Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Best Way to Keep One’s Word is Not to Give It

Let’s talk about promises.

Napleon loans us the title of this post, “The Best Way to Keep One’s Word is Not to Give It“.  Another one I like a lot, is “Promises are like babies:  easy to make, hard to deliver.”  (Sorry, that one is anonymous.  I’ve got to wonder why?)

So, what do promises have to do with writing?  Any number of things from keeping your deadlines to letting a friend read.  But for our purposes today, I want to deal with the promises we make to our readers.

Elsewhere I’ve written about Dead (not Red) Herrings.  These are a form of broken promise to your reader, and while they are not that uncommon, they are a sign of sloppy work.  A Dead Herring is a musket you put on the mantle, but never took down and fired. 


Books are huge—and sometimes rambling—things.  Keeping track of all of the promises you make to your readers can be a daunting experience.  Finding a way to do so is essential.  No dropped clue can evaporate, no foreshadow or hint can go undelivered.

I’ll use another quote, something out of the California “beans, rice and enlightenment” era.  “It is OK to not to promise.  It is NOT OK to break your promise.”

There are any number of ways to keep track of the promises you make to your reader.  For example:

  • Use a Story Board.  Sometimes done with sheets of paper taped together, sometimes on a roll of paper, with colored lines and symbols marking important points along the line of the story.
  • Create a spreadsheet, either on paper or using your computer, and do roughly the same as above.
  • I like to use yWriter, a specialized word processor for writers that keeps track of items, characters and locations, as well as helping format your work.  See my writeup.

However you keep track of the atoms of your work, your Dead Herrings, your Muskets on the Wall, DO keep track of them. 

I’ll be watching.

Your thoughts?


Give Your Reader the Gift of Vision

  If you have ever listened to a radio drama, raise you hand.  No, not you.  Audio books don’t count for this piece.  I’m asking if you have ever listened to a story that was designed to be told over the radio?

Hmm.  Not as many as I’d hoped.  That’s OK, I’ll explain the best I can.

In the early days of commercial radio, the choices you had for entertainment were few.  There as music, news, and live stories.  The stories were Comedy, Mystery, Westerns, a little Science Fiction, and of course the Classics of Literature simplified to be presented in a 30 minute show. 


What does this have to do with you?  Not much.  Not directly, at least.  It does show one important thing, however.  The old radio programs, for the most part, did not need one thing.  Description.

Oh, sure, there was a bit.  The narrator might say something like “…the shapely blond walked in and sat down on the bar stool…”, or “…the captain looked sharp in his uniform…”  But that was about it.  Most description was done with the use of sound effects, or off-hand comments, like  “…when’d you grow that mustache?”   The effect was that you, the listener, had to supply faces, settings, the works, using the power of your imagination.

While it is true that this is no longer necessary, it is still worth thinking about. 

Yes, you can describe to your heart’s content in a short-story or novel, and yes we are now accustomed to seeing huge, colorful, and miraculous things on movie screens.  Here’s the question: Can you imagine a situation where not describing your main character—or keeping the setting description to a minimum might be a good idea?

Consider how much more difficult it is for a reader to identify with a character who is described as looking nothing like the reader him- or herself.    Over-describing a room, a painting on a wall (unless it is well-known), an outdoor setting, and other things that a writer might spend a lot of time on, all can be touched only lightly.  This allows readers to create the people and the settings from their memories and experiences of the world.  I submit that this makes a novel more accessible.

Further, consider that long descriptive passages, unless you are very good at it, will slow the pace of your story, and that some readers will skip over those passages completely.

Finally, no I am not suggesting that you do away with description.  I am suggesting that you look at each piece of work as a separate entity, and decide if you are going for fast pace and familiarity, or for a more formal, and relaxed pace, and write your description appropriately.

Your thoughts?

World Building: Revisited – Part 20

Continued from Part 19

New to this project: Start with Part 1

  Part 20: Whence the People?

Terrestrial history shows us that nearly every culture has its own unique set of Creation stories.  As fascinating as those are, this time we want to discuss how the people actually came to being on your planet.

There is room for many possibilities if you are pursuing a scientific origin, and a great many more if your world is one of fantasy. 

For example, in a fantasy world there is no reason your people should not spring from the pollen of a great flower or the tail of a comet as it passes your planet.

If you are going the scientific route, you will want to consider:

  • Natural evolution
  • Placement by an older alien race
  • Marooned voyagers
  • Colonization

No matter how your people actually got to your world,  they are likely to have a very different view of what happened.  Even in the case of colonization from distant–and advanced–world, a colony cut off from the “mother world” for a long enough period, may easily slip into a belief that “human” life began on the world on which they stand. 

Why does it matter if you know how people actually came to your world?  It might not.  However, a story where the truth of that origin must be revealed, being clear can make all the difference.

Also, as I’ve said before (and will likely repeat), the more you know about the people you describe, the more realistic your story will feel.  Personally, I prefer a well-reasoned and developed back-story.

So, what will it be?  Will you start you planet pre-peopled, so to speak?  Will you bring them in a colony ship?  Will the secrets, the science behind their origins be lost in the past?  You get to say.

Continued in Part 21

Tenebrous: Word of the Day

 Tenebrous, adj.

Dark, gloomy.

The Choir Master’s tenebrous mood had begun to diminish the quality of the music at performances.

alternate usage:

“I think you may have the biggest family I’ve ever seen”

“Yeah,” he said gloomily.  “I’ve got six sisters, and tenebrous.”

How will you use tenebrous in a sentence today?

Writing, and the Programmer’s Syndrome

 Certainly, not everybody had tried their hand at computer programming, or has opened one up to gaze at, and perhaps mess with its electronic guts, but it is almost certain that anyone who has used a computer for any length of time has fallen prey to either—or both— of the two components of the Programmer’s Syndrome.

Briefly, the parts of the syndrome look like this: 

1. “My project is the biggest, best, and most important thing ever.  Everybody wants, needs, and will love what it is I am doing.”

2. “I know exactly what I mean, so by extension, everybody else knows exactly what I mean.  No further explanation required.”

As writers, I”m assuming that you can get what I mean, especially for item 2, above.  No?  You mean I just DID item 2?  Imagine that.

Allow me to extend.  Almost by definition we, writers, fall in love with the work we do.  We even love the work we hate, and if you think about that, I’m guessing you’ll agree.  We become so wrapped up in our work, living it, breathing it, being in the work to the point of near exclusion of all else.  It makes sense.  When you cut off most of the rest of the world to concentrate on one thing, that thing should be important.

What we forget is that except in the most special of cases, our spouses, partners, children, parents, friends and pets do not share our deep-set involvement with our work.  In fact, many only give lip-service to what it is we devote our lives to.  And, if we manage to pull ourselves out of it long enough to notice, it hurts a bit.

Here’s the deal, unless you are extraordinarily lucky, nobody will love your work like you do, no matter what they might claim.

If this sounds a bit like sour grapes, forgive me.  That is not my point.  The truth is the only real support a new, unpublished writer gets is from two sources.  The community of writers you have managed to link up with, and yourself.

I’m guessing—I’m hoping—that this will change some day.

Finally, I expect there are among you, people who either have that wonderful support already, or at least believe they do because that is far better than the alternative.

Celebrate your on-line support staff.  They know who you are, what you’re doing, and even better, what you are going through.

Your thoughts?

The Things You Have to Do in Order to Do the Things You Need to Do…

There really wasn’t room for the complete title.  It should have been, “Doing the things you have to do in order to do the things you need to do in order to do the things you want to do.

Sometimes getting the clutter out is a trap, a way to keep from getting to the real work, the writing.  Sometimes the things that need to be done are a conjunct.  For example, as a serious writer you do need two things that are only peripherally related to your work.  A blog and a web site


In her guest speaking appearance at the Fremont branch of the California Writers Club, literary agent Verna Dreisbach suggested a good many things that writers that intend to sell their work need to do, among them is the blog and web site.

If you’re already blogging, or have a web site (or, joy of joy, both), good job!

If you are missing a blog, WordPress or Blogger both offer free platforms, and with both you can have a blog up and running in 10 minutes or less.  There is an incredible number of sites that will help you make up your mind about how to start and run your blog.  Even (cough, cough), my series on blogging, “Blogging 101

Putting up your own web site is a bit more complicated.  While there are a good many services that promise free websites, they tend to look unprofessional.  Building your own site may be a bit more difficult—requiring the help of others if you are uncomfortable with the design and implementation process—but, as with the blog, will pay off handsomely in the end.

Finally, you will want to create a page on Facebook, and get a twitter account—at the very least.  These are two very easy ways to augment your on-line presence, and getting yourself known in the Universe (A.K.A., the Internet) will make all the difference once you move to publish.  The publishers don’t do it all for you any more, folks.  It’s time to start building your reputation.

Your thoughts?

World Building: Revisited – Part 19

Continued from Part 18

New to this project: Start with Part 1

  Part 19: Where do we stand?

     The first 18 days of our journey into World Building have brought us pretty far.  We’ve looked at stars, and made suggestions about planetary orbits.  We’ve considered gravity and touched on atmosphere.  We’ve looked at our planet from space as well as up close.  We have seen the creation of land masses, seas, lakes and rivers.  Most recently we have toyed with the plants and animals that might feed our people–or feed on them.  But what we’ve missed are the people themselves.

In the case of most “made worlds” the writer actually starts with the people who will live there already in mind.  The writer has an idea of the races that will inhabit the planet, what they look like, how they got there–did they evolve on this new world?  Were they dropped off by aliens or Gods?  Are they colonists from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”? 


If your people are already formed… if their Cosmology and Creation Stories are in place, waiting to be activated, you may want still want to continue along with me.  Consider this a kind of cultural checklist for your new inhabitants.

I wonder how many writers take the time and trouble to create a whole world for their characters?  Some most certainly do.  J. R. R. Tolkien took components from myths and stories that came before him, and he built on them to create his world of Hobbits and Ring-wraiths, Middle Earth and Arda.  Another wonderfully conceived world appears in “A Voyage to Arcturus“, by Scottish writer, David Lindsay–a lesser known book, but a fascinating read.

When we started this journey we questioned the need for world building, and I want to question it again.  If you have followed this narrative, and perhaps even begun the slow and complex process of forming a world of your own, you can see it will take time, dedication, imagination, and a full-on sense of purpose.

Suggestion, inference and hints,  may serve you for your worldly backdrop.  If your story is character-driven, one that could be transported to any place and time, you may not need to draw a world to set it against at all.

But if the world itself is a character… if the creatures, the land, the seas, or the storms play an important part in your tale… if the history of your people, their culture, their fears, their religions, superstitions, poetry and mythology are needed to frame your narrative…  Then, carry on, world builder!  Carry on.

Continued in Part 20