A Word of Wisdom From Maya Angelou

“[My mother] said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.” Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Historical Fiction Research: Newspapers

Scan_20170116 (2)These photos were taken by my father, Dr. John M. Cunningham

Many years ago, while four friends and I traveled to Tennessee during a Labor Day break from college, my car struck a huge concrete culvert head-on at sixty miles per hour. My engine erupted into flames, and we were nearly killed.

Upon my father’s arrival at the hospital where we were recovering, he handed me a local newspaper that “told what happened.” I put this in quotes because the reporter got most everything wrong. The major thing he got wrong? He said we were sideswiped by a truck. Though in pain, I chuckled. Ours was a single-car accident due to careless driving. A passing truck driver had rescued us. It was then that I learned not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. 

I carry this knowledge into my historical research. Like today’s newspapers, old newspapers’ facts are sometimes either outright wrong or twisted, and they’re also biased just like our modern newspapers. Though studying old newspapers can be helpful, my motto is this: “Researcher, beware.”

What value, then, do we find by using newspapers as a source? Since my specialty is the nineteenth century, let me share some useful things we can glean from them and incorporate into our historical fiction. I’ll be using as my source The Daily Ranchero, a newspaper once published in Brownsville, Texas. I’ll be using various issues of this paper, all from the year 1865, after the Civil War ended.

1. We can learn the prices of goods sold at the time. On one of The Daily Ranchero’s broadsheets, we find a list of items that would be sold at auction along with their prices. Here’s a sample: star candles ($18-$20), quinine ($1.50 per ounce), rip saws ($1.35), etc. The list is way too long to reproduce in its entirety.

2. Weather reports for a particular day are often found in these newspapers. This helps keep our scene’s weather accurate if we’re writing about a specific day in history.

3. Advertisements are great! Not only do they tell us which businesses were around in the era we’ve chosen, they often give street names and specific addresses. We can learn the names of restaurants, hotels, and stagecoach lines, such as Arnold & Wheeler’s, in The Daily Ranchero.

4. What kind of medicine did they use in 1865? A drug store advertisement gives us an idea. The Brownsville Drug Store advertised the arrival of a new stock: citrate of magnesia, seltzer aperient, etc. It added, “Prices very much reduced in accordance with times and market.”

5. What about standard news articles? We can and should also use them, of course. However, as I mentioned earlier, “Researcher, beware.” Study these articles with a critical eye, watching out for bias and errors of fact and similar things. Always double-check these articles with other sources before using the information in our work.

Well, I hope this has given my readers a few ideas on how to use newspapers in historical research. Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Copy editing, Proofreading, and Style Sheets

A style sheet is an important tool for authors. Today, we’ll discuss it, as well as copy editing and proofreading.

Good copyediting is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copyediting process before publication, and other edits and proofreading follow.

Good copy editing is crucial to presenting an article, story, or book to the public. In traditional publishing, every piece of writing goes through the copy editing process before publication.

However, as we shall see, copy editing and proofreading aren’t the same things. Copy editors have numerous duties when reviewing a manuscript. First, this editor looks at the book’s overall picture then he/she delves deep.

A Few Things Copy Editors Look For

  1. Readability and flow: In other words, is the writing smooth, or is it awkward and difficult to read?
  2. Omitted or misspelled words
  3. Inconsistencies: For example, consistency in characters’ descriptions throughout the book. If a character is described as having red hair in one scene and black hair in another scene, the copy editor would catch this and tell the author.
  4. Punctuation: For example, Oxford commas or serial commas. Keep all punctuation, such as this, consistent. Whichever way the author uses commas (and other punctuation), the use must be consistent throughout the manuscript.
  5. Style: Did the author follow the publisher’s style requirements? For example, a publisher may want chapter headings spelled out (Chapter One) instead of using an ordinal number (Chapter 2).
  6. Format: Did the author follow the publisher’s format? Does the publisher want all the lines double-spaced? What kind of font does the publisher want writers to use? These kinds of things can usually be found on a publisher’s website. In the pre-computer days, we writers would send publishers a self-addressed, stamped envelope(SASE) for writer’s guidelines.
  7. Fact-checks: Were the author’s facts accurate? Did the author misquote a source? And similar things.
  8. Plagiarism and Libel: Checks the author on these, and other literary legal matters, to be sure he/she didn’t break the law.

When writing our stories and books, I recommend using a style sheet. These come in handy for both nonfiction and fiction writers. I create my own style sheets, though templates are also available on the internet. By referring to them, we keep our writing consistent and make the copy editor’s job easier.

Fiction Style Sheets

Though this list is not comprehensive, here are a few things to consider when creating a style sheet for your novel or short story:

  1. Title and subtitle (if any)
  2. A brief summary of the book
  3. Style Used. Most traditional publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)
  4. Punctuation, such as Oxford commas
  5. Unusual words/terms to keep their spelling consistent
  6. Format
  7. Characters: Names & nicknames, description, dialogue & special words they use, personality, occupation, motivations
  8. Setting(s), buildings & streets, etc.
  9. Time/Distances between settings (if needed)
  10. Dates of Events

Every writer, whether fiction or nonfiction, can (and should) design a style sheet to meet his/her own literary needs.

Proofreading

After a manuscript is copy edited, the next step toward publication is proofreading.

Whereas copy editors make suggestions and help improve an author’s work, proofreaders don’t do this. Proofreaders review a manuscript’s proofs—a manuscript’s final copy before it goes to print.

Proofreaders look for such things as grammar, punctuation, syntax, and typos. In other words, the small thing before the work is published.  

When to Tell, When to Show

“No fiction can or should be all showing and no telling” Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers, by David Madden.

For those of us who’ve been writing professionally for a long time, we’ve heard this mantra repeated often: “show, don’t tell.” Although this is good advice, beginning writers often take this to an extreme and never “tell.” As novelist David Madden said in my quote, good fiction is a blend of showing and telling. If all we do is show, we wear down our readers. If all we do is tell, we bore our readers. So then, what’s the balance? Here are a few tips.

Tips on Telling

Use telling to do the following things:

  • To establish setting and background. This is especially good for historical fiction when events must be placed within a historical context. Historical fiction has more telling in it than other genres. Thus, readers who read this genre expect it. However, don’t use long paragraphs and numerous pages of description. All that’s necessary is the description of a few things to give readers a sense of time and place. Long paragraphs of exposition bog down our stories.
  • Summarize unimportant events. If characters are eating, just tell the readers. However, if what they’re eating and saying is important, then show it in some detail. If a character crosses the street, there’s no need to go into detail (unless it’s important), so just say Jane crossed the street.
  • To move quickly in time or from one setting to another in a story.
  • To avoid repeating the same events over and over, use a narrative summary. For example, if it’s a story about NASCAR racing, use narrative summary till you need to show the final, climatic NASCAR event.

When to Show

Always show a dramatic event. For example, don’t write: John fought off the robbers. Instead, write a scene where we see him fighting the robbers. Let readers see the fists flying, hear the screams, feel the knife blades sticking into flesh, etc.

Always show a character’s emotion. For example, don’t write: Jane got angry. This is telling the emotion. How does Jane show anger? Not everyone shows anger in the same way. I once had a roommate in college who chuckled when he got angry. So, be original when you show emotion. Use fresh metaphors and similes to help readers can visualize it.

Well, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful as you continue your writing journey. Till next week!

Source

Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Second Edition. New York, New York: William M orrow, 2004

Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, a Plume Book, 1988.

Spice Up Your Writing: Four More Ways to Do It

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Hyperbole

Hyperboles are a great way to emphasize a point or help readers experience a character’s feelings. Sometimes, they can even be funny. They’re also great to use in dialogue because they add authenticity to our characters. After all, people use these figures of speech all the time. So, what are they?

Definition

Rebecca McClanahan, in her excellent book Word Painting, calls hyperboles exaggerated metaphors or similes. They’re exaggerations, or over-exaggeration, that aren’t meant to be understood literally.

Examples

Doug lives like a dog.

Does Doug literally live like a dog? Of course not. This expression just means he has a hard life.

My golf bag weighs a ton.

Well, let’s hope my golf clubs aren’t that heavy. I’m using a hyperbole to show that I’m struggling to carry such an overloaded golf bag.

Euphemism

“Well, bless your heart.”

Definition

Euphemisms express politeness when the opposite is intended.

Examples

If an American Southerner ever says to you, “bless your heart,” don’t take it as sympathy or a compliment. Why? Because where I come from, it’s a euphemism meant as an insult.

Here’s another example: “I didn’t buy a used car. I bought a pre-owned car.”

Anaphora

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1963

Definition

Repetitions in writing, whether they’re repeated words, phrases, or clauses, aren’t always bad. It depends on why the writer did it. Some of history’s greatest writers and speakers used this technique, anaphora, to good effect.

Example

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania… (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963)

Litotes

Litotes are negative expressions that mean its opposite—something positive.

Example

You’ll be sorry you didn’t eat my wife’s pound cake.

Meaning: You’ll regret you didn’t eat it because the cake was delicious.

This ends my series on figures of speech. I hope you’ll use them to spice up your writing.

Bibliography

McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.

Spice Up Your Writing: Similes and Personification

Similes

Although not as strong as metaphors, similes are great ways to follow that time-tested literary maxim: show, don’t tell. They’re easily identified by the words like or as.

Definition

A simile compares two unlike things that have one thing in common.

Examples

Her heart fluttered like a butterfly.

His excitement soared as high as the moon.

Cautions

  • Don’t use a simile that’s a cliché. Clichés are ineffective.

Cliché: Cindy was as busy as a bee.

Cindy was as busy as a hamster running on her exercise wheel.

  • Don’t use a simile where no comparison exists.

Bob flexed his biceps like spaghetti.

Be Original

The first similes that come to mind are usually cliché because we hear them all the time. Go ahead and write them in the first draft, if you need to, and then in your revision work on creating a fresh image, that is, something original.

Personification

Personification is a figure of speech that’s easy to use, helps create mood, and makes our writing more vivid.

Definition

Personification is a literary device that gives human attributes to non-human things.

Examples

Flames danced in the fireplace.

Darkness slipped into my room.

Cautions

  • Don’t overdo personification.
  • Use personification strategically, in places where you can create atmosphere and mood.
  • Keep your personifications fresh/original. In other words, be creative with them.

More on figures of speech next week.

Spice Up Your Writing, Metaphors

Robert Frost (1874-1963), Author of “The Runaway”

Metaphors are the strongest of all the figures of speech, and as we’ll see in this post, there are several types. If well written, they’ll evoke emotion in our readers and draw them deeper into our stories.

Definition

A metaphor compares two different things, saying one thing (or person or place) is something else.

Example

John is a ticking time bomb.

John is not a literal time bomb, but the time bomb image tells us he has a fierce temper and may even need to take an anger management class.

Analysis of a Metaphor

A metaphor contains two parts: the tenor, and the vehicle.

John is a ticking time bomb.

Tenor: John, because he’s the subject of the metaphor.

Vehicle: Time bomb, because it’s the metaphor’s image.

Types of Metaphors

Absolute Metaphor

Definition

The tenor has no connection with the vehicle.

Example

John is a ticking time bomb.

No connection exists between John and the time bomb. In other words, he won’t literally explode. John’s metaphorical explosion, however, might build into a fit of rage. The connection exists between John’s rage and the bomb, not John and the bomb.

Extended Metaphor

Definition

These metaphors extend for longer periods in a sentence, paragraph, or page by using two or more parallels between two unlike things. They’re often used in poetry.

Example

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Runaway.”

The poem is copyrighted, so visit this link to read it: The Runaway by Robert Frost | Poetry Foundation

The Metaphor: a horse. Frost uses a horse fearful of his first snow to represent a child who’s run away from home with no one to comfort him.

Mixed Metaphor

NEVER USE A MIXED METAPHOR

Definition

A mixed metaphor combines two or more metaphors that have no logical connection to each other.

Example

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch and swim away.

Chickens hatch, but they don’t swim. Thus, I mixed two unconnected images—chickens and fish.

Next Week: Similes

Be Original: Find Your Literary Voice

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. – C. S. Lewis

A Definition

What is literary voice? The term isn’t easily defined. Some writers write fast-paced stories, whereas other writers’ stories move at a slower pace, with long sentences and paragraphs. A writer’s literary voice is unique—original— and sets writers apart from other writers.

Two Examples

Let’s look at two excellent examples of literary voice. Our first one comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). He writes in a dark, gloomy voice.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

Our second example comes from William Faulkner’s famous short story, “The Bear” (1942). He writes in a stream of consciousness, using long sentences and other devices to imitate the natural thought processes we use.

He was ten. But it had already begun, long before that day when at last he wrote his age in two figures and he saw for the first time the camp and Major de Spain and old General Compson and the others spent two weeks each November and two weeks again each June. He had already inherited then, without having seen it, the tremendous bear with one trap-ruined foot which, in an area almost a hundred miles deep, had earned itself a name, a definite designation like a living man.

Developing Your Literary Voice

Each writer develops his/her own voice through lots of writing and practice. As we grow in our craft, we’ll discover our own unique voice that sets us apart from others. We must choose our words carefully (diction) and arrange them in grammatically correct ways(syntax) to express our thoughts in a voice unique to us.

Punctuation also plays a role. If we hear a pause in our prose, use either a period, semi-colon, or comma. Which mark we use depends on the pause’s length, something we’ll discuss later.

Things to Avoid

  • Monotonous writing. Monotonous writing has no personality. To give it personality, mix long sentences with short sentences, long paragraphs with short paragraphs, and vary different types of sentences within a paragraph. .
  • Wordiness. When writing sentences, whether they’re long or short, be sure every word used contributes to the sentence’s clarity. That is, be concise. This means getting rid of all unnecessary word(s): cut the clutter.

Have you found your literary voice? If not, keep on writing and eventually, you will.

Writing a Back Flash

Back flashes don't affect a story's forward movement. They keep readers in the present while revealing something about a character and a past event that's affected him/her

Back flashes don’t affect a story’s forward movement. They keep readers in the present while revealing something about a character and a past event that’s affected him or her.

A back flash provides information about a character’s past either through dialogue or the character’s thoughts. It’s the best option for writers when they want to reveal something about a character’s past. Be careful not to write long back flashes, however. Instead, include snippets of information about a character’s past as the story progresses.

Back Flash in Thoughts

When Walter saw the accident on the road up ahead, a pain stabbed his heart. As he lifted his foot off the gas pedal, he pointed at it. His friend and passenger, James, stared at the scene’s police cars and ambulance.

            “Amelia,” Walter muttered.

            “Amelia?” James said. “Oh, yes. I remember.”

            Walter passed the accident in silence. It happened two years ago. Amelia Easterling and he were engaged, and then that horrible accident happened at the movie theater. He’d hit a large van backing out of its parking space. The crash killed her instantly. Oh, how he missed her!

            He pulled into a grocery store’s parking lot. He had to get his mind on other things. “Let’s get our soda and chips fast.”

            James slammed the car door behind him. “Right, Walter. I’m hungry.”

Back Flash in Dialogue

Walter nudged his friend James when they entered the grocery store. “Hey, look over yonder. That pretty lady examining the oranges.”

            James halted near the cash registers. “Yeah. She looks sorta like Amelia. I’m glad you’ve recovered from that accident you had. It wasn’t your fault.”

            “We were arguing at the time, James,” Walter said. “I was driving, so it was my fault. I should’ve been paying better attention to the traffic. She’d still be alive if I’d been doing that.”

            James smiled at the lady as she headed for the vegetables. “Let’s go introduce ourselves.”

            Walter shrugged. “Why not?”

USE FLASHBACKS CAREFFULLY, BUT HEY, DON’T FORGET THE BACK FLASH!

What My Cat Taught Me

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And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight (Numbers 13:33, KJV).

Behind my childhood home runs an alley. From this alley, stray cats often wandered onto our property where my mother always fed them. Alley cats they were, in the strictest sense, so it’s no wonder that I adopted a stray who wandered onto my lawn in Kenner, Louisiana.

A beautiful gray kitty with a gentle temperament, she was the perfect pet. I named her Koshka, Russian for a female cat, I’d learned in my college’s Russian class. One day, though, a neighbor looked down at her and said to me, “Your cat looks pregnant.”

Pregnant! The word gripped my throat. That was the last thing I needed. I could afford Koshka, but care for a litter of kittens? Oh, no! For several days, I studied Koshka’s swollen belly. Mews and meows of imaginary kittens wreaked havoc on my brain’s “movie screen.” What would happen after she gave birth? Happen? To her? To her kittens? What about me? My bank account? My money?

Every day, visions of dwindling finances dominated my concerns. Anxieties intensified. I wanted to scream: “Koshka, girl, why are you doing this to me?”

Finally, I took her to the veterinarian to verify her pregnancy.

After his examination, he announced the verdict. “She’s not pregnant. She’s been spayed. She’s just fat.”

Whew! All my nervous tension broke at his announcement. Peace swept over and through me like a gurgling stream.

But isn’t this what the enemy does to us if we let him? After Moses’ twelves spies returned from scouting out Canaan, panic seized ten of them. They couldn’t take the land. Giants were there, “and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” First Satan planted doubt in their minds, then faithlessness supplanted faith, and finally, an overactive imagination produced an overwhelming terror. Because they believed what they saw and listened to the enemy’s lie, they missed God’s blessing.

Not so, two other spies, Caleb and Joshua. God told them He’d given them the land, and they believed it. They listened to His word. When the day finally arrived, they marched into the Promised Land, the last survivors of Moses’ generation.

Because I listened to the authority regarding Koshka, I gained peace of mind. Likewise, when we listen to and heed God’s authority, His Word, the Lord will lead us to victory through every battle just as He did Caleb and Joshua.

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I believe Your Word, Your holy Scriptures, the only authority for how I live my life. Thank You for it, and for the peace You give me when I listen to and obey You. May I continue heeding Your guidance. Help me to ignore the enemy’s lies. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Brief Reflection
When we listen to Satan’s negative thoughts, we allow him to steal our faith. Do we believe God’s promises and walk in faith like Caleb and Joshua?

Passages for Study
John 8:33-47
John 6:34-4

This excerpt is taken from Reflections of a Southern Boy: Devotions from the Deep South. Published by Ashland Park Books, it is available at amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle. To purchase a copy, visit the Bookstore page on this site.
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 2018 by John “Jack” M. Cunningham, Jr. 

Diction and Style

Every writer has his/her own style, and good editors know how to enhance that style. After all, that’s one of an editor’s main jobs.

What is style? It’s how a writer expresses himself/herself on the page. One factor contributing to style is diction—word choice.

The words a writer chooses contribute not only to his/her literary style but also its tone. Some writers use a straightforward, unadorned style using everyday words while others use flowery language, big words, and lots of imagery. To determine whether these styles are appropriate, consider two things: audience and purpose.

Audience

When writing for the general reader, avoid multi-syllable Latinate words – English words that originated from Latin. Use common English words instead. If writing for a scientific or scholarly publication, use Latinate words because readers of those publications expect it.

Purpose

Why are we writing our article, story, or book? Do we want to convey joy, anger, concern? Or something else. Choose words that convey our purpose and meaning. Let’s look at the first paragraph of an article I wrote for “HiCall,” an Assemblies of God publication.

Inheriting the Promises of God

The moon beamed her pale silver light over us as we slowly waded in shallow gulf waters. An occasional seagull flew overhead, laughing at our plight. Sometimes we felt the gentle bumps of needlefish as they followed my father’s floundering light. Crabs scurried along the sandy bottom as we approached them. We began to tire, and it seemed we had walked for hours….

Analysis

My Audience: Teenaged boys, so I chose a subject that would appeal to them—floundering with my father.

My Tone: A sense of pleasantness and relaxation while on a vacation. I hope you felt it.

Diction: Happy and pleasant details/words—the moon beaming, seagulls laughing, gentle bumps.

Inheriting the Promises of God

Frustrated Tone

The moon sneaked behind forbidding clouds as we waded aimlessly in shallow gulf waters. A seagull’s cackle mocked us. Needlefish rammed our legs—stupid fish! Crabs fled every direction along the sandy bottom. After all the pitiful hours my father and I trudged, we were exhausted. Where were the flounders?

Analysis

In this revision, I used negative words such as sneaked, forbidding, aimlessly, mocked, rammed. stupid, pitiful, trudged and exhausted. I also ended with a question, which highlighted my frustration. I hope you see the difference..

Photo Credit: NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research

Choose your words carefully when you write. Oh, by the way, my father and I ended up with lots of flounders before the night was over.



Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone. Thank you to all who visited my blog. I will return to posting sometime in January. Hope everyone has a blessed Christmas and a great New Year! Celebrate the Christ on this sacred holiday!

Short Story: The Last Gamble

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Blaine steered his battered blue pickup down the two-lane street, his vehicle bumping over its potholes. He glanced in his sideview mirror. Did anyone see him and Ricky over in the Castle Bridge neighborhood breaking into that rich dude’s mansion? Did anyone jot down his pickup’s license plate number and call the cops? If so, the cops could probably trace his address from it.  Maybe he and Ricky should’ve swiped some patsy’s truck first, one with a license plate from a neighboring state—Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee. Then use it instead.

He approached the next block. On its corner, two sago palms framed his neighborhood’s large wooden sign, “Friendly Pines,” its words etched in bold black letters. Yeah. Friendly me. Smirking, Blaine brushed his big knuckles along his thick mustache. His foot eased off the gas pedal. His vehicle slowed toward his single-story red brick house, a rental, on the next block. A squirrel scampered clear of his wheels.

Two weeks ago, his boss fired him from his locksmith job while his gambling debts piled higher than bricks in a brickyard. His landlord threatened to toss him out on the street if he didn’t pay his overdue rent by the end of next week.  Other creditors besieged him. As for Ricky, whom he’d befriended at the blackjack table in the local casino, he already possessed a criminal record and was a frequent occupant of Alabama’s jails. What they did here in was just another “job” for him.

Blaine turned onto his ankle-high Bermuda grass and parked behind a long wooden shed that abutted his house and carport. Didn’t need nosey neighbors spying on him and Ricky. “Let’s hurry.” Blaine scrambled out of his vehicle into the crisp fall air.

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“I’ll be a-movin’, Blaine.” Ricky spoke this from the passenger’s side. He shoved open his door, got down, and strode to the rear of the truck. He dropped its tailgate then sprang onto its bed. Wiry of build, he moved quickly, as agile as a cat.

Before Blaine joined him, he frowned at his littered, sorry excuse of a street. Three cars motored along it at tortoise speed. If only he didn’t love gambling, the lights and action inside the casino, the clatter of dice, the dinging of slot machines, the quiet shuffling of cards, the thrill all games of chance fed him…if only he didn’t love gambling, he wouldn’t be in this predicament nor would he be living here. Nicer neighborhood, nicer home, a wife and a dog and maybe a cat. All the locksmiths he knew lived better than him. Though they didn’t wallow in dough like the rich snob he’d burgled, they at least enjoyed comfortable middle-class lifestyles.

“Any of them coppers comin’?” Ricky hefted a square safe onto a red dolly. Sweat puddled his black muscle shirt.

“I haven’t seen any yet,” Blaine said. “You did a good job disarming that rich dude’s alarm.”

“I got lotsa talent doin’ that sorta thin’.” Ricky flashed a gap-toothed grin and wheeled the safe along the truck bed, up to him. “Gimme some hep with this, will ya’?”

His muscular arms folded around it, Blaine grunted and groaned and hefted the safe off the dolly. A sudden breeze swatted his cheeks. He bent his knees, lowering it onto the ground. “Whew! Wheel it to my back door.”

“I’m a-doin’ it.”

While Blaine followed Ricky to his back porch, he glimpsed a muddy pickup creeping past his house. Its front bumper held a winch. It also had a broken taillight and, judging from its Alabama license plate, it was from around here. Blaine stopped and studied it closer. Kind of familiar-looking. Deer season was several weeks away. Probably a deer hunter on his way to pick up a friend or something. The truck turned a corner.

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Blaine brushed aside a spider web hanging off his shed’s roof before he joined Ricky at his back door. He fumbled the keys out of his pocket and unlocked it. After wheeling the safe down a short hall, Ricky turned into the curtained bedroom. Blaine followed.

Dust balls danced in the room’s grayness. Blaine snorted and cursed his nose’s stuffiness. In his matchbox kitchen, a refrigerator hummed. Its ice maker kicked ice into the ice tray. He switched on his light and rubbed his palms together. “Ah! Now we’ll see what Mister High and Mighty has in this iron box.”

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“Betcha it’s diamonds or pearls.”

“Are you kidding? I’m counting on cash. Thousands of hundreds. Pay off all my debts.  Yeah!” Blaine plopped down on his beer-stained carpet and put his ear to the dial. He turned it one number at a time. “Okay, box. I’ll figure out your combination if it takes me till the earth stops spinning. Ricky, go check the street.”

Ricky went to the window and peeked between the taupe drapes

“See anything suspicious?”

“Ain’t nary a body in sight. You know if we go get ourselves collared and cuffed, they’ll be throwin’ the book at us.”

“That’s not a new experience for you. Now keep quiet. I’ve got to work on this lock.”

“I’m a-keepin’ quiet.”

“Shh!”

Some fifteen minutes later Blaine stood, folded his arms, and sighed. The safe seemed to mock him, its black combination lock and white numbers almost laughing out the words: “You lose, locksmith! Try again!”

Ham fists behind his back, he paced back and forth. A light bulb overhead clicked out. His room dimmed. Only one bulb worked now. He stopped, whirled back toward the box, and growled. There had to be a way to break into that thing. Live out of his truck for the rest of his years? Panhandle forever? No. Never. “Go get me a beer out of the fridge, Ricky.”

“Can’t get inside it?”

“No, I can’t!” The angry words launched off his tongue. Then he cleared his throat. “Uh, maybe a cold beer will help me think.”

“Can I get me one, too?”

Blaine smiled. A drill. Yes. That’s it! He’d get his drill out of his shed and drill a hole in it.

“Hey. Lookee here.” Ricky, still peering through the parted drapes, gestured Blaine forward.

When Blaine looked out the window, his eyes narrowed. That muddy pickup with the broken taillight…It pulled over and parked across the street. The driver, a hulking square-shouldered man dressed in hunting camouflage and boots, got out of the vehicle. Then he reached inside his truck’s cab and grabbed a shotgun. A twelve gauge? Double-barreled?

Blaine jerked away from the window. Though he was muscular and tall, five feet eleven inches, the hunter towered over him like a Goliath.  “He’s coming at us.”

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

“Go fetch your pistol.” Ricky also withdrew from the drapes.

“It’s in your truck,” Blaine said.

 “So we’re—”

“Yeah.” Blaine’s fist smacked his palm. “We don’t stand got a chance against that guy’s gun. Let’s get out of this place.

 “We ain’t gonna make it. Truck’s low on gas you said on the way here.

 “Yeah.” Blaine clutched his head. “I forgot.”

The man pounded Blaine’s paneled front door.

Clearing his throat and forcing steadiness into his knees, suddenly turned to jelly, Blaine led his friend to it. “Who’s there?”

 “Open up,” the baritone voice boomed.

“Why?”

“Because if you don’t, I’ll blast a load of buckshot through your door and your body.”

Blaine winced when the man cocked his gun. He reached for the doorknob, then hesitated. “What’d you want, Mister?”

“You’ve got something belonging to me. Open up.”

“You’re on my property. Get off it.”

A chortle outside. “All right. I know a good taxidermist who’ll do a nice job with your heads.”

Blaine cracked open the door, just a sliver, thanks to its chain lock. He studied the double-barreled shotgun. His tongue tasted like sandpaper.

“If you don’t let me inside, I’ll shoot both of you where you stand.”

Stomach in his throat, Blaine stammered. “I’ve got a chain lock on this door. I’ll have to close it first to unlock it.”

“No tricks.”

“No.” Blaine shut the door, glanced at owl-eyed Ricky, steadied his hand. Out of its casing came the chain.  He opened the door.

His shotgun aimed at them, the man ducked beneath the doorway and swaggered into the house. He continued speaking, his tone as icy as deer season’s winter. “You broke into my house a half hour ago, disarmed my alarm.”

“How’d you know?” Blaine eyed the man’s thick forefinger, slipping around one of his gun’s two triggers.

“I didn’t hear it go off when I saw you two back out of my driveway onto my street. So naturally, I assumed one of you did it.”

“You’re the rich dude?”

Thin lips tight, the man nodded. “Coming back home from my hunting camp when I saw you hefting my safe onto your truck.” He shrugged. “I decided I’d follow you to see where you’d take it.”

Photo by Chris Goodwin on Pexels.com

Blaine raised his palms defensively. “L-Look, Mister, all we stole was your safe.”

“And we ain’t even figgered out the combination yet,” Ricky said.

“You can have it back,” Blaine said. “H-Honest.”

The man pointed his gun at their chests. “Lead me to it. I’ll help you open it.”

Blaine and Ricky swapped worried glances.

“Do it,” the man said, “else I’m liable to blow your brains out, process you two like a couple of eight-point bucks, and eat your hearts for supper.” He licked his lips, reminding Blaine of a cannibal about to roast them on a spit. “Then I’ll take your heads to my taxidermist so I can mount y’all on my wall.”

Blaine and Ricky fled to the bedroom where sat the safe, the man at their heels. He positioned himself behind them and called out the combination.

Blaine’s hand fumbled and stumbled through the lock’s numbers. “Two left, ten right, four—”

The gun’s cold muzzle pressured his neck. “Those are the wrong numbers. Let me repeat them again…slowly.” The man did.

And again Blaine, his brain scrambling through a haze, fumbled and stumbled on each number without success.

“What’s the matter?” the man said, snarling. “You never watched Sesame Street before?”

“You ain’t got no right insultin’ him!” Ricky snapped.

“It’s my box,” the man said. “I’ll insult whomever I like.”

Again Ricky felt his cold muzzle, this time against his spine.

“Now then,” the man said. “Let’s try it once more.”

On the third attempt, his mind calmed a little, Blaine got the combination right.

“Now open it,” the man said.

Blaine did so. “What the…?” A book, a fat black book, inside the safe. He lowered his head to peek deeper inside it. A book, only a…. “Where’s the–?”

“Money?” The man chortled. “Get that book out.”

While Ricky looked past the man’s arm, Blaine obeyed.

“My great-uncle’s diary from World War One,” the man said. “He won the Medal of Honor fighting in the Argonne Forest. I can’t afford to lose his memories.”

Mouths agape, Blaine and Ricky stared at him.

A siren blared till its car squealed to a stop outside.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“You two are under arrest,” the man said.

Blaine scrambled to his feet. “You can’t arrest us.”

“That so?” The man’s bushy brown brows arched high. “I’m not only a real estate developer. I’m also a reserve police officer. My backup, the arresting officer, has arrived.” He marched them to the opened front door.

“Your house is fine, Reid,” the police officer said. “Your neighbor met me out front and said you called him on your cell.”

Reid shoved Blaine and Ricky toward the uniformed cop.

After the uniform read them their rights, he handcuffed them.

Reid laughed. “Oh, you two. One more thing. My shotgun wasn’t loaded.” 

Blaine’s face burned. He kicked a beer can off his front porch. “A book. All you had in it was a stupid book and dumb memories!”

THE END

Story Openings: First Lines

“Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.” Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam, December 1, 1990.

In medias res—in the middle of things. Must all stories open this way? In my opinion, it’s the best way. But, as one reads short stories and novels, it’s obvious not every story begins this way. In the pen of a skilled writer, other options exist. The one thing all good openings possess, though, is this—they hook readers. Writers have a few seconds to do this—one sentence, one paragraph, or in the case of a novel the first page. Between 200 and 250 words, at the most.

Effective opening lines hook readers when they immediately draw those readers into the story. Writers should spend lots of thought on these because they can make or break a short story or book. When pondering an opening line, think about your reader. Is your reader watching an old rerun he finds boring, or perhaps he’s in a bad mood. What opening line can you come up with that will liven his day and get his interest in what you’ve written?

To see what I mean., let’s look at the opening paragraphs of Louis L’Amour’s novel, Sackett’s Land. The line below is the first line in the book.

It was my devil’s own temper that brought me to grief, my temper and a skill with weapons born of my father’s teaching.

What makes this opening line work? Let’s look closer.

Analysis of the First Line of Sackett’s Land

  • It introduces the main character, which every opening should do, and by the third line we learn that his name is Barnabas Sackett.
  • Readers learn a few things about Barnabas, all relevant to his story, and these are: (1) he has a temper, (2) he’s skilled with weapons, and (3) his father taught him how to use the weapons.
  • The Hook: Barnabas has come to grief. So, readers want to know what happened and continue reading to find out.

What keeps readers reading? Barnabas Sackett and his first line. He’s such an interesting character, readers want to follow him, even though the book’s first several pages have no dialogue and little serious conflict

Other Famous Opening Lines

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” William Goldman, The Princess Bride

“All children, except one, grow up.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

So, spend time working on and writing a knockout first line, one that’ll hook readers in seconds.

Story Openings: Ready, Set… Action!

If you had to choose which part of Aristotle’s three-part story structure is the most important, which part would it be? Well, if you said Act One, you’d be correct. Of course, the middle and end are important too, but if our novel’s opening sentence or paragraph doesn’t grab readers, they’ll likely put down our book and look elsewhere for entertainment.

One common mistake beginning writers make is throat-clearing. In literary terms, this means “coughing up” words before getting into the story. Writers who do this load lots of information, details, and wordiness in the opening page before anything actually happens. Doing this in the first draft is fine, but during the revision process writers should work to get rid of it.

When writing an opening, think about a favorite movie. What was its opening scene? How did it hook us? I mention movies because it’s one of the main forms of entertainment we writers compete with. Consider books too. Study their opening lines and paragraphs. Do they hook us? Sometimes when I visit a bookstore, if I’m not familiar with a certain book’s author, I’ll read its first page. If the first paragraph or so doesn’t grab me, I don’t buy it.

Although there are many ways to begin a story, the best way is the action opening. This opening begins in medias res. That is, in the middle of the action. It can begin with something spectacular, such as an earthquake, or something seemingly innocent like a knock on the door. It can also include dialogue, though this isn’t a requirement. We must either see a character in action or hint at something that’s about to happen. Also, be sure to mention your character’s name as soon as possible.

In my novel, Squire, A Mascot’s Tale, a dog story set during the Civil War, I didn’t clear my throat by writing long stretches of preamble before the story begins. I began in medias res instead. Let’s look at the book’s two opening paragraphs.

Excerpt from Squire, A Mascot’s Tale

“Well, I’d sure as sand say he is going with us.” Jesse Webb sauntered down the wooden steps of his father-in-law’s brick furniture store.

His wife folded her arms, her emerald green hoopskirt spanning its slatted walkway. “Oh, no, he’s not. Besides, how could you take the most popular dog in Coughlin? He might get killed.”

Analysis of Squire, A Mascot’s Tale

  • Main characters introduced: Jesse, Jesse’s wife, and the dog. By the sixth paragraph, we learn the dog’s name (Squire) as well as the name of Jesse’s wife (Rachel).
  • Setting introduced: the town of Coughlin.
  • Conflict introduced:  Jesse and Rachel arguing over Squire.
  • Danger introduced: I hinted at danger for Jesse and Squire when Rachel says, “What if he gets killed?” Later, we’ll learn what the danger is—Jesse is taking Squire to war as his   regiment’s mascot. Because mascots were common among soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, this storyline is believable.

We’ll look further at openings in the next post.

For anyone interested in purchasing Squire, A Mascot’s Tale, it’s available for purchase on The Author’s Cove Bookstore.

Easy Dialogue Ain’t Easy, Part 4: Revision, Step 3, Three’s a Crowd

Our uncle’s gone mouse hunting again, so we’ll listen to your prattle. I hope the three of us aren’t crowding your space.

Three characters don’t crowd a story’s scene, not even four. But I’d be careful not to have too many in one scene because it can make it harder for readers to follow.

So, what happens when a third character enters into a dialogue scene? He/She can deepen the scene’s conflict and/or spin the story’s plot a different direction.

Dialogue– The Third Character

Bill sighed. “Now where are you going, Alice?”

            “Back to the grocery store.” Alice snatched her purse off a chair in the den.

            “Again? Today?”

            “A woman’s got a right to shop.”

            “Not as much as you do.”

            “Well, humph! I forgot to buy eggs.”

            “That’s just an excuse. The eggs can wait.” Bill settled back on the couch and grabbed the remote. He flicked on the television to the sound of cheers—a football game. “Where else do you plan on shopping?”

            Alice jerked open the front door; she gaped at the visitor, George Taylor. Smiling, she let him enter.

            “Hey, Alice! Your knight in shining armor has arrived.” George spread wide his arms as though he wanted a hug.

            “I asked that woman a question,” Bill said.

            George slid his arm around Alice’s shoulders and they embraced. “Your sister happens to be my little lady.” He winked at her. “Hey, what’s happening on the idiot box, Bill, my man?”

            “Cowboys and Giants. First quarter.”

            “Aw, Georgie-pie. My little brother here watches ESPN too much.”

            “I already told you, Alice. I’ll quit watching sports when you quit shopping all the time.”

            “That’ll be the day!” With a hearty laugh, George steered Alice outside to her car.

            Stupid George. Bill upped the volume on his television in time to watch the Cowboys score a touchdown. He couldn’t let those two get married.

Observations on Third Character Dialogue

  • Conflict. I used lighter conflict, but the issue of Alice’s shopping remains the central focus.
  • Surprise. While some readers may have thought Alice and Bill were married in the previous dialogue, the arrival of George reveals that Alice and Bill are siblings. Thus, I used an element of surprise here. Readers enjoy getting surprised.
  • George. I showed his personality through dialogue. Instead of taglines to reveal when he’s speaking, I used beats. Taglines are fine, but don’t overdo them. The same goes for beats, for too many beats can become a distraction. If dialogue is well written, readers should be able to know who is speaking without having to rely on such literary devices. So, use them carefully, and strategically, throughout the dialogue scene.
  • Bill. In the last paragraph, I italicized Bill’s direct thoughts. We’ll discuss direct thoughts later in a future post.

Are we finished yet? I couldn’t find a mouse.

Yes, this wraps up my series on dialogue, at least for now. Hope everyone found something useful in it.

Easy Dialogue Ain’t Easy, Part 3: Revision Step 2, “What’s Happenin’?”

“Where are you going?” Bill asked.

            “To the grocery store,” Alice said.

            “Why are you going again?’

            “I forgot to buy eggs.”

            “Will this be the last time you’ll go today?” Bill sat on the couch and flicked on the television with his remote control.

            “Yes.” Alice grabbed her purse.

            “Well, goodbye then.”

            Goodbye.” Alice walked out of the den.

BORING!

Oh, wow! What’s happenin’ in this dialogue? I mean, what’s goin’ on? Man, is this boring or what?

Yes, it’s boring. Why? Because it has no conflict or significant action, and we get no sense of who Alice and Bill are as people. We must work on these things in this next revision step, and continue working on them no matter how many revisions it takes. If we’ve written their biographies and have come to know them well, this will make writing their dialogue a little easier.

My Revision

“Now where do you think you’re going?” Bill said.

            Alice snatched her purse from off a chair in the den. “Back to the grocery store.”

            “Again? Today?”

            “A woman’s got a right to shop.”

            “Not as much as you do.”

            “Well, I forgot to buy eggs.”

            “Oh, that’s another one of your stupid excuses. The eggs can wait. The hens’ll lay more of them tomorrow.” Bill plopped on the couch and seized the remote. He flicked on the television to the sound of cheers—a football game. “Where else do you plan on wasting my money?”

            Alice jerked open the front door.

            “I asked you a question, woman.”

            “I’ll answer it when you quit watching ESPN all the time.”

            “I’ll quit watching sports when you quit shopping so much.”

            “A woman’s got a right to shop.”

            “Yeah. I’ll be shredding your credit cards tomorrow, woman. A man’s got a right to watch sports.”

Observations on Revision

  • Conflict: Conflict doesn’t always have to be physical or verbal, but in my revision I  decided to have Alice and Bill argue.
  • Characterization: We learn something about Alice and Bill. Based on this excerpt, Alice may be a shopaholic because Bill complains about her “wasting my money,” but we  aren’t sure yet so we need to keep reading. Bill, too, may have a problem. He may be a    sports addict because he watches ESPN all the time. Again, we’ll have to keep reading to   find out.
  • Three questions advance this story: (a) After Alice leaves the house, Bill threatens to shred her credit cards. Will he follow through with this threat? (b) If Bill does follow through with it, how will Alice react? (c) Do Alice and Bill have addictions that cause  problems between them? If so, how will they resolve their issues?

Their conversation, then, sounds natural but it also advances the plot and reveals something about the characters, which is what dialogue is supposed to do.

Now that revision was pretty good, Cunningham. But haven’t you forgotten something?

Yes, I did forget to mention something–beats!

Beats

Definition:      A beat is an action a character does that adds to a dialogue’s impact and tells us something about the character. Beats should be carefully considered for each  character in the story, not just thrown in to take up space.

Example:        If a character is insecure, beats should reveal that insecurity. How would an   insecure person behave in different settings and situations? Some insecure people hide their  insecurities by bragging, whereas others may be shy. How would a braggart  behave at a party, for instance, if the braggart is insecure? How would a shy, insecure person behave in a party? Not all shy people are insecure. Some folks just have a quiet nature and don’t talk a lot—it’s part of who they are. Perhaps the same could be said about braggarts as well.

My Beats

  • Sighing. Bill is either worn out physically or emotionally. Or, he may just be frustrated. Or both. We’ll need to read further to find out.
  • Alice snatched her purse. Alice is either angry or in a hurry, depending on the story’s context. When she slammed the door we see that she’s probably more angry at Bill than she is in a hurry.
  • Bill plopped on the couch and seized the remote. Bill’s pretty upset with Alice, too.

See how these beats are put in the right place and how they work? Also notice they can be used to replace taglines. One of the literary trends these days is to avoid taglines and only use beats, but for what it’s worth, I disagree with this. Just like taglines, though, be careful not to overdo them, inserting them after every piece of dialogue a character utters because it gets distracting.

If the dialogue is well written, with every character having his/her own unique speech rhythm, pet words and expressions, etc., we won’t need to use too many of either. When we do use taglines and beats, however, use them in strategic places on the page.

All right. Enough already. What about three or more characters in a story?

Well, cat, we’ll get in that in my final post. Now go catch a mouse !

Easy Dialogue Ain’t Easy, Part 2: Revision, Step One, “Hey! Look at me!”

While you revise that boring dialogue you wrote last week, I’ll go hunting for mice. It better be more interesting this time. Now, where did that mouse go?

After such poorly written dialogue in the previous post, let’s revise it step by step. Today, we’ll look at taglines, those little words that identify the speaker.

Bad Example

“Where are you going?” Bill inquired.

            “To the grocery store,” Alice answered.

            “Why are you going again?’ Bill remarked.

            “I forgot to buy eggs.”

            “Will this be the last time you’ll go today?” Bill sat on the couch and flicked on the television with his remote control.

            “Yes,” Alice said with conviction in her voice.

            “Well, goodbye then.”

            Goodbye.” Alice walked out of the den.

Observations on Bad Example

When I read such dialogue, as shown above, the first mistakes I see are its taglines. Although we read them in books and even in bestsellers, these taglines are wrong. Why? They aren’t simple one-syllable taglines, and because of this, they draw attention to themselves. They cause readers to pause by saying, “Hey, look at me.” They jerk readers out of our story world.

A tagline serves one purpose: identify the speaker. Fancy, multisyllable taglines aren’t needed. We can even make taglines “disappear.”

How? By using simple ones. The best taglines are he said/she said, or in the case of a question he asked/she asked. When someone reads a story, they almost disappear because readers tend to gloss over them, and this is what we want.

Can you find another mistake in the example? Look at the third to last sentence: with conviction. Never use emotional with phrases or -ly adverbs to tell readers what a character feels. Instead, show the character’s emotion through what the character says.

The one exception to what I’ve said above concerns a character’s volume of speech. Since it’s impossible to show how loud a character speaks through dialogue, we have to tell it. We can use an exclamation point, of course, but it’s best if we don’t use this punctuation mark often. Instead, use simple taglines such as yell, whisper, said softly, etc.

Once we establish who’s saying what, don’t keep using taglines unless, of course, we have more than two characters in a scene. I’ll discuss this later.

Mouse got away from me. So go ahead. I’m listening. Your revision better be good.

Revision of Taglines

“Where are you going?” Bill asked.

            “To the grocery store,” Alice said.

            “Why are you going again?’

            “I forgot to buy eggs.”

            “Will this be the last time you’ll go today?” Bill sat on the couch and flicked on the television with his remote control.

            “Yes.” Alice grabbed her purse.

            “Well, goodbye then.”

            Goodbye.” Alice walked out of the den.

That sounded a little better. I think it still needs lots of work, though. Hey, did a mouse just run under your chair?

My feline friend is right. More work remains, so we’ll continue our revision tomorrow.





Easy Dialogue Ain’t Easy, Part 1: An Introduction to Basic Dialogue

Does an author’s dialogue look like it’s easy to write? It does? Good, because that means the author worked hard on it. In this series, I’ll share some basics of writing good dialogue.

Most professional writers are familiar with the expression “Show, Don’t Tell.” This comes from the great Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, who said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

One of the ways we “show, don’t tell” is through dialogue.

The Purpose of Dialogue

  • It should sound like real conversation.
  • It should reveal something about the character.
  • It should have conflict, either major or minor.
  • It should be interesting.

Poorly Written Dialogue

“Where are you going?” Bill inquired.

“To the grocery store,” Alice answered.

        “Why are you going again?’ Bill remarked.

       “I forgot to buy eggs.”

       “Will this be the last time you’ll go today?” Bill sat on the couch and flicked on the television with his remote control.

       “Yes,” Alice said with conviction in her voice.

       “Well, goodbye then.”

       “Goodbye.” Alice walked out of the den.

Hey, man. That was boring! Now where’s my milk?

In future posts, I’ll critique and revise my “ho-hum” example. For now, let’s look at some basic principles.

The Basics

  • Direct dialogue is when a character speaks. This goes inside double-quotation marks.
  • Punctuation that ends a character’s dialogue goes inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Each time a character, a new paragraph begins.
  • When the speaker is identified, such as “Bill inquired” or “Alice answered,” these identifiers are called taglines or speaker attributions.
  • When a character performs a physical action(s) in addition to dialogue, these action(s) are called beats.

I committed several dialogue mistakes in my example. Can you spot them? We’ll discuss them in more detail tomorrow.



Literary Success: Study

Professional writers not only write—they study the craft. No matter how long we’ve been at it, we writers know that good writing takes a long time to master, so the more we study and learn, the quicker we’ll master it. Yet, once we think we’ve mastered it, we’ll discover how little we know. And this is also a professional, and mature, attitude—a willingness to learn more.

Study Tips

  • Subscribe to and read writing magazines. I recommend either The Writer or Writer’s  Digest.
  • Read books on writing. Two classics I recommend are On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, and Elements of Style, by E.B. White. Writer’s Digest also publishes excellent writing books, so check them out also.
  • Attend writing conferences. At these events, you’ll take writing classes, meet other serious writers and successful authors, develop lifelong friendships, and can even have face-to-face time with agents and editors.
  • Join a good critique group. Two great groups for Christian writers are American Christian  Fiction Writers and Word Weavers International. I am a member of both groups.

Links to Christian writing groups:

ACFW | American Christian Fiction Writers

            word weavers international

Literary Success: The Rule of Ten

All successful writers write every day, at least most every day, no matter how they’re feeling or what mood they’re in.

But serious writing goes beyond this. After all, if we expect to get published, we must sell our manuscripts, which means submitting them to magazine editors and book agents, depending on what we’ve written. Here I’ll share a tip for submitting articles and short stories to magazines. It’s called “The Rule of Ten.”

The Rule of Ten

For every ten manuscripts we have in circulation, at least one will get accepted for publication. After its acceptance, send out another one to keep ten making the rounds. For those that get rejected, send them out again to another magazine. The more manuscripts we have circulating, the greater our chances of one of them finding a publisher. This is the rule’s basic idea.

However, I do not recommend submitting articles and stories to multiple magazines at the same time. This is called simultaneous submission, and though some magazines accept simultaneous submissions, I’ve never done this. I think it limits a magazine article’s chances of acceptance. Why? Because most periodical publishers like the idea of being the only one to print your work. Authors can sell various rights to them—first rights, second rights, one-time rights, all rights, reprint rights, etc. I may get into those in a later post.

One other good thing about this rule is that it softens rejection. If an editor rejects a manuscript…hey, we know we have nine more being considered.

I like this Ray Bradbury quote, something he said years ago in Writer’s Digest: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who have been put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”

Ray Bradbury by Alan Light

Six Elements of an Effective Scene

Not all conflict has to be physical such as shown in this photo. But every scene must contain some kind of conflict. This photo shows the U.S. 23rd infantry in action in the Argonne Forest in World War One.

Scenes should be a mini-version of a novel. That is, they should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end of each scene should have a climax that hooks readers and leads them into the next scene.

Five Elements of a Scene

  • Point of View (POV): Write the same scene several times using different characters’  POVs to determine which POV is most effective. Once you make a determination, use that POV.
  • Purpose: A scene’s purpose should be to advance the plot or reveal something about a      character. If a scene doesn’t do these things, get rid of it. Also, a scene must include       action and begin in medias res (in the middle of things) and be able to stand alone. 

In my Civil War novel Vengeance & Betrayal, one scene shows its hero, Danny, a ship’s boy serving officers in a naval vessel’s wardroom, getting mocked. The purpose for this scene? To show the prejudice of certain characters, because Danny is an escaped slave this ship rescued.

  • Conflict: Be sure every scene contains conflict, either internal or external, or both. The     conflict must contribute to the plot or show us something about a character. Back to my hero, Danny.

When Danny is finally reunited with his wife, Nancy, after the battle of New  Orleans, he discovers she’s betrayed him by marrying her master’s butler. Danny fights  the butler and stalks off. This external conflict shows us Danny has a fierce temper,  which further develops his character. Also, readers see his internalsuffering over Nancy’s betrayal. The reader is left to wonder: Will Danny forgive her for what she did?

  • Characters: How should readers feel about the characters in a scene? Should the reader be pulling for or against a character, sympathize with or loathe a character? Every character should evoke some kind of emotion in a reader.
  • Tension: Scenes should include tension. By the end of a scene, readers should be asking, “What will happen next?”
  • Sensory detail: Every scene should include sensory detail. Include as many of the five senses as possible. What a character sees, hears, touches, tastes, smells.

I hope everyone found this helpful. Meanwhile, keep on writing, friends!

Plot A Novel Like a Hero

True Grit. A classic Western novel by Charles Portis. Both movies, this one (1969) and its remake (2010), did an excellent job of staying true to Portis’s work.

If you’ve ever read the novels True Grit or The Wizard of Oz, or seen the movies based on them, you’re familiar with the hero’s journey plot structure. It’s sometimes referred to as monomyth and was described in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). He studied stories and myths from throughout the world and from this, he discovered three common elements which he set forth in his book.  

In The Writer’s Journey, Hollywood consultant Christopher Vogler wrote an updated version of this structure. Hollywood uses it a lot. We’ll follow Mister Vogler’s version in this post.

ACT I

Stage One: The Ordinary World

The hero lives an ordinary life in an ordinary world.

Stage Two: The Call to Adventure

The hero’s life gets disrupted when he/she is called to solve a problem, face a  challenge, or go on an adventure. The stakes are high and the consequences serious if the hero doesn’t accept the call. Mattie Ross’s life is disrupted in True Grit when Tom Chaney kills her father. If she doesn’t get justice for him and find someone to help her get revenge, Chaney may kill again.

Stage Three: Refusal of the Call

For reasons the hero believes are valid, he/she either hesitates or refuses the call. In Rocky, when Apollo Creed challenges him to a championship bout, Rocky Balboa makes excuses and refuses. Later, however, he changes his mind  and agrees to fight.

Stage Four: The Mentor

The hero meets a mentor, who is a teacher or guide. Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn becomes the mentor for young Mattie.

Stage Five: Crossing the Threshold

The hero sets out on an adventure. To Rooster’s and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf’s dismay, Mattie follows them when they try to leave Fort Smith without her to  pursue her Chaney. Eventually, though grudgingly, they accept her. So, Mattie crosses the threshold and sets out on her adventure. She cannot return home until she brings Tom Chaney to justice.

Mattie Ross “crosses the threshold.” She follows Rooster and LeBoeuf and sets out on her adventure.

ACT II

Stage Six: Tests, Allies, and Enemies

The hero enters a new kind of world, encounters numerous conflicts and tests. These encounters help the hero grow and change. The hero meets villains and finds new friends. Mattie’s new friends become Rooster and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. She also meets the outlaw gang which Chaney has joined.

Stage Seven: Approach to Inmost Cave

This is the story’s second threshold, and it’s a dangerous place. The approach is  when the hero makes plans on how to deal with it. Mattie gets captured by Chaney; Rooster and LaBoeuf must help her escape.

Stage Eight: The Ordeal

Here, the suspense and tension are heightened. After Mattie kills Tom Chaney,  her gun’s recoil kicks her into a pit full of rattlesnakes. Her arm is broken and a rattler bites her in the hand. Will she get rescued before she dies?

Stage Nine: Reward

LaBoeuf and Rooster rescue her. Her rescue is her reward.

Mattie approaches the “inmost cave.” She shoots and wounds Tom Chaney, but Chaney’s gang captures her within minutes.

ACT III

Stage Ten: The Road Back

The hero still has to get back to a normal life. Mattie, having been bitten by the snake, isn’t out of the woods yet. She needs medical attention, so Rooster carries her on his  horse at a fast gallop back to Fort Smith.

Stage Eleven: Resurrection

In this stage, the hero faces a final challenge. If you read the book (I don’t recall this doctor’s scene in the movies), you’ll learn about Mattie’s final fight for her life. She’s in a stupor. The doctor at Fort Smith gives her morphine and amputates her arm. We see her amputated arm in the remake, as shown in the scene below. In John Wayne’s version, Mattie’s arm isn’t amputated. In this regard, the remake is truer to the book, though both versions stayed pretty true to the novel– a reason why I love both films!

Stage Twelve: Return With the Elixir

The hero returns to an ordinary life. Mattie survives her snakebite, never marries, but resumes a normal life.

Matiie has returned home and to a normal life. Years later, she meets two famous former outlaws–Cole Younger and Frank James, who are now part of a Wild West show.

Mister Vogler advises authors not to follow this structure “too precisely.” Vary the order of the stages and work in the story’s details. This story should also be written so seamlessly that readers don’t notice that this structure is being followed.

Bibliography

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd Edition, Studio City, CA., Michael Wiese Productions, First Printing October 1998.

Plot a Novel Like Aristotle

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“A whole story is what has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Aristotle, in Poetics

Plot structure is as old as old Aristotle. Although he wrote the above quote about drama, it also holds true for fiction. It’s the classic three-act structure many novelists follow; other authors put their own twists on it. Before experimenting, though, it’s important to understand how this formula works. Let’s look at Aristotle’s structure as though our characters are climbing a mountain.

Act One: The Beginning, or Setup

At the mountain’s base, we have the beginning. It introduces the setting, the hero and villain, and the tone. It immediately draws readers into the story, includes conflict and begins in medias res (Latin: in the middle of things). That is, in the middle of the conflict and action.

The hero must have an important goal or objective, and the villain must try to prevent the hero from realizing his goal.  Also, readers should care about the characters and what happens to them.

An inciting incident disrupts the hero’s world, and he gets involved in its event. He starts “climbing the mountain,” for he cannot go back. This incident may not happen in the first scene or first chapter, but it must happen in Act One. As the main character struggles through it–“up the mountain”– he moves toward the middle of the story and into Act Two.

Act Two: The Middle, or Confrontation

The villain does everything he can think of to stop the hero from reaching his goal–the mountaintop. Yet our hero continues climbing and struggling against him and his obstacles. Each obstacle the hero encounters should be harder than the previous one, and the stakes higher, ramping up tension, with setbacks (stumbles down the mountain) and regrouping.

Another way to show conflict is internal — the hero’s inner battles that must be fought before reaching his goal. In C.S. Forester’s novel, Greyhound (original title, The Good Shepherd), an American destroyer captain, Commander George Krause, commands the naval escorts shepherding merchant vessels across the Atlantic during World War Two. Krause doesn’t just fight Nazi submarines, though. He also battles self-doubts, personal demons, and physical and mental weariness. Commander Krause’s internal and external conflicts (the battles with U-boats) keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Near the end of the book, Krause and his ships are low on fuel and ammunition. Will he and his ships survive the enemy’s wolfpack? This is the reader’s main concern.

As we see from this, Commander Krause’s stakes are high: life or death for him and his crew, the sailors in the other naval vessels he commands, and the lives of the merchant mariners he escorts. Also, England’s need for the supplies the merchant ships carry so it can keep fighting Hitler.

Are your hero’s stakes high enough? Will your hero be harmed in some way if his goal isn’t met? If not, the stakes aren’t serious enough.

Also, do we care about our hero? We care about Commander Krause for lots of reasons. He’s an honorable man, this is first trip across the Atlantic in command of a naval squadron, and he grieves over Evelyn, his wife who left him for another man. We want him to succeed.

Act Three: The End, or The Resolution

Alas, hero and villain go at each other on the mountaintop—the story’s climax. Conflicts come to a head and issues are resolved. Then the hero proceeds down an easy path with falling action to the mountain’s base as his life returns to normal. After a tense and exhausting journey fighting Nazi U-boats and protecting merchant ships, Commander Krause finally gets the sleep he desperately needs.

By the end of Act Three, the main character(s) should be changed, either in a positive or negative way. This is called the Character Arc. Author K.M. Weiland, in her excellent book Creating Character Arcs., mentions a third arc she calls the Flat Arc. We’ll discuss the Character Arc in another post at a later time.

Next week, we’ll look at a different plot structure.

Cut the Clutter: Watch Out for Boxcars!

Sometimes, when I stop for a passing train, I’m reminded of prepositional phrases. For me, boxcars are a metaphor for them. As the cars rattle past, I imagine a long sentence coupled together with one prepositional phrase after another. Of course, we need to use them, but if we have too many strung together like boxcars our prose suffers. It sounds choppy, even mechanical and forced, and makes for uninteresting reading.

What is a prepositional phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a preposition (a word that shows movement or direction) and ends with a noun or pronoun.

A few examples: on, in, into, onto, of, at, etc. More can be found online or in a good grammar book.

Let’s look at a sentence to see what I mean.

Julie sat at her desk beside a window and looked out it to see a swallow flapping in a nest in a tree beside a brook. (6 prepositional phrases/26 words)

  1. at her desk
  2. beside a window
  3. out it
  4. in a nest
  5. in a tree
  6. beside a brook

Revision:

Julie sat at her desk and looked out her window to see a swallow enjoying her treetop nest beside a brook. (3 prepositional phrases/21 words)

In this revision, after a little thought, I was able to reduce my prepositional phrases from six to three as well as make the sentence more concise by cutting out five words.

When to Keep Prepositional Phrases in Our Sentences

  1. When they’re necessary for sentence clarity.
  2. When we want to slow down our story’s pace

Rule of Thumb: Whenever we can revise to delete them, do so. Use them, but try to keep them to a minimum. Too many prepositional phrases strung together like boxcars on a train clutter our prose.

Try This Exercise

The sentence below has five prepositional phrases in italics. How many can you revise?  I’d love to see your revisions in the comments.

Doris knocked on the door before she stepped into the house with a basket full of flowers to give to her grandmother.

SEE ALSO: Edit Strings of Prepositional Phrases – Writing Commons

Anna Sewell, a Late Bloomer

Many famous authors had literary success late in life. Today, we’ll take a brief look at one of them–Anna Sewell.

Anna only wrote one book, but wow! It’s still in print, has been made into movies, translated into other languages, and inspired similar stories. Its title? Black Beauty, a horse story told from the horse’s point of view. And a true classic.

Black Beauty cover, First Edition, 1877

Anna grew up in Victorian England. When she was fourteen-years-old, she fell and broke her ankles on her way home from school. This led to a decline in her health. Meanwhile, her father struggled to earn his family a living and moved the family from one place to another. Her mother wrote Christian books for children which Anna proofread and edited.

Anna’s health eventually declined to the point where she could no longer walk, so to get around, she moved about town in carriages. This created in her a love for the horses who drew her and her vehicles up and down busy streets. She witnessed firsthand how people abused her beloved animals, and thus was born her beautiful tale, Black Beauty.

By 1871, her health had deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t leave her room, so she picked up pen and paper and began writing her story. She was fifty-one years old. After a while, she quit writing for a spell then resumed in 1876 even though she was suffering severe pain. When it was finished, her literary mother found a publisher for her. In November 1877, Anna experienced the joy of seeing her words in print. She died five months later. We can’t say with certainty what caused her death—most likely either hepatitis or phthisis.

Other Links:

Atlas, Nava. “Anna Sewell” Anna Sewell, Author of Black Beauty | LiteraryLadiesGuide

Anna Sewell (Author of Black Beauty) (goodreads.com)

Characterization: How to Create Believable Protagonists

While growing up in the 1960s I, like most boys, read lots of comic books. Batman was my favorite superhero. I never much cared for Superman, however, because he was just…well…not someone I could believe existed. At least Batman, behind his cape and cowl, was an actual person named Bruce Wayne.

Even so, our novel’s protagonist (hero) must be believable and someone with whom readers can identify and care about. In other words, they should be likeable. Also, introduce them in the story’s first scene.

Give the protagonist weaknesses and flaws. They can be major flaws, such as having them be workaholics, or minor flaws. For instance, in the series Columbo, Peter Falk’s character is usually unkempt and almost always wears a raincoat, even when it’s not raining. His sloppy exterior, though minor, is a flaw. Yet, we all love him and pull for him to find the murderer.

Another way to make our protagonists believable is to have them break a stereotype. This also adds more reader interest. One example would be an athletic hero, a former Olympic boxing champion who grew up in the slums and is now a detective. He enjoys reading highbrow novels and can quote Shakespeare. Have him do something likeable in his first scene. For example, let him deliver roses from his garden to one of his elderly neighbors before he deals with a homicide. Then, as the story progresses, bring in other positive traits. Does our champion love children? Does he take care of an autistic son? Such positive traits can create subplots and help deepen our story as well as our protagonist. And they make him likeable.

Once again, don’t make our hero perfect. Imperfect but likeable—that’s the key.

Britain’s Fourteenth American Colony

Before the American Revolution, Great Britain did not have thirteen colonies in what became the United States. Sounds kind of crazy coming from a former history teacher like me, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true. How many colonies, then? Several more, but my focus will be on what some historians call Britain’s “fourteenth colony”: Mobile.

Mobile, 1780. Taken from Alabama Department of Archives and History

Mobile is situated at the mouth of the Mobile River, which spills into a thirty-mile-long bay emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s considered New Orleans’s sister city, as both were founded by the French: the Le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, naval officers who played a significant role in Canadian settlement too. In 1711, they founded Mobile and seven years later, in 1718, New Orleans.

The thirteen American colonies we’ve all heard about were Britain’s original colonies. The other colonies— such as St. Augustine, Pensacola, and Mobile—came under British rule by the Treaty of Paris (February 20, 1763) which ended the French and Indian War. Before this treaty, St. Augustine and Pensacola had been under Spain’s rule whereas Mobile had been under French governance.

British Dominions, Treaty of Paris, 1763

The British divided her new possession on the Gulf Coast into two regions: East Florida and West Florida. St. Augustine was East Florida’s capital, and Pensacola was West Florida’s. West Florida’s boundary was set at the 31st parallel, and later, at the 32nd parallel. On October 20, 1763, the British under the command of Major Robert Farmar assumed command of Mobile.

Another consequence of the French and Indian War: France had to pay off a war debt. To help do this, it turned over New Orleans to Spain in 1763, in a separate treaty, as well as a vast tract of land called Spanish Louisiana. Later, Spain would give this land back to France.

In 1780, General Bernardo Galvez, Spain’s governor of Louisiana, captured Mobile. For several decades the city was under Spanish rule, but it easily fell to American forces on April 13,1813.

Sources

John A. Garraty. The American Nation: A History of the United States to 1877. NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.

Lucille Griffith, Alabama: A Documentary History to 1900, University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1968.

Malcolm C. McMillan, The Land Called Alabama, Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1968.

“Spanish Culture in New Orleans,” https://www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/multicultural/cultures/spanish/

Spice Up Your Writing: Alliteration, Assonance, and Onomatopoeia


Poets often use alliteration and assonance, but prose writers use these figures of speech too. I enjoy using them so much that I have to watch myself because I tend to use them too much.


Definition of Alliteration

The repetition of a word’s initial consonant sound or syllable.

Example

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

Definition of Assonance

The repetition of vowel sounds in words.

There was a Young Lady of Niger

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

In this limerick, attributed to William Cosmo Monkhouse (1840-1901), the “I” sound is repeated.

Reasons For Using Alliteration and Assonance

  • To create rhythm and music in our prose.
  • To set the mood.

Example of Mood

Look at the first line of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He repeats the “d” sound and the “h” sound.

It was a dark and soundless day near the end of the year, and clouds were hanging low in the  heavens.

Onomatopoeia

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Onomatopoeias imitate sounds to the things they refer to. Sometimes they’re called figures of sound instead of a figure of speech. They’re good to use as a sensory detail, which helps bring our prose to life.  

Examples

Buzz, hiss, chug, puff

The train puffed and chugged up the steep track.

The coffee kettle hissed.

Spice Up Your Writing, Figures of Speech, An Introduction

Use figures of speech in our writing, but don’t overdo them lest they conceal the story from readers.

Definition

A figure of speech is a literary device that enhances our writing but is not to be taken literally. It can be used to create a special effect, create emotion and make our writing more visual.

Figures of Speech, A List

Metaphor

Simile

Personification

Alliteration/Assonance

Onomatopoeia

Hyperbole

Euphemism

Anaphora

Litotes

Although there are other figures of speech, we’ll study the ones I listed above in future posts.

Next week: Metaphors and Similes