Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Blogger


I spend mornings trading currencies on-line, afternoons working on my medical suspense thriller.

In addition to writing, I enjoy being a student of writing. You either have talent or you don’t, but craft can be taught; and it can be the difference that determines which talented writers are published (or sell a lot if self-published) and get to share their art and which don’t. It always amazes me when I hear some writers say studying craft stifles their creativity. Yes, it’s an art, but it seems to be the only art where practitioners expect to simply start doing it and somehow become expert. True, every few hundred years or so a Mozart level genius in some art is born but I believe the rest of us have to pay our dues.

So, I read a lot of books on the craft of writing. And, a while back, I hired a very good professional editor to line edit a few chapters of an earlier version of my book. I ended up taking the book in a slightly different direction and none of those chapters survived, but the experience was still well worth the effort. While at times painful and humbling, I believe I learned as much from that exercise as I did from all the many craft books I’ve read. Also, after the blood-letting was over, she gave me a document I’ve found invaluable in my self-editing sessions. It’s a multipoint Editor’s Checklist of ways to increase your manuscript’s chance to be published—in essence, a professional editor’s succinct list of to-do’s and not-to-do’s. The edits I describe in my first two blogs come from just a small portion of that Checklist.

I grew up in New Orleans, have an MBA from the University of Houston, and have lived in many parts of the country ranging from Seattle to the Columbia area. My work background is varied also. Among other occupations, I’ve been a hospital administrator, management consultant, and computer software product manager. Two of these occupations required extensive travel and I’ve been to every state in the Union and a host of foreign countries.

My beautiful and wonderfully understanding wife and I currently live in Elgin with our two dogs and my elderly mom who recently came to live with us.

My was-were-had-as-ing-ly Edit, Part I

By John May

Whenever I finish a chapter, I hunt for certain words and types of words with my word processor and then try to kill as many of the varmints as I can. In this installment, we’ll look at the first three, was, were, and had:

Was and were: In Techniques of the Selling Writer, one of the most acclaimed and bestselling books on craft ever, Dwight Swain holds that to be verbs, which describe a static state of existence, rob a story of vividness and action. “Your story stands still in any sentence that hangs on such a verb. Nothing happens. The situation just is, and, for its duration your reader must in effect mark time, shifting wearily from one foot to the other while he waits for the story to get back under way. ‘She was unhappy’ may be true enough but where does it go? What’s ‘she’ doing? Active verbs are what you need, verbs that show something happening.”

Had: Again from Swain, “Worst of all the to be’s forms is the past perfect tense. You can recognize it by the word had—a red flag of danger in your story every time. For had describes not just a static state, but a static state in the past. Each had makes your story jerk, because it jars your reader out of the present action and throws him into past history. …eliminate as many as possible, within the bounds of common sense.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Swain that to be verbs suck the life out of passages that involve immediate action or dialogue. I once hired a professional editor to look a couple of chapters in a much earlier version of my novel. She claims extensive use of passive voice is an excellent way to get a manuscript rejected. I know I invariably like my action and dialogue scenes better after I round up the to be varmints and slaughter them.

However, when writing introspection, scene setting, or historical exposition, I believe to be’s, while mostly undesirable, are not always life suckers. In this group, to be verbs are a bit less intrusive (there’s no immediate action to interrupt) and, since the purpose can be to give history, sometimes even necessary. So, while I try hard to avoid to be verbs wherever possible, when writing a passage that involves any kind of immediate action or dialogue, I really really really really really try hard to avoid them.

Of course, if some reason, you want your story or a particular passage to feel sleepy and meandering, then passive verbs are the ones of choice (note how much faster and stronger the last clause reads in the active form: “then choose passive verbs”). As I’m currently writing a work of commercial fiction I hope to publish, I can’t afford to sound sleepy and meandering very often.
In the next installment, we’ll look at some other less than desirable words or word types.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


By Amanda Simays

If a Snapple iced tea cap tells me that average humans eat eight spiders in their sleep, I can roll my eyes and move on. But it’s harder to dismiss a statistic that I’ve had drilled into me during three separate job-related trainings, through speakers, handouts, quizzes, and public speaking videos.

I’m talking about the 7-38-55 rule, the one that states that 7% of communication is the actual words we use, 38% of communication is the tone we use, and 55% of communication is our body language. And I just couldn’t believe it.

I’ve lived through enough misconstrued text messages and emails to attest to the fact that tone and body language play a vital role in communication. But accounting for 38 and 55%? Really?

My hang-up over this statistic connects to my writing. I sprinkle details about tone and body language into my dialogue, but for large chunks I rely solely on the quoted words to deliver my message. If this 7-38-55 statistic were true, it had some scary implications. Theoretically, the dialogue I wrote often communicated only 7% of what I meant.

The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous that seemed. Did the 7-38-55 rule mean that writers should spend 93% of dialogue text space describing tone and body language? Or did it just mean that with every single statement a character spoke, I needed to illustrate the tone and the body language so the reader could understand what I meant?

According to the way my trainings presented the 7-38-55 theory, readers would only get 7% of what I intended if I wrote:

“I am so fed up with your attitude!” Jane said.

Add some body language for almost two-thirds of the gist (62%):

“I am so fed up with your attitude!” Jane said, stomping her feet.

Then all I would need to do is throw in a helpful adverb to acknowledge the tone, and then the readers get 100% of the message:

“I am so fed up with your attitude!” Jane said angrily, stomping her feet.

Ohhhh….now they get the point.

The 7-38-55 rule bugged me enough to do some research, and I found several websites exposing the “7-38-55 myth”…a frequently misquoted statistic. The 7-38-55 rule originated with an experiment conducted by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, and the numerical conclusion only relates when you’re forming a like-dislike attitude of the speaker, not whether you understand the message. Bottom line: no official scientific study ever claimed that the words you use comprise only 7% of the information you communicate.

I like to partially blame residual effects of being brainwashed by that statistic for times when I don’t trust the words on the page to stand on their own, overusing adverbs, obtrusive speaker attributions, or clich├ęd body language. On the other hand, there is a kernel of truth buried in the 7-38-55 rule—the fact that I can’t rely completely on the quoted words to portray meaning. I still have to remember to visualize how my characters act, what faces they make, how their voices sound, and what they think about while they speak.

Finding the balance isn’t easy, and it’s something I’m working on. But I’m relieved to know that I can count on the words I use in dialogue for more than 7% of the legwork.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Be Like Kim Kardashian

By Kimberly Johnson

You’d think she was water--she’s everywhere: a cover girl on magazines (People, Cosmo, Glamour), a reality TV titan (Keeping Up With the Kardashians), a fashion designer and a social media goddess. Heck, she authored a book with her sisters (Kardashian Konfidential).

That’s right; Kim Kardashian is a household brand. How did this 30-something do it? The easy answer: She makes money.

The other answer: She’s out there—I mean, her name is synonymous with what’s happening with pop culture. Oh, did I tell you? Her mom, Kris Jenner, is her manager. Kim’s PR team knows a thing or two about savvy marketing. Simply put, marketing determines what products interest the customer—and gives it to him. Marketing identifies, satisfies and keeps the customer.

Is your short story ready to become a bestseller--like Kim Kardashian? If the answer is…well, maybe…I dunno. Here are some concepts I found on the Internet to promote yourself. And become like Kim Kardashian.

First: Cultivate your identity. Who are you and what do you offer?
Second: What makes you so special? Communicate who you are and what you do, quickly. The public attention span is short. Think Twitter.
Third: Develop a relationship with your audience. And keep them interested with ongoing dialogue, date nights, hand-holding, walks in the park…you get the picture. Think YouTube, MySpace, Facebook.

Do Now: #1 - 3: Create a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a blog. Shamelessly talk about your writing projects.
Do Now # 4: Check for blogs and magazines that are open to submissions.
Do Now #5: Surf the Internet for a podcaster looking for an author to interview.
Do Now #6: Take part in a writing workshop. Meet and greet and get feedback.
Do Now #7: Word of mouth. It takes a village to promote your prized work of fiction or nonfiction.

Sources: How to Promote Yourself and Your Book, Jess Haines,,

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Keeping Our Illusion Honest

By Bonnie Stanard

I’ve just put down a novel of 368 pages after reading to page 179. I was interested in the story, so why did I call it quits? In a nutshell, I couldn’t take another erudite word from a 12 year-old. Dictum was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House is historical fiction, my favorite genre, and has been praised by such as Robert Morgan. The first half of the book spans the time from 1791 to 1797, though the novel continues through 1810. The story develops around Lavinia, a seven year-old white girl who is orphaned when both her parents die on the ship taking them to America. The captain carries her to his plantation where, as an indentured servant, she lives with the slaves. Tension develops as Lavinia sees the negros as her family, though she is expected to behave as a white.

Lavinia, in telling the story, says things like:

I brought Sukey for a visit, for she elicited a vivid response.
…those excursions ceased as an increasing lethargy overtook him.
With the security of the past two years, I had become more sure of myself…Yet an underlying anxiety always stayed.

All of this from one page in the book. A few slips here or there can be overlooked, but the tone becomes that of an educated adult with 21st Century sensibilities, which, in my case, created a fault that shattered the fantasy.

Finally, Lavinia says “I often heard her state how she felt obliged to help the less fortunate, and there was no doubt that my welfare was included under that dictum.” What 12 year-old living in the 1790s would say this?

Grissom took on a double challenge when she chose not only an 18th century narrator but a child as well. Obviously the reader doesn’t want a tale told in simplistic language. The key is to sound simplistic without actually being simplistic. It’s in the tone, that ephemeral quality that doesn’t lend itself to a simple reduction.

As Shaun so capably reminded us in a previous blog, our characters can do unbelievable things only as long as we respect a consistent “reality,” which may be a far cry from what is really real; i.e., we can get away with any absurdity in our alternative reality, but if we violate the rules of our creation, we risk losing the reader.

In like fashion, the characters we create need to speak the language of the alternative reality we give them. Their words in many ways define them and can either reinforce or undermine their validity. Especially in historical fiction, contemporary language and sentiment can transport the reader out of the story.