Small

Small is Beautiful

Small | Guy L. PaceThese days, I’m amazed at how small things can get. What used to need more carrying capacity, now fits into a small bag.

I’m packing for a trip. My sleeping bag compresses into a very small bag. My sleeping mat and pillow go into a smaller bag. Cooking and other necessities take much less space in the saddle bags these days. What required a lot of bungee cords and cargo nets in the past, now fit neatly into the saddle bags and I have more room for basic luggage and me.

In the past, touting on my Harley-Davidson softail was more complicated. Now, with all the newer, more compressed, smaller equipment, it is getting simpler. I now expect a more enjoyable journey. I’m looking forward to it.

Like the Chihuahua in the picture (that looks so very much like my little Paco from years ago), small is beautiful. Simple, little, small things make a huge difference in our lives and in our writing. Chihuahuas bring to their humans huge loyalty and great courage. What a wonderful and unexpected benefit from such a small package.

After the first draft

When we write–after the first draft of course–we should make every effort to trim the writing down to the essentials. Just those words necessary to the story. Like Hemingway, use economy, precise word choice, nuance, to move the story and the reader. In The Old Man and the Sea, Papa kept the narrative to a minimum and used his skills to tell a powerful, complete, Nobel-prize winning novella in under 30,000 words. He claims the story did not have symbolism, but was the bare story of courage, pain, and triumph.

Like Papa, I don’t need to lead the reader around the story by the nose. I let them fill in the details with their own imagination. My own Sudden Mission could have run to 100,000 words, but would have been more of a doorstop at that length. Write just what needs writing.

Keep writing (with a Chihuahua in your lap).

 

Smelly

Something is smelly.

I smell something up thereThings smell. Sometimes the smells are good, sometimes the smells are not good.

In my current work in progress, the main character encounters a lot of different smells as she moves through the story. Riding in the back of a military truck is “hot, loud, and smelly.” Of course, that is pretty generic, so I’ll add some things that mix in to make it smelly. There are other aromas she encounters later that are disgusting or nasty, and some that are just from the terrain she is in.

Like the cat in the picture here, smells connect her to her environment or the action. You probably connect certain smells to memories, like the smell of pine trees and their sap in the early summer at Salmon La Sac in the Cascade Mountains. Or the aroma of fresh-baked bread from grandma’s kitchen when you were young. How about warm cherry pie with a melting scoop of ice cream? Then there is the smell of new-mown hay, onion fields near Ontario, Oregon, or a nearby stockyard.

Or, skunk.

Smells help set a scene or help evoke emotions, and can accomplish a lot in just a few words. Smells trigger memories and you can use that to enrich what is happening in your story. They clue your character in to what might be coming, or what might be nearby.

Think about your own memories, especially those triggered by smells. You know the ones. You’re walking down a street, entering a building, strolling by Cinnabon in the mall. A smell hits you and it brings a memory front and center. Is it a pleasant memory? A sad memory? Or, does it just make you hungry?

Some may say that visual or audio experiences are powerful, but don’t forget smells. In Nasty Leftovers, the main characters used mentholated cream smeared in paper masks to help deal with overly strong aromas of rot and filth, the sour stench in the air of the city, and the burning sulfur smell of the hellhounds. Dealing with the smells affected almost everything the main characters did.

Some of smells carry forward into the work in progress, adding continuity and bringing up memories for the main character. Those memories impact her reactions and behaviors as she works through the story.

Right now, I smell a Cinnabon and I think it’s calling my name.

Keep writing.

 

 

Voice

Voice

It’s best to use active voice in fiction writing, they tell us. Passive voice we’d best avoid.

I’ll break it down for you. Active voice keeps your reader engaged with action verbs. Passive voice puts the reader to sleep.

Back in the day, my mentor in the Navy, Senior Chief Journalist Raymond P. Lucasey*, put it this way when he found a passive voice sentence in my work.

“Why do you keep backing up into your sentences?”

He was right. Passive voice not only puts a sleeper hold on a reader, but puts the predicate first in the sentence and uses a lame verb that doesn’t direct action at all. It gets it all backward. Active voice gets your subject up front and uses a more powerful verb to direct the action.

We weren’t writing fiction, then. We were writing news releases and other material for media folks, as well as material for historical records of our command. Chief Lucasey demanded quality from me in everything we did that went out for media consumption. “What they do with it after they get it is on them,” or words to that effect were his sentiments.

A side effect of passive voice is it adds a lot unnecessary words to your writing. Cleaning up and replacing passive voice with active voice makes your writing tighter and more on point. Crisper. More intense.

Lazy

Text Clip from WIP

In this clip, Scrivener marks some of the text it thinks may be incorrect with green underscores.

But, I’m lazy and I need help. I’ve used grammar checkers since their inception back in the ’80s and I wrote reviews of them in an academic journal (Text Technology). But, that was when they were a separate, add-on application you might use with Word Perfect or Word. Then, software companies integrated the spelling and grammar checkers into the word-processing applications. Now, you have spelling and grammar checking as a menu option in the Edit drop down menu of your editor of choice. The problem with this is all you get are these colored underlines in your text where the spelling or grammar needs work.

For example, the above paragraph originally had two instances of passive voice. When I tested the text in Pages and Scrivener, they indicated nothing wrong with the paragraph. They both marked the “your” words in the previous paragraph, indicating I might substitute “you’re” (wrong). Both Pages and Scrivener have limited grammar checking capability. You can turn it on or off, but you can’t drill down into settings and configure the grammar checker for your needs. I’d love to find a reasonable grammar checker I can add to my Mac to help. Until then, I found a solution I can use until something better comes along.

I copy the text from a scene in Scrivener, paste it to a new post in my WordPress editor, which uses After the Deadline. Then I click the spelling/grammar checker. Where there are passive voice instances, or other errors, I make the corrections in Scrivener (because copy and pasting back to Scrivener makes a mess of the text).

Granted, a good grammar checker isn’t going to solve all your active/passive voice issues. You still need to know the difference between your and you’re; there, they’re, and their; to (toward) and too (also or excessive); and its (possessive) and it’s (it is contraction). It helps you take a more critical look at your writing. Is it okay to use passive voice sometimes? Well, yes. I allow characters to say things using passive voice in dialog sometimes. Not a lot, though. My rule is it cannot get in the way of the story or the action.

A may look at Grammarian Pro2 X as a grammar tool.

Keep writing.

 

*I lost track of Chief Lucasey after I separated from the Navy. I understood he retired to Arizona or Florida. Here’s to you, Chief, wherever you are.

Opening Lines

Opening Lines

BugBear BooksThe first chapter and scene of a novel begin with powerful, strong opening lines. These should grab the reader, show some potential conflict, set scene, and introduce the character. And, they should entice the reader to keep reading.

The power went out. Again.

Amy Grossman fumbled on the dresser for a candle and some matches. I should have been prepared, she thought as she lit a candle. The power went out almost every day lately.

I’m working on the opening lines of the third book. The above kind of meets the criteria. Something happens. It involves the main character. It sets the scene, a little. Let’s see. Can we make this better? There is a passive voice clause we need to fix. How’s this look?

The power went out. Again.

Amy Grossman fumbled on the dresser for a candle and some matches. I know better than this. Be prepared, she thought as she lit a candle. The power went out almost every day lately.

But, I think the scene needs some work.

The power went out. Again. Silence. Dark.

Amy Grossman fumbled on the dresser for a candle and some matches. I know better than this. Be prepared, she thought as she lit a candle. The power went out almost every day lately.

Quiet

Ever notice when the power goes out, everything gets very quiet? Yeah. Hums quit humming, buzzes quit buzzing. And, it gets dark. That helps, I think. But, what was Amy doing when the power went out?

The power went out. Again. Silence. Dark.

Amy Grossman dropped her gear bag on the bed and fumbled on the dresser for a candle and some matches. I know better than this. Be prepared, she thought as she lit a candle. The power went out almost every day lately.

Okay, she had a gear bag, so she’s getting ready to leave. She’s in her room, evidently, and there are candles on the dresser. But, she’s frustrated. She needs to do more than just “think” the internal dialog.

The power went out. Again. Silence. Dark.

Amy Grossman dropped her gear bag on the bed and fumbled on the dresser for a candle and some matches. I know better than this. Be prepared, she chastised herself as she lit a candle. The power went out almost every day lately.

So, with active voice and getting the character involved in an active way, I think I have a good start to the first chapter. Well, the first scene, anyway. There are twenty-four chapters to go through now, and here you get a little insight into my writing process. Not to mention getting a preview of the opening lines. Hope you are intrigued.

Keep writing.

 

Short Fiction

Short Fiction

Writing short fiction helps you develop your craft. You learn the structure of a story, how to develop a character, and how to keep a story focused. A short story is usually between 3,000 and 7,500 words. Of course, this depends on your market. Some print and online magazines have their own ideas on short story length and the lengths can vary widely.

On this blog, I’ve posted a short-short story and a short story (See Amy’s Lesson and The Gift). These are not sellable, stand-alone stories that would be picked up by a print or online magazine. I wrote them to help bridge the gap between Nasty Leftovers and the third installment of the Spirit Missions series (in progress) and provide some seasonal stories.

Sometimes, you have to write something short to help develop something longer. Those two short pieces helped me set the stage for the third novel, and helped mature the characters a little. From Sudden Mission to this third novel, the main characters Paul and Amy go from age 14 to almost 18. What happens in the third book needs older characters to make the action and events more believable.

I have other, unrelated short fiction, including one published (New Kid in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine). Another story I think is promising, but it’s out to a market that doesn’t seem viable any more. I may withdraw and move on.

Strengths

That’s another strength of short fiction. There is a huge market for it, but it is competitive. Write your short fiction, get some beta-readers for it if that helps, and submit to appropriate markets. And, keep submitting. When you get a rejection, don’t take it personally. Look the story over, make any edits or corrections that seem right, and send it back out. One rejection is not a judgement on your story or the quality of your writing. It just means that whoever screened the submissions didn’t think your story fit their needs. Move on.

You get two things from this: 1) thick skin from dealing with rejection and criticism; 2) practice. Keep writing those short pieces. Keep submitting them. The more you write, the better you get. One day, you’ll get a response that has constructive criticism. That’s a good thing. Eventually, you’ll get an offer to publish one of those short pieces. New Kid cleared the bar, and at an award-winning small magazine. But it had been around the market for about a year and collected several rejections before acceptance.

Short fiction is hard work, though. Harder than longer work, like novels. Keep your language precise. Keep your descriptions spare. And, you have to hit the reader with a strong story line. Granted, that helps a novel, too. But, you hone the craft in the short pieces.

I know I spend more time on the three-to-five thousand words of a short story as opposed to the 60+ thousand words of a novel. I play with point of view and voice. First person seems to fit short fiction better. I rewrite the drafts more, edit between submissions, spend more time re-reading it and analyzing it. It’s all part of the process.

Go on, write that short story. Write several. It’s good practice.

Keep writing.