Language Joy

A few weeks ago, I ran across this British tongue twister. I don’t remember who wrote it or where I found it, but visually it’s delightful and I had to share it with you all. Some of the words may puzzle us Americans, but that’s part of the fun.

Here goes:

I take it you already know

of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.


With so many variants and idiosyncratic pronunciations, it’s small wonder the English language is considered hard to learn! (Incidentally, in the USA, we spell it hiccup instead of hiccough.) (As for slough, in England the pronunciation rhymes with our plow–which the Brits spell as plough–but in the American south, slough rhymes with you.)

Why all the confusion, you may be wondering? Because after the War of 1812, the U.S. Congress hired Daniel Webster to change as many spellings as possible to help differentiate America from Great Britain. We rely on Webster’s Dictionary, and they have the Oxford English Dictionary. Thus, we became two nations separated by the same language.



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Day of Infamy

Pearl Harbor Day will be observed this week. In the bustle and chaos of the end of this semester’s classes, my rush to wrap up a book project, Christmas shopping/decorating, and hauling my geriatric dog to the vet’s office for expensive testing, I nearly had forgotten all about it. But this afternoon, the radio station was tuned to old radio classics and it was broadcasting a famous speech about the day that will live in infamy when Hawaii was attacked without warning by a foreign power. And with a jolt, I realized that this is a time to pause and remember.

Firstly, to remember those people who lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack galvanized the USA to enter World War II. We had wanted to stay out of it. We wanted to be left alone. We wanted to remain isolated.

On December 7, 1941, the world for Americans changed forever. We continue today to live with the effects of that war. Because of it, we roused ourselves from a semi-rural nation into a worldwide powerhouse and leader. Because of it, our industrial, scientific, and productive gears spun into overdrive, and we have been a consumer-driven country ever since. Because of it, we developed nuclear power and clawed our way into outer space. Because of it, our customs changed and our population shifted. There aren’t many veterans of WWII still living now, but I honor those who served–including some of my uncles–risking their lives and throwing their hearts and courage on the line to preserve us from domination. And as an American, enjoying the privileges of living in this free nation, I give thanks for the sacrifices and bravery our military expended then for the generations to come.

But secondly, I have to remember a different Pearl Harbor Day … December 7, 1977. I was a college senior, majoring in Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma. And I was enrolled in the novel course, required for my major coursework. That class was the sole reason I moved out of state and attended OU. I wanted to be a novelist, and I wanted to take the novel class more than life itself. I’d wanted desperately to take it as a freshman, and it was agonizing to wait until I was a senior to enroll. But that’s the way the requirements fell.

It was a semester I might refer to–stealing a book title from Irving Stone–as The Agony and the Ecstasy. The ecstasy was that finally I was receiving the training I’d longed for since my childhood decision to become a writer. The agony was that the instructor, Jack Bickham, was intimidating, terrifying, strict, exacting, and tough. He was the kind of teacher that pulled no punches and took no prisoners. When you entered that course, you could psychologically identify with the warriors of ancient Sparta–told by their wives to come home with their shields or on them.

Jack didn’t believe in praise. Or encouragement. He issued a single assignment for the class, which was to submit a novel manuscript at the end of the semester. He always chose Pearl Harbor Day as the due date. With a rather evil chuckle, he said it was appropriate because many of us students were headed to destruction. (It was not a remark to inspire confidence.) We had no rewrites, no second chances. One assignment and one grade for a semester’s worth of hard work.

Was he just a sadistic old coot? The kind of jaded, cynical college professor that enjoyed tormenting the young?


It was a writing boot camp designed to make us tough, resilient, and determined to survive. It was to prepare us for the ruthless arena of the publishing industry. He knew in his wisdom and experience that to coddle us and pamper us, to wrap us in praise before we were ready, would be to send us off to be trampled by editors–if we even got that far.  And so, somewhat like a Marine drill sergeant, he scared us and set the bar of achievement high, weeding out the weak, lazy, untalented, and foolish as best he could.

Pearl Harbor Day–a date when a sleepy, naive nation awoke and showed the world what it could do when roused to action. Pearl Harbor Day–a date when I turned in a completed novel manuscript despite fear, shyness, and a dinky portable typewriter that wore out along the way.

America won its war. And my manuscript (THE SIGN OF THE OWL) went onward through more revisions to find eventual publication and a national award.




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Don’t Forget!

In November’s sporadic posts, I’ve written about character design and introduction. But all that hard work and long thought aren’t sufficient. You can build the most vivid character ever, with an outstanding dominant impression and tags galore. You can introduce Mr. Wow into the story with an explosion and a stunt, and it still isn’t enough.

At this point, are you thinking, What more do readers want? Blood?

Let’s not be quite that dramatic. What readers want is character reinforcement.

In other words, you don’t allow readers to forget a character’s dominant impression. You don’t allow them to forget Mr. Wow’s personality. You don’t allow them to forget how special and vivid Mr. Wow is. Again and again, at key points in the story progression you should reestablish, reinforce, and reiterate.

Reestablish a character that’s been off the page for a while. I do this through a miniature introduction or description. Even though readers may vaguely remember this character that’s been gone, it helps them if you can provide reminders of appearance, dominant impression, and story role. Naturally not all characters have to be reestablished. For example, if you’re writing a novel about three people stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific, there’s no need for reestablishment. That would come across as stilted, awkward, and patronizing.

However, let’s say you have a character named Herman that’s been tailing Mr. Wow for half the day. Mr. Wow confronts Herman and discovers that Herman works for a man that wants Mr. Wow to lay off his investigation into a blackmailing scheme. They scuffle, and Mr. Wow knocks Herman out, leaving him in an alley. Four or five chapters later, Herman reappears in the story, this time waiting in Mr. Wow’s office for his return and armed with a .38.

Now, in those intervening four chapters, numerous plot twists, conflict, and new character introductions have occurred. Mr. Wow has barely escaped a warehouse fire, nearly been shot, and fallen in love with a blonde dame at the casino. After so much excitement, readers might dimly remember Herman, or he might be entirely forgotten. So now, with his return, there’s a need to reestablish him. We can do so through a brief description of what he’s wearing. The same tan raincoat with the torn cuff and the same dark brown fedora as before. The same small dark eyes, burning intensely in a narrow face. But let’s remind readers of that alley fight by giving Herman a black eye.

By taking the time to pause the story briefly to give him a miniature reintroduction, readers don’t have to struggle to remember. They’ll get a kick out of the black eye, remembering how Mr. Wow dealt with the little squirt. And they’ll worry about the new element of the .38 and the resentment in Herman’s face.

We reinforce characterization frequently through the usage of tags. Tags, if you recall, are little attachments of character information. We have many types at our disposal. There are tags of physical appearance, tags of behavior and mannerisms, tags of possessions/clothing, tags that show personality, tags of vocabulary or dialogue patterns, and the character’s name with all its connotations.

Why do we need so many? So that we can reinforce often without numbing readers. A rule I try to follow is to use at least one tag per character per page.

I’ll repeat that:  at least one tag per character per page.

Does this mean that I’m going to mention Mr. Wow’s steely gaze in every paragraph? No. Let’s say that Mr. Wow wears custom-made suits that are very expensive. He stands about six feet, five inches. He has thick auburn hair and gray eyes, an aristocratic nose, and a rugged jaw. He drives a Porsche Cayenne SUV–gunmetal gray with black leather interior. He speaks softly but seriously and never says anything he doesn’t mean. He’s smart, tough, successful, resourceful, cool-headed, and ruthless if he has to be.

Now, consider this:

“My boss says to lay off, see, or me and my pals will be forced to rough you up. Unnerstand? Hey, you hearin’ me?”

Mr. Wow had been sizing up the pugnacious punk during the threats and bluster. He’d also inched closer to the spokesman, who maybe came up to his shoulder and had a dished-in face with a nose broken too many times. No one so far had pulled a gun or a shiv, and despite the wooden billy-club in the punk’s hand, Mr. Wow dismissed the trio as amateurs.

He struck without warning, landing a punch that cracked lumpy cartilage and broke the punk’s nose once more. Blood spurted, and with a howl the punk reeled back, dropping his club to clutch his face.

Mr. Wow finished him with an uppercut and spun lightly to face the other two. They stared at him, wide-eyed, and ran.

Dusting off his hands, Mr. Wow checked his silk shirt cuffs for any blood splatter and pulled down the sleeves of his gray woolen suit. It was new, shipped by courier from his Savile Row tailor only yesterday. One of the individual buttonholes on the right sleeve seemed maybe an eighth of an inch out of line with the others. His tailor was getting sloppy. Mr. Wow stared down at his groaning, would-be assailant without expression, stepped over him, and walked out to the curb. Getting into his Cayenne, Mr. Wow drove away without a backward glance. It was time to deal with the punk’s boss.

Never mind that I’m having fun by using every cliched, hard-boiled trope from the golden age of crime fiction, look at how I’ve reinforced the information I want readers to remember. While all the details that I mentioned above in that one-paragraph dossier aren’t used in my italicized example, they don’t need to be because Mr. Wow would have been introduced earlier in the story. But from his name, to his height, to his dapper taste in clothes, to his physicality, and all the way down to his polished toecaps, Mr. Wow’s tags are plentiful enough to be rotated and used in different combinations.

If nothing else, adhere to the tag rule by using a character’s name instead of relying on pronouns. The name tag is the most useful of all types, yet because it’s so functional inexperienced writers sometimes forget it. Why use “he” when you can use “Mr. Wow.”

Reiterate characterization without repetition. Reiterate through utilizing new combinations and ways of showing the information to readers. Show your character’s personality through a variety of actions that all work to convey the same impression.

This is sometimes referred to as using a “tag cluster.” For example, if you want to convey the personality trait of cool-headed, think about what behaviors and reactions will show it.

From the above example, Mr. Wow demonstrates this trait through his calmness when cornered by three thugs armed with clubs. He coolly assesses them, guessing that they haven’t done time or they would be armed differently. He also determines that they are more bluff than true danger. He does not let being outnumbered concern him. He strikes a strategic blow–one as psychologically damaging as it is physically painful–and shows no emotion whatsoever.

How do we reiterate this trait? By demonstrating it in different action the next time. Let’s say that when he pays his bill at the casino that evening, his card is declined. There have been no text alerts on his phone, yet when he checks his bank he learns his account has been frozen. Again, by showing him calm, intelligent, alert, savvy, and unemotional as he deals with financial sabotage, his cool-headed trait is shown anew.



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Happy Thanksgiving!

As we move into the flurry and hurry of the holiday season, I am trying to avoid stress, to count my blessings, and to encourage myself to try new things without timidity.

That sounds very noble and–as we would say in my family–high-falutin’. In reality, I’m trying to stay calm and not freak out because the holiday season has caught me unprepared yet again. My plans for the fall went awry this year, and now time is tick-tick-ticking and my house isn’t clean and my Christmas decorations are a disorganized mess. Instead of being a serene work space, my office is piled with manuscripts, works-in-progress, drafts that need shredding and discarding, books, file folders, and lecture notes. My wi-fi router should be replaced as it is an infernal contraption inadequate for my house and the demands of my gadgets, yet it is connected and sort of working. A replacement means crawling under the desk and grappling with cables and passwords–not necessarily in that order. As for other technical issues, the adapters to connect my new campus laptop to the old home monitor remain baffling despite IT’s valiant efforts to explain, describe, and provide pictures of what to plug where. I will eventually conquer it, despite the temptation to moan and pretend I can’t possibly work while my equipment isn’t cooperating. And yet with all this going on, what I chiefly want to do is put up my space-themed Christmas tree because I have a new stealth-bomber ornament and assorted robots to add to it, and there just isn’t room to cram a tree into a home office already bursting at the seams.

Let’s move on to being grateful. I am! My blessings are many. But as I count them, I find my mind drifting from what I have accomplished this year to tasks not yet finished. There is a fine balance sometimes between the drive to achieve and greed for too much, between satisfaction with a job done well enough and laziness that allows procrastination to take root. I hope to stay balanced and remember that I have always been tremendously blessed. I have much to be grateful for. I have done a lot this year. Could I have produced more? Yes, but I needn’t beat myself up for the items on the list left undone.

As for being too timid to reach beyond my comfort zone, lately it’s become too easy to back away from the unknown and untried. When did I become so cautious? And why do I let myself stall at the unfamiliar? What is this new-found lack of confidence?

Several years ago, a dear friend introduced me to a little book called THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. It is filled with homilies and encouragement for writers. It chiefly focuses on this very issue of being afraid to stretch. I need to hunt through my shelves for it and read it anew.

The big issue standing before me at present is that I have everything ready for publishing my latest book except hiring a cover artist. In the last year or two, finding a graphic designer specializing in this area has become a simple enough task. I have even picked out the individual I want to contact. Yet the force Pressfield calls “resistance” keeps me locked in place. Because this detail is so very important to me, I am stalling, wanting to get it exactly right. But I have to push myself forward, just as with each book I begin I have to push myself into typing the first word. At some point, it comes down to laying aside all excuses and hesitations and simply doing it.

So as Thanksgiving 2017 comes along, I am shifting my car radio to the Christmas music station, accepting that if I manage to put up one tree in the living room this year instead of a half-dozen in various themes it will be okay, and conquering procrastination to independently publish my projects before year’s end.

Tomorrow I will feast and give thanks for what I have. I hope all of you will be doing likewise with your families and friends. And may all your football teams do well.



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Bring ‘Em On!

It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.

Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.

Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.

Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.

So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.

Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.

Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:

Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.

Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.

Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.

Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor:  exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.

Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.

For example:  let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.

Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?

The answer is that it depends on two factors:  Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.

If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.

However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.

The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.





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Tag That Character

Character design is one of the more intriguing and fun aspects of the writing process. After all, we can invent our story people to suit ourselves. We can make our hero tall and lithe, our villain capable of tossing deadly wizard fire, and our minions a small army of tiny, red-eyed, spider-folk capable of telepathic communication.

However, design can become a tar pit of pending decisions. Should I give her red hair or blue? Should she have tattoos? If I make her afraid of heights, does that mean my story has to be set in the Alps?

A simple, basic guide to organizing those decisions is to focus on the following basics:

Dominant Impression

Memorable Introduction


In this post, I’ll focus on dominant impression. This is where you create the appearance, personality, background, and goal of a character then boil it all down to one or two words, such as ruthless killer, sweet innocent, drama queen, clown, diva, swindler, warrior prince, responsible, box-thinker, rule breaker, etc.

If you want to start with a dominant impression and then create the appearance and personality to support it, that’s perfectly fine. But dominant impression keeps the character clear and easy for readers to visualize. It also helps writers stay on track since, when we’re trying to create dimensional characters, we may muddle them unintentionally and fail to achieve the effect we want.

To show dominant impression to readers, we tag our characters by assigning them behaviors, actions, and dialogue that will demonstrate their personality.

For example, if you wish to demonstrate nervous Nellie as a character’s dominant impression, think about this individual’s traits, habits, tics, and behavior. Chronic nervous indicators can include nail biting, fidgeting, clumsiness, restless pacing, pencil gnawing, muttering, rapid-fire speech patterns, and high-pitched laughter.

Each time your character uses one of these indicators (which I call tags of personality), you’ve reminded readers of the dominant impression without author intrusion or telling.

It should be noted that other types of tags include a character’s name, appearance, clothing and possessions, habitat, pattern or style of dialogue, and mannerisms.

Each helps to remind readers of who this character is–distinct and separate from other characters in the cast–while also providing useful information.

While you don’t want to overuse the same tag to the point of exhausting reader patience, a variety of tags should be utilized often. My rule is at least one tag per character per page. Just using the character’s name will satisfy that rule, and if I can reinforce dominant impression at least once on the page then I feel I’m keeping that character vivid and easy for readers to remember.

My next post will address vivid, memorable character introduction.



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Just an update on the forthcoming books. I have finished preliminary edits on both my new book on plotting and its companion workbook of drills and exercises. I have both manuscripts in for another round of proofreading, and then I’ll be busy with cover design and other marketing details.

Although these projects have gone more slowly than expected, I hope to have them available within the next few weeks.


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