Posted in Bookish Things, Reading, Writing, Writing Tips

Punctuation Pantry: the Oxford Comma (To Use or Not To Use)

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Let me put forth a public apology to my faithful readers who have not heard from this blog in a few weeks. Wanna know why? No, you probably don’t. Suffice it to say, school happened, then driver’s ed happened, then editing happened, then a whole bunch of other stuff happened . . . 🙂 Blogs are wonderful, but they suffer when our schedules get stuffed. Who can relate?

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. The Punctuation Pantry is back, and we’re here to talk about the Oxford comma. Heard of it? Oh, yeah, I bet you have.

Don’t know what it is? No problem – here goes.

I am sending Sally a get-well card, a potted plant, and a new coat.

(I’d like to have a friend who would think to send all that when I’m sick.) 😉

Did you spot the Oxford comma? It comes after the last item in a list. So, after “potted plant.” Now, the controversy surrounding this helpless little comma is that some style guides require it when others don’t. So you have people who like it and people who don’t.

Now, let’s look at that sentence again, without the Oxford comma.

I am sending Sally a get-well card, a potted plant and a new coat.

Not having the comma doesn’t make that sentence confusing. You can mentally insert the separation of the three items. But let’s look at a different sentence.

She took her cousins, Dominique, and Miss Helen to the local fair.

Got it? Now let’s take the Oxford comma out.

She took her cousins, Dominique and Miss Helen to the local fair.

See the problem? A reader might think her cousins are Dominique and Helen. Now, strictly speaking, you’d need a comma after Helen if those names were her cousins’, but that’s a story for another day.

Personally, yes, I use the Oxford comma. It just makes sense. In some sentences, it feels awkward, in some, it’s unnecessary, but in others, it literally makes the difference between a reader understanding and misunderstanding what you’re saying.

And no, you can’t use the comma in one sentence and not in another in the same story. 🙂 Sorry, but . . . no.

So, now that the Punctuation Pantry has been resurrected, tell me your ideas for what we should chat about in the world of grammar!

Your turn! What is your opinion on the Oxford comma? Do you use it? Let’s chat in the comments!

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Posted in Bookish Things, Writing, Writing Tips

Adjectives ‘n’ Adverbs – Friends or Foe to Your Writing?

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Okay, I don’t care if you just started writing a week ago, you’ve probably heard rumors of the dissension adjectives and adverbs cause between writers and editors. The plain truth is, every editor I’ve ever heard from speaks against most adjectives and adverbs. Look at this sentence:

The growling dog stalked slowly towards the boy’s house, eager for the tasty beef he knew was on the grill.

If you couldn’t tell, there are too many adjectives in that sentence. And the adverb “slowly” is weak. So how do you fix something like that? Or, more to the point, how to avoid it in the first place?

Well, there is a bit of a trick to this.

STRONG VERBS.

Let’s look at this sentence again.

The dog stalked towards the house, his mouth watering in anticipation of the meat he could smell sizzling on the grill.

Okay, that’s FAR from perfect. But we did chop out some adjectives. Now lets look at the verbs. In my opinion, “stalked” is a fairly strong verb in this instance, because it gives a good picture of how the dog was moving. “Mouth watering” is probably a little cliche. But compare it to “eager for . . .” and it does portray a slightly stronger image. Regarding nouns, “meat” is better than “beef” in this instance. If it’s on a grill, for one, it’s probably beef. Let the reader assume some things, especially if it is not essential to the progression of the story.

Now, don’t go chopping every single adjective or adverb out of your story. When used well (and probably sparingly), they’re just fine, and quite honestly, you can’t write anything without some adjectives.

And think about it – as a reader, when you read a story with a ton of bland descriptive words, you’re going to notice it and it’s going to mess you up as you read.

Don’t just get my take on this. There are a lot of people with way more experience.

Remember, strong verbs will almost always convey what you want better than adverbs. And a mediocre adverb coupled with a weak verb is going to drag you down. So, make friends with a thesaurus.

Adjectives and adverbs are just one thing an editor (or a reader) is going to look at. Fortunately, they’re not that difficult to fix. I don’t really  recommend you worry about it in your first draft, because it will probably slow you down. But if you’re like me and you “edit” your first draft with a read-over, that’s a GREAT time to work on them. And don’t worry if you can’t catch all of them – an editor will. 🙂

Share your take on this! Do you find you struggle with adjectives and adverbs? What technique could you share for other writers? Let’s chat in the comments!

Posted in Bookish Things, Writing, Writing Tips

The POV Battle Continues (Choosing the Right POV for Your Story)

I should have done this post just at the beginning of November so some of you could have seen it in time for NaNoWriMo. But alas, here it is, better late than never.

You might recall I did a post about choosing the right POV a while ago. So I’m going to try not to just repeat everything I said before. But honestly, I face this question every time I start a new book.

And it is infuriating.

Sometimes.

At other times, you just know that the story would be best if you wrote it in first person. Or third. Or one-hundred-and-seventeenth. 😔

But most of the time, for me anyway, it’s a constant battle. I wrote my recent WIP Promised Land in the point of view of first person multiple, meaning I switched between two characters. And that was tricky, but now when I try to go back to third person . . . it’s like putting a round peg in a square hole. I feel like I’m totally separate from the characters, even though I know I describe scenes and settings far better in third person than I do in first.

So what’s the answer?

There’s no easy one. Everyone will have a POV in which they write better or, at the very least, enjoy more than any other. But not every story fits in first person, and not every story fits in third person.

Generally, however, a story in which you know you need to get into the head of many different characters OR you need to get into the head of one or two minor characters, third person is probably your best option. Take it from someone who just wrote a novella in first person multiple, it’s not easy.

When I wrote One Light Shining, it was always (all six drafts of the unpublished thing) in third person. Because there were always a number of characters I wanted to bring into the story with their own point of view. Can you have too many POVs in one story? Oh, yeah. Absolutely. First person, even multiple, certainly stops you from writing in too many POVs.

But first person is limiting. So assess what you’re writing. The outline. The characters. How many characters’ heads do you need to get inside? How many do you want to get inside? (There could be a difference.)

Alas, the POV battle continues! Fight on, brave writer. The POV is only the first battle of the war that is writing. 😉

Hmm, I like that . . .

You’re turn. What POV do you enjoy the most to write? Have you experienced this conflict in your writing? Let’s chat in the comments!

Posted in Book Updates, Bookish Things, NaNoWriMo, Writing, Writing Tips

How to Choose Between Book Ideas

We all get to that point, sometime or another, when we have to choose between a handful – or a hundred – lovely book ideas scribbled on a page and . . . yikes! I want to write them allllllll!

Yeah, but seriously, it happens. I’m getting towards the end of the first round of editing for my current WIP, Promised Land, and that means making plans for my next book, and hopefully, NaNoWriMo. I SO want to do NaNo again this year! I MUST! Anyway, it seemed an appropriate topic for this post on this painfully neglected blog. 😦 Dear friend, you must forgive me. I am in the middle of editing, and blogging takes a back seat. Unintentionally, of course.

How to choose between book ideas . . .

WHAT ARE YOU MOST INSPIRED FOR?

This may seem simple, but it’s crucial. You won’t be able to write a 50,000+ word novel without being inspired for the thing. Writing is hard, folks. (News flash!)

Now, you may not know which of all these beautiful/exciting/best-seller ideas catches your eye the most. Try writing a chapter of each. Try writing an outline, see if you can figure out logistics, an ending. Run the idea by a friend. There may not be an idea there that really sticks out to you. Keep thinking.

WHAT WORKS WITH THE PRESENT MARKET?

If you plan to publish, this is an important question. Now, I can’t tell you exactly how to go about this research, but see if you can find what the current market of books is up to. What’s popular in your genre? Obviously, this is not going to be the deciding factor when it comes down the wire of story ideas, but please take it into consideration and do your research.

WHAT IDEA HAS THE MOST POTENTIAL?

Which idea is the most publishable, in other words. Can you figure out the logistics, the ending, the climax, the character arcs? If you answer yes to those questions, it’s probably doable. Next, run the idea past a friend or family member (providing they can be totally honest), and ask them, “Would you read this book if you picked it up off the shelf?” That could answer the publishable question for you right away.

There are many possibilities to help you choose between all the book ideas that spring up in your head. But these should help you get started. Now that I’m coming to the point where I have to hand Promised Land off to my critique partner – *squeezes book tight because she doesn’t want to let it go* – for the second round of editing, I’ll have time to apply these questions to the ideas I have for NaNoWriMo. Stay tuned . . . there just might be another book update on the horizon!

Don’t go away. Are you fishing through the waters of creative juices? How do you choose between all those tantalizing fish that are novels and novellas and epics in their infancy? Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Let’s chat in the comments!

Posted in Bookish Things, Writing, Writing Tips

What You Need to Know About Outlining

Outlining is fun. Seriously. It’s fun to see your story come together before you put a single word down on paper.

Everybody is going to have a different method of outlining. Some people don’t outline at all (and you may be one of them). But I’ve found I can’t write without an outline. So, if you’re like me, hopefully this post will be helpful.

WHAT OUTLINING ISN’T

I had to put this in here because I once wrote a twenty-some-odd page outline for a book and its sequel. 😉 Outlining isn’t supposed to be your book in condensed form, at least not literally. You may find that outlining to that degree affects your ability to actually write the book. Such an extensive outline is quite fun. But probably not worth it.

HOW TO OUTLINE

No one can tell you exactly how to outline because everyone is going to find a different method that works for them. Generally, you may want to start by getting the biggest, most crucial aspects of the story down first. If you’re a character-driven novelist (like me) then the characters and their arcs may come to you first, before almost anything else in the plot. I’ve found I like to write a standard synopsis when I start outlining, to help me see where the story starts and where it could go. Additionally, I often write two or three synopses during the outlining process.

(Word of the week up there – I finally found out the plural form of synopsis! News flash!)

Some people will get really extravagant with outlining by using index cards to outline characters, using both an online outlining tool and the good old fashioned notebook, etc., and I admire their organization skills. Seriously.

I’m not that organized. I outline a little in a notebook, a little on my word processor, and basically nowhere else. Oh, yeah – and in my head, of course. That’s where stories are born. 🙂

Anyway, what I’m saying is, there is no right or wrong way to outline. (Except maybe that twenty-page outline thing . . .) Find what works for you. It also depends on whether a story first comes to you via characters (*raises hand*), your world-building, the plot, a question, or whatever else you can come up with. These will affect how you outline.

The main thing to remember (and the reason outlining is SO vital to a story) is this:

Your outline is very first breath of your story. Your outline is where you organize random ideas. Your outline is where you take those ideas and create the next New York Time’s best seller. *grins* Your outline can help your story succeed because it gives you something to fall back on.

That’s not to say an outline won’t change, because they always do. But they’re like compasses.

Also, if you aren’t a planner and you’ve never outlined a story and you’re looking at me like, “This is totally irrelevant,” keep in mind a brief outline or detailed synopsis can help you when you hit a fork in the road. Consider outlining your ending, or a few ultimate goals you might have for your story.

It’s fine to ramble about outlining, but how do you outline your stories? What do you find works best for you? Or, do you outline at all? Let’s chat in the comments!

Posted in Bookish Things, Writing, Writing Tips

How to Get Through the Middle of Your Book

Let’s be honest. The middle of the book sslloowwss ddoowwnn. Maybe not the plot (hopefully not the plot), but your writing of the plot probably does, somewhere around the middle. This can be due to any number of reasons. Lack of outlining, unexpected plot of character twist, or . . . boredom.

Somewhere around the middle is also where new ideas will begin to spring up. Cool new stories, cool new characters. That’s why it’s good to have an outline. But an outline won’t always save you. (See Solution #3)

SOLUTION #1 = OUTLINE

When you get stuck in the middle of your book, one option is to outline. This helps me a lot, because an outline often gets me excited about the story again. 🙂 Whether you’re stuck on the plot or something else, outlining can be an enormous benefit.

SOLUTION #2 = RUN YOUR STORY PAST A FRIEND

Get some moral support. You may need to show somebody what you’ve written, or maybe just an outline, or you may be able to recruit a friend or family member to hold you accountable in finishing the story. This can help when you just need to get moving.

SOLUTION #3 = GRIN AND BEAR IT

Yeah, this kind of ties in to number two, but it can also stand on its own. Sometimes you get to the middle, doubt the quality of everything you’ve written, and you need to push through it. You can go back and edit the thing later. Just like with writer’s block, the middle of the book will sometimes need nothing more than a writer willing to take the plunge and finish the book.

Whichever of these helps you, however, an outline, even a vague one, can help protect you against the bombardment. If nothing else, give yourself a premise and a solid ending. But of course, if you’re like me, you start a book without the faintest clue of the ending. I’ve heard of writers who can write the ending first, then fill in the rest accordingly. Teach me your ways . . .

Now and then, I’ll get all the way to the end without the faintest idea of, well . . . how it’s going to end. 😉

How do you pick your story back up in the middle? Do you even experience these difficulties when you get there? Let’s chat in the comments!

Posted in Book Updates, Bookish Things, Inspirational, Writing, Writing Tips

The Solution for When You Don’t Want to Write (I’m not kidding)

We’ve ALL been there. We started out just loving this thing that we’re writing and then, middle of the book, or maybe the second draft, and PLOP! We hit a wall. What is that wall? Writer’s block? Maybe. Or maybe you simple don’t want to write this monster anymore. I hear ya.

If you asked me for advice on writer’s block, I might tell you to take a short break or just to write through it, but what about when you hate your book? What about when you suddenly realize your writing is immature and not half as good as that other writer you admire? (I think this way all the time. It’s poison.)

My mom and I have challenged each other to get out of our writing slump and each write a novella in three months. *news flash! news flash!* Yes, you all finally have a writing update from me. More details to follow. However, when we made the plan to do this, we were researching, believe it or not, some answers for why we weren’t writing – why was there a mental block when we tried to put words on paper?

The best piece of advice we got was this: MAKE A SCHEDULE AND COMMIT TO IT. I know I’ve talked to you all before about deadlines and how they help you to write, and this is similar to that principle, but it literally means picking up that book when you don’t want to and finishing it.

We are not perfect writers. Not one of us. We can’t be perfect writers.

What we can be is the best writer we can be. And once you accept that, once you’ve accepted that your writing is only going to get better if you keep at it, then an enormous amount of that pressure can be lifted off your shoulders.

Don’t expect perfection. You’ll be disappointed.

Take critiques and let them make your work better. Team up with somebody else to hold you accountable and encourage you – like what my mom and I are doing now! *throws confetti because she is distracted and totally excited*

Anyway, you see what I mean? There are times when you need to let go of that story that just refuses to be written (see my last post). But at the same time, there are instances when you need to sit down, buckle up, and write. No matter how much you find you hate writing. I’m serious. There are times I hate writing. But then there are times when the river flows, the words pour out, I’m right there with the characters, my mom says it’s awesome . . . and then, right then, I’m so glad to be a writer. 🙂

Please, a show of hands. Who else thought they were alone in this struggle, this battle of words? What kind of moments make you love to be a writer, no matter how hard it can be? Let’s chat in the comments! I LOVE to touch base with you guys.

Posted in Bookish Things, Reading, Writing, Writing Tips

Why Your Reader Has to Love Your Characters

We’ve seen it happen – you start reading a book, the characters make you go, “Wow. I have to see how their story ends,” and onward you read. Your characters make or break your story. Because if the reader can’t adopt, love, cheer on, or however you want to put it, when they meet the characters, chances are too good they won’t be able to get into the story.

That last book I read, Beyond the Bright Sea, the story, while good, was nothing mind-blowing or super unique. But the main character was everything I wanted to see in her. She made her story unique. She made her story special. She made me want to read the book. That’s the power of an author who fashions real, believable characters.

That’s not to say everyone will like your protagonist. I read (or started to read) a very popular book a while back, and I didn’t like the main characters. I couldn’t relate to them, and they did not inspire me to finish the story. On the flip side of that, a good while ago, I read The Restorer by Sharon Hinck. I found the plot to be cliche and predictable. But the characters . . . kept me reading. I loved every single character, and every single character felt real and broken and complex and full of potential. I recommend that book not because of the plot, but because of the way the characters were fashioned to carry out the plot.

For some authors, characters don’t come first during the first stages of inspiration. You might find a setting or a plot comes first, and you fill in the character details later. For me, characters have to come first. And if it is a true, valid story idea, they will come first in my imagination. The story will be built upon them.

The adventure novella first draft that I wrote started like this in my head: A teenage girl and her family are forced to flee from the city when the American power grid begins a cascade failure.

My YA portal fantasy novel first came to me like this: Two teens, totally at odds, are pulled into another world, where their differences could mean their destruction.

And because I was able to grasp the characters, the rest of the story came together fairly simply. Of course, if you’re not a character-first writer, that’s perfectly fine, so long as you can still write characters that make the reader care.

Why does the reader have to care?

No, it’s not just so they’ll finish the book – because that isn’t even a guarantee. It’s so that, when trouble comes and the characters are in an impossible situation, grave danger, or just experiencing acute pain, the reader is going to feel it, too, because they’re right there with that character.

More often than not, the character makes the story.

How do you write characters like that?

Make them real. Broken. They don’t have to be too broken, just broken enough to be completely believable. Make them imperfect. People want a hero, but not a flawless one. Take the Michael Vey Series, for instance, or even better, the Out of Time Series. Heroes, both protagonists. But they’re not perfect and they’re not invincible. In the Michael Vey Series, our hero has Tourette’s and is bullied. In the Out of Time Series, the hero is insecure and afraid, and desperately searching for purpose.

Character arcs and character development are key in fashioning memorable protagonists – and even antagonists. On that note, make your antagonist complex, a mystery – not one-sided, not necessarily pure evil. Weigh all of these options during your outlining process.

So, how do you create your characters? What makes them unique in your story? Can you think of a book you’ve read with a character that really, really stood out to you? Let’s chat in the comments!

Posted in Bookish Things, Short Stories, Writing, Writing Tips

How to Write Short Stories – and Write Them Well

So, a short story was probably what you specialized in when you started writing. What you called a “book,” if you started as young as I did, was probably a ten-page (tops) short story written in huge font. Sound familiar? You might have started with a little more professionalism than I did, so hats off to you.

But I started between the age of four and eight, depending on what you actually consider “writing.” Hmm, I should do a post on the controversial “definition” of writing. 🙂 But now I’m going off on a tangent and we’ve barely started. You can tell what mood I’m in, right??? *stares distractedly out the window with a smile*

Okay, let’s get back to business. *puts hat back on*

What constitutes a short story?

It varies. I mean, I don’t think a definition is actually necessary, but you should know that anything below 1,000 words is considered flash fiction, or a super short story. However, personally, I feel that flash fiction should be defined as something closer to a few hundred words or less. So, the minimum word count for short story falls somewhere in the <1,000 category, and can be up to 10,000 words.

Why are short stories so important in fiction?

Not only are short stories an excellent building block for writing (see my Faithwriters’ short stories), but they are a fabulous tool to provide entertainment, inspiration, amusement, and even, if you’re really skilled, a powerful piece of writing that makes an impact that lasts! It’s a taller order than it sounds. Some people may not have time to read a novel. But anyone can make time to read a short story. See the potential there?

I wish I could share with you all the incredible short stories I’ve read. I can’t, but let me say, they have changed my view of “short” stories.

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And, I might add, so can the smallest stories. 🙂

Don’t you all just love LOTR quotes?

How to Write Them Well

No, not LOTR quotes, short stories. 😉

Okay, so, the only reason I can give you some advice on this, is because I’ve written so many of them. But if you’re really interested in writing short stories, do your research. I can only share the bit that I’ve learned along the way.

Depending on the length of your story, keep extra POVs to a minimum. In all likelihood, your short story is probably only focusing on one person. However, be very careful when including more than one POV. Try to have just one, if at all possible. It should help the story to flow more smoothly.

Stories are powerful. Words can change lives. So work on the flow of every sentence and paragraph, as you write and as you edit. Tightening sentences where you can will often help the story flow. Cut out unnecessary descriptions, but let the reader see the scene that is unfolding.

It is difficult to explain everything that can improve a short work of fiction. Your best bet is to read. Mine aren’t the best examples in the world, but you can check out the stories I’ve written for Faithwriters. If nothing else, you’ll be able to get an idea of a tight story with a message. My short stories page features many of the winning stories. But if you do some exploring on Faithwriters, you’ll find some really incredible winning stories.

First sentences and last sentences also count in short stories, mainly because they are the first and last impressions. But remember, quite often, the real fashioning of a story happens after the writing, during the editing.

So, read. Read a lot. If you want to perfect short stories, you can’t read enough of them. And you can’t write enough of them. My first many stories written for Faithwriters were, um . . . *coughs* embarrassing. But each one improved. And short stories are unique opportunities to inspire! Don’t discredit them because they’re short. Remember Lord of the Rings quotes!

Oh, and, before we go . . . a puppy update. Phoenix is doing awesome. Personality-wise, she’s bull-headed, but very sensitive. The other night, right at midnight, she heard two cats screaming outside, and started barking. Like. Crazy. I jolted awake, fumbled to turn the light on. She might have been noisy, but she was actually really freaked out and scared. So I petted her for a while, then turned off the light, and she went back to sleep. All thoughts of screeching cats forgotten. 🙂 Goodnight, Phoenix!

Your turn. What sort of short stories do you like to write? What is your advice for a newbie looking to start out with short stories? Have you ever had your dog wake you up in the middle of the night? Let’s chat!

Posted in Bookish Things, Writing, Writing Tips

Punctuation Pantry – Friend or Foe: Semicolons and Parentheses

“On matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
― Thomas Jefferson

Our second installment of the Punctuation Pantry talks about semicolons and parentheses. This may seem exceedingly dull (and I agree, suspended hyphens were more interesting);  but the fact remains, in this day and age, these two punctuation items need to be discussed. (See what I did there?)

A definition is not needed for parentheses. But you may have noticed that you really don’t see them anymore outside of emails (and blog posts, of course). 🙂 In books, you typically don’t see parentheses. Why?

Based on my observation, they’ve been replaced by dashes. Look at these sentences:

The characters in the movie were three-dimensional (and very entertaining).

Which can be written as,

The characters in the movie were three-dimensional – and very entertaining.

So, the general rule is, parentheses are fine for informal writing. But formal writing tends to avoid them.

SEMICOLONS

Semicolons basically join two independent clauses, which is very helpful in outlining or list-making. But until a couple years ago, I was strongly opposed to using them in formal writing, simply because they were used – heavily – in classics and older literature. They are more sparse in today’s work.

However, that does not mean they have no place in the literature of today. Do your research. But I would recommend not using them quite as frequently as the classics did, simply because they seem to be a little less popular today.

So, recap. Formal writing, avoid parentheses and sprinkle the semicolons. A lot of what I’ve learned about punctuation in writing comes from observing the writing of others. So if you want a stricter definition of what is accepted, do your research.

And NOW! Drum roll . . . I did not want to leave you all today with a few up-to-date pictures of our little Goldendoodle Phoenix. 🙂 She has grown so fast, it’s impossible to believe. She barely fits in my arms. Already! Today, she has her appointment with the vets, so she’s got a car ride to look forward to. She’s okay in the car, but we’ll see how it goes.

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Fast asleep . . .

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THAT FACE!!!

Her potty training is slow, but her training in basic commands is incredible. She’s even learning hand signals. And guess who wakes me up at five every morning? Without fail. That’s her “I’ve got to go to the bathroom” alert.

And good news, the cats are adjusting to her. And she knows she’s not supposed to chase them, but . . . oh, they’re so fast and fluffy she says!

So, what are your favorite uses of the three topics we’ve addressed in the Punctuation Pantry? Do you use semicolons or parentheses? Now, how about Phoenix – cutest puppy EVER? (I know, I’m horribly biased.) Let’s chat!