What’s in a Word?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Word choice is such an essential part of writing. It’s the difference between an awkward sentence and dialogue or a description that perfectly conveys the character’s emotion. I have a healthy respect for the power of them. Some of my self-imposed rules border the quirky, but I unabashedly own them.  

Like do you think about when the pronouns I/me and we/us are used? I’m quite conscious about it, and I don’t mean in terms of singular or plural. When dealing with characters who don’t like each other very much but are forced to work together to save the world, I make sure that they avoid referring to themselves as we/us. Before they find common ground, they are only allowed to see the world around them in terms of themselves. They are still in the “me” stage. This difference seems like a small detail, but I think it’s an important distinction.

Another rule I use is picking words associated with the metaphor or scene setting. For example, at the beginning of The Venerable Dawn, the main characters are in an airport, waiting to board a flight. During this scene, I use an occasional aviation term. Lilith, the protagonist, tries to remember something from her training many years ago but struggles to recall specific details. She searches for them in the cargo hold or belly of the plane. When she readily remembers some things, I liken their holding place to the easily accessible overhead compartment. Naturally, such references are done with nuance and not overused.  

I’m careful about the terms I use for descriptions. Not every reader knows the fancy names for various references. Most know what an oak tree looks like, but not necessarily a white ash. Or they might be familiar with a giant redwood, but not the term sequoia. Use too many obscure terms, and I think you risk losing the reader. Admittedly, the dictionary feature included with eBooks is great and helps build our vocabulary. Though using it too much can take the reader out of the story. My best practice is to keep it simple but not too elementary, a delicate balance.

Another quirky rule is when to use the terms top/bottom and first/last. I associate top/bottom as vertical and first/last as horizontal. Not always, but in general. I think it’s because I’m a visual person, and I have an overbearing sense of logic. Maddening at times, figuratively, of course.

At times, I tend to be a perfectionist, and the struggle with word choice is real. Sometimes, I agonize over the right one, spending far too much time looking for the elusive word. To remedy my fixation, I’ve learned to drop in the best word that I can think of at the time and highlight it for future consideration. I also add alternative choices as a side comment. Usually, the right word will come to me when I come back to it as part of my endless editing. And it’s a beautiful thing when it does. The difference between an unremarkable sentence and a work of art that stirs the emotions or moves the soul.

I wonder if any other writers are as meticulous as I am about word choice…

Book Club

Have you heard the advice: learn to write by reading? I think reading is a fundamental part of the apprenticeship. To my dismay, I fail this lesson far too often. Not because I don’t like reading. To the contrary, I love books and good storytelling.

My love of reading started in elementary school. I’d rather huddle under a shady tree with a good book than play with the other kids at recess. This hobby carried into my high school and college years. Though course material took precedence, I managed to do both at the same time by taking a lot of literature classes. Way too many Shakespeare courses, and my favorite, Intro to Science Fiction. I lived the dream, getting college credit for reading the classics by Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury and Herbert to name a few. Later in life, my interest shifted from speculative fiction to mysteries. Martha Grimes, Dick Francis and Sue Grafton.

When career and family dominate life, sacrifices must be made because we can’t do everything.[1] For me, reading was one of the costs. Gone were the days of curling up with a good book all day on the weekends. Instead, it was relegated to when I went to bed. And that was a major fail. Two pages in, and I was in la-la land, dreaming my own fantastical tales.

Yet, I truly believe reading is essential to learning the craft. There is nothing like a well-written and compelling story to inspire my writing. While time isn’t as much of a hurdle now, it still influences my priorities. Once I grab hold of an idea, I become quite driven, and writing takes priority now. When I do read, a lot of the material is about the craft. My solution to overcoming my bad habit – join a book club.

I found an online SciFi group. The catch is I’m more of a fantasy reader than science fiction. I tend to gloss over the scientific explanations, missing essential facets of the story. The result is I don’t always finish the monthly selections. I give it 100 pages. If I struggle to get to this point, I’m out. My library card helps me save valuable space on my bookshelves for those works I genuinely love.  

The unintended benefit is listening to the other readers’ perspectives. These people are avid readers and sci-fi fans. None are writers, but they are so well-read. I love hearing their thoughts about the books. In September, we read Dune, just in time for the movie release in October. I’ve been a huge fan of this classic for too many years to admit. But I heard the strangest viewpoints. Some that never crossed my mind, and in the right forum, I’d like to debate.

If you are like me and undisciplined about reading on a regular basis – join a book club. At the very least, you’ll get to hear what works and doesn’t work for devoted readers. Case in point – hard-core scifi fans don’t like any romance in their stories. Another reason I write fantasy.

BTW, I continue to struggle with the lullaby effect of reading at night. It has to be quite a compelling story for me to get through more than a chapter. Though it is the best cure for falling asleep after those 3am sessions, dumping the ideas flooding my mind into an email. Sweet dreams, friends.


[1] Many try, but few succeed. Pick your battles; stick with what you value the most and give it your all.

The Cycle of Acceptance

One of my favorite parts of writing fiction is putting my characters in shocking situations. To make their worst nightmare come true or make the unthinkable happen. They are key moments in the story for the protagonist like when the main character realizes her father is the villain, and she must kill him to save the world. Or it becomes clear that his lover is leaving him for a woman. In either case, these realizations rock our characters’ world.

In my writing group, I’ve read about characters shattered by a revelation, and within a couple of paragraphs, they have accepted it as their new reality. Then, they move on to the next plot point without a second thought. This scenario guarantees a lengthy critique comment from me. Why? Because that’s not how it happens in real life.

When someone receives life-changing news, they move through the cycle of acceptance. Think about a person’s thought process when they receive a cancer diagnosis. Anyone who’s gotten such terrible news would tell you that it took them a while to process and accept it. Likewise, the stages of grief involve a little bit more than, “Oh no, that’s awful news. I can’t believe he’s gone. Wasn’t there anything the doctors could have done for him? Too bad, I’ll miss him.” A ridiculously simplistic example, but I’ve read some stories where it’s written in such manner.

In my current work-in-progress, a pivotal moment is when my protagonist’s destiny is authenticated. In the opening scene, her potential fate is suggested to her, but nothing is certain until her fate is validated. Throughout the next 20 pages, she gathers information and learns more about her preordained role. Dread starts to settle in because she wants nothing to do with this leadership role.

Finally, the moment of truth is upon her, and her destiny is authenticated. Her initial responses include shock in the form of a panic attack, and when she recovers, a vehement denial. At the end of the scene, she accepts the reality for a split second and asks her companion, “What happens now?” The total word count is about 600 words or about 3 pages.

In the next scene, she reverts to denial until she starts bargaining with herself. She starts to think of ways to avoid assuming this role and the consequences if she throws the challenge per se. Through internal discussion and soul searching, she resolves to get on with the ritual to assume power because it’s the only way to end the nightmare. Her hope is she will fail at some point, allowing her to return to a life of anonymity and solitude.

My protagonist cycles through the phases several times on different levels throughout the book. On a macro level, her character arc. Her transformation from one person to another includes working through the stages. Also, she works through a variation of the process each time she learns something about her past. Sometimes, she gets through the process quickly. Other times, it takes her more time to reach acceptance. It depends on the bombshell dropped on her, and there a few of them.

This approach is fundamental to my writing. I believe it adds depth to my characters when readers understand what they go through when the author puts them in challenging situations. In my protagonist’s case, the poor woman gets blindsided several times when she learns about the lies she’s been living. Showing her range of emotions helps endear her to the readers, and they become invested in what happens to her.  

The takeaway for this post – put your character through the paces.

Earth’s Bounty

One of the most challenging parts of writing The Venerable Dawn: Ascension are composing the magick verses. I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination. Yet the verses are poetic in nature. Recently, I penned my favorite.

As summer sets, Gaia offers her bounty,
Ripe fruit as black as night, sweet as mulberries.
But beware. Like the queen’s apple, eternal rest certain,
Unless tempered by the light of fauna, uniquely singular,
And the milk from the fruit on the pregnant vines.

Tell me what do you think. Yes, no, maybe?



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Book Research

I recently finished my latest submission for my critique group. My usual routine is to take the week off while waiting for my critiques to come in. The time away from writing lets my story simmer for a bit and refreshes my mind in preparation for the next round of 8,000+ words. Something fun I like to do during this time off is look back at what I researched for my latest submission.

My obsession with research comes from two sources: my career as a tax professional and a science fiction literature class. First, substantiation plays a huge role in the field of tax and accounting. An auditor is not going to buy your explanation without proof substantiating your claim. The key to indisputable proof is thorough research of the law as it applies to your facts and circumstances.

Also, a college literature course ingrained the concept of plausibility in my mind. Readers must be able to suspend their disbelief in the created worlds of speculative fiction. Plausibility is achieved on several levels, but research is essential for factual believability. In my created world, a human subspecies is threatened by extinction. In order to be credible, I spent the good half of a day researching extinction.

Hence, research accounts for a lot of my time at the computer. Sometimes, I spend more time researching a topic than writing about it. While I’m a firm believer in doing my homework, I stress about the time it takes away from adding word count to my manuscript. An inner struggle inherently ensues to rationalize that this time is well spent. When I find myself in this place, I remember what I learned from a virtual class with best-selling author, David Baldacci.

An entire lesson of Baldacci’s lecture series was dedicated to research. During one part, he talked about his collection of binders full of notes. As an example, he referenced a 3-inch notebook with his research about nuclear weapons. He used these notes for only two paragraphs in one of his books. Vindication; my research time is a good investment. Oh, and I have a lovely collection of binders, too.

For my last submission, my research topics included:
~ Burns as in first, second, and third-degree burns.
~ Swordsmanship for one never knows when a character might need to lob the head off of a menacing creature.
~ Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit
~ Body language of horses
~ Ancient woodlands
~ Barn floorplans

Always a fun exercise, but heaven help me if my computer is ever search by authorities of any kind.