Man holding up a hand for silence with text: When Can We Ignore Grammar Rules?

I’ve mentioned before that my schooling was…let’s say, lacking in the grammar department. So when I started down the writing path, I played catch up by checking out every grammar book I could from the library.

However, soon after my new infusion of knowledge, a published author beta read my (now stored under a metaphorical bed) work in progress. She pointed out that my strict adherence to the grammar rules was strangling my voice.

What? I didn’t want to believe her. How would people know how brilliant, er, talented, er, not-an-idiot I was if I…well, sounded like an idiot?

But a strong voice fills the reader with confidence. As readers, we trust that everything this author writes has a purpose.

We trust that this story and these characters and these sentences and words are all working together to create something bigger. With strong, confident writing, we’ll be swept along, not wondering if that sentence fragment was intentional or not.

It’s hard to reach that level of confidence with our writing and voice, however. Luckily, while I’m recovering from another surgery, we have editor-author Julie Glover with us to help.

Julie’s copyedited all of my novels, so she definitely knows her stuff. Today, she’s here to share her tips for how we can break grammar rules in a good way. *smile* Please welcome Julie Glover!

*****

Making Grammar No-nos Work for You

Last time I got to hang out on Jami’s fabulous blog, I talked about using grammar to strengthen our voice. And now you’re probably wondering why I’m advocating no-nos.

As an avid fan of good grammar, I should be shouting to everyone who’ll listen to get their punctuation and word usage in perfect form and abide by the rules. Right?

But sometimes—sometimes—breaking the rules works on the page. Making grammar choices that would have your high school English teacher tearing out her hair and exclaiming you learned nothing in her class might add to your pacing, voice, and impact.

How do you make grammar no-nos work for you in your novel?

Step 1: Learn Good Grammar

There’s a popular meme stating that grammar is the difference between knowing you’re sh*t and knowing your sh*t. You definitely want to do the latter. Making egregious errors is not the same as thoughtfully choosing to break a grammar rule for effect.

We want surgeons to be able to use all their tools properly, and—to reach excellence—we writers should do the same. Grammar is one important tool, so do your best to master proper punctuation and word usage.

And if you struggle with grammar, get yourself a copy of Strunk & White, an online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style (which I highly recommend), and bookmark sites like Oxford Dictionaries and Grammar Girl. You can also rely on the savvy of friends who treat grammar like their favorite furry pet and are always willing to talk about it. Put those people on speed dial for questions about proper grammar.

Step 2: Identify What Effect You Want to Create

Do you want to increase pacing? Emphasize a phrase? Give your character a quirk? Those effects are achieved in different ways.

Faster pacing might be achieved by a series of fragment sentences:

He raised the gun. Aimed at me. Clicked the safety. Hand trembling, anger brewing, life  balancing. One twitch of his finger…

Emphasis might involve capitalizing words that wouldn’t normally be capitalized.

Mom expected me to wear my sister’s puke pink dress. As if wearing a hand-me-down to prom wouldn’t Ruin My Life.

A character quirk could include malapropisms, which are well-known phrases with incorrect words:

Bindy flicked seeds off her muffin with a sharp, manicured nail. “She has this totally self-defecating humor.”

I winced. “You mean self-deprecating humor?”

She waved off the mistake. “Whatever.”

I shook my head. Bindy couldn’t get a phrase right if her life depended on it.

Figuring out why you want to break a grammar rule helps determine which rule to break. Once you’ve consciously worked this out, it becomes easier to use these techniques as you write. You have a sense of what works on the page and what doesn’t, and you can adapt your grammar choices accordingly.

Step 3: Limit These Instances

Overusing any device in a novel becomes tedious. With constant rule-breaking, you lose the effect, tire the reader, and make it appear that you don’t know better.

Who wants to read an entire book of fragment sentences? That’s not a brilliant novel; it’s your teenager’s text conversations.

Think strategically about where to break the rules and where to refrain. Keep most of your grammar on the up-and-up, so the rules you break create the impact you desire. Think of those moments like targeted spotlights. Then the focus will remain on what you want the reader to understand.

Step 4: Get Feedback from Beta Readers or Critique Partners

Just because you think it works doesn’t mean that it really works. A broken grammar sentence might have seemed brilliant when you wrote it, but it’s actually confusing to a reader. You might create more speedbumps, rather than helping your novel flow.

More than once, I’ve had my critique partner write in my margin something like, “I’m lost.” And the last thing I want is to require my readers to consult a GPS to navigate their way through my novel. All of our grammar choices—proper and rule-breaking—should communicate the content and assist the flow.

Your best way to judge how you’re doing is to ask people you trust. If more than one person says they tripped up on something, you know you’ve got a problem.

Even as a grammar nut, I give you full-throttle permission to break the rules! But be careful when and how you do it. Make sure you’re creating the impact you desire. And use grammar to communicate the right information and tone to your reader.

*****

Julie GloverJulie Glover writes young adult fiction, collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for the interrobang. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®.

She teaches a YA character course for the online Lawson Academy and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.

Find Julie online at her website and on Twitter.

*****

Thank you, Julie! I love this post! Your tips are spot-on for what we need to break the rules with style. *smile*

At Step #2, we could come up with many reasons for why we might want to break the rules. Another one I thought of is point of view.

In deep POV, we should be writing the thoughts of our POV character. If our POV character is freaked out or trying to work through a problem, they might be more likely to think in sentence fragments or near stream-of-consciousness.

What did he mean by…? No. He wouldn’t. Would he?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I often don’t talk to myself with perfect grammar. *grin* So a too-formal approach can hold readers at a distance and prevent a deep POV.

With Julie’s guidelines, we’ll hopefully be able to find a comfortable balance between being a sloppy rule-breaker and an voiceless rule-follower. Once we’re comfortable with our writing and voice, confidence will shine through our story and engage our readers. *smile*

Have you come across stories that feel too stiff or voiceless? Do you think a too-strict adherence to the rules contributed to the problem? Do you agree that strong writing feels purposeful, rule-breaking and all? Which end of the grammar-rule scale do you tend to lean with your writing: too loose or too strict? Do you have any questions for Julie?

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Woman making a sour face with text: Are Unlikable Characters a Deal-Breaker?

I’m back from my vacation (which was awesome and wonderful), but I hope you all enjoyed my guest posters while I was gone. A huge Thank You! shout-out to Renee, Davonne, Becca, and Marcy for filling in for me.

If you missed any of their posts, I encourage you to check them out. They shared their expertise on entrepreneurship, Tumblr, using setting to enhance a mood, and empowering description with contrast.

I have surgery scheduled for later this week, so I’ll be running another guest post on Thursday, but today, I want to touch on a topic that came up while I was on vacation.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen that one of my tweets while I was gone was a link to an article about unlikable heroines:

Character Unlikability: Why and How to Fix

Before I get into today’s topic, I want to point out that I’ve previously written several posts here about character likability, just in case you’ve missed them:

Great! We’ve covered the basics. Now let’s dig deeper.

Character Likability Is Trickier When…

As the link in that tweet points out, likability is often more of a problem for female characters than for male characters. While male characters can be compelling and unlikable, readers often want female characters to be compelling and likable.

Male characters are much more likely to be accepted as jerks, alpha-holes, addicts, uncaring, etc. Female characters are often raked over the coals for those same traits.

Yet when writing romance, I love exploring the power struggles and negotiations between the couple, as they figuratively battle each other for the upper hand and gradually learn to function as a healthy partnership. So my stories need strong heroines who are on equal footing—power-wise—with the hero.

Between my heroines’ alpha qualities and flaws (they do need room to grow as a character after all), I often receive feedback from beta readers and editors about their unlikability. And while I’ve learned how to minimize those issues by bringing out their vulnerability, the problem still rankles me.

Are These Characters Really Unlikable?

If we look at character introductions with no gender attached, do we still come away with the first impression of unlikable? And if so, is that unlikability still a deal-breaker for us?

Intro: A Jewel Thief Sneaks into a Party to Steal from the Guests

Countless stories feature thieves and con-artists as protagonists, so whether we think this character description makes them unlikable or not, the premise obviously isn’t a deal-breaker for the vast majority of our audience. Maybe we’d root for them as an antihero, or maybe we’d want them to become better, but we wouldn’t reject the story just because of their description.

If this character were male, we’d think nothing of it. But as a female character?

Early beta readers and contest judges wanted Elaina of Treasured Claim to have a Robin-Hood-type motivation for her thefts. They could not accept a heroine stealing jewels for any selfish reasons.

(And I am grateful those readers pushed me to deepen her character and get at the heart of her life-and-death motivations, so this isn’t whining. *smile* However, evidence from plenty of other stories proves that male characters wouldn’t receive that same type of pushback on page one, as readers would instead cut the characters some slack before judging them—which is my point.)

Intro: A Foster Parent Hides Their Ulterior Motives for Taking on a Child

This situation is unfortunately all too realistic in the foster system. While many good people want to help kids, plenty of others foster as a way to earn money or achieve another non-kid-focused goal.

I can’t think of specific titles off the top of my head (feel free to name them in the comments if you think of any), but we’ve seen comedies where the (male) protagonist pretends to be a caregiver (father, day-care teacher, pet-owner, etc.) to appeal to the love interest.

Whether or not the character actually cares about those under their guardianship is irrelevant to their likability. In fact, their ulterior motives are often played for laughs. In other words, this description is not only not a deal-breaker, but also can improve the character’s likability.

Yet with the character of Kira of Ironclad Devotion, even though she showed caring to her foster daughter on page one (a desire to protect the child from emotional harm and physically shielding her), I received pushback because her internal thoughts revealed she also had an ulterior motive. (The horrors! *rolls eyes*)

(Again, I’m grateful for that feedback so I could attempt to better balance her flaws and characterization and not turn off readers, but the different treatment of female characters still irks me. *sigh*)

Are We Judging Female Characters on a Different Scale?

Before I left for vacation, my beta buddy Angela Quarles posted about the issue of “unlikable” heroines on Facebook when she shared Kameron’s article. As Angela said (emphasis mine):

“Early feedback suggests I’ll have an unlikeable heroine in Must Love Kilts. I mean, she starts the book off drunk and makes a drunk-in-Vegas style bad decision because of it. But don’t flawed heroines deserve an HEA?

(FYI: HEA is “happily ever after”—a promise of the romance genre)

I think Angela’s question is important. None of us are perfect, and that doesn’t stop us from deserving happiness. The romance genre should give hope to all.

It shouldn’t be difficult for a heroine to “deserve” happiness just because she starts off flawed. If we can root for a male character to grow and improve, why do we struggle with rooting for a female character with flaws?

Why is unlikability a deal-breaker
more often for female characters
than for male characters?

Are We Identifying with the Character Too Much?

The majority of fiction readers are female, and the majority of those giving pushback to “unlikable” heroines are women. So the question becomes: Why are we so hard on ourselves?

  • Do we forgive men more easily than other women?
    • If so, are we less forgiving of women because we hold them to higher standards? (Perhaps identifying with them too much means we expect them to react the way we think we would (if we were perfect) in a “well, they should be better” way?)
    • Or maybe we’re less forgiving because we don’t like to see echoes of our flaws on the page with a character we might relate to too well, their flaws cutting too close to home?
  • Do we more easily see men as worthy of redemption after mistakes?
    • If so, do we blame women more when they display unlikable or self-destructive behavior, thinking it a personality flaw rather than a starting point for growth? (Perhaps the tendency of many women to stay in so-so relationships—thinking they’ll be able to make their guy change—means it’s easier to see a man’s potential for growth?)
    • Or maybe we’re uncomfortable with seeing “irresponsible” women because we fear society would fall apart without women holding it together?

When Are Character Motivations Not Enough?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, but as my examples above with Treasured Claim and Ironclad Devotion demonstrate, those heroines were held to higher standards than male characters would have been in the same situation.

While we usually advise writers to help readers relate to and understand their characters by revealing their motivations, in the case of those characters, their motivations were deemed not “pure” enough. According to the feedback, Elaina needed to have a “positive” reason for stealing jewelry, and Kira’s selfish motives undermined her genuine caring.

In both cases, the characters’ motivations were driven by life-or-death survival needs. Is that not enough? Do we not value the lives of female characters enough to accept them doing grayish deeds to survive?

Obviously, this issue frustrates me. We can accept male characters even when they’re completely selfish, yet female characters aren’t allowed to be even a little bit selfish—even when necessary to avoid their death. This echoes real life and the ridiculous expectations on women far too loudly.

No matter the gender of our characters, their flaws have to be deep enough to give us room to write an internal arc for them, and their motivations must be clear enough to give a sense of internal goals and characterization. But given that perspective above, coming up with flaws for female characters is much harder.

To avoid “unlikable character” reviews on our female characters, we’d likely have to do more, such as…:

  • Their flaws must be easily forgivable and somehow leave the (much smaller, narrower) door propped open to the possibility of redemption.
  • Their motivations or goals must reveal a “good” side to their character (beyond selfishness, self-destructiveness, etc.) that readers can approve of.

Worse, every reader will judge those lines differently, and we can never guess which readers will be which. Some might be more self-accepting and thus be more forgiving of flaws they relate to. Others’ self-acceptance of their own journey might make them more impatient for the characters to get their act together. Etc., etc.

What Should We Do as Writers?

Obviously, just as with every aspect of reading, character likability is subjective. Just because a character is unlikable to one person doesn’t mean everyone will think the same. And even if a character is seen as unlikable, not every reader will see that issue as a deal-breaker.

It’s okay if we decide that it’s not worth it to limit a character’s flaws or motivations to an “acceptable” list just because they’re female. No character will be liked by every reader, so we’re allowed to not bend over backwards to try.

If readers don’t like a character’s personality, that’s not a reflection on our personality, so that doesn’t mean we’re unlikable. (Unless we’re writing Mary Sue author-stand-in characters, but we’re not doing that, right? *smile*) We shouldn’t have a goal of making a character everyone will like because that’s impossible anyway.

Personally, while I want strong, assertive heroines, I’ve taken the feedback as an opportunity to find a better balance that stayed true to the characters. Elaina still steals jewelry, but I revealed how her motivation is based in her vulnerability. Kira still has ulterior motives, but I strengthened the details showing how much she really cares.

For me, that balance works. I don’t limit my characters, but I also try to eliminate or minimize triggers that will make readers unhappy for no reason. And if some readers still don’t like them? Oh well.

Unlikability is only a deal-breaker if readers make it one. If those same readers would continue reading a story with unlikable male characters (because of story, voice, worldbuilding, antihero/hope-they-change, etc. reasons), but they won’t give the same leeway to female characters, that says more about them than about my writing faults.

Of course I’m not going to purposely make a character more unlikable than they have to be—I believe in being true to them. Instead I’m just going to do the best I can to avoid unnecessary “unlikable” triggers, but I’m not going to worry about the rest. *smile*

What Can We Do as Readers?

When we’re wearing our reader-hat, we might be able to help combat this problem of judging female characters from a different angle. Let me give an example.

During my vacation downtime, I read several books. One of the books, Karma by Donna Augustine, is an urban fantasy that was on a freebie list (it might still be free) but has several “unlikable heroine” reviews:

“Is a reasonable, rational female lead too much to ask for? … Do they always have to be so unbearable?”

“The main character was really annoying … which made it difficult to get behind her.”

Now, I’m not saying those reviewers’ opinions aren’t valid. *smile* However, given that I came across this book so soon after Kameron’s article, I didn’t want the “unlikable heroine” reviews to prevent me from taking a closer look.

“Unbearable” or “annoying” or “difficult to connect to” are subjective. In addition, a good story, voice, worldbuilding, etc. can all make for compelling reading despite annoying male characters, and the same should be able to apply to female characters.

In other words…

An “unlikable heroine” shouldn’t automatically be a deal-breaker.

So, rather than rejecting the book based on others’ subjective opinions, I read the Look Inside sample. To me, the story, voice, and worldbuilding overcame whatever flaws I saw in the heroine, so I picked up the book…and then read the whole series over the next few days because I loved it. *smile*

My experience reinforced the idea that we might be too quick to reject unlikable heroines. Sure, we might all have triggers that we can’t stand, but one reader’s “annoying” might be another reader’s “funny and snarky,” so we shouldn’t assume that reviewers have the same triggers we do.

Instead, we can check out the character for ourselves by looking at the sample. Does the story’s voice intrigue us or cross the line from snarky to annoying? Is the character likable enough for us? Do the story’s pros outweigh the cons?

From now on, when I come across a story with an interesting premise and blurb—but also “unlikable heroine” reviews—I’m not going to take the reviewers’ opinions as fact. And if my experience with this technique so far is any indication, I just might find more stories to love. *smile*

Is an unlikable character a deal-breaker for you? What makes you read a story with an unlikable protagonist anyway? Do you think readers are harder on heroines than heroes? If so, what are your theories for that difference? Do you have any other suggestions for how to overcome this issue as writers or readers?

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Black & white image of columns in shadow with text: Add Power to Descriptions with Contrast

We’ve probably all heard (or thought!) that description is boring. The part readers skip.

There’s no question that description has a bad reputation. Yet if we’ve ever read a story without enough description and been lost at what was happening or who was doing what, we know that description is essential to clearly showing events in our story to readers.

When I first started writing, I struggled with description, mostly by including way too much of it. Pages and pages. *smile*

I eventually learned how to balance description and use it to anchor readers in a character’s point of view. However, there’s another way to make description work harder for our story, and that’s by using contrast to create more powerful and interesting descriptions.

Luckily for us, editor-author Marcy Kennedy is here with us today to give us the scoop and share five methods to empower our description with contrast. Please welcome Marcy Kennedy! *smile*

*****

The Power of Contrast in Description

Readers need description to help them imagine the story world and to keep them grounded in the story, but often it’s considered the slow, boring part.

It doesn’t have to be.

Done right, description keeps the pace moving and brings out our point-of-view character’s emotions, backstory, and conflicts. It can also add subtext, foreshadow, and build on the theme.

One of my favorite ways to bring description to life and make sure it serves a bigger purpose in the story is to use contrast. I’m excited Jami welcomed me back to share with all of you how to make this work.

All of these tips work best—in my opinion—when we write in a limited point of view because it’s our point-of-view character who’s making the comparison. The description filters through them and is colored by who they are. (Though I’m sure you omniscient writers could adapt many of these techniques as well.)

Tip #1: Contrast What the POV Character Expected with What They Experience

Look at this example from Lindsay Buroker’s steampunk romance novel Deathmaker. The POV character is about to meet the man who designed the biological weapon that wiped out an entire city of her people.

The man standing in the doorway, his hands shackled before him, appeared more warrior than scientist, with a hide vest leaving his muscular arms and part of his chest exposed. She had expected a crazy old man with spectacles or magnifying goggles and white hair sticking out in all directions. The figure in the doorway appeared to be about thirty, and his long black locks fell down his back in matted ropes.

A contrast like this shows us a bit about the point-of-view character because we see their expectations about how a certain type of person or a certain type of location “should” look.

It also adds tension and intrigue. Why doesn’t this character or location fit the expectation? Is the appearance meant to be deceiving? Is there a conflict happening inside the character between who they’re supposed to be and who they want to be? The point-of-view character doesn’t know and neither do we, which makes us want to read on to find out the truth.

Tip #2: Contrast What Everyone Else Experiences With the Truth Known by Our POV Character

This one plays with the idea of perception vs. reality again, but in the opposite way that the first point did. This time, our point-of-view character knows the true nature of the person or place they’re describing and everyone else is deceived by the external experience.

Let me show you what I mean using a description from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain.

Tip #3: Show How a Change Affects Their Normal Experience of a Person or Place

A change in our character’s normal world, or a change in a person they know well, often foreshadows or adds conflict. Suzanne Collins does this in The Hunger Games. The description of the square on reaping day isn’t just a static recitation of details. She juxtaposes how it normally looks and feels with how it changes on this single day.

Take a look.

It’s too bad really, that they hold the reaping in the square—one of the few places in District 12 that can be pleasant. The square’s surrounded by shops, and on public market days, especially if there’s good weather, it has a holiday feel to it. But today, despite the bright banners hanging on the buildings, there’s an air of grimness. The camera crews, perched like buzzards on rooftops, only add to the effect.

This type of contrast is great for describing something our point-of-view character would normally ignore because they’ve seen it so often. It’s also a good tool for setting the mood of a scene because our point-of-view character’s emotions about the change color the description.

Tip #4: Contrast the Past with the Present

This could be contrasting what a character once had with what they have now, or it could be comparing the way a person or place has changed over time.

Our first introduction to King Robert Baratheon in Chapter One of Game of Thrones comes through Ned Stark’s eyes—eyes that remember the king in his prime, strong, lean, and smelling of blood and leather. The Robert who comes to Winterfell after so many years is fat and smells of perfume instead.

Had George R. R. Martin only described King Robert as he presently was, we’d have had no idea of how far he’d fallen. It’s the contrast, the opposites, that make the description so powerful and memorable.

Contrasting what was with what is in description has the added benefit of allowing us to weave in backstory in a believable way rather than infodumping it. (If you read the description of King Robert, you’ll also see how backstory is woven seamlessly in.)

Bonus Tip: Contrast a Good Smell with a Bad One

Choosing two antagonistic scents can be done to make both smells stand out more than they would on their own, to complement a theme, or to subtly support what’s happening inside your character.

In The Hunger Games trilogy, President Snow smells like blood and roses. He uses the roses to cover up the fact that his breath reeks of blood, and this becomes a metaphor in a way for how the beauty and glitz of the capital tries to disguise the repulsiveness of the country’s situation. Suzanne Collins could have just had him smell like blood, but the contrast with something as beautiful and symbolic as roses made the smell of blood that much more grotesque. And Katniss is never able to think about roses the same way again.

*****

Marcy KennedyMarcy Kennedy is a science fiction and fantasy author who believes there’s always hope. Sometimes you just have to dig a little harder to find it.

She’s also the author of the bestselling Busy Writer’s Guide series, which focuses on giving authors deep teaching while still respecting their time.

You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her website.

*****

Description: Busy Writer's Guide coverAbout Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide:

Description in fiction shouldn’t be boring for the reader or for the writer.

Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide will help you take your writing to the next level by exchanging ho-hum description for description that’s compelling and will bring your story to life, regardless of the genre you write.

In Description: A Busy Writer’s Guide, you will

  • find the answer to the age-old question of how much description is too much;
  • learn how to use point of view to keep description fresh;
  • recognize the red flags for boring description in fiction;
  • explore how to use all five senses to bring your descriptions to life for the reader;
  • discover the ways metaphors and similes can add power to your descriptive writing;
  • gain the tools needed to describe setting, characters, and action in engaging ways;
  • learn how descriptions can add conflict, enhance the theme, and amp up emotion; and
  • much more.

*****

Thank you, Marcy! As a former inflicter-of-poor-description, I love these tips—and great examples to illustrate your ideas too!

I especially love how Tip #4 demonstrates how our description can work harder. While we might usually weave description in with more active elements of our writing, we can also weave other elements—like the backstory example here—into description.

Powerful writing pulls double or triple duty, and that applies to description as well. By using contrast with our descriptions, we can add emotions, motivations, character development, backstory, etc. to a sentence or paragraph that might otherwise be bland and flat.

All those extra elements will keep our description from being boring. No one will skip description when it feels like part of the story. *smile*

Do you notice description less if it feels like a powerful aspect of the story? Do you like using contrast in your writing style? Have you tried it with descriptions before? Do you have any questions for Marcy? Can you think of other examples of how contrast or comparison would help bring description to life? Or feel free to share an example of when you’ve done this in your current WIP!

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Setting Thesauri covers with text: Creating a Mood with the Setting Thesauri

The Thesaurus books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are a must-have for every fiction author. I’ve raved many times about the awesomeness of their Emotion Thesaurus and how we can use it to improve our writing.

We’ve also had Becca here before to talk about their Positive Trait Thesaurus and the Negative Trait Thesaurus. During her last visit, Becca shared seven tips for using the Trait Thesauri.

Now, I’m excited to announce that Angela and Becca have created two new Thesauri books: Urban Setting and Rural Setting. Yay! Even better, Becca’s here again today to talk about how setting is important for more than just describing the time and place of our scene.

Like all their books, the Setting Thesauri encourage us to dig deeper. Becca’s tips today share four aspects of setting that we might not think about, and she gives examples for how those aspects can help us set the mood of our scenes.

Please welcome Becca Puglisi! *smile*

*****

“Setting” the Mood

As Angela and I have been writing our newest thesaurus books, we’ve been amazed to discover how much a story’s setting can do. As authors, we tend to think of the setting in terms of a time and place, just a way to ground the reader in the scene. But it can accomplish so much more.

And one thing it’s really good at is establishing mood. To convey the mood of your scene to readers, just play around a bit with the four following elements of the setting until you get exactly the feel you’re looking for.

Setting Aspect #1: Weather and Seasons

The weather is a handy tool for influencing a reader’s feelings because so much of it is already emotionally charged:

  • sunshine is equated with happiness,
  • fog is ominous,
  • rainy days are drippy and dreary and make people want to go back to bed.

Because of their universal nature, certain weather phenomena lend themselves to certain emotions, so the weather can be a useful tool for establishing the mood in a scene.

Seasons, when combined with weather elements, are similarly helpful because of their implied symbolism. Spring is all about rebirth while winter often represents death or endings.

Let’s say your story contains a childbirth scene and you’re trying to figure out when to set it. Put it in spring, with sunshine streaming through the window and birds chirping outside, and readers will get a sense of tranquility; they’ll sense that everything’s going to be okay.

But what happens if the birth occurs in the dead of winter, with a blizzard raging and the house shut up like a quarantine ward? A more ominous mood emerges, infecting the reader with worry for the laboring mother’s well being.

The weather and seasons can be very effective in conveying the proper mood in a scene, so use them thoughtfully.

Setting Aspect #2: Light and Shadow

Light in its various forms—its amount and quality, its brightness, whether it’s constant or shifting, where it’s coming from—can have a huge impact on the mood in a story. To illustrate this, let’s revisit our winter childbirth scene and see what happens when we adjust the lighting.

Icy snow pelted the windowpanes and blew sideways in the howling wind. A shutter had come loose and was slamming the side of the house, but Myra ignored it. She shut out the pain and the fear, the midwife’s soothing tones and Jeff’s good intentions, focusing instead on the calming firelight as it flickered over the floorboards.

With the rest of the lights off, she could narrow her focus to that small patch of amber-colored floor, on the light that twinkled and jumped over the oak boards, coming close to the foot of the bed but never quite reaching it—like each contraction that rose to a crescendo and threatened to overwhelm her but never quite did. She could do this; all she needed was to stay focused on the dancing light on the floor.

Childbirth is rarely a peace-filled, blissful occurrence—especially when it’s happening at home during a blizzard. Choosing that setting for the event could easily set it up as one where something bad is going to happen. But dimming the lights to an amber glow softens the mood. The steadily flickering flames lend a sense of hominess and comfort to the scene, and Myra’s steady focus on them to get her through her labor reinforces the idea that she’s going to be okay.

We could easily have altered the mood by changing the lighting. What if Myra’s room was thrown into absolute darkness due to a power outage? Add to that a still, cold fireplace casting only shadows across the floor and readers would get a totally different feel. This is the power of light and dark when it comes to setting the mood.

Setting Aspect #3: The Right Narrator

Between weather, seasons, and lighting, we can play a lot with the setting elements to determine the mood of a scene. But it’s often the people within that location that will be the biggest influencers. And none is more important than the narrator or point-of-view character.

Our childbirth scene told from Myra’s viewpoint enables readers to see her state of mind. Though frightened, she’s in control, determined to see this event through. Her absolute focus and discipline color the scene for readers. But if we showed that scene from someone else’s viewpoint, the mood could drastically change.

Icy snow pelted the windowpanes and scraped the side of the house. A shutter had come loose and was banging the wall like a hammer, sending repeated jolts of pain through Jeff’s skull.

He stood in the corner farthest from the fire, wringing his numb hands. Myra’s midwife knelt by her side, muttering words he couldn’t hear over the wind’s frantic howling; she could’ve been putting some ancient curse on his wife and Jeff wouldn’t have been able to tell.

The fire was too low to add any real warmth, but the midwife had forbidden him from building it up. Its dim light cast sickly shadows over Myra’s face while illuminating her eyes—wide and bulging and trained on something he couldn’t see.

He wished for the words that would soothe her and banish that empty, staring gaze, but she’d stopped responding to him an hour ago. This situation was going from bad to worse, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

Here, Jeff is seeing a lot of the same details as Myra, but from his frightened perspective and limited viewpoint, his interpretations are very different: to him, Myra’s gaze is staring and vacant rather than focused, and the fire is ineffective and pointless, much as he feels at this moment.

One scene, two viewpoints, two wildly different moods. The viewpoint character’s emotions, fears, and experiences are always going to bleed into the narrative. Keep this in mind when choosing the narrator for each scene.

Setting Aspect #4: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing occurs when the author hints at events to come. These events are often tied to emotions that affect the reader’s mood.

In The Wizard of Oz, this technique is used effectively when Miss Gulch shows up at the beginning of the movie. The frantic and frightening music, along with the references to her as a witch, hint at Dorothy’s future encounter with The Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a fairly creepy moment, meant to let the reader know that Miss Gulch and her Oz counterpart are going to be causing trouble down the road.

Whether you’re foreshadowing something frightening, exciting, uncertain, or morbid, there are many things that can be utilized to hint at the future, and the setting is chock full of them.

  • Knickknacks and keepsakes can be used to set up down-the-road events.
  • Colors within the setting, such as the many red items in The Sixth Sense, can prepare the audience for revelations to come.
  • The location itself can be used to foreshadow, as we see with The Forbidden Forest in the Harry Potter series. In all the books, bad things happen there, setting up this place as a poignant location for the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort in book seven.

With the proper foundation, the setting can be extremely useful in providing exactly what is needed to foreshadow future events.

Pinterest pin with tips for building the mood

(click to see on Pinterest)

As you can see, the setting is quite a versatile tool in the author’s arsenal. Not only does it provide a time and place for story events to happen but it also can be used to set the mood.

Once you’ve decided which mood your scene should convey, just fine-tune these elements until the desired atmosphere develops. Then sit back and let the setting work its magic.

*****

Becca PuglisiBecca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels, including The Rural Setting Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus, which will be available for purchase in June.

She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library filled with description and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

*****

The Rural Setting Thesaurus:

The Rural Setting Thesaurus coverSettings should be more than a simple backdrop. Yes, they provide the opportunity to ground the reader, but they can also be used to establish mood, steer the story, foreshadow, and build tension.

The Rural Setting Thesaurus helps writers like never before by exploring over 100 school, home, and natural locations, providing the sensory details for each along with possible sources of conflict that can be found there. Also covered are many figurative language techniques that can be used to convey emotion and bring the setting to life, creating a vibrant, one-of-a kind experience for readers.

The Urban Setting Thesaurus:

The Urban Setting Thesaurus coverAs far as story elements go, the setting is one of the most necessary, yet it’s often underutilized by writers. The Urban Setting Thesaurus is the key to creating stronger, more powerful descriptions by showing writers how multisensory details can draw readers in and enhance the story.

Not only will writers learn how to choose the right location for each scene, they’ll also see how the setting can be used to characterize, reveal backstory, and provide triggers that can amplify character emotions and drive behavior. Through its sensory exploration of over 120 urban settings, this book will help writers create a realistic, textured world readers will long to return to, even after the book closes.

For more information on these books,
including purchasing options,
please visit Writers Helping Writers.

*****

Thank you, Becca! You’re right that we don’t usually think of those four aspects as being part of Setting, but your examples showed exactly how the details we use can add to the sense of time and place in a scene.

I can’t wait to dig into these new Thesauri books and see what other gems of information we can learn. *smile*

What comes to mind when you think of setting? Can you see how other details of a scene, like these four aspects, add to the sense of time and place? How much do you pay attention to a scene’s mood? Have you used any of these setting aspects before to create a certain mood? Which one is your favorite?

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Diagram of connected dots with text: Tame Tumblr with 10 Tips

As writers, we’re always struggling to find enough time for writing, editing, marketing (not to mention needing time for life in general). So whenever we hear about a social media site that we’re not on yet, we’re likely to say, “Not another one!” *smile*

But the truth is that every social media platform is different. They each attract a different user base and have different strengths and weaknesses.

Some help us form connections with other writers, and some help us connect with readers. Some are easier to use, and some require less time.

So I figure we should at least learn about all the different types of social media. Just because we don’t like one platform doesn’t mean another type of social media won’t be a perfect fit for us, especially if we want to be where our readers are.

One social media platform that’s popular with many different reader groups is Tumblr. I’ve heard Tumblr described as a mini-blogging platform, and it’s set up for easy sharing of other’s posts, so many find it less time-consuming than other types of social media.

Unfortunately, I don’t know a thing about Tumblr, so I couldn’t give tips. But luckily, our guest today knows Tumblr well and is here to share their tips for making Tumblr work for us as writers. Please welcome my friend and frequent visitor here, Davonne Burns! *smile*

*****

Taming Tumblr: Ten Tips for Writers

There are so many social media websites out there that the thought of having to add another one might have you screaming into a pillow or other soft surface with frustration. I feel you. Really I do. I have horrible social anxiety and being on the internet hasn’t really changed that.

I find Facebook shallow and frustrating. Twitter moves so fast my anxiety goes through the roof. Goodreads gives me hives. I won’t touch Reddit with a twenty-foot pole. Google+ … what’s Google+?

Well, that doesn’t leave me a lot of options as an author looking to expand their reader base. Or it might look that way on the surface.

You see, I’ve managed to tame Tumblr. Yes, that scary dark hole of SuperWhoLock fandom, SJWs, and teen hipsters. I’m here today to show you how you too can tame this eldritch terror.

Caveat: Like All Social Media, There Are Unspoken Rules

First, the bad news. Tumblr can be a very unforgiving place.

Like any social media account where you promote yourself, you should always strive to be professional (and no, I don’t always take my own advice). Tumblr can also be frustrating if you aren’t familiar with its internal social structure and ethics.

Tumblr is a lot like a big city with little neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its own rules. What neighborhood you belong to depends a lot on what blogs you follow. As you become more integrated, you’ll start understanding the unspoken rules.

Setting Up an Account

As far as setting up an account, I’m going to link you to a video rather than walk you through it myself. I’m going to focus on helping you get the most out of your blog once you have it set up.

Here’s the video, and I’ll be here when you’re done watching:

https://youtu.be/64HKsYUetaA

All set? Awesome. Pretty easy, right? Eh, well, parts of it.

10 Tips for Building Your Presence on Tumblr

Now, the hard part: building your presence.

Here are a few suggestions that can help you integrate quickly and painlessly into the Tumblr environment:

#1: Have Fun

Tumblr can be a great place full of incredible people. Don’t take it too seriously, and enjoy your time there. Make it worth your while. And don’t fear the memes.

#2. Don’t Feel Obligated to Follow People Who Follow You

This is not Twitter. It’s better to follow only those blogs you truly enjoy and get the most out of your time on the site.

Tumblr can be a huge time sink if you don’t manage it properly (I certainly don’t), and following blogs you don’t care for will just clutter up your dash. This is directly related to #1.

#3: Find Fandoms You Love & Follow Blogs Who Post in Them

This is also related to #1. Seriously, if it’s something you enjoy, chances are you’ll find plenty of potential readers there. If you’re writing something that is similar to a particular fandom, don’t hesitate to mention that.

Say you’re writing a paranormal romance and want to engage potential readers who enjoy paranormal. Right now, Shadowhunters has a decent fandom on Tumblr (the Malec pairing especially).

The MCU is huge as is Star Wars, but you can get drowned out in fandoms that large. Gamers also love Tumblr, so don’t be afraid to go into those tags too. Just make certain your posts offer some value, as the next point discusses.

#4: Engage Those Fandoms

This doesn’t mean you have to create content. Just reblog posts you like. People will notice.

And if you do create content, you’ll probably see your follower count increase. Content can be anything from fanfiction, meta, gifs, artwork, and just commentary on the media. Just be sure you tag it (see #7).

Once you’re established in the fandom, it can be much easier to post your own promotional material and have it reblogged. People will have gotten to know you and will be eager to see what you’ve come up with.

I’ve done this through a couple of fandoms I’m a part of, namely Thief (2014) and Transformers. By enjoying myself and being a part of these fandoms, I’ve met some fantastic people and made lifelong friends. I’ve also found new readers.

My followers know what I like through my blog posts, and they also know what kind of things I value and what I write about. Nothing is more fun than to log in to find people asking about your current project or asking about your characters. They will do this if you’re open, conversational, and genuine.

#5: Follow Other Authors & Author Help Blogs

Search the tags: writing, writing advice, and publishers. Or put in specific names and see what comes up.

There are several publishers on Tumblr and some really great research blogs too. Be a good author friend, and reblog other authors’ posts.

#6: Promote Yourself but Be Personal & Approachable about It

I personally don’t do a ton of self-promotion. When I do, I try to make it something that people will want to reblog.

Reblogs are the ultimate goal for posts. The more reblogs, the more people who are seeing your post.

You’ll want pictures—relevant gifs and not a ton of text are often key—but there are no hard and fast rules. Most of all, be personal about it. Think of each post as you talking to a group of people at a party. You’re having a conversation, not giving a lecture. *smile*

#7: Use Tags

Tags make your post searchable and allows them to show up in that tag’s thread. Use the most relevant tags first. Tumblr only tracks the first 5 tags so make them count.

I’m bad about having a running commentary in my tags that I don’t feel like including in the main body of the post … sort of like author notes if you will.

Here are some examples of tags and how to use them:

(Newsletter readers need to click through to the post to see the images. Click on the images here to see full-size.)

Click the icon in the lower-right,
and your saved tag bundles pop up:

Tumblr tags 1

Your tags now show up in the lower box,
but only the first 5 are searchable:

Tumblr tags 2

In the top bar, you can search for everything under certain tags
and even see your own posts:

Tumblr tags 3

#8: Get Xkit—You Will Thank Yourself Later

Tumblr isn’t always … well run. XKit helps it run a little more smoothly with some very nice features.

I love Tumblr, but it can be very broken at times. Xkit helps out by giving you tools which Tumblr lacks. Like being able to blacklist certain posts or user, or having a pre-made set of tags. I use this latter feature for when I post about my books. This way, I’m always using the same tags so the posts are that much easier to find.

And you can mute certain blogs. It works a lot the same way as mute on Facebook. My favorite extension is the one that does away with ads. *smile*

Find Xkit here, and here’s a link that shows you all the different features it offers.

#9: Stay Professional

This of course goes for any social media website, and I really shouldn’t have to explain this. *smile*

#10: Keep It Real

Be yourself. Post what you truly enjoy. You’ll gain followers as you do.

It’s not going to be a quick thing. It’s taken me three years to go from under 100 followers to nearly 1000. But it will happen if you are authentic and approachable.

Why Tumblr Can Be Rewarding for Authors

These are the things I’ve found to work for me on Tumblr. Just like any other social media, it’s going to take time and effort to see results. But the journey there is often its own reward.

The reason why I enjoy Tumblr and find it to be the most rewarding out of all the social media sites I’m a part of is the ease of connecting with readers. It’s much easier to find like-minded individuals and engage them on Tumblr without the need to spend money to boost posts or follow a million people.

It’s easier, less cluttered, more versatile, and cheaper than trying to promote yourself on other social media sites, and you can still cross post to all your other social media too. In short, it’s definitely worth the time and effort, and you just might find it your go-to site after a while.

Here is a list of blogs I recommend following to get yourself started, my own Tumblr included. *smile*

*****

About Davonne Burns, writing as Bran Lindy Ayres:

MOGAI Writers logoI write sci-fi/fantasy for MOGAI readers who enjoy excitement, intrigue and romance and want stories focused on characters like themselves.

As an avid reader and writer and a member of the MOGAI (Marginalized Orientations, Genders, Alignments and Intersex) community, it’s my goal to bring the more marginalized orientations and gender identities into the public conscious. I write romance for those of us who are more interested in the emotional journey and who like to see healthy loving relationships grounded in mutual respect and trust. My characters are complex, flawed and true-to-life portrayals of the struggles of being different from society’s norms.

My hope is that by sharing these stories that readers will find characters and situations to relate to and see that love does indeed come in all shapes and sizes. Having your race, orientation and/or gender represented in books you love is incredibly important to a sense of self-worth and everyone deserves to be represented.

Tumblr | Twitter | Facebook | Patreon | Instagram | Pinterest

*****

Masquerade book coverAbout Masquerade:

Plots and intrigue are Marchioness Genevieve Merlot’s specialty, and opulent balls teeming with bored aristocrats are the perfect opportunity to uncover the secrets behind idle gossip and courtly scheming.

However, things take a sinister turn when they overhear a plot to assassinate the Orandon Queen.

It will take all their skill and ingenuity not only to survive but to foil the assassins and return home.

Masquerade is a Novella Prequel to
The Jeweled Dagger, which is also available:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords

*****

Thank you, Davonne! Tumblr is a foreign language to me, but I know it’s very popular with some readers. So it’s great to get the inside scoop on how to make it work for us!

If our readers are on Tumblr, then as you said, establishing a presence there can help us make connections. Also, Tumblr makes it easy to share our interests and hobbies with others, which can help establish our brand by expanding the impression others have of us.

Hopefully these tips from Davonne will help us all feel comfortable enough to figure out if Tumblr might be a good fit for us. *smile*

Have you heard of Tumblr and wondered what it was? Or are you already a Tumblr user? What are your favorite social media platforms and why? Do you have any questions for Davonne? Or if you use Tumblr already, do you have additional tips?

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Are You Ready to Be an Entrepreneur? — Guest: Renee Regent

June 7, 2016 Over-Achieving Perfectionist
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As a modern writer, we’re expected to do so much that we struggle to find time to write—even if we’re traditionally published. No one will ever care about our career as much as we do, so that means we should pay attention to many aspects of entrepreneurship.

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Self Publishing? What’s Your Plan to Keep Readers? — Part Four

June 2, 2016 Writing Stuff
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One way to keep readers interested in our writing is to hook them with an excerpt to our next story at the end of our book. But there are times an excerpt could hurt our sales. When is it a good idea to include an excerpt—and when is it not?

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Can We Track Our Improvements in Writing Quality?

May 31, 2016 Writing Stuff
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The learning curve we face when deciding to become a writer is always longer than we think because we don’t know what all we don’t know. So how can we track our progress? How can we tell whether we’re improving? How can we feel good about our writing?

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Character Development Is a Two-Edged Sword

May 26, 2016 Writing Stuff
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As writers, we do everything we can to make readers invested in our characters in some way. An invested reader is a happy reader, right?
Well, maybe not. Let’s take a look at the other side of character development.

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What to Look for in Published-Author Contests

May 24, 2016 Writing Stuff
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With another final under Treasured Claim’s belt, my debut has now finaled five times in three contests for published books. So today seems like a good time to touch upon the contest arena for published books.

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