All posts by William Dempsey

Is Your Manuscript Ready to Meet the World?

By Veronica H. Hart

For the past three weeks I have been working with a publisher (small press) helping to clear a backlog of submissions. All the submissions were referred by other authors, many suggesting the submissions were “great,” and “excellent.” In the end, only two were acceptable as presented.

Several things popped out as I studied the manuscripts.

The most glaring mistake I found, even before reading the entire manuscript, was the use of passive voice. This is an easy fix. If you use Microsoft Word, run a spell check and then look at the grammar analysis (readability statistics) that pops up at the end. It will show the percentage of the manuscript in passive voice. If you go to Find and type in was, you’ll see the actual number of times you used it. One book, which sounded promising, contained 1680 uses. The author will be repairing and resubmitting at our invitation because her story is worth the effort. “Was” is not the only villain, but is the most obvious. (I’m told this is only available on Word 2013, not the older versions. If that’s your case, then start your search and examine each was, individually repairing the sentence, which you’d have to do anyway.)

Why is it bad to use passive voice? Passive voice weakens the clarity of your writing. Sometimes, it is the only way to convey your meaning; however, the active voice is more dynamic. A reader’s eyes tend to droop if there are too many passives.

The same goes for weak modifiers, such as: almost, very, pretty, actually, really, basically, probably, kind of, extremely. If you find yourself using an adverb (words ending in –ly) rethink the sentence. Rethink if you use seem, seemed, or appeared to be.

Introduce your main character right away and let the reader know he is the main character. Do not clutter your first three chapters with thirty-two characters along with their descriptions. It is important for the reader to be able to identify with your main character, be it male or female. In a thriller or horror story oftentimes the first chapter has the villain plotting his evil. But the next chapter has to be about the main character.

When developing your plot make sure it is strong enough to sustain your story all the way through. Include subplots. Layer your story. If you pass a hundred thousand words in your first novel, go back. Find out what doesn’t have to be in there. A simple way to reduce your words is to delete 10 to 15% of the words on each page. You’ll surprise yourself with how many useless words you’ve used.

Remember to provide a setting, tone, and mood for your characters to exist in.

  • The moonlight reflecting off the surface of the calm sea hides the monster lurking below.
  • Wind whipped the willow tree, lashing at the window pane, leaving Mary desperate to return to the city where the sound of sirens and horns blaring were her lullabies.

Dialogue really requires its own blog. Nearly every submission contained dialogue. Unbelievably, I received two, which did not. Of those with dialogue, the biggest error was having characters greet one another with mundane, meaningless words, which did not advance the plot.

“Hi, Frank, how are you? How’s the wife?”

“Fine, John, Mary’s well. She’s visiting her mother, so we can talk in the living room. Let me take your coat while you go sit down. I’ll get coffee.”

You can use narrative voice to get Frank settled in for the conversation.

The second, and probably equally as annoying, problem I found are characters using one another’s names throughout an exchange.

“Hi, John. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Al.”

“John, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the missing money in your ledgers.”

“Is that so, Al?”

“Yes, John, the accountant brought this to my attention.”

You get the picture. Once we know who is in the scene, there is no need to keep repeating names. Think about your own conversations. How many times do you speak the other person’s name?

Give each character a separate paragraph in dialogue.

Mechanics are equally as important as content. Before submitting, check the publisher’s guidelines. If they are not specific, then use the industry standard: one inch margins all around, double spacing, left justified, indent first paragraph half an inch, use a space break or * * * to indicate a change of time or place. Start chapters half way down the page.

A single space following the end of a sentence is the current rule. The old practice of double spacing is gone, a relic of typesetting days. Pretend you never learned it.

Read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, Chicago Manual of Style (standard for fiction), and other style books, such as Bobbie Christmas’s Write in Style.

If you pay attention to all of the above, there is a better chance an editor will at least read it.

Happy writing.

Writing the Back Cover Blurb

 

By Veronica Helen Hart

You thought writing your book was difficult. Now that it’s finished, another daunting challenge remains―writing a blurb for the back cover.

How do you reduce your book to 250 words, explain what it’s about, but not give away the ending? It’s not simple, but breaking it down into three steps makes the process easier.

Here’s what I did in my book, The Reluctant Daughters, set in the period 1865-1900.

  1. First, introduce the main character(s): I have three main characters, whom I introduce in the back cover blurb starting with the mother, “Matriarch of Steel – Elisabeth Riis,” then her daughter, “Daughter of Bitterness – Mary Ellen Riis,” followed the granddaughters of Elisabeth, “Daughters of Mystery and Hope” – Barbara and Lily.
  2. Next, introduce the problem: In this story, Mary Ellen is haunted by her past and determined to keep her children from repeating her mistakes. Her problem is a powerful politician. Mary Ellen, born to a mother who can barely stand her, turns to a life living on the edge, marries a gambler, and then turns to the low and deadly slums of opium addiction. The granddaughters find an evening of rebellious fun leads them on a trail of mystery.
  3. Finally, tell what the story is about: A teaser hints at the story line. “What does New York State Senator and presidential nominee Justin Pembroke have to do with Elisabeth’s sudden disappearance?

I used the same concept for the back cover blurb of The Prince of Keegan Bay.

  1. The main character introduction: “Based on the ancient Kushawan legend, the infant Hamilton Robbins must die before Christmas night. Seventy-year-old Doll Reynolds has other ideas.”
  2. The problem: “When the American born heir to the kingdom of Kushawa is hidden in an age-qualified retirement community, a battle of wits and tactics develops between the Kushawan Alliance of Royal Princes (KARP), determined to eliminate the infant, and a group of senior citizens known as The Blenders.”
  3. The story: The seniors, led by Doll Reynolds, risk their lives in a battle with KARP to help save the child.

If you are having trouble reducing your book to a few words, ask a friend who has read it to give you feedback on what they think your story is about. It might help you to distill your information to create an enticing blurb.

A friend wrote an incredible memoir, Afraid to Live, about how she wanted to die following drastic surgery. When it came time to write the back cover blurb, she was at a loss. The story was so personal to her, she couldn’t see the basic elements necessary. Here is my suggestion for her:

  1. The main character: Kally never wanted life-saving surgery, but when her daughters fed her tranquilizers before her appointment, though she had been determined to refuse, she went like a sheep to the slaughter.
  2. The problem: Surviving the arduous ordeal, she later decided to take a European river cruise with her sister only because they’d scheduled and paid for it the year before. During the trip Kally remains stubbornly convinced that she ought to have died.
  3. The story: Slowly as the trip progresses, she begins to find meaning in her life through not only the art she sees in the fabulous museums, but in the life and love she sees in the people around her.

The above may or may not become the back cover blurb for my friend’s book, but it will give her a place to start. Now it’s your turn. With your work-in-progress, try writing an intriguing and compelling back cover.

Veronica Helen Hart is the award winning author of six books, three published by Champagne Books, two by Double Edge Press and one self-published, Escape from Iran. Coming soon is Silent Autumn from Champagne Books. She is the writing group leader for the Daytona Writers Group (Florida Writers Association) and the facilitator for the Tough Tuesday Fiction Writers, which meets at Barnes & Noble in Daytona.

 

I See Dead People!

 

By William G. Collins

I see them everywhere. Long dead Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians—you name the civilization and I’ve seen them. All right, I admit it—I’m a writer of historical fiction. Although, I wish there was another name for the genre because how can a book be both historical and fictional?

I’ve just finished―with the help of the Daytona Writers Group―a novel about King Tut and his family. It has been the most thrilling and challenging writing experience I’ve ever had. There are others in our group who are also historical fiction writers—so I’m in good company. I thought I would share a few thoughts about the genre, which may help clear up some confusion as to what it really is.

Most agree that historical fiction began with the beginning of civilization. Writers throughout history have put their own spin on events. But for English writers, it began when Shakespeare and his contemporaries shoplifted from sources such as Holinshed, to give their plays backdrop, names, and plots, and presented these stage-worlds as the real thing. They boasted characters purporting to be historically accurate, interacting with other characters that were definitely fictional.

I remember as a teen-ager, lying on the floor of our front room, listening to the new miracle of stereophonic sound—with one speaker next to my left ear, the other to the right. There were separate sounds impinging on each ear. On the demonstration record, I could hear a ping-pong ball bounce into one ear and out the other. This only confirmed for my parents that there really was nothing between my ears to stop the sound.

I believe historical fiction delivers a stereo version of the story: From the left speaker come, the historical facts as we have learned them, while the right speaker plays what the writer’s imagination perceives as what might have been said or done based on events in history.

It is the job of both the historian and the fiction writer to cut through the fog of perception and come as close to the truth as possible. The historian focuses on the events; the fiction writer focuses on the persons involved in them.

The historian, at the most basic level, seeks to answer the question “What happened?” By contrast, the writer of historical fiction seeks to explain, “What was it like?”

The historian tells us about a battle. The fiction writer lets the reader see the soldier slog his way up the hill, know the feeling of the heavy pack digging into his shoulders, and hear the curses as his feet slip in the sand and mud. We sense his fear as we hit the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find.

I have learned so much about ancient Egyptian history by doing research on what Egyptian life was like. In historical fiction, setting is the most important literary statement. We must know how people lived, what they ate, what kinds of homes they lived in, and what articles (now artifacts) were a part of their lives. I also think when I write a story that takes place in times long past, I am freer. My readers lose their prejudice and accept my story with open minds. The reader and I have less at stake, and thus I might get nearer to the truth, possibly even to reality.

Dialogue and description are the two key elements in bringing any fiction alive. In addition to accurate language is the problem of narrative voice. Word choice shapes it, as do the narrator’s opinions and attitudes. Some critics have insisted that historical fiction reveals more about its author than its historical subject does. Ouch!

It is no easy task to write historical fiction―stories based fifty or more years in the past―a peculiarly demanding and problematic genre. Any writer who tells a story set in the past must negotiate the fine line between history and fiction, between readers’ contemporary sensibilities and historical accuracy. That writers continue to work in this genre, successfully engaging with the issues that define it, testifies to its value and viability. Reading these novels, reminds us repeatedly that the issues of the past continues to impinge upon today.

Author Hilary Mantel said it best. “Immersion in history doesn’t make you backward-looking—it makes you want to run like the devil towards the future.”

 

Autobiography and Memoir

By Bob Hart 

“Whatever one says, and whatever one writes, is indelibly part of one’s personal chronicle. Like much of cultural history, the significance of these words will be determined by others.” (Words Consigned to Posterity The Florida Writer, 5, #1, p 31, 2011)

Many years ago, following a severe blow to the head, I lived for a short period entirely in the present, not knowing who I was, where I was from, or what the future would be. I hung in limbo, conscious of myself, aware of existing, but without reference points. Random images popped up—memories in a whack-a-mole game—which escaped as fast as I swung the mallet of recognition. My name, and where I lived, were out of reach. Over a few days, memories crept back, without fanfare, as if the empty pages I turned were no longer blank. I remembered first a girlfriend from two years previously, in enough detail for the staff to contact her. She identified me, providing a name for my hospital chart. Gradually the security of my history crept back.

Those few days without memories had me worried and scared. Memories are more than recollections of our past. They are the foundation of our lives, providing our present and our identity. The personal history they represent gives us worth, and provides a meaning for our lives.

We deal with our past in many ways. A few memories we hide in a diary or journal meaningful only to us. Many of us can only savor our worth if the experience of our lives is shared, to write about it with an audience in mind. This requires an autobiography, or a record of part of our life as a memoir.

Amazon puts autobiography and memoir in the same category. Both are based on truth, but there is a key difference that publishers use—the timeline covered in the writing. Samantha Dunn, journalist and award winning author, has provided a simple definition. “Autobiography is the story of your life; memoir is a story from your life.”

If I wrote about my complete life, from London in WWII, growing up in Africa, through my education and work history, I would write my autobiography. If I chose to write about the summer in my junior year in college when I lost my memory, or the time my parents sent me a live crocodile that would be a memoir.

Unlike the linear plan of an autobiography, a memoir focuses on a theme, event, or choice. It can start anywhere, and can move back and forth in time.

Another difference is the way they are written. Fiction is created by the imagination; Nonfiction is based in fact; Creative Nonfiction is factual writing about real people and events told using fictional techniques so that your readers are as engrossed by fact as they are by fantasy. Memoirs fall under the heading of Creative Non-Fiction—truthful stories told using all the elements of storytelling, setting, character, conflict, change (character arcs), theme.

It has always been accepted that certain rules exist, conventions related to this genre, which must be followed. The story must be truthful. There should be no fictitious, distorted, or ‘imaginary’ facts. The writer does not have the license to lie. Dialogue, after a lapse of time, cannot necessarily be verbatim, but it must provide the essence of what was communicated. And a memoir should carry a theme, a message the writer is trying to relate. Good memoir borrows from fiction, following the rule that the story is not as important as the way it is told.

If you are contemplating writing stories from your life, the decision is between an autobiography, or a memoir, perhaps several memoirs. Before striking fingers to keyboard, you should ask yourself, and answer truthfully, a series of brutal questions.

Who really cares about your past? Will anybody else want to read this? Is the story of your life something only your mother or your children would read, or can it be related to a wider audience?

To be effective, both autobiography and memoir must have a theme—what the story means, its relevance to life—that can be about good and evil, trusting friendship, a devious agenda—basically, what life lesson does it illustrate? Your writing must show what you learned, or how you changed.

Traditionally, autobiographies for publication have been written, or ghost written, by celebrities, politicians, or the notorious. Unfortunately, the lives of ordinary people mean little to the reading public, unless you are an extraordinary writer who can transform the story of your life, into a best seller, such as The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, or Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. While both these have been categorized as memoirs, The Glass Castle is much more autobiographical.

Well-written memoirs are popular and saleable.

Autobiography and memoir represent the largest group writing about self in our Florida Writers Association (FWA) chapter, represented by several in progress, and two self-published books, Through Slanted Windows, Dave Archard, and my own Cage Liners. Veronica Hart’s first sale was a fictional memoir about the funeral and memorial service of a real young girl, a Jane Doe, killed and unclaimed in Albany, New York.

Unfortunately, because of the rising popularity of memoirs, the creative non-fiction standards have become blurred. Some authors have taken liberties in the way they tell their stories, re-imagining scenes, inventing dialogue, and creating composite characters, often exploiting so many fictional techniques their books are, in effect, fiction.

Modern autobiographies have also borrowed from memoir technique, engaging the reader with development of character, emotional resonance, and the enthusiasm of the author. Even Barack Obama (Dreams of My Father) has been criticized for changing names, merging characters, and shortening the timeline. To his credit, he admits to these ploys in the introduction.

In a less famous example, I used similar techniques in Cage Liners, stories and events during fifty years of veterinary practice. As Mark Twain said, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” Where memory failed, my imagination took over without telling me or uttering a whisper of guilt. Were these moments mine, or have I plundered the memories of others? Did I plagiarize their history, creating a cutting edge to my life where there had been little but a featureless plain stretching as far back as I dared remember? Although all the events happened, what emerged in the forty stories in the book was a mixture of truth and some embellished stories.

Memories have the power to evoke love and hate, joy and fear, remind us of our triumph and failure—in fact, they can recreate all the emotions we are capable of feeling. There is no need to question the reason we might want to share these. However, sharing a personal story with which others can empathize is the ultimate act of trust. This is who I am. This is why I am. This is what I am. This is how I am. Accept me.

The usual advice is, unless you are a celebrity, or are writing for your immediate family, focus on writing a memoir about a significant event in your life, one that had meaning, that illustrates a theme and resonates with readers. Then write about this in the best way possible, using the techniques of fiction to bring your story to life.

However, this is not to discourage anyone from writing the story of their lives. It may be necessary or cathartic, and it might be what you need to express or unload before putting on paper what you really want to write.

If all else fails, consider using events in your life as kernels for fiction.

What to Write?

By William E. Dempsey

I’m staring at the dreaded blank screen, page one of my next manuscript, wondering what to write. The most common, albeit well worn, advice is to write about what you know. The problem is that many people know what I know. How can I find a way to make what I know exciting enough for others to want to read about it?

The first important element to remember is that this tome will be fiction. It doesn’t have to withstand the scrutiny of an over enthusiastic fact-checker. I prefer historical fiction, so the underlying story must be factually correct. I have now narrowed my thinking somewhat. The next logical step is to pick an event or era to serve as the foundation of the story and the starting point for the necessary research. Ah, since I’m a lot older than most people on the planet are, maybe I do know some things the younger masses don’t.

Last night on TV, I watched a man interview young people on Malibu Beach. It was President’s Day, so his questions involved American history and her presidents. He held up a picture of Abraham Lincoln and asked a young woman who it was. She guessed, “George Washington.” He then asked a college-aged man, “Who won the Civil War?” The immediate response was, “America.” I’m on safe ground, better prepared for this task than I had imagined.

I make a cup of coffee—thinking always makes me thirsty. Okay, how about World War II. Most Americans alive today were born well after the war ended. That might make it interesting reading, but thousands of books have already told those stories. Maybe the Korean conflict? No, same problem; lots of writing has already been done on the subject. More coffee. How about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? By Job, I’ve got it. The event happened over fifty years ago, so it meets the time requirement of the genre. I was remotely involved, which always helps. That’s it, keyboard—ready; mouse—ready; fingers don’t fail me now:

“It was a dark and stormy night when the crisis began …”

Do You Call Yourself A Writer?

 

By Claudia Chianese

The conference room door opens unexpectedly, a reference librarian steps inside and says; “I’m sorry to interrupt but I have a college student working on a project who needs to interview a writer.” A petite girl with cropped hair and cocoa skin stands at her side clutching a notebook to her chest. Her brown eyes are saucer like with awe. Dave, sitting to my right, has been unable to access today’s submissions since his computer crashed, and raises his hand, “I’m a writer; I can help you with that.” The melodious cadence of his voice fills the room and reflects his life passion of working in radio. He chuckles amused with himself and adds, “We’re all writers.” I am envious of his quiet confidence and it is an ah ha moment for me. It is true; everyone in attendance is a writer.

Florida Writers Association is the organization behind today’s critique meeting. Many of us are members, although you can attend meetings as a non-member. The feedback is extremely beneficial and the tag line, “Writers helping Writers” is in practice. As a beginner, this is where I learn about writing. Attention to particulars or technical aspects, e.g., where to put a comma, are addressed, as well as plot development, tone and voice.

Words are powerful. Writers have equal access and use of them. However, the art of careful selection and weaving words together touches a reader’s heart, or offends them.

I started writing in retirement and hid my efforts from even my husband until he inquired, “What are you doing behind closed doors?”

I sheepishly had to admit, “Writing.”

When others ask, “What do you do in retirement? I choose from several responses. Sometimes I say; “Writing is my pastime, or I’m learning to write.” Other times that I attend writer groups and practice writing; however, I do not call myself a writer.

Silly isn’t it? Writing is not about the label. It is about the activity and capturing a feeling.

As Dave left the room, I wondered what questions the young lady would ask him, and how many others in the room call themselves a writer.

Do you call yourself a writer?

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Welcome to the Daytona Area Writers Blog. We are a well-rounded  and diverse group of writers. Some of our members have been traditionally published, some are self-published, some are seeking publishers for their finished works and others are hard at work crafting their novels.

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