Skip to content

Words Matter

I speak with many people when I’m selling my books at the Wolfville Farmers’ Market on Saturday’s. Today, several families with children stopped by. Three of these young people, ages 9 to 10, excitedly shared how they like to write stories and told me their plots. I talked about how rewarding writing is for me and how happy I was that they enjoy telling stories as well. All three smiled broadly. Words are the most powerful thing humans possess. For all I know, the words I spoke today may have inspired a future winner of a Noble Prize for Literature. We can never tell for certain how our small acts of encouragement can change the universe.

Reading your work aloud helps catch problems

When editing your work, you can be so familiar with it your eye doesn’t catch missing words, extra words, wrong words (filed instead of filled), missing punctuation (periods and question marks) and many other mistakes. It helps to read your work aloud to yourself. Many of these things become apparent. Still, your brain can insert or delete things even when you read aloud. Here’s a way to help catch problems.

In Microsoft Word 365, for manuscripts, and Final Draft, for screenplays, you can have the program read your text aloud with a variety of voices. Errors jump out. You hear that missing, extra and wrong word. You hear missing punctuation when two sentences run together. When you listed, you’ll get a sense of pacing and discover words or phrases you repeat. This will help you deliver clean manuscripts and screenplays for movies and television to agents, publishers, producers or insure polished books when you publish yourself, though if you are self-publishing you should always hire a professional editor because the final product needs a human touch, which artificial intelligence can’t provide..

For Word 365, select Review on the menu, then Read Aloud. The program will begin reading aloud from the point of the cursor. It will also display a mini-toolbar to the right hand side. This has a play button, >, a stop button, [], a button to go to the beginning of a line a line, <<, a button to go to the next paragraph, >>, and a button with the icon of a gear over a speaker to adjust the settings.

When you click the settings icon, you can adjust the speed of the voice and the kind of voice you want in a drop-down box. You may see only Male and Female for choices. These are what I see in the Administrator account. On my own account I see three selections, David Microsoft which is a monotone male voice, Zira Microsoft which is a female voice with inflection and Mark Microsoft which is a male voice with inflection. I’m not certain why I see three choices for my own account and only two generic ones for the Administrator.

For Final Draft, you have more setting options. Click Tools on the menu. Under the Speech Control Frame you will see a play button, >, a stop button, [], an Assign Voices button, ))), a fast forward button, >>, that moves forward to the next block (scene, action, dialogue), and a Rewind button, <<, that moves back a block.

The Assign Voices button shows a dialog box with three tabs. The first, Characters, allows you to assign each character one of ten unique voices; Man 1, Man 2, Woman 1, Woman 2, Boy 1, Boy 2, Girl 1, Girl 2, Old Man and Old woman. Initially, these will all sound in the same, a monotone male voice. These can be adjusted on the Third tab, Actors. Here, you can assign a unique male of female voice to each actor by selecting the gender from the drop-down box. You can then adjust the pitch and speed. There is a Preview button to hear what it sounds like and make further adjustments. I see two choices, Microsoft David (male voice) and Microsoft Zira (female voice). You may see other choices or a generic male or female. Because you can adjust pitch and speed, you can crate unique types of any gender.

The second tab, Narrator, allows you to assign a unique voice to the narrator who reads the scenes, action and dialogue. Again, there is a preview button.

Other writing program may have similar features.

You will find these tools a great asset to make your work shine.

The importance of humility

I keep back all of my old manuscripts. From time to time, I take one out and read the wretched prose I put down while struggling to learn the craft. That deflates my head every time so it fits through a doorway.

There is a particularly odious passage in a very early version of one of my fantasy novels where a dignitary visits a palace and pike men stand in a line as an an honor guard. I thought the piece was Pulitzer Prize winning material and would elevate the fantasy genre. I would be hailed a brilliant young talent and the book would go on to be a best seller. For reasons known to no force in the universe, I had a fly land in the cheek of one of the soldiers, This was a minor character who would never appear again. As the fly crawled around, the soldier fought to remain at attention. At this point, I actually wrote the words, "To flinch would be a fate worse than death." As we all know, you should avoid cliches like the plague.

I was taking a course in novel writing at the time. The instructor would read two manuscript sections each session and everyone would critique them as a learning exercise. As my piece was read, I slunk lower and lower into my chair. What had seemed so great crumbled into a pile of amateurish mediocrity.

I left the classroom and stood despondent on a street corner next to a trash can. I looked at the manuscript and said out loud to myself, “This is it. Either you accept you don’t know how to write yet, the words are not my blood on the page, comments are not murdering my child and I need to consider each critique to discover how to improve. Otherwise, I have to throw the manuscript in the trash can and never write again.

I chose not to throw the manuscript into the trash. At that instant, I stepped above my ego and became a writer. I didn’t have a published book and hadn’t even finished one, yet I was a writer because I began to work at a professional level.

Years later, after much work, an improved version of that book was a semifinalist in Publisher Weekly’s Booklife Prize with a score of 9.5 our of 10. It also won a silver medal for Literary Sci-fi & Fantasy and bronze medals for Fantasy Action & Adventure and Dragons & Mythical Beasts. None of that would have happened if I hadn't overcome my ego.

Narrator and Point-of-View and Details

Who is telling the story? This is the narrator Whose eyes do we see the action through? This is the point-of-view. These work together to present a window onto the story.

There are four types of narrators: first person, second person, third person and the omniscient narrator.

In first person narration, the main character relays the story as seen by that character. For example, I listened at the keyhole in anticipation as Lord Frazzlefoo said, “Where are my suspenders?” Even though Lord Frazzlefoo has dialogue, it is the first person narrator who hears it and relays the conversation to the reader.

If Lady Poobob was in the garden painting Lord Frazzlefoo’s suspenders green at the same time, the reader won’t learn this unless the first-person narrator observes it or discovers this fact later. First person narration puts everything in the narrator’s point-of-view. This can be limiting. There is no overall grand sense to the story. However, it gives the story a sense of immediacy, as if the main character grabs the reader by the shoulders and shouts, “This is my story. You have to hear it.”

Second person narration is rarely used in novels. It addresses readers as if they are the main character in the story. It can be seen in role playing games or build-your-own-adventure books. It’s always told in present tense, as if the action is happening at the moment the book is read. You listen at the keyhole as Lord Frazzlefoo says, “Where are my suspenders?

Third person narration presents the characters as separate from the action. It can be told from the point-of-view of a single character or through the eyes of many characters. This is often seen in large, epic stories.

Detective Samuels peered through the keyhole as his heart pumped in anticipation. I’ve got you this time, he thought.

Inside the room, Lord Frazzlefoo rummaged through his closet. He was certain he put the suspenders away. “Where are they.” He wondered if Lady Poobob took them.

In the garden, Lady Poobob sat on a bench with Lord Frazzlefoo’s suspenders in her hands. She smiled as she dipped a brush into green paint and slathered it on the braces.

Here we see and hear the story and inner thoughts through the eyes and ears of the detective, Lord Frazzlefoo and the omniscient narrator who describes Lady Poobob’s actions. This is an example of multiple viewpoints.

In third person narration, we can add even more information known to none of the characters through the omniscient narrator who sees, hears and understands everything.

Lady Poobob was certain they’d fetch a hefty price in London. With the telephone out of service, everyone was unaware the market for green suspenders collapsed that morning.

Details are best remembered when given through the eyes of the characters.

Tom felt the cold steel of the railing as he descended the staircase will be remembered better than The steel railing was cold.

Descriptions give the impression of a place or objects. They shouldn’t be travelogues, as in:

Bright sunshine sparkled on the placid waters of the lake surrounded by tall trees whose green leaves were in dark contrast to the blue sky filled with fluffy clouds.

Unless these details are important to the story or character development, they should be condensed.

Sun sparked off the forest lake.

This may be all you need. It gives a feeling for the place. Readers will fill in their own secondary details.

Even in historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, worlds that are in the past, have yet to occur or never existed, details should be carefully selected to enhance the story and character development. Let the details of a Victorian carriage signal the mood of a character or a social condition. Inform readers the threat an energy field protects a space ship from. Let an epic poem told by a bad in a fantasy story foreshadow events to come. Always put your details to work.

Read your work aloud

It’s easy to miss problems and mistakes when you edit your manuscript. Our minds tend to fill in words that aren’t there and skip ones that don’t belong.

I go through multiple drafts. The first draft gets ideas, situations, characters and relationships from my mind into a physical form. It’s in rewriting the second, third and subsequent drafts where a manuscript is crafted into a novel.

I write the second draft in a word processor. It’s easy to make corrections, shift blocks of prose around, delete sections and create new material. For the third or fourth draft, depending on how much grunt work I have to do, I print the manuscript out on paper and go through it with a red pen. Things stand out on paper that can be missed on a screen.

As well, writers use different parts of their brains when they type than when you write by hand. Typing tends to draw on the analytical brain and handwriting on the emotional side. I can’t write poetry directly on a computer. When I finish the edits on paper, I enter the corrections back into the word processor.

The last step is to read the work out loud to myself. When I voice the text, missing words, mistakes and inconsistencies pop out.

What are we teaching children?

Children today are thrust into the adult world with little or no perpetration. I am no prude, yet I'm concerned young people are being robbed of their childhood as they are bombarded with subjects and the portrayal of situations they don't fully understand to form twisted ideas about human relationships both social and personal. We, as adults, are responsible to guide them without oppressing them so they can explore the world and their emotions in safe environments. The Internet removes that guidance. AI will exasperate the ability to gently introduce children into adulthood as they grow. This has affected our societies for decades and created an infantile culture. Responsibility is overridden with the constant hunt for instant gratification and entertainment. The road back begins with children. They look to adults and mimic them. If adults fail to teach respect and compassion without perspective, our socialites will move further and further away from civility.

Writing with a purpose

As I write, I make the work entertaining and build interesting characters. At the same time, my books express my artists intentions with themes presented as stories and not lectures. One of the themes I explore is gender equality.

Beyond the Shallow Bank
This morning, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) magazine format radio program The Current, there was a half hour discussion about the history of pockets with a particular emphasis on how women’s garments lack them, or the pockets are so small they’re useless.

Men have had useful pockets since the 15th century. Women’s garments only saw pockets in off-the-shelf products in the early 20th century, and they were mostly for show. Woman have spoken and written about this exclusion for centuries. It was raised during the women’s suffrage movement. Even today, pockets on women’s clothes are so small a smart phone can’t fit into them. They must be carried in handbags, which one suffragette referred to as, “The bag of oppression.”

In Beyond the shallow Bank, my historical women’s fiction novel with elements of Celtic mythology, the main character, Margaret Talbot, lives in the male dominated society of 1901, but she doesn’t simply accept her supposed place. Here is a quote from the book concerning women and pockets.

“She got down from the wagon, tucked the sketchbook under one arm and slid a pencil into the pocket she had sewn into her skirt, wondering, as she had many times before, why women’s garments were not designed with such a useful feature.”

Later in the book, Margaret comments on the privileges enjoyed only by men as she defies convention.

To plot or not to plot - why are we asking this question?

There's a rude and inaccurate phrase being spread in online writing groups, "Plotter or Pantser." It implies those who plot out a story in an outline first are professionals and those who don't are amateurishly flying by the seat of their pants. There are professionals who plot with outlines and professionals who don’t.

We who don’t are not flying by the seat of our pants. We start with characters and a situation. As we write, we place characters under pressure and see how they react. That reaction revels the characters true natures, moves the story forward and examines the themes presented, all of which we don’t know in the beginning because we’re discovering our own perspectives and the nature of the world as we uncover the story. The words plot and story are sometimes used interchangeably, yet are quite different. Plot consists of the incidents. Story consists of the incidents, world building and character development. People want to read stories, not plots.

James Patterson writes detailed, chapter by chapter outlines before he puts down a single word of prose. This obviously works for him because he’s a bestselling author and people love his well written books. He’s writing a particular type if book, a puzzle that he lays out, cuts up with a jigsaw and assembles in front of readers. He also works with collaborators He'll give the outline to another author who will write some chapters or the entire book. An outline makes this easier.

If plotting an outline works for you, that’s what you should do. Just don’t use rude terms like pantser for those who don’t. Stephen King, Salmon Rushdie and Margaret Atwood never create outlines or character sheets before putting down prose. None of them can be considered struggling armatures.

Making personal appearances that sell books

Making an appearance at a bookstore, reading or farmers’ market is a great experience.

All the bookstores I’ve appeared at were supportive and helpful. They supplied water and even snacks. Each of them advertise the events on their social media accounts. I also make announcements on my website and on social media.

Quite frankly, it’s not worth the money to pay for advertising. Tell friends, co-workers and family and ask them to spread the word.

I find the best way to do any appearance is to approach it as a service. Share your enthusiasm for a book people might enjoy and don’t think of it as trying to make a sale. Be sincere. People can spot artificiality.

What works for me is to say “Hello” to everyone. Some people say hello back and move on. Some people ignore me. Some people stop. When they do, I give a 15 second overview of my books (I have 5 titles). That’s all the time you have to attract interest. My 15 second overview is:

I’m the author of all the books you see on this table ranging from women’s historical fiction with rumors of Celtic mythology to an epic fantasy trilogy to a science fiction novelette that asks, ‘Artificial Intelligence - what could possibly go wrong?’

If this holds people’s interest, take another 20 to 35 seconds on a book they seem interested in by watching their eyes move across the titles and go into more detail.

For the historical novel I say:

This is the story of Margaret Talbot, an artist who fights her way into the male dominated world of publishing in the late nineteenth century, the way many historical women did, to become a magazine illustrator, but she has a life changing crisis, comes to a small fishing village and meets many people. One young woman named Sara skips and jumps and sings nonsense songs. Margaret fears Sara had a childhood trauma, but some in the village say she’s a selkie, a magical being from Celtic mythology who walks on the land as a human and swims in the sea as a seal. With the influence of the villagers, and her own self-determination, Margaret strives to discover who she is and what she truly wants.

Some may want to talk more about one of your books. Some may want to tell you about a book they’re working on and ask questions about writing. Some may tell you the most intimate and interesting stories about their lives. Take your time, be honest and make connections with everyone.

Present the spirit of the book more than the plot. Concentrate on the relationships between characters. That’s what people like to hear about. Don’t speak at anyone, engage people in two way conversations. Listen as much as you talk. Let the conversation wander away from your books. Some people will buy a copy and others won’t. Keep the attitude you’re there to meet folks and connect.

I sell between 12 and 25 copies this way over a 4 hour period.

The greatest joy is when someone who has read one of more of my books tells me how much they enjoyed it. This makes it worth all the work.

A powerful collection of poems

Woman Strong by Anna Casamento Arrigo
Strong Woman: A Collection of Poems by Anna Casamento Arrigo is a deeply moving examination of love found, love lost, motherhood, childhood and surviving a stroke. The poems are honest and powerful, each written with passion. The poet exposes her fears, desires, disappointments and dreams in intimate detail. Within the text are black & white photographs that illustrate the moods of the poems. I have worked in black & white, which is actually a myriad of shades, for decades and love the medium that cuts through the distraction sometimes found in color to express emotions with clarity and impact. Ms. Arrigo has written children’s books, a romantic thriller and a memoir as well as volumes of poems. Eight years after a stroke she continues on a healing journey and quotes Robert Frost, “I have miles to go before I sleep.” Woman Strong is a journal of that healing process both women and men will identify with.

Effecting change through books

Nonfiction informs the world. Fiction can change it by humanizing the plight of others. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist shocked the British people with the suffering of child labor. They demanded Parliament act where reformers had tried and failed. Every story draws us together as a society. Some entertain us. Some make us laugh. Some make us cry. Some reveal truths and give us the opportunity to examine ourselves so we can choose to bring about change.

My approach to creating a book

There is no one process everyone must follow to write a book. All authors must find methods that works best for them. Some write plot outlines that range from general overviews to chapter by chapter details before they put down prose. There are writers who create descriptions of each main characters with their background, history and traits. As with outlines these vary from general to in depth. Others, like Salman Rushdie, David Mamet, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King Margaret Atwood and me don't write either.

Like the other authors mentioned above, I start with a concept I want to explore, place characters in a situation under pressure and see what happens. The way the characters react reveals their true natures and moves the story forward.

As I write, I learn more about the characters and story. New concepts come to mind. I may realize a setting is wrong. I may turn a hero into a villain. When these ideas come, I don’t go back and change previous martial. I make a note of them and continue from that point as if I had already made the changes.

I keep going until I finish the first draft. Before making any changes, I read the entire first draft. It will have grammar and spelling mistakes, dead ends, missing martial and inconsistencies. It will also have the core of the story and character development.

It’s then that I sit down, consult my notes and begin a second draft where I edit the manuscript and fix not just grammar and spelling, I make the adjustments I noted, alter character relationships, adjust scenes and so forth. I will find that some of the notes I made no longer apply to how the story or characters turned out. As I work, I’ll think of new story elements and characterizations that were not noted. Things shift and change. That’s good. The manuscript is taking on life and consistency.

When I finish the second draft, I read it without making changes, then start a third draft. You may be tempted to think only one pass is needed, yet you will be shocked at how many problems and mistakes you’ll find while writing the third draft; grammar mistakes, missing words, duplicated words, spelling errors, character development, story elements, etc. With the third draft complete, I start the fourth. I keep writing drafts until I’ve combed the manuscript to be the best I can produce. It will never be perfect. It is said a novel is a long piece of writing with mistakes. The stopping point for me is when I see the things I wanted to talk about, the representation of the characters, and the entertainment value express what I set out to deliver. For the final book of a fantasy trilogy, I wrote ten drafts because it had to tie up all the lose ends.

After I complete my drafts, the book goes to my editor. We than work together to improve it. This method has served me through five novels and an illustrated edition of one. Three of these books have won awards. Writing a novel is really rewriting until it sings.

Beware of cold calls praising your work

Well, I got another call from someone saying my novel came highly recommended and I was selected to receive something. Ya - Right. This is the fourth call I've received from different people who name one of my published books, say it was highly recommended (not just regularly recommended mind you) and I had been selected for their service. I never answer calls where I don’t recognize the name or phone number on caller ID and let them go to voicemail. This one actually had a company name displayed. The callers usually have thick foreign accents that are nearly incomprehensible. This one was understandable and stated the company name and said I was selected for a contest. I looked them up. They claim to offer interviews, reviews and marketing. This one has a contest I'd never heard of and I suspect no one else has either. If you receive a call saying your book was recommend and you were selected for something, you can out dollars to donuts it's a scam. Many self-published authors and independent publishers are desperate for any exposure or praise. Don't bite or you may get bitten.

The Place of the Pun

A pun is a play on words, a statement that turns spelling or phrases around in a humorous manner. I can paddle, canoe? (I can paddle, can you?) When avoiding chores around then house, mother is the necessity of invention (necessity is the mother of invention).

I had a teacher who hated puns and said they were the lowest form of writing. The TV show Get Smart, a comedy where Don Adams played an inept secret agent when spy movies were popular, was running at the time. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, each episode contained an onslaught of puns in a style Brooks used in his parody films such as Blazing Saddles and Space Balls.

My teacher despised the show and used it as an example of what should never be done. Her idea of good writing was Shakespeare.

I loved Get Smart and all the puns. I can still watch it today and laugh Thinking back, I don't believe that teacher actually understood Shakespeare's works because they're loaded with puns. However, the language and culture has changed so much over 500 years. Many people today don't recognize the humor.

This might sound like a meaningless exchange that's anything but funny. Yet, to audiences in the 16th century it brought uproarious laughter. They understood the joke. At that time, to face a man had two meanings, either to stand up to him or for a tailor to add decorations to a garment. Braved also had two meanings— to challenge someone to a dual or for a tailor to measure someone for garments.

This might sound like a meaningless exchange that's anything but funny. Yet, to audience in the 16th century it brought uproarious laughter. They understood the joke. At that time, to face a man had two meanings, either to stand up to him or for a tailor to add decorations to a garment. Braved also had two meanings— to challenge someone to a dual or for a tailor to measure someone for garments.

For puns to work, they must contain know cultural references. That modern audiences don't always get the puns in Shakespeare's plays doesn't mean people today are dumb. They just don't have the same connection to the older culture and language. Even for subcultures within any modern societies, the puns will differ and may not me understood by people in other groups.

It takes a lot of wit and intelligence to write puns. They make us pause, shake our heads, and if their really good, groan when people get them.