Category Archives: Fiction

Flirting with Proper Nouns

 

OR, COMMONNESS AND CAPITALIZATION

Caps and little lettersOne of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I read self-published books are how often basic rules of grammar are flouted. We all make typos, yes, but a serious writer knows language is her most important tool. Spelling, grammar and parts of speech are our basic building materials. If you don’t master those, you’re not ready to publish. (Don’t even get me started on correct use of apostrophes. The world is not ready for a rant of that magnitude.)

Today, however, I want to talk about nouns. And why sometime they’re capitalized and sometimes they’re not.

The simplest definition of a noun is any word that represents a person, place or thing. A more detailed definition, from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, is that “a noun is a word that names something, whether abstract (intangible) or concrete (tangible).” In other words, a noun can name things both perceptible, like a tree, and imperceptible, like goodness.

A common noun names a generic person, place, thing, activity or condition: The mayor of the city visited the ball park. Common nouns are capitalized only when they begin a sentence or appear as part of a title: “Detective Johnson examined the body.” vs. “The detective examined the body.”

Concrete nouns name things that are perceptible to the five senses: apple, rose, window, music. Abstract nouns name things than cannot be directly seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched: grief, anticipation, schizophrenia.

A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place or thing. To rephrase the example above using proper nouns, it could read: Mayor Daly of Chicago visited Wrigley Field. Proper nouns are always capitalized, no matter how they’re used.

Titles of works are also proper nouns and have their own rules of capitalization. Big Sky River, (book), The Importance of Being Earnest (play), Downton Abbey (television show), Zero Dark Thirty (movie). Note that in two- or three-word titles, all words are capitalized. In longer titles, prepositions and articles are all lowercase except when they are the first word: The Old Man and the Sea, Of Human Bondage.

Articles on the web or in print can follow the same rule, or it is acceptable if the first word and proper nouns are capitalized and other words are lowercase.

Common nouns can become proper nouns: Democrats, Republicans, the Big Apple. And sometimes a proper noun may be used informally as if it is a common noun:  “Who died and made you Hitler?” implies that someone is dictating their wants without regard for right or wrong.

A class of common nouns called eponyms are derived from proper nouns that passed into such universal usage that the formal version was dropped. Today we might pack sandwiches, not Sandwiches (from the Earl of Sandwich, who popularized them) before setting off on an odyssey (a long journey, from the adventures of Odysseus in Greek legend) .

Do you have a spelling or grammar pet peeve? Which resource do you check for correct usage?

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Building Historical Worlds

World building is a familiar concept to writers and many readers of science fiction and fantasy. Writers from C.J. Cherryh to Marion Zimmer Bradley have written about the importance of pulling your readers into the world of a book, and the works of Tolkien are a primer for building an alternate world.

Historical romance is not in the business of building completely new worlds (that would be for the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal members of the Romance Writers of America), but historical romance writers still have to draw our readers in, so that they can feel themselves inside the story, wearing crinolines or a hoop skirt or a toga, traveling the high seas in a pirate ship or taking the air in Hyde Park on horseback.

World building, whether for sci fi, fantasy or historical writing, works best when the writer has done his or her homework. When building a world from scratch, that includes notebooks covering geography, history, languages, customs, religious or spiritual beliefs, the presence or absence of magic, and on and on. Lots of work!

Historical romance writers have it easier in that we can research times past to find out about the world our characters are going to inhabit. We also have giant binders full of information, of course. We just have to research existing knowledge, using the best research material we can find.

Even simple things were harder 150 years ago. Travel was a much bigger deal when Victoria ascended the throne. In an era when it’s possible to cross hundreds of miles in a single day by car, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the speed of carriage travel. Drive your car down your street at 14 miles an hour and try to imagine that as the absolute top speed you can achieve in a vehicle. The sensory description will be entirely different in the 19th century world. Hoofbeats, not the sound of tires, characterized traffic, for example.

To our modern sensibilities, the past is an alien place, not just physically, but in mental attitudes. Victorian England was a place of overt class consciousness, where people who moved from level of society to another (up or down) were viewed with suspicion, if not outright scorn. There was a strong impetus to keep to one’s place, and not only in the upper classes. This attitude loosened up as the 19th century wore on, but even servants preferred to work for a suitably aristocratic family to one with ‘new money’. America also had its unofficial aristocracy, with Ward McAllister’s decree that truly fashionable New York society was made up of only 400 people. (He was trying to keep out those dreadful Westerners, Midwesterners and Vanderbilts at the time.)

If a writer chooses not to have her characters reflect the social mores of an era, her characters need solid motivation to explain why they think differently.

What are your favorite details about historical romance? The clothing? The food? The customs? Let us know!

Everybody’s a Critic!

My mother, bless her heart, is under the impression that writers just scribble or type out the words and poof! — we’re all done.  I wish!  I’ve never, ever heard of a book being accepted as is by a reputable publisher, and that is a very good thing.  As a writer, I am too close to the work to judge it objectively, never mind the spelling and grammar errors that come out when you’re focused on just getting the story written down.  One of the best pieces of advice I can give to new writers is to seek out supportive, respectful criticism from other writers.

The key words there are supportive and respectful. I have heard a number of horror stories about critique groups.  My own weekly group is a huge blessing.  It includes writers at all levels of experience and in a range of genres from romance to science fiction to thrillers to horror.  Some of us write books, some write poetry and some write plays or screenplays.  The main thing is that we all demand well-written stories with vivid characters that draw us in and keep us begging for more.  Without this group’s encouragement, I would never have had the nerve to enter the contest that led to my first sale.

Equally important are rules of conduct that limit criticism to the writing.  Our primary goal as a group is to help each other become better writers.  If you join a critique group that praises or dismisses anyone’s writing based on how well or poorly they conform to a set of religious or political views, move on!  The same goes if they treat you differently based on your genre.  Or if they think there is something wrong with you because you want to write a book that people can buy in grocery stores.  (This is one of my goals as a writer, so I will admit to some bias here.)

I’ve also heard stories where new writers are condescended to by those who have been in a group longer.  This is not okay.  Most published authors I have been in contact with, either personally or through correspondence, have answered questions and provided advice when I asked, and even when I didn’t.  Those who were unable to help still took the time out of their schedules to offer encouragement and good wishes.  If these women (and men) can treat strangers nicely, so can Madame Poobah of the Local Community Writers Circle.

Of course, supportive and respectful apply to the ‘critique-ee’ as well.  If you are submitting your work to other people so they can exclaim that it is the most innovative piece of fiction since Western Civilization crawled out of the Dark Ages, probably you’re not going to have a positive experience.  (Yeah, we have folks show up with that attitude from time to time.  They don’t last long.)  ‘Critique’ and ‘criticize’ are related.  You’re asking people to tell you where the weak spots are in your WIP.  Don’t be surprised or offended when they actually do that.  If you get comments from five different people complaining about the same paragraph, that’s a pretty good indication that you should reconsider it, but it’s unlikely that they’re conspiring to drive you away.

Be patient if someone suggests you take your story in a direction that you don’t want to go.  There is no law that says you have to follow every piece of criticism you get.  Ultimately, you are responsible for what you write.  Smile, say thank you and move on.

And yes, you should thank someone who has taken time to listen to or read your work and given you their advice.  Even if you don’t agree with them.  Even if someone has given all negative comments, or you think they’re being nit-picky over teeny tiny details.  I’ve slept on criticism I’ve disagreed with and found it valid the next day.  When something isn’t working my weekly group lets me know.  They’re not brutal, but once you’ve been there long enough for your skin to thicken, they’re blunt.  And I love it when people nit-pick — it means there are no major problems that week!

As long as I’m discussing critiques, what are some of the best or worst scenes you’ve read in a book?  Or what kind of scenes do you love or loathe?  As writers have any of you ever found some embarrassing mistakes in your manuscript — or worse, in your book?  (Like the two paragraphs where I use the word ‘wrist’ four or five times.  Or one of my first readings where everything was ‘scandalous’.  Luckily for all of you, I abandoned that story!)

Description

Recco, Giuseppe - Still-life with the Five Sen...
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I love descriptive scenes.  They set time and place, character appearance, their favorite kind of clothes, their homes and their other possessions.  Believe me, this stuff is important. I’ve read books light on description, and it’s like groping my way through fog to get an idea where the scenes take place, and when.

Description is anything that tells the reader what characters experience through the five physical senses. When it’s necessary to give the reader some mental breathing space, say after an intense action scene, describing the aftermath or what surrounds the characters in a lull is like providing oxygen before the readers submerge themselves in the next fast-moving sequence. Still, even I will admit that too much description becomes downright annoying.

When a writer stops and provides every detail (as I tend to do in my first drafts), they sloooooow their pace to a crawl.  The mind lingers over descriptive passages in order to process what the characters see, hear and feel.  When a reader wants to move on to the next action sequence, they often (consciously or not) skip over long descriptive passages to get to the exciting bits.  Description is like the chocolate swirls in fudge ripple ice cream: ideally it should appear evenly throughout a book, but not in big gooey globs.

Good description layers all five senses throughout the book, without sounding like “Miss Girlygirl eyed the petit four, admiring its pick icing.  She picked it up, inhaling chocolate and fondant icing.  When she bit into it, hearing the delicate crunch of its layers, the coffee flavoring coursed over her taste buds.”  That chunk was heavy-handed and awkward.  Description is the art of adding details to a scene without overpowering it.

What about you? Do you read every word of a description or do you tend to skip over them?

Exposition: Your Reader’s Need to Know File

I can’t speak for other writers, but I’ve found that placing exposition into my stories is either a pleasure or a giant pain. ‘Exposition’ is related to ‘expose’, and thus refers to unveiling information the reader must know in order to make sense of the story. One must have exposition, just not too much of it at one time.

The most common example of this kind of information is back story, or past events which influence the characters or plot of a book, but which do not take place during the length of time the book covers. In Nicole Jordan’s To Desire a Wicked Duke, the heroine’s loss of her fiancé in battle occurred well before the book opens, but it affects her decisions and her relationship with the hero. Her fiancé’s death is part of the back story.

Most new writers, including yours truly, often open their first manuscript with pages and pages explaining the hero or heroine’s home, or family of twelve, or college days, or…it really doesn’t matter, because your reader wants to know about the main characters, not their 500-year-old family pedigree, no matter how distinguished it is. These reams of exposition are the dreaded ‘info-dump’, guaranteed to put off agents, editors and readers alike.

For film it’s said that for every foot of film used in the final cut, there are two feet on the cutting room floor. I’ve come to think of exposition the same way. Yes, it is necessary to come up with detailed character biographies that do include birth year, birth place, family history (and probably their dates as well), education, favorite colors, the character’s particular talents and his or her greatest flaws, etc., etc. — even though this information may never appear in the actual book.

Some of you are probably throwing up your hands and asking, “Then why go to so much trouble?” Considering the research and effort that goes into creating this kind of detail, that is an excellent question!

The answer is that when we writers set down that much information about a character, it nails him or her down in our heads. This kind of detail helps us understand how characters respond to each other as well as to challenges, failures or successes. The writer knows how their hero or heroine will go about reaching their goals. And on a purely practical level, if all of this is written down beforehand, the writer has a reference any time a question about a character’s past comes up. That saves a lot of time all by itself.

As a historical romance writer, I also use exposition to explain aspects of life in past eras that modern readers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. For example, in Her Scottish Groom I used it to include details about life in Scotland during the late Victorian era. Trains, cruise ships, and telegrams had been around for years by then. The heroine is accustomed to indoor plumbing.

My debut, To be Seduced, presented even more of a challenge because it takes place during the Restoration. Even something as straightforward as attending the theater needed a little explanation. The experience differed significantly from seeing plays during the nineteenth century, which is heavily represented in historical romances. The trick in both cases was to create vivid scenes for readers to enjoy, not give them a history lesson!

Clues to characters and period or universe (in the case of fantasy or paranormal romance) are imperative to an authentic, well-rounded story. But exposition, like everything else in a well-written book, should be layered in carefully, and nothing should appear on the page that does not advance or enhance the story.

What are some of the most interesting or unexpected bits of information revealed about a character in a book you’ve read?

A Writer’s Nightmare

If you think writers don’t suffer from stage fright, guess again. True, we don’t expose ourselves directly to an audience, like an actor does. But good writers write from their heart, and that always involves an element of risk. My next book comes out one week from today, and I’m not jaded enough to be anything but thrilled about that! Getting published is a writer’s dream come true. On the other hand, I’m having a recurring nightmare where I’m in a bookstore, holding a copy of the book.  When I open it, I discover that I sent my editor the wrong file. Instead of the story I wrote, the book is filled with incomplete chapters, notes and even a couple of emails! My story doesn’t exist!

Obviously, no editor would accept anything but the completed, polished story they accepted in the first place. (Besides, I was so unnerved when I woke up that I double checked the copies of Her Scottish Groom currently in my possession. To my immense relief, the story in there is, for better or worse, the final, edited, version.) And my dream could have been worse. For one thing, I wasn’t naked. For another, no green jello monsters or giant bugs chased me through the bookstore aisles.

I think the horror I experienced in my dream came holding a bound, finished book that was clearly anything but completed. It was the public exposure of this error that got to me. I have sure opened up my laptop to find passages in a WIP that certainly did come out the way I intended! (And I bet I’m not the only writer this has happened to.) The purpose of a first draft is to get the story out of your head and into some vaguely structured form recognizable as a plot. Only then can a writer read her work over and say “Wow. This stinks.”  That’s when she takes a closer look and fixes it.

Believe me, it is way, WAY better to find glaring errors in the early stages of a book than in a published volume. Like when you use the word ‘wrist’ five times in two paragraphs. Or you have a dinner scene that devolves into a description of the meal that sounds like something from a food magazine. Delicious, but does it move the plot along, or show something about the characters involved? Or wait, maybe we need the description here to give the readers a chance to catch their breaths. What happened in the previous scene? Whether a writer plots or pantses (sorry, Merriam-Webster) our goal is to write stories that won’t give us (or anyone else) nightmares.

I can’t be the only one who has nightmares about things that are important to them. What are some of your scary dreams?

 

My Friend EDNA

I was introduced to EDNA the first time I ever read my work aloud to a critique group.  Despite my shaking hands and voice, the other writers received my first effort well. (I still belong to this group because its attitude is that 1. any writer willing to learn deserves respect, and 2. all writers can learn more about the craft.) Of course I made awful mistakes — passive verbs, telling instead of showing, and…the dreaded Info Dump. Instead of starting out with a good hook, I detailed the background of each character. I now know that readers do want background info, just not in great whacking chunks at the book’s beginning.

At the end of the evening, the group’s moderator took me aside and pressed a page of handwritten notes into my hand.  “Read these,” she ordered quietly. “They’ll help you balance your writing.”  The moderator is now my friend and mentor, Sally J. Walker, and the piece of paper introduced me to EDNA: Exposition, Description, Narration and Action/Dialogue.  These are four types of fiction and each helps pull a reader into the story.  It was the first writing lesson I ever learned and remains one of the most valuable.

I could go on for pages about each mode  — in fact, Sally teaches an entire course about them, but here they are in a nutshell, with definitions from my trusty Merriam-Webster.

Exposition: One of the definitions of the word is “discourse designed to convey information”.  When writing, exposition provides information the reader must have in order to make sense of the rest of the book.  It can be information about a character’s background, or about a situation unfamiliar to readers. In an example of the latter, the heroine of my first book reflects on how the laws of her day prevent her from claiming her inheritance

Description: “…an account that presents a picture to a person who reads or hears it.”  Or a sound, smell, taste or touch.  Description tells the reader what a character observes with his or her physical senses.  Good description draws readers in so they can visualize characters and imagine themselves inside the story.  Words like “click”, “clash”, “stench”, “fragrance”, “vinegary”, “sticky”, “tickle”, and “sting” conjure up concrete sensations.

Narration: Probably the least used mode, because its purpose is to summarize the passage of time or an event.  It is still necessary! Narration allows a writer to skip over days or weeks when no action occurs that affects the story.  Here is a masterful example from “The Hobbit“: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave…Yet there is little to tell about their stay.”

Action/Dialogue: Yes, action is when characters are doing stuff and dialogue is when they’re talking.  The point is that the characters are actively doing something in the story to move it forward, which is why action and dialogue are linked.  “To talk” is a verb, just like “to run” or “to carry”. Or “to think”, “to ponder” and “to plot”. Mental activity is still doing something.  Actions and conversations show  the characters’ personalities and motivations and advance the story, so as long as there aren’t pages and pages of it, the reader is interested and again, drawn into the book.

The key is balance.  Long passages of any one type of prose will numb the reader’s mind, even if it’s a complicated action sequence.  Even a single sentence of description or exposition can give the reader a break from a kaleidoscope of action and refresh them enough to go on.  Similarly, passages of description need to be broken up with action or dialogue, or telescoped with narrative before the reader gets bored.

I still have Sally’s notes, although I’ve had to transpose them because I wore out the original page she gave me.  And yes, I still check my pages to be sure they have at least three of the four kinds of prose on each page.  It’s never wise to ignore EDNA.