Handling Age and Time in Series Fiction

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Age.

Like the weather, we talk about it a lot but can’t do anything about it.

Remember the original Nancy Drew books? I devoured 37 of them before outgrowing the series. From the first book The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) until #37, The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (1960), Nancy was 16 to 18.

Thirty-seven adventures in two years? Busy young lady, that Nancy.

But she started me thinking about writing series characters.

Can they stay the same age through numerous books?

Should they age?

That raises more questions when writing a contemporary series with continuing characters.

What kind of character arc can an author create if the hero doesn’t age?

Is an evolving character arc important to today’s readers?

How does an author keep characters fresh and interesting if they remain approximately the same age over a number of books?

Classics like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple remain basically static; the plots change but the characters don’t.

Then there is the quintessential hard-boiled hero, Philip Marlowe.

Even Philip Marlowe was young once – photo credit Maika, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Although I don’t believe his specific age is ever mentioned (please correct me if I’m wrong), the reader has the strong impression that, at birth, Marlowe was already old and cynical.

Over two decades, starting with The Big Sleep (1939)  and ending with Playback (1959), Marlowe was repeatedly beaten up, double-crossed, and betrayed. His life remained solitary with occasional sexual encounters that didn’t end well. The tarnished knight won a few victories but ultimately lost the war against evil. As vivid and memorable a character as he was, he didn’t change much, except for more scars. (Note: I’m not counting Poodle Springs, Chandler’s unfinished novel completed by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989 where Marlowe married, at least for a little while.)

How would readers react to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler if their books were released today?

Contemporary readers seem to lean more toward series characters who go through ups and downs similar to those we face in real life.  

In James Lee Burke’s series, the beleaguered Dave Robicheaux moves from New Orleans to New Iberia, switches jobs, falls off the wagon and climbs back on, gains and loses spouses and friends, and adopts a child who grows up through the books.

Readers meet Kinsey Milhone at age 32, with a police career and two marriages already behind her. In the course of Sue Grafton’s 25-book Alphabet Series, Kinsey has her home blown up and rebuilt, loses her beloved VW convertible, discovers the roots of her absent family, falls in and out of love several times but remains determinedly single. In the final book, Y is for Yesterday, she is 39.

Judging by their popularity, readers relate deeply to characters like Dave and Kinsey. We’ve been in the trenches beside them as they live through the same life trials that we ourselves do. They become close friends we’ve known for years.

What do series authors need to consider when time passes and their characters age?

When I wrote Instrument of the Devil in 2015-6, I didn’t envision a series. The book was set in 2011 as smartphones were transitioning from exotic toys for geeks into phones adopted by ordinary people. Because of a new smartphone, my character Tawny Lindholm stumbles over her milestone 50th birthday and into a nightmarish world of technology. Unbeknownst to her, it has been rigged by a terrorist to launch a cyberattack she’ll be blamed for.

The book was published in 2017, six years after the story takes place.

Near the end of Instrument, a brilliant, arrogant attorney, Tillman Rosenbaum, came on scene to defend Tawny. He was intended as a minor walk-on character. However, the match and gasoline chemistry between him and Tawny propelled them into more books where she goes to work as his investigator despite her dislike for him.

[Spoiler alert: they ultimately fall in love. But you’d already guessed that, right?]

What I originally conceived as a one-off had longer legs than anticipated.

Although there are no time stamps, roughly two years pass during the second and third books in the series, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.

Then, in 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Florida and knocked out power to 16 million residents.

The event tweaked my writer’s imagination. Reports of people who mysteriously went missing during that storm, along with scary personal experiences related to me by family and friends, turned into Dead Man’s Bluff.

After drifting along a vague fictional timeline starting in 2011, all of a sudden there’s a real date that’s set in stone. Uh-oh.

Okay, I figured from now on, I’d just make oblique references to Tawny’s age. Her children are in their thirties. Let readers infer she’s somewhere in her fifties.

As often happens with writing, life had other plans.

2020 hit.

Can an author ignore monumental events that tilt the world on its axis?

Not unless you write alternate history.

For much of 2020, writers debated how to handle the pandemic in current fiction. If it was incorporated into the plot, readers who were sick of it might be alienated. If we tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, we risked being perceived as unrealistic and insensitive. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

Some authors attacked it head-on with thrillers about biological weapons or adventures in a post-pandemic, futuristic, dystopian world.

Some retreated in time to historical genres where major outcomes—like who won the war—had already been determined.

Others dove into fantasy genres where the author, not real life, decided the outcome.

Now in the last quarter of 2021, the world changes faster every day. What you wrote this morning may well be obsolete and out of date by this afternoon.

The sixth book in my series, Flight to Forever, is set in spring of 2020. When a Vietnam veteran can’t visit his beloved wife in a memory care facility because of pandemic restrictions, in desperation, he busts her out, seriously injuring two employees during the getaway. They flee to a remote fire lookout in treacherous Montana mountains. Tawny races to find them to prevent a deadly showdown between the cops and the vet who has nothing to lose.

Do the math. If Tawny was 50 in 2011, that made her 59 in 2020. 

Uh-oh, I really should have hired a stunt double for her in this book.

Even though 60 is the new 40, will readers find some of the action implausible for a woman her age?

Many people in their 70s and 80s are in fantastic shape. Recently I wrote an article for Montana Senior News about the Senior Olympic games where nonagenarians are setting athletic records.

Yet ageism lurks in the world of publishing and literature.

Especially about sex.

Many younger readers are creeped out by the notion that characters who are their parents’ or grandparents’ age enjoy sex.

Newsflash, kid—that’s how you got here. And, since you grew up and moved out, it’s even better.

How about physical wear and tear on characters?

Gunsmoke cast – public domain

Remember classic TV westerns like Gunsmoke? Whenever Matt Dillion got shot (reportedly more than 50 times), in the final scene, he’d be back in the saddle with one arm in a sling. By the following episode, he resumed life as usual—galloping horses and engaging in fisticuffs.

How realistic should series fiction be? How far will contemporary readers go to suspend disbelief?

If we put our lead characters through hell, in the next book, should they suffer from PTSD or physical disability?

 

What if you write middle grade or young adult books? Every year, there’s a new crop of readers to replace older ones who’ve outgrown a series. Perhaps MG and YA characters don’t need to age. Nancy Drew did all right. What do you think?

For now, I’ll keep writing Tawny and Tillman in their fifties and hope no one checks my math too carefully.

CC by 2.0

Or maybe I’ll let them drink out of Nancy’s fountain of youth.

~~~

For discussion:

Question for series authors: how do you handle age and the passage of time with continuing characters?

Have you found workarounds, tips, or tricks?

Question for series readers: Do you care about the main character’s age? Do you want to see evolution and change in them over time?

~~~

To follow series characters who age more slowly than the calendar, please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion.

Amazon link

Other online booksellers:

Instrument of the Devil    Stalking Midas    Eyes in the Sky

Dead Man’s Bluff        Crowded Hearts     Flight to Forever

What Do Apes, Humans, and Koalas Have in Common?

While researching an unrelated topic last year, I found a cool tidbit and tucked it away (as I often do) to use in a story someday. Since I doubt I ever will, perhaps one of you can put this research to good use.

First, a question.

What do you think is a forensic investigator’s worst nightmare?

Did anyone guess a cute ’n cuddly koala? No? I didn’t think so. In all fairness, I would never have guessed it either, but the koala could keep investigators on their toes. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Apes & Chimpanzees

As children, we’re taught apes and chimpanzees are our closest living relatives. The similarities are obvious. No one can stare into the eyes of these gentle beings and deny their humanity. Both animals also have astonishing intelligence.

Remember Koko?

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that died in her sleep in 2018 at age 46, stunned researchers with her emotional depth and ability to communicate in sign language. She garnered international celebrity status with her vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English.

National Geographic magazine featured Koko on its cover twice. First in October 1978, with a selfie Koko snapped in a mirror. Then in January 1985, when National Geographic ran a story about Koko and her pet kitten.

“Because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached,” Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary

In addition to language, Koko’s behavior revealed human emotions. She also seemed to have a sense of humor, and even a bit of playful mischievousness, as portrayed in this video of Koko and Robin Williams.

There’s no denying the human qualities of apes and chimps. But did you know a koala’s fingerprints are so similar to humans the Australian police once feared they’d cause confusion at crime scenes? It’s true.

Similar confusion occurred in the UK during a time when unsolved crime was at an all-time high. In fact, in 1975, British police raided the ape houses at London and Twycross Zoos. According to The Independent, the police targeted “Half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orangutans.”

The objective was to fingerprint these animals, partly because the UK police referred to smudged or unclear fingerprints as “monkey prints.”

“If you passed a chimpanzee print to a fingerprint office and said it came from the scene of a crime, they would not know it was not human.” Steve Haylock, City of London Police fingerprint bureau

The chimpanzees and orangutans didn’t mind being fingerprinted. If you’re curious, none of the prints led to solving the string of unsolved crimes. All the furry suspects appeared to be upstanding members of society. 😉

Meanwhile, in Australia

Police feared koalas may have contaminated a criminal investigation. Why? Because like apes and chimpanzees, koalas possess freakishly human fingerprints. The deltas, loops, and whirl patterns of a koala’s fingerprint are as individual as our own. Yet most tree-dwelling mammals don’t possess humanlike prints.

“It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail,” said Macie Henneberg, forensic scientist and biological anthropologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. “Although it is extremely unlikely that koala prints would be found at the scene of a crime, police should at least be aware of the possibility.”

Some researchers believe that even after closely inspecting the fingerprints under a microscope, investigators would not be able to distinguish a human print from fingerprints left by a koala. Even their closest relatives—kangaroos and wombats—don’t possess fingerprints. The weird part is Koala prints seemed to have evolved independently, and much more recent than primates.

Can you guess which print is human?

Photo credit: Macie Hennenberg, et al. and naturalSCIENCE

Click the image to enlarge.

Top row: Standard ink fingerprints of an adult male koala (left) and adult male human (right).

Bottom row: Scanning electron microscope images of epidermis covering fingertips of the same koala (left) and the same human (right).

 

 

What do humans, apes, chimps, and koalas have in common?

The need to grasp. Yes, it could be that simple.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide discovered koala prints in 1996 and wrote a paper on their findings:

“Koalas … feed by climbing vertically onto the smaller branches of eucalyptus trees, reaching out, grasping handfuls of leaves and bringing them to the mouth… These forces must be precisely felt for fine control of movement and static pressures and hence require orderly organization of the skin surface.”

Makes sense, right?

But wait—there’s more!

I discovered one other fascinating tidbit about fingerprints that I never knew.

Genetics form the base of a fingerprint, but they are personalized when the baby touches the inside of their mother’s womb, resulting in unique whirls, deltas, and loops. Hence why identical twins don’t share identical fingerprints. Each baby touched the womb wall in his or her own unique way, swirling and drawing like finger paints on a bathtub wall.

Maybe it’s me—I do tend to get overly sentimental around holidays—but I find it heartwarming to think the tips of our fingers forever preserve the unbreakable bond between momma and baby, imprinted for eternity.

I hope my discoveries kickstart your creativity in new and unsuspecting ways. Happy Labor Day to our U.S. readers! May your burgers be sizzlin’, the buns toasted to perfection, and your beverages be cold. 😀 

How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Difference Engine, CC by SA 4.0

From the 1931 through 2018, Clifton’s Cafeteria was a venerable Los Angeles landmark. Starting a new restaurant in the depth of the Great Depression sounded like folly. Even crazier was the policy of Pay What You Wish at a time when many people were jobless, broke, and hungry. Yet founder Clifford Clinton’s Golden Rule guided the business through many successful decades, his vision shaped in part by his childhood in China as the son of missionaries who ministered to the poor.

Reportedly, at one point, Ray Bradbury was a starving writer who enjoyed a helping of Clinton’s generosity.

Clifton’s Cafeteria took up multiple floors of a downtown LA building and was a decorating mash-up of art deco neon, tiki bar, mountain resort, and cascading waterfalls.

Buffet lines were laden with acres of salads, soups, entrees, fruits, vegetables, colorful Jello creations, pies, cakes, and ice cream. Diners could pick and choose from more than 10,000 food items and no one ever left hungry.

Photo credit: kevinEats.com

What, you ask, does this have to do with writing mysteries?

Recently, I received a gift of the book How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. With nearly 70 contributors, the book feels like the literary equivalent to Clifton’s Cafeteria. It offers a hugely varied smorgasbord of craft tips, along with insights into different genres, trends, and analyses on the state of the mystery.

Some authors write detailed essays that take as much digestion as multi-course banquets. Others deliver bite-size epigraphs that you can pop in your mouth like cocktail meatballs.

Moving along the buffet line of advice, if one chapter doesn’t resonate, you can skip to another by a different author. Each contribution is self-contained, allowing you to read sections in any order without worrying about continuity.

Feel like dessert before your entree? Head to that part of the buffet line.

Craving a particular menu item? Flip to the table of contents to find that topic.

Even famous authors don’t always agree with each other. Jeffrey Deaver writes a chapter entitled Always Outline,” followed by Lee Child’s chapter, Never Outline!”

This book offers nourishing food for thought that’s useful to every reader, no matter your genre, writing experience, or where you come down on the plotting vs. pantsing spectrum.

Subjects range from bleak noir as dark as bitter chocolate to cozies as sweet and fluffy as lemon meringue pie.

The following are some passages that struck me. They made me look at a subject in a fresh way while others reinforced well-worn but forgotten wisdom.

Neil Nyren neatly boils down an important distinction:

Mysteries are about a puzzle. Thrillers are about adrenaline.

Carolyn Hart asks:

Aren’t all mysteries about murder, guns and knives and poison, anger, jealousy and despair? Where is the good?

The good is in the never-quit protagonist who wants to live in a just world. Readers read mysteries and writers write mysteries because we live in an unjust world where evil often triumphs. In the traditional mystery, goodness will be admired and justice will prevail.

Meg Gardiner’s simple definition of plot: “Obstruct desire.”

She also discusses the difference between suspense and tension. “Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension spikes like a Geiger counter at a meltdown.”

And one more gem: “The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.”

My favorite item on Lindsey Davis’s list of advice to aspiring writers: “A synopsis—write it, then ignore it.”

Alex Segura defines noir as:

When we can have some feelings of remorse for a character’s terrible, murderous actions, because deep down, we fear that in the same situation, we’d probably make similar choices.

Hank Phillippi Ryan’s editing suggestions:

Try this random walk method of editing. Pick a page of your manuscript. Any page at all. Remember, even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. Page by page…Is something happening?…[Consider] intent and motivation. Why is this scene here? What work does it do? Does it advance the plot or reveal a secret or develop the character’s conflict?

I always know when I’m finished, because I forget I’m editing, and realize I’m simply reading the story. It’s not my story anymore, it’s its own story.

Jacqueline Winspear talks about historical mystery: “Your job is to render the reader a curious, attentive, excited, and emotionally involved time-traveler.”

Suzanne Chazin says: “When I sit down to write, my fun comes not from looking into a mirror, but from peeking into someone else’s window.”

Medical thriller author and physician Tess Gerritsen makes a penetrating observation from a sales standpoint:

Thrillers about cancer or HIV or Alzheimer’s seem to have a tough time on the genre market. Perhaps because these subjects are just too close and too painful for us to contemplate, and readers shy away from confronting them in fiction.

Gayle Lynds believes research is more to benefit the writer than the reader:

In the end, we novelists use perhaps a tenth of a percent of the research we’ve done for any one book…only a tiny fraction of the details will make it into your book.

C.M. Surrisi sums up writing mysteries for kids: “Remember your protagonist can’t drive and has a curfew, and no one will believe them or let them be involved.”

Also on children’s mysteries, Chris Grabenstein says:

Here is one of the many beauties about writing for this audience: there is a new group of fifth graders every year. Your mystery has a chance to live a very long shelf life if kids, teachers, and librarians fall in love with it.

Avoid the broccoli books. The ones that are ‘good for children.’

For many adults, the books we read when we were eight to twelve are the ones we remember all our lives.

Art Taylor discusses the mystery short story:

In general, it’s a solid rule to try to do more with less—and to trust your reader to fill in the rest. Suggest instead of describe; imply instead of explain.

Charles Salzberg offers a response to the tired old saw of “write what you know.”

I’ve never been arrested; I have no cops in my family; I’ve only been in a police station once; I’ve never handled a pistol; I’ve never robbed a bank, knocked over a 7-Eleven, or mugged an old lady. I’ve only been in one fight and that was when I was eleven. I’ve never murdered anyone, much less my family, and I’ve never chased halfway around the world to bring a killer to justice. I’ve never searched for a missing person and I’ve never forged a rare book. Yet somehow I find myself as a crime writer who’s written about all those things.

How, if I am supposed to write only what I know, is this possible? Easy. It’s because I have an imagination, possess a fair amount of empathy, have easy access to Google, and like asking questions. If I were limited to writing what I know, I’d be in big trouble because the truth is, I don’t know all that much.

Lyndsay Faye observes: “The school of human culture is much cheaper than a graduate degree. Make use of it.”

She also talks about humor in the writer’s voice:

You needn’t be Janet Evanovich to incorporate jokes into your manuscript, and they needn’t even be jokes. Wry observations, sarcasm, creative insult—humor can be as heavy or as light as you choose. But writers who take their voice too seriously, without that crucial hint of self-deprecation or clever viciousness, will rarely wind up with a memorable result.

Steve Hockensmith covered the “Dos and Don’ts for Wannabe Writers.”

DO write.

DON’T spend more than three months ‘researching’ or ‘brainstorming’ or ‘outlining’ or ‘creating character bios.’ All this might—might—count as work on your book, but it’s not writing.

DON’T spend too much time reading about how to write.

DO keep reading this book. I didn’t mean for you to stop reading our writing advice.

Laurie R. King shares her method of rewriting:

Personally I prefer to make all my notes, corrections, and queries on a physical printout. In part, that’s because I’m old school, but it also forces me to consider any changes twice—once when I mark the page, then again when I return to put it into the manuscript. This guarantees that if I added something on page 34, then realized a better way to do it when I hit page 119, I’ve had the delay for reflection, gaining perspective as to which is better for the overall story.

Leslie Budewitz (a familiar guest on TKZ) talks about problem solving:

The same brain that created the problem can create the solution—but not if you keep thinking the same way.

So do something different. Write the next scene from the antagonist’s POV, even if you don’t intend to use it. Write longhand with a pen…instead of at your keyboard.

If you write in first person, try third. If you write in third, let your character rip in a diary only she—and you—will ever see.

Your brain, your beautiful creative brain, will find another way, if you give it a chance.

Frankie Y. Bailey explores diversity in crime fiction from the starting point every writer faces: “We have characters, setting, and a plot. We need to weave aspects of diversity through all these elements of our stories.”

TKZ’s own Elaine Viets offers this no-nonsense message: “When I spoke at a high school, a student asked, ‘What do you do about writer’s block?’ ‘Writer’s block doesn’t exist,’ I said. ‘It’s an indulgence.’”

Talking about protagonists, Allison Brennan shares “two particular qualities that leave a lasting impression on readers: forgiveness and self-sacrifice.”

T. Jefferson Parker sees “two types of villain: the private and the public.”

The private ones seek no acknowledgement for their deeds…they shun the spotlight and avoid detection. The public ones proclaim themselves, trumpet their wickedness, and revel in the calamity.

He also touches on the crime author’s moral dilemma:

My literary amigos and I go back and forth on this. We know we traffic in violence and heartless behavior. We ride and write on the backs of victims. We suspect that our fictional appropriations of the world’s pain do little to assuage it. Worse, we wonder if we might just be feeding the worst in human nature by putting it center stage. Do we inspire heartless violence by portraying it?

Stephen Ross demonstrates the use of subtext (unspoken meaning) in his example of a shopping list:

Milk

Bread

Eggs

Hammer

Shovel

Quicklime

Champagne

 

I highlighted many more passages but I’ll stop now because this post is running almost as long as the book itself.

How to Write a Mystery is a book that you can read whether you need a substantial dinner or a quick snack.

It might not offer the 10,000 items that Clifton’s Cafeteria did but it comes close.

 

 

~~~

TKZers: Did any of the above quotes especially hit you? Do you have a favorite craft handbook you refer to over and over?

Attitude

Attitude. It’s the one thing you have total control over. Your own mental attitude.

That’s your attitude toward your writing. Your attitude toward your writing community. Your attitude toward society at large. And your attitude toward life overall.

This post is short. Recently, I was told I write encyclopedic posts (not mentioning names, Steve) but that was meant in a positive way, just like I try to keep my attitude – positive.

I’m a life-long Napoleon Hill student. If you don’t know of Napoleon Hill and his classic self-development treasure Think and Grow Rich, go read it. The core of Napoleon Hill’s Science of Personal Achievement is “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve with positive mental attitude.” PMA, for short. Here’s a clip from T&GR:

Your own mental attitude is your real boss. While your time and your labor may be subject to the demands of your employer and others, your mind is the one thing that cannot be controlled by anyone but you. The thoughts you think, your attitude toward your job, and what you are willing to give in exchange for the compensation you are paid are entirely up to you. It is up to you to determine whether you will be a slave to a negative attitude or the master of a positive one. Your attitude, your only master in life, is entirely within your control. When you control your attitude toward events, you control the eventual implication of those events.”

Attitude. You can have a negative mental attitude. Or, you can decide to have a positive mental attitude. I won’t go into all the pros and cons of good vs bad mental attitudes because I don’t want to write an encyclopedic post. So, I’ll keep this short at 382 words.

Attitude. The word is eight letters long. Our English alphabet has 26 letters, and each has a numeric value as they progress along the alphabetic table.

Attitude

A =    1
T =  20
T =  20
I =     9
T =  20
U =  21
D =    4
E =    5
      100

Kill Zoners? On a scale of 1 to 100, from negative to positive, how’s your attitude today? Mine usually runs in the 90s, and I have a safety net built into the system if it drops below 80. That’s my positive wife of 38 years, Rita, who keeps me in check and makes my life wonderful.

Are You Ready for the Word Play Masters Invitational?

Photo credit: Joshua Hoehnee – Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Okay, who’s ready for some word play? Not just any word play but a serious world-class competition: the Word Play Masters Invitational.

Here are the rules:

  1. Take any word from the dictionary.
  2. Alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter.
  3. Supply a new definition.

Drumroll for some past winning entries:

  1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.
  2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.
  3. Intaxicaton: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.
  4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
  5. Bozone ( n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
  6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.
  7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
  8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.
  9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
  10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
  11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.
  12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.
  13. Glibido: All talk and no action.
  14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
  15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.
  16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.
  17. Caterpallor ( n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

~~~

There’s a variation of the contest—take a common word and redefine it. The following entries are past winners:

  1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.
  2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.
  3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
  4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.
  5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.
  6. Negligent, adj. Absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.
  7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.
  8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavored mouthwash.
  9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.
  10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.
  11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.
  12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
  13. Pokemon, n. A Rastafarian proctologist.
  14. Oyster, n. A person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.
  15. Frisbeetarianism, n. The belief that, after death, the soul flies uponto the roof and gets stuck there.
  16. Circumvent, n. An opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

Want more? Here’s a collection of winners from the past decade.

~~~

Now that you’ve flexed your vocabulary muscles, are you itching to enter the competition yourself? Here’s the 2021 submissions page.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu – Unsplash

But wait a sec…TKZ has many talented  Wordmasters and Wordmistresses. Why not host our own contest?

[Drumroll] The Inaugural Kill Zone Word Play Invitational Tournament  

Rules:

Post your entry in the comment section. Limit of three entries/person.

The games will be freestyle, meaning you can either:

Take any word from the dictionary; alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter; supply a new definition.

OR:

Take a common word and redefine it.

Judging:

The winners will be determined by the number of “likes” (to vote, click on the thumbs up icon in the comment box). The entry with the most “likes” wins.

Prizes:  

A special trophy was commissioned to commemorate the winning entry.

Presenting THE ZONER

Photo credit: Johnny Briggs – Unsplash

You were expecting cash? A Caribbean cruise? A new laptop?

Uh…sorry. Maybe next year.

Thanks for playing!

Things to Consider for Successful Book Signings

A reader took this pic as I signed her book.

Is there a right way and wrong way to sign a book?

Some authors claim you must sign the title page; others say you should sign the half-title page. Some authors cross out their printed name before signing; others consider it as defacing the book. Some authors only scrawl a signature; others personalize a message to the reader. Some authors include a date and location of the book signing; others don’t.

How can there be so much conflicting advice over signing a book?

I admit, I’d never heard of an author crossing out their name before conducting research for this post. I have more than a few shelves filled with signed editions, and none of the authors crossed out their printed name on the title page.

From where did this custom originate?

Authors seem split on the subject.

Some say the tradition started with personalized stationery. If you’re writing to a friend and your personalized stationery has your full name on it, crossing out the printed name suggests a more personal touch. Thus, an author crossing out their printed name on the title page suggests s/he is there in person to write his/her own name, so the signature supersedes the printed name.

Makes sense.

Others say the historic tradition dates back to the days of a small press run, where the author would hand-sign each book as an authentication of the text.

Also makes sense.

After all the blood, sweat, and tears I pour into each story, I would never cross out my name. I worked too hard to get it there in the first place. 😉 But it’s a personal choice. If you’re fond of tradition, then by all means cross out your name. Next, you’ll need to decide between one quick slanted line, a squiggly line, or a horizontal line drawn straight through the entire name.

To help you decide, read the comment section of Writer’s Digest.

What about adding a date and/or location?

Some say adding a date and/or location adds value for book collectors. Others say the author’s signature is most important. I’ve never added a date or location, but I like the idea of making it easy for the reader to remember when and where s/he met the author.

Personalization

I always ask if the reader wants the book personalized or just signed. I wish I could give you a definitive answer here, but the truth is, my audience is split on this issue. Half want a personalized message; the others are happy with a simple signature. As far as adding value, book collectors seem to agree that a lone signature is worth more than a personalization (aside from the date). That’s always been my impression, too, and one which I repeat to readers when I’m short on time.

“The book will be worth more with just a signature . . . when I’m dead.” 😉

When a line forms at the table, scrawling a lone signature makes life a lot simpler. Adding a date/location would only take a second, but that personalization can and will trip you up from time to time. Learned that lesson more than once. I donate the awkwardly signed paperbacks to my local library. It’s become a running joke.

“Hey, Sue. Book signing yesterday?”

“Yep.”

“Messed up a few?”

“Yep.”

“Excellent! See ya next time.”

Grumble, grumble. “See ya then.”

A few tips for personalization:

  • Always ask readers to spell their name. Even common names can have unusual spellings. Example: Stacy, Stacie, Staci, Stacey. Last names? Forget about it. The possibilities are endless. Thankfully, most readers won’t ask you to include their last name.
  • Before the event think of a few standard catch phrases for new readers. Bonus points if it relates to the book or series.
  • Also jot down a few standard catch phrases for your dedicated fans. You don’t want to sign your tenth book with the same catch phrase you used for your debut. By creating a new one per event you’ll lessen the chances of disappointment. When in doubt, a simple “Thanks for your continued support” does the trick. It’s not all that creative, but it works in a pinch.

Sharpie, Colored Ink, or Classic Black?

Again, authors are split. Have you noticed a trend yet?

Some authors say they sign in colored ink to show the signature wasn’t preprinted in the book or done with a stamp. Others claim colored ink looks amateurish and an author should only sign in blue or black ink. And some authors always sign with a Sharpie.

I never sign with a Sharpie. When you’ve got a line at your table, it takes extra time to let the ink dry before closing the cover. Otherwise, the ink smudges. Blowing on the signature could speed up the process, but that’s never a good look. Sharpies also tend to bleed through to the next page.

If signing with a pen, bring more than one. At my last signing I ran through three. It’s a great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless if we forgot to pack more than one pen.

What Form of Payment to Accept?

At my first book signing, I wrongly assumed everyone would hand me dead presidents. Big mistake. I lost a lot of sales by only accepting cash and the occasional check from sweet ol’ cotton tops. Whether we like it or not, a whole generation uses cards or apps for everything they purchase. Including books.

Thankfully, we don’t need to lug around a manual credit card machine aka the “knuckle buster.” Nowadays all we need is a cell phone.

The top two easiest ways to accept cards are:

  • Square Reader
  • PayPal Zettle

The Square Reader is one of the best and most popular options. Compact, easy-to-use, and accepts all credit/debit card transactions. Either manually enter the credit/debit card, swipe the card through the reader attached to your cell phone, or hover the card over the reader for a contactless transaction. Square also accepts purchases via an app. Most purchases don’t require a signature. For those that do, the buyer scrawls a signature on your phone with their finger. Square has added benefits, too, like keeping a running tally of daily sales.

When you sign up for a Square account, you’ll be asked to link a bank account. Funds from the book signing will be deposited on the next business day. There’s also an option for instant transfer. The nice part about Square is the ability to set up your products in advance. When a reader purchases a book(s), tap the product(s) and Square automatically adds the price. Easy peasy. Square does offer a stand-alone terminal, but it’s pricey ($299. on Amazon).

PayPal Zettle is another great option. The Zettle 2 device is a stand-alone terminal. Connects wirelessly to PayPal’s Zettle Go App via Bluetooth and accepts all credit/debit cards, including Apple Pay, Venmo, Samsung Pay, Google Pay, and contactless transactions. The terminal costs $79, but new Zettle account holders only pay $29. Like Square, Zettle allows you to set up inventory and pricing. They also offer a mobile card reader.

I use both Square and the Zettle terminal. Dead zones abound in my area. Whichever device connects first is my favorite of the day. 😉

Group vs. Individual Signings

Group author events aren’t my favorite things to do. Some venues try to squeeze ten authors into a room that holds about five, and it’s a miserable experience for everyone. Aside from conferences, I don’t bother with group events anymore. That said, a signing with one or two other authors can be fun. Plus, if you’re new to book signings, having a fellow author to show you the ropes will help relieve some of the pressure. I will say, a solo signing is far more lucrative than a group event. Though it may depend on your area.

The Actual Signature

Early on in my career, I received top-notch advice from an author friend who had experience with book signings. She told me never to sign a book with my legal signature. By signing in the same way as, say, a check, you’re inviting trouble. For example, my legal name is Susan, but I prefer Sue (obviously). So, I sign my books as Sue Coletta, not Susan, and I changed the way I would write my first and last name on a legal document. This new signature became my author signature.

Why is this important? Because if you hand the wrong person a signed book with your legal signature, they could easily forge your name.

Venues: Think Outside the Box

All book signings don’t need to be held in bookstores or libraries. I’ve had some of my most successful signings at local fairs and Old Home Days, and I’ve sold out and scored numerous book club invites.

Readers love unique book signing venues.

I have a friend who held book signings in hospitals (pre-pandemic). Another friend held a book signing at a local brewery. Another friend has gained her local audience by hosting Florida wildlife cruises that end with a signing. See what I’m sayin’? Be creative!

A few years back, I held a signing at a murder site in one of my thrillers, which is also a popular tourist attraction. I’ve held a signing in a tattoo shop featured in the book. Some of my murder sites are places where I plan to hold signings once the book releases. And I’ve gained a supportive fanbase because of it. I’m lucky that my area is a popular tourist destination. Some fans literally run to my table, all excited to see me again. My husband, son, and daughter-in-law come just to watch readers’ reactions. My grandchildren (8 1/2, 7, and 4 y.o.) are far less impressed . . .

Nanna, why are all these people here to see you?

Because I’m cool.

Hahaha. No, really.

Out of the mouths of babes, right? Little rascals help to keep the ego in check.

Most importantly, book signings should be fun.

A book signing is a time when we get to meet the folks who love our characters, plot lines, twists and turns. Enjoy the day. Each time we sign a book it’s a personal experience between author and reader. The “right way” to sign a book is a personal choice. If it feels right to sign in crayon, go for it. The only part that’s a must is to adopt an author signature. Why invite trouble?

Over to you, TKZers. Did I miss anything? Do you cross out your name? Use colored ink? Doodle little hearts around the title? Please explain.

 If you haven’t done a book signing yet, which of these tips might you adopt and why? Have you attended an unusual book event? Please explain.

 

For Love or Money?

jc cards pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Has anyone ever said to you: “How nice that you enjoy writing. It’s such a wonderful hobby.”

Did you bristle?

Yeah, me too.

“Writing is not a damn hobby! I just don’t get paid for it!” 

 

Considering the amount of work, study, and time we put into our writing, the term “hobby” sounds insulting. Yet, try to convince the IRS that a new computer and a research trip to Greece are valid expenses to write off if one’s income is a measly three figures.

The tug of war between writing as vocation vs. avocation never ends.

A keynote speaker at a Colorado conference I attended in the 1990s posed a question: If there was no possibility you’d ever be published, would you still write?

Like most of the 400 diehards in the audience, I raised my hand.

An updated version of that question might be: If there was no possibility you’d ever be paid, would you still write?

The answer is still yes.

Way back in the last century, long before Kindle was even a gleam in Bezos’s eye, I decided to become a full-time writer. Aside from a few short stories published in long-ago college literary mags, I had zero experience.

The plight of the unpublished writer is like the job where you need experience in order to be hired, yet how do you get that experience if no one will hire you?

To jumpstart my new career, I gave away articles and short stories. Someday, I hoped, someone would think my writing was good enough to pay me.

The love of writing sustained me for years when I earned exactly zero.

Meanwhile, though, I took classes, joined critique groups, attended conferences, and studied craft books. In other words, I did my homework and paid my dues.

My first sale was a short story to a little literary magazine for the princely sum of $5. At last, I had a published clip!

However…the check bounced.

Oh well.

For years, I kept that check to remind myself never to become too cocky. It also taught me the transitory nature of the writing business. One day, you summit the mountain; the next day, you drown in the gutter of rejection.

During the time when I gave away my work, a full-time travel freelancer named Jacquie spoke to our writing group. She was the consummate pro. She shared how to earn more money by re-purposing the same article for many different markets; how to take photos that sell an article; and how to develop ongoing relationships with editors who called her whenever they needed a story. She made a good enough living from writing that she could afford a lovely riverfront condo and enjoy exotic travel with expenses she deducted on her taxes.

Jacquie also made a point that I had not yet considered at the time. She said when writers give away their work, it undermines the ability of professionals to earn a living.

That made me pause. Now I felt guilty for giving away work because that deprived someone trying to support a family. Yet that’s how most writers must do their apprenticeship.

I finally broke the pay barrier when a journalist friend couldn’t fulfill an assignment and  asked me to cover the story for her. That led to an infrequent but regular paying gig with a prestigious state magazine.

With published clips under my belt, I queried other markets and got to know more editors. Because I always met deadlines and didn’t require major rewrites, soon I was on staff for several periodicals and became a quarterly columnist for a glossy wildlife magazine. Pay ranged from a penny to a dime per word.

Do the math—no riverfront condo.

My all-time best pay came from a little 300-word profile of a jazz pianist named Nina Russell for the AARP Magazine (then called Modern Maturity).

A dollar a word. In 1995. Wow!

Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice. But my going rate rose to 20 cents a word.

That paid for printing costs and postage to submit my novels to agents and editors. Yes, back in the last century, writers mailed paper manuscripts via the post office.

But… the internet and electronic publishing spelled doom for many print magazines. I used to joke that I’d personally put at least 20 of them out of business but I can’t take all the credit.

The early 2000s saw a sea change in the market from print to electronic format. The advent of Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007 revolutionized the book world.

By 2010, some authors who jumped on board early were making a decent living by self-publishing. One friend remodeled her house with KDP earnings. A few became wealthy.

But the law of supply and demand rules the market. With millions of writers publishing millions of books, articles, blog posts, etc., the market quickly became glutted.

On top of that, why pay for what you can get for free?

Thousands of websites, blogs, newsletters, and platforms like WattPad offer  information and entertainment…for free.

Articles and short stories that, back in the 1990s, would have commanded four figures from The Atlantic and The New Yorker are now available for only a mouse click.

More outlets than ever need content but millions more writers are also clamoring to fill those needs, often without pay.

Despite the low market value of writing itself, an entire cottage industry has sprung up to support the self-publishing community with marketing, editing, cover design, book formatting, coaching, etc. Although I don’t have verifiable proof, I firmly believe most authors pay more to these support businesses than readers pay to authors for their books.

Don’t forget Bezos, who’s done just fine servicing authors.

Remember the dollar/word I made in 1995? More than a quarter century later, here’s a link to top-paying markets for freelancers. Fifty cents is about the max you can expect today. Some are down to a penny or dime/word, same rates as when I started.

Yet the gallon of gas that was $1.15 in 1995 now costs $4.

Factor in the disaster of 2020 and writing incomes dropped further. According to the Authors Guild, “…by January [2021], over two thirds [of writers surveyed] had lost a significant portion of their income—almost half of their pre-pandemic incomes on average—due to the loss of freelance journalism work, speaking engagements and teaching jobs, as well as low book sales due to bookstore closures.”

Highly respected writing/marketing guru Jane Friedman never shrinks from shining a light on cold, hard reality. She tackles the uncomfortable subject of current author earnings in this post.

Jacquie the successful travel journalist is no doubt spinning in her grave. The nice living that she once made as a freelancer nowadays translates more accurately to the revenue from your kid’s lemonade stand.

There are more authors with 15-year-old Subarus than chauffeur-driven limos.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but that’s the reality of the profession we’ve chosen.

Yet…there are other forms of payment.

“Your character totally captured how I felt.”

 “I could see the place like I was right there.”

“I’m a crusty old Marine but your story brought tears to my eyes.”

“I’m disabled and don’t get out much. Your books make me forget my troubles for a little while.”

“Your book kept me up all night. I couldn’t put it down.”

How much are the above reader comments worth?

Well, they won’t buy a new laptop or pay for a research trip to Greece.

But there’s something about making that connection with readers that feeds my soul.

This year, I’ve concentrated more on marketing than in the past and book sales are gradually rising. But I’m not ready to sign a contract for a riverfront condo yet.

Meanwhile, I continue to treat writing as a profession, working as hard for unpaid stories as I do for paid ones.

Will I keep writing even though the pay is lousy?

Yup.

~~~

TKZers: Would you keep writing if you never got paid? What’s the best reader comment you’ve ever received?

Writing Ritual and Routine

I always write to music, but a problem arose recently that made me question my writing ritual.

But I love writing with my headphones on, music blocking out the world around me. There’s no better way for me to strike the right mood in the WIP. I create a playlist for each book, with overlapping “series songs.” Songs I listen to only while writing books in that series. Since my series are vastly different so are the songs in each playlist.

As soon as I slide on the headphones, the music transports me back to my story world.

The problem I ran into recently was with writing true crime. I’d created a playlist for Pretty Evil New England. But for this new book I veered away from my usual writing routine and threw on Pandora.

Big mistake.

I struggled. The words wouldn’t come like they normally do. My mind felt cluttered and bogged down. Hence why I wrote my last post about multitasking and the brain. Frazzled, I panicked. Why I couldn’t reach “the zone” with my WIP? The beginning had been so easy, words flowing like Niagara, paragraphs in perfect harmony with one another. Had I finally lost my writing mojo?

The answer seemed clear. Only it wasn’t an answer I could accept. I emotionally degraded myself, exercised, read . . . I tried everything I could think of to breathe life into my muse, dying next to two unfinished WIPs. And yet, every time I slid on the headphones and clicked Pandora . . . total brain block.

After several grueling days (felt more like years), I stumbled across a blog post that advised writers never to listen to music unless it has no lyrics, background instrumental music. In other words, the total opposite of my music. But I’ve written all my books to music. What changed?

The metaphoric lightbulb blazed on.

By switching to Pandora, not knowing what song would play or when, my brain couldn’t interpret the music as white noise.

As soon as I went back to YouTube and clicked the playlist for Pretty Evil New England (since I’m writing true crime), my fingers could barely keep up with the flood of creativity.

I’m back!

Writers have writing rituals/routines for a reason. The ritual or routine encourages focus and has the ability to get us back on track if we drift off course. The familiarity snaps us out of the funk and reminds us that yes, we can finish the WIP, just as we’ve always done. It also allows the words to flow. Rituals help us find comfort and balance and sets the tone for a solid writing session. Routine is especially important. Employing a consistent writing routine can be the difference between hitting our word count or staring at a blinking cursor.

If your writing comes to a screeching halt for no apparent reason, a change within your writing ritual or routine may be to blame.

For me (obviously), it’s sliding on the headphones with a familiar playlist cranked. Emphasis on familiar. An argument could be made that I’m not really listening to music. Rather, the playlist morphs into white noise and acts as the gunshot to start the footrace. Although, strangely, I’ve tried the white noise app and it’s not nearly as effective (for me). All my research is done on my iMac, but I switch to my MacBook to write. This was a subconscious act. I wasn’t even aware of the ritual until I focused on changes within my writing routine.

For others, the writing ritual may include an environmental change, like shutting the door to the office or sitting outside in a special chair. Some writers trek to the local coffee shop or settle in at their designated desk in the university library. *waves to Garry*

Some of our most celebrated authors had/have consistent writing rituals and routines.

JAMES JOYCE

Joyce’s ritual included crayons, a white coat, and a comfy horizontal surface. For word flow, he would lay flat on his stomach in bed. Since he was severely myopic, crayons enabled Joyce to see his own handwriting more clearly, and the white coat served as a reflector of light.

MAYA ANGELOU 

In her own words:

I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind.

I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.”

So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!

But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.

TRUMAN CAPOTE 

The creative genius behind In Cold Blood was a superstitious man. Capote’s writing ritual often involved avoiding things like hotel rooms with phone numbers that included the number 13, starting or ending a piece of work on a Friday, and tossing more than three cigarette butts in one ashtray.

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Even so, Capote stuck to his writing routine because it worked.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY 

In stark contrast to James Joyce, Hemingway was a firm believer in standing while writing. While working on The Old Man and The Sea, he followed a strict regimen.

“Done by noon, drunk by three.”

This entailed waking at dawn, writing furiously while standing, and eventually hiking to the local bar to get hammered.

JOAN DIDION 

Didion holds her books close to her heart—literally.  When she’s close to finishing a manuscript, she’ll sleep with her WIP.

“Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.”

E.B. WHITE 

In his own words:

I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

KURT VONNEGUT 

Check out Vonnegut’s writing routine:

I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare.

When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.

JODIE PICOULT 

Picoult doesn’t believe writer’s block exists:

Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

Wise words. I agree. Nothing motivates quite like a looming deadline, self-imposed or contracted.

DAN BROWN 

Most writers would do anything and everything to get rid of writer’s block. According to The Da Vinci Code novelist, Dan Brown hangs upside down to cure writer’s block. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But we can’t argue with the results. If Brown didn’t hang like a bat, imagine all the amazing thrillers we would have lost?

Bats can’t launch into flight until they’re upside down. Why not Dan Brown? He says he’s more productive and creative afterward. He also does push-ups and stretches every hour. Not only has he found the cure for writer’s block, he’s in tip-top shape.

Writers are complicated beings. 😉

Do you have a writing ritual and/or routine? Tell us about it.

My publisher ran a sale for Pretty Evil New England last week. Not sure how long the sale will last, but for now the ebook is $1.99 on Amazon.

POP QUIZ ON ADJECTIVES

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

When we first learned to talk, most likely we never gave a second thought to the order of words. We just mimicked our parents until the sentences that came out of our mouths made sense and were understandable.

If a five-year-old said, I kicked over the fence the ball, most likely Mom, Dad, or a kindergarten teacher would tell the child it sounded better to say: I kicked the ball over the fence.

We instinctively knew how to place the words in the right order, even though we didn’t realize exactly what it was we knew or how we knew it. 

[Side note: English is a particularly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn because it’s full of inconsistencies and contradictory rules. If you didn’t learn English as a first language, please accept my condolences for the misery you’re going through.]

 

At some point in our language development, we learned that adjectives make sentences more descriptive. For those of us destined to become writers, adjectives became fun new toys.

Consider the three examples below:

The Jack Russell tan frisky terrier chased a mouse.

Hey, wait a sec. That sounds awkward. What’s wrong?

Instead, how about:

The frisky tan Jack Russell terrier chased a mouse.

Sounds natural.

A hot-air red massive balloon floated above farm land.

Awkward.

A massive red hot-air balloon floated above farm land.

Natural.

A new silver shiny Cadillac was parked in the murky dark shadows of the concrete parking high-rise garage.

Awkward.

A shiny new silver Cadillac was parked in the dark murky shadows of the high-rise concrete parking garage.

Natural.

In these examples, one flows easily off the tongue while, in the other, words come out in halts and jerks.

What is the difference?

The order of the adjectives.

Huh? Who even thinks about that?

Writers, that’s who.

Turns out there are actual rules about the correct order of adjectives.

Recently I learned that new lesson when TKZ regular Chuck sent me an interesting article that quotes The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth. In his book, Forsyth separates adjectives into eight different types of descriptors and their proper order:

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Age
  4. Shape
  5. Color
  6. Origin
  7. Material
  8. Purpose

There is even a handy little acronym to remind you of the correct order, using the first letter of each type: OSASCOMP.

Cambridge Dictionary doesn’t want the rules to be that simple so they offer an alternate option that divides adjectives into 10 classifications in slightly different order.

  1. Opinion
  2. Size
  3. Physical quality
  4. Shape
  5. Age
  6. Color
  7. Origin
  8. Material
  9. Type
  10. Purpose

Translated to an acronym: OSPSACOMTP.

Hmm, I think I’ll stick with Forsyth’s version.

In Elements of Eloquence, Forsyth illustrates the correct order with this complicated yet coherent phrase:

A lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

Take a moment to experiment. Can you rearrange the adjectives in a different order that makes sense and sounds better?

Me neither.

Of course, no author would dare string that many adjectives together without a stern reprimand from the editor.

Photo credit: Isaak Alexandre Karslain, Unsplash

Let’s have some fun with a quiz. Read the following jumbled descriptions and put them in the correct order. Your choice of either Forsyth’s or Cambridge Dictionary’s rules.

  1. The wicked old shriveled witch cast a permanent vengeful curse on the young innocent maiden.
  2. The black-and-tan huge guard German Shepherd dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The parchment ancient yellowed fragile scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the silk designer black sexy strapless dress.

Below are my answers. If you disagree, please share in the comment section.

  1. The wicked (opinion) shriveled (physical quality) old (age) witch cast a vengeful (opinion) permanent (type) curse on the innocent (opinion) young (age) maiden.
  2. The huge (size) black-and-tan (color) German Shepherd (origin) guard (purpose) dog growled when the child grabbed her puppy.
  3. The fragile (physical quality) ancient (age) yellowed (color) parchment (material) scroll crumbled when touched.
  4. Margie couldn’t resist buying the sexy (opinion) strapless (shape) black (color) designer (origin) silk (material) dress.

Here’s a shortcut for when you’re writing a sentence with several adjectives but can’t remember the rules:

Read the sentence out loud.

If it sounds awkward, rearrange the order of the adjectives until the sentence flows smoothly and naturally.

If you’re still not sure, read the sentence out loud to someone else. Ask how the adjective order sounds best to their ears.

If you can’t remember the rules or would rather ignore them, here’s the easiest option of all: don’t string more than two adjectives together.

Your editor will appreciate it and so will your readers.

~~~

TKZers: Did you know there were rules for the order of adjectives?

As a writer, do you love adjectives? Or would you rather discard them in the same wastebasket with adverbs?

~~~

Debbie Burke is an absentminded (opinion) aging (age) blond (color) Montana (origin) thriller (purpose) writer who never uses more than two adjectives in a row. You can verify that if you read Debbie’s six-book series at this link.

Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

Writers need to multitask. If you struggle with multitasking, don’t be too hard on yourself. The brain is not wired to complete more than one task at peak level. A recent study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed when we’re concentrating on a task that involves sight, the brain will automatically decrease our hearing.

“The brain can’t cope with too many tasks: only one sense at a time can perform at its peak. This is why it’s not a good idea to talk on the phone while driving.” — Professor Jerker Rönnberg of Linköping University, who conducted the study.

The results of this study show that if we’re subjected to sound alone, the brain activity in the auditory cortex continues without any problems. But when the brain is given a visual task, such as writing, the response of the nerves in the auditory cortex decreases, and hearing becomes impaired.

As the difficulty of the task increases—like penning a novel—the nerves’ response to sound decreases even more. Which explains how some writers wear headphones while writing. The music becomes white noise.

For me, once I slide on the headphones, the world around me fades away. I can’t tell you the number of times my husband has strolled into my office, and I practically jump clean out of my skin. Don’t be surprised if someday he kills me by giving me a heart attack. But it isn’t really his fault, even though I’ll never tell him that. 😉 I’m in the zone, headphones on, music blaring, my complete attention on that screen, and apparently, my brain decreased my ability to hear.

Strangely enough, I don’t listen to music while researching. When I need to read and absorb content, I need silence. This quirk never made sense to me. Until now.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? Instinctively, you’re helping your brain to concentrate on the visual task.

Research shows that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. In fact, some researchers suggest multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40% (for everyone except Rev; he’s a multitasking God). Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Doing many different things at once can also impair cognitive ability.

Shocking, right?

Multitasking certainly isn’t a new concept, but the constant streams of information from numerous different sources do represent a relatively new problem. While we know that all this “noise” is not good for productivity, is it possible that it could also injure our brains?

Multitasking in the brain is managed by executive functions that control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. According to Meyer, Evans, and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process.

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another
  2. Role activation: Switching from the rules for the previous task to the rules for the new task (like writing vs. reading)

Moving through these steps may only add a few tenths of a second, but it can start to add up when people repeatedly switch back and forth. This might not be a big deal if you’re folding laundry and watching TV at the same time. However, where productivity is concerned, wasting even small amounts of time could be the difference between writing a novel in months vs. years.

Multitasking Isn’t Always Bad

Some research suggests that people who engage in media multitasking, like listening to music through headphones while using a computer, might be better at integrating visual and auditory information. Study participants between the ages of 19 and 28 were asked to complete questionnaires regarding their media usage.

The participants completed a visual search task both with and without a sound to indicate when the item changed color. Heavy multitaskers performed better when sound was presented, indicating they were more adept at integrating the two sources of sensory information. Conversely, heavy multitaskers performed worse than light/medium multitaskers when the tone was not present.

I can attest to that. If I don’t have my headphones on, chances are I won’t hit my writing goals that day. I’ve conditioned my brain to focus when the music starts. And I store a spare set of headphones in case mine break. Learned that little lesson the hard way.

“Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing,” the authors noted.

How can writers multitask and still be productive?

  • Limit the numbers of things we juggle to two (*laughter erupts in the audience*)
  • Use the “20-minute rule.” Instead of constantly switching between tasks, devote your full attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the next task.

What do you think about these studies? How well do you multitask?