Friday, January 12, 2018

Don't Let Your Dream Die With You

Arden Edwin Harper
May 17, 1926--January 8, 2018
The man pictured to the left is my father, Arden Edwin Harper. He died this past Monday at the age of 91, and I miss him more than I can say. But I don't want my loss (and that of my brother and sister) to override the value of the lesson he taught me. Of course there were many lessons, but the one I'm referring to is to not wait another minute to do (or at least put into action a plan to do) something you've always wanted to experience or accomplish.

While my father was a highly-educated man--he had a master's degree and was a teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent of schools throughout his entire career in education (and beyond, since he taught mathematics at two different community colleges following his retirement from the public school system), he was also a gifted writer. Late in his life, around 80 or so, he began to take an interest in writing stories about his youth, his high school and college years, his experiences in the Army during World War II, and other topics. He had a phenomenal memory and could recall the names, dates, places, sisters, brothers, parents, etc., of everyone and every place that populated his stories. I have one book-length manuscript he wrote detailing his time in the Army during WWII, and many shorter essays/stories on other topics. I recall when I was younger hearing him say he'd like to write a book one day. I always assumed he would. After all, he was my dad; he could do anything.

When his interest in writing was re-kindled, he was into his ninth decade on this earth. Technology was a real challenge for him, although he was as sharp as he ever was right up until about a week before his death. Intelligence wasn't the problem. It was not being able to keep up with the constant changes in technology and the publishing process that eroded his desire. Oh, he still enjoyed the act of writing and hearing my reactions to his pieces of work, but his interest in actually publishing anything at that late date was slowly being extinguished. It seemed insurmountable. Perhaps it was.

I mourned that loss, and tried many times to convince him that he still had so much to offer the world, that there weren't many WWII veterans left who could so accurately tell their stories of that time in our history, that I would help all I could with any questions he had on computers, technology, or submitting his work. But I think he felt it was just too late. But I don't think so. I think he could have done a fine job of writing that book (or books) even at his age. I think he thought he could always do it tomorrow, but tomorrow turned into next week and next month and next year, and eventually led to his last day.

I'm certainly not disappointed in the writing work he did accomplish. It is well-written, hilarious, inspirational, historically accurate, and done expertly. I will cherish it always. I'm disappointed, though, that he never had the chance to hold his published book in his hands and tell himself, "I did this." Because he could have.

Now I know our desires and dreams change as we age. Other things were just as--or maybe more--important to him as time went on as writing ever was. He was happy, occupied, content. He read a lot, kept up on current events, was a master at crossword puzzles (I mean hard ones) and Sudoku. His mind was sharp, but his stamina waned, and so he eventually lost the will to do what he once thought he could do some time during his life.

Don't let this happen to you. I'm primarily writing to you writers out there, but this could be applied to any dream or goal of anyone reading this. What's the worst that could happen if you gave it (whatever "it" might be) your all? You might decide you don't like it as much as you thought you would. You might fall flat on your face and tell yourself you'll never do that again. So be it. That happens to me all the time. It happens to all of us all the time. But there's something about that very special dream that makes us gun-shy. Hate it, fail it, but please, never, ever, ever sell yourself short by not trying it.

My dad didn't completely give up on his dream, and I realize that the writing he did do was probably enough for him at that stage in his life. I'm happy for that; I really am. But I'm sad that the world didn't know Arden Edwin Harper as the author of the fine work he produced.

Maybe I'm looking for something to hold on to now that he's gone. Or wishing some accomplishment on him that he really never wanted that badly. Could my hearing him talk about writing a book have been a frivolous comment he made that I just took too seriously? Could his writing that book-length manuscript without having it actually published been enough for him? I won't know this side of Heaven, and by that time it won't matter.

My father was a fine man. The world will just have to take my word for it that he was also a fine author. Because he was.
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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Dialog tags and punctuation

by Lisa Lickel
Dialogue Clipart

When I was a baby writer back in the early 2000s two fads were passing through my tiny little writing world. They both were flash in the nights and are now gone. The first was to disavow dialog tags altogether, like some Mission Impossible agents whose case had gone south. The first novel I contracted for was written proudly without tags. The editor put them all back in. The second fad, which lasted for about five minutes, was to try to be creative with he said, she said--"Don't be boring," non-reading pundits advised. Meanwhile, real writing experts (those who actually made a living at it) and real readers, after complaining they never knew who was talking in the above case, said about the creative tags, "Are you kidding? I never pay attention to 'said' anyway. It's, like, the invisible word. Just use it and don't get lame trying to make me figure out which hep cat hissed this or cliche bad guy growled that. Just say it, man!"

I bring this topic back up today because of the many times I've witnessed these errors in materials I have been reviewing and editing lately. I'm not signalling anyone out, and sometimes it's just an honest mistake. I mean, they had to put the comma and period right next to each other on the QWERTY keyboard, right?
Dialogue cliparts

So now, when you read fiction, mindfully notice for a while who sez what how. Good writers use a carefully crafted blend of tags and action beats (more later) and stay out of their own story.

Dialog--what exactly is it? Dia is Greek for move it along, folks and thought, according to etymology online  to be the latin root origin of two. Logos, of course, is Greek for word, from which get our idea of language; thus two speakers. Monologue, of course is...yep, mono for one--one person blabbing to himself or herself, internally or out loud. Tag is another way of saying "attribution." The speech is attributed to Paul, or Ringo, or George, or whomever is talking in your story. "I said it," Ringo shouted.


In American English, we use double quotation marks to offset speech. Unless you're Charles Frazier writing Pulitzer-worthy novels made into major motion pictures which win major awards, then you use dashes. If you want to know the rules of other types of English that is not American, British author Lynn Truss has a fantastic book.

"Thank you for having me on your show," I told the radio host.
"I'm just thrilled to be nominated," said the jaded diva.
Lucy said, "Just ketchup."

In American English, we ALWAYS put certain punctuation marks INSIDE the quotation marks
and, when ending the sentence and part of the speaker's verbiage,

"Gee whiz, Mr. Ed, why'd you have to say that?" Timmy asked.
Reginald's face turned crimson. "You are out of your mind!"

Gee whiz, Mr. Ed. Didn't you hear Timmy say, "I'll be right back"?

In American English we use single quotation marks INSIDE of double quotation marks when a speaker is quoting someone else:

"No!" Reginald huffed. "Mark clearly said 'Ahhh!' when he was going over the side."

We use commas to INTRODUCE speech and periods to end the speech.

Babs said, "Ooh! Wait for me."
Mark asked Reginald, "Can you see it? Bobbing on that wave? It's just over...Ahhh!"

We use periods to end sentences or action beats--those little phrases that indicate who is going to speak when we don't tag the speech.

Mr. Ed nodded his head, sending his mane flying. "I did too hear Timmy say he'd be right back."
Babs pouted. "I wanted to go save Mark."


Tags are the words that describe how one speaks. Said and Asked are the two most common, invisible ways to attribute speech to a character. Since they are so common, readers mostly skip over them, just making sure they are following the conversation. Along with tags, dialog--speech among people--should also be distinguishable by mannerism, word choice, and especially body language. Tags, interspersed with action beats (usually some type of body language or activity that identifies the speaker) make conversation move the story along.

Ways people speak set the tone and pace of the conversation. Out of breath people speak one way; nervous people have particular mannerisms and ways of speaker, non-native-English speakers have little idiosyncrasies. People who have been crying, or are happy have ways of speaking. People with secrets speak a certain way. You get my drift? People can sniff, but they can't sniff-talk, giggle-talk, wave-their-hand-talk, smack-your-shoulder-talk, cough-talk. "Cried" is one of those dual-purpose words that can mean the act of weeping, or a way of calling out loud. Be careful to use that tag when the action won't be confused with the manner of speech. They may talk after or before they perform those actions, but the action is NOT an attribute set off with a COMMA--the action is a SENTENCE set off with a PERIOD. 

"Come into my parlor," whispered the spinster to her gentleman caller.
The caller wiped his shoes and doffed his hat. "Thank you, ma'am."
She indicated the sofa. "Sit here," she said and waved her hand. She didn't dare meet his eye. "I'll sit there." She gathered her skirt and perched on the end of her mother's brocade chair.
The caller cleared his throat. "Seems like..." He sniffed. "Excuse me," he said. He wiggled his mustache. "Would you have a handkerchief to spare," he asked.
"What did you say?"
The caller repeated his request. "My nose is twitching," he explained.
"Shore do!" the spinster shouted back and sprang to her feet.

What are some different times you use an odd tag? What are your favorites?

Resources: has a good lesson sheet on some examples to use--SPARINGLY--in place of said. I question a few of them because--really--who "giggle" speaks? and can you understand it?

The SuperTeacherWorksheet site has a very basic info page and exercise. Puh-lese, don't knock it until you do it right in your sleep. Everybody needs a little refresher, and if you're smarter than a fifth grader, good on 'ya, but just try it, K?

The Write at Home blog by Brian Wasko has a good slightly older post on the subject.

And of course the venerable Writers Digest has a venerable article on the subject of what kinds of tags to use when--though of course they're wrong about there being no rules. Of course there are rules, silly. Even Charles Frazier played by the rules when he used no quotation marks in Cold Mountain and other works. And he's a recovering literature professor.

ClipArt is from and is free to use and share for non-purposes.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

Writing Your Best Story with Phil Martin

How To Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale

Writing Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale, Second Edition
By Philip Martin
Crickhollow Books
Copyright, November 15, 2017
168 pp.
Ebook $2.99
Print $14.95

Buy on Amazon

About the book:
“I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” – Flannery O’Connor.

Beginning writers often wonder what it takes to get published. The second edition of this practical book looks at what really makes fiction work: good storytelling! Oddly, storytelling skills, despite their immense value to all writers, are seldom emphasized in writing courses.
How To Write Your Best Story explores three key elements that fuel the magic of story: intriguing eccentricity, delightful details, and satisfying surprises. The proven storytelling techniques are time-tested and used by the best authors, including by winners of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, and National Book Award, as well as by commercially successful authors whose books appear on bestseller lists and whose work is treasured by generations of fans.

Written by an accomplished editor and indie-press publisher, this guide draws on the author’s decades of experience in the book trade, studying what really works for emerging writers and editing many books of advice on literary craft and career development.

The practical tips, techniques, and examples of best practices here draw on the work of great literary storytellers – from Shakespeare, Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain to Willa Cather, E.B. White, and James Thurber to Neil Gaiman, Ivan Doig, and Patrick Rothfuss.
How To Write Your Best Story will help you understand how to craft better fiction (or nonfiction) and to get your best work published.

Lisa's review:
Framed in a story of the author’s creation, Philip Martin sets off to do what all good mentors teach—show, not tell—in this case, authors, how to create a good story that enchants.

Story should rise above narrative, Martin writes; more than groups of words, more than a series of events. It is also an art form. Quoting liberally from ancient to modern works, Martin employs his background as a professional gatherer of stories and histories to show how story works across culture and time to draw listeners in to a communal experience. Writers are more than purveyors of phrases. Writers offer a promise and provide the worthwhile payoff.

As an experienced editor of writer’s advice books, a former editor for best-selling mainstream authors, and the director of Great Lakes Literary, Martin shares his advice and technique for creating memorable works that hopefully attract an agent or editor. He takes a three-pronged approach, and so this book is divided into sections: start with a quirky hook; keep the middle more than readable by using delicious details, and finally, provide a satisfying ending.

Martin is not a fan of Plot. Plot, as a mechanism for writing a book, will make your work…mechanical. Contrived. Agenda-driven. Unimaginative. I believe his emphatic dissing of the term throughout the book is more a rebellion of the idea of plot, an issue of interpretation. After all, experienced authors are familiar with the idea of a novel being “plot-driven,” as in genre work, or “character-driven,” as more often describes non-specified fiction, aka literary work. No real matter, as Martin does make allowance for necessary underpinning of a story, whether compared to a sensual meal or a spider web. Plot is simply structure, whether an author uses it for a flexible framework, or discovers it after the story is complete. Structure works to create a commonly understood or shared experience. Too many authors use plot as a controlled formula, which Martin insists must be avoided.
Whether cyclic or arced or linear, a story has a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s the promise of a fine meal promised and fulfilled. Start with a desire or a want. Bait your hook with enticing morsels. Help the reader invest, establish resonating characters in intriguing environments. Give them a problem to work on. Create anticipation; offer satisfying surprises. “Delightful details” keep the reader’s interest and should build upon the premise. “Detail should triumph plot,” Martin says. Even while he dismisses Plot, Martin embraces Theme. “Theme should tell you what the ending should deal with,” he writes. Don’t try to find it until you’re well into your story. Theme is a message that answers why the story is important. The end of your tale should let the reader know this journey has been worthwhile, that he has returned better for having taken it with you, the story teller.

The book is well written with an easy-to-appreciate style. As mentioned above, he spins a story to show us how to create interesting characters with interesting problems who need interesting solutions to achieve desired outcomes. Martin also shares examples from well-known work to exemplify his points. While geared specifically with writers in mind, those who practice verbal story-telling would certainly benefit from reading and studying Writing Your Best Story. The premises and examples Martin lays out in the book apply to all kinds of writing from short story to full length novel, even on a certain level to non-fiction.

About the author
Phil Martin is an experienced editor of many books of advice for writers. Previously acquisitions editor for The Writer/Books, he had also written A Guide to Fantasy Literature and The Purpose of Fantasy, as well as award-winning books on traditional culture. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he directs Great Lakes Literary, offering editorial services and websites for authors. He also speaks and teaches workshops, and serves on the board of Novel-In-Progress Bookcamp and Writing Retreat, Inc.

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