Transmuting Sunlight – Daylily


Plants are alchemists. They turn sunlight, water, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and some trace elements into food, building materials, oxygen, and beauty.This daylily caught my eye last summer because it seemed to be completing the circle, capturing the brightness of the sun in its blossom.

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Transmogrify


Rhythm – Wednesday Words

What does rhythm mean in writing? It can mean several things, actually, including when and how you reveal important information, how you jump from character to character, or other aspects of plot and structure. Today, though, I’m going to talk about how rhythm is reflected in tempo of the beats formed by our sentences. Our words can unspool gently like long flowing ribbons, floating on distant breezes. Or they can pounce like cougars, slicing and biting. Which tempo you want to create depends on what’s going on in the story. When things are slow, when characters are calm and your reader can catch her breath to think about how she feels about things, that’s the time for slower, denser sentences with more description and sensory impressions. When action heats up, this changes. You need short, punchy sentences. Sentence fragments. Rapid beats, like a fluttering heart.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the first chapter in my work in process. Early in the chapter the narrator, Kay, is cleaning up in a hotel kitchen after the guests have left, getting ready for the hotel to shut down for the winter. Here are a couple of sentence from that section:

I was working quickly as I sorted the last tray of mixed flatware into their drawers at the back of the pantry, scalding my fingers on the hot metal…. Tableware sorted, I hurried back out into the kitchen to wipe down the yellowing counters and chipped sink with antiseptic, dump the cloths into the laundry bin, strip off my gloves, and finally tuck some loose ends of my hair back into their clip.

Two sentences with an average length of 37 words. It has a slow tempo, with sensory detail about the scalding hot metal, a step-by-step description of the action, some bits describing the state of things in the hotel and her fly-away hair. The goal is to firmly set the reader in Kay’s world, inside her head, as she goes through the mundane actions that start the evening.

By the end of the chapter the situation has changed. Bizarre creatures from another world have come through a mysterious portal to threaten Kay and Jana, the woman she works for. Jana is fighting for her life, and Kay has to decide whether to stay and help her or get out. Here are some sentence from that section:

Somehow, with no eyes, it looked at me. I couldn’t stop a whimper. It swayed a bit on its many legs, took a sliding step toward the door. Toward me. My breath froze and I stepped back. No, I can’t do this. I turned toward the hallway, pretending that I was going for the phone. In truth, I was running away. Later I would feel bitter about that. Right now, I was too afraid for bitterness.

This passage has almost the same number of words (77 versus 73), but there are 10 sentences with an average length of 8 words each. The tempo is choppy and broken, with few sensory details. Kay’s attention is on what she’s facing and her own reactions, external (whimpering, turning to run) and internal (breath freezing, too afraid for bitterness). There’s no time for anything else!

Try this in your own writing. Take a passage where things are quiet, where you want to help your reader slow down and process what’s happening. Try letting the sentences lengthen, enriching them with sensory detail. Take another passage where the action is furious, where you want the reader to be breathlessly jumping to what’s next. Try cutting sentences into pieces. Fragments, even. (See what I did there?) Strip out unnecessary details, focusing just on what’s directly in front of the character right now.

How do you control the pace and tempo of your story?

Sun Rays at Pultneyville

Water, rocks, clouds, sun rays, and a birdLast summer we visited Pultneyville, NY (I’ve mentioned it before, in one of the posts that’s over on my web site instead of here on the blog), and I captured this image out on the beach, looking northeast along the Lake Ontario shoreline. I love the light in this picture, with the sun rays coming through the dramatic clouds and reflecting off the water. These rays are sometimes called crepuscular rays, from the Latin word for twilight, because they are most often seen around twilight or dawn. In this case, though, the sun is obviously too high for it to be dawn, so they’re just sun rays. Nothing complicated, but lovely to look at.

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Shine


Accent and Dialect – Wednesday Words

I know, it’s Thursday. I plead temporary madness due to the election debate here in the US. It’s made many of us crazy.

Still, I don’t want to skip a week, so here we are on Thursday with my Wednesday Words. I want to talk about how to handle accent and dialect in dialogue. There’s often a temptation to try to spell out what something sounds like phonetically: “Ah wurnt goan ta say nuttin bout dat, but ya dun got me awl riled up.” This is generally a bad idea! The reader gets bogged down trying to decipher what the person said. The writing on the page gets in the way, so that the reader is focused on spelling and sounding things out, rather than just hearing the conversation unfolding naturally.

A much better technique is to allow word choice, grammatical structure, and rhythm to convey the sound of someone’s words. Here’s an example from my current WIP. Kay is talking with Jana, the woman who runs the hotel where Kay works. It’s the end of a work day, the last day before the hotel closes down for the winter, and Kay tells Jana she’s all set to go. Jana, who knows Kay doesn’t have another job lined up, disagrees: “You are not so set. Next week I go to Florida, helping at my sister’s store in Boca, selling post cards and silly hats to people with sunburns. What do you do, eh?” Every word is properly spelled and the grammar is standard. However, it’s just a little off-kilter for a native speaker of English. From just this one snippet readers will know that Jana is from somewhere else, and many of them would be able to place her accent as something European or Eastern European.

To accomplish this, I recommend doing three things:

  • Read. Go back to books you like where people have accents, and dissect how the author accomplished it. What aspects of word choice and sentence structure creates the sense of people talking in a nonstandard way?
  • Listen. When hanging out in a waiting room or a coffee house, get out your writer’s notebook (you have a writer’s notebook, don’t you?) and jot down snippets of what you hear, especially from people who aren’t native speakers. Don’t transcribe phonetically; capture the word choice and sentence structure. Later, after you’ve forgotten what they sounded like, read back through your notes and see what brings the flavor of the accent to life.
  • Get feedback. Critique partners are terrific for this. When people get distracted by the accent, not hearing it as organic but seeing it as an author’s trick, they can let you know. You can make it a specific question for your readers. Ask, “Did you find yourself having to re-read passages to figure out what someone was saying? Did you feel like skimming through the dialogue to get the gist and move on? Whose lines did you most enjoy reading, and whose made you annoyed?” Listen to what your readers say. Remember, when readers say something didn’t work for them, you can’t argue with that. By definition, it didn’t work.

This is one small jot of diversity in our writing: including characters from elsewhere. Bringing their voices to life in a way that respects and celebrates this diversity is our job as writers.

My Library Home


The Henrietta Public Library in Henrietta, NY, is my home library. They don’t know this, because I live in a different town so when I log into the system it keeps linking me up to that other library. However, I rarely go to the library in my actual town. For one thing it’s not as convenient, because the Henrietta library is closer to where I work and has better parking. Mainly, though, the Henrietta library is more likely to carry the books I’m looking for (they have a much better collection of science fiction and fantasy, for instance). They also do a terrific job with customer service, which hasn’t always been true in the library closer to home. So when people ask me about my local library, I tell them about Henrietta.

Even beyond which library is my local library, though, there’s the larger issue of picking a library as my home place. I don’t have young children, so I never took part in most of the community events that this library has to offer (and there are a lot of them). I don’t go to their movie nights or take part in their craft events for adults. I go there for the books.

I’m a book person; my husband built me a compact library with roll-out shelves to fit all my paperbacks into a closet. The only rooms in my house that don’t hold books are the fancy dining room and some (not all) of the bathrooms. But it’s not enough! I never have fewer than two or three books checked out at a time, and it’s been as high as a dozen. Libraries feed my book habit.

I love what libraries mean to me. Even more, I love what they mean to others in my community. People who can’t afford to buy books, or have no home to keep them in. People who don’t have Internet access. People who need tax forms or voter registration forms. In the words of T. S. Eliot: “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”

When Helping Verbs Don’t Help – Wednesday Words

I looked back at the first draft of Chapter 1 of my WIP, written last April during Camp NaNoWriMo, and compared it with the same chapter in my current, twice-revised draft, and noted one consistent change to talk about in today’s Wednesday Words: Helping Verbs. Sometimes they help, but sometimes they don’t. Continue reading

Water’s Edge


I took this photo two months ago, on black River Bay off of Lake Ontario. It’s one of my favorite sunset pictures, not just because the clouds are so dramatic, but because I happened to catch a flock of birds headed back into shore for the night. This image for me captures some of the beauty and peace of nature.

It also captures a bit of science as well, which ties it into this week’s photo topic: H20. We can see water here in three ways. There’s liquid water in the bay itself at the bottom of the shot. The clouds are made of water and ice suspended by air currents. They are brightly colored because they are reflecting the rays from the sun that’s just below the horizon. Behind the clouds you can see a bit of the normal blue of the sky, and that’s due to water as well. Sunlight is white, containing all the visible wavelengths of light. The shorter blue wavelengths are scattered in all directions by the water vapor in the air, making the sky blue. When the sunlight is reflecting directly off the clouds at low angles, as you get at sunrise and sunset, it has passed through a lot of air to get there and most of the blue light has been scattered. All that’s left is the longer red wavelengths. That’s where the sunset colors come from.

So there you have it: nature and science, together. As they should be.

Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: H20