Guest Post – A. R. Kavli

Today I’m pleased to host American author, A. R. Kavli, who is going to talk about narrating his own audiobooks. Around a year ago, I was dipping my toes into the audiobook market for the first time and faced the same considerations he’s going to discuss, so it’s a topic I find particularly interesting. Over to A. R.

DIY Audio

Let me start by saying that I’m at the beginning of my audiobook production journey. An audio amateur, if you will. But I can explain what seems to work for me, and sometimes it can be helpful to hear what others have experienced.

I was recently convinced by various articles and podcasts to try my hand (mouth?) at narrating. Audio is a growth market worthy of investigation for indies. Initially, royalty share options sounded like a dream: get an audio book made with no down payment and no work. Royalty share comes with two big drawbacks, as it turns out. One being that your book is locked in a seven-year, ACX exclusivity contract. The other is that narrators will have to believe your book will make money.

Both were issues for me, so I looked into DIY audio. Any endeavor requires money or time. I’m short on both, but I can wrangle more time than money at this point. So I bought an entry-level set up with mic, mic stand and preamp, and proceeded to learn what I could about the craft. I purchased a couple of online courses and have spent many hours on YouTube learning all about mouth clicks, mic position, and using Audacity to record, edit and master my audio.

There are some steep learning curves. And it is hard work. But I kept my goal in mind and when I gained some competence, I found recording enjoyable—despite my profanity-strewn outtakes. At this point I’ve only recorded my own work, but I think in the future, and with a bit more experience, I might put my toe in the market as a narrator.

Recording a full-length novel is a marathon. That makes it harder to maintain a constant sound day-by-day or month-by-month. I have two main, non-American accents in my novel, one Slavic, one French. On those days where I was struggling, my characters sounded like Count Chocula and Pepé Le Pew.

Less is definitely more when it comes to accents.

Editing the audio files is relatively easy. You have to listen and watch the track to each file, though. I’ve found noises I could hear but not see, and noises that showed up in the waveform that I couldn’t hear. It can be laborious to listen to the same track again and again, but think about how the listener will feel. When you have to later record over something to fix a mistake, it can be difficult to match the original voice qualities.

I still struggle with mouth clicks, both while reading and while mastering. You can’t get rid of them all, but I’ve learned how to adjust my speaking in a way to reduce the problem. Thank you, YouTube.

My cozy recording booth consists of a laptop set on my dresser surrounded by a PVC frame draped with a thick comforter.

I work in my bedroom corner, with roads nearby outside. It doesn’t keep out the noise, so I have to pause whenever someone wants to show off how loud their truck gets. Nor does my booth keep out the stomping kids, barking dog, or my own gastrointestinal misadventures. But it treats my recording space enough for a good, clean background noise level.

I enjoy the process, despite the extra work and frustrations of my DIY set-up. I think you have to enjoy it to keep at it for the long run. It is time-consuming and surprisingly exhausting. Oh, and my air conditioner has to be turned off, too. Very noisy.

I made the rookie mistake of deciding I didn’t need a final edit, then recorded my audio. In the course of that read, I came across many mistakes. I hired a final proofread and it turned up more word changes than I expected. My work was riddled with overused and improperly used words. Or, more accurately, it was a handful of words misused throughout. I knew there were comma issues, but dang. I’ve decided it would produce a better product—and probably be the same amount of work—to record the book over. And, I could apply the things I learned along the way to the beginning chapters.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I love the work, and I think you really must love it to be able to stay in it for the long term. Just like writing.

I’m hoping to finish the audio production in time to match the ebook and paperback release of my novel, With Our Dying Breath. It is already up for pre-order (reduced price for pre-order) in ebook format, with a release date of Aug 31, 2019.

A.R. Kavli is a U.S. Navy veteran, author, gamer, and long-time fan of all things science fiction and fantasy. His first paid writing projects were for role-playing game companies and his first book was published in 2011. He lives in Middle Tennessee with his wife of 24 years and four children.

Please visit arkavli.com/my-books to purchase and for more information on his work.

 

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 4

Here’s the next post about the wonderful world of grammar, he says to accompanying groans. Actually, it can be a fascinating world. No, really. I’ve been recently engaged in editing for indie authors, which I enjoy, and it’s been having a beneficial effect on my own understanding of how grammar works.

My grasp of grammar comes from a lifelong love of reading and writing. I can read something and instinctively know when a grammatical mistake has been made. However, I didn’t study English at a high level (my degree is in law) and so my ability to explain the error is lacking, especially when it comes to using the correct technical terms. Yet, when editing, I often find myself having to explain the reason for a suggested correction. That is when I turn to the style guides—I use Chicago and Oxford style manuals—and then try to couch the reason in layman’s terms.

I thought it might be fun (yeah, yeah, I have a strange idea of fun) or, at least, useful to explain some of the more common errors I come across while reading and/or editing indie work. (Not, I hasten to add, that these errors are entirely confined to books by independent authors, but I think most people would accept that they are much less commonly found in traditionally published works since they tend to go through more rounds of professional editing.)

I’ll deal with two of the more common ones I come across in this piece. There are plenty of others to discuss in future instalments. (Seriously, stop groaning.)

Run-on Sentences

The humble comma has a multitude of uses. It separates items in a list, it can be used for parenthesis (where a stronger break as indicated by an em dash isn’t required), it punctuates speech, it breaks up wordy sentences into more easily readable chunks, it denotes a slight pause. There are more uses, but that’s enough to be going on with.

What is not a function of the comma is to join two complete sentences. That is the job of a semicolon (sometimes a colon) or em dash, or conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’, etc. I see this sort of construction regularly:

John was exhausted, he fell over.

‘John was exhausted’ and ‘he fell over’ are two complete sentences. You could rewrite the example properly as, ‘John was exhausted. He fell over.’

The author has tried to make the comma do the work of the semicolon. It’s sometimes known as a ‘comma splice’. There are plenty of ways to merge these sentences without abusing the poor comma:

John was exhausted, so he fell over.

John was exhausted and he fell over.

John was exhausted; he fell over.

John was exhausted—he fell over.

More creatively:

John was so exhausted, he fell over.

Since John was exhausted, he fell over.

You get the point (and I’m fed up of writing about John and his problems).

Another incorrect use of the comma is to use it to splice two clauses linked by adverbs such as ‘nevertheless’ and ‘therefore’. So, the grammatically correct translation of the famous philosophical statement attributed to Descartes is not ‘I think, therefore I am’, but ‘I think; therefore I am’. On that profound note, let’s move on.

Like v As

Consider this (admittedly lowbrow) sentence:

I felt scared, like I was about to shit myself.

Not the most edifying of sentences, but is there anything wrong with it grammatically? The answer is, technically, yes.

Ah, technically. So here, according to Chicago, is the technical reason:

‘[Like’s] traditional function is adjectival, not adverbial, so that like governs nouns and noun phrases.’ There’s more, a lot more, but you’ll have to look it up yourself.

In essence, traditional grammar dictates that ‘like’ shouldn’t be used before a verb phrase, such as ‘I was about to shit myself’. Instead, the conjunction should be ‘as if’ or ‘as though’:

I felt scared, as though I was about to shit myself.

On the other hand, this would be grammatically correct:

I felt scared, like a man about to shit himself.

‘a man about to shit himself’ is a noun phrase (i.e. ‘man’ is a noun and the remaining words modify it) and so ‘like’ can properly link it to the preceding clause.

I imagine some writers reading this and shaking their heads, thinking, “What the heck is he wittering on about? I use ‘like’ all the time in the way he’s condemning without any problems.”

Such is your prerogative. However, far better to break grammatical rules through educated choice rather than ignorance. In other words, know the rules before deciding to break them. At least, then, if an irritated reviewer tears you a new one, you’ll know why.

And I’d strongly recommend breaking them sparingly. You’re far more likely to run foul of a disgruntled reader through constant disregard of the rules than by the occasional informed decision to break them.

That’s enough about grammar for today. No doubt there’ll be another post along in a while. Groan away—I can take it.

Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 1

I’ve posted a few serious pieces in recent months—marketing, editing, etc.—so thought it was time for a bit of light relief; something more frivolous, a little tongue in cheek. What follows are my random musings on the believability, or not, of the stories I enjoy reading, watching and writing.

Most of the stories I write are utter bunkum. Complete tosh. They are, at best, highly unfeasible. If readers took me to task and claimed that some of the scenarios in my tales are totally impossible, quoting scientific evidence to support their position, I’m not going to argue with them. Why would I? They’re right.

But then, we don’t expect horror or fantasy tales to be necessarily possible, though there are still unspoken rules to do with internal consistency and logic. On the other hand, many readers of science fiction expect stories labelled as such to at least be possible if feasible technological advances were made, or if certain conditions pertained that don’t exist here but that might exist in a solar system or galaxy outside our own.

The human brain is marvellously complex. It operates on many levels. (That’s got me thinking about Shrek, insisting to a sceptical Donkey that ogres have layers, like onions.) When we settle down to read a horror novel, or to watch The Walking Dead or a Harry Potter film, we do so in full knowledge that what we are about to read or watch is, from a rational viewpoint, a load of nonsense. Utter bunkum. Yet we lap it up and go back for more.

Yes, it’s known as suspending our disbelief. Although on some level we are fully aware that the storyline or plot device is far-fetched, that it ought to make us pull a face like the cat in the photo above, we’re willing and able to believe in it for the purposes of being entertained. Or, at least, we’re willing to not so vehemently disbelieve it that it would prevent us from continuing to watch or read.

I think there’s a line, the placement of which will vary from person to person, beyond which our willingness to suspend disbelief becomes stretched to breaking point. At that moment, what we are being asked as readers or viewers to swallow becomes too much, it becomes too ridiculous, and we’re no longer willing to play along. The best fiction writers and screenwriters, the best TV and film directors, are those with the ability to embroil their audience in the work so completely that the line is pushed farther and farther away. Perhaps so far away some of us may never reach it.

And there’s this: no matter how incredible something may be, it can be exciting to allow yourself to imagine it’s possible. We all realise that dolls can’t be possessed by evil spirits, that immortal humanoids living off blood don’t exist, that aliens don’t live among us waiting for a signal to trigger our extinction. We know that people who have died don’t get up and walk around—the thrill lies in supposing, but what if they did?

Not sure what you’d call that level which allows us to be enthralled by fantastical stories. Fanciful? Imaginative? Whatever you want to call it, it’s the part of me I most cherish. It’s the part that takes over when I pick up a Stephen King novel or turn on the TV for Game of Thrones. It’s also firmly in control when I sit at the computer to write.

When I allow my imagination free rein, I picture my rational side shuffling off to a corner to sit with arms folded, pretending to sulk. But really he’s watching what I’m up to, ready to leap to his feet like a lawyer in an American courtroom drama and yell, “Objection! That’s too ludicrous even for you!” When that happens, I usually take notice. Usually.

That’s one of the good things about being a writer. Particularly a writer of the sort of speculative fiction usually pigeon-holed as horror or fantasy or science fiction. It’s make-believe taken to the extreme. If I want to have my characters able to travel beyond the speed of light, or journey through time and space in an elevator, or encounter ghosts or zombies or a vampire masquerading as Father Christmas, I can. It’s fiction. It’s made up. It’s utter bunkum.

The aim for us writers is to spin the yarn in such a way that the reader is willing to come along for the ride and is able to overlook the bunkumness (is that even a word?) of the story. It’s what makes successful authors successful. Especially in the speculative fields I mentioned earlier: horror, fantasy, etc. I mean, when you strip them back to the bare bones, many celebrated novels of those genres are, at their core, utter bunkum. Yet, they’re massively popular, and rightly so because they’re so well written and entertaining.

In Part 2, I’ll take a look, for a bit of fun, at some of my favourite works of utter bunkum.

Till then…

Guest Post – Zachry Wheeler

Today I’m hosting the author of a novel I read a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed. And it’s in development to be made into a feature film—seriously, how cool is that? (he says, without a trace of envy.) The novel is Transient and the author is Zachry Wheeler. He recently hosted me on his blog (that was fun) and it’s good to return the favour. He’s going to talk about a subject on which I’ve written a couple of posts myself: self-editing. Beneath Zachry’s piece you’ll find plenty of links to his website, social media and books so you can find out more about him. Enough from me—over to Zachry.

 How Many Edits Does It Take?

Ah, the age old question. How many edits does it take to get to the center of a good manuscript? As with everything else in writing, the answer is crisp, clear, and concise: it depends. I hope you enjoyed reading this useless post and I look forward to your frustrated hate mail.

But seriously, it’s a difficult question to answer because it depends on a ton of factors. I lost count of the editing rounds with my debut novel Transient. When it came time to edit my second novel, Max and the Multiverse, I had graduated from complete hack to competent author and knocked it out in a dozen passes. Today, I edit down my manuscripts with a tried and true strategy. For me, and I cannot stress the me part enough, I have learned that it takes four major editing passes: Content, Format, Verbal, and Polish.

Content editing should be self-explanatory. You edit for content. This includes fleshing out detail, adjusting pace, fixing structural issues, deleting anything that doesn’t make sense or push the story forward, anything that gives your narrative a clear direction. Usually, my first draft is about 3/4 the word count of the finished product. I add the other 1/4 during content editing. In fact, I sometimes add notes in the first draft like [need more detail about the pickle] and come back to it after completion.

Content editing takes about as much time as writing the first draft. After this round, my story is complete.

Format editing is when I take the results of content editing and dump them into a formatted file that I will use for publication, usually a tricked-out Word document. I set margins, select fonts, add titles, credits, dedications, headers, page numbers, all that tedious stuff. Once I have everything in place (and technically ready to print), I start a fresh round of editing and adjust anything that is not pleasing to the eye. Sometimes it’s a simple word choice. Other times it’s a complete rearrangement of a paragraph or scene.

Format editing takes about half the time of content editing. After this round, my narrative is complete.

Verbal editing is when I read the entire novel out loud and adjust anything that is not pleasing to the ear. You would be amazed at how many errors you uncover by simply vocalizing the words you have written. Your ears have a way of uncovering linguistic quirks that don’t sound right. It might look good on paper, but your ears will tell you things like “no human talks that way” or “this phrase makes you sound like a pirate.”

Verbal editing takes about half the time of format editing. After this round, my manuscript is complete.

Polish editing is quick and easy. This is when you and your find/replace become best friends. You start at the top of your manuscript and search for all those dumb little mistakes that manage to slip through committee. Things like double spaces or inverted quotes or there/their/they’re. I keep a running list of common typos that I search for and destroy in every final manuscript. One of my common failings is using “sunk” when I mean “sank.” At least one of those bastards will make it through to the end.

Polish editing should only take a day or two. After this round, my novel is complete.

Once I complete my polishing round, it’s off to the races. I hand it over to my copy editor for one final nit-pick while I concentrate on cover design, back blurb, and all the other fun stuff that goes into getting a completed book into the hands of readers. It’s quite a daunting process, but I enjoy every second of it. Hopefully this post helped to answer that annoying question, or at the very least, give you an expectation of things to come. Best of luck and happy editing.

Links:


Amazon US
Amazon UK


Amazon US
Amazon UK

Zachry’s website (where the above article first appeared): http://www.zachrywheeler.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/zachrywheeler

Twitter: https://twitter.com/zachrywheeler

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/zachrywheeler/

Thrills and Spills

Although my reading (and writing) tastes tend towards science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, I do occasionally enjoy curling up with a thriller. By ‘thriller’ I mean the sort of fast-moving tale that’s heavy on intrigue and excitement, but that doesn’t fall primarily into some other genre like murder-mystery.

Here’s a quick look at some of my favourites, together with one or two that I felt were a bit meh. As always, these are purely my personal preferences; if I enjoyed one you didn’t, or disliked one of your favourites, that’s okay—varied tastes make life more interesting.

The first out-and-out thriller I can recall reading was Run For Your Life (also mentioned in the post about children’s books, When I was Three, I Ate Mud). I guess I must have been around nine or ten when I first read David Line’s tale about two boys who go on the run across the wintry Norfolk countryside after witnessing a murder. It captivated me to the extent that I read the book over and over again during the next four or five years until it was falling apart.

If I had to name one thriller author as my favourite, I’d have to plump for Frederick Forsyth. Every novel of his I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I’ll mention two as being superb examples of thriller writing. First, The Odessa File, the gripping tale of a journalist trying to uncover the whereabouts of a former SS concentration camp commander. Second, The Day of the Jackal, a white-knuckle ride about an attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Both novels were adapted into darned good films, starring respectively Jon Voigt and Edward Fox.


The Day of the Jackal

There’s one author of whose writing on a technical level I’m not the biggest fan, yet I’ve read most of his books. It’s very much a case of story trumping writing style. (Not, I hasten to add, that I’m criticising his writing, and not that he’d give two hoots if I was—he’s sold millions of books and stellar actors like Tom Hanks star in adaptations of his works.) I refer, of course, to Dan Brown.

When I read The Da Vinci Code, I didn’t know the theory about the Holy Grail (being careful here not to introduce spoilers) that Brown drew upon—and which subsequently led to allegations of plagiarism and a law suit, but that’s another story—and it blew me away. It resulted in a trip to my local library to borrow a book on art so I could study Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. (This was in the days before the internet was routinely used by pretty much everyone to look up pretty much anything, and it wasn’t that long ago.)


The Da Vinci Code

I also enjoyed one or two of his earlier novels, such as Deception Point, and another featuring Robert Langdon, Angels and Demons. The latter is set in Rome, a city with which I’m familiar after trips to watch Wales play Italy in the Six Nations. Brown uses many locations, such as the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, which I have visited many times. It doesn’t hurt to make a scene come alive in the imagination when you know the setting, and I enjoyed the novel in spite of the most far-fetched escape from a stricken helicopter you’re ever likely to encounter. I’m not so keen on the more recent Robert Langdon novels—in them, I feel that Brown’s tendency towards melodrama and contrived, cliffhanger chapter endings become distracting. Not enough, mind, to stop me reading each one he brings out.

Some thrillers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed but almost instantly forgotten, which hasn’t led me to rush to find other works by their authors. These include novels by Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, Harlan Coben and Clive Cussler.

Then there are many celebrated thriller authors whose books I’ve never read. Tom Clancy and Lee Child, for instance, though I have one or two of their books sitting in my tottering TBR pile. As usual, it’s a case of too many books, too little time.

There are some well-known thrillers that left me cold. The Girl on the Train I found irritating and I saw the ending coming long before the main characters did. The Firm was meh enough that I never bothered with John Grisham again. And I Am Pilgrim was filled with improbable escapes from seemingly hopeless situations and began to drag around halfway so that I was relieved to finish it. (I’m not trying to put you off reading any of these books—you might love them.)


I Am Pilgrim

I’m going to finish on a high with a few more thrillers I felt were top-class. Before I Go to Sleep is the tale of a woman whose memory resets every night when she goes to bed so that she cannot remember who she is when she awakes the next morning. How she deals with this I’ll leave you to find out—it’s an intriguing journey. The only novel of John Le Carre’s I’ve read is The Little Drummer Girl, but I hope it won’t be the last. It’s an edgy story of a young actress recruited by Mossad to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell, and it gripped me to the end. The BBC recently made a damned fine job of adapting the novel for television. Finally, a mention of the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris isn’t as celebrated as the author’s better-known The Silence of the Lambs, but is far superior in my view. Difficult to imagine a darker, more disturbing study of human depravation, at least when it comes to fiction.


Red Dragon

Thrilling reading, folks!

Guest Post – Kath Middleton

Today I’m hosting the lovely Kath Middleton. Though we’ve never met in real life, I’ve ‘known’ Kath online from the days when she was a reviewer and great supporter of indie authors. She’s since crossed the divide and joined the writing ranks with a great deal of success. Without further ado, it’s over to Kath.

Genre

What’s a genre? People used to ask what kind of books do we like. That’s the genre. Some genres are more popular than others. Look along the shelves in your local library. Some genres cover many shelves, some one small section.

How do you become a bestselling author? Obviously you need to write a great book. It has to be literate—sounds obvious but there are books on sale that don’t follow the rules of grammar. Above all, you have to write in a popular genre.

Crime, thriller and police procedural are linked genres and are very popular with readers. Romance is another genre that sells well. I’ve read some stunning books in the Literary Fiction category, although I know that title can put people off. They expect it to be worthy or stuffy. People know what they like and steer in that direction. They don’t want to read something they are not expecting, in general. If they love science fiction they don’t really want it to end up as a bodice (or space suit) ripper. If they love horror they don’t want it ‘tainted’ with humour. If you want to write a best seller and make money, look at the top 100 books on Amazon and choose one of the most popular genres.

That said, many authors write because they need to scratch the itch. It doesn’t matter what the genre—in fact, I often don’t know what genre I’m writing till the book is finished. Even then, it may cross boundaries. Many of us, particularly independently published, write what we’re interested in. Lots of people are interested in more than one thing. I would find it tedious to have to restrict myself to one genre. I start with ‘what if?’ and move on from there.

In the days when everyone had to interest a publisher to get a book in front of an audience of readers, genre was particularly important. If a publisher accepted your thriller and it sold reasonably well, they would want another thriller. If you had an urge to write comedy, you had to suppress it. They wanted more of what would make them money—not whatever you felt the urge to witter on about this time.

Today, with indie publishing, people can follow their own interests. I know several authors who have written in more than one genre and some have written a kind of genre-mashup. A humorous thriller, a historical crime novel, a supernatural story that doesn’t dive straight into horror. Indie publishing has freed people to write what interests them, not what will guarantee big sales for a publisher.

These days I largely read indie fiction. It’s so refreshing to read what the author is driven to write, to scratch that itch. Most indies know they will never get rich. They could increase their chances by following the trends in fiction and by sticking to best-selling genres. I believe that if a writer isn’t producing books they feel strongly about, you can tell. If someone churns out books in a certain style just to make sales, there’s a deadness to the stories. I wouldn’t want to read that. I love something different and a bit edgy. Something the author is excited about. If the person who writes the book isn’t fired up with love and enthusiasm, you can hardly blame the reader for being unenthusiastic.

Let’s hear it for the genre mashups, the cross-genre books, the books you couldn’t fit into any single genre with a shoe-horn.

Oh, and the real way to make money with your writing? Ransom notes.

Links

Kath’s website: www.kathmiddletonbooks.com

To purchase Kath’s latest release: The Angel Monument

Bio
Kath Middleton began her writing with drabbles (100-word stories) and contributed a number to Jonathan Hill’s second drabble collection. It wasn’t long before she moved up a size to contribute short stories to anthologies. Shortly afterwards, she progressed to writing longer pieces and her first solo work, Ravenfold, was published to some acclaim. This was followed by the novella, Message in a Bottle. There are now several more books, from short stories to novels. Kath likes to put her characters in difficult situations and watch them work their way out. She believes in the indomitable nature of the human spirit (and chickens).
Kath is retired. She graduated in geology and has a certificate in archaeology. When she’s in a hole, she doesn’t stop digging.

How to find your way around

I’ve been blogging for a while now and the number of posts has grown. Time to pin a short post here to advise anyone unfamiliar with WordPress sites how to navigate around the blog. Let’s say you’re a writer interested in posts about marketing or grammar, you probably don’t want to be scrolling down oodles of posts you’re not interested in. There’s a search function and previous posts are archived according to month posted, but the simplest way is to use the Categories menu. It’s on the right—you might need to scroll down a little way to find it. Simply click on the category you’re interested in and you’ll be presented with the posts relevant to that subject-matter. The system’s not perfect—there are some posts that come under more than one category—but it’s the easiest method to find your way around.

Oh, and if you want to leave a comment or read existing comments, you have to be on the post’s page (by clicking its title), rather than on a page containing more than one post.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 3

“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
― Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

Another post about grammar? Yawn off, Sam.

There’s no need to be like that—I’m merely going to talk a little about some of the so-called rules that surround writing. If you frequent any forums inhabited by writers, you’ll see these ‘rules’ mentioned frequently. One or two may be more accurately described as ‘myths’, yet are held up as gospel by some. I’m going to keep this light-hearted—there are plenty of places where you can read serious discussions on these matters if you are so inclined. Let us begin…

To boldly split infinitives
We’ve all heard the rule: you should never split infinitives. Yeah, yeah, tell that to Gene Roddenberry, or whoever wrote the tagline for his most famous creation.

This edict arose from grammarians in times long gone objecting to separating the ‘to’ from the verb (to eat, to sleep, to read, etc) because the infinitive was never split in the Latin form of the verb. Well, it wouldn’t be, seeing as Latin verbs are usually only one word. A bit tricky to stick the Latin version of ‘boldly’ (audenter) into the middle of the Latin version of ‘to go’ (ire) and still have it make sense. And it wouldn’t be anywhere near as catchy.

If you want to split infinitives, go at it. There’s nothing wrong with writing, ‘I ran upstairs to quickly brush my teeth.’ But be cautious. Usually, we’re taking about separating the ‘to’ from the verb with an adverb and these ought to be used sparingly (see below). Take an example: ‘After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to briskly walk after him.’ For a start, that doesn’t sound natural to my ear—better if ‘briskly’ comes after ‘walk’. Better still, a new word could be substituted for ‘briskly walk’; there are plenty to choose from, such as stride, rush, hurry.

Liberally applying adverbs
Stephen King famously wrote: ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…’ [On Writing]. Some writers take this to mean that we should never use adverbs. Ever. Don’t believe me? Take a peek into any writers’ forum when this topic comes up and you won’t have to wait long before someone will come along and decry any use of the humble adverb, often trotting out this King quote in support of their position.

He is particularly scathing about adverbs used in dialogue tags, though he freely admits that he has been known to use them on occasion. I’ve just picked out one of his books at random from my bookshelves: Hearts of Atlantis. It took me under a minute to find an example: ‘“Go in your room, Bobby,” Ted said quietly.’

“No, no, no!” the naysayers will protest. “The phrase ‘said quietly’ should become ‘whispered’ or ‘breathed’ or ‘muttered’.” I heartily disagree. It’s about nuance: saying something quietly is not the same as whispering or breathing or muttering it.

To me, adverbs are another tool in the writer’s shed and to avoid them altogether is to unnecessarily limit our ability to paint the fullest picture with our words. Having said that, they should undoubtedly be used with care and often a better word will present itself. So slam the door rather than shut it firmly; shout rather than exclaim loudly; sprint rather than run quickly. But by all means sweat profusely if sweating alone doesn’t fully convey the image you want to portray.

He and she and they
Ah, gender-neutral pronouns. A tricky one this. Easy to use ‘they’ when referring to more than one gender-unspecified person; not so easy when referring to only one.

Historically, ‘he’ was understood to include ‘she’, but that is rightly no longer considered acceptable. Indeed, clumsy constructs like ‘he or she’ and ‘he/she’ are now regarded as non-inclusive since they exclude those who regard their gender as neither. (If you want to read more about this, there are many instructive articles out there, such as this one: how-to-use-gender-neutral-pronouns)

‘They’ seems to have become increasingly acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun when referring to only one person, even though it is, technically, a plural pronoun, not singular. It doesn’t always work well, though. Take a simple, contrived example, where the writer doesn’t want to reveal the identity of either character and so conceals their gender:
‘The murderer picked up the knife; the victim cowered. They thrust it into their chest.’

I try to get around it in my blog by writing ‘he (or she, but let’s take that as read)’. That’s no less clumsy but I can get away with it somewhere informal like a blog. And I ought probably to write ‘he (or she or any pronoun of your choice, but let’s take that as read)’ so as to include those who don’t identify with either he or she.

As for fiction writing, the best advice to avoid clumsy structures like the example above is to rewrite it.

Redundancies
A mention of a couple of my pet hates, though they’re becoming so widely used that I suspect I’m railing against them in vain.

‘PIN number’ – PIN is an acronym for Personal Identification Number so we don’t need to say ‘number’. PIN alone will suffice.

‘for free’ – free means ‘for nothing’ so we don’t need to say ‘for’. ‘You can get it free’ suffices. With this one, in particular, I know I’m not so much peeing into the wind as into a force-ten gale. They even use the expression ‘for free’ on the BBC, for goodness’ sake.

That’ll do for now. If I think of any more pet hates, I’ll include them in the next grammar post. What, another one…?

Guest Post – Maggie Plummer

Today I’m hosting another guest, the free-spirited Maggie Plummer. I’ve known Maggie (in an online sense) for a number of years and always found her bubbly and delightful. She’s going to talk about how writers can use their real-life experiences in their fiction. Over to Maggie.

Turning Life into Fiction

When You Can’t Trust Your Memory…

Authors hear this again and again: Write what you know.

For years I thought about that, wanting to write my travel stories from the 1970s. I imagined a collection of short stories that would be called Tales of a Volkswagen Gypsy or something similar. For some reason, I just couldn’t get going on the project. Then I considered writing a memoir about those years, but quickly realized that my memory is too befuddled to attempt a non-fiction book about my life.

Gradually I developed the idea of a novel loosely (and I mean LOOSELY!) based on my ‘70s wanderings. After working on it for several years, Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel is finally published and available on Amazon.

The process of turning my stories into a novel has been a revelation. It’s true what they say: truth is stranger than fiction. The thing is, fiction has to be believable.

In other words, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

There are pitfalls to avoid when writing autobiographical fiction. I think the biggest problem is a tendency to be too attached to memories. A fiction writer has to let go of the reality, and let the drama fly. The needs of the fiction must come first, no matter how fond a writer is of his/her real stories. That means:

  • Bending and stretching real people into credible fictional characters. This is especially important when the writer is the main character. Don’t forget, the novel’s protagonist has to be believable.
  • Making events fit together in a way that’s satisfying for a reader. Things must happen for a reason in a novel, moving the story forward. Always look for the conflict. A string of cool but disconnected anecdotes does not a novel make. Plan fiction with the narrative structure in mind.

The process of writing my new novel has been strikingly different from that of my two previous novels, Spirited Away and Daring Passage—both of which are historical novels set in the 1650s. As I wrote the two earlier novels, historical research played a major role in developing the novels’ plots. Bell-Bottom Gypsy, however, required that I look deeper into my story to create a plot with tension and conflict.

I not only had to embellish, I had to lie.

When it comes to writing fiction, the more dramatic the lie, the better. The thing to do is deliberately change a major element in the story. Take Twisty, my “bad guy” in Bell-Bottom Gypsy. In real life, my boyfriend was nothing like crazy old Twisty. Some of the details were similar: like Twisty, my boyfriend played guitar, sang, loved black and white photography, and was tall and dark. But his core character was totally different. My boyfriend was gentle, quiet, and mellow (in fact, sometimes he was too mellow for me! But I digress…). In order to write a decent novel, I turned him into someone edgy and potentially dangerous. It made all the difference.

Here are more tips for turning life into fiction:

  • Describe everything in detail. Too much detail can be edited out later. When writing what you know, it’s easy to forget that the reader knows nothing about you or your story.
  • Point of view can be tricky. In Bell-Bottom Gypsy, I used third person point of view, because it flowed well and I wanted Jessie, the main character, to be included in the scenes. Some writers use first person point of view in their autobiographical fiction. It might be good to experiment with both.
  • Define an enduring theme. What is the central message you want to get across? Find the story within your stories, making sure the narrative has enough depth to keep readers going.
  • Create composites. Feel free to throw the best tidbits of real life into the novel’s scenes, regardless of when they really happened.
  • Try to create a sense of distance from your experiences. I had an advantage as I wrote my new novel: the distance of time. My travel stories are from the early 1970s – almost fifty years ago! (That’s hard to believe, isn’t it?)

The main thing is, don’t be afraid to use real life in your fiction. Mine it like gold, but craft it carefully.

Then sit back and enjoy. To those who are horrified by the things that happen in your autobiographical fiction (like some might be by scenes in Bell-Bottom Gypsy), repeat after me, loudly and proudly: “It’s fiction! It’s fiction!”

Maggie Plummer is a multi-genre author based in northwest Montana. Along the winding trail, she has worked as a journalist, school bus driver, Good Humor ice cream girl, fishing boat mate, and race horse hot walker, among other things. Bell-Bottom Gypsy is her third published novel.

Links:

Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel (Kindle edition)

Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel (paperback)

Spirited Away: A Novel of the Stolen Irish

Daring Passage: Book Two of the Spirited Away Saga

To connect with Maggie:

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Guest Post – Mike Van Horn

Today I’m hosting American writer Mike Van Horn, author of the science fiction trilogy Agate and Breadbox. Here he is hard at work in Hawaii—looks tough, but I guess someone has to do it.

Over to Mike, who’s going to talk about the importance of songs in his work and how one thing can quickly lead to another.

When Life Gives You Lyrics, Make Music

I can’t sing anything more demanding than Happy Birthday. So imagine my surprise when I became a lyricist.

In my just-published book Aliens Crashed in My Back Yard, my main character and narrator—Selena M—is a singer who nurses a surviving alien back to health so she can send it home. The alien is also a singer, and that’s how they learn to communicate. They help each other recapture the passion of their singing.

I had to write snippets of lyrics for the songs that Selena sings, and come up with song titles. I used these as epigraphs at the top of chapters. Like this:

I’ve been a sweet stuff singer

All my girlie years

Airy, frothy little ditties

Full of love and tears

That’s from Cotton Candy Lovin’. Here’s another:

I’m playing with you

the game of love

and I’m losing every match.

Some of these snippets grew into verses, and then entire song lyrics. The thought came to me: if I have lyrics, I need music. But this was way beyond my skills!

I found a guy who could compose music for my lyrics, and he found a local blues singer who became the vocalist and the voice of Selena. They produced my songs and I put them up on Soundcloud. Now I have ‘sci fi with a sound track!’ I’ve written about twenty lyrics so far.

How do these get written? Two ways. Sometimes lines or couplets pop into my head. I write them down, then look for ideas that can expand them. I spend a lot of time looking for rhymes.  For example:

We all want to fly to the stars

not just staying here sittin’ on our arse.

 

You serious scientists, let me lead you astray.

Get up! Get out there! Fly into the void.

Or should we just sit here whiling away

waiting to get whacked by some asteroid?

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen stars rhymed with arse,” several have remarked.

Sometimes, after I’ve written a prose paragraph, I look at it and think, this could be turned into a song. For example, when Selena was by herself on the Moon, looking at the emptiness of space, she got the shivers:

I was beginning to feel unmoored. Not unmoored internally, exactly. Just feeling strange. More like a boat drifting out to sea. The farther it drifts, the harder it will be for it to find its way back. Perhaps it will discover new continents, but maybe it will just drift. A strange feeling came over me, and I found myself turning this chain of thought into a song.

Here’s what it turned into (first two verses):

I am unmoored.

I am adrift on the vastness of space.

Like a boat, lines cast free from the shore,

freed of land’s embrace.

Slowly drifting out to sea, 

no rudder, no compass, no map, no haste.

Across the vasty void.

Forever to infinity.

 

The farther I drift ‘cross the vasty void

the harder it will be for me

to find my way back from the endless sea

to safe harbor, to home, to thee.

I may discover new worlds out there.

Or I might just drift, ‘cross the vast nowhere.

Forever to infinity.

This is so much fun! I love creating songs like this.

I want to finish up with a story. I felt very tentative about this entire effort. Who was I to hire composers, producers, and professional singers? I sent them my lyrics and they produced music. But then they invited me to one of the recording sessions at the studio. I went as an observer.

When the vocalist was warming up in the soundproof room, she said, “Sorry guys, my voice isn’t right today. I’m a little nervous because the lyricist is here.”

The who? You mean the big lyricist smoking a cigar who arrived in a long limo? She was feeling nervous because of me, and I was suffering from imposter syndrome big-time.

Okay, so what’s the lesson here for you writers?

When creativity happens, go with it. Go with it! Go where it takes you. Don’t say, “I can’t do that.” That’s a killer. Maybe you can’t, but maybe you can.

What I found out was that I could not only spin a good tale, but I can write music.

I am a lyricist. And it’s a blast!

Let’s finish with two verses from the one that became my theme song, and the name of Book 2 of my trilogy:

My spaceship calls out to me

Come fly me home

I’m yours, you’re my skipper.

Just call and I’ll come.

Just call and I’ll come to you

The whole galaxy’s our home.

On any world anywhere

Just call and I’ll come.

This is what Selena’s spaceship says to her. Could you resist? That’s what Books 2 and 3 are about: My Spaceship Calls Out to Me and Space Girl Yearning.

 

To hear how Mike’s music came out, go to http://galaxytalltales.com and click on Sci Fi Music.

Book 1 available for Kindle on Amazon here. Paperback edition coming soon.

Book 2 due May

You can read excerpts from all three books on his site – link above