Getting to Know Characters

It would be easy to describe Edgar, the log salvage man, in a routine description, telling what he wore and how he talked, how he smelled, or how he behaved. But after a few sentences, would my readers still be with me, especially since Edgar was a secondary character? Why would a reader want to bother?

There are many ways to introduce characters and let the reader get to know them. Here is one method I used in my novel, The Wind Weeps. Edgar is important to the story, but he is a secondary character. Andrea, my main character, has a new job as a wharfinger’s assistant. She greets Edgar as he pulls in to dock at the wharf with his salvage boat and she goes to help him tie up.

Excerpt from “The Wind Weeps”

Edgar’s beat up log salvage boat, Prowler, sidled up to an empty dock space, the engine roaring and spewing blue smoke. Below the waterline, the exhaust sputtered and rumbled. A rainbow film of gasoline crept over the surface of the water. The floating wreck couldn’t have seen a coat of paint in years. Specks of white—all that was left of the original paint—stuck to dented, scarred aluminum. I assumed the jagged metal teeth attached to the bow like pieces of a huge, big-toothed saw, were for pushing logs. The open boat had a canopy over the bridge where the skipper and a deckhand might sit somewhat protected from the weather. But, exposed to the elements, the back was littered with coils of rope, peevee poles, power saws, axes, and piles of chains. Ugly, loud, and stinking of gas and oil, the Prowler’s arrival could not be ignored.

One of the older boat owners and a permanent resident of Lund, Edgar was probably in his seventies, but he hopped out onto the float with the spryness of a much younger man. He was shadowed by an invisible pong of oil and garbage. I wrinkled my nose and reached for the stern line to help him tie up.

“Hi, Edgar. I’m surprised to see you here. Don’t you usually tie up at the floats at Finn Bay?” I knew Bert wouldn’t be pleased to have him tie up here.

“Hey there, Andrea. Yah, that’s right. I won’t be long. Just have to run up to the general store to get some more tobacco. I run out in the middle of the job and it makes me right owly to be without it.”

“Course it does,” I said. He had the sallow, wrinkled skin of a seasoned smoker.

His grimy hand reached for the line I was about to tie. “Here, I’ll do that. These lines is kinda dirty and I don’t want ya gittin’ yer hands fulla grease ’n’ stuff.” I gladly gave the line over to him.

*****

Available at amazon. com and amazon.ca for Kindle and paperbacks.

For other e-readers, go to smashwords.com.

If you enjoy reading The Wind Weeps, please check out the sequel, Reckoning Tide.

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The Long and the Short of it

Sentence Length

It seems to me that novels and also non-fiction books that were written more than 75 years ago had longer sentences. For me, this meant they were more boring to read, especially when I was still in elementary school.

Fortunately, to the great joy of most readers, this writing style has become less popular, and reading has become more enjoyable. Long sentences require more concentration to read. In a scene where the action is quick, it doesn’t make sense for the writer to tell about it in long sentences. That is a sure way to take the punch right out of the drama.

So is it best to use only short sentences? No. A mixture of longer and shorter sentences usually works best. At times, you could even just use one or two words to break things up. A one-word interjection adds emphasis as well. Notice the word “No” in this paragraph? You didn’t? Go back and look. See what I mean, how it changes things when you vary the sentence length?

In the “old days” when long sentences were more in vogue, these had to be written skilfully so as not to bore the reader. Some say that Hemingway had that skill. Perhaps he did, but I’ve tried reading two of his books and have put them down after a while because I found his long sentences so tedious to read. I prefer variety, at least in sentence length.

The same thing is true of paragraph and chapter lengths. Vary them, leaning towards shorter paragraphs and short chapters more often than long ones.

Even a one-liner can be emphatic.

Next time you write a scene, go back and have a look at your sentence length. If you have too many long sentences, or even if many of them are the same length, try for variety, and try to shorten some of the tediously long ones. Don’t throw away your original, but compare your work after you edit the sentence length and see if you like the one with variety better. I bet you will.

*****

Do you know what, some say, is both the shortest and the longest sentence in the world?

It is “I do.”

Writing Thank-you Letters

 

Christmas is over, and the time is perfect for brushing up on how to write a thank-you letter. If you’ve received gifts or help of some kind, it never hurts to show your appreciation, and acknowledge kindness in a timely manner.

Let’s assume that you are thanking someone for a gift. It is good to have foldover note cards on hand. Handwriting your note gives it a personal touch.

 

What to Include

When you describe the gift, be sure to avoid tacky phrases like “the lovely gift” or “the nice present.” Instead, name the gift and tell how useful or appropriate it is. You might want to say how you plan to use it or where you will place it. Tell what it is about the gift that especially pleased you.

Add one or two sentences saying something nice about the giver of the gift, expressing affection or sending greetings to them and their family (if it applies).

Do Not

It’s not a good idea to ask where the gift was purchased so you can return it.

If you receive duplicate gifts, do not mention this to the giver.

If the gift is money, it is usually best not to mention the amount. Instead, you can mention the giver’s kindness or generosity.

Don’t include news, extra information, or questions unrelated to the gift. Find a different opportunity for this, if necessary.

*****

The main thing is to convey to the giver of the gift, that you appreciate their thoughtfulness and to tell them a simple “thank you.”

There is no need to gush over the gift or the person who gave it. This would seem flowery and insincere. Simplest is often best. Show your genuine appreciation and you will make the giver of the gift very happy.

Semicolons and Colons

 

For years I have avoided using a semicolon, for fear I would do it wrong. It was almost the same with a colon, except that I knew it was useful for setting off a long list.

When I looked up the use of the semicolon I was surprised how simple the rules are for when to use it.

I thought I would share with you what I’ve learned.

 

One job of a semicolon is to link clauses that could stand alone as sentences, and that have a close relationship. The linking should be more effective than leaving them as separate sentences.

Here is an example:

The old man fell asleep whenever he began reading the book; the novel was obviously boring.

Why not use two sentences? Although each sentence could stand alone, they are closely related, and the point is better made by using the semicolon. Joining them with “and” would water down the effect.

Another job of a semicolon is for lists in text, or often in footnotes, where a dividing mark stronger than a comma is needed. Often we find this use of a semicolon in non-fiction writing to separate references.

Here is an example:

Attalos’ commands: with Alketas, Arr.4.27.5; with Koinos, Arr. 4.24.1; Meleagros, Arr. 4.16.1; 5.12.1; 6.17.3; Krateros, Arr. 4.16.1.

Notice that at the beginning of the list, after Attalos’ commands, we have a colon. This marks the beginning of a list, so we have a use for the colon in this sentence as well.

The colon is often used to separate a general statement from one or more items that support it. These explanations need not be complete sentences, but could be more like a list.

Here is an example:

I won’t be going to the party for two reasons: I have nothing nice to wear, and I haven’t been invited.

Other kinds of lists can also follow a colon.

My grocery list had several things on it: milk, eggs, sugar, flour, and baking powder. 

After you learn the use of semicolons and colons, and after my shopping is done, I could make pancakes for you.

 

 

 

Spelling Bee

Are you ready for a tough spelling bee?

Here are twenty-five words that sometimes give people grief.

  1. address
  2. all right
  3. asphyxiate
  4. camouflage
  5. carburettor (Americans may spell it with only one “t.”)
  6. chrysanthemum
  7. commitment
  8. committee
  9. desiccated
  10. diphtheria
  11. embarrass
  12. exhilarate
  13. gorilla
  14. grammar
  15. harass
  16. hemorrhage
  17. inoculate
  18. intercede
  19. liquefy
  20. ophthalmologist
  21. penicillin
  22. seize
  23. siege
  24. supersede
  25. vaccinate

Why not have a look at these words and then have someone give you a spelling test? How do you think you’ll do?

If you don’t get 100%, don’t worry. You won’t be alone.

Are you sweating blood yet?

 

 

 

Sylvia

Baja Camping

On an extended dry camping holiday in Baja, I was catching a few rays of sunshine, when I met Sylvia. She visited me in my imagination and now lives in my novel Orion’s Gift. Here she is telling us about a letter that changed her life.

They say ignorance is bliss. I can vouch for that. My life was humming along just fine until I received that letter. Afterwards, nothing was the same.

I flipped the envelope front to back looking for clues to its content. When I saw the return address, my mouth felt dry. It was too soon. My hands trembled as I unlocked the front door. On my way to the bedroom to get changed after my morning run, I tore open the envelope.

As I read, I forgot to breathe. Dazed, I threw myself onto the unmade bed. Clutching the blankets, I hugged my knees and stared at the wall, my chest so tight I thought I’d pass out. I didn’t recognize the moaning wail as a sound that could have come from me. Gut-wrenching sobs followed. My mind raced with wild incredulous thoughts. It can’t be true. It has to be a mistake.

My throat ached from crying and my sinuses were so swollen I could hardly breathe. I had to stop blubbering. Feeling sorry for myself wouldn’t change anything. Useless waste of precious time. I had to pull myself together.

I stumbled into the kitchen for a glass of water. My eyes felt puffy and glued shut, but a glimpse of the clock forced them open.

“Oh, shit. I’m going to be late for work.” I hurried back to the bedroom and made the mistake of looking at the dresser mirror. “And I look like hell.” I threw off my sweats, and jumped into the shower.

Thank God Joel had already left for work. It wouldn’t do for him to see me like this, puffy-eyed from crying, and perspiring after my run. He had no sympathy for tears and he wasn’t one to appreciate the natural look—didn’t like his girls sweaty unless it was from a lengthy session in bed. His girls! Hah! Why the plural? I had my suspicions, but what could I do? I was lucky to have him. Lucky he stayed with me. Tall, handsome, getting richer by the minute at his real estate job; most women would consider him a good catch. But would he stay with me now if he knew?

I rushed to dry my hair and style it, threw the blow-dryer down, slapped moisturizing cream on my face, and brushed my teeth. Panic threatened to take over again. I’d always been on time. The boss frowned on employees arriving late. I didn’t know why I still cared. Did it really matter anymore? Did anything?

I stepped into a cool blue-green summer dress and sandals. Grabbing my keys I was off. No! I hurried back to make the bed. What would Joel think if he came home to that mess? Come to think of it, the kitchen needed a quick cleanup. I hadn’t had time for breakfast, but Joel’s dishes still littered the table. Quick! Into the dishwasher, wipe the crumbs off the island, fold up the newspaper, unplug the coffeemaker and give the carafe a rinse. Oh, hurry! I shouldn’t have taken that time to feel sorry for myself.

I loved Joel. I always knocked myself out to please him. Wish he’d do the same for me. I still didn’t know what he ever saw in me. Funny! That was exactly what he often said—“Don’t know what I ever saw in you.” And when he saw the hurt on my face, he’d add, “Must have been something really special, ’cause I’m still here.” Then I worked my butt off to make him see it was worth his while to keep me around. I kept the house sparkling clean, made gourmet meals, gave him whatever he wanted in bed. I made sure I pleased him.

My mother always said I was pretty—long legs, good skin, shiny ash-blond hair—but mothers always say that. Joel says he loves my flashy smile and the four freckles on my ski-jump nose. People say I turn heads. I guess I look good, but wish I was smarter. I did okay in school, but I didn’t take home any prizes or scholarships. Pretty? Smart? What did that matter now?

I had about ten minutes to get to Goodridge. The girls in the office called it Get-Rich. Problem was that only the lawyers got rich. Clerks like me never got more than puny little wages.

On the way out I saw the offending letter on the dining room table. I snatched it up and clutched it to my chest. That would have been a big mistake, leaving it there for Joel to see.

*****

Click the links to see the book.

Orion’s Gift at amazon.com

For e-readers other than Kindle, go to smashwords.com.

Orion’s Gift at smashwords.com

Ten Words That Give Us Pause

The English language has many words that sound similar, or are spelled the same, but have different meanings. Some are close to sounding right, but they may be the wrong one. Some are just a problem to spell correctly.

Here are some that many people get mixed up or misuse.

  1. rapt/wrapped

You may be rapt in thought (engrossed, or enRAPTured by an idea),  but a gift is wrapped.

2. rack/wrack

You can pretty much forget about wrack. It’s an old leftover from wreck. You may see it used in the expression wrack and ruin, but for everything else, use rack. You can rack your brain to figure out why that is.

3. languid/limpid

A stream can be limpid (clear and calm), but that does not mean it is limp or listless.

Languid, on the other hand, is used to mean limp and listless.

4. kindergarten (NOT kindergarden).

It comes from the German words for children (Kinder) and garden (Garten). A child going to kindergarten is called a kindergartner.

5. jamb/jam

The side of the door frame is a jamb.  It comes from the French word jambe, for leg.

A sweet spread for toast is jam.

6. forego/forgo

Forego means to precede (to come before). Forgo means to do without something.

7. flora/fauna

Many people use these words together without knowing that flora refers to plants while fauna refers to animals.

8. florescent/fluorescent

Florescent means to be in flower, while fluorescent means radiating light.

9. better/bettor

Better is an improvement, while bettor is one who places a bet.

10. bandanna/banana

She took off her bandanna to eat her banana.

 

 

Punctuating Dialogue – A Simple Start

  Did  you say something?    she asked.

I’m going to assume that you will stick to the basic “said” and “asked” when using dialogue tags. This is a good way to keep out of trouble when writing dialogue. If you keep in mind that people don’t smile words or laugh them, it will help you to keep the punctuation correct as well.

Here are some simple sentences using quotation marks (note the location of the punctuation).

“I’m going to practice writing dialogue,” Rose said.

“Is it difficult?” George asked.

If you want to avoid the dialogue tags (said and asked) you could use some action verb instead, but it must be separated from the spoken words and placed in its own sentence.

“It’s as easy as making a pie.” Rose laughed. 

George rolled his eyes. “Then it’s pretty hard to do.”

Notice the periods separating each sentence.

If you want to put a dialogue tag in the middle of a sentence (that is, if the spoken words would make a sentence if you take out the dialogue tag) it might look like this:

“Writing dialogue,” Rose said, “is as easy as making a pie.”

“In that case,” George said, “it’s pretty hard.”

Notice the comma before and after the dialogue tag and the lower case letter where the second part of the spoken sentence begins.

If you have one person speaking two separate sentences and you want to put the dialogue tag between the sentences, you would use a comma before the dialogue tag and a period after it. The new sentence begins with a capital.

“I like to write dialogue,” Rose said. “It’s as easy as making pie.”

“I think I have a lot to learn,” said George. “Will it help if I have a piece of pie as I write?”

Exceptions to Exceptions

Rules are meant to be broken, and in the English language, they are broken all the time.

After the difficult “Numbers and Hyphenation” post last time, I thought I would go easy on you and only talk about one rule (and of course, its exceptions).

You’ve all heard this rule since elementary school:

“i” before “e,” except after “c,” and when it says “ay” as in  “neighbor” and “weigh.”

Usually, it is “i” before “e” when you have a long “e” sound, such as in these words: achieve, believe, brief, chief, diesel, field, grief, hygiene, niece, piece, relieve, reprieve, shield, shriek, siege, thief, wield, yield.

But after “c,” the “e” comes first, as in:

ceiling, conceit, conceive, deceit, deceive, perceive, receipt, receive.

Having said that, here are some words that don’t follow the “i” before “e” rule, and there is no “c” to change the rule. What do you think about words like these, where “i” does NOT come before “e” and it still has a long “e” sound:

caffeine, Keith, Neil, protein, seize, Sheila, weir, weird.

 

When the sound is “ay,” the spelling is also “ei”:

beige, deign, eight, freight, neighbor, reign, rein, veil, vein, weigh.

And finally, even the exception to the “i” before “e” rule where it says “except after ‘c’,” has an exception of its own. 

Here is “species.”  The “ie” makes a long “e” sound, and follows “c” but it is not spelled “ei”  (as in “ceiling”).

What a CRAZY language!

 

Numbers and Hyphens

When do you hyphenate numbers? I hate to admit it, but it’s not simple. I will try to sort it out though, into something that’s easy enough to remember.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  0

For a start, with numbers, the general rule is “twenty-one through ninety-nine are hyphenated; others are open.”

thirty-five

two thousand twenty-two

one hundred seventy-five

For simple fractions, here are some examples:

one-half

two-thirds

three-quarters

one sixty-fourth

two and five-sixths

Hyphenate, if you use the fraction as a noun (one-half)adjective (a two-thirds majority), or adverb (three-quarters done), except when the second element is already hyphenated (a one twenty-fifth share). Also if you have a whole number followed by a fraction, only hyphenate the fraction (two and three-quarters).

When a number is used with an abbreviation, it is always open (no hyphen).

a 5 lb. roast

a 4 ft. high fence

When a number is used with a noun, hyphenate before the noun, otherwise leave it open.

a three-hundred-yard race, but the race was three hundred yards long

a six-foot-two athlete, but the athlete was six foot two

a two-and-a-half-foot stick, but the stick was two and a half feet.

a two-and-three-quarter-inch stick, but the stick was two and three-quarters of an inch

 

And lastly, we have ordinals, basically the same rule.

a second-floor condo, condo on the second floor

third-row seat, seat in the third row

second-to-last candidate, candidate came second to last

I hope you don’t have a first-class headache after this intense session. If you do, I hope your medications are first class and you’ll feel better soon. Maybe it will be a half-hour remedy and you’ll feel better in half an hour.