Archive for the ‘Uncategorized Musings’ Category

I find it absolutely fascinating that a single word can cause so much anger and controversy. Such is the tale of Mark Twain’s “Huck Finn” novel. One of the most popular works of fiction has been continually barred, banned, and censored from public schools because of the prevalent use of a single word: Nigger/Nigga. The word, as defined by Miriam-Webster dictionary means: usually offensive: a black person or member of any dark-skinned race. This word is actually long-derived from the Latin word niger, which means ‘black’.

So what’s the big deal with the use a word that simply means black? Well, connotation is everything. In the “Slave South” when many people owned black slaves, people would refer to them as niggers; Nigger=black=slave. So through the lines of language evolution, the word came to be considered a racial slur, an offensive to anyone of dark skin. Now the word can hardly be spoken without repulsion or reprehension. Such is the way of our language; words come and go, definitions alter and change, connotations are molded to fit modern culture.

So where am I going with all this? Well back to Huck Finn, since the book has constantly been banned from public schools due to the use of that word, Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books have finally taken it upon themselves to release a ‘censored’ version of the classic. The ‘revised’ version will replace the offensive ‘n’ word with ‘slave’. Releasing ‘revised’ versions of classics for new/younger generations is nothing new and if this will help get classics like Huck Finn into schools, I’m all for it. On the other hand, degrading classic literature just to fit our ‘modern’ molds seems a little ridiculous. Why do we need to change everything to our modern way of thinking? Can’t we just accept the fact that something was written in a different time and different place and therefore will be different from our modern philosophy/culture?

Anyway, thus concludes what might possibly be the longest article I’ve written:) If you agree or disagree, feel free to sound off in the comments.

*Update* Thanks to Rosa Sow of Newsy.com for pointing this out this excellent video on their site:

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Dialogue. The primary means of communication for human beings. Even your novel characters must you this to converse with each other. So, it should be easy, right? We all know how to talk, so writing dialogue should be a snap. Welllll…… It’s not quite that simple. Let’s say you did transpose a conversation from real-life, into your story, (adding the proper denotations to signal who is speaking of course) it might look something like this:

John walked up to the coffee machine. Frank was already filling his mug. “Hey Frank,” John said.

“Hey John,” Frank said. “How are you?”

“Doing okay,” John said. “How about you?”

“All right,” Frank said. “The kid broke his arm trying to climb our old tree.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” John said.

“Yeah,” Frank said. “Kids sometimes do the stupidest things.”

“Yeah, but ya gotta love em,” John said.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on the edge of my seat. (insert sarcasm) Okay, I’m being very extreme with this example, but you get the idea. Turns out, a lot of the conversations we have with other people can be downright boring. Not to worry though, we can spice, slice and dice up character dialogue so your readers hang on each word spok–er–written.

First step, get rid of those darn saids. ‘Said’ is an empty word. All it does is denote who is talking, and often is unnecessary. An alternate route would be to use said-isms: “He shouted. He sighed. He growled. He whispered” The problem is, if overused, it can become worse than just using ‘said’. Since ‘said’ is an empty word, it often fades into the background, becoming invisible to most readers. But it’s still there, taking up space.

Of course, an even better alternative is to use action to denote who is talking: “What’d you do that for?” Frank ran to the base of the tree.

Another alternative, similar to the action tags, would be no speech tags whatsoever. This only works in some instances, usually when only two people are talking and it’s obvious who said what:

“Hey Frank, how are you?” John asked.

“Good, how about you?”

“Doing okay, how about those Red Socks?”

It basically comes down to using everything in moderation. A couple said-isms here, some action tags there, no tags over there, maybe an occasional adjective here for good measure. And of course we need something interesting to talk about as well. Let’s try it:

John walked up to the coffee machine where Frank was already filling his mug. “Hey Frank,” John greeted his friend.

“Hey John.” Frank plunked the coffee pot down. “How are you?”

“Doing great. How about you?”

Frank sighed. “All right. Jimmy broke his arm trying to climb our old tree.”

“Oh, that’s not good. Is he okay? Are you okay?” John put his arm on Frank’s shoulder. Frank was having money trouble and the last thing he needed was a big medical bill. Not to mention what the poor kid was going through.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Frank shook his head despite his positive answer. “Kids. Sometimes I wonder where their brain is at.”

“Yeah, but ya gotta love em.” John said reassuringly.

See what we did? Took out nearly all the saids, replaced them with some said-isms, threw in some action tags or just left the speech tag empty. Plus we needed to give them something interesting to talk about, so I increased the conflict about the boy breaking his arm and how it was affecting the father. Pretty neat, huh?

This is a very basic example of what you can do to improve your dialog. For more inspiration, try reading some of your favorite authors and see how they write dialog. Find one that suits your style and implement it in your story. Your readers will swear they’re listening to a real conversation.

Ah, details. Description. Setting. An aspect of writing that requires about as much balance as a tight-rope walker in an earthquake. Do we describe every last detail, down to the brand of lipstick a character is wearing or the length and shade of fresh-cut grass? Or do we simply say “she was very well made up” or “the grass was short from its recent trimming”? And then there’s the type of description. Should it be: “The gun sparkled in the hot, mid-morning sun.” or “The burning light from the afternoon sun glared harshly off the pistol.”? This topic is my Achilles Heel in writing; but I will cover it (and figure it out) along with you from what I have learned so far.

First, the amount of description. This is where the tightrope walk comes in. If you use too much description, you’ll bore your reader to tears and he will forget what it was that supposed to be happening in your story. On the other hand, if you use too little, your reader will be confused and wonder what the heck is going on, where he’s supposed to be and how he’s supposed to differentiate various characters and places. Granted, some writers can get away with lots of elegant and flowing description and detail (as is the case with many classics) but it requires a tremendous amount of skill and discipline. Often these writers manage to infuse action or even plot development into the description, so it doesn’t just sound like you’re rambling on about all the beautiful colors in the rainbow. It’s a delicate balance that is tough to achieve, and even then the result can be completely subjective. A rule I like to follow is to only describe things/people that are important to the story or character. Everything else can either get a passing mention or merely assumed and blend seamlessly into the overarching description you’ve already set. Everyone has an imagination and when they read, they should be given a chance to flex that imagination a little. (Otherwise they’d be watching a movie instead:)

Now onto the next aspect: type of description. This part is a little trickier (if that’s possible) and ties into the characterization aspect a bit. Each character or point-of-view, should have their own unique take on things. They should see the world through different eyes, thus describing it differently and within their personality. A slick New Yorker shouldn’t describe a shiny name plaque “as shiny as a spankin’ new milk pail” and a country bumpkin shouldn’t think something like “the hog’s skin was like a fresh Louis Vuitton handbag”. The description needs to be in line with what the character is like. Then there’s also the matter of the descriptive vocabulary fitting the character age. A three year old won’t use words like: subtle, or fragrant just like a polished thirty-something business woman wouldn’t be caught dead thinking words like: stinky, gross, or smushy. Oh, of course all of this may be rendered moot if your story uses a more omniscient point-of-view, a subject I may tackle in a later post. But for now, these are some good guidelines I’ve found.

So for now, break out those thesauruses and start finding some neat words, but be sure you use them wisely.

Characters. These fictional beings are the very life and soul of your novel. They are one of, if not the, most important element of a story. If not for characters, your book would be nothing more than a travel log full of desolate, empty, ghost towns. Given their supreme importance, it’s no surprise then that creating solid characters would also be one of the hardest parts of writing.

But that’s not the half of it.

You see, once you create and start using a character in your story, chances are they may start doing some unexpected things. In fact, you may create a character with a specific personality in mind only to find that, half-way through the story, he’s doing things completely contradictory to your original idea.

This is all because, your characters are…..Alliiiiiivvvee!!!!

Congratulations, you have “created” bona-fide sentient life! That’s the way I see it anyway. You’ve given them unique personalities; they all have names, friends, enemies, rivals, histories, wants, fears, aspirations, quirks, flaws, idiosyncrasies. By definition, your characters are living, breathing,  people. That’s what can really make your story engaging.

Okay, sooo….Next problem: What are you suppose to do with these fictional people with minds of their own? Well, it’s almost like raising a kid: you guide them. Give them instructions, point them in the right direction; but don’t be afraid to alter those instructions if they start going in a different direction. You can’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do. It won’t feel natural. Granted, there have to be boundaries and guidelines; an everyday housewife can’t suddenly develop the ability to fly just because she wants to escape the doldrums:) There must be limits, but don’t be afraid to bend those limits if the characters or story calls for it. But it must always be natural.

If you’re a parent, this should be relatively easy to grasp. If not, think of it as trying to train someone on the job, or teach a student at school, or programming an advanced AI. You can give them directions, guidelines, even boundaries; but ultimately, they will do what they think is natural and you’ll just have to go along, fixing or changing things along the way. Ironically, it’s like reading someone else’s story or going on an adventure; you never know what will happen next so you have to be prepared for anything.

Many writers have lots of different ways they come up with ideas and turn them into stories. Today I thought I’d share mine just for fun and to help refine it for myself.

-First step: Obviously you need an idea. Something that intrigues you, catches your fancy, makes you shiver with excitement when you think about it. But if you can’t come up with an original idea, here is where my secret comes in: Duplicate. Copy. Plagiarize. Rip off someone else’s great idea completely.

-Step two: Obliterate. That’s right. Take that great idea you just stole from Spielberg or King and tear it to pieces. Blow it apart. Leave nothing left but the bare semblance of a plot.

-Step three: Recreate. Rebuild that stolen story you smashed to smithereens; only this time, replace key details, characters, events, plot threads…anything. By this time, you should’ve stewed over the story long enough to start seeing places where you could improve upon or change the original. When you’re done, you should have the makings of a great story that only slightly resembles its inspiration.

Oh, and of course you should be writing and making notes throughout this whole process. After all, that’s what we writers do:)

Well, I hope this helps any first time writers with an idea on how to come up with ideas/start writing; as well as give curious readers an insight on how my pen ticks (or keyboard in my case:) Of course you may have heard all this before, (there’s nothing new under the sun, just new paint jobs) if so, you needn’t bother reading this. Oh wait…..