Stay on the lookout for local events or TV specials that will teach you more about these holiday traditions. Maybe urge your book group to read along those lines! However you celebrate, happy holidays!
This is a variation on two themes: show, don’t tell and trust your reader. The point is that the reader will get your meaning without both the punctuation and the accompanying explanation.
Quotation marks. Once you’ve put dialogue inside quotation marks, it’s obvious that someone said it. You can skip the she said, he replied, she answered, he responded, etc. Put in an explanation only when you need to indicate how it was said AND you cannot do it with punctuation! For example, “I’m not so sure about that,” she muttered, turning her back on him. Even so, use descriptors like muttered, murmured, cooed, whispered, etc., sparingly. Let the reader get it from the context whenever possible.
Exclamations. “It’s Santa!” “Look out!” “I adore it!” Can your reader be in doubt about what’s happening? Your writing will be stronger if you skip such unnecessary add-ons as she exclaimed, he shouted, or (heaven forbid) she enthused. Use an exclamation point to indicate strong emotion.
Question marks. Here again, if you end a bit of dialogue with a question mark, you needn’t add he asked, she queried, he inquired, etc. The exception here is needing to identify a specific speaker when more than two are present. Even then, try to avoid the tag-on attribution. For example, Ellen joined the debate. “Who says so?” is stronger in communicating to the reader than “Who says so?” Ellen asked.
Commas. Usually commas indicate nonessential information—information which could be dropped without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. For example, “My parents, John and Linda, are coming for Christmas.” (Of course, this assumes one has only two parents!)
Other uses of commas include separating a series of items of equal weight to the meaning. For example, Jim packed shirts, pants, ties, underwear, shoes, and socks. Though this entire list might best be summed up as “his clothes”!
Dashes. Use a dash instead of a comma to give extra weight to a particular item. For example, John picked up the flowers, the candy—and the diamond solitaire. Also, use a dash to indicate that a speaker was interrupted. I’m telling you— would be followed by something like the door banged open or another speaker. You needn’t say that he stopped talking when the door opened or that So-and-So interrupted him.
Ellipses. If you write I’m telling you. . . you are indicating that the speaker trailed off—a whole different meaning from a dash. The use of ellipses to indicate that some material in a quoted passage has been left out is seldom relevant to a novelist, but can be very important in nonfiction.
And for heaven’s sake, never use double punctuation at the end of a sentence. For example, Where do you think you’re going?! If you simply write, Where do you think you’re going! the combination of words and ! convey a question filled with strong emotion.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines addiction as “the need or strong desire to do or to have something, or a very strong liking for something.” By this definition, aren’t we all book addicts? So what’s wrong with that?
According to the Wikipedia definition, addiction is a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences. So that isn’t sounding so good.
But it gets worse! Dictionary.com says addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming… to an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”
To determine the state of your reading health, answer these 30 simple yes-or-no questions.
The VL Book Addiction Assessment Questionnaire
1) Do friends and/or family often tell you that you read too much?
2) Do you have books in every room of your house?
3) Do you read more than ten (10) hours a day?
4) Are books the biggest line-item in your budget after mortgage payment?
5) Are you looking for a bigger house because you have no more space for books where you live now?
6) Have you ever hung a bookshelf from the ceiling of a room which has no available floor/wall space—such as a bathroom or pantry?
7) Have you resorted to steel girders to support the weight of your books?
8) Are your pets showing signs of jealousy?For example, does your cat pee on your books? Does your dog eat your books? Does your pet lie on your book or e-reader and bite you when you try to remove him/her?
9) Does your spouse, partner, or roommate ever hide your book or electronic reader?
10) Has your significant other ever deleted the Kindle app from all your electronic devices?
11) Has your partner ever ripped the last 10 pages from your book and refused to return them till you have engaged in conversation for at least 30 minutes?
12) Do you travel with two suitcases, the bigger one solely for books?
13) Do you own both a Kindle and a Nook so you don’t risk missing an e-book by an author who isn’t traditionally published?
14) Do you sleep with your electronic reader?
15) Do you have four or more stacks of books on the floor beside your favorite chair?
16) Have you ever bought the same book three times?
17) Do you have cards for five or more libraries?
18) Would you pass on the opera, symphony, theater, museum, or Antiques Roadshow in favor of a used book sale?
19) If you’re in a doctor’s waiting room and discover you have only one book, do you experience increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, and/or tremors?
20) Have you ever pawned a family heirloom to buy a book?
21) Have you ever stolen a book?
22) Do you have nightmares about being stranded on a desert island with no books?
23) Do you have more than ten water-damaged books from reading in the bathtub?
24) Did your spouse cite “book abandonment” in filing for divorce?
25) Have you ever taken a cut in pay and/or changed jobs so you would have more reading time 9:00-5:00?
26) Would you rather read than eat?
27) Have you ever been fired for reading on the job?
28) Have you ever been fined for driving while reading?
29) Have you married someone based on the size of his/her book collection?
30) Would you trade your first born child for books?
If you answered yes to one of these questions, take care. Taper off on your book buying and reading before it’s too late.
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, seek help immediately! Consider therapy, possibly residential rehab, to break your habit before it breaks you.
One last thing: If you know any symptoms of book addiction not covered by these questions, please notify me so that the assessment instrument can be updated and improved.
James Haddon is a wood carver. He came to my attention as a carver of Santas in particular—which I collect. His work is graceful, and each carving has character. These are characteristics true of good writing as well.
But my main point today is variations on a theme. I was incredibly impressed with the breadth of his imagination when I noticed that he had carved both of these Santas.
Having noticed his range, I started looking for his work. Now that I have several of his pieces, I’m impressed with how his approach to the concept of Santa parallels what a lot of writers do with concepts crucial to them.
Many writers and teachers of writing say write what you know, or write your obsessions, or write your shadow (i.e., the dark side you usually hide). So, does that mean you write the same story again and again? Yes and no. Suppose your issue is abandonment—or poverty, crisis of faith, sibling rivalry, fear of failure, sexism, parent/child relationships—whatever. This will come up in your work again and again. The skill is to make it come up in different ways!
James Haddon’s concept of Santa is not unilateral! He looks at it from many perspectives. Sometimes, you need to change the entire shape of your presentation. A different genre, perhaps?
Sometimes, Haddonjust tweaks the externals. For writers, this might mean changing the gender or ethnic heritage of the protagonist. The internal conflicts, concerns, struggles, or aspirations could remain the same but present a new perspective.
One can’t really change Santa’s age, but Haddon changes size sometimes, which I say is close enough. The point here for writers is, consider presenting your passion with a much younger or much older protagonist.
Sometime changing the context—putting your character into an unexpected setting—makes the message fresh. Consider what James Haddon did with these two unusual Santas.
Last but not least, consider going back in time (or forward). These two “old world” Santas are good examples. The concept is still clear!
Bottom line: Take James Haddon as inspiration and let your imagination go!
It’s almost a truism that “I couldn’t put it down” is about as high praise as a book can get. And yet, it might not always be the highest recommendation!
Right now, I’m reading Sinco: A Love Story Set in Spain, the second book in the Cantabria American School series. Bueno, the first book in the series, was part of my reading for Spain. I wrote about it after I returned.
But back to Sinco. The characters remain the same as in Bueno, with all their individual concerns, fears, and grudges. Some characters are brought to new prominence, others have faded a bit, but the point is, it is a smooth continuation of the plight of struggling young first-time private school director Harvey Jones.
His nemises at the school have nicknamed him Sinco because when Jones is pronounced in the Spanish way, it becomes Sin Cojones. These enemies are becoming ever more vindictive and plotting.
The book is funny, full of human foibles, and steeped in Spanish culture. It’s a good read.
And I can put it down at any time! Indeed, I’ve done so several times times recently. And this is a good thing! This is a hectic time for me—as for many—so I treasure a book I can pick up for a few minutes or an hour, put aside, and not struggle to get back into the story when I pick it up again.
For your holiday reading pleasure, I recommend Sinco, a book you can put down!
Most of us stopped reading aloud when our last child outgrew being a listener. But remember what engaged you and your child. It probably included rhythm, delightful words (think Dr. Seuss), vivid images, and different voices for different characters. These are all good things for adult books and stories.
Reading your work aloud is a good way to improve it. Ideally, someone else would read it aloud while you listen and take notes, but such a partner may be hard to come by. Alternatively, read aloud to yourself—actually reading, not mumbling the words. Perhaps even recording yourself reading at least part of it. Reading aloud accomplishes several things.
1. It highlights verbal tics: Repeated words or phrases hit the ear in a way they don’t hit the eye. Providing a character with a verbal tic can be a good thing, but when everyone uses the same word or phrase, it becomes the author’s verbal tic, and that is not good. It’s boring. I wrote about this in an earlier blog. Also, the same speech patterns makes it difficult for the reader to identify the character who is speaking.
2. You hear awkward sentence structures. Too long. Too convoluted. Too many parenthetical insertions. Too long a series with everything separated by commas, etc. Anywhere you stumble reading aloud, your stranger reader is likely to stumble reading the written word.
3. You can identify needed and unneeded attributions. If John and Susan are the only two people talking, you needn’t identify every change of speaker—something you can easily hear.
4. If you read it as it’s written, punctuation flaws jump out. You can hear when you’ve put a period at the end of a question, or a question mark at the end of a declarative sentence. You can hear when a sentence would benefit from a dash—to add more emphasis than a comma.
5. You’re likely to notice when too many of your paragraphs begin with the same structure. The most likely pattern here is to start each paragraph with a character taking an action. John stood… Mary slammed the book down… Sam laughed… Claris tossed back a shot of bourbon… Such a pattern begs for varied transitions.
BONUS: Reading your work aloud is good practice for when you win a major award and are asked to do public readings all over the country!
I’ll start by confessing that I did less of it than I planned! Between walking miles every day (literally), consuming enough wine, cheese, and desserts to pack on five pounds, and napping on the bus between cities, the time just flew by. On the other hand, I did promise a report, so here it is.
This book set in Portugal just got better and better. Each chapter is a story, and each story switches to a different POV character while the other characters fade into secondary or supporting roles. In the course of the book, each character gets richer and richer. It’s a fascinating look at a town as a whole, experienced by its citizens. Often the stories/lives seem to be downers, but in the end, it’s more upbeat than I expected! And as I said when I started it, the writing is excellent throughout. I recommend it as a story read, but also as an example of how to put together a novel in an atypical structure.
Sedella: The Story of a Spanish Village
Sedella, on the other hand, just didn’t grab me. The description drew me in, tracing a Spanish town from pre-history to the present, with a mixture of historical/anthropological information and a fictional story line. In this instance, the structure didn’t work for me, going back and forth between the fact and the fiction. I soon found myself skimming the facts and skipping to the story line. In the end, I put it aside altogether in favor of the second novel set in Spain.
Bueno: A Love Story Set in Spain
Bueno: A Love Story set in Spain by Christy Esmahan is delightful. The “hero” is Harvey Jones, an American and novice headmaster of a private school in Spain, the Cantabria American School. Although there’s no hint of a love interest in the first half of the book, it drew me in immediately. Harvey is full of good intentions but he’s on his own in a strange place where he knows nothing of the politics among the teachers, the Board members, the parents, and his mentor. The priorities of the president of the Board, largely responsible for hiring him, are not shared by the teachers and parents.
Harvey has come to Spain in part to be closer to his brother, recently deceased, who was killed in a terrorist attack while living there. He’s taking classes in Spanish to improve the Texas version he arrived with. His nemeses take advantage of that and start calling him “Cinco” because when the J in Jones is silent, as it is in Spanish, it becomes the verbal slur “sin cojones.”
This is Book 1 in the Cantabria American School series and I fully intend to find Book 2! But when shall I get back to Don Quixote and Tales From the Alhambra? I acquired them abroad and haven’t really started either!
I’ve taken hundreds of pictures during my time in Portugal and Spain. Below you will find a selection of these pictures, along with a suggested writing prompt. Choose one or more of these pictures, and using the suggested prompt or one of your own, write 1000 words based on it. It doesn’t need to be polished or finished, just do it!
Bottom line: Draw on visual cues to trigger your creativity.
A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character’s experience… What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.
This is true first-person: being behind the character’s eyes.
Check it out and leave a comment on the article with your results!