. I know medicinal herbs already, so I can blog about that. I want to avoid doing a ton of research, not because I'm lazy but because you never get paid to blog and you have to be able to keep it up for YEARS in order for it to matter. So pick a topic you don't have to research too hard.

This isn’t a hugely effective strategy, but it does get you a mailing list of actually interested people. It is most lucrative when combined with a niche market (see strategy 2) with very little competition. But it is also something you can do to feed your soul, while paying the bills with another job and having the hope that with consistent effort over many years, you may be able to make your living doing what you love. Honestly, only one in several thousand people will ever succeed with Strategy 3, but that is also the strategy that has produced some of the most remembered writers of history, who were often unknown in their lifetimes but were eventually discovered and recognized for their intense passion. 

All of these strategies have one thing in common—the specific desire of the potential customer. In Strategy, 1 you cater to the largest known customer base, giving them what they want for as little as possible at all cost to quality and your own creativity--banking on the fact that although you will never be great you can make a living by simply having so many trickles of income that it adds up. In Strategy 2, you find a niche market in need of something and then fill that need. Here you have to price your products a bit higher (sometimes very high) because the market is small. In Strategy 3, you focus on your own passions and work on connecting with people who share the same passions and thus the desire for what you have to offer. 

Contrast this with the author of the erotic thriller who dumped his video trailer in my inbox. No attempt was made to determine if I or anyone else tagged by his dozens of posts was at all interested in his topic. He simply fired his shotgun and let the random pellets spray. Pounding the average person with random ads will only get them to block you, delete your Facebook "friendship" and cut off all contact if they can. Thus it isn't good marketing. Blog about the themes of your books or possibly your genre if you are aiming for the mass market.

All three of these strategies share one more thing and that is a stand-alone webpage. I know there are Facebook business pages and I have asked experts about them, but I have not been able to determine whether or not they are good for anything. There was once a time (back in the dinosaur days of 2012) when Facebook business pages were considered "social credit," meaning a potential customer could go to your business page and see that you had a ton of "likes" and thus believe that yours is a moderately trustworthy brand. Facebook business pages and Twitter accounts show how many people have been persuaded one way or another to “like” your page, although bundles of “likes” are also for sale, so the credibility this affords is ever decreasing. However, these pages don’t really do much to get your message out to the people who want what you have to offer. The best base for any of the reasonably functional strategies is a stand alone website. 

So, here’s what I told the erotic thriller guy: 

"If you write thrillers with a macho, gun-porn sort of aesthetic and you know a lot about guns, blog about guns. (Just an example. I have no idea what your thrillers are like.) And then you get on Twitter and FB and post the link to your blog with hashtags and in "Facebook groups" that like posts about guns—such as hunter's groups, NRA people, Republicans, survivalists, ranchers and men’s groups with that particular atmosphere. And then people who actually like guns will click on your link, go to your page, read your post, sign up for your mailing list to get more such posts and... eventually some of them buy your books, if you were actually right that people who like guns might also like your books. It's tricky and a hell of a lot of work, several times more work than writing a good book, but it actually allows you to post on social media in a way people will applaud rather than hate and thus they will like you rather than hate you. No one really has ever sold anything by annoying people. It only seems like they must have because annoying random people is the most common (and the most unsuccessful) marketing tactic."

I wish everyone out there good luck in finding those who want what you are selling. They very likely do exist even if you’re selling a thneed.


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Four magic spells you can cast on your novel with a fictional language - Advanced Writing Tips

In my last post, you learned about the building materials needed to make a fictional language. Nuts and bolts, verbs and nouns, bricks and cement—that sort of thing. You could stop there if all you need is a few sentences of dialogue to add an exotic feel to a character who is supposed to be from another culture in your story. But the real magic and usually the whole reason for creating a fictional language for your story goes a lot deeper--to a level that makes your settings and characters live and breathe.

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Creative Commons image by Nick Kenrick

Language is part of culture and culture is part of your fictional setting--the environment that shapes your characters. As such, when writers invest time and effort in creating fictional languages the purpose isn’t just a generalized exotic atmosphere, but rather a technique for shaping characters and social setting in specific ways. With languages, we can play with psychology and symbols and get deeper ideas across without having to spell them out and spoil the plot.

Creating a fictional language is a wonderful way to manipulate the culture and setting of the world in your novel because you become like a true magician. By uttering a few words, you create massive changes. As such, you must be careful what you wish for. Subtle things in a language can have far reaching effects. 

Here are a few of the magic spells you can cast—or avoid casting—depending on your needs.

1. Play with gender and other social divisions

I mentioned gender briefly in the post about grammar. Many languages show the gender of a person being spoken about. Others even make clear the gender of the speaker, meaning that little boys and little girls actually have to learn to speak in two different ways. But it isn't a given. Some languages may not point out gender so much.

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt 

Take a moment to think about the possible consequences for the culture. As a general rule, linguists have found that languages that emphasize gender are found in cultures where gender roles are very clear cut and inflexible. English makes it very hard to avoid spelling out whether or not a person being spoken or written about is a man or a woman. This has caused a lot of frustration for English-speaking feminists, who wish to break down stereotypes and avoid the second reference to a theoretical doctor or repairman as “he” or a nurse as “she.” In recent decades, many people have tried to avoid this with cumbersome constructions, like “he/she” or “they” used in the singular, or with obscure, made-up pronouns like “ze” and “xe.”

That may seem like a big problem to English-speaking feminists, but take a language like Spanish, where even the adjectives show what gender the person you’re talking about is, and all nouns are associated with a gender. Talk about stereotypes and assumptions!

Then there are the Slavic languages—like the Czech my children are growing up to speak—where it isn’t just pronouns, nouns and adjectives but even verbs! You cannot say anything about what you have done in the past without giving away your gender. Avoiding the gender of a person is almost impossible even in the shortest sentences. As a result, gender-neutral names are anathema and officially illegal. They would cause no end of confusion. Small boys in this culture—my son included—often encounter a strange problem because as toddlers they are exposed primarily to women’s speech at home and thus inadvertently speak like females for a few years, not having heard enough male speech to form it correctly. Men often come down heavy on this quirk of little boys and thus reinforce the patriarchal idea that being female is shameful. Gender roles are often starkly defined.

What does this mean for your fictional language? Well first of all, if your story takes place in a culture with heavily defined gender roles, make sure the language has lots of gender definition in it. You can point out these issues, even if your dialogue is actually written in English. How characters think about language and the mistakes people notice others make in language are both keys to cultural norms and can say volumes about the social environment without you having to explain. 

On the other hand, if you want to claim that your fictional culture is not hung up on gender and is thus more equitable, you will need to do away with this sort of gender differentiation in the language. Preferably don’t even use separate pronouns for “he” and “she.”

My own example comes from The Kyrennei Series. It isn’t until Book 5, that the Kyren language is more deeply explained, but there are earlier hints about gender neutrality. As in many fictional languages where the author wants to emphasize gender equity, there is no specific pronoun for “he” and “she” in Kyren. 

However, almost all societies do have divisions. (If yours doesn’t, where will your necessary, fictional conflict come from?) It is an excellent idea to emphasize the most crucial social divisions in your grammar. What if instead of “he” and “she,” you had separate pronouns for peasants and nobility?  Your social structure would be locked in place even more rigidly than medieval Europe. Peasants and nobility might not even be considered to be of the same species! 

In my Kyren language, the division that is not apparent between genders exists between the old and the young and between those who are Kyren and those who are not. There are four different pronouns for “he/she” (and another four for “they” for that matter. In Kyren, you get no breaks for speaking in the plural.) 

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

Creative Commons image by  Rusty Clark

There is a pronoun for a young Kyren person and one for an old Kyren person. There are also pronouns for a young non-Kyren outsider and for an old, non-Kyren outsider. Just to make it more fun, all nouns come in these categories too, just as nouns have gender in Spanish. The verb endings  reflect the same differences. 

This tells the reader—without anyone ever saying it outright—that the ancient Kyren culture was obsessed with age, respectability and Kyren versus outsider status. There are important reasons for this as any Kyrennei Series reader will know. That’s why it's magic. This kind of game with gender and social divisions can paint vivid pictures and spark massive conflict in your setting. 

But go cautiously at first! As with all powerful magic, there are costs and pitfalls. Keeping the words of the spell (and the grammatical endings) straight can be an immense task, if you complicate your language in this way. At the very least, you should play with it a bit before inserting it into a book. If you want to tackle encoding social divisions in your language, make sure that everything I wrote in the last post about the building materials of language is very familiar first.

2. Fun with time

Most languages change their verbs a bit to show when something is happening in the present (you’re reading), in the past (I wrote), or in the future (you’ll write). There are some languages that don’t entirely separate these ideas of time, however. Or they may do so in ways English speakers would find unsatisfactory. 

One could say that English is a bit obsessed with pinpointing time exactly. We have at least twelve basic verb tenses, all of which we consider to impart crucial bits of information. Consider the differences between the sentences “I will have written it by tomorrow” and “Tomorrow I will have been writing it for a week.” Most languages would have to go into quite a lot of explanations to make sure you got all the nuance of difference between those sentences.

Why does English have so many verb tenses? Possibly our ancestors worshiped clocks. Hard to say but if you want to make a society obsessed with time, you had better give them at least a moderate number of verb tenses. 

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Creative Commons image by Alice Popkorn

Conversely, if you want to protray a society where people live in the moment and emphasize their phlegmatic relationship with time, you don’t have to give them verb tenses at all. If they really need to specify that they fought a battle yesterday, they can just say, “We fight yesterday.” The point gets across. And there are real languages like this.

What if you’re writing science fiction and you have a society that is very familiar with time travel? They would almost have to do without verb tenses. Thus it would not be so important whether the battle already happened or will happen in the future. That’s relative and might even be changeable. 

As with gender and other divisions, be careful with over complication. But also have fun. Time is a lovely play thing.

3. Making your characters prejudiced

A prejudice is simply an assumption or a pre-conceived notion. It does not mean your character is bad. Everyone, even good people, make assumptions all the time. And many assumptions and prejudices stem from the very language we speak. 

Terminology, such as the word “disabled,” creates assumptions. When a person (or a machine) is called “dis-abled” our English-speaking brain assumes that this means it is less able in general, even though what we actually mean is that one certain function works differently. In today’s society some “disabilities” such as deafness, may not really “dis-able” the individual in any significant way. Deaf people simply speak a different language. We all have differing abilities and lack of ability in various areas. Whether you are called “disabled” or not, you know if you are a fast runner or if you have perfect pitch. Often certain abilities will be mutually exclusive. You can’t have both the strength of a body-builder and the speed and agility of a prime soccer offense player. The two don’t work well together, but neither is considered “dis-ability.”  

In fiction, you could construct a language where terms for bodily abilities were different and thus created different, possibly more open-minded assumptions. Of if you want to heighten conflict in your story (always good for your plot), you could construct terminology that actually increases assumptions. Consider the interesting real-world fact that the word for German in many Slavic languages literally means “those who can’t talk.” It is very similar to the modern word for “mute.” One can see what the ancient Slavic tribes thought of the ancient Germanic tribes. But the assumptions carry over subliminally even until today. You can do this in fictional languages as well.

In the Kyrennei Series, the term “Kyrennei”  means “people of the night spirits”  or something of the like. Their term for people who aren’t Kyrennei is “Nyttanah”  which means “people of the day spirits.”  There are all kinds assumptions and prejudices that pop up because of these two terms. I don’t mean by this that my characters are bad and evil racists. I simply mean that they are reawakening an ancient culture which makes certain assumptions and this does play into some of the conflict. 

Another way to show assumptions and prejudices is in the use of adjectives and nouns. As I said earlier, putting a certain gender to each noun will automatically cause people to leap to certain associations with that noun. School is feminine in many cultures and castle or fortress is usually masculine. If it were the other way around that would say something interesting about the culture. But there are many other ways to do this beyond gender.

The best way to show this trick is by example. In my fictional language, Kyren you cannot say an adjective such as “big”  or “small”  without giving away what you think about the person or thing being described. Adjectives have endings that show whether the speaker thinks the attribute (such as largeness or smallness) is temporary or permanent. Thus if you say a child is small, you will use a temporary ending. But if you say an adult is temporarily large the connotation is quite different. In fact, in the world of the Kyrennei an adult can be only temporarily large--generally those who carry Kyrennei genes but are born into Nyttanah bodies. If they undergo a genetic change, they will become smaller, more the size of a young tween.  

And the ending also changes depending on whether or not the speaker thinks that all similar people or objects generally share that attribute--in this case temporary largeness and whether the person or object is unique in being being temporarily large. So, if you speak about a child as small, you will either say the child is temporarily small like all children or temporarily uniquely small to say the child is small for the age. There is no middle ground. You have to choose in order to use the adjective “small” in Kyren. 

This is a very advanced linguistic trick but it can define your society in interesting ways. If you force the language to reveal the assumptions of the speaker, whether those assumptions are about groups of people or objects (as in Kyren) or about whether or not actions are completed or not (as in many real-world languages) you will force your people to be cautious in their wording and create cultures where offense is given easily. 

4. Showing the love

Good fiction must have conflict and that is why most of my language-tweaking suggestions involve giving your fictional culture problems and tensions. But there is another way to create conflict—love. 

That’s right. Make your people love something and then threaten it, abuse it or deny it to them and you’ll have more conflict than you know what to do with. But the deeper the love runs, the greater the passion will be. 

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

Creative Commons image by Gisela Giardino

And there is nothing deeper in psychology than the way we use language. 
So, if you want to make your fictional characters love something with a deep, irrational passion or show a cultural reverence for age, wisdom, freedom, youth, piety, virginity, sex or whatever, encode it in the language.

First of all, you can make words connected to those things you want your fictional people to revere romantic and beautiful in sound. This can be particularly effective when the thing you’re adopting as a social obsession is actually something modern society thinks of as negative, such as death or sex. 

This is a good place to make up idioms. You can make positive associations between words that today’s real-world culture might not see as positive.

Here's a real world example from the Czech language. When a person wants to say that a situation, idea or thing is NOT good in Czech, they might say, “It’s not greasy and salty.” While not being greasy and salty (especially applied to things that aren’t food) is generally considered a good thing in modern culture, that phrase dates back to a time when the poor peasants in this landlocked country desired salt and fat (usually a priceless bit of lard) above all else. And the phrase is still widely used today. Language shows what we desire and love.

Obviously idioms can just as easily show what a culture despises or does not value. In English, when we say, “The CEO made a blind decision,” we aren’t just saying a bad thing about the CEO, we’re also expressing a cultural assumption about blindness as unwise or stupid. If you are aware of these markers and use them in the dialogue of your characters as fictional idioms, you can create complex loves and hates in a reader without ever having to resort to the more obvious tricks of the trade.

These are a few of the advanced, professional-grade power tools used by writers when constructing a fictional language. Pulling it all together can take time, especially if you make the language overly complex. But you may not need as much of it as you think. Insert a few specific idioms into your English-language dialogue and you’ve essentially hinted at a fictional language. If used consistently and with care the bits and pieces can make the cultural setting of your story shine.

Creating a fictional language - Step 1: Mastering the building materials

J.R.R. Tolkien has long been seen as the master of fictional languages—a genius in fact—and many writers I talk to say they would never attempt to repeat his feats because that would require being an academic linguist.

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

Creative Commons image by Dianne Lacourciere

My bachelor’s degree is in linguistics—Slavic linguistics to be exact. And I had the great honor to study with professor George Smalley at Lawrence University in Wisconsin in the 1990s. However, I’m not an expert or a true academic linguist. And still I can make a very credible fictional language, and I can tell you that it isn’t as difficult as it looks. There are amateur pitfalls to avoid, certainly, but the background necessary to start a fictional language can be laid out in a few steps.

The first and most indispensable step for making a fictional language without looking silly is mastering the parts of speech or the building materials that you'll use to construct your language. The essential issue is that you don’t want to take a sentence like, “I’m going to cut off your stinking head, you barbarian!” and translate it word for word simply by making up a word for each word in the sentence. That would result in something like “Gwa’l tori ik akshi ma lu yelim krat, dre marano!” 

Even if you wrote each one of these words down in your notebook and remembered them well enough to use “dre” for “you” the next time you wrote a sentence, it still would be silly. For one thing “dre” doesn’t appear to be related to “lu.” And it should be, because “you” and “your” always have some relation in any language. Beyond that “am going to cut” is one verb and in most languages it would be one word, maybe two. English is a bit strange that it makes so many little words out of one verb. 

If you tried to make a fictional language by the method of translating every word from English, it would not only be silly, it would be insanely difficult to maintain for more than a sentence or two because of the finicky little words you'd have to keep track of, like "am" and "to." 

Creative commons image by Avenue G of

Creative commons image by Avenue G of

The key to making a believable fictional language and not going nuts while you do it is having a good grasp of your building materials and making your own rules for them. For most people, the most difficult part of creating a fictional language is reviewing what you learned in middle school English class about verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles and the like.

Now stop that! Your eyes are glazing over. I can smell it. I’m not going to make you diagram sentences. But essentially if you can keep these few terms straight, you can make a fictional language that no one can sneer at.


A verb is an action. (Sit, run, be, am, am going, are sitting, was running, has been reading—be careful of the fact that many verbs in English are made up of more than one word but that’s really the only tricky part.)

There are no known languages that don’t have verbs of some sort. The main trick to this part is making sure you’re using the whole verb. In the sentence “I will have been writing for ten years next week” the verb is “will have been writing.” That’s four words in English (not even counting the pronoun), but in many languages it would be one word. It is much easier to simplify your verbs in this way. You don’t need a word for each of the four words “will have been writing.” .

Instead what you need is a rule. Take the most important word from that verb—”writing”—and make up a word that means “to write” in your fictional language. Let’s say you make up “Falimanesa.” Great! That sounds suitably grand for our noble profession. 

But stop a minute and look more closely at your fictional word. You must decide what about it makes it basic verb in your language. Is it that it starts with F?  Or is it that it ends in “esa” or just A? Usually it’s the beginning or the ending. Just as English has “to” to show that we’re talking about the basic verb “to write” other languages have their own ways to mark a verb.

Let’s say you decide to go the easy route, like I would. Looking at your first fictional verb, you decide that all basic verbs will end in A. (Vowels are a good choice for the standard ending.) So "Falimanesa" is "to write" and "Bida" is "to eat," and so on. Just build a word list as you go. If you only need a few sentences of a fictional language in your book, it won't even be that many words but it will look like it's a real language.

Then it’s time to decide how complicated your grammar will be. In the beginning, it is best to start out simple, which means you probably won’t have much beyond a past tense, a present tense and a future tense. 

Past tense is things like “I wrote,” “I was writing,” and “I had written.” In your fictional language you do not need separate words for these different English phrases. They’re all just past. They happened. It’s over. 

Present tense is things like “I write,” “I’m writing,” and “I have been writing.” Don’t complicate it. Make them all the same. The same goes for future tense. There is no need to have a different form for “I’ll write,” and “I’m going to be writing.” They are in the future. If you want to make your life difficult and have a degree in linguists somewhat more advanced than mine, feel free to ignore this.

Now you need to have a simple rule for your three verb tenses. Let’s say you make all writing in the past be “Falimanesan,” all writing in the present be “Falimanesat,” and all writing in the future be “Falimanesas.”

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Creative Commons image by Juhan Sonin

Simple. Elegant. Easy to remember. Past verbs end in AN, present in AT and future in AS. Yes, most languages have exceptions but don’t tinker with that until you’ve mastered this. You can also theoretically make your verb change depending on what the subject is. It can be as simple as the difference between English “I run” and “he runs.” But it isn’t necessary and at first it is better to keep it simple. It will look complicated enough both to you and to your reader by the time you’re done.

In the fictional example of my sentence about cutting off heads. We need a verb for “to cut.” Let’s make it dramatic like, “aksha.” To show that the cutting is going to happen in the future (however near) we’ll use “akshas.” 


A noun is a “person, place or thing.” (Yup, you probably remember that from grade school. "Dog", "house," "houseboat," "you," "Mr. Blip the alien" and "I" are all nouns.) 

Theoretically, nouns can be simpler than verbs. You don’t really NEED to have various forms of nouns. But you should be aware that most languages do have some rules. In many languages, nouns have a gender—masculine, feminine or neutral. Some languages have even more than that, although they aren’t called gender anymore but “noun classes.” The basic thing is that if you have a gender, it’s best to find a way to show which gender your noun is by its spelling just as we did with basic verbs ending in A. You could say all masculine nouns will end in O and all feminine nouns will end in hard-sounding consonants like T, K, G, B and D. It all depends on the gender roles in your fictional society. 

It’s also good to know that many languages change their nouns depending on where they are in a sentence or context. This is called “case.” You don’t have to do it and I recommend not dealing with it if you don’t yet know what a noun case is. But you will need to have a way to show the difference between singular and plural nouns (dog vs. dogs). You will also need to add something to your nouns, when you run into prepositions like “to” and “for” and determiners like “my” and “that.” But those can be saved for another section. Just be aware that you’ll probably need to add something to your nouns, either as separate words or added to the beginning or end of the noun.

In my example, we have four nouns “barbarian,” “head,” “you,” and “I.” Let’s say “head” is feminine. So we’ll say, “krat” and the barbarian is a male, so we’ll say, “marano.” 

Now one of the more important parts of a fictional language is what you do with the pronouns. “I” and “you” are not your average nouns. They are pronouns. They’ll get used A LOT. And they don’t have to follow the same rules as other nouns. This is one place to make exceptions. 

If you have made very simple verbs that don’t change depending on who is doing the action, then you really need good pronouns. Make pronouns short and easy to differentiate. We’ll say “I” is “Gwa” and “you” is “Dre.” At this point, it would be a good idea to make up your equivalents of “we,” “he,” “she,” and “they” as well and to decide if you’re going to have separate pronouns for different genders. Just as we have “he” and “she,” you could easily have different genders in the words “I” and “you.” But you don’t have to. In fact, you don't have to have separate words for "he" and "she." Feminists will be thrilled. But it's worth thinking about what gender is like in the society where your language is spoken.

Adjectives and Adverbs

An adjective describes a noun. (Green, huge, multi-faceted and monstrous—all prime suspects.)
An adverb describes the action of a verb (slowly, wildly, on Tuesday, for weeks on end—are all adverbs and like verbs in English many of them are actually phrases of several words.)

Some languages are less likely to use adjectives and adverbs and more likely to have a special verb meaning “to eat slowly.” You can play with such things in a fictional language, but you can also just copy English when it comes to this sort of thing. Tolkien did, so you’d be in good company. 

It will be helpful to you and it's general good linguistic policy if there is some way to tell what is an adjective and what is an adverb by the spelling, just as we did with nouns and verbs. English has the ending “ly” to differentiate a lot of adjectives. Let’s say adjectives are going to end in IR and adverbs are going to end in ESE. In this fictional language. To make it simple they all will. Not just some as with the LY ending in English.

The one place to be careful is in adverb phrases like “on Tuesday” and “for weeks on end.” These usually tell how long something is going on and it is better to use one word for these phrases or at least come up with a consistent way of making them. 

The only descriptive word in my example is “stinking.” Let’s say “yelimir” but make a little note in your notebook that “to stink” had better bear some resemblance to this word and end in A. Probably should end up as “yelima” for the verb “to stink.”


Prepositions are words that prep another word or phrase. 

“In,” “at,” “under,” “around,” “before,” and “of” are all prepositions. Some languages don’t make them separate words but rather add a prefix or a suffix to the word that the preposition preps, as if they wrote “the dog is the kitchen-in” instead of “the dog is in the kitchen.”

You can simply translate prepositions straight across. Make up a word for “in” and always use it for “in” when you translate a sentence. Many languages work almost like that. At least they have a word that is a bit like “in” even though it is often used in a few situations where English would use “at” or isn’t used in some instances where English does use it. But in general you don’t have to play with your prepositions. But you can and it is one of the easier ways to make your language more authentic and less like a direct code of English. 

In the fictional language Kyren in The Kyrennei Series I made many prepositions into prefixes, so that instead of a separate word, the preposition is attached to the word it preps. Thus, “of the Kyrennei” becomes “i-Kyrennei.” 

Many real languages use a grammatical function called “case” which essentially acts like a preposition but instead of a separate word, it adds an ending to or otherwise changes the words being prepared. This is very common and English is a bit of an exception because we use almost no cases. (We do use cases when it comes to pronouns. That’s why you say, “You see ME,” instead of “You see I.”)

Some languages use a preposition word in some situations as well as the case ending, but in other situations it is only the ending. For instance, in Czech the word for train is “vlak.” But “in the train” is “ve vlaku.” There is both a preparing word for “in” and an ending. 

If you have not learned a language which uses cases, it is better to avoid using such complexities. But you can easily make a special ending denoting each English preposition word. Your language would then appear at first glance to have cases and no one could really argue with you.

In Czech, going "by train" is simply "vlakem." There is no preposition word for "by" only the case ending. You could think of the ending EM as the equivalent of "by." It isn't quite that simple in Czech, but in a fictional language it would look very authentic.

Let’s use that trick in our example. We need the preposition “off” for the example sentence. But we’re going to add it as an ending to the adjective and the noun, instead of a separate word. So, I say “off” will give a word the ending ARA. So, “Gwa akshas … yelimirara kratara, dre marano!” We still need a word for “your” but we’re getting a lot closer and the sentence is starting to look like a real language. 

Articles and determiners

The English article is “the,” “a” and “an.” The easiest way to deal with these words in a fictional language is just to drop them all together. Most languages do and it doesn’t hurt a thing. Although writing without article in English makes you sound like barbarian, it really doesn’t sound too bad in other languages.

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

Creative Commons image by Jem Henderson

However, other words like “my,” “your,” “some,” “any,” “this” and “that” are very necessary. There are more complex ways to handle them, but for the purpose of making your first fictional language relatively easy, it is best to simply designate a word for each of these. 

Just keep in mind that they should be short and they can’t be entirely arbitrary. Possessives like “my” and “your” should have a clear connection to the pronoun they are related to. So, if “dre” is “you,” then we’ll say “drem” is “your.” 
Words like “this” and “that” are also good to keep slightly related. But that’s a detail.

Other words

Other words such as the connectors “and” and “but” or interesting constructions like “would,” can be handled by simply making up a word to correspond to the English equivalent. That’s the simplest way, even though you can get complicated with many of these concepts as well. 

It’s only advisable to think before you leap. Some words like “since” can be a preposition and a connecting word. And a word like “could” actually is a combination of “can” and “would.” Be aware that some words ending in ING in English look like verbs but they are really nouns. A "human being" is one example. Make your words relate in logical ways as much as possible. You’ll save yourself a headache when trying to use your fictional language and it will look much more believable.

Now go play with your words or else. Gwa akshas drem yelimirara kratara, dre marano!

Must all modern female heroines be unbelievably strong, fearless and invincible?

Maya Gardener is a college student with practical dreams. She's a dutiful daughter, attending church even when she goes away to Michigan Tech. But she doesn't feel like she belongs--not at church, not with the sororities on campus, not with her parents nor anywhere else. She assumes that's because she is both adopted and biracial in a country where the rift between black and white is widening.

And yet that's the least of her troubles. Shadowy authorities are trying to track her down, authorizing "lethal force" to capture her. A guy she thought she liked turned into a maniac, shot up the university and kidnapped her. Maya has good reason to be frightened. Most of us would be.  

"But she isn't like Katniss of the Hunger Games!" a friend who is also a prolific author protested.

"That's true,"  I answered. "She isn't Katniss... or Tris of Divergent for that matter. Her name doesn't even end in 'iss' as seems required of best-selling modern heroines.  But more importantly, she is more like a real woman." 

"But who wants to read about regular old people who aren't superhuman?" my colleague argued. "I want to escape into a fantasy world when I read, not experience a life that is even more miserable as my own." 

"It's easier to fully enter the world of the story, if the characters are like real people." I tried to explain but I wasn't entirely invested in the argument. "Katniss and Tris will always win. You know that from the outset. They don't give me a sense of hope, because I always knew they were in a class apart, superheroes, who I can never measure up to." 

My correspondent wasn't convinced and neither was I. We simply disagree. And readers are bound to disagree as much as writers on this issue. 

Aranka Miko, the heroine of the initial trilogy of The Kyrennei Series, has been compared to Katniss and Tris on occasion. She is feisty. She gets hit with bad stuff and she bounces back. The minute she has a spare breath, she is ready to help rescue others in a similar predicament, regardless of the danger to herself. She stands up to torture and refuses to surrender valuable information to the bitter end.

And there is a kind of hope in that. We need strong heroes and heroines.

As readers, we recognize the strength and courage it takes for the character to survive and even fight back in the face of enormous evil. But how difficult is the path of such a heroine really when she begins with tenacity and ferocity as her strengths? And what can she really do for the world, when you get right down to it? She brought a flicker of hope, but unless the author (ahem) engineers a series of extremely unrealistic events (as some authors have... no naming names here), Aranka won't be able to bring down the powers of tyranny alone. 

To do that, it will take something more than tenacity and ferocity. It will take the kind of strength our own world is in such dire need of.

That kind of strength comes from a real battle within. Deep and authentic hope comes from the understanding that even those of us who do not start out as superheroes, who are small, terrified, wounded and broken can choose our own path in the face of the most horrendous odds. The battle is within us as much as on the outside. 

And that is why Maya Gardner is the heroine of Code of the Outcast (Book 4) of The Kyrennei Series. She is like most of us. She isn't particularly strong or fast or good with a bow. She avoids fighting and conflicts. She freezes up in a crisis. But within her she carries a hidden potential, a spark of something waiting to bloom. If only she can reach out and choose her own path when most of her choices have been taken away. 

Then we would have hope in the darkness of our own world as well. When the choices are hard and uncertain, choosing your own path is an act of great courage.

I love your comments on these posts! What is your favorite type of hero or heroine? Share this article using the icon below and find out what your friends think.

Violence in fiction and the concept of deep hope

Violence in real life is brutal, traumatizing and usually over before you have a chance to think or react. 

I've been mercifully fortunate to undergo only a few incidents of real violence or narrowly averted violence in my life.  I was once grabbed by a man in a dark, deserted street, but I managed to trick him into believing that I had friends in the doorway of a nearby building, so that he let go of me for a second. And I had fast feet.

As a journalist during the conflicts in the Balkans, I often saw the aftermath of violence, but only rarely was I in the middle of it. One terrifying night in the summer of 2001, I ran for my life through dark deserted streets to escape from a mob firing automatic weapons. When I was finally able to get indoors, a man who was out of his head with terror leaped on me and tried to sexually assault me. I fought him off and then had to lay on the floor of a room while bullets whizzed by the open windows and pinged off of the gutters just a few feet away.

Those experiences have given me an idea of what real violence is like, and the discrepancy between that reality and the way violence is usually portrayed in books and movies is often disturbing. Before I had those experiences I found gratuitous violence in fiction to be merely boring. Violence that is divorced from emotion and real human reactions of shock and trauma felt meaningless. After my experiences in conflict areas, it feels both meaningless and disrespectful, dismissive of the experiences of those who have undergone far worse than I have.

Arie's rules of fictional violence

I am reasonably tough and I wasn't traumatized by my experiences. I'm not all that disturbed by reading violence. But I usually avoid books that seem to be primarily about violence.

And yet my books have fictional violence in them. My contemporary fantasy The Kyrennei Series has even been called a thriller by reviewers, due to the violent content. 

Let me lay it out clearly then. I don't write violence the way 80 to 90 percent of action and thriller books are written. Here are my rules of violence in fiction:

  • The violence in a good thriller isn’t where the greatest suspense is. The suspense is in our emotions about the characters.
  • And yet the violence must be integral to the plot. It should not be an aside just stuck in there to titillate. 
  • Violent scenes should be brutal, even traumatic, and avoided when possible by both the characters and writers alike.
  • Violent scenes should not be entirely pleasant even for the reader. Making it purely entertaining is a betrayal. 

That said, there are times when you can’t avoid violence in fiction. And it is better to have it out there than in real life. The story must be told. And The Kyrennei Series is a hard and desperate story. It’s fiction—even fantasy—on the literal plane. And yet there is a deeper level of reality where this story is true. And that truth has to be told. Even when it’s hard.

The road to deep hope leads through darkness

A reader recently told me that my books are like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a great book, and at first I was simply pleased to be favorably compared to an awesome author. But then I realized that The Road is categorized as literary fiction, not popular dystopia. I've been categorizing my books with things like The Hunger Games, not with literary dystopia. 

So, how in the world is The Soul and the Seed like The Road?  

They are in wildly different settings after all. The Road is in a grim, future in a destroyed world where people resort to cannibalism to survive. The Soul and the Seed is set solidly in the present. The dystopia is inherent in today’s socially harsh and physically unsustainable society… with one fatal twist that isn’t even apparent on the surface. 

The similarity is more in the way that violence, despair and emotion are dealt with. Much of the violence in popular urban fantasy and dystopia is “justified” and almost enjoyable to read.

And the violence in my books isn’t fun. It’s all too real. 

Why read it then?

To the readers of books like The Road or The Soul and the Seed, it’s partly the authentic spirit of the people that keeps you glued to the page. It's also the burning questions we carry inside whether we read this sort of thing or not. 

How do we live with despair? How do you go on through anything, no matter how terrible and gut-wrenching? Is hope just wishful thinking?

Authentic answers to these questions have always come hard. But they can be answered in bits and pieces--in the gentleness of a person forced to fight, in the need that binds the strong and the weak together, in the fact that you still seek life and comfort amid horrific circumstances, in the play of children in wartime, in the courage those who know they cannot win..

If you don’t have the darkness--real darkness--true and desperate, how can you have an story about hope?

I wanted to write about these things, but I also wanted to do it in a gripping story without the tiniest whiff of moralistic preaching. I am as much a seeker as the reader. The story is there to sweep you away to another reality while simultaneously making you question your own world, to terrify you and help you feel deeply.

And it may just help you find hope. Or not. Depending. But it will grip you and make you fall in love with the characters, regardless.

An example from The Soul and the Seed

Let me put it technically. The Soul and the Seed has three or four incidents of violence in it, depending on if you count hearing violence at a distance or not. That’s not a peaceful book. But it isn’t that much violence when compared to a book like The Hunger Games, which is (after the first third) essentially a sequence of violent incidents.

And yet readers who have read both The Hunger Games and The Soul and the Seed will often say the latter is scarier and more intense. People who can read about teenagers slaughtering each other in The Hunger Games, sometimes find The Kyrennei Series to be “too much.”

And that's how it goes. a writer can't please everyone. If I want the reader to feel hope deeply, I have to make the reader feel pain deeply as well.

The only problem is with telling readers that. I want to give fair warning about the violence in the series. And yet violence isn’t at the core of the story. There are other readers who find modern fiction too violent who will actually like The Soul and the Seed better than The Hunger Games. Which is more "intense" or "violent" Is to some degree subjective and bases on what kind of violence the reader is prepared to handle.

Sometimes a thing is described best by saying what it is not. I liked the idea of The Hunger Games up until the middle of the first book. But then the violence became mechanical. The emotion slid into melodrama, even though it didn't need to. By the third book the violence read like the description of a video game. It wasn’t painful to read. It was a game.

Not everything must be painful, but if you want real hope, it is likely that getting to it will hurt.

And that is what The Kyrennei Series does. It goes for real hope. Hope that doesn’t pull any punches. And it is wrenching to get there.

Books for 99 cents

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series) will be published on July 7. As of today, it is available for preorder. For just a few days you can get it for 99 cents. Next week the price goes up to $2.99 and then to $3.99 when it's published on July 7.

Book 3 of the series, The Taken and the Free, is on sale this week at 99 cents too, for the last time. Time to get your summer reading. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, I have a special offer going. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

How can a reader find the ideal book when all the descriptions sound the same?

Am I the only reader who finds that book descriptions have started to sound way too similar? 

On the back of every novel you see it. Action! Drama! Intensity! Guy in pursuit! Girl in despair! Snappy prose! One- or two-word descriptions by celebrities. "Fantastic!" "A masterpiece!" 

How do you tell which book you will really like? 

I don't know about you, but I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. I get frustrated when I pick up book after book and read a third of the way in and find that it really isn't my thing. Half the time it's not even poorly written. It just doesn't have the atmosphere I like or I don't care about the stoic characters.  

That's because readers are diverse. Some readers like physical action. Others prefer wrenching emotions. Some can’t stand the internal tension but are fine with violence. Some insist on sex scenes. Others can do without the details. Some books are harshly literary and others are more cozy. And those are issues that mostly cross genres and are true regardless of specific themes. 

So, why is it that it is so hard to tell what the heart and soul of a book will be like from the description?

Here are a few reasons:

  1. The description can only be 100 to 150 words or about a dozen sentences. There are only so many combinations of grammatical sentences possible. 
  2. There are rules. The writer must present who the main character is and what their problem or goal is immediately. It's not just the industry standard. That part makes good sense for readers too.
  3. The blurb has to give an indication of genre and the major themes and that takes up most of the space.
  4. And then few blurbs ever say what the book is not. No one is going to advertise a book by saying it isn't intelligent, even if it's definitely NOT literary fiction. And no mystery writer will say their book isn't suspenseful, even if the truth is that it's pretty cozy and the suspense is at a minimum.
  5. If there is violence in the book, this will often be made clear but no one will ever tell you that it is gratuitous, video-game-style violence. Every violent thriller or dystopian novel will insist that it is gritty and realistic--employing characters with heart, even when its main character is a stock tough guy who leaps, shoots and dashes through the pages. 

So, there are some legitimate reasons for the look-alike cover blurbs. But what is a reader to do? I love good fantasy and I like contemporary thrillers, but I don't like gratuitous violence and those genres are often filled with it. I enjoy historical fiction but I prefer a story with a casual tone and characters from everyday life rather than momentous language and well-known figures of history. I can read virtually any genre as long as it is neither too dry and literary nor too brainless. I barely know how to describe the humor I like. How can I find books that will actually suit my taste?  

And worse yet, how do I as an author give readers a feel for the heart and soul of my books in the space of a blurb?

My first book (The Soul and the Seed) starts with a teenage girl imprisoned in a laboratory by doctors with nefarious motives. Given that, it's hard to convey that this is not a story about teenage angst. There is violence in the story. I wouldn't leave that out of the description, because some people really don't want to read any violence of any kind and this is pretty heavy-duty intense stuff. Yet the story isn't primarily about violence. Most important of all, it's hard to convey the close, confiding tone of the story--like a friend telling you about their harrowing experiences--let alone the sense of magical realism, the deep connections to characters or how a book that is so dark can be primarily about hope. 

I follow all the blurb-writing rules and I'm not a terrible writer (at least I'm told I can string sentences together with some semblance of art) and what comes out?

Action! Drama! Intensity! Girl in despair! Guy to the rescue! 

Ah, I see the problem that all those other authors have while trying to describe their books when I'm the reader. My book is NOT like all most of those books. They are all vastly different. But in a blurb on the back cover it is very hard to get that across.

I love to hear from you. Feel free to comment using the bubble on the lower left. What are your frustrations as a reader? Do you agree that book blurbs are all the same?  Do you have any tips for how to decode which ones will suit you? Do you ever pick up a book, thinking it is going to be your thing and it isn't? Or do you ever randomly discover a fantastic book behind a description that didn't do it justice? 

Free books!

The publication of my fourth book is coming up. To celebrate, I'm going to give every new subscriber to my hearth-side email circle a free ebook. If you've looked at The Soul and the Seed and been curious or if you've read part of the series and haven't gotten around to reading the rest, now is your chance to do so for free. 

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here. That's where you get links to my latest blog posts as well as the occasional virtual cup of tea. There's no spam, thanks to the excellent security of Mailchimp. 
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Kindle, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.

The big lie about writing and getting rich

There's a modern obsession about a mythical connection between writing and making tons of money on the internet. At every turn, I encounter some version of this question recently asked on Quora, "Through what ways can I become wealthy if I am an extremely talented writer?"

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation (public domain image)

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creation (public domain image)

It brings me back to a wonderful moment when I got to meet one of my personal heroines as a teenager. I read a book called The Cloud while I was an exchange student in Germany. It still hasn't been translated into English, so this was a challenge, but it was so well-written and the story was so gripping that I was hooked. The author, Gudrung Pausewang, was a very well-known author in Germany at the time and I read several of her other books and loved them all.  English speakers may not know her but Germans certainly did in the 1990s.

A few months after I read that first book, a foreign friend of mine had to visit a sweet German lady who was a friend of his father's to deliver something. He asked if I would like to go along because he'd heard that the old woman was a writer. Ironically, he was from Czechoslovakia (Pausewang's birthplace) and he didn't know her name. 

I went with him that day. And yes, the woman was my newly discovered favorite German author. I was blown away to meet such a staggering figure. 

But I was also a little disappointed. I assumed that being a famous, best selling author during her lifetime meant that she would be wealthy. Instead she lived in a humble cottage amid flowering shrubs with little more than the essentials and her bookcases. She was far from wealthy, although otherwise she lived up to my expectations in wit, wisdom and sheer presence. 

Gudrun Pausewang, author portrait

Gudrun Pausewang, author portrait

This was one of the hard lessons of my youth. Fabulously talented writers don't become wealthy by writing. Period.

If they become wealthy, which is rare, they do it by having a relative in the publishing business, by being a celebrity in some other capacity (actor, well-known psychologist, president, etc.), by developing excellent marketing skills, by investing inherited or previously acquired financial assets (in marketing), by utilizing interpersonal manipulation and similar pursuits. 

Writing is an adjunct skill. It is helpful to many other careers or conditions, but it isn't the primary vehicle.

When I was an up-and-coming journalism intern in 1999, one of my mentors gave me some good perspective:  "Writers who are good enough to write for a top newspaper are a dime a dozen. But not many make it. The real deciding factors are connections and bull-headed persistence." 

It's as true today as it was in the 1990s--probably more so.

The vast majority of people who make a living writing actually make a living through using (rather than wasting) some degree of prior celebrity, through skillfully working social or family connections and through intelligently investing money in marketing. Despite the fact that these sorts of careers are out of reach for most people, they still require motivation and hard work even for those born into privilege.

Here's the cold hard facts about publishing today.

  • There are many poorly written, moderately successful books. These books are successful based purely on other skills or preconditions. There are a few wildly successful, well-written books. These combine other skills/conditions with excellent writing.
  • There are thousands upon thousands of fantastic, rock-your-world books that are languishing in obscurity. They had the benefit of good writing but the writer lacked other conditions or skills necessary to make them successful.
  • Obviously, there are also millions upon millions of crappy, boring books also languishing in obscurity (camouflaging the relatively few good ones) written by authors who lacked both the conditions and skills to make money and the ability too write well. That's true but it, unfortunately, doesn't mean that just because your book is great, you will find success.

So, when I'm asked about what a talented writer should do, I have my own set of advice based on today's conditions:

  • First, determine if you really can write well. Get some independent, very critical opinions from professionals who don't know you. Insist that you want a real assessment.
  • If it turns out that you can write "extremely well" AND you have one of the prized pre-conditions (some celebrity in a field, a lot of inherited money and/or social and family connections in media, publishing and/or entertainment industries), I would suggest you spend the next ten years perfecting your writing skills, writing a minimum of 2,000 focused words per day. And if you stick with it, you have a reasonable chance of at least making some money from "writing," even though you will actually be making money from capitalizing on your pre-existing conditions and there may be a lot of other ways you could do that that would be more lucrative.
  • If you don't have the preconditions but you are assured that your writing is spectacular, decide if you love writing beyond anything else. If so, spend the next ten years developing your writing further as described, while working a marketing or media job as hard as you possibly can. With a large dose of luck, you might be moderately successful. though you will have to accept that those born into better preconditions will always outpace you.
  • However, if you are assured that your writing is excellent and you have a job or a life you can tolerate, just write. Forget about becoming wealthy and write. Pity the poor fools who think wealth is important when they already have the joy of writing.

I have made a living writing in one way or another most of my adult life. However, most of that time was spent writing what an editor told me to write in the style that a boss wanted. For me "getting rich writing" would mean having the financial independence to write the stories I have always wanted to read without having to worry about the next paycheck.

What does getting rich mean to you? Do you have a passion that you'd love to make your living at? How much marketing and networking can you do before that becomes your primary occupation? What are you willing to do to follow your passion? I love to hear from you. Comment using the comment's button on the lower left and share this post with your friends using the button on the lower right. 

Unique, detailed settings galore: Real super secret trick of the trade # 3

This tip is obvious on first inspection but using it to its full potential is an art form

How long do you spend drawing maps and sketching out buildings? Most writers either spend a lot of time on this or their settings are sorely lacking in detail. I've drawn my share of maps and sketched quite a few buildings, but there is a shortcut that will get you there a lot faster. It will do a few other things besides. And you already know what it is and have probably used it many times for other purposes. 

GoogleMaps and GoogleEarth

Here's a short list of the things I use either GoogleMaps or GoogleEarth for while writing and the reasons why one or both is almost always open on my desktop:

Imabe by  Simon Ledingham of the Geographic Project Collection

Imabe by Simon Ledingham of the Geographic Project Collection

1. Real settings: If you are writing about a setting in the real world, it's pretty obvious that you're going to want to have a map and pictures of it handy while you write out your first draft and when you edit. You've got to get distances right and check for street names, but you also want to include details of the landscape and buildings. If you're writing about a real location, even if you have been there, open up GoogleMaps and refresh your memory. You'd be surprised how many more details reemerge when you see the landscape around your location. You know the key to getting your reader engrossed in the story is often in the use of sensory details. Take a look at the pictures and if you've been in a place with similar plants and climate, remember how it smelled. What would that city street feel and sound like? I write a lot of scenes in real places because even though my books are fantasy, they're set in the contemporary world and the realism of the settings adds to the plausibility and suspense of the story.

2. Fantasy settings: But I've written fantasy locations as well and GoogleMaps is just as good for that. There is no need to draw a map from scratch and fill in every detail even if your world is complete fantasy. Use GoogleMaps like a template. Is your world desert? Fine. Find a large desert and use the distances, types of rock formations, water sources and habitations to make a realistic map of your world. Change a few things and voila, you've got a fantasy desert with a lot more detail than you could generate on your own. As you describe your character's movements, use the close views on GoogleEarth to grab details of the landscape. Need a cityscape? The same can be done. Look at the street view and imagine how the city of your fantasy world would be different. But choose a part of a city that is at least close and that way you'll have the basic layout already.

3. Planning action scenes: At one point I knew I needed a bridge. It had to be a two-lane freeway with not much in terms of railings, so that one of my characters could leap off in desperation. And it had to be high enough for that to be dangerous but not high enough to make survival impossible. And it had to have at least a low wall in the center for my other characters to take cover behind in a gun battle. I assumed I was going to have to choose a river and invent my  own bridge, but I actually found the perfect real-world bridge in Portland, Oregon on GoogleMaps and once I had a real bridge coordinating the scene realistically and plotting the aftermath was relatively easy. Even if the building, street, mountain, bay or bridge that you choose for your scene isn't in the location you say it is or is really pure fantasy, choose a look-alike location on GoogleEarth, get into the detail mode and imagine your scene on location. The details and the physical movement of action scenes will go much more smoothly.

4. Coordinating distance, time and plot:  If your plot requires characters moving from one location to another and arriving at a particular time, let alone if more than one group must move and arrive at the same time, you need to plot the movements and time on a map. (I know you may think your scene is simple enough to avoid this step, but please take it from someone who tried that a lot of times and had to backtrack every time due to a need for details. If you plot the movements on a map, you will have a much easier time keeping details accurate and evocative.) You can do this by hand but is is grueling. Better, grab an area with enough similarity to your fictional setting on GoogleMaps and plot the movements there. Are your fantasy heroes on foot through the Great Kierlap Mountains and the villains racing on horses across the plains of Umthrak both heading for the city of Fallem? There are plenty of mountains and plains that intersect with a city in the real world. And you can get distance and time estimates for travel on foot as well as by bicycle and car. (Google, would you please add horses!) Note that distances and time on foot will still be calculated based on roads. But this actually helps a great deal. Even in a world of wilderness, your characters won't be going in a straight line. They'll be following winding trails or at least the bottoms of canyons. Use the time and distance calculations as a guide and adjust appropriately. This helps to keep estimates of time and distance realistic and to keep directions consistent over long plot sequences.

5. Easy variety and detail in dwellings and other buildings: When you're using GoogleEarth and GoogleMaps, don't forget that most buildings can be transferred to another location in your imagination. If you need a medieval castle in your landscape, go find one. A real one. If it is partly in ruins or you simple don't like part of it, change it, and sketch a new one. But having a real one to look at from the air before hand will be immensely helpful in making your castle realistic. You may also not need anything out of the ordinary. Maybe you just need a suburban house but you want to describe it well. You could use your house, if you live in the right neighborhood, but what about the next book? You could also make up all those details, but you're going to start repeating yourself eventually. GoogleMaps provides you with endless possibilities of buildings to describe. And when you're writing about imaginary locations, you can use any building and keep a 3D picture of it handy on your desktop for evoking detail and planning scenes.

Note 1: You'll notice that I use GoogleMaps and GoogleEarth almost interchangeably. They aren't exactly the same. is  a website and you can use from any kind of internet connect. GoogleEarth is a program that you can download onto your computer. The basic version is free. I find it easier to find locations and get directions and estimate distance and time on GoogleMaps. I find GoogleEarth has better access to street view and more photographs of specific places. Obviously they are really the same thing but I use both. You could probably get by with on or the other depending on how complex your setting isl

Note 2:  Just in case anyone misunderstands this, I am not suggesting that you should copy Google's maps to make your own map. Don't plagiarize. This is not about making a map to put in your book. This is about using a working and interactive map to plan out the details of your scenes and plot. If you need to draw a map to put in your book, that's another process entirely. You can draw a map, hire someone or buy software that will help you draw realistic maps.

This on-line thesaurus is a writer's best friend: Real Super Secret Trick of the Trade # 2

I'm sharing the real tricks of writing that I use every day. 

Today, here's the one site I always have open on my desktop if I'm writing on my computer. Granted, you have to keep discipline in order to have your browser open without going to social media and breaking up your writing time. But if you can do that, open a window in the background and you'll have the basic tools at your fingertips.

My favorite on-line thesaurus is

Here's why:

1. You know that point when you're writing along at a good pace and your character smiles in an unfriendly way. Not at you necessarily. At another character. You don't want to use the word "smile" or "smirk" or "grin," because you've already used those in the past few chapters. And you definitely don't want to resort to "humorlessly" or (shudder) "grimly?"  Now, maybe you're a born genius and this never happens to you. Maybe you always have strong, specific words at your fingertips and finding the perfect one never sets you back a moment.

But if you're like most of us, this kind of problem can lead to writer's block or to using vague placeholder words or just to time-consuming frustration. Back in the day, we had to keep a heavy thesaurus around and even that was limited by printing costs in the number of words it could list. The days of the internet are truly wonderful!

Wordhippo suggests "sneer," "leer" and "beam" for a potentially unfriendly smile. 

Painting by Hieronymus Bosch  (circa 1450–1516) through Wikipedia

Painting by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) through Wikipedia

2.  Áside from synonyms, Wordhippo also lets you look up words that mean the opposite. An interesting opposite for "sneer" might be "commend," "admire," or "applaud."

3. Wordhippo also offers quick grammar advice such as the correct tenses and plurals as well as a dictionary definition and example sentences.

4. One of my favorite features is the rhyme dictionary. I occasionally include riddles or songs in my stories and there is no shame in using a rhyming dictionary to get the ideas flowing. It's just like using a thesaurus in narrative writing.

5. Then there are the lists of related words. For "admire," Wordhippo gives "admiration," "admirer" and "Admiral" among a dozen or so others. You don't have to spend time and brain power trying to remember. And when you're dealing with an awkward sentence a look at this list might be all it takes to change the focus, make it more active and cut through the fluff. 

6. There's a sweet little section on names toward the bottom. In my example, there are names beginning with "A," Names meaning "admire" and names beginning with "admire." Character naming has a whole new dimension. 

7. There are lists of matching words that start with the first letter of a given word, the first two letters, the first three letters and so on  (for your alliterative delight). 

8. And if that isn't enough, there are translations of each word into 50 plus languages. It may be risky to use this part in hopes of choosing the correct word to be mentioned in a foreign language in your story, but it can at least get you started, so that you have something to check when you find a native speaker to confirm it. (See my previous post on Quora for a great place to find native speakers of obscure languages who are glad to help you do their language right. I've had several Burmese speakers help me on my latest book just for the fun of knowing that there will be some modern fiction out there in English that won't mangle a reference to their mother tongue.)

WARNING:  I know it's been said before, but it bears repeating. Don't use words you don't really know. You use a thesaurus to jog your memory and move faster, so you can get on with your plot. The goal is NOT to sprinkle your prose with a spectacular vocabulary. The whole point of looking up the word "smile" In my initial example is that you want to find a strong and highly specific verb so that you can avoid the use of weak adverbs. The key point here is "specific." Think of it in terms of finding the exact right tool for the job or tuning a musical instrument to the precise sweet spot. You have to know your tools or have good pitch in order to do either. And in writing, you have to know the vocabulary. Use the most specific word that you are already familiar with from the list. (If you aren't familiar with enough words, hit the library and read piles of books. Look up words as you go. That is really the only way to increase usable vocabulary.) Don't use a word you don't have experience with for one simple reason. You don't know its other connotations and the chances are good that it actually won't be the specific word you need but something that means something slightly different. 

Otherwise, pop open Wordhippo the next time you write and see if things roll just a bit more smoothly. 

I love hearing from you, drop a comment below and let me know know about your favorite thesaurus or your favorite super specific word for describing a character's facial expressions. 

Happy writing!


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Teaching writing to resistant teens

I am an ESL teacher in a town where we struggle with very demotivating schools. Most of my students are reasonably well off socio-economically, but when they first come to me, they have no interest in school, reading or writing. After years of struggling as a teacher, I have found something that works. I've seen it engage many different kinds of students now, often making a huge difference in a few short months.

It's blogging. It sounds simple. Too simple in fact. But it works.

If you're a teacher or a parent or anyone concerned about teaching teens, read on and I'll tell you how I make it work. 

I spend some time in discussions beforehand to figure out an interest that each student can really pursue. You have to reserve all judgement at this point. Your goal here isn't to help students develop interests that adults believe are worthwhile, but rather to teach them writing skills and spark their passion. My students initially claim absolute boredom and disinterest with everything. It takes a while to identify interests. 

One of my students played 49 hours of video games at home last week alone. He has no interest in anything else. Okay. But he is interested in video games at least. It might be the party scene that your student is interested in or Facebook or some sort of music you don't even consider to be music. But there is something if you dig enough. 

Image by MCPearson of Wikipedia

Image by MCPearson of Wikipedia

Once you have identified topics for your students' blogs, you go on to a free site like and have each student set up a blogger account. Have them title their blog something to do with their identified interest or interests. (Putting in writing what the general topic is can be crucial for the success of beginners.) And then spend class time drafting blog entries on topics within the interest. This shouldn't be left to homework or it is unlikely to happen. This is the core of what needs to happen and your students will often need help thinking of how to continue. You can have them write on paper if few computers are available and then have them type in the final draft later.

I have one student who is only interested in tennis and primarily the tennis played on TV. She writes about her practices, what tennis matches she watched on TV and what she thinks of celebrity tennis players. I am really not interested in tennis and I find writing about what was on TV to be excruciating but this student is suddenly motivated. I don't care that she is reformulating what she saw on TV. She is writing.

My students are writing at a very basic level because this is ESL, but the same can be applied to English-speaking high school students. Whether your students can write one paragraph per week or a full essay, each constitutes a "blog post." This can be adapted to any level beyond about third grade reading level.

To help students generate more complex and interesting entries, have them show you their progress and then ask specific questions. In the beginning I have to ask leading questions to get students to write the next sentence and the next and the next. If you have to ask a question for every sentence they write, you know they're struggling but if they write a sentence to answer your question and these sentences string together to make a post on a topic, then they'll make progress.

Students will have to read and write in their area of interest in order to post on their blogs. As they become more advanced and tackle topics beyond their direct experience, they will need to read other articles and cite them in their blog. These are indispensable skills in today's world. 

There will be resistance at first. You will still have to "force" students to do it as assignments in the beginning, but in my experience they quickly stopped complaining about coming to class and came in with smiles, which they had never had before. 

Most started to do assignments voluntarily and they now come up with ideas on their own. The most important thing is that their writing and language skills improved by leaps and bounds. Studies have shown that people learn not just somewhat more but many times more if the subject matter is of personal interest. This method capitalizes on that. As time goes on quality control will actually come from within the student because the blog will be public and they will be motivated to try to make it interesting. You can encourage them to post about their blog on social media and discuss it with people who share similar interests.

In a large class this could take time to set up, but it is worth every confusing organizational and discussion hour in the beginning. Once you have identified each student's interests and set up blogger accounts, you will have ready made lessons. You help students choose a topic, advise them on where to get information (this is probably the homework part to some extent) and then do the writing (primarily in class under guidance at first). 

Many students will balk even when faced with their area of interest and claim they can't think of ideas for posting. Give them a short list of things within their topic that they can choose from. Here are post ideas for some of the more common teen interests that often elude adult comprehension. 

Video games/programming: 
Review a video game (can be used many times and could be the entire blog)
Review a new computer or game console on the market
Review an operating system.
Compare and contrast any of the above

Write what happened at the game last weekend
Write about sports events in the media, give opinions
Compare and contrast celebrity players
Compare and contrast sport styles

Facebook or other social media:
Defend social media from one specific criticism (can be used several times for a whole list of criticisms)
Compare and contrast SM platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Quora...)
Review or discuss specific Facebook groups or Twitter hashtags
Discuss the groups or hashtags useful for various topics
Discuss an issue such as what to think about when accepting a friend request
Discuss an experience from SM such as what happened when I posted about a private moment, something controversial, something boring, something cute
What kinds of posts get the most interest from my friends

Music or pop culture:
Review specific musicians, bands, albums, songs or actors
Compare and contrast
Describe specific styles
Defend a specific style against criticisms
Write about what was recently in the media, give opinions


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

The Ten Commandments of Writers

The reader lost in a story is thy god.

Thou shalt not disrupt the zen of the reader.

Thou shalt not make technical errors that boot thy reader out of the story.

Thou shalt hold no other goal higher than the reader’s full immersion in the story.

Remember thy writing time and keep it holy.

Honour thy voice and the rules of thy fictional world.

Thou shalt not kill off characters just for fun.

Thou shalt not write love triangles that are exactly the same as hundreds of other fictional love triangles.

Thou shalt not steal more than a few ideas from one fellow author.

Thou shalt not make characters do things they would not do.

Thou shalt not covet false sympathy by making thy character an orphan. 

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Character development the easy way

There are all kinds of books on writing that will tell you how to develop deep, multi-dimensional characters. And yet most leave out a few easy and essential early steps that make all the difference.

I’m not saying that character development is easy. Good, deep character development is very hard. It’s arguably one of the hardest things about writing fiction and also the most important thing.

But there are harder ways to do it and there are easier ways to do it. This the easier way to do something that is hard enough even if you don’t make it any harder than necessary.

Step 1: Choose models

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Using real-life people as models for you characters is not plagiarism and it is not slander. The whole point of using a real person as a model for your character is that you want to come up with a new person. The model is only a starting point and usually only covers one facet of the character.

The key point is that you actually don’t want one model for your character. You probably want at least three. You want one person who looks more or less like what you want your character to look like. You want another person who has a personality and speaking style like you want your character to have. And you want one person who has a job or situation like you want your character to have. It is much simpler to take these three things from three different people. That way you have the flexibility to work within your plot. And no one can say that you slandered them by putting them in your story.

Why is it important to have models? Well, models make it easy. You don’t have to do it this way. You can make your ten or twenty essential characters up out of whole cloth and try to keep their faces and mannerisms in your head through your book or series of books.

But… well, good luck with that.

If you’re name is George Martin or Diana Gabaldon you can ignore this and all of my advice. Those authors are either doing this already or they are geniuses with astronomical IQs.

Here’s a practical example of what I’m talking about. Let’s say you need a police officer in your story.

There. You already have a job for your character. But figure out what kind of police officer, in what position, in what size of town you need. Then if possible find someone who is a police officer in that sort of situation. The job part is actually one situation where people like to be models for fiction. If possible, find a friendly cop in the kind of position you need and tell them that you want to write about someone in a similar position who isn’t them, who looks completely different and has a different personality but the same job. Professionals will often be thrilled to tell you all the crucial details about that job.

I’ve got a landscaper in my current work-in-progress and my younger brother is a landscaper. It’s very handy to pick his brain to find out exactly what my landscaper should be doing at various times of the year. But my landscaper couldn’t be more different physically or emotionally from my brother.

Okay, I went a bit backwards on this one. The characters at the bottom of this cover (Rick and Kenyen, as readers of the Kyrennei series will know) are recognizable but I actually didn't find these pictures on ShutterStock until I was finished writing the first three books.  That made finding the right pictures hard. But I'd had these characters in my head for twenty years, and had a very clear picture of each of them, although Rick does sort of look suspiciously like an Iraqi friend of mine who likes to cook.

Okay, I went a bit backwards on this one. The characters at the bottom of this cover (Rick and Kenyen, as readers of the Kyrennei series will know) are recognizable but I actually didn't find these pictures on ShutterStock until I was finished writing the first three books.  That made finding the right pictures hard. But I'd had these characters in my head for twenty years, and had a very clear picture of each of them, although Rick does sort of look suspiciously like an Iraqi friend of mine who likes to cook.

As for the physical picture of your character, think about what physical characteristics will suit the character in your story. Don’t forget that besides hair color, eye color and height you have many other factors to play with. Don’t make all your characters be of average weight and build. Don’t make all your characters the same race as you. Give your characters some small differentiating feature. Once you figure out what general kind of physical appearance you need, try to find someone who looks like that.

Think about your circle of friends and acquaintances or look up photos on Google. You can seriously google “Picture of tall brown-haired man” and get a ton of great pictures of tall, brown-haired men. Look at them and pick one. Then copy the link to your research file. Do NOT use this photo in any publication as you probably don’t have the copyright privileges to do so. But do refer back to it. Keep it in front of you enough that you can visualize the character.

With a main character or other key character you might still want to change some important detail of the character’s appearance but make it something you can visualize in that photo. Pick a person without a scar and give them a scar in your mind. Or glasses. Or sideburns.

The most difficult and most important part is your character’s personality. But again the same technique will serve you well. Choose a person to be your emotional model. This time it is really better to choose someone you know personally. Otherwise, you won’t know their reactions in enough depth. Then think about that person in various situations. How would he or she react if their spouse broke up with them or if they won a writing contest or if they had to tell a loved one terrible news? Get used to that person’s reactions and way of relating. Play amateur psychologist and make up reasons for why a person might have those particular reactions. Or if you know why your real-world model has those reactions, change the reasons up a bit.

You can in fact use more than one emotional model for one character. Combine different traits from two different people. Again think how your character with the personality he or she has would react in various situations.

I have a character in my current work-in-progress who is trans-racially adopted. I use what I know of people in that situation to inform me about her emotional make up. But she is also the kind of person who avoids conflict at all cost and tends to freeze up when there is tension.

A relative of mine, who is also one of my trusted beta readers, talks about struggling with freezing up in the face of conflict. So, I use my relative’s reactions to inform how this character might react. The character isn't “supposed to be” my relative. The girl in the story is very different in other ways, but it is handy to have an emotional model.

It is particularly handy to have one who likes being an emotional model and is happy to read through the story and pick out how I’ve slipped up on the personality type. That is a rare treat. You won’t usually be able to tell your emotional models that they have a personality double in your story and you might have to go on the run if you do tell, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Step 2: Fill out a character sheet

The next thing you do with your budding characters is print out a copy of this free character sheet I developed, combining the best qualities of the many character sheets out there. You’ll need a copy for each major character.


Wait. You don’t have to fill out the whole thing immediately. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Fill out as much as comes easily to you given your choice of models for this character. If you don’t know your character’s family history yet and it isn’t key to the plot in the beginning, leave it blank for now. You may find that the story will provide you with the answers you need as you deepen your plot.

So, in the beginning, just fill out those parts you can and then come back later and fill in other parts as you go.

Why am I asking you to do this exercise that looks like a worksheet from school and doesn’t seem to have much in common with writing? Because it will save you endless blood, sweat and tears later.

You may think you know your characters well now but after 70,000 words and many months of work are you really sure you’re going to remember the make of this character’s car or the color of that character’s eyes? Even when it was mentioned only once somewhere in your narrative?

Remembering those references will be much harder than you think. And finding them again is tedious and time consuming, assuming you even remember to look. What if you decide to put this manuscript aside for a couple of months and get back to it later? It will be much less work to get back into if you can quickly review the crucial information about your characters.

There is nothing worse than having a reader catch you being inconsistent. “I’m confused. In chapter 1 she had blue eyes. In chapter 10 she has brown eyes.”


Keep character sheets. I’ve made one for you and it’s free.

Step 3: Think about what your characters want

I know the character’s desires are on the character sheet but it is likely that with many characters you won’t be able to come up with all of their desires in the very beginning.

This is a step that starts in the beginning and keeps going throughout the writing process. Remember that good fiction requires conflict or at least a problem to be solved. Conflicts and problems create suffering of some kind in a character. And if you ask a Buddhist guru (or a writer) what the root of human suffering is, you will be told that it is desire.

Without desire, there is no suffering and without suffering, there is no conflict. Make your characters yearn for something and you have story.

Deny your characters what they want and you create suffering. There is a law in fiction that says that the more you make a characters suffer, the more your reader will love them. This is almost always true. You can make a character too pitiful and lose the reader’s sympathy and respect but generally if your character suffers, your reader will keep reading.

Desire doesn’t have to be a fantastic dream or an overt goal and suffering need not involve physical pain. Sometimes a character simply wants to be able to live in peace or to find the answer to nagging internal questions. But this desire must be made clear and vivid to the reader. The more abstract the desire, the harder the writer’s job is.

Suffering is the same way. While commercial fiction usually involves a character suffering in some dramatic way involving physical injury, grief, betrayal or denial of love, it is very possible to make a compelling story in which the suffering is deep and less easily understood. It is only that doing more abstract and less overtly tangible things with a character is harder to do well.

Step 4: Visualize scenes like a movie or act them out

Either before you write or in the early stages of writing your first draft, visualize new scenes in your head. Let them play like a movie a few times. Get a picture of the characters and watch how they move. Get a feeling for them and watch what they do and say.

Try out the scene in a few different ways. What works best? What actions and words seem natural to your characters?

I have been known to act out scenes from my stories, standing in the middle of the room and stepping back and forth to take on the roles of different characters in a heated debate or moving around the room to block out a combat scene, making sure the physical actions will add up in three-dimensional space. I don’t really recommend doing this when other people are watching or listening. It requires too much stopping and backing up and redoing to be very entertaining and your goal is not to be silly but to iron out specific details that will then come across very real in the story.

Do I look slightly crazy while I talk to myself and have fights with the air? I might but this is another reason to do it in private. If the NSA is spying on me through my computer’s webcam, at least they’ll know what all my Google searches involving borders, bridges and weapons are about.

Step 5: Start writing or plotting, whichever is relevant.

There are two kinds of writers, it is said. The plotters and the pantsers.

Plotters carefully plan out their story with note cards, time-lines and outlines before they ever sit down to write.

Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They get the basic groundwork in place, particularly the settings, premise of the story, key conflict and the characters, including their initial desires. Then they sit down at the keyboard and let the characters do their thing.

I’m a pantser, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Pantsers don’t necessarily do less work in preparation for writing. Flying free in writing is best done if you have all the necessary back-up - well-developed characters, settings, premise and initial conflict. I usually know where the story is going within the next 20,000 words. And I have a vague idea of the ending but I don’t usually know how I’m going to get there.

I have often pulled up Google Earth, plunked my characters down in one place and told them they have to get to another place, given whatever the conditions of the story are (chase, pursuit or search for something), and then I let Google Earth surprise me and the characters. It almost always works beautifully, providing me with plot twists I never would have come up with on my own.

Oh, there’s a river there. That’s a problem. How are my heroes going to get across while being chased by helicopters. Ah, there’s a bridge… But only one bridge. And it will be guarded by the antagonists, obviously.

You can see where that’s going.

But this isn’t a general guide to plotting. This is about characters. And which ever way you choose to write, whether plotting or pantsing, you have now come to the point where you have to just do it. You hold onto the sense of your characters as individuals that you have developed in the previous steps and you feel their desire while you work out the specifics of your story. This will result in what is called a “character-driven story.” But that is just a fancy name for good fiction. All good fiction is character-driven, even the fiction that is action packed.

Step 6: Now change your characters

I know. I know. I said keep your characters consistent. But there is a difference between “consistent” and “stagnant.”

Real people faced with challenges and conflict change. Characters with a realistic personality should too.

Aranka Miko, the main character in The Soul and the Seed, is initially a frightened teenager imprisoned in a dark cage. How she rises in a troubled world to kindle the first flicker of hope in a thousand years is the core of the story..

Aranka Miko, the main character in The Soul and the Seed, is initially a frightened teenager imprisoned in a dark cage. How she rises in a troubled world to kindle the first flicker of hope in a thousand years is the core of the story..

Maybe this is the hard part for some, but I contend that if you’ve done the previous steps well this will be the easy part. I have rarely decided beforehand how my characters are going to change. I have simple set up characters and given them unfulfilled desires and a conflict. Then I followed where they led and the characters changed by the time the story was done.

Several reviewers of my first book gushed, “You can see the characters growing and changing before your eyes.”

I hadn’t realized when I started the story that the growth of the characters would be so obvious so soon. I also thought the only character to really change would be the main character. But that wasn’t the case. Because my major characters were strong and unique and had real personalities and they were faced with huge challenges, they had to change and I didn’t have to force it or consciously manipulate it that much.

In case this doesn’t come as easy in every story, remember to go back to the character’s desires. Do they get what they want? Are they thwarted? Does what they wanted turn out to be as good as they thought it would be? How does this impact the character?

Step 7: Rewrite and edit with an eye to character consistency

When you are done with your first draft, it’s time to rewrite and edit, then edit some more, then put the story aside and pick it up again and edit some more, and then edit again… and again.

That’s just the reality of writing. I edit certain parts roughly as I go and my first drafts are relatively clean. I rarely have to change major plot twists after the first draft is done, despite my seat-of-the-pants writing style. But I do have to edit and edit and edit. Everyone does who wants to turn out good writing.

When you edit, pay particular attention to what your characters look like and what they say and do. Make sure you have kept their appearances consistent and that the actions and words of each character fit their personality and situation. If you have a feisty, firebrand for a heroine, you can’t suddenly have her meekly take insults just because the plot requires that she is calm and collected for once. You can get away with having her learn to be calm and collected but that is going to take some work.

Read your text out loud and particularly your dialogue scenes. Go through dialogue several times, trying to hear the voices of your characters. What kind of voices do they have? Do they have an accent compared to you? What is the emotion behind the words?

I hope these tips come in handy. What are your favorite tips for developing characters? I would love to hear from you. Put a comment in below and keep in touch.