Saturday, August 23, 2014 07:28

Words of One Syllable: Dumbed Down Writing Betrays Readers

June 5th, 2013

sunset2OK, that’s a snarky headline. But I’ve read a number of online writing guides  that seem designed to dumb down texts and keep readers limited. More than that, they’re designed to stifle the authentic and unique writers’ voices we always encourage. .

The latest recommendations on writing for the web tell us, courtesy of the Content Marketing Institute, that sentences should be less than ten words long, never complex, and contain no words over two syllables — in other words, understandable for a sixth grade reading level. There are tools to check your finished piece to be sure that this is so.

Now, there’s a kernel of truth to this. The primo rule in writing for an audience is not to put barriers between the reader and the message. You don’t want your reader to have to stop and untangle convoluted sentences or reach for a dictionary to understand every other word. But these kinds of recommendations, which you’ll find on any number of writing sites, create a kind of information pabulum, in which everything sounds the same and readers never get a glimpse of any of the other spiffy goodies that the language has to offer, brought to you by the dedicated wordsmiths who work hard at their craft.

It’s a tired cliché: keep it simple, stupid. But that has the disadvantage of keeping the stupid (or in this case, the uninformed) simple. Readers who only see words of two syllables or less may never know –or use – the many wondrous polysyllabics  out there. And writers heeding the equally ubiquitous advice to speak in an authentic voice — be yourself, be unique – may end up burying those voices under careful word and syllable counts.

One reason I’m in awe of the Net is its stunning power to put all kinds of information  at anyone’s fingertips, any time. It’s the primary source of information about the world, for most of the world. And that places a certain responsibility on those of us who create that information. We’ve got to give quality, drawing on the complexity and richness of the language to open readers’ eyes to new things and help them make sense of this vast and constantly changing universe.

The old saw applies: know your audience. Know your voice and be fearless in the use of same. Know your tools and use them with skill. Traveling the information highway should be a smooth ride in a brand new Lexus – not a toy car.

Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding”: Creating Fantasy Characters to Die For

June 3rd, 2013

Game-of-Thrones-Houses-infographic-Westeros-101-fI’m a die-hard (pun perhaps intended) fan of HBO’s epid fantasy series Game of Thrones – not just because it’s a visually stunning, beautifully realized society full of complex people, but because it, and the blockbuster books by George R. R Martin that it’s based on, show us how to create believable fantasy worlds and characters.  One of the main takeaways from both the books and the show is this: good fantasy – hell, good stories of all kinds – must be driven by characters we care about. That brings us to today’s post:

World Building Part 2: Creating Characters

Last night’s episode, “The Rains of Castamere” hammered the point home. (Here’s the obligatory spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen it – or knew it was coming from the books.) The violent, heartbreaking “Red Wedding” scene that capped Season 3’s penultimate episode turned on the shocking deaths of people we’ve come to know and love for lo these three seasons now.

And judging from the responses – tweets, forums and post comments – it’s clear that stunning twist left viewers reeling, in tears, hating the show, its creators and even Martin himself. People swore never to watch again (though the probably will), said they fell into depressions and wanted to smash televisions.

What makes GOT a game changer in the world of television drama is its utter unflinching willingness to make us care deeply about its characters — and then kill them off, leaving viewers and readers utterly bereft.

Those feelings, dear readers, are the ones you want your characters to inspire as well. Consider how this episode delivers its emotional punch by drawing on past character development. In GOT’s first season, Eddard Stark is a good man trying to do good things for his family, his people and his king. We see him in bed with a loving wife, carrying out the duties of a Lord of Winterfell, reluctantly wading into the dirty intrigues of Kings’ Landing, bringing a doll for his daughter. We care about Ned. We root for Ned.

And when Ned’s head is lopped off at the whim of the mad boy-king Joffrey, we’re left agape. A key character we’re led to like just — vanishes. What happened? It’s not fair!

And it’s even worse at the Red Wedding. We’ve had nearly three seasons to see Ned’s son Robb grow into his Kingship, fall in love, fight for the loyalty of his men and, near the end, learn he’ll become a father. We also learned to love Catelyn’s fierce devotion to her children and her clan, her willingness to risk Robb’s fury by sending Jaime Lannister back to King’s Landing, her steely brokering of devil’s bargains to win Robb’s cause.

So, when those big wooden doors slammed shut on Walder Frey’s wedding hall, the musicians began to play ‘The Rains of Castamere,” and the bloodshed began, we were smacked with the realization that this isn’t the whitewashed series TV of yesteryear, when the good guys always get out alive. Robb, his pregnant bride, his mother, even his direwolf, lie dead.

You may not want to kill your characters in such a bloody, heart wrenching fashion. But readers better care about what does happen to them. It’s the hoariest writing advice around, but it’s also the truest. Create your chracters with loving detail – yes, even your villains too. Give them the small gestures and grace notes that make them live as unique individuals. And then, when they’re slammed up against the realities of your fiction world, readers will be slammed too.

Without people to care about, even dragons don’t mean shit.

Top image courtesy HBO Game of Thrones Official Website

How to Write Fantasy Fiction (That Keeps ‘Em Coming Back For More)

May 23rd, 2013

A recent random web search on the keyword “how to write fantasy fiction” came up with over 5 million hits. That says there are a lot of  hungry writers out there — people with stories in their hearts and in their minds, visions of wonder and magic that they’re aching to share. And there’s no shortage of articles, books and how tos on doing just that. The problem is, much of it isn’t very good.

On this site I’ve pledged to you that I’ll be real. And that means giving you tips and tricks and writing info that’s as straight up as I can make it. So believe me when I tell you that much of what you’ll read out there, gentle reader, is – crap. Too vague, too limited, too focused one particular kind of fantasy.

So this post launches a new series on fantasy/surreal/paranormal writing that’ll talk about how to write fantasy stories in terms of what works and what doesn’t work when your story concerns things that aren’t of this world. First up:

World Building, Part One — Setting

You could write a book on this one. People have. And I will too, because so many miss the point.

Start by thinking outside the traditional fantasy box. What kind of setting will sustain and nurture all the other aspects of your story? And how will you make that as “real” as possible? Fantasy doesn’t always mean castles and elves and knights and quests. Mix it up.

Some of the best fantasy work combines genres and elements from everywhere. Jim Butcher has done a fine job of blending the hardboiled PI style with ghosts and ghouls and all manner of fantasy creatures in his Harry Dresden books. Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and a number of others have nicely incorporated a Victorian/Edwardian feel to their fantasy works. Emma Bull’s Territory takes black magic to Tombstone for the shootout at the OK corral.

Broadly speaking, you can build a fantasy world on one of three ways. You can bring magic into the world we live in. Or you can create a fully realized fictional world or universe. The list of fantasy writers who take this tack is too long to cover here.

Or, you can also create a world within a world – a fictional town or area that exists alongside our familiar ones. Charles de Lint’s Newford stories and novels take place in a fictional Canadian city but his characters travel back and forth to entirely real ones. Soledad City, the staging area for my Moon Road series of books and stories, is a fictional Southwestern city that coexists with El Paso,  Los Angeles, and the rest of the United States.

Whatever setting you create for your fictional people and events, make it real. The old writing advice applies – touch the five senses and use details to create a place so vividly three dimensional that readers want to come visiting again and again.

Don’t be tempted to fall back on clichés. The icons of fantasy, especially “high fantasy,” are really well established, well-known to readers and practitioners alike, so it’s easy to cut corners and count on the fact that your audience has read or seen Lord of the Rings.

But your fantasy world is unique to your story. Do it justice. Resist the easy path of falling back on the stereotypes of castles and green meadows and valiant questers. Give your audience someplace new to be – they’ll want to keep returning to explore more of its wonders.

Next up: The Devil – and the Magic – is In the Details.

Music is the Muse: Helping Writers Write

May 20th, 2013

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding up to the
old inn door.

Those are the opening lines from the Alfred Noyes poem “The Highwayman,” performed by  Canadian singer Loreena McKennit, a favorite of mine. And if you write a certain sort of fantasy/romance/historical fiction, she should be one of yours too.  I listened to this song while answering emails and other tedious tasks — and ss soon as I was finished, I called up a document and wrote “Kinrowan’s Ride,” a fantasy piece I’d been kicking around for a long time about a highwayman sunset2who seduces highborn women and then murders them.

I’d been trying to find a way into that story for a long time.  And the music showed me the way.

For writers, music hath more than charms. It makes creative work flow smoothly, takes the edge off stressful emotions — and it can inspire your next story too. Although a lot of us sit down at the computer and pop in the old earbuds for a dose of favourite tunes while tapping the keys, music can contribute a lot more to the creative process than just making a soothing background while you work.

Lyrics can trigger ideas, take you on a journey to someplace new.  My short story, ‘Cold Wind,” recently anthologized in the first  Indie Authors Anthology,  was inspired by a Jethro Tull song, “Cold Wind to Valhalla.”   Mixing bits and pieces of song lyrics can trigger new associations, too.

And music doesn’t just put you in the mood in the bedroom, it can set the mood you need to deliver in a scene as well.  Got a gritty street scene to write? Find some hard edged rap to get you in the right place. Are your characters questing in a medieval land of myth and magic?  Try some haunting Celtic pieces to  take you there.

Music can also add depth and resonance to your setting.   Check out the  work of Canadian fantasy master Charles de Lint for a look at how musical references connect his characters and shows us who they are.

What are your playlists for inspiration? How does music feed your work?

Switchng Horses and Making it Real

May 10th, 2013

Life (and mind) changing stuff pops up in all kinds of places.  I followed a link this morning to a blog I’d never heard of, but I’ll be visiting again and again. It impressed me so much that I’m devoting a chunk of this post to talking about it. It’s Chris McCombs’ blog, with its banner of a tattooed arm that says “Rise Above,” and this trainer/bodybuilder/entrepreneur has some pretty straight talk about being a total badass for realizing dreams and passions.

But that’s not really what struck me most abou Chris’ blog.

It’s his willingness to stand up and slap the crap out of a lot of the pompous, law of attraction style self realization stuff out there.  His persona slips a little from time to time and you catch him using bigger words and better English, but overall he’s true to his message: be real and do the thing you most want to do. That’s a badass.

So,  I’ll be real and honest. I created my website as a showcase for my work, a kind of online portfolio for potential clients to have a look at what I do. But that’s all about me.  I think it should be real — about you, too.

You know who you are, dear reader. You write, you make art, you’ve dreamed all your life of making those visions inside your head real for other people to see and enjoy. But you’ve been told, or come to believe, that — here it comes: real people don’t do that. They get jobs in safe professions. They work and take care of family members and children and saye for retirement. And that other self, that yearning, hungry creative heart, gets shoved into a little room in the brain, locked away for — someday.

Maybe you’re a midlife woman with a story to tell but your days are consumed by taking care of a mother with Alzheimers and preteen kids.  Maybe you’re a twentysomething whose family wants you to go to law school not art school.  Maybe you just retired and you finally have time to do — what?  Maybe you’re eighty and the fire has never gone away.

I am you. I’ve met you in writing class after writing class.  And this site and all its pretty words and pictures don’t mean much if they don’t speak to you.. Not me. We’ve all heard the saying about switching horses in midstream. But to get on the right horse that may be the very best thing to do. So here I am, switching horses from that carefully constructed showcase to a messier, freer animal that aims to help all those other longing, frustrated dreamers out there.

So here’s the deal. New posts twice a week and  a new online mag once a month that’ll hopefully help feed the fire of your dreams with stories,  information and advice about making those visions live. I’ll share what I know as an indie publisher/designer and longtime creative writing teacher (and I hope, a badass in training). I don’t have all the answers.  In some ways I’m figuring it out as I go along. But if you need some backup on your journey, keep in touch.  I’ll never misuse your contact information or try to sell you silly stuff from affiliates I don’t personally believe in. And I won’t ever send you a sales letter with those silly yellow Buy Now buttons on it.

Here’s to spring.


Argentine and the Man in Black — Now On Kindle

April 27th, 2013

It’s finally here — Argentine and Sixkiller are out in the world, available on Amazon Kindle and Amazon Kindle Select.  It’s the first book in the Meridian cycle. with two more planned — On Crow Water and Wild Card. The trailer, designed by LunaBlue Graphics, uses vintage photographs and high contrast black and sunset colors for an elegant and surreal feel. And of course el gatillo, that little skeletal cat, hints at what’s inside.

What’s In a Name?

March 24th, 2013

When I was sixteen, I had my first  regular writing gig — a weekly gardening column in a local shopper-type newspaper.  The editor wanted me to create a cute alias to write it under — a ‘sway-do-nym,’ as she put it.  I don’t recall if that was because of my age or to hide the fact that I had no gardening experience whatsoever.  But I didn’t want to write that way. The journalist in me understood the value of clips even then.

I won. The column came out under my name.  And ever since, I’ve been aware of the need to have continuity in your identity if you are writing or creating art.  That’s not to say that as artists we can’t change that identity — remember the artist formerly known as Prince? But there has to be some sort of link between yourself and your work that continues.  I’m reflecting on this now because the first of the Moon Road books is due to come out for Amazon Kindle in a couple of weeks and the link between it and my previous work has been severed.

My fiction, nonfiction and poetry that was traditionally published appeared under the name Carla Jean Eardley.  But on a rainy December night in 2008, Carla Jean Eardley ceased to exist.  My husband, Ken Eardley, died that night, and so did that part of my identity.  Carla Eardley had been created through marriage to Ken,  and  I believed she didn’t have a place in a world without him.  So I took an old family name — McKinney — for my own.

And that has meant building an entirely new creative identity too.  All  my published work since early 2009 has been produced as CJ McKinney or Carla Jean McKinney.  The new books will be too.  If you like what you read and you want to track down my earlier works, you’ll find them under Eardley, not McKinney.  No pseudonym required.

Outsourcing Your Novel — The Ultimate Cheat

February 23rd, 2013

Psst –want to be an author — but you’re too busy to write? Hate writing? Don’t know your adverb from a hole in the ground?  Why, there are thousands of freelance writers out there ready and eager to write your book for you — cheap.

That’s the message I’ve been seeing again and again in my inbox, as marketer after marketer offers surefire advice on how to kill the Kindle market,  become a thought leader, get rich with information products. And the trend doesn’t stop there. If  you visit just about any freelancer’s site you’ll find jobs posted for writing books of all kinds — including fiction.

Fiction? Yes.  Alongside the usual suspects of how-to, self-help and inspirational books people are also outsourcing their short stories and novels –erotica, science fiction, kid lit, all of it.  And that’s really pretty creepy.

Now, ghostwritng has been around for a long time, letting vain celebrities be “published” without having a clue how to write the thing.  It’s almost a time honored profession.  But the reason the new trend of outsourcing creativity for marketing and SEO purposes seems so disturbing is that it so devalues the writing process, the creative impulse — and the many writers out there grubbing for subsistence.

In the main, though, it could be argued that commissioning an ebook that relates to one’s business isn’t any different than paying an advertising copywriter. And it’s true, sometimes people have stories that need to be shared, but don’t have the writing skills to make it work on paper.  Not everybody’s a wordsmith after all. But that kind of job isn’t what’s happening here.

The problem comes when high-profile marketing gurus who profess to be making millions off their information products proudly advise newbies about how to get massive amounts of books and articles out on the cheap without ever touching finger to keyboard — all by outsourcing to an anonymous writer for virtually pennies. And even there, one could make the ghostwriting argument, were it not for the dismal fees being paid to the writers these “experts” are so eagerly exploiting.

But — novels? Come on.  Outsourcing your novel, or a collection of short stories, is the ultimate cheat, a slap in the face to every writer who’s been claimed by an idea and serves  it diligently with passion and time and effort.   It’s the lazy person’s way to fame — born on the back of a low paid writer who’ll do that job because a few bucks is a few bucks, the bills need to be paid and at least it’s writing work (ask me how I know this mindset).  Sort of like scoring an A on your math test because you bribed the class brain to take it for you.

The devaluing of writers continues as long as attitudes like this prevail: get rich quick as an “author” while paying someone a fraction of what the project is worth, with no credit at all for the work.   Even celebrity ghostwriters usually get a mention! And so goes the devaluing of the craft itself.

If these faux authors are too lazy or uninispired to put in the real sweat and heartbreak of bringing characters into the world and nursing them to life, they have no business passing themselves off as writers. That’s cheating everybody involved, including themselves.

OK, rant’s over.  Much as Carol Tice targets content mills i’ll be hopping on this particular high horse from time to time.   Comments welcome.



Fiction or Non — All Writing is Creative

December 23rd, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from the editor of a new magazine. She had an article assignment to offer me, but she’d visited my site and had some concerns about my ability to do the job because I’m a fiction writer too. Did I understand, she said, that the article had to use facts, and that I couldn’t just make things up?

After a moment’s stunned silence, I told her in reassuring tones that i had a background in journalism and had written many articles like the one she was proposing, and that I had indeed used reliable sources for all of them.

“Oh,” she said, sounding a little relieved. ” Just so you know, we just can’t have made up stuff And no ‘I,’ either.”

“Oh no,” I said soothingly. “This is reportage, not fiction. Third person — he, she — all the way. Sources and all that. Just like the newspapers.”

“Just so you know,” she repeated. “Because you write stories.”

Well. In the wordcrafting biz you do meet all kinds. Leaving aside the question of how this individual ended up behind an editor’s desk, the exchange got me thinking about how it does seem to reveal some notions about writers — to wit, that we ca’t tell the difference between fact and fiction and that we aren’t professional enough to have a decent grasp of the tools of our trade.
Every beginning writing class I’ve ever taught has included two commandments: know your audience. And know your purpose. Those two things will guide you  to choose the right tools from your “toolbox” of writers’ implements.  Short story?  Whip out your plot developer.  Oh, and grab that character sketch while you’re at it.  Nonfiction magazine article?  Rummage in the box for the journalism kit.  You’ve got ‘em all at your disposal.
Someone once said that good writes write what needs to be written.  I could add, “and the wisdom to know the difference.”   We all create  from our unique skills and interests; they inform everything we do, whether writing fiction or non.  But as pros in the field, we can reaspnably be expected to know the difference between the two.

And yet, fiction has been called “the lie that tells the truth.” Our characters enact stories that, to be effective, need to be fleshed out enough to make the reader feel as if the elements ring true, whether they concern today’s life in Manhattan or the confines of a space station in the next millennium.  Just because somebody never existed, that doesn’t make them less real.  Sometimes they’re more so than the people we meet every day. If that’s true, it’s a tribute  to the writer’s skill.

That same writer’s skill transforms facts and statistics into a smooth informative read.  It’s what we do.  And there isn’t a clear line between fiction and nonfiction.  It’s more like a spectrum, reflecting the extent to which the various parts of the piece have a direct correspondence with reality outside of the piece itself. Truman Capote is said to have writing the first exemplar of what’s known as creative nonfiction, a genre that deliberately brings the tools of fiction into the nonfiction world and blurs the spectrum considerably.

I accepted the article assignment.  No first person and real-life stuff all the way. And maybe the editor’s worry about whether I’d make stuff up reveals a lot about the nature of story. It needs to be vivid, compelling and authentic, whether it’s a recreation of worlds that never were or a reflection of the world around us.

Independent Author Index is Live on Amazon!

August 19th, 2012

compilation cover imageIt’s live!

Recently I had the opportunity to submit some short stories in support of a brand-new publishing initiative undertaken by my friend Faydra D. Fields.  Called the Independent Author Index Short Story Compilation, Volume 1, it’s designed to give new writers some much-needed exposure while also affording the same to some of us more seasoned hands who are just entering the digital publishing world of online short fiction.

Faydra has produced the first in this series of short story compilations for Amazon Kindle, and it’s  available for download via Amazon’s website. Priced at $2.99, the collection features 16 authors (including Faydra herself) with fiction ranging from the chilling and the macabre (that’s me) to the tender and heartwarming. Something for everyone.

Plus!  The stories come with ratings: G, PG, etc. just like the movies. The submission page for the anthology asks each author to rate their work to help readers find just the content they want to read.  I’m generally opposed to that kind of labeling but if it helps attract readers who can be assured that they’ll find content within their comfort zones, then it works.  For the record I rated myself a PG 13.

The anthology has a lovely look, too.  For the cover, Faydra has created the look of a bookcase, with individual covers representing the stories filling up the shelves. Each work has its own image, carefully crafted to suggest the contents of the piece. The “cover” for my story, “Two Magicians” has two spiders silhouetted in a bright spotlight, rearing back with legs raised in a combative posture.cover image for "Two Magicians" It’s a wonderful use of graphics to tap the metaphorical and representational levels of a work.  The cover suggests something ominous and strange without overloading it with literal images from the story. There’s also a feel of opposition, challenge, anger. It’s wonderful. cover image for "Cold Wind"

The cover for my second story, “Cold Wind” also evokes the story’s central image of young men dying in their prime during wartime, with a black and white image, in soft shades of grey, of a veteran’s cemetery.  The other images for the remaining short stories are just as vivid and effectively telegraph just enough of what the story is about to entice readers.

Volume Two is on the way and Volume Three is in the works as well. Faydra is working hard to bring maximum exposure for writers in the digital age — and doing an amazing job.  The Independent Authors Index Short Story Compilation,  Volume 1 is definitely worth a read.