Tag Archives: writing tips

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Descriptions and Point of View

Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

Not that long ago, I offered tips on writing scenes involving sex and violence, and essentially said that dealing with such encounters is almost entirely a matter of understanding and sticking to the point of view of our narrative character. These are the moments in which emotion, experience, and thought process are absolutely critical, and so for the scenes to work, we need to be completely rooted in the observations and feelings of our point of view characters.

I also offered this: “…Point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend.”

With that in mind, I want to talk today about more general descriptive passages. Describing is something we writers do all the time. Whether we are telling our readers what another character looks like, or what kind of room our point of view characters have entered or what kind of smells or tastes or sensations they are experiencing, we are describing constantly. So getting it right is really important.

I love writing descriptions. Long before I became a professional writer, I knew I was destined for this line of work because I was constantly composing such passages in my head. I would see a sunset and think, “how would I write this?” I’d ask myself the same question upon tasting something exotic and new, or smelling something awful, or… whatever. During my career, I have written descriptions that still evoke pride when I go back to read them.

Always, though, what makes the descriptions work is not just powerful prose and precise word choice. As with those action scenes I’ve written about previously, descriptions of settings and people have to tap into character, into emotion and mind-set and motivation.

Let me put it this way, if we walk into a room we’ve never been in before, we’re going to notice different things about it depending upon our circumstances and how we feel about being there. If we’re relaxed — say, visiting the home of a friend, we might take time to notice the floors, the art on the wall, the framed photos of family arrayed around the room. If, on the other hand, we’ve been brought to a place against our will, we would be more inclined to look for ways out, for details that will tell us more about our “hosts” and their intentions. If we’re trained in such things, we might even look for objects we can turn into weapons or tools of escape.

In the same way, our impressions of someone new will yield very different responses depending on whether this person seems to be an adversary or a friend, a rival or a potential mate, a long lost sibling or a celebrity we’ve been hearing about all our lives.

Now, chances are that we, in the course of our lives, will not be in a position of being taken somewhere against our will. We will likely have few opportunities to meet celebrities and few occasions to encounter mortal enemies. Our characters on the other hand… Well, we do all sorts of shit to them, don’t we?

So when we write these descriptions from THEIR point of view, we need to take into consideration what they might be thinking and feeling, what they’re worried about, if anything, and what their goals are for the encounter that is about to take place. Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

The other thing to keep in mind when writing description is the simple fact that we have five senses, not just one. We are highly visual creatures, and it’s all too easy to become so caught up in telling our readers how something looks that we neglect to mention how something sounds or feels or smells or tastes. Smells in particular are far too easy to overlook. Our sense of smell is unrefined compared to that of, say, dogs or cats or other hunting mammals. But smells can be among the most evocative of the senses. Aromas and scents can transport us, rekindling memories and emotions long buried. I still grow nostalgic for my childhood in New York and my college years in New England when I smell leaves burning in the fall. My adult daughters often remark upon arriving home for a visit that the scent of our house brings back some of their earliest memories. Taste can have a similar effect.

Again, you want to be true to the point of view of your narrator. All your readers’ sensory experiences should be colored by the emotions and exigencies of your characters. And your descriptions should involve as many of the senses as possible. Within reason, naturally. Your POV character doesn’t need to lick the walls and furniture in order to render a more complete sensory experience. That would just be weird. Unless, of course, you happen to be writing a new take on the Willy Wonka story, in which case have at it!

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Anatomy of a Rewrite

As I described in a recent Writing-tip Wednesday post, I have been working recently on a trunk series — a pair of books, the first two in a projected trilogy, that I initially wrote nearly ten years ago. I have returned to working on these books for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve always loved the storylines, the characters, the relationships — these stories spoke to me when I wrote them, and have stayed with me in the years since. And second, in the midst of this emotionally challenging year, I have found it hard to create new worlds and projects. I’m not sure why, but there it is. On the other hand, polishing older work, or returning to old worlds for new stories, as I’ve done with Thieftaker, has been productive, rewarding, and even comforting.

In the previous post about trunk novels, I mentioned that while the first book in this series needed close line editing and little more, the second book was “a hot mess.” I’m now neck-deep in my edits of the second book and that impression still holds. The novel has tons of potential, but when I left off with it years ago, it had a number of significant flaws. Which, I suppose, is why it wound up in the proverbial trunk.

Many of us have novels that need work, projects that we’ve set aside, or even works-in-progress that we know have problems. I thought it might be helpful to give you a sense of how I am tackling this rewrite.

1) The Initial Read-through: I started by re-reading the two books in quick succession. I didn’t try to edit as I worked. I just wanted to remind myself of the current state of the novels — the content and the style. I made a few notes as I read, but mostly I approached them as a reader might.

2) The Line Edits: Yes, usually line edits are the last thing we do, after what is known in the business as a “developmental edit.” I chose to do the line edits first, even on the second book, which needs so much structural work. Why? Well, first because some of the prose was so rough that I couldn’t imagine revising the book and ignoring the problems. Those problems included passive constructions, overuse of “that” and past perfect constructions (using “had”), over-explaining, general wordiness, and “humorous” passages that fell flat. Second, I started with the line edits because doing these close revisions allowed me to study the narrative elements more closely and become more familiar with the structural problems I wished to address.

3) The Ruthless Cuts: This is a different editing task, but I actually did it while going through the line edits. There were elements of the story that just didn’t work as written. Unfortunately, at least one of them included some of the best written passages in the draft. Nevertheless, they had to go. I shortened one section of the book by 6,000 words, and cut a thousand from another scene as well. Overall, including scene cuts and general tightening of the prose, I have cut well over 12,000 words from the book. And what a difference this has made. The prose is concise and punchy, and the story flows far better than it did.

4) The Brainstorming: This is where I am now. The book currently stands at about 72,000 words. I can probably delete another thousand, but I’ve cut most of the fat from the manuscript. The story is better than it was, but it needs certain elements inserted along the way and it needs an ending. A good ending. Not the train wreck I was in the midst of writing when I gave up on it a decade ago. By now, though, having read it front-to-back twice, and having done my close edit of the writing, I am steeped in the story and ready to tackle the problems.

When I brainstorm, I tend to open a file in my word processor and type stream-of-consciousness, asking myself questions and answering them on the keyboard. That’s just my approach — your mileage may vary. The point is, I am considering how to work in key elements currently missing from the story. I am figuring out how to work in a new idea for a plot twist that occurred to me during the line edits. And I am keeping better track of all my plot threads, making certain that this ending ties everything up as it should.

5) The Implementation: When I start writing the new scenes, including my concluding chapters, I will create them in separate files. I do this because I find it freeing. It’s totally a mind-game. When I am writing a new book, I work in a single document from start to finish. But when revising, rather than mess with that original file, I not only make a working duplicate, I also create new files for big inserts and additions. That way even if the new scene turns out to be a disaster, the original manuscript is no worse off. Again, it’s something I do out of consideration for my own obsessiveness. And it works.

6) The Final Edit: When I have written and polished these new scenes and pasted them into the manuscript, I’ll then set the novel aside for a while. I’ll work on other projects — I have stories to read for the anthology I’m co-editing; I want to outline the third book in this series; and other stuff… After maybe five weeks, I’ll come back to this book and read it through again. I’ll do a final polish on the prose, but more important I’ll make certain the plot works and that the new narrative elements blend seamlessly with the old. When I’m satisfied, I’ll send both books, volumes one and two, to Beta readers. By then, I hope, I’ll be ready to write the concluding volume of this trilogy. I’ve been thinking about the characters and story for nearly ten years. It’s time I finished it.

I hope you’ve found this deep dive into my process helpful.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “Pitch Inside”

In the mid-1980s, my favorite baseball player on the planet was a young pitcher for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Gooden had a meteoric career that was shortened by injuries and chronic drug abuse. But for the first two and a half years of his career, from the beginning of his rookie season in 1984 to mid-season in 1986, he was one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. He was only 20 years old when he entered the league, but already he had outstanding velocity, a monster curveball, pinpoint control, and uncommon poise for a player so young.

Why am I starting a writing-tip post with a discussion of Dwight Gooden? Read on…

At the time of his great success, New York Magazine ran a profile of him and a teammate (an equally young, equally talented, equally troubled outfielder named Darryl Strawberry). In the profile there was a picture of Gooden in uniform and you could see scrawled on the underside of the visor of his baseball cap the words “Pitch inside.”

Pitching inside is, quite often, the best way to get hitters out, particularly if the pitcher in question happens to have great velocity and control. When pitched inside, hitters can’t extend their arms fully and thus can’t generate as much power in their swing. Usually. The problem with pitching inside is that if the pitcher doesn’t have quite enough velocity, or if he misses his intended target by even an inch or two, his offering becomes very hittable, often resulting in massive home runs, or at the very least, crisp base hits.

Pitchers can do okay for a while pitching hitters away, but they become great when they take on that risk and throw the ball inside.

High risk, high reward.

Writers need to take risks as well. We can tell a decent story playing it safe, but we flourish when we take chances, when we explore bold ideas for our stories, or create stunningly original worlds, or develop plots that are destined to surprise and captivate our readers.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)My first book, Children of Amarid, was a fairly standard epic fantasy, though it had the seeds of more within the nuances of its plot. It was my second novel, though, The Outlanders, that convinced me I could succeed as a writer. The reason was, that second book was different. It introduced a technological, crime-ridden world unlike anything I’d ever tried writing. It created an unusual dynamic among three of my lead characters — two of the characters, who were allies, spoke different languages, and they had to rely on the third for translation. But neither of them trusted that third character.

I struggled with that book far, far more than I had with the first, and I think my struggles were symptomatic of factors that helped the book succeed. It was an ambitious project. It forced me to grow as an artist. Nothing felt familiar or pat, and so the finished product read as something fresh and exciting and innovative. As I say, the first book was fine, but the series won the Crawford Award because of The Outlanders.

It’s easy to advise you to take chances, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Turning that advice into instruction in the form of concrete steps is more difficult. Every story is different, every project presents its own challenges.

Still, I can say this: It’s easy to grow attached to one particular franchise, one particularly world and set of characters and style of story. Certainly I have written a good deal in the Thieftaker world, and will soon be coming out with new work about Ethan Kaille, Sephira Pryce, et al. The fact is, though, each time I have moved on to a new project, I have tried (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to challenge myself, to force myself to grow.

After the LonTobyn books, I moved to Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands, which demanded far more sophisticated world building and character work. After those, I turned to Thieftaker, adding historical and mystery elements to my storytelling and limiting my point of view to a single character. I also started working on the Justis Fearsson books, which explored mental health issues and were my first forays into writing in a contemporary setting. Then I took on the Islevale books, time travel/epic fantasies that presented the most difficult plotting issues I’ve ever faced.

We can also challenge ourselves within a particular franchise by shaking up the formula, by changing our approach to plotting, or taking characters and character relationships in new and unexpected directions.

The point is, if we challenge ourselves, if we remind ourselves to “pitch inside,” we will breathe new life into our work, grow as artists, and, likely, have more fun.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Crutch Words — Finding Them and Limiting Them

Last week, John Hartness, my good friend and the owner and editor at Falstaff Books, posted on Facebook about something he was seeing while editing manuscripts. Many of his writers were starting too many lines of dialogue with, “So…” As John said in the post, “We do this in real life, and it does sounds realistic, but most of us (myself 100% included) are using it too often, and it doesn’t work as well on the page as it does in real live conversation.”

What I found especially interesting about John’s post was the response to it. Writer after writer (including me) confessed to relying on all sorts of repeating words and phrases — what we in the industry call “crutch words.”

I use “So…” a bit, though not that much. On the other hand, lately my editors and I have noticed that I start way too many lines of dialogue with “Well…” As with “So…” it is something lots of us do in actual conversations, but on the page it becomes intrusive and repetitive.

I have lots of other crutch words, too, but honestly I’m reluctant to share them with you, because I don’t want you looking for them while reading my books and stories. Once you start doing this, it can totally ruin a work of fiction for you.

Suffice it to say, all of us have verbal tics that show up in our prose — words we overuse, approaches to dialogue that occur again and again, mannerisms we give to our characters that repeat themselves throughout our stories. Sometimes they are the result of habit. I know that in my case they often are a product of laziness — I need a gesture or a spoken word, and rather than pausing to come up with something different and unexpected, I throw in a standby. Moreover, even as we work to eliminate some crutches from our writing vocabularies, new ones creep in. (For me, “Well…” didn’t used to be a problem, and I’m not entirely sure when it showed up.)

So how do we deal with this issue?

First, understand that this doesn’t make you a bad writer. All writers from beginners to seasoned professionals grapple with crutch words. Don’t let yours undermine your confidence.

The key, of course, is to identify your wording habits and control them. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. When you ask people to read your manuscripts, by all means ask them to look for plotting problems, and character inconsistencies, and all the other narrative problems we writers sometimes face. But also ask them to keep an eye out for overused words and phrases. If and when they find some, start a list and keep that list around for future projects.

If you don’t have Beta readers, or don’t want to wait for outside feedback, try reading your books and stories aloud. This is one of those problems that we can gloss over all too easily when reading through a manuscript. But if we read the work out loud, and thus hear the story as well as see it, we are more likely to recognize those annoying repetitions. Again, as we find them, we should add them to our list.

Once we start to develop a bank of overused words, we can use the search function in our word processing software to find all instances of a given word or phrase and look for ways to replace some of the offending passages with something else. Remember, you don’t need to eliminate every “So…” occurrence (or whatever crutch you happen to be looking for at a particular time). The idea is to use the word/phrase in moderation.

How many instances is too many? A good question, and the truth is I don’t have a great answer. I might use as a yardstick one of my completed books, one I believe is well-written, polished, and relatively free of crutch words. If the new book has way more “Well…”s (for instance) than that old one, I assume there’s a problem and I try to fix it. If the numbers in the new book are about the same as, or lower than, the older yardstick, I move on to the next crutch. I will confess that my running list of crutch words/phrases has probably 50 entries. Maybe more. Some I’ve managed to control and eliminate as problems. Others, not so much. And, as I said before, I’m always adding new ones.

Finally, keep in mind that most readers don’t notice our crutches nearly as much as we do, or as a good editor might. Chances are one or two verbal mannerisms are going to sneak by our attempts to limit them and will wind up in the published version of our book. Don’t worry too much about that. Make sure the word is on your list, so you can address the issue in subsequent manuscripts, and then move on.

So, best of luck.

Well, keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: On Blogging

So, at the risk of going full-on meta, I would like to post today about blogging — the value and costs of maintaining a blog, the secrets of keeping the blog fresh for you and for your readers.

When I got into the writing business, personal and professional websites were just starting to pop up. I remember my editor asking me at one point, shortly before the release of my first novel, if I had a website. He was pleased when I told him I did — some of his writers had been resistant. I also remember people in my little town being more impressed that I had a website than with the fact that I was about to be published for the first time.

“My first book’s about to come out.”

“Nice. Good for you.”

“And I have a website.”

“Oooooohhhhhh!!! You have a website??!!”

Seriously.

A few years later, weblogs became trendy, and my editor, agent, and publicist were all over me to start blogging. Soon everyone had a blog, and drawing attention to any one particular blog proved ever more difficult. But the accepted industry wisdom stated that writers who wanted to be successful, who wanted to develop and keep a substantial fanbase, needed to blog. Putting out books and publicizing them on our websites was no longer enough. Now we needed to generate original content on a regular — some said daily! — basis.

This lasted about until Facebook became the thing late in the first decade of the new millennium. With the advent of social media, blogs started to appear cumbersome, overly formal, and not nearly immediate enough.

And yet today, with the age of social media in full swing and not going anywhere anytime soon, some of the wisdom generated in those early years of web access remain true. A writer can’t survive without a website. And blogging remains a viable way to reach readers.

After allowing my blog to lag for a time, I have recommitted myself to it this year, and I’ve been pleased with the results. I didn’t want to post everyday. That would have been overwhelming and it would have quickly turned blogging into a burden, a commitment I resented. I didn’t want that. But I wanted to generate content, for my readers and for myself. I wanted to have a structured schedule that would keep me on task and that would bring readers to my site on a regular basis. But, I wondered, what should I write about?

Even before Covid-19 and the protests that have swept across the country, I had a sense that this would be a year worth chronicling. The election alone promised to make it such. And so I knew that one day a week, I wanted to have the freedom to write about whatever I chose.

I also was looking forward to a couple of writing events this year (the SAGA conference in early March, and another in August that was cancelled due to the pandemic) and so I thought it would make sense for me to offer writing advice once a week. A lot of my social media followers are launching writing careers of their own. This gave me a chance to pay it forward by helping them.

And finally, I had lamented last year that I didn’t pursue my passion for photography with enough discipline. With my Photo Friday feature, I hoped to force myself to pull out my camera more, to demand of myself that I do this thing I love, and share the results publicly.

I’m glad I did all of it. I have been able to chronicle this remarkable year, for myself and for my readers. I have put together what I think is a nice collection of writing-tip posts. And so far I have a good set of photos for the year. Moreover, traffic at my website has gone up between 100 and 200 percent since 2020 began. Not bad.

So, is blogging for you?

Let me start with this: The most important thing new writers can do to boost their careers is write their stories and books. If your time is limited, if you’re already struggling to find opportunities to work on the material you wish to publish, this might not be the time to start blogging. Concentrate on your writing and on your social media platforms, which ought to be far less time consuming.

I don’t recommend blogging for the sake of blogging. I spend a substantial amount of time on the posts I write, and already I’m thinking about ways I can change things up for next year. I want to keep the experience fresh. As I’ve said, I generate content for my readers, but I also committed to this for myself. I wanted to do it. I’ve enjoyed doing it. But it’s a lot of work. I feel the pressure of having to generate new content for three posts a week. Maintaining the blog in this way has not impacted my fiction writing productivity. Not yet. I can see, though, how it might.

One of the keys to successful blogging is posting something original on a regular and predictable basis. My readers know at this point to expect posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Anything I offer beyond that is gravy. But I wouldn’t want to miss a day and let down those who follow my posts. If you want to blog, you should find a schedule that works for you. Even if you post only once a week, doing so regularly, and drawing readers’ attention to that weekly post, could be enough to gain some traffic at your site.

And, of course, that is the goal. I want readers to enjoy my posts. But I also want them at my site, where they can explore a bit and learn about my books. This is, among other things, a business venture.

I have also found it helpful to blog thematically. A number of my readers look forward to my writing tips. Others like the photos, and still others tune in for whatever rant I might put up on Mondays. My readers know what to expect, which, I believe, keeps them coming back. And, since I know what’s expected of me for each post, I find the essays easier to write. It’s no coincidence that week in and week out, the Monday posts are the most challenging to craft, because my “topic” for them is relatively amorphous.

In the end, only you can decide if maintaining a regular blog makes sense. Don’t let yourself be pressured into it by others who say you must do it to build an audience. Plenty of authors don’t blog, and many others only do so occasionally. The most important questions to ask yourself are, 1) Do I want to do this? 2) Do I have time to do this without sacrificing my productivity? And 3) Do I have something to say that will keep my readers and me engaged?

Best of luck. And keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: SEX and VIOLENCE, and How To Write Them

Title got your attention, eh?

Yeah, figured it would. I might not be a marketing genius, but I’ve learned a little bit over the years…

Last week, I wrote about using profanity in our writing, and at one point likened gratuitous spicy language to gratuitous sex and violence. I went on to reference a fairly explicit sex scene I had included in a trunk novel I happened to be editing at the time, and I said this: “…The sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book.”

It occurred to me later that I had yet to address writing sex scenes and action scenes in my Writing-Tip posts, and so here we are.

I have been fortunate in my life in that I have largely avoided violence. I have never been in combat, and have been spared violent encounters in my personal life. On the other hand – and I do not plan to say much in this regard – I have had sex. More than once.

And yet, I feel equally comfortable writing fight scenes and sex scenes. And, as it happens, I have written far more of the former than the latter. I have made up for my lack of experience with violence by reading a lot about combat in different settings, about hand-to-hand conflict, about weaponry and war tactics, and a host of other subjects necessary to give my scenes the verisimilitude I seek in all my writing.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I believe my action scenes are pretty effective, and, actually, I would say the same about my sex scenes. But that wasn’t always the case. In the first draft of my very first novel, Children of Amarid, I wrote a sex scene that my editor tore apart. And with good reason. While the rest of the narrative worked pretty well, the sex scene felt completely staged and out of character. And the reason was quite simple: For that one encounter, I forgot about my characters’ points of view and tried to write a sex scene that felt, well, sexy. That didn’t work, because my characters were young and in love, but also inexperienced and still a little awkward with each other. None of that came through in the writing.

Point of view, I have said many times before, is the key to good writing, the answer to most, if not all, of the problems that crop up in our work. Because point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend. And so it follows that, like all the writing we do, the success of our sex scenes and action scenes is entirely dependent on point of view.

Our characters’ sexual encounters are particularly dependent on emotion for their success. That unsuccessful first-try sex scene I wrote in the initial draft of Children of Amarid failed because I skipped over emotion and focused too much on lust. To be sure, passion is likely to play a role in most scenes of this sort. But for two young lovers, out of their depth and afraid and seeking emotional refuge from the threats to their lives that drive the plot, emotional is all. Passion is, in a way, secondary. In the trunk novel sex scene I mentioned earlier, emotion and body image and passion and self-doubt are all rolled together into the experience, and that’s why the scene works.

Let me put it this way: Imagine writing three sex scenes. The first features a teenager, madly in love, terrified, about to engage in their very first sexual relationship. The second features an older woman in a Western town who works in a brothel and is confronting the very real possibility that she is about to be fired because she is too old and the men coming to the brothel no longer desire her. The third features a man who is in love with his wife but facing problems in their marriage in large part because they desperately want a child and can’t manage to conceive. Clearly, these three scenes are going to read VERY differently, and those differences will express themselves through the emotions and thoughts and sensations of our point of view characters.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterIn the same way, action scenes – fight scenes, battle scenes, violent scenes; whatever you want to call them – also hinge on the qualities, histories, experiences, and emotions of our point of view characters. A seasoned fighter, someone who makes their living in a violent world or who was brought up to be a warrior, is going to experience violence quite differently from, well, someone like me, who has little knowledge of fighting technique and scant history with violence and bloodshed. The practiced fighter’s point of view might sound almost clinical – this person will know how to control emotion, how to draw upon skills and observations learned over years of training. The novice’s point of view should come off as far more desperate, fearful, overwhelmed by the frenzy of violence in which they find themselves. Again, point of view is all. One is not necessarily more exciting to read than the other – think of the battle scenes in Faith Hunter’s thrilling, New York Times Bestselling Jane Yellowrock books and in A.J. Hartley’s wonderful Will Hawthorne novels, which are not only entertaining but also a master class in writing voice. Jane is a warrior; Will is SO not.. The scenes in both make for compelling reading, but they couldn’t be more different.Act of Will, by A.J. Hartley

Finally, when we’re writing our fight scenes, we should keep these things in mind. First, these are NOT the places to dive into detailed description. Even an inexperienced fighter might notice that their opponent is brawny and big, that they move with confidence and appear to be skilled with their weapon. But our point of view fighter is NOT likely to choose that moment to focus on eye color and hair style and clothing particulars. The character should be far more concerned with staying alive! And second, taking this piece of advice from Faith: The pace of our prose in writing such scenes is the literary equivalent of a musical score in a movie. Just as during action scenes in movies, the music gets percussive and clipped and dramatic, so when writing these scenes we should make our prose spare, concise. We should depend on short, declarative, punchy sentences. We should NOT be using flowery, pretty complex phrases.

So, sex and violence. Yes, they make for interesting reading (and writing!). But they are not easy, and should not be treated the same regardless of character. Try to keep these tips in mind when crafting your next romantic interludes or violent encounters.

And keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: How To Handle Profanity In Your Writing

Have you watched the HBO series Deadwood?

It’s a Western, the creative child of the brilliant David Milch. It’s violent, brutally realistic, and absolutely the most profane thing I have ever watched, with the possible exception of the Academy Award-winning movie The Departed, (directed by Martin Scorsese, written by William Monahan).

I would challenge anyone watching Deadwood to record a full minute of dialogue in any episode that does not include an f-bomb, or some other curse. Over the three full seasons the series ran I suppose it’s possible that a “clean” minute exists somewhere. I would be hard-pressed to find it. As you might expect, some viewers are put off by the profanity. Check out online reviews of the series and you’ll find lots of people who want nothing to do with it because of all the cursing, and plenty of others who recognize the excellence of the characters, the imagery, the plotting, but lament the explicit language.

And then there are viewers like me. I LOVE the profanity. I find it poetic, and I felt the same way about The Departed. I believe there is an art to writing works that depend so heavily on strong language. While some may dismiss the profanity in Deadwood or The Departed as gratuitous, I don’t believe it is. I have seen and read other works that DID have gratuitous profanity, and you can tell the difference. For my part, I have never tried to write something with this much strong language, but neither have I shied away from using curses in my writing.

Every author has their threshold for explicit language, just as every author has their threshold for violent and sexual content. Friends of mine pretty much refuse to use any profanity at all. Others throw in a ton. Either approach is fine, so long as the author can make it work. But authors should also understand that, as with sex and violence, they also have to be aware of the predilections of editors and publishers.

The default in publishing these days is that profanity is accepted. Publishers or short fiction markets that DON’T accept manuscripts with curse words in them will generally say so in their guidelines. And, of course, we all know we’re supposed to read and follow the guidelines before submitting any work anywhere, right? Right. At one time, YA markets were assumed to be profanity free, but that rule is less strict now. Still take extra care when submitting to YA markets and understand that while mild swearing might be accepted, stronger language, including f-bombs, might not be. Works aimed at middle grade readers and younger audiences should be entirely clean.

Beyond that, the key things to remember include the following:

1) Profanity for its own sake is not good writing. I generally avoid blanket statements like this one, but in this case it seems appropriate. Just as sex and violence for their own sake, without any narrative or character-related justification, can ruin a book or story, so can pointless swearing. When is profanity justified and how much of it should you use? That will vary from author to author, story to story, even scene to scene. Only you can decide what’s right. But as with things like gore or erotic content, you need to consider your audience AND the characters you’ve created, and then decide what is appropriate for both. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. I have been working on a trunk novel recently that includes what is far and away the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever written. But the sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book. I didn’t write it this way for a cheap thrill. I had a narrative purpose in mind. And that, I believe, should be the test for profanity as well.

2) Your setting also must be a factor in how you handle profanity. As D.B. Jackson, I write the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Throwing in a bunch of f-bombs to a Colonial setting simply would not work. No one would believe it – excessive profanity would yank my readers right out of my world, which I don’t want. I have also written several epic fantasy series set in alternate fantasy worlds. Some of these do have a bit of strong language, but only in contexts that feel appropriate to the world. To my mind, having a foul-mouthed character in most of my fantasy novels would feel wrong; it would seem too much like OUR world instead of my characters’ world. I know of some authors who deal with this by creating their own profanities for their fantasy worlds. They can then have foul-mouthed characters without offending readers or risking too much of a “real-world” feel to their books. I think that is a brilliant and elegant solution.

3) Finally, remember that despite extreme examples like Deadwood and The Departed, a little bit of profanity can go a long way. Think about it the way you might think of hot pepper in your cooking. Yes, there are some dishes that are meant to be REALLY spicy, and you might love dishes like that. For the most part, though, REALLY spicy appeals only to certain palettes. Most people like some heat in their food, but not so much that their eyes water. Profanity is much the same. Masterful writers can get away with extreme language. They can preserve the other flavors in spite of the “spice.” For most of us, a softer touch is often the better approach. Our audiences will likely be more comfortable with the occasional f-bomb and other curses, but not with page after page after page of strong language.

Put another way, you don’t have to be Puritanical, but you don’t have to be fucking rude, either.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writing Musically

It will come as no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a huge fan of The West Wing, in particular Seasons 1-4, when series creator Aaron Sorkin was writing nearly every episode, and his creative partner, Thomas Schlamme was directing most of them.

Sorkin talks often about writing musically, about bringing to his dialogue cadence, rhythm, motif, and even melody and refrain. Take a moment to watch this clip from one of the best episodes in the series’ long and storied run, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II.” Listen to all of it, but pay particular attention to Ron’s monologue, starting at time stamp 1:15.

Notice not only the gorgeous cadence of all he says, but also the return to two refrains: “It was an act of mad men,” and, from earlier in the scene, “The Secret Service doesn’t comment on procedure.”

Often in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, I will offer advice that is concrete and easily implemented. This is not one of those posts.

Thinking musically about our writing is an abstract idea, but, I believe, a helpful and important one. I strive, in my dialogue and my prose, to find a musical cadence, to create a rhythm that carries my narrative along. We all know what it feels like to write a clunky phrase or sentence or paragraph. Hell, I’ve written entire chapters that were clunky. I would imagine some of my less generous reviewers on Amazon would say I have entire books that are.

But of course, it’s easy to say “write musically, think about rhythm and beat as you craft your stories.” It’s another entirely to explain how this is done. And I should pause here to say that simply repeating phrases in our writing doesn’t make us Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a master, and this technique works beautifully for him. That doesn’t mean we can repeat a few lines and say, “Hey, look! I’m writing musically!” Learning to write this way comes with years of practice, and even more years of reading. And the process is not easy to describe in concrete terms. The books of Guy Gavriel Kay, my favorite fantasy author, are incredibly musical – like symphonies. But I would be hard-pressed to tell you what specific things he does to achieve this. He just does.

Here, though, are a couple of tips that might help.

Let’s stick with that symphony analogy. Consider a movement from your favorite piece of classical music. No doubt its tempo varies from section to section: it has moments when the pace of the music quickens and others when it slows. Likely the dynamics vary as well, thundering in one passage, softening in another. If you’re not a fan of classical music, think about your favorite rock album. Chances are the rhythms and moods of the songs vary — an upbeat, fast track, followed by a ballad, followed by something moody and tense, followed by another rocker… You get what I mean.

Writing, to my mind, works best when it follows a similar pattern. Some writers like their entire novels to go at one speed — fast, fast, fast. They create one action scene after another, leaving readers breathless and, they hope, eager for more. That is a perfectly legitimate approach, but I don’t like to write that way, and I don’t particularly like to read books of that sort. I prefer to intersperse crescendos of action with quieter moments, pushing the plot forward and then allowing my readers, and my characters, to catch their breath and contemplate the implications of what has just occurred Some scenes must be breakneck and loud — absolutely. Others, though, should be softer, slower. A battle scene, followed by a spoken confrontation, followed by a love scene, followed by hand-to-hand combat, followed by a chase, followed by a key conversation, etc. The narrative flows this whole time — writing musically is not meant as an excuse to insert scenes that don’t advance your story — but sometimes it flows with cymbals crashing and sometimes it flows with the sound of a single violin.

Another way to think musically about writing: Again, think about that symphony or your favorite song. And think about the ways in which melody works. Some phrases end with the perfect note, resolving the musical tension; others end more discordantly, ratcheting up harmonic conflict and propelling the piece in question forward. Storytelling works the same way. I try to vary the narrative energy. I finish some chapters with a resolution of conflict; I end others by heightening tension, by leaving things hanging, by leaving my readers still waiting for that resolving note.

Rhythm and tempo, dynamics and volume, tension and resolution, harmony and discord. I find that these terms work equally well in describing musical performance and the written word. You might find that incorporating these concepts into your narrative will help you find the perfect pace and mood for your current project.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Let’s Talk Trunk Novels

A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects.

Let me tell you about my trunk novels. Not all of them – that would take a while. But I have two in particular, the first two books of what I once thought might be a three- or four-book series, that I have been working on for the past week or so.

Many of us have trunk novels and don’t even know it. For those unfamiliar with the term, a trunk novel is a book – complete or partial – that we worked on for a time and then put away, for any number of reasons. The idea is, we shove them in a trunk somewhere – metaphorical? Metaphysical? – and try to forget about them.

Sometimes we put these projects away because we can’t sell them. Sometimes, we are so convinced that the books are deeply, deeply flawed, that we don’t even try to sell them. Sometimes we get feedback on the books – suggestions for revisions – that we’re unwilling or at least not ready to implement. Sometimes we write something, but the market is not right at that moment for the book in question.

I put these books away for several of those reasons. I LOVE the first book, but the market wasn’t right for it. And while I thought it had some great moments, I also knew that it needed serious revision. The prose needed tightening. It had too much exposition, which was slowing down sections that should have been punchy and concise. The second book… well, the second book was a hot mess. Again, I liked elements of it, loved certain passages and plot twists. But I never did figure out the ending. I knew it needed to be torn apart and put back together and I had neither the patience to undertake such a massive rewrite nor a concrete vision of what I wanted the book to look like.

I wrote these books several years back, and around the time I might have forced myself to tackle the revisions, we sold the Justis Fearsson series. Into the proverbial trunk they went. I got them out a couple of years later, but then we sold the Islevale novels and I shut the lid on the trunk once more.

Now, though, with the Thieftaker novellas in edits, with other projects lurking but failing to excite me, I have opened the trunk once more and taken out the books, determined this time to do something with them. My old impressions of the novels remain intact. I still love the first book, but see serious problems with the writing and the excess exposition. And I still see potential in the second book, but it remains a train wreck.

What are the books about? Well, they’re sort of a blend of Celtic fantasy and urban fantasy. Hence the marketing issues. Urban fantasy is well past its peak, and Celtic stories have long since flooded the market. There is no strong demand for either. That doesn’t mean, though, that there won’t be again. Or that my readers wouldn’t be interested in new novels, even if they are not on the cutting edge of what New York publishing considers “hot” and “trendy.” Self-publishing and small press publishing make it easier than ever to bypass the marketing gatekeepers and reach our readers.

Because, while the books need work (I’m about 20% through the revisions on book I), they are engaging and fun. I love my characters, I love the magic. I love the snark in the dialogue and the relationship between my two heroes (both women, one looking to rebuild her life, one bored to tears with hers). There is lots here to like. And the books might make a very nice premium for readers if I wind up creating a Patreon.

These posts are supposed to include tips for those of you trying to establish yourself as writers, and so here goes:

Chances are, you have trunk novels, too, even if you didn’t know them by that name. As writers we ought never to throw anything away. Yes, there are books and stories in my trunk that are irretrievably bad, that will never, ever see the light of day. But there are others that, despite their flaws or lack of market viability at a given time, represent quality work. I’d wager you have books like those, as well.

Don’t give up on those books. I know plenty of people who have sold trunk novels five or ten or even fifteen years after they first wrote them. A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects. Sometimes it just takes time to figure out where a story ought to have gone.

And in the meantime, reading those old stories and books can tell us things about ourselves as writers. We can see our own growth, recognizing the mistakes and shortcomings of things our younger selves did. And we can also see, from the distance of years, with fresh eyes, the raw potential and effective moments of stories we soured on long ago. Those insights have value in and of themselves, even if we decide in the end that those trunk stories still belong… well, in the trunk.

Do you have trunk stories and books? Might it be time to dig them out and take a look?

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.