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L.D. Alford:  Writing Secrets
Blog: Zen of Writing


Blog: L.D. Alford
Blog: Zen of Scenes



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I can hear you now--who do you think you are to give anyone advice on writing?  Your assertion is likely correct, but many people have asked me these questions, and this is usually how I respond.

Themes again

I'm using my regular blog to write about the new novel I am writing, so I'm going to use this more permanent part of my site to vent.  This is the problem--will you idiots stop with the world and universe is going to end themes.  I don't know where you guys get the stupid idea that this is a compelling or underused theme.  Let me tell you, it is just too much.  It is so much, I am relegating the writers of such books to a middle school mentality.  Listen, most great science fiction isn't about the end of the universe or the end of the world as we know it.  My own Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox books are about an intragalactic war and the powerplays of the leadership, but the theme and the plot is not about the end of the world.  If you read much literature, you will quickly realize that most great literature (almost zero) is not about the end of the world or the end of civilization etc. etc. etc.  Most of it is about the lives of people.  And much of it is about how people cope (or not) with their own problems much less the end of the world or civilization.  So, if you get an idea for such a book with such a theme--dump it immediately from your brain.  It just isn't a good idea.  We can only live with so many "Level Sevens" or "On the Beach" or "Armageddon."  Give it up, it's played out.  It's been done before.  And please, don't self publish that kind of trash.  If a publisher will publish it--go for it.  You have all my blessings, but there is usually a reason why most publishers won't go for it.  Can you guess why?  As I have written before, you must write something refreshing and new.  If it has been done before, then it isn't worth doing again.  Find a new storyline, a new plot, and a new theme.  So then I won't have to read those embarrassing self critiquing write-ups about novels that very few will ever want to read.    

Writing a Novel, How I Start part 10

This topic is by no means complete.  There is so much more to delve into just about starting a novel, but I think it is time to clean this topic up a little and move on to another.  So I'll finish with this.  First, the four basic rules I employ when writing:
1. Don't confuse your readers.
2. Entertain your readers.
3. Ground your readers in the writing.
4. Don't show (or tell) everything.
The last rule has a double implication--it implies "show don't tell."  This is, of course, the basic rule of writing--show don't tell.  Arlo Guthrie's book, A Field Guide to Fiction Writing, is easily the writer's manual on this topic.  I won't go into anymore details today.

The second point that I haven't touched on yet is the idea itself.  If you want to write a novel, you need a novel length idea--an inspiration.  No cheating.  Although it can be a good exercise, it doesn't do to take your favorite author, movie, program, novel, or anything else and write a similar novel.  It is silly to think you can be successful by copying any work and producing something similar.  To be your novel, the ideas have to be novel.  The problems with many works today is they are too similar to other works, they have a voice that is too like other works, or they are so trivial, they are meaningless.  That's the other side of the coin.  A work that has a trivial theme, plot, or storyline is not going to be successful and will likely not get published in the first place.  The question of what is "trivial" is a difficult one.  I can tell you that if you have more than one unique miraculous incident in your novel, it is likely trivial.  We call these a deus ex machina, a god machine.  A novel can spin from a singular unique setting or event, but when they keep happening, the work's credibility becomes a question.  For example, although I don't buy it and few readers will (unless you absolutely build it properly) love at first sight is a cliched and deus ex moment.  A novel based on "love at first sight" might have a chance in the hands of an absolute expert writer, but the theme is so old and has been used so much that no one will believe it today.  Further, if the theme and plot of such a novel isn't "love at first sight," any other unique event that propels the novel will become trite and unbelievable.  Your novel can't become trite.  Unique events can flow from one another in the novel based on the singular circumstances developed in the novel, but those must come logically from the others.

Example from Dana-ana http://www.goddessnovel.com/.  Dana-ana is about a girl who acts like an Anglo-Saxon maiden although she lives in the modern world.  The plot is basically wrapped in a question:  who really is Dana-ana?  It is a revelation novel.  That is, it reveals more and more through the characters to the point where everyone, at the end, finally gets just who is Dana-ana.  The storyline develops around this revelation.  The unique point of the book is Dana-ana herself--everything in the novel flows from this simple evidence.  Everything becomes explicitly concrete because of who Dana-ana is.  The reader is grounded and funnelled into the story because of this singular point.  Further, the theme is about redemption.  It is the redemption of Dana-ana herself and the redemption of those around her.  Why does Dana-ana need redemption?  That is bound up in who Dana-ana really is.  So, you can see, a single unique existence propels the novel.  There are magic and somewhat miraculous happenings in Dana-ana, but it is a fantasy-like novel with a fantastic plot.  Those magic and miraculous happenings are not unique in the structure of the novel--just as future technology is not unique in a science fiction novel.  When the basis is future technology or magic, the events are no longer unique, they are common, but that is a topic worth more discussion.

I hope this short 10 part explanation of how I start to write a novel was helpful.  I think I'll talk more about inspiration tomorrow.  Until then...

Excitement in Scenes, How I Start part 9

I wrote before, a scene must center around some event that is exciting.  Excitement is how you entertain and hold your reader's attention.  To build a scene that is exciting, you must imagine your characters involved in some event that drives the storyline, plot, and theme.  The scenes cannot be out of place to the storyline, plot, or theme, and they must fit your characters.  No scene, event within a scene, or piece of a scene can be extraneous or out of place.  Each bit, piece, and description must further the novel.  If, when you edit your writing, you find any piece that you can remove that will not affect the storyline, plot, or theme, then remove it.  This is something that is always interesting to me.  Many writers tell me when they edit, their writing length decreases.  Whenever I edit, the length of my manuscripts increase.  I always discover places I can improve and explain better.  I find places where I didn't provide sufficient description.  I rarely find scenes or events that are extraneous.  The reason for this is that I outline in scenes, and I center each scene in an event that propels the storyline. 

The main question is, how do you invent or develop exciting events?  Much of that is a writer's experience.  Just as writing well comes from much writing, event or idea development comes from both writing and life experience.  I would add that reading can provide many ideas for exciting events.  Let me show you the outline of scenes for the first chapter of Dana-ana www.GoddessNovel.com:
1.  Dana gets beat up: input, stealing lunches; output, she's knocked out.  You should be able to see the explicit excitement and action in this scene.  The pathetic character of Dana will not fight back (we find later that she can't fight back).
2.  Dana in the infirmary: input, Dana knocked out; output, Byron escorts her home.  Here the specific pieces driving the scene are Byron carrying her to the infirmary, the confrontation with the school nurse (we find out more about Dana; Dana broke into the infirmary safe before), Dana gains and loses consciousness a couple of times, Dana tries to get out of the infirmary on her own, Byron has to help her, she doesn't want his help...
3.  Dana's tarpaper house: input, Byron escorts her home; output, Byron goes home.  The action here is the walk to her house (lots of description), seeing the tarpaper house, describing the tarpaper house, realization that Dana has nothing, Dana washes Byron's feet to welcome him to her house (okay, here is where the storyline, plot, and theme really kick off.  If you didn't think Dana was odd to begin with, the moment she welcomes Byron to her house by washing his feet, your alarm bells should be going off.  She is obviously showing an action that is outside of a modern norm--yet this fits in the perspective of the novel and the action), Dana is hungry, Byron shares his lunch with her, Dana won't eat the food unless it is gifted to her in her real name (another cultural indicator), Byron discovers her heal name, she eats the food he gives her, Byron goes back to school.
Three scenes, three exciting events to develop one chapter.  That isn't too hard.  In this context the scenes flow one from the other.  You can read the entire chapter at www.GoddessNovel.com.  You can also see other examples of my writing at www.ldalford.com or read my books.

Don't Show (or Tell) Us Everything, How I Start part 8

I gave three of my dictums yesterday in one post.  Don't confuse your readers.  Entertain your readers.  Ground your readers in the writing.  Today, I want to give you another one: don't show your readers everything.  People ask me all the time from my books, "What really happened to x." or "Did x do this to y." I try to not let my readers know anything more than the characters understand themselves. I don't like to explain anything. I want the interaction of the characters to show everything. I don't want my readers to predict what will happen in the story. I want them guessing all the time. Guessing as much as the characters are themselves. In the real world, people's motivations are ultimately unknown. People's thoughts are unknown. There are always mysteries. Most of which we simply ignore. You can always leave your readers hanging, but don't leave them confused. Make sure your writing is clear and you are getting across what you want. This is where good editing and lots of it can help you. Find as many readers as possible and beg them for feedback. Once the novel is published, it's just too late to fix it.  So what does it look like to not reveal everything?  Let me show you.  In Children of Light and Darkness www.ChildrenofLightandDarkness.com, it is quite obvious from the beginning that Kathrin and James have a romantic and sexual relationship. At the beginning of the novel their relationship is estranged. We know this by the way they interact and speak to one another. Here is an example from the novel:

James stepped out on the veranda, “Heat still bothering you, Kathrin?”

Kathrin didn’t say a word. She pursed her lips and clenched her jaw.

James turned around at the rail and leaned against it. He was tall and handsome, clean shaven. His hair was slightly tousled—always slightly tousled. It was brown and nondescript. His face, though handsome was still nondescript. MI, Military Intelligence, liked their agents and operatives to look good, but not to draw too much attention. It was easier that way. James was strong and well trained. He always treated her like a lady, even when he didn’t have to and when she didn’t deserve it.

Kathrin knew she was pretty—perhaps bordering on beautiful. Her face was freckled and sported blazing green eyes. She had heart shaped lips in a heart shaped face. Her hair was red, and she was thin, perhaps too thin. She wasn’t very tall either. None of those characteristics ever seemed to affect her negatively. She spoke with a thick, but improving Scottish brogue that made her a little difficult to understand at times. She knew she always showed a slightly harried look, and that was backed by an overly brisk personality. She did have a raging temper. It was a prideful secret that she kept it in check almost all of the time. When she let it out, it scared her. She didn’t let it out often, not at all since she had been working for the organization.

James checked his sidearm, “You still mad at me about last night?”

Kathrin’s eyes flashed at him. James tucked away his weapon and raised his hands.

All the fight drained out of her. She looked out on the jungle, “It was my fault.”

“Then come on. It will only get hotter the longer we delay.”

... After dinner, they took a nightcap with them to their room. James made a short foray to the veranda and smoked a cigar. Kathrin rearranged the fresh flowers in an old silver pot on her nightstand. For a while, through their window, she watched James as he scouted out the edge of the jungle. Kathrin undressed in the small bathroom. She wore as little as possible to bed. If she were by herself, she would have gone to bed naked. She hadn’t done that with James for weeks—well, except last night. He wore his briefs. That wasn’t an accommodation for her, it was service policy. Funny, the rules that governed spies. She hadn’t let him touch her for a long time. He hadn’t tried for a long time. She was a little ashamed at herself for getting involved with him that way. They weren’t married, and she almost felt like an old married woman.

Here, in this example, the characters show no outward affection for one another. You don't know anything directly about their relationship, but you know quite a lot. You know they are sharing a room, you guess that something happened the night before. I never tell you what happened--I leave it to your imagination, but you know something happened. I could have described everything in its gory glory. I could tell you what they think about each other--I never do. I show you what is going on and leave the rest to your imagination. This is the power of showing and not telling. It is also the power of not letting your readers know everything. The characters and their descriptions build themselves within the context of the novel.  So in building your scenes--aim to entertain, but plan not to let your readers know everything.  That keeps them looking for more. 

Sequence of and in Scenes, How I Start part 7

Sequence within and of scenes is an interesting question.  What I mean by sequence is the time based formation of the action and of the scenes.  This applies to time within the context of the novel as well as your writing.  Let's take them separately.  First, time sequence in and of scenes.  You could experiment with non-sequential based time flow in a scene, but I don't do that.  I do like to use scenes in some novels to go back into the past (potentially into the future), but I like to keep these separated as scenes.  You don't have to, but one of my main concerns in writing is to not confuse my readers.  As an aside, here are two of my main rules of writing: entertain your readers and don't confuse them.  Scenes where the time or time sequence moves around will confuse your readers, so unless you really know what you are doing--don't  Likewise, you can take the reader to the past or future with a scene.  You can have overlapping time between scenes, but use caution.  This is where clear description is necessary.  You have to ground your readers in the scene.  Put that down as a basic rule too: ground your reader in each scene.  For example, I do like to intersperse scenes that take the reader out of the main storyline into another storyline that parallels the plot.  In Dana-ana, http://www.goddessnovel.com/, this means following the action of other characters for a scene and then jumping back to the original storyline.  Everything still supports the plot and the theme, it is just showing the reader new information from a different point of view (POV, point of view, is a whole other topic).  As long as you don't confuse your reader, these segues are great for them.  They build a level of excitement and at the same time make your readers long to get back to the main storyline.  Here's an example:

[end of scene with Macintyres (Dana's adopted family) after she left--Dana is the she]“She left of her own free will. I don’t think she’s coming back.”

[Beginning of the next scene--double break to set it off.  The first step is the setting]
Mata Hainsworth [already introduced in the novel earlier] leaned against the wall at the back of the Wellington Hotel. The fog was thick that evening. At his side stood two other men dressed in suits. One of them also carried a pouch at his side. He was short and had foxy features. The man with the pouch glanced around the corner of the building, “So Dana-ana made a blood vow to this boy.”

Mata laughed, “Yes she did. I heard every word. It seems her young man was already half convinced to dump her. My little confession just pushed him over the top.”

“She took it hard.”

“She’s in love, the little slut. It’s just as we hoped, she cast her blood when he released her and swore a blood oath.”

“So all we need to do now is tempt her little master to an accident, and she’ll do a death dance.”

The other man in the suit spoke up. He was very tall and broad shouldered. He seemed almost too large to be a normal person. His face and every other part of him that showed outside his clothing was very hairy, “You know it’s not as easy as that, Ailean. There are precautions we must take. Plus we need to lure them to a place she was restricted from—one of her ancient places of power. We must insure no interference from Ceridwen or the rest of the courts.”

“You are a spoilsport, Mahon.”

He held his nose and growled. The growl sounded distinctively animal-like, “And you two both stink so much of magic, you’re lucky I stick around to help you. I want to gag right now.”

“We all serve the same master, Mahon. You don’t have to get snotty.”

“Where is the girl anyway?”

Mata replied, “She’s searching for food in the bin on the other side of the building. That’s why I had us meet here.”

“Good, I don’t want her to ever detect us. She’ll smell you two a mile away. We have to prevent any interference from Ceridwen. She swore to protect Dana-ana’s life. Dana-ana must give up her life willingly, otherwise, Ceridwen becomes involved.”

Ailean nodded, “That’s been the plan all along. Tell us something we don’t know.”

Mahon stared at him and lifted a thick lip, “If our master allowed me, I’d crush you puny human.”

Ailean started to sweat, “Well he hasn’t, so tell us what the plans are.”

“We are arranging a conflagration. We only want to target Dana-ana through the boy. That’s the difficult part. The details are still being attended to.”

“Will there be a place for magic?”

“Yes, very much. It will be a necessary part of the planning.”

“Good. When we get our revenge, Dana-ana needs to know just who pulled the trigger. That’s what will make it sweet. She must die slowly, very slowly. It would be best if while she did, the stink of magic would gag her, and she would drown in her own vomit.”

“Our master would like that very much. Perhaps it can be arranged.”

“It might be pleasant for her to be ravished just prior to the event.”

“You ask for too much, Mata. If she were ravished, that would surely bring Ceridwen and Dana-ana’s sisters down on our heads. You do not want that, I assure you.”

“Perhaps we could get the boy to do it. Ailaen’s skill is seduction magic.”

“That might be useful, but don’t plan too much. We are just putting the details together now. The most important part was her blood oath.”

“You figure out how to get them alone together, and we’ll ensure the boy rapes her.”

“I’ll warn you only once. Whatever you do, do not let it cause a failure of our plans. Our master wants her dead. That will roil the courts and Ceridwen. You want revenge. All our goals align with her death. If she doesn’t die, no one will be happy, especially our master.”
[End of scene-double break]

[Return to the main plot line]
On Wednesday, as Gwen left the hotel, she caught a glimpse of Dana. She grabbed her mother’s arm, “Mom, Dana’s following us.”

The above is an example of somewhat parallel storyline scenes.  The the scene is separate and gives the reader a glimpse of what is happening outside of the knowledge of the major characters.  This is a very effective method to build tension and excitement.  Note the beginning of both scenes, the main one I show you and the beginning of the next, firmly ground the reader right away.  A single sentence or paragraph is all that is necessary, but it is necessary.
Now the second part, about writing your scenes non-sequentially.  Sometimes you might be tempted to write one of the most exciting scenes that you envisioned in your scene outline before you get to it in your writing.  In other words as you are writing your novel, you might want to write some of the more exciting parts of it first and get to the rest later.  That might work for some, but I advise you--don't do it.  Don't do it for two reasons.  First, if certain scenes aren't exciting to you, they won't be exciting to your readers.  Second, I've found that the few times I've done this, I had to completely dump or revise the whole chapter or scene.  The reason is that writing a novel is a process, the characters and your understanding of the plot grows with the writing.  Usually when I finally write up to the point I already wrote, the circumstances of the input and sometimes the scene output have changed and the characters and plot have subtly changed.  The previous writing of the scene is stale or out of place, and I have to completely write it again.  This is what I explained about on Centurion www.CenturionNovel.com.  The short story I originally wrote that to a degree spurred the novel could not fit at all into the novel.  The characters were different and the circumstances (inputs and outputs) were different.  So my advice is to not write out of sequence, but this is not a rule for everyone.  Plus, if you do write in time sequence, you can later move the scenes around, if necessary, to fit the way the plot demands--if you need to.  Tomorrow, I'll talk about more subtle means to work with your characters in scenes.

Outlining in Scenes, How I Start part 6

I use scenes to outline the development of each chapter.  I also focus a chapter on a scene or scenes.  I unimaginatively write in chapters and aim for 20 pages or about 5000 to 6000 words per chapter.  This may not be the best way to write a novel, but it works for me.  I don't necessarily recommend using my technique of using a chapter length as a goal, but I do recommend using scenes as the center point and outline of the chapter.

Now here is how you focus your writing in scenes.  First, you must develop a theme for your novel.  I've written about themes before, and I will eventually get to it here one day.  Suffice to say, the theme must be somewhat universal, and it must not be trivial.  It doesn't have to be to save the world, but it should speak broadly and powerfully.  Once you have a theme (it should be written or in some way cohesive in your mind), you can move to the next step. 

Second, imagine the actions of your characters.  Imagine generally the exciting and interesting scenes that will paint them and your novel within the theme.  This is where you begin to design the plot and the storyline.  I have been using the terms plot and storyline separately but together since the beginning because, to me, these are two very separate things.  The plot is the pattern of events that make up the larger narrative, specifically it is the scenes put together cohesively to make the story that supports the theme.  The storyline is the entertaining line of events that make up the narrative.  Whoa, what's the difference.  The difference, in my mind is the theme.  I never want the theme to get in the way of the story.  This preoccupation with the storyline prevents this problem for me.  I first of all want my writing to be entertaining.  I don't intend to beat the reader with the theme, I want the theme to come out naturally as part of the plot as directed by the storyline.  My example is Shakespeare.  You know each of the plays has an underlying theme, the purpose of the play, overall, is to bring out this theme, but the author doesn't beat the theme over your head.  The first purpose of the plays is to entertain.  A reader who reads your work and is entertained will get the theme.  The reader who is not entertained will put down your work and walk away.  No read, no get the theme.  Your readers have to first read and enjoy your work.

Third, start to figure out how to get the action of each scene down on paper.  To keep this from being overwhelming, outline by scene with a general goal toward some resolution.  If you have a general resolution in mind, the novel will grow toward that resolution.  Usually, your theme supports this resolution.  For example, without giving everything away, I knew Dana-ana would be a novel of discovery.  Dana-ana has a great and horrible secret that she is prevented from sharing.  She doesn't want to share it because it is so horrible.  Because of her secret, groups seek to punish her and demand her death.  The resolution is when she must face this horrible secret.  Now, she confronts her secret at multiple levels: personally (with Byron and his family), individually (with herself), legally (she was punished for her actions), physically (others want her life because of her secret), and mentally (I don't tell you, you see the effects on her).  The novel drives to the conclusion that brings all these together.  This may sound very difficult.  It is if you try to go at it as a whole.  Don't.  I wrote each scene as an entertaining piece that drove toward the conclusion.  The scenes each had their input, event, and output.  These all pointed toward the conclusion.  Let me give you an example of this scene outlining.  First scene, input Dana stole lunches, event the fight, output Dana knocked out.  Second scene, input Dana knocked out, event Byron gets help for Dana, output Byron escorts Dana to her home.  Third scene, input Byron escorts Dana to her home, event Dana washes Byron's feet and speaks for the first time, output Byron leaves Dana's house--end of chapter.  First chapter ends cleanly and I need a new input for the first scene of the next chapter.  Second chapter first scene input is Byron notices Dana in homeroom and speaks to her... The scenes continue from there.  In every case, I try to provide an entertaining episode that drives the overall plot and theme.  The scenes are the storyline.  Tomorrow, I'll see if I can give you more on developing scenes.

Scene Building, How I Start part 5

I like to drive a scene through conversation.  You can see in yesterday's example, I used a snippet of conversation between Byron and an anonymous girl to introduce Dana (Diana).  This is the power of conversation. You can express many, many ideas without a single word of narrative or description.  For example, instead of telling us, she is crying, you can have another character state, "There's no need to cry."  In that single string of words, I told you something about the girl, she is crying, and about the observer.  Let's look at Dana-ana as an example of the conversation driving the first scene.  My comments are in [].

[Dan and Jack are bit characters. There is no reason to break the action to give them much description.] Dan held Diana’s arm. [Here is the input to the scene, Dana is stealing lunches] He put his pimply face in hers and yelled [I don't like to ever use said.  I want to use more descriptive words or show the actions of the speakers], “Thought you could just take it, didn’t you?” He twisted her arm and Diana flinched. She turned slightly until Jack’s hold on her hair stopped her.

Byron took a step forward, “What’s up Dan, Jack?” [We see Byron reluctantly get involved.  His actions show he isn't really interesting in saving Dana, but rather he feels compelled to prevent the other students from hurting her too much.] 

Dan glanced quickly up at Byron. His eye twitched, “Don’t interfere Macintyre. She stole Sherrill’s lunch. We’re sure she took Jane’s the day before. She’s been taking lunches since the beginning of school. We just finally caught her at it this time.” [Introduction of Jane and Sherrill, they don't need any description or break in the action.]

“How’d you do that?”

Dan twisted Diana’s hand around and squeezed it open. “Take a look,” he grinned, “red handed.”

Diana’s hand was stained blue.

“Put that powder from the last chemistry lab on the handle,” he showed his teeth again, “add a little water, and the blue hand shows who touched it.” [Here is the proof that Dana is stealing lunches.  The other character, Dan, just showed it to the reader and explained how--no need of narrative.  There is the ironic joke that speaks to Dan's intelligence too (red hand, blue hand)]

Byron put out his arm, “That’s enough, Dan, Jack. Just tell her to keep her hands off other people’s lunches and let her go.” [Sounds reasonable, but in the next bit of dialog, Jack explains why Byron doesn't understand the problem of Dana.]

Jack shook his head, “That won’t be enough for her. She’ll do it again unless we teach her a good lesson.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Sherrill has to get her piece, and Jane.” [Sherrill and Jane are bit characters, no need to break the action to describe them here either.]

Byron glanced at Jane then Sherrill. Jane shook her head. Sherrill tossed her hair, “That’s enough for me. She didn’t get my lunch. Diana, you keep your hands off my stuff—you hear?” [Sherrill's response is due to Byron's intimidation.  No need to tell you how he affects them, but rather show you the results.  The dialog explains it all.]

Dan had Diana’s arm behind her back, and Jack twisted her head back with her hair. Her face was turned upwards and her eyes were squeezed shut.

Byron addressed the girl, “What do you say, Diana?” [This is ironic because we find out Dana will not respond.  This also indicates how little Byron knows Dana.]

Dan twisted her arm a little more. Diana flinched. Dan squinted, “She won’t say anything. She never says anything. Just slinks around and steals stuff.”  He turned a little more toward Sherrill, which twisted Diana’s arm a bit more. Byron thought her arm looked close to breaking—still Diana didn’t make a sound. Dan nodded to Sherrill, “Sherrill, pop her one. That’s your right and that’ll teach her.”

Sherrill stepped forward, took a look at Byron, and stepped back, “You do it. I’m done.” 

Without any warning, Jack pulled back his fist and tugged Diana’s hair toward it. His fist met her cheek with a crack, and she sagged forward. Dan’s hold was the only thing that kept her from falling flat on her face. He released her arm, and she flopped forward into the dirt. [This is the output of the scene and the input to the next scene--Dana is knocked out.] 

Sherrill scowled, “She didn’t admit to anything. Pants her. That’ll teach her.” [Once Dana is entirely helpless, the cruelty of the students comes out.  This gives us insight into them and shows us what they think about Dana.]

Dan reached down and grabbed the back of Diana’s pants. She didn’t have a belt on. He tugged down and half bared her buttocks. Byron moved quickly, “That’s enough Dan. You made your point.”

Sherrill laughed, “She doesn’t have any underwear on.” She pointed, “Look at that. I thought she was low, but I had no idea she was like that.” [we find out more about Dana]

At the edges of the crowd a call went up, “Teacher. Beat it.” [The result of this announcement should be obvious.]

The input into the next scene is Dana is knocked out cold and Byron takes her to the infirmary.  Whew, lots of notes. I could give you even more.

Here is the development of the scene from beginning to end.  First the input, Dana is stealing lunches and she was caught. She is about to be beaten for it.  The action revolves around this and the dialog tells you what is happening and gives you insight into the characters.  Mainly, in terms of plot and storyline, this is the beginning of the introduction of Dana and Byron.  This is the event that first brings them into contact with each other.  The event is somewhat commonplace and not out of place for the characters.  Neither Dana nor Byron want to be there and neither are interested in each other.  Circumstances simply bring them together and the bond between them is Byron's attempt to help her in light of the actions against her.  The output from this scene is Dana is knocked out.  The input to the next scene is also this event.  As the reader, you can start to imagine the next scene, but the details have not been revealed yet.  The point of these scenes in the storyline is to build a pretext for Byron's interaction with Dana.  In the real world people don't just meet each other and interact without some degree of connection.  Interaction is a process and this process gives play to future and other potential interactions.  The point of this and the rest of the scenes in the first chapter are to give a reason for Byron's interest in Dana.  There is much more to building scenes.  I'll give some more examples tomorrow.

Scene Building, How I Start part 4

Why and what: you need to begin scene writing with the input and a "what."  The "what" is something that will be entertaining to your readers.  Let's continue with the example of Dana-ana.  The main character has been accused of stealing lunches in school and is about to be beaten for it.  The tension in the scene is obvious.  The excitement in the scene builds through the description and conversation.  Description is the critical ingredient in building the scene.  You have to set the scene for your readers.  I follow Arlo Guthrie's advice and use description in many ways to tell the reader when, where, and who.  Without description the reader isn't anywhere.  You have to establish the reader in the world you are building in the scene.  I do this early on.  Let's look at the first few paragraphs of Dana-ana:

     The yells of students burst from the halls and classrooms and pressed into the yard. Byron Macintyre was carried along with the crowd. He just wanted to get to lunch. He rolled his eyes and kept up with the moving mob. The halls of their old school building were not very wide, and the lockers on either side made them smaller. The high school didn’t have that many students, but when they were all out of class and moving in one direction, it was nearly impossible to travel anywhere else. Byron figured he would just wait until he could get outside the doors, then he could duck back to his locker, the cafeteria, and then the library.

     Byron was tall, but he still couldn’t see what was going on ahead. Out of exasperation, he yelled over the noise of the crowd, “What’s going on?”
     From beside him, one of the sophomore girls laughed, “It’s that girl Diana. The stinky skank, who wears crappy clothes.”
     Yeah, Byron knew about Diana. Everyone knew about Diana. She was never very far from trouble with teachers, students, or parents. She didn’t have any friends, but she usually kept a low profile.

In these few paragraphs, I establish for the reader the place (a High School with some info about the school), the time (it's lunch, modern world is kind of obvious too), Byron, and the main character, Dana (Diana).  This, in my mind, is necessary.  You have to establish the reader solidly in the scene, then you can let them go to experience the rest of the action.  Note, the action moves even in this descriptive portion.  You can't let your readers loose by simply stating a description.  You need to keep your readers involved throughout.  Once you establish the basics of where, when, and who for a scene, you can continue to build with description in the conversation and narrative.
One more point about scenes: show don't tell.  Don't tell us motivations.  Don't reveal everything.  Show us what is going on in the scene and let it play out like in real life.  You don't know motivations in the real world.  You don't know what others are thinking.  You don't know even that much about yourself--sometimes.  Reality becomes real in a scene when the reader can see the entire situation, but doesn't know the internal motivations of the actors.  This is the way of the real world.  This is what builds tension in the real world--and this is what drives the power of a scene.  Tomorrow, I'll delve deeper into moving the scene through conversation and narrative.  You can read the rest of the chapter at www.GoddessNovel.com

Writing a Scene, How I Start part 3

It would be impossible for me to tell you everything you need to know to write a scene.  There is already a lot of great writing on this specific subject.  What I will try to do is tell you how I write a scene.   First, I need an input and an output.  The scene has to have something that is the cause of it--that is the input.  It has to have an end with a potential transition to the next scene.  You can see the input is driven by the previous scene transition (or by another earlier scene transition--your scenes don't necessarily have to be back to back).  So to start a novel, your first scene must have an implied or explained transition from the imagined scene before.  You detail this at some point in the novel or the first scene, but that's getting into the details--I'll stick a little higher than that for now.  You could call the input to the scene the "why" of the scene.  The "why" is necessary, but the most important part of a scene is the "what."  The what of a scene is what happens to entertain the reader and drive the plot.  I develop a scene around this singular "what."  The "what" can be an event, a revelation, a conversation, an adventure, a joke, whatever.  The most important key is that the "what" must be entertaining to your reader.  It should draw emotion and or excitement.  For example, in the first scene to Dana-ana www.goddessnovel.com, the main character Dana is accused of stealing lunches and is about to be beaten for it.  There is the excitement.  The reader has no idea who this Dana-ana person is, but already the novel jumps into adventure and danger.  Within the scene, I put all kinds of information for the reader.  That's what is so great about a scene--in it you show the reader what is going on, but at the same time, you can reveal important information for the plot and theme of the novel.  So, the most important thing to me in writing is to entertain my reader--the scene is the mode I employ.  Each scene must be entertaining.  If it is not entertaining, there is no purpose in the writing.  I'll go into more detail tomorrow on the scene.

Writing in Scenes, How I Start part 2

I write in scenes.  This is why all my novels are centered on a scene and a theme question that then develops into the overall plot and storyline.  The scene in my latest novel Dana-ana http://www.goddessnovel.com/ (working title Diana--still searching for a title) that started everything is the first one.  In it, Dana is being "beat up" by a couple of boys for stealing their girlfriends' lunches.  The main male character Byron intervenes but not before Dana is knocked out and partially pantsed.  The descriptions of the scene and Dana propel the narrative into the next scene.  Dana will not speak.  Her name is odd.  Her actions are odd.  The teachers intentionally allow her to be beaten--to teach her a lesson.  The next scene flows logically from the first--Byron takes her to the infirmary.  The nurse doesn't want Dana there.  She refuses to treat her.  When Dana finally wakes, her actions are odd and she still doesn't speak.  That flows to the next scene--Byron escorts her home.  Her home is a tarpaper shack and that flows to the next scene, etc. etc. (you can read the first chapter at http://www.goddessnovel.com/)  The scenes drive the entire novel.  Most of the scenes are conversational interaction bracketed by description.  The scenes drive the storyline and the plot.  The storyline is encapsulated in the scenes that together become the plot.  Each of the scenes drive the plot, and the theme is held together by that overall question.  As I mentioned before, the question in Diana is about an Anglo-Saxon maiden in the modern world.  

So this is how I write a novel.  It is certainly not how everyone approaches novel writing, but let me synopsize my approach.  I start with a scene and build from it.  I use an outline based on scenes.  I write each scene in order to build the storyline and the plot.  The scenes together turn into chapters which becomes a novel.  From such a tiny seed grows a 100,000 word work.  Tomorrow, I'll talk about writing a scene.

A Novel, How I Start part 1

I wish I could spend every moment writing on novels.  The problem is that I can't physically or mentally do that.  I begin to write a novel when I have a novel length inspiration.  They come about once every six months now, so I can potentially expect to write a novel every six months or two a year.  My usual inspiration is an opening scene or a developed scene.  These usually manifest themselves as a theme question.  You can see some of these theme questions in the novel secret pages at www.ldalford.com.  In the case of the newest novel I wrote, the scene was a girl being beat up and a young man rescuing her.  The question was what incidents would drive the circumstance of an Anglo-Saxon maiden in the modern world.  That's the plot statement of the novel.  Once I had a plot statement and an opening scene, I could begin on the novel.  The novel called for me to write it.  I couldn't stop the flow of ideas.  Once I fleshed out the major characters in the first chapter, I began to outline the novel.  I usually outline very loosely by scene.  I add scenes and develop plot details by chapter.  When I am writing, I write daily from about 7:00 am to 9:00 pm.  I usually write a chapter a day about 6000 words or 20 pages.  I aim for a novel of around 100,000 words.  About 20 chapters.  I finish a novel after about one month.  Tomorrow, I'll give you more details on writing my latest novel and generally about how I go about writing a novel.


More on the present participle from Bruce Judisch

I think this is great advice:

What I’ve discerned from writing guides and learned at writing seminars is that participles can be used, but, like anything else, need to be used properly. I’ve read books where they’re overused to the point of distraction, others where they worked just fine. I raised this question to Cec Murphey at a conference last February, and he generally concurred with the following:

The present participle normally implies that the action is being broken. “She was sitting at the table and the phone rang” is fine if the author wants to deliver the fact that the phone call disrupted her sitting at the table. To say “She sat at the table and the phone rang” doesn’t work unless she just sat down and the phone immediately rang. It depends upon the scene your describing as to which you use.

The dangling participle implies concurrent action, not sequential. “He walked to the window, looking out into the street” doesn’t work because he can’t be looking out into the street until he gets to the window. “He walked to the window and looked out into the street” gives the logical sequence of actions. "He walked to the window, rubbing his sleepy eyes" is fine because I'm describing concurrent action. To write "He walked to the window and rubbed his eyes" miscommunicates what I want to say; that is, he's rubbing his sleepy eyes while walking to the window, not after he got there.

To mix the participles, “She was sitting at the table, sipping her coffee, when the phone rang” is perfectly fine, because that’s exactly what happened. “She sat at the table, sipped her coffee, and the phone rang” is stilted, choppy and might not deliver the scene or the mood the author is striving for.

Participles are part of the English language for a reason. When and how often a writer employs them are stylistic choices. A book overloaded with participles is annoying, but so would one be lacking any of them. Like any stylistic device, they can be overused or underused—which is why there are no black-and-white rules on style. As writers, we tend to develop pet peeves on style, though, and one of yours is participles. I have mine, too. I think we all do.



Covers are like titles and marketing.  They are necessary to the finished product and necessary for the writer to develop.  First, no one is going to read your book and make the perfect cover for you.  You are the most knowledgeable source for your work and only you will be able to put together an idea that will capture it in a single picture--usually with help.  When you finish your work: fix on a title (as described below), work up your marketing materials, and then put together a rough idea for a cover.


Don't expect artwork unless you are willing to pay a lot for it or you are a best selling author.  You can do it yourself, but unless you are really good (I mean a professional who sells or has sold or been trained or won real awards) don't even think about it.  Many people who think they are great artists can only produce crap.  As a matter of a fact the number of rotten writers is directly proportional to the number of rotten artists.  Most of the time, you aren't both, but there are rare exceptions.  The artist who did some of my artwork is also a writer, and she is an awesome artist.


Expect the publisher's cover department to put together photos, writing (fonts), and backgrounds to make your cover.  This is a very cost effective means to make a cover and is the most common today.  You can do it as easily as they can.  The trick is that they have much better equipment, photos, fonts, software, etc. at their disposal.  All you have to do is search the web or clip art to find the approximate photos that match your ideas.  You put them together and send the idea to your publisher.


Generally, your publisher's art department will use your ideas to come up with a great cover or a couple of covers for you to choose from.  If you look on my site at www.aegyptnovel.com under secrets, you will see the cover proposal I sent, their proposed covers, and the final design.  You can find these for each of my published novels.  You can also look at my new novels to see my rough cover proposals. 



In real life people take off their clothing for various reasons.  In a novel, unless it drives the plot, theme, or story line there is little reason to document the action, consequences, or reasons for your character's nudity. 


In my novels, especially the Aegypt novels, I use nudity with a specific purpose in mind.  I'm giving away real secrets here, about my writing and my ideas on writing.


Back to Eden

One of the main themes in the Aegypt Novels is 'back to Eden' driven by Leora.  Leroa, the Goddess of Light, is not perfect, but she is the archetype Eve--the perfect woman.  Her nudity demonstrates and represents her closeness to God.  Likewise Lumie're, her daughter, and the Goddess of Darkness, in her time, is clothed and uncomfortable unclothed.  These themes play throughout the novels with this specific purpose.


Good/Purity and Evil/Impurity

Leora, the Goddess of Light, is naked at certain times, and Leila, is always naked.  The contrast within the books is their stature and pose--the purpose for their nudity is to represent the concept the Jews call Eve/Lilith.  Eve was created perfect, the mother of mankind, Lilith was created perfect and the mother of demons.  The concept displays how beauty and perfection of form does not equate to beauty and perfection of purpose.


Cultural Comparison/Contrast

I do cultures and societies in my novels.  Many cultures are driven by clothing, many are not.  The contrast and comparison is wonderful.  The play between them significant.  A powerful contrast in many cultures is their view of nudity.  The ancient Irish culture abhorred it, while the Greeks thought it was completely normal.  This comparison/contrast based on clothing, or the lack of it, provides a powerful driver for plot lines.



Shock refers to the characters and the readers.  The shock value of the use of nudity in a fashion the reader may not expect can be powerful--the shock value between characters whose cultural perceptions are very different are priceless.  These cannot drive a theme, but they provide some power within a theme--especially a theme about culture.


All these ideas work together on a page.  They are self supporting and although can be used separately, gain power through being used together.      



I am generally not in favor of them.  If a prolog is necessary for the novel--it should be included in the body of the novel and not as a prolog.  I never thought much about prologs until I read an interview with a best selling author in the WSJ (Wall Street Journal).  The author said that they could not get a publisher interested in her novel until she got rid of the prolog.  Ah ha, the lights went on.  If a prolog potentially prevented a publisher (or a reader) from wanting to read the book, then a prolog is mostly (or entirely) a hindrance.  If a prolog is necessary for the novel, then put it in the novel.  If it is not, kill it except in the two following conditions.


There are two purposes for a prolog.  The first is to introduce a concept foreign to the plot or storyline of the novel, but not to the theme.  This kind of prolog points to the theme and can just be fun.  The kind of prolog I am talking about are those used most effectively by Jack Vance.  I followed his example in The Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox.  Below is the beginning of the prolog for The End of Honor:


Dr. Freisen D. Haupenberg

Just What Were the Accords?

Interstellar copyright X785 (10,785) ATA (Ancient Terran Accounting)

Guidebook to the Human Galactic Empire (4,000 to 7,785 ATA)


It is appropriate in the year we celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of the end of the Human Galactic Empire that we start our study with an overview of the Noble Accords. The Noble Accords, the Rules of the Code, or more simply, the Code are all synonyms for the set of written laws that governed the genetic heritage of the Nobility of the Human Galactic Empire....


The prolog is short, sweet, and to the point.  It mimics an encyclopedia article and is slightly tongue in cheek.  The prologs for the other two novels are the same.  It is not necessary to the story, but the reader can gain insight into the world of the novel by reading the prolog--the prolog makes even more sense when the reader gets deeper into the novel.  Look at Jack Vance for examples of prologs based on encyclopedia, dictionary, news stories, etc.


The other reason for a prolog is to introduce the reader to the story in a series novel.  Anna McCaffrey uses a similar prolog to introduce her Dragon Series novels.  The prolog is necessary for those who are not familiar with her back story.  This provides a foundation for the reader who has not read all the novels.  I choose not to do this in the Aegypt novels.  I consider them each to be independent and to keep up the mystery for the old and the new readers, I intentionally wait to introduce the back story.  Those who have read the earlier novels will know more, but not everything.  New readers will be pleasantly surprised (I hope) by having their fears (thoughts) confirmed with a straightforward explanation.


I did decide to use an explanatory (synopsis) prolog for each of the follow-on novels of the Ghost Ship Chronicles.  The reason is that although each of the novels is written to be stand alone, the series is not.  You can pick up the story quickly, but the back story is critical to understanding the overall reasons for the novel and the characters' actions.


So think twice before using a prolog.  If you must, I recommend using the criteria above.  The same is true of an epilog.  I may discuss this topic later.  I thought seriously about including an epilog in The Goddess of the Hearth, but I have controlled myself so far.  I really want to have a reader tell me what they really want from the end of the novel.  It ends too abruptly--I think.  


-ing Constructions in English

I'm kind of irritated about this issue.  I already wrote that present participle constructions are an indication of bad writing.  They are a distraction and should only be rarely used in good fiction.  In general, they should not be used at all unless you fully understand them.  Perhaps the problem is identifying and correcting present participle constructions.  I will go through the different -ing constructions and usage in English and show exactly what I am talking about.  (If you can pick out the present participle constructions in the above paragraph, you pass.) Note, that these constructions are effective above because this is not fiction writing, but rather an instructional essay.  Also, I used present tense.    



We are not talking about nouns that happen to have an -ing ending.  Nouns are good.  Building, thing, being, etc. are not the problem.  Please use these words appropriately and accurately and no one will complain.



Gerunds can become annoying, but these aren't the focus of my jihad either.  Gerunds are a verb that acts as a noun.  Gerunds can be a subject (nominative) or object (accusative) of a main verb.  Examples of gerunds are:

Studying is good for you.

I participate in trading.

Gerunds are a legitimate means of turning a great action word (verb) into a great noun.  Please do so with care and always use the appropriate word--do not use gerunds to replace stronger nouns or to pervert good verbs.



A present participle can be used as an adjective.  This can also be overdone, but it is a completely reasonable and good way to write.  Here are some examples:

She was a fascinating woman.

An interesting man accosted me.

Using a present participle in this manner is completely acceptable and can add real zest to your writing. (Note: I used a gerund at the beginning of this sentence.)



The problem with the present participle form is when it is used as a verb.  This form should only be used in the very rare case of indicating an immediate present tense event--even then it is dangerous and should never be used if it can be replaced with a common and past tense or perfect tense construction.  What do I mean?  Whenever you see a verb construction of this form, you should flinch: to be (verb) + verb-ing.

He was singing.

She was engaged in fighting the horrid monster.

He was opposing the forces of darkness and present participles.

Rewrite these sentences in simple past tense.

He sang.

She fought the horrid monster.

He opposed the forces of darkness and present participles.

When you see a was followed by a present participle form--fix it.


Participle phrases, dangling or otherwise are rarely worth reading.  Don't use them.  Here's what I mean:

Ginny stood.  Glancing behind her, she nodded and turned to go.

Why not write:

Ginny stood.  She glanced behind her, nodded and turned to go.


Ginny stood and glanced behind her.  She nodded and turned to go.

Wow, no more participle phrase.  It sounds better, looks better, and reads better.  The first example is what you expect from a middle schooler; the rewrite is what you expect from a professional.

Here is another example:

The people skipped joyfully around Tina, reaching to touch her, straining to meet her gaze.

Instead write:

The people skipped joyfully around Tina and reached out to touch her, strained to meet her gaze.


The people skipped joyfully around Tina.  They reached out to touch her, strained to meet her gaze.

Are participle phrases ever reasonable?  If they are part of a prepositional phrase, you betcha.  You decide.  Here is an example from Shadowed Vale:


Den flipped off his Combat Environment Suit’s visual sensors.  He glanced at Natana in the driver’s seat.  A slight hum leaked from between her lips.  She managed the vehicle with cat-like reflexes.  Her mind took in a million bits of information every second and computed it.  She turned it into precise movements of the controls.  No one in the universe could think of driving this kind of vehicle at this speed across the sands of Acier, but Natana could.  She could have conversed with Den at the same time and run a few other advanced computations through her brain.  Den knew that, but he didn’t want to risk a break in her concentration.  His was really an irrational view, but he didn’t want to risk her life or his.  He was too invested in her—he loved her too dearly.  She was just always like this.  She lived her life at the edge—always on the edge.  Den hoped to be her governor—like the governor on a generator or a nuclear reactor to keep it from running out of control.  Never her overseer.  Perhaps her leader.  Natana might like that.  She was a fantastic First Officer for the Family Trader Vessel, Regia Anglorum, and he was the Captain.


The answer is yes!  Note how the present participle is used as a part of a complex sentence.  In each case, it is preceded by a preposition.  The phrases are prepositional phrases using a present participle as the verb.  You can overdo this too, but it is a reasonable and normal means of writing about complex ideas.  This kind of writing can be rich.  It is as simple and direct as possible.  That's the point.


Now, when are straight present participle constructions appropriate?

In the rare case where you want to specifically indicate a current condition:


Right now, they were searching for a long lost psyonic facility on the surface of Acier. - Shadowed Vale

Changing this sentence to past tense loses the immediacy.

Right now, they searched for a long lost psyonic facility on the surface of Acier.

Still, it could be easily made past tense.  Needless to say, this is almost the only present participle use in the entire 118,000 word novel.  The use is specific to draw the reader to the "now" from a section that is a flashback--and there is the purpose.  In this case, it intentionally draws the reader back out of a flashback to the immediate events of the novel.


Here is an example from a writer friend's awesome novel As Eagles:

She was eating her breakfast now.  She sat with perfect posture alone in her house. - As Eagles, Alison Pickrell

You can easily turn this sentence into past tense:

She ate her breakfast now.

If you do this, you lose the feel Ms. Pickrell is trying to develop (note the present participle construction in this sentence).  Her point is to set an event in the now and draw the reader into it.


The point is that if you understand what you are doing (note the present participle use), you can use present participle constructions in your fiction writing (verb as a noun).  If you find more than one a chapter you need to fix them.  And I ain't kidding!


By the way, if you are writing in present tense, everything I said about present participle verbs change.  Why you would write a novel in present tense?  I don't know; that would be annoying in itself.  It's been done poorly and well in the past, but mostly, it's just annoying.


One final note.  Conversation in the present tense is an appropriate place to use the present participle (present participle, present tense--get it).  You can still overdo it--so watch out.  The proscription of the present participle is in a past tense narrative--that's where it becomes annoying and is an indicator of poor writing.


Maintaining a Character

The first point of maintaining a character is to define that character in your own mind.  The description is the first critical step.  You and your reader must know what the character looks like, especially the unique characteristics.  This is why description is so important.  I try to take characters out of real life.  Most people are too bland to make good characters so I look for those who truly are unique.  These stick in your reader's minds.  The pony faced girl in Goddess of the Hearth is just one example.  Leora and Paul are others.  Many times the appearance may be nondescript, but every character must be be fully described by showing and not telling.  These physical descriptions are the force of the character and provide the reader with a marker of reality until you can completely bring out their other characteristics.


Those other characteristics are those you show through their interaction with other characters.  You can't just tell us your character is cruel or mean kind or loving, you must show us.  The best way is through their actions and interaction with others.  You should also use conversations between characters to bring out an understanding of the character.  You can also improve descriptions throughout a novel by showing us the character thought other's eyes.  This can be a very powerful means of description.  Here is an example from The Shadow of Darkness.


      The secretary smiled—she was rarely thanked for anything. She took a surreptitious glance at her new director and was not sure what to think. Svetlana Evgenyevna was not tall. Her face was delicate with a slightly Ukrainian look. Her eyes were faintly oriental, but her nose and lips were strong and fine. They were not too sylphish to appear foxy nor too soft to appear naive. In all her features blended to make the most astonishingly attractive face Lyubov had ever seen. Svetlana was disconcertingly young. Lyubov heard that she was only fifteen. That seemed possible now that Lyubov had seen her in the flesh. Svetlana was dressed like a Party official. That in itself was odd for one so young. Svetlana’s private secretary was more unusual. Lyubov heard her name was Marya. Like most secretaries, she was addressed with no patronymic or family name. Marya was a thin, older woman with a finely wrinkled face as though she had aged much more than her years declared. She walked with a firm step and watched everything carefully. Lyubov noticed, Marya closely observed both her and Oleg. After Lyubov served Svetlana, she left the tray on the sideboard and retreated out of the director’s office. Lyubov immediately rushed to share her opinions with the other secretary in the office. She had come closer than almost anyone in the building to the mysterious Svetlana Evgenyevna.


Most importantly, a strong novel will not leave us confused, but it will not reveal all.  Like real life, the actions of a character may not fully reflect their inner being.  Likewise, the conversation of other characters will not completely be trustworthy.  I don't mean for you to create ambivalent characters, but like in real life, you really don't know everything about a person.  Plus some characters are ambivalent.  This is the power of the author.  The author should know the character and the character must always act within character.  When a character doesn't act as we expect, it must be part of the plot or theme, and that in itself requires careful thought and writing.


This is a very important part of the development of the story line and theme.  I ask myself all the time, is this action or speech characteristic of the character.  If it is not, then it must change.  I also try to strongly control emotional excess.  In real life, emotions denote an important crisis.  Likewise, in writing, the characters can't continually reveal their emotions on their sleeves.  This is appropriate for some children as characters in writing, but it doesn't usually fit with adults (unless the adult is immature or disturbed).  Love can be displayed by gestures much less grandiose than fawning adulation.  In fact, in real life, we get quickly tired of people who display constant affection.  We see a couple holding hands and that is usually enough to tell us about their love.  So is the case in novels.  There are appropriate times to indicate love and affection.  Many times when these are downplayed, they are more effective.  The affair that simmers and blossoms slowly and discretely then soars in passion is much more effective than the affair that is blatant and obvious.


What we are talking about here is romantic interaction.  In Children of Light and Darkness, it is quite obvious from the beginning that Kathrin and James have a romantic and sexual relationship.  At the beginning of the novel their relationship is estranged.  We know this by the way they interact and speak to one another.  Here is an example from the novel:     


     James stepped out on the veranda, “Heat still bothering you, Kathrin?”
      Kathrin didn’t say a word. She pursed her lips and clenched her jaw.
      James turned around at the rail and leaned against it. He was tall and handsome, clean shaven. His hair was slightly tousled—always slightly tousled. It was brown and nondescript. His face, though handsome was still nondescript. MI, Military Intelligence, liked their agents and operatives to look good, but not to draw too much attention. It was easier that way. James was strong and well trained. He always treated her like a lady, even when he didn’t have to and when she didn’t deserve it.

      Kathrin knew she was pretty—perhaps bordering on beautiful.  Her face was freckled and sported blazing green eyes.  She had heart shaped lips in a heart shaped face.  Her hair was red, and she was thin, perhaps too thin.  She wasn’t very tall either.  None of those characteristics ever seemed to affect her negatively.  She spoke with a thick, but improving Scottish brogue that made her a little difficult to understand at times.  She knew she always showed a slightly harried look, and that was backed by an overly brisk personality.  She did have a raging temper.  It was a prideful secret that she kept it in check almost all of the time.  When she let it out, it scared her.  She didn’t let it out often, not at all since she had been working for the organization.


      James checked his sidearm, “You still mad at me about last night?”
      Kathrin’s eyes flashed at him. James tucked away his weapon and raised his hands.
      All the fight drained out of her. She looked out on the jungle, “It was my fault.”
      “Then come on. It will only get hotter the longer we delay.”

     After dinner, they took a nightcap with them to their room. James made a short foray to the veranda and smoked a cigar. Kathrin rearranged the fresh flowers in an old silver pot on her nightstand. For a while, through their window, she watched James as he scouted out the edge of the jungle. Kathrin undressed in the small bathroom. She wore as little as possible to bed. If she were by herself, she would have gone to bed naked. She hadn’t done that with James for weeks—well, except last night. He wore his briefs. That wasn’t an accommodation for her, it was service policy. Funny, the rules that governed spies. She hadn’t let him touch her for a long time. He hadn’t tried for a long time. She was a little ashamed at herself for getting involved with him that way. They weren’t married, and she almost felt like an old married woman.


Here, in this example, the characters show no outward affection for one another.  You don't know anything directly about their relationship, but you know quite a lot.  You know they are sharing a room, you guess that something happened the night before.  I never tell you what happened--I leave it to your imagination, but you know something happened.  I could have described everything in its gory glory.  I could tell you what they think about each other--I never do.  I show you what is going on and leave the rest to your imagination.  This is the power of showing and not telling.  It is also the power of not letting your readers know everything.  The characters and their descriptions build themselves within the context of the novel.



Description is a necessary part of writing.  I return to Arlo Guthrie Jr.'s advice that whenever you introduce a character you must provide a 100 to 300 word description that defines the physical characteristics, not necessarily internal characteristics of the character.  Internal characteristics must be developed through showing us the character--don't even think about telling us what they think.  Tell us what they look like--you can skillfully slip into this description something about the person's character.  Telling is necessary in setting the scene and then letting the character loose in the novel.  This is not a break from the rule of showing and not telling.  This is setting the scene.


Character description example from Aegypt:


Mr. Audrey.” Paul clasped the Englishman’s hand as he dismounted.


Lionel Audrey was a medium-height man with thinning brown hair. He wore a heavy wool suit, but he had removed the coat. Perspiration salted his brow and made his face glisten. Audrey

looked young, but his eyes were surrounded by wrinkles. He squinted out from under his thick glasses as if the glass wasn’t the right prescription, or as if he sought to penetrate further than just the surface. In spite of this impression, Audrey’s attitude was breezy and facile. He didn’t speak; he lectured in an arrogant Oxford accent.


You can see how this gives life to the character and sets him apart from everyone else in the novel.  When Audrey is reintroduced and mentioned, there are many characteristics that can be used to refer to him that brings the character back into the minds of the reader.


Likewise, you must set the scene.  Tell us about the weather, the environment, the feel of the place, and what it looks like. 


Scene setting from Aegypt (place description):


The sun rose like a flame. The horizon boiled with the vigor of the lifting sun, and across the scorched rock and sand, the wind sang along with the moving light. Shadows moved in its wake

across the already hot plain. Paul already felt the sweat on his back and neck. The still air in the fort left the perspiration warm and heavy under his clothes, and he longed for the morning wind to make its way to him.


Without warning, a swirl of air touched him, but it wasn’t any relief. The breeze was hot and filled with the acrid dust of the Chott Djerid depression. He could feel it in his lungs, and he lit another cigarette to wipe the vile taste away. Below him, the wind-born dust swirled in tiny dust-devils around the diggings. The desert itself seemed to be trying to cover over the

gaping wound there.


The Tunisian workers were already stirring, ready to enter the cooler depths of the pit, ready to dig for the gold they hoped to pilfer under the noses of the archeologists, and they would. Paul had seen it happen too many times before. Their culture was different. The Englishmen wouldn’t or couldn’t understand that.


Paul took a long drag on his cigarette, nearly burning it back to his fingers. The sun stood like a flaming ball precariously balanced on the horizon for a moment, and Paul wondered briefly whether it would go forward or fall back.


He looked down at the diggings. The shadows wavered crookedly across the dark opening. Paul fancied he could see the essence of the ages spilling out of that black hole. It lingered in the waste as if the ancient plain were as timeless as the secrets hidden under that dull and

shifting surface.


This tells us a lot about the time, day, weather, and scene.  This allows the reader to fall into the narrative and see what is happening.  We also discover something about what is going on without telling the reader--we show the reader.  We pull it from the knowledge of the main character without telling.  


More on Proofing

I just completed my 16th novel, and I've been putting together novels in the 100K range pretty quickly lately.  I can write a novel of this size in about 1 month.  This is working from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm a day. 


Step one is getting the words on the page.  As each chapter is finished, I review it and rewrite.  I make notes at the bottom of the chapter about the next steps in the plot/story line.  This means when the novel is first completed, it has been through a first draft and a full rewrite.  I always use spelling and grammar checking in Word, and I note every suggestion--even if I don't take it!  (This is true of readers too.  If you don't like their suggestion don't take it, or better yet, fix the passage, sentence, paragraph using your own style--never ignore your reader's comments.  You are free to ignore computer grammar checker comments--they usually can't handle most dialog etc.)


Step two is a full rewrite.  This is the big fix it stage.


Step three is to hand the manuscript to my readers.  I usually have two at this stage.  They give me lots of help with punctuation, words, etc. and that is great--what I really want is continuity in plot and theme.  I want to know where the work needs tightening and where it doesn't make sense.  I usually get these comments/ideas from discussions with my readers.


Step four is incorporating readers' comments and fixes and a total rewrite.  I usually have had a while to think about the work and recognize where it might need help.  Look especially for missing descriptions and incomplete or illogical incidents or inappropriately foreshadowed events etc. 


Every time I go over the work from that point on, I will make changes.  Key things to look for are overused words, expressions, trite constructions, spelling, grammar, punctuation, cohesive forms of words (spelling of numbers, etc.).


Step five is getting ready for publication.  When the work first comes to me as a formatted pdf, I read it quickly hunting for errors and checking the editor's comments.  This is the first go through.


Step six is the long lingering review of the first formatted pdf.  This is when I send it to my readers.  I use three readers for review prior to publication.  I know there will be more than one go around, so I send the results of my long review back to the publisher before I hear from my readers.


Step seven is the second formatted pdf review.  This is when I incorporate my reader's comments and corrections, and then I complete a "read out loud review."  Always accomplish a read out loud review prior to the final.  You will be glad you did.


Step eight is to go around again--if necessary.


Step nine is accomplished with the final document.  Pull the pdf into Word and let it check for spelling a final time.  You can do this by opening it, or by copy and pasting it into Word.  This is the last chance.  At this point, you probably won't be able to find any more errors.


Step ten: don't read your own books--you'll find errors.  I guarantee it.  At this point, you probably don't want to ever read the novel again.


More on Themes and Story Lines

Trite is right out.  The most important idea is that a novel must revolve around real human issues and problems.  For a novel to mean anything or be entertaining, its theme must be big enough to support its plot.  That leaves a lot of room.  A theme can be pretty meaningless if the plot is trivial.  On the other hand, most writers don't want their work to be trivial or meaningless. 


A theme can be designed from nothing--this is what SiFi and Fantasy writers do.  However, to develop a good theme in SiFi and Fantasy, it must envelop human issues.  John Brunner does this very effectively in a couple of his alien focused works.  To be interesting to people, the work must appeal to people, the theme must have some weight of humanity.


The plot and story line must match the theme.  The worst literature has a trivial theme backed with a trite plot and a story line to match.  How do you ensure the strength of these three.  First, the theme is relatively simple--make sure it is meaningful and answers or brings up some human question that is important.  Bad themes are easy to determine.  The main character, protagonist, has no change or accomplishes no achievement.  The achievements are simple or trivial.  The protagonist doesn't have to face real obstacles to achieve his goals.  The work is full of deus ex machina (god machines), unbelievable plot devices, that move the story.  Whatever you do, don't move your plot or theme with a deus ex machina.  Rare events or occasions must be used sparingly.  A story may be based on a rare occurrence--the protagonist wins the lottery.  After that, nothing else can happen by chance (unless the theme is a person who has unbelievable luck, Larry Niven used this successfully).  A single rare occurrence or a single unique occurrence is acceptable and believable, but if you have more than one, no one will believe it, you will destroy the strength of your plot and no one will get to the theme.


Triteness in the story line is more difficult to ferret out.  This takes good reviewers.  You must constantly ask yourself: would the character I designed really act or speak this way?  Did they say something stupid and I didn't notice?  Is the scene or the situation filled with pathos or bathos?  Am I moving toward the ridiculous?     



Unless you get a bolt from the blue while you are writing your novel, a title is best affixed when you finish the first draft.  Sometimes it takes a long while to match the right title to a book, and sometimes the marketing savvy of your editor/publisher helps fix the title.  Here are some ideas on how not to put together a bad title.  Once you have a potential title or titles in mind:


Check it on Amazon, B&N, or any other book seller site.  You want your title to be nearly or absolutely unique.  This means no one else has used it in common practice or knowledge.  If you have a great title, but everyone and his brother is using it already, how will you separate yourself from the crowd?  Just take a look at some common titles on Amazon and see how many hits they generate--sometimes thousands.  If your title gets confused with a thousand other titles, no one will find your book.  On the other hand, if your book has a strange title, you might get no hits at all.


Make sure your title reflects your work.  Roz Young recommended my book Aegypt be called, In the Tomb of the Goddess of Darkness and Light.  That's catchy, but too long.  There are some other works with Aegypt in the title and another work named Aegypt.  Just one.  I felt that that was great probability.  Someone looking for Aegypt (either novel) would find mine.  This is a positive.


Don't hold on to your working title if it doesn't work.  For example, I gave a working title of Seeds for The Seeds of Rebellion to the work The End of Honor.  The working title of The Fox's Honor was Duel.  The title of A Season of Honor was Desert.  These titles simply stood in place for the final titles.  Eventually, the Honor theme became the focus of each of the titles, and finally, I gave the series the title The Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox.  This was a request from my publisher and made sense from the context of the books.


So to recap, make sure you have a somewhat unique title, that can't be confused with too many works.  Check it out before you go to print.


Themes and Subthemes

Anyone who has read Boccaccio, Chaucer, or Shakespeare knows that most themes have been used multiple times by multiple writers.  That doesn't mean there are or can be new themes to be delved or powerful themes that have not been explored enough.  The purpose of artistry in writing is to package these themes in new wrappers so the message and the ideas are fresh. 


One of the most powerful themes and subthemes is sexual tension.  This theme is easily observed in works like Romeo and Juliette.  This theme is incredibly powerful and is exploited in most non-juvenile novels where men and women interact.  The interaction of adult men and women almost always requires some degree of sexual tension.  Sexual tension can be developed in three separate spheres of thought: natural, ethical, and moral.  Moral use of sexual tension is a classical theme and revolves around licit and illicit sex defined by the boundary of legal, acceptable, customary, or promised marriage.  Marriage is the general goal and the theme is propelled by the promise or hope of marriage.  This is the classical theme in much of English literature especially in the Victorian Era, but is a theme and subtheme in much if not most of English literature.  Examples are easy to come by--the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, and all.  A variant of this theme is breach of marriage and or adultery.  Examples here are well known, The Scarlet Letter is just one.


In the Twentieth Century and following, the sexual theme has morphed into one of ethical or natural sexual tension.  These themes and subthemes are pervasive and generally intellectually crippled.  Instead of marriage, the end of the theme is sex itself or a sex act.  This theme is usually simply a subtheme, but focuses in sexual longing and desire driven by various romance based ideas culminating in the sex act with or without marriage or a promise of marriage.  Ethical sexual tension, by definition, culminates with a stated or implied promise of some type.  Natural sexual tension, by definition, simply ends in sexual congress.  There is not a lot an artist can do with natural or ethical sexual tension--it certainly cannot really drive the theme of a novel although many have tried.


The moral sexual theme is one that is still well used in literature and should be--successful reproduction is the focus of human existence.  Without it there will be no people to read all that great literature.  The main point here is this theme is both critical and essential to literature and I recommend using the moral sexual theme or sub-theme to appropriately propel your writing.


Now, I will provide one of my real writing secrets.  One theme that has not been used much is sexual tension in a successful or positive marriage.  In fact, I don't know one novel that successfully exploits this theme.  You can see examples, amazingly, in some movies.  Most of the time, in literature, movies, and theater the theme of marriage focuses around failed or broken marriage with an end of the change of spouse.


I am writing novels to exploit the sub-theme of sexual tension in successful marriages.  Generally, the first portion of the tale is one of moral sexual tension with the result of marriage.  Following marriage, usually authors ignore the concept of human sexual tension as though it didn't exist at all.  As though sex or moral desire after marriage was nonexistent.  In The Fox's Honor, The Goddess of Light, The Goddess of Darkness, Twilight Lamb, and Regia Anglorum, I exploit the subtheme of moral sexual tension in successful marriages.  I attempt to do this with class and without any salacious detail.  This is a theme that is not new, but underused and I think the modern world needs to see this as a positive example in literature.         


Illustrations and Dingbats

Black and white illustrations are easy for modern books.  These are usually diagrams, charts, maps, and drawings supplied to the publisher for integration in the work.  I usually develop diagrams and maps unique to my books while I am writing them.  Since more than 50% of my works are historical in nature, most of their scenes come directly out of the real world.  Take these sketches and turn them into black and white illustrations for your novel.  You can't use copyrighted material or take from someone else.  You can redraw a map or simplify it in your own hand or use non-copyrighted material.


Dingbats are the marks and decorations in books that usually separate POV (Point of View) or time sequences in chapters.  The publisher usually finds the right one to match your book, but if you have made one or have an idea for one--pass it on to the publisher.



When you finish writing a novel--don't stop there.  The next step is producing your marketing documents.  This is really the time to do it because the novel is at the forefront of your mind.  This is like the victory lap--the time to really celebrate what you have accomplished.


Here is the basic information you need:



<Pick a good one that fits the work and is exciting possibly mysterious.  Roz Young advised me to name Aegypt to be In the Tomb of the Goddess of Darkness and Light.  This is a descriptive title and conveys some of the story and mystery, but I thought Aegypt was an easier hit with more excitement with a feeling of antiquity.>


Length of Novel:

XX,XXX words <Minimum for a novel is about 60,000>

Keywords and Market Focus:

<list of key words, example from The Goddess of Light> Fiction, Egypt, Ancient Egypt, Tunisia, Tomb, Suspense, Mummy, Archeology, Mystery, Germany, France, Britain; <statement of audience, example from The Goddess of Light> will fascinate anyone interested in mystery and suspense—will appeal particularly to those who enjoy archeological historical mystery and suspense novels.

<Theme comparison with a similar work> The theme of The Goddess of Light is similar to the gothic horror novel The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker; it is a completely new twist on the many Egyptian and archeological historical mysteries currently in print.

<Other pertinent information about the work> The Goddess of Light is a continuation of the adventures of Paul and Leora began in Aegypt.


Fiction Suspense


<Write 3 different synopses: one as long as it takes (not more than 1000 words) , one 500 words, and one 250 words>


Author's reviewer’s quotes:

<Get three or make up three from your readers, these should be exciting and become the basis for future marketing>

Short descriptive teasers:

<More marketing information.  These are what eventually become the front and back teasers in your printed novel.  You need at least three.>


Here is the current list of novels I am working on or have finished.  You can see the working title may be entirely different than the final title.  This is because until the work is finished, I usually don't bestow a title.  I think the year started is right in most cases.




Year Started









A Season of Honor (Honor III)


30 Oct

P 08



Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox






The Fox’s Honor (Honor II)


2 May

P 08



Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox






The End of Honor (Honor I)


13 Jul

P 08



Chronicles of the Dragon and the Fox








7 Feb











16 Jun

P 08



Aegypt I








1 Feb

P 08









Athelstan Cying


26 Sep



Ghost Ship Chronicles


8 15




Twilight Lamb


8 Aug



Ghost Ship Chronicles


9 16




Regia Anglorum


23 Nov



Ghost Ship Chronicles






The Second Mission*


13 Nov

P 03



















Sister of Light


16 Aug



Aegypt II







23 Dec









Goddess of the Hearth


28 Dec










27 Apr


















Sister of Darkness


3 Jun



Aegypt III






The Shadow of Darkness


14 Sep

A 104,025 Aegypt IV Lumière





The Shadow of Light


24 Oct

A 113,000 Aegypt V China





Children of Light and Darkness


1 Dec

A 112,900 Aegypt VI Sisters





Warrior of Light


1 Feb



Aegypt VII









Centurion II


23 23



Shadowed Vale


10 May



Ghost Ship Chronicles IV


24 24



Ddraig Goch


25 Aug



Ghost Ship Chronicles V






Warrior of Darkness


29 Oct



Aegypt VIII








10 Jun



Enchantment II



How to read this chart.  The highlight indicates the novel I am working on now.


1. My original numbering sequence.  The large number is the number I gave a work when I put the list together in about 2000 or so.  The small number is the order of my concept development of the novel (Illidin is the first novel idea I conceived).  The Ghost novels have some suffix letters because I imagined them as one book and later broke them apart into three (now four, maybe more).

2. Type of work.  Fiction - F, Historical Fiction - HF, Science Fiction - SF, Fantasy - Fan.  The small number is for completed novel and the order of completion.

3. Title is the final title of the work.  I leave the working title until I fix a final.

4. Year started.  I went back and tried to determine when I started each novel.

5. Stat (Status).  Writing - W, Incomplete - I, * - ready for marketing/publication, On contract - C, In consideration - A, Published - P (year and month)

6. Words.  The number of words in the novel.

7. Notes.

8. Working.  Working title for the files.

A work can only be considered completed when it is published, and I keep a list of changes for each book after publication.  If I ever get a chance to fix some things, I will.  Once I have a work started and outlined, I can finish the first draft in about 2-3 months of daily writing (0700 to 2100).  I like to aim for 10 to 20 double spaced pages per chapter and about 20 chapters.  This is a guide to give about 60,000 words or more per novel.  In general, I have a goal of about 100,000 words per novel.  Some novels need more and some a little less.



When you proof a document--read it out loud at least once.  You will find many poorly written and expressed areas.  Even if you don't think of the work having an oral component--read it out loud.  This technique will reveal many repetitious words and redundancies.  It will show you where the writing is poor.  This is the final step prior to publication.


During the writing of a work.  Write it and review chapters as you write.  The goal is to have gone through every word at least 5 to 10 times prior to the completion of the manuscript and that is starting with a good manuscript.  I have been through Ghost at least 100 times.  I made major revisions about 10 times.  This is because Ghost is a very complex story and needs to be just right.  The follow-ons to Ghost have required less revisions but that is because the first work was finally there, yet I know it needs more editorial work.


Don't be content with your work.  Think about it.  Write yourself notes about it.  Add depth to it.  Drive it with whatever theme you are building for it.  In the Goddess of Darkness (my current project), the work sees improvements due to the historical study and nuance I am building into it daily.  When I find a piece that needs to be inserted in an earlier chapter, I go back and introduce that piece.  Even if that causes a rewrite, the work is improved and the writing gets better.


Don't be afraid to leave notes so you can continue a strong passage.  For example, if you failed to provide a good description and you know you need one.  Put in a note <description> and when the passage is complete, go back and fix it.  You will find the descriptions flow better when you understand your characters better. 


Don't forget to use AG's advice about character development.  Give all your characters a handle that describes them and allows the reader to instantly recognize them.  For example, Mr. Fletcher's corpulence instantly reminds the reader that he is fat.  When you refer to Mr. Fletcher, give the reader a picture.  This can be done with accents, languages, facial characteristics, etc. 


Watch words
Now I'm giving away my writing secrets.  I use this list to refine my writing.  I do a search for these words and constructions and get rid of those that don't make sense.  Most of the time none of these make sense.  To the maximum extent possible get rid of the words that define these weak constructions.  I will give some specific examples below.






Replace weak present participle constructions like:

He was walking.

(with strong past tense verb constructions like)

He walked.



Stay in the past tense.  Movement into the perfect tense makes tedious reading.  If you must introduce an idea in the past shift to the perfect tense for only a couple of sentences to introduce time sequence, then transition back to the past tense.  Otherwise the use of the word "had" can be easily replaced with much stronger and direct verbs.

He had a cat. 

(can be changed to)

He owned a cat.

He possessed a cat.

He loved his cat.

Don't tell us how someone feels especially by adding adverbial descriptions of speech.  Instead show us how they feel.

"I don't like cats," he said disgustedly. (not good)

"I don't like cats," he said with disgust. (a little better)

"I don't like cats," he gagged. (very good)



Same problem as had.  There are always stronger verbs that are more descriptive.  Plus, was and were are used to move into the subjunctive case.  The use of was is reasonable for identity statements, but these should be reduced as much as possible.  For example, She was a teacher. (Okay)

She taught children. (Better)



Gotten is rotten.  Got is rot.  Just don't use them.  You can find so many other ways of saying the same thing without using these words.  Instead of got, in almost every case, you can use received.


Even is okay if you are using it to describe a level area or idea, it is usually redundant as in:

Even the cats didn't like it. (bad)

The cats didn't like it. (better)

Everyone including the cats didn't like it. (exactly the same statement, still redundant, more specific)



Said is dead.  Don't use said to tell us what a person is saying.

"I like you," she said.  (bad)

"I like you," she gushed.  (better)

"I like you," she kissed his lips.  (best)

Just don't do it.  Utilize means the same as use.  It is a redundant word without any purpose.  Always use a smaller shorter word when it will do.  That is unless you want your character to sound pretentious and overinflated.


How do you get published?

Write and write a lot.  I discovered there are basically two types of novel authors: those who have short story length ideas and those who have novel length ideas.  If you get short story length ideas, you must write many short stories and essays (we are talking something like 50+), have some of those published and acknowledged, then at some point try to combine those stories into a novel form.  Great examples of authors like this are Ray Bradbury, Randell Garrett, George R.R. Martin.  You can spot them because they write chapters that are like short stories, independent but connected to the novel by theme.  If you are a short story style author, you must write a lot of short stories and you must generally get them published first before you can think of getting a novel accepted and published.

If you are a writer who works with novel length ideas, you can't expect to write the great American novel and get it published on the first try--that just won't happen.  I have read a lot of stuff with potential that was ruined by the inexperience of the author (me included).  You have to live and write and live some more.  You must make your writing reach out and grab the reader--this takes writing hundreds of thousands of words, and if you aren't a short story writer, you better learn to be one, or you better start writing and writing a lot.  I wrote 8 novels before one was published.  I think I am getting the hang of it now.  It has taken me a long time, and every chapter I write, I always have to remind myself of the rules I have learned about good writing--otherwise my writing would be as poor as the normal junk you see in the book stores (or not).

Getting published takes as much time selling your work as it does writing it.  Over the years I wrote hundreds of submission letters and repackaged my writing as short stories and novellas.  Until recently, I was just too busy with work to take the time I needed to get published--I liked to write better than I liked to sell my work.  The rejection letters don't help at all.

You have to find a publisher who loves your writing and writing style.  This is where luck (if you believe in it--I don't) or providence comes in.  You must get your writing in front of someone who sees either the potential in it or you.  When I finally had and took the time to sell my work, I was blessed with a connection that put me together with a publisher--OakTara.  I hope this arrangement and blessing continues for a long time--at least until I run out of novel length ideas.


How do you learn to write well?

Assuming you think I write well and qualified to give advice: you write and write and write and write, and you follow these simple rules.  (I thank Roz Young for this advice)  First, get A.B. Guthrie's A Field Guide to Writing Fiction.  You can find this book, used, for about $60+.  I can guess why it is not in publication, it really tells you how to write fiction well, and everybody already thinks they know how to write well.  (The first step to great writing is probably acknowledging you aren't the worlds most proficient writer.)  If you absorb the lessons Guthrie (the Pulitzer prize winner) is willing to teach, you will be a great writer, and hopefully a published one.

Second, Guthrie says this (though he wasn't the first) "show, don't tell."  You must completely take this idea to heart.  If you are careful, you can move a story along with a little telling, but don't even think about it unless you have fully absorbed this simple rule--show, don't tell.  What do I mean by this?  The example below is the same short section.  In the first section, a paragraph, I shortened the story by "telling" you what happened.  I wasn't happy with this because, I felt, you, the reader, should feel the poignancy of Leora's children's pain (and hers) when she left them.

First cut:

     Leora embarked alone for Britain the next day. She had enough money in her purse for the tickets, food, and a couple of days in an inexpensive hotel—it was all that remained of Paul’s last paycheck with the gracious addition of Marcel’s generosity. The sun was brilliant at first and that gave her strength. She had explained everything to Monsieur Bolang, and left her children safe in the care of their pépère and mémère. The children were unhappy, but she explained that mama must go looking for their papa. Their petite kisses still tingled on her lips.     

Second cut:

     Leora embarked alone for Britain the next day. She had enough money in her purse for the tickets, food, and a couple of days in an inexpensive hotel—it was all that remained of Paul’s last paycheck with the gracious addition of Marcel’s generosity. The sun was brilliant at first and that gave her strength. She had explained everything to Monsieur Bolang, and left her children safe in the care of their pépère and mémère. The children were unhappy, especially Lumie’re. The others cried and clung to her, but Lumie’re stood quietly tears filling, yet not overflowing her brilliant emerald eyes. Leora took the girl in her arms and gathered them all close.
     Lumie’re put her lips against her mother’s ear, “Please don’t go. Who will call in the light?”
     “My love, my loves,” Leora kissed them all, “I must go for your father. He needs my help, and there is no one else to find him.”
     “No one?” stated Robert, “We could help too.”
     “Then who would cheer and look after pépère and mémère? Your father is their son. They miss him just as I would miss you. You must pray for your father every day.”
     Lumie’re looked up, “We will pray every day for father and for you. And we will look after pépère and mémère.”
     The children suddenly enveloped Leora with kisses.
     Their petite kisses still tingled on her lips.     

You see how much stronger the second exchange makes the writing.  In the first example, I used metaphor to express the pain of separation, in the second, you, the reader, see their experience first hand--and I still get in the metaphor.  You can also see the metaphor is less strong, but a weakened metaphor is more than made up for with "showing" the actual event.   I could likewise expand Leora's explanation to Monsieur Bolang, but I already showed you some of it in the previous chapter, so I think this would be repetitious.

There is so much more to this idea of showing and not telling that if I even told you everything, I would simply be repeating Guthrie's book.  I will give you another example of the rule.  Don't tell us what a person feels, show us through their words or the words of others.  Example:

First cut:

Leora was angry.

Second cut, how about this?

Leora kicked the dust, "Why did you have to say that?"

Third cut:

Paul grabbed Leora's arm, "Why are you so angry?"

Simple examples but you can see how the writing is strengthened.

Third rule, "don't show or tell everything."  People ask me all the time from my books, "What really happened to x." or "Did x do this to y."  I try to not let my readers know anything more than the characters understand themselves.  I don't like to explain anything.  I want the interaction of the characters to show everything.  I don't want my readers to predict what will happen in the story.  I want them guessing all the time.  Guessing as much as the characters are themselves.  In the real world, people's motivations are ultimately unknown.  People's thoughts are unknown.  There are always mysteries.  Most of which we simply ignore.  You can always leave your readers hanging, but don't leave them confused.  Make sure your writing is clear and you are getting across what you want.  This is where good editing and lots of it can help you.  Find as many readers as possible and beg them for feedback.  Once the novel is published, it's just too late to fix it.




Why Write?

I love to write.  I always have.  The play of words and seeing the finished product on a page always has intrigued me.  As a child, my mother would write stories for me on her typewriter while I dictated them to her.  When I was a High School student, I wrote serious poems to my friends in their year books.  In college I started writing novels, but I didn't know what I was doing.  Jack Vance tells us, you have to live life before you can adequately capture it on paper.  With a lot of practice and a lot of living, I was able to put together A Season of Honor.&nbsp9 While my mother died, cs I watched over her in the hospital, I wrote Antebellum.  The words and the novels kept flowing.  I have written ten novels, and, God willing, I hope to write many more.    

What I Write:

I write hybrid literature.  Even my science fiction literature is not typical, but it is more true to a literary genre.  All my writing incorporates some mix of literary genres.  For example, The Second Mission is historical fiction, but also incorporates a science fiction plot driver.  Centurion is historical fiction, but provides a mixture of action adventure with a military focus to a historical period that has not been typically approached that way.  Centurion unlike most of my works, does move the reader through history in a typical literary fashion.  Aegypt is historical fiction with a fantasy, suspense driver and moves the reader through time using a fantasy theme.  Antebellum is historical fiction that uses a suspense and fantasy driver.  Goddess uses a fantasy driver in a suspense theme.

My science fiction is more typical of the genre, but it uses technical detail and human interaction to set it apart.  The driving themes in my science fiction are human traits, for example, honor in all its varieties or desire in both a negative and positive sense.  But the plots are studded with technical resolutions and complex denouncements based on the science fiction worlds themselves.  As a scientist, I can give true life to ideas that are fantastic yet real.  

Where I Write:

I have and I do write anywhere.  I wrote on Centurion while flying in the back of a C-18 to Germany.  I started writing Centurion in Mildenhall, England.  I wrote The Second Mission in Korea and in a small tobacco shop.  I always carry my writing computer with me wherever I go, and I keep a journal beside my bed to write down anything I don't want to lose.  My favorite place to write, however, is a small building behind my house.  It has windows all around.  My sheltie sits in front of the open door and protects me from stray birds and the aircraft that fly over head.  

How I Started Writing:

My family always loved books.  We read books, and books were always available in our house.  If you love books, you want to emulate the characters in them.  Children who read books and whose parents read to them, build up imaginary worlds using their favorite characters.  As your imagination improves, and you learn to write; you want to put your stories on paper.  If you keep on writing, eventually, you want to write books.

I started with simple stories, but in high school, I fell in love with poetry.  My English and American Literature and Philosophy teacher, Mr. Martin motivated my interest in poetry.  Through his encouragement, the idea of succinctly writing strong descriptions of memorable events, people, and emotions inspired me.  I discovered, good poetry communicates at different levels than simply one of plain text.  To me this is the basis of all good writing.  Many times the words unsaid are more important that what is directly spoken or described.

How I Write:

The creative process, as Socrates and Aristotle asserted is cathartic.  I also learned the basis of this from Mr. Martin.  You must fill your mind with all kinds of good and powerful information, emotions, sensations, and experiences.  When appropriately filled, you let it all out on a page of white paper, or in my case into an ether construction that looks like a white page--Plato would be proud.  An artist must be very careful that every input does cause his imagination to expand and become filled.  Experiences that exhaust you; exhaust your imagination.  Experiences that bring out your emotions, enhance your ability to express, on a page, those emotions.  Encounters in silence and unique or dramatic visual experiences build up your imagination.  Based on my own prejudices and understanding, here is what I think fills and empties (these are experience based and not logic based, so don't get all worked up about the examples):


Filling Emptying

Contemplative process:

Creative process:



     Imaginative contemplation

     Making a video

     Playing or singing

     Writing music

     Reciting a poem

     Memorizing a poem


     Studying for a test

     Writing essays and technical papers

     Writing fiction

Reading a fiction book

Reading a nonfiction book

Watching a contemplative movie

Watching TV

Listening to well developed music

Listening to anything you might hear from an elevator or from the enclosed car next to you



Listening to intellectual conversation and debate

Listening to social conversation

Participating in intellectual conversation and debate

Participating in social conversation

Looking at a photo or a picture book

Reading all the words in a photo or picture book

Watching people

Interacting socially with people

Reading a newspaper

Writing for a newspaper


When my brain is filled with good stuff, I write.  I write every day after lunch.  Wait--you said, you should write in a cathartic moment after all the good things fill your mind.  Can that occur if you have a set schedule for writing?  Yes.  I work in the mornings and I write in the afternoon.  Notice that work is something that fills up my imagination.  I want to get done with my work so I can write.  My work is mostly study related; I listen to conversational radio and contemplative music in the morning, and I am ready to write in the afternoon.

When I sit down to write, I have three modes:

     1.  Writing to a form--I have an outline or goal.

     2.  Revision--I have a draft and I am correcting and improving the writing.

     3.  Writing without a form--free writing for practice and to put vivid ideas on paper.


Do I Get Writer's Block?

I never get writer's block, but I do get tired of writing.  Most of the time, I just run out of ideas.  I have to fill up my mind so I can write again.  If I ever really want to write and I don't have a subject, plot, or theme that excites me, I do character and scene studies and descriptions.  This is the way I populated Antebellum.  I like to write vignettes about houses and about people with intense characteristics or appearance.  The descriptions I wrote about houses and about certain characters became the basis of Antebellum.  I have another novel in mind I will write in a similar vein.  The horse faced girl in Goddess came from the observation of a real person.


Characters drive my writing.  Characters are what make writing seem real.  Great characters are developed through their interactions with one another, conversation, and gestures.  Descriptions can only provide a backdrop.  Interaction, conversation, and gestures provide the clay that builds a character from a stick into a person.  





Meet the Author

L. D. Alford is a novelist whose writing explores with originality those cultures and societies we think we already know.  His writing distinctively explores the connections between present events and history—he combines them with threads of reality that bring the past alive.  L. D. Alford is familiar with technology and cultures—he is widely traveled and earned a B.S. in Chemistry from Pacific Lutheran University, an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Boston University, and is a graduate of Air War College and Air Command and Staff College.  L. D. Alford is an author who combines intimate scientific and cultural knowledge into fiction worlds that breathe reality.




  Novels by this Author
       The Second Mission (Available now)
       Centurion   (Available now published by OakTara)
       Aegypt            (Available now published by OakTara)


The Dragon and the Fox


                     (Available now published by OakTara)



The End of Honor       The Fox’s Honor       A Season of Honor 




  L.D. Alford is the author of 41 technical papers published in international journals on flight test, military policy, flight safety, space, and cyberwar.  Technical Writing
  L.D. Alford has been a professional aviator for 28 years.  Aviation Writing

L.D. Alford Aviation Writing Technical Writing Unpublished Novels Writing Links Engineer


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