Roget’s Thesaurus: A Love Story

As a writer, I’m ever searching for the word. You know the one—that perfectly specific verb, that spot-on, lyrical adjective, that evocative noun—that peculiar word (or phrase) that will infuse an entire sentence with magic.

The word is often an elusive creature. Sasquatch-esque. And like the noble sasquatch, it’s out there—waiting. I often come to a point in writing when I know there is a perfect word, if only I can find it.

Which beings me to the point of today’s post: thesauruses (thesauri?). Actually, no. Let’s back up for a moment and talk about dictionaries. A few years back I stumbled upon this blog post: You’re probably using the wrong dictionary. It was a game changer for me. If you haven’t read it before, I highly recommend doing so. But the gist of it is this: modern dictionaries do not hold a candle to this 1913 Webster dictionary. Its definitions often read like poetry, and it uses sample sentences from classic literature. It’s a wonderful resource.

But it got me thinking: is it possible there’s an older thesaurus that is also superior to the modern one that comes standard on my computer? I did some digging, and I found that the 1911 version of Roget’s Thesaurus is free and available online, and—much like the glorious Webster dictionary—it is rife with odd and wonderful words.

An Example

A while back, I was working on a short story (Prudentia) about a bureaucrat on a spaceship who works as an art censor, until a collection of poems forces her to reexamine her beliefs. It was a fun project, but it meant I needed to write a few poems—something I hadn’t done since college. I quickly rediscovered how much more sasquatch-esque the right word can be when dealing with verse. The word not only requires the perfect meaning, but also (potentially) the correct number of syllables or a specific ending sound.

I was stumped for a while on the fourth line of the second stanza in this poem:

I should rather bleed

Burn, choke, howl, keen,

For want of you, plead,

Than smile—blithe, serene

 

I should rather die,

Live, hurt, die anew,

Than have said goodbye,

And, ______, continue

 

Without you, Love

Oh – Oh my Love,

Without you.

I wanted a word that meant “willingly” or “gladly,” however it needed to be one syllable (and a one-syllable adverb is a pretty tall order.) Typing willingly into the thesaurus on my mac gave me this:

None of these words work. But I had the sense that the word I needed did exist, that I had read it somewhere before. When I checked on Roget.org (using the text queries feature, which has more results. Just click on the little ABC button at the bottom of the landing page) I got this:

And there she blows! Fain. FAIN! I double checked the meaning in my Webster dictionary:

And, yup. It’s the perfect word. Than have said goodbye / And, fain, continue. BOOSH!

My Thesaurus Journey Continues

I continued to happily use the web version of this thesaurus for quite some time, until one day I was placing an Amazon order and I needed to throw something else into my cart to get free shipping (Oh, Zon, you clever rogue, you), so I decided to get myself a physical copy (this one). I wanted something I could leaf through, so I might browse for words that strike my fancy without having to enter a search term.

When it arrived, with its fragile binding and yellowing pages, my first thought was that it really put the used in “used – very good condition.” But then I opened it, and found this:

I was expecting to think to myself: “this is a very good thesaurus,” or possibly “this is useless, but at least I got free shipping.” Instead, I found myself realizing something fairly embarrassing: I’d forgotten what a thesaurus is. Because I have long thought of a thesaurus as a dictionary, but with synonyms rather than definitions. However, the way this book is organized completely contradicts that notion. As you can see in the above picture, that page is not laid out alphabetically. It is designed like this: Communication of Ideas > Nature of Ideas Communicated > Meaning / Unmeaningness (Yes, let’s take a moment to savor the word unmeaningness.)

The introduction explains it perfectly:

The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.

Perhaps this is well known and I’m just the one dummy who hasn’t picked up a physical thesaurus since childhood, but it struck me as something of a revelation. A thesaurus is not a dictionary of synonyms. A thesaurus is an inside out dictionary, starting with the meaning instead of the word, and revealing the way those meanings relate to each other.

Take a look at this beauty:

Means of Safety / Source of Danger. I had no idea that a thesaurus could offer up such idea-driven word groupings.

The more I use this new resource, the more I love it. I still use the web version as well, but I’d forgotten that the core concept behind what a thesaurus is makes it impossible to digitize. A book that categorizes terms by meaning rather than by the word itself can’t be searchable without losing its heart.

So, here’s my tip for the day: use online thesauri (I certainly still do; it’s faster), but when you find yourself on the hunt for a particularly juicy the word, take a look in a physical thesaurus too. You might be surprised by what you find.

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Character Creation

As I’ve been working on the last book in my Marked series, I’ve also begun looking ahead to future projects (hurray!). I’ve been thinking a lot about my creative process—specifically all of the things that I did poorly early in the development of this series.

I made a pretty spectacular number of dummy mistakes when I wrote Division (foolish errors that made each book more difficult as I went, since I couldn’t go back and make changes). I don’t have any regrets, really—I learned a lot along the way, and I’m happy with most of the final product—but I intend to be smarter when tackling early planning in the future.

In particular, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my character creation process. Since I write character driven fiction, characters are the engine of my story. They are the most important ingredient. Which is why the complete lack of planning I did when I created my characters in Division was so short-sighted.

I’ve come to think of it as the “swing open the carriage door” method of character development, because that is literally how I handled character creation. My two main characters, Bray and Yarrow, came to me more or less fully formed, but I knew they needed friends. So, in the opening of the story, they are riding along in a carriage and they pick up two other boys along the way. I put zero thought into who these boys should be or how they would play into the plot. I just opened the door and let someone walk in. Arlow, Peer, Ko-Jin, and Adearre were all created this way.

THEN, I doubled down on this stupidity, when I decided in book two that these characters, whom I’d invented so haphazardly, should all get their own POVs and become major players in the plot. Which meant that I needed them to develop and grow in ways that would add to the larger story. I’d given them personality flaws at random, and had to think of ways for them to confront these flaws while still working towards the ultimate conclusion I’d already set in motion. It was like dumping random puzzle pieces down on the table and just praying that my future-self could figure out how they might fit together.

The fact that I actually DID figure it out is something of a miracle—and, as a result, I invented some interesting plot points that I otherwise would never have considered—but really, why make this so needlessly difficult for myself?

So, as I start developing my next project, I have begun with the radical notion of creating my characters BEFORE I dump them into a story that’s already on the move. This way I can deliberately shape the plot to suit my characters. I began looking for templates online for character creation, and though I found many out there, none were what I needed. They often had lots of details that were not relevant to me as a fantasy writer, and left out the things that I think are most important. So I decided to create my own.

I think strong primary characters must be three things:

1) Specific – Great characters are specific rather than vague. They aren’t merely a “type.” They are idiosyncratic. When I wrote up this character template, I was still suffering from a book hangover after reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and I could not get over how beautifully distinct and unique her characters were. All of the tiny yet consistent details made her cadre of friends vivid and real.  Gansey chews mint leaves and rubs his fingers to his lip when he’s thinking. Ronan is a foul-mouthed antiestablishment ruffian / practicing Catholic with soft-spot for baby birds. NONE of these characters are a type. There are so many different ways a character can be distinctly themselves: it’s in their mannerisms and speech patterns, their belief and desires, their possessions and appearance.

2) Dynamic – Duh. I know. Obviously my main characters can’t be static. So when planning a character, I need to think ahead to how they are going to change. I need to give them room to grow…or degenerate. I also need to consider that they existed before the story began (unless we start at birth). Real people have pasts that matter to them—cherished memories and painful experiences. The movie Inside Out helped me think about this in a more concrete way. Riley’s key personality traits were all attached to significant memories, and when she formed new (traumatic) memories, her personality was—at least temporarily—changed. SO, what past events have helped inform who my character is when he or she is introduced? AND, when something significant happens during the story, how will it effect my character moving forward?

3) DrivenMost commonly, we talk about characters being driven by a goal. They have an objective and they are moving towards it, or trying to. Usually they are held up by some manner of deficiency that they first need to overcome. But characters are driven in lots of ways—they can be driven my key character traits, like loyalty or ambition. They might be driven by a key belief or philosophy. Interesting character usually have more than one thing that is pushing them—and sometimes the things that motivate them begin to conflict. Maybe their lifelong goal of becoming an expert fighter begins to clash with their natural propensity for compassion. Think of all the things—the wants and traits and values—that will push and motivate your character, and how those things will potentially work together. But something MUST be compelling our characters to act and change, otherwise they either do nothing or are merely swept up in a plot that has no stakes for them.

So, with those three key components in mind, I created for myself a character template for Scrivener. It is pretty in depth. I used it to build the main cast of my next project, and it took me a long time. BUT, I found that the process worked really well. I would begin with a nebulous and vague notion of a character, and as I moved through the template I felt as if I really got to know these new characters. They now exist in my mind, fully complex, and already primed to grow with the plot.

Here’s how it goes:

 

I begin with broad strokes: general info about who they are, what they look like, and what they want. Character alignment is used in Dungeons & Dragons, and I think its a useful early tool for character development.

Next, I do their Myers Briggs Type. I find this a super useful tool to understand some of the basic workings of my character. Understanding these sorts of mechanics early helps me to write consistent characters. For example, if a character relies on Sensing over Intuition, they focus on the reality of their current situation rather than imagining all the ways that things could be different. This will be pertinent to how my character addresses challenges.

(In the Scrivener file, you can find lots of information in the document notes section to aid in filling out this part of the template. The “other examples” are pulled from, in order: Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avatar the Last Airbender, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, The Walking Dead, Marvel, and Star Wars.)

After I know their character type, I move on to development. I want to think about their goals, strengths, weaknesses, and knowledge at the beginning, during, and at the end. I want  to build in lots of room for them to grow and change. Here, I’m liable to start making notes about potential plot points that can help my character shift in necessary ways.

Next up, fundamentals and background! I decide on their wants, fears, and beliefs, but I also consider how these underlying motivators manifest. It can be interesting to play with contradiction here, or to subvert expectations. A natural assumption might be to have a desire for wealth manifest in hard work and a fear of being alone manifest in consideration for loved ones. But a desire for wealth might just as well manifest in stinginess and jealousy, and a fear of being alone might cause a character to preemptively isolate himself, so as to be alone by choice rather than abandonment.

Love languages (again, in the document notes) are a good way of thinking ahead about how a character will show affection. Not everyone expresses love the same way.

Background is an important and—I think—fun step. What has happened to them in the past and how do those experiences inform their current state? I make a list of defining moments—memories that my characters will no doubt reflect on at some point in the story. Prejudices and affinities are also usually informed by one’s background.

Once I know my character’s personality type and background, it’s easy to isolate their character traits. I also consider which personality traits are the result of some prior experience and what are just an inherent part of the character’s identity. Those traits that are resultant could change if future experiences challenge past experiences; those that are inherent are much less likely to be altered. Once I know the character’s personality traits, I can decide how those traits manifest.

Character perception is also a really useful thing to consider in advance. Perhaps the character doesn’t change (or doesn’t change much) but as the reader comes to understand the character the reader’s perception shifts. For example, a character’s goals and personality traits might be largely negative but manifest in seemingly positive ways—it could take time for the reader to see the darkness that lurks beneath the surface layer. Victoria Aveyard did an amazing job with this in Red Queen. The way Mare, and by extension we the reader, feel about the two princes is a giant emotional rollercoaster. I still haven’t gotten over that twist.

The next two sections are pretty straight forward. Giving each character their own specific set of mannerisms helps to make them feel more distinct. I particularly like to think about how my characters behave under the influence of certain emotions, because ideally a cast of characters should not all express their embarrassment in exactly the same way, for example. If you can invent a few idiosyncratic mannerisms for a given emotion, it will be a very useful tool in the future; you can simultaneously represent a feeling with “showing” and reaffirm characterization. (Like Gansey and his thoughtful lip rubbing. If his fingers are on his lips, I know he’s thinking without being told, and I’m reminded of this (adorable) idiosyncrasy which makes him feel distinct.)

The Voice & Language section usually takes me some time to ponder, but it’s very useful to know in advance how a character speaks. There is nothing worse than a book in which all of the character sound exactly the same (unless it’s a book with switching first person in which all of the character sound exactly the same). So, I take the time to write out some dummy dialogue and to isolate a few phrases or non-standard usages for each character. I plan to continue expanding this section as I write, so it will be easier to be consistent. Preference and Relationships are probably self-explanatory. I used “likes” as it is nice a broad, as opposed to some templates which demand favorite colors and sports teams. Your character might not give a flying shit about having a favorite color, but he or she is going to like SOMETHING. Maybe a favorite food or a type of music or the smell of yeast because their dear departed mama was a baker. Whatever. But these are the kinds of details that help flesh out who this person is.

Next is things. Possessions and clothing are potentially great opportunities for characterization, whether it be a sentimental keepsake or a a garish hat that says a lot about their personal style and priorities (à la Lindsay Buroker’s Maldynado)

And, FINALLY, I end with 5 little-known facts. This gives me an opportunity to think up some details that perhaps don’t fit into any of the above categories, and to give the character some surprising elements—a few contradictions or secrets.

And that’s it. Like I said, it isn’t terribly fast. It takes me some time to figure all of this out. But so far, I’ve found that the characters I’ve produced using this template are truly interesting and dynamic—and, even more importantly, I am always excited to start writing them after completing this process. This is needlessly detailed for secondary and tertiary characters, so I also created a truncated version for characters who are less significant.

If you use Scrivener and you would like to give my template a try, I’ve included it below. To add these character templates to your Scrivener file first download and open the file provided. Then drag and drop the sheets into your templates folder. If you do not have a templates folder then drag over the folder and set it as the template folder, like so:

Then open up a new template and get to creating:

Download and unzip: Character Template

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Music & Writing Multiple Points of View

Music is a big part of my creative process. There’s a lot of power in playing just the right song, at just the right moment. The fight scene in the second chapter of Elevation, for example, would simply not exist as it does without Woodkid. I was stumped, and then those drums woke me up.

When I began writing, the way that music played into my process developed organically. I began to notice that certain songs reminded me of certain characters. I’d be sitting on the bus on my way home from work, and The Head and the Heart would shuffle on, and suddenly I would be thinking of my character Yarrow. Often enough, those thoughts would yield useable ideas.

Once I realized this, I decided to give each of my characters their own song. This strategy became increasingly helpful as I added more view point characters to each book. The most difficult thing about writing with multiple POVs, for me, is switching from one head to another. They each have their own voice, their own struggles, their own goals and plot-lines. It is sometimes challenging for me when I’m in a groove with one character and then I suddenly have to shift.

The best trick I’ve found is to use music cues. Whichever head I need to jump into for the next scene, I play that character’s song. Because I do this so often, I believe it triggers something in my brain to help with the transition. It’s a simple Pavlovian reaction. My mind hears those drums, and it knows that it’s time to be Ko-Jin.

Having such strong tries between certain songs and certain characters also helps push me to ponder and day dream in constructive ways. If I’m out for a walk or at the gym and I know I’m going to have a writing session soon, I put on music that tells my brain it’s time to think about work. The connection is there, so I don’t have to try to herd my wild thoughts into a more productive direction. It happens effortlessly.

So, this is my tip: if you write multiple view points in your story, and you ever find it difficult to jump in and out of heads, take a moment to choose a song for each of your POV characters. I currently use the apple music app, which allows you to play a “radio station” based on a specific song, and it always plays that song first.

Some advice:

1) Don’t get too hung up on finding a song that perfectly speaks to the character in every lyric. Maybe there’s just a line here and there that fit. Or maybe the words are all wrong but the voice and beat are perfect. Ultimately, the song doesn’t matter that much, as long as you build the connection between it and your character.

2.) Make sure to choose different artists for each character, not different songs by the same artist. For me, the association tends to spread from that one song to all songs by the same artist. All Woodkid songs now make me think of Ko-Jin, even if they don’t fit. I think you’d have some crossed-streams if you overlapped.

3.) Pick songs you like enough that listening to them over and over again won’t drive you crazy. Personally, I can listen to the same song a million times in a row without a problem, as long as I like the song.

4.) Consider the mood / tone of the song in relation to the types of scenes that character is likely to be featured in. Having a slow, sleepy song for a character who gets into a lot of sword fights, for example, might not jive well.

Bonus

For fans of my Marked series who are curious, here are the songs I use for my POV characters. I threw them into a Spotify playlist for you. The order goes: Yarrow, Bray, Ko-Jin, Arlow, Peer, Chae-Na, Vendra.

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Lamentation of the Marked Sneak Peek

Hello, everyone! Release day for Lamentation is tomorrow, so to celebrate I did a quick video of myself reading the first scene from the prologue. Hope you enjoy it! (Particularly the weirdo glasses I’ve had to wear to stop my eyeballs from itching from screen fatigue). The full text is also included below.

Lamentation of the Marked

Prologue

Vendra sensed light and motion beyond the veil of her eyelids. Her unconscious mind stirred. Signals zipped between synapses like messages along a telegraph line. It was a pull as inescapable as gravity, but still she resisted. She clung to the respite of sleep, filled with the vague yet certain sense that rousing would be painful; that wakefulness would be loud, confusing, fuzzy-tongued.

Her cheek was pressed into the grain of a wooden board, and a nailhead poked at the flesh below her left eye. From nearby, there came a thunderous outcry. Despite her efforts to remain asleep, the din intensified in her ears, and the peace of slumber slipped through her mental fingers.

Why is it so loud? she thought.

Where am I? she thought.

Quade? she thought.

The roar shifted, individual voices resolving into a unified chant.

“Dispatch her,” said a cold-voiced man.

Vendra’s eyes flickered open. Her temples throbbed, and she tried to swallow, but her mouth was coated in viscous saliva—common side effects. She hefted her head up from the planking and gazed out over a massive crowd. Her brow puckered in confusion.

“YOUR DEATH WILL BE AS TRIVIAL AS A BEETLE BENEATH A BOOT,” the assembly boomed.

The central square of Accord teemed; its usual bare cobble-stoned expanse was instead packed with bodies. Why? She had only imperfect, half-memories. A hazy sense of purpose lost.

Vendra’s head swiveled, sweeping leftwards. Beneath nine empty gallows, a cluster of Elevated and civilians brawled. She blinked at the knot of violence—the flying limbs and tumbling bodies—uncertain of its origin. Nine nooses swayed in the breeze.

From amidst the tumult, the shape of Quade Asher emerged, crossing the stage with black strides. Vendra’s heart thudded in her breast at the sight of him. His form, so sure and straight, always made something deep within her ache. His dark beauty was her greatest addiction.

Her mouth opened to call his name—look at me, see me. He turned, and when she saw him the sound died in her throat.

His face…

It was his, and yet it was not. The shapes and colors were true, but stripped of their allure. His aspect was, all at once, repulsive to her. Foul. His eyes were the blackest, coldest holes she had ever beheld. The sight of them sent a shiver through her spirit, like a web of minute cracks racing across a pane of glass.

She wanted to avert her gaze, to deny the evidence before her, but she couldn’t manage so much as a blink. She had loved this man for all her adult life—had lived for him, killed for him—and yet, somehow, she had never seen him.

A streak of motion came from above, and an arrow bloomed in Quade’s shoulder. He fell to his knees, a snarl escaping his thin lips. And then their former captive, Peer Gelson, charged into view. A sword flashed in his hand.

Vendra’s stomach clenched, and she was uncertain if she more feared or desired Quade’s death. It mattered little. Before the killing stroke could land, her lover vanished with a hollow pop.

She slumped onto her bottom and hugged her legs close to her chest. Lucid for the first time in nearly two decades, countless memories flitted through her mind’s eye. Wounds only now perceived, sins only now recognized. And it was too much, all too much.

Her shoulder blades hit the planking, followed by the back of her skull. Her mind went blank. She stared up at the sky and watched the clouds drift from east to west. The day’s light dimmed, to the tune of her uneven breath. Flurries swirled like ash on a breeze—ash, fire.

Her nose and cheeks grew icy. The clamor of the crowd dwindled until, at length, no sound remained but the gusting of the wind.

“You can’t be staying here,” a male voice said, shattering her trance.

The form of Peer Gelson loomed above her, his breath exploding like steam from his mouth. She had the strong impression she should feel remorse in his presence—whiff of gunpowder, a pained bellow.

“Are you…?” he trailed off and cleared his throat. “It’s cold and gettin’ colder. People’ve been gathering up at the palace.”

He extended a hand to help her up, then seemed to think better of it. He jammed his fist into his coat pocket and rocked on his boots. “Come or not. I won’t be carryin’ you.”

She lacked both the will and the desire to rise. If she stood, she would still have to be herself. She would still have to live within her own mind. This numbness could not last, and it was the only thing keeping her intact. If she moved, she would surely disintegrate.

I’m in shock, she thought.

My pulse is rapid, she thought.

I want to die, she thought.

“After I murdered your friend,” Vendra said, locking eyes with Peer, “you swore you would kill me. You swore.”

He transferred his weight from one foot to the other. “And?”

Something large and empty was opening inside her—a crater in the fabric of her being. “Do it,” she whispered. “Kill me.”

He squatted beside her, resting his forearms on his thighs. “No.”

“He was a good man, was he not? Your friend?”

“He was.”

“And I shot him.”

“You did,” he said. She watched the lump in his throat bob. Snowflakes peppered his sandy hair. “Live with it. I’ll not be doing you any favors.”

He stood and strode away, leaving her colder than she had ever felt in all her life. She scrambled to her knees, dizziness causing her vision to swim. “Wait!”

He paused and half-turned, but didn’t meet her pleading gaze. “You can’t be stayin’ out here. It’s freezin’.” And with that he departed, his shadow merging into the night.

Vendra trembled against the wind. She glanced around the square, surprised to discover that she wasn’t alone. There were young people—Quade’s Elevated—standing, sitting, and kneeling in various states of shock. They looked like frosted sculptures, misery whittled into form.

She experienced a brief surge of guilt upon seeing them. But that feeling was soon snuffed out, like every other sensation. She stared down at a nail that stuck unevenly from the stage, stared until it was no longer visible beneath a layer of fresh snow.

She wondered how long it would take to die if she just sat there, exposed. Perversely, she thought of Quade. She longed to feel him beside her, to be wrapped in the warmth and comfort of his presence—flick of a blade, blood.

A hand came to rest on her shoulder, and she jolted. She whirled, expecting to see him, Quade—his visage appearing as it did in her memory. Beautiful. But these were not Quade’s eyes studying her with such concern.

“Vendra, can you hear me?”

She blinked, taking in a wrinkled brow, a bristling white mustache.

“Grandfather?”

Dedrre dropped to the snow and pulled her close. She pressed her face into the wool of his overcoat and breathed in the familiar smell of him.

“You’re frozen to the core; thank the Spirits he told me…” he said, rubbing hands up and down her arms.

Before she knew it, she was weeping. Her chest heaved and her throat ached and she shuddered under the power of her shame and grief. Hot tears burned against her numb cheeks.

“Shh,” her grandfather soothed. “It’s over now. I’m here now. Shh.”

She burrowed into his warmth. “It’s not over,” she said, voice muffled. “Not yet.”

Not ever. Not for me.

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Lamentation Pre-order and Book Trailer

Lamentation is off for its first pass with my editor, currently. I am so excited to get this book finished and out to my readers. The book will be available on all platforms on July 3rd. It is up for pre-order now. I’ve set the pre-order at $3.99, as a thank-you price for those who have been patiently waiting (and not forgotten me!). It will be raised to $4.99 after release day, so make sure to pick it up while it’s on sale! There are buy links at the bottom of this post.

Some fun facts about the book: it is the longest in the series, at just under 130,000 words; it has 7 perspective characters (Division had 2, Elevation had 5); half of it was written in Korea, half in the US (split between Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Florida).

Check out the trailer:

Order your copy now!

Amazon
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Lamentation of the Marked Cover Reveal

Have been completely neglecting my blog lately. All my focus has been on getting Lamentation revised and polished. But I figured I’d take a short break to share the cover with you. I’ve been wanting to share this for ages!

Here you go:

 

My hope when I painted this cover was to keep many elements of the previous two, while still creating something new–something that would feel true to this story. As the title suggests, this is a darker and sadder tale. So, I designed a cover with more realistic details, while still keeping the split color scheme and the silhouetted characters.

As I wrote in my previous update, I suffered a hard drive failure and one of the things I lost was the first version of this cover. Having to paint everything again–particularly as an untrained and hit-or-miss artist–felt, at the time, like a real heartache. But in the end this second version was more refined than the first.

Anyway, I hope you all like the cover! I will be revealing the release date and the book trailer in a few days. The book will be up for pre-order soon.

Now, back to editing for me!

-March

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My Second Draft Checklist

As I dive into my second draft for Lamentation this week, I wanted to take a quick moment to share my little scene-by-scene checklist.

Second drafts are my favorite. It’s the part of the process where I take my mess of a first draft and turn it into a functioning novel. During the second draft, in a large sense, I make sure that my plot is working, my characters are consistent and interesting, and the pacing is effective. Looking at an entire manuscript can be overwhelming, which is why I focus on the changes needed on the scene level.

Here’s my checklist:

( ) Sound Pacing

( ) Clearly Painted Setting

( ) Accurate Characterization

( ) Limited Exposition

( ) Effective Ending Hook

( ) Can I picture it clearly?

( ) Is it compelling?

( ) Am I proud of it?

I copy and paste this into the Document Notes for each scene in my Scrivener file, like so:

1.) Sound Pacing

Is it too abrupt? Too slow? Does it build up enough tension before an important event? Is the pacing well suited to the type of scene?

2.) Clearly Painted Setting

Can a reader picture the place in her mind? Does it have texture? Can I add more sensory details (smells, sounds, etc) to make it more vivid?

3.) Accurate Characterization

Are all of my characters behaving in a way that is consistent with their personalities and purpose? Are they believable? Are their voices clear, and is the dialogue of different characters easily differentiated?

4.) Limited Exposition

Have I passed on world, plot, and character information in the least invasive way possible? Does the scene feel as if it’s unfolding before me, or as if its merely being summarized or recounted? Am I spending too much time in my character’s head? Where exposition is necessary, is it sufficiently broken up by action and dialogue so as not to pull the reader out of the scene?

5.) Effective Ending Hook

Does the last line give the scene a sense of closure? Is it effecting: either by hinting at future problems, or by creating a strong emotion? Will the reader want to know more?

6.) Can I picture it clearly?

I’ve already checked the setting, but is the action clear? The characters? Is the scene comprehensible and vivid?

7.) Is it compelling?

Not all scenes are going to be equally compelling, but every scene should offer something to intrigue, to immerse the reader, to make them want to keep reading and spend more time with your characters. Is this particular scene interesting?

8.) Am I proud of it?

Not every scene can be the best scene in the book. You have to build up to the most exciting moments in a story, and the build is never quite as fun as the moment you’re building towards. BUT, every scene is an opportunity to showcase your skills as a writer. Perhaps the scene is not as action packed or as funny as some others in the book, but I might be proud of how subtly I related important information, or of how tight and clever the dialogue is.  So, find something to be proud of in every scene.

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Polish Your Prose

When I began edits on Division, my first book, I had no idea where to begin. I can distinctly recall how overwhelmed I felt, how uncertain. Now, however, I love editing. First drafts are the most difficult for me, second drafts are the most fun, and third drafts are…well, the most tedious, but also the most straight forward. I no longer worry if I will be able to fix my turd-heap of a first draft. I’ve done it before, after all.

I decided to write up this post to give newer writers a peak into my process for polishing prose. This is an important step, and one I think is too often overlooked. It is the task I reserve for the third draft, but I usually can’t stop myself from doing a bit of this during the second draft as well.

For the purposes of demonstration, I have chosen a particularly weak passage from my current WIP. I typically do these edits in small chunks of about this size or a little shorter.

Here is the lousy fist draft version:

There’s a lot not working about this passage. It isn’t painting a strong picture at all, the writing is a bit awkward, and it isn’t creating enough tension. Writing should be vibrant, purposeful, immersive, and pleasing to the ear. This passage fails on all accounts.

So here’s how I fix it:

Step 1: Fix Big Problems

The first thing I do is look for sentences that are completely failing. If the sentence’s spirit-animal is a panda toppling out of a bamboo tree, it needs to be reconsidered. At this step, I look to scrap and rewrite elements that aren’t working. This could mean replacing one bad sentence with one good sentence. Or replacing one bad sentence with one good paragraph. Or eliminating that bad sentence altogether.

The point, here, is that there is no sense worrying about punching up the verbs or cutting the needless adjectives in a sentence that’s falling on its face to begin with. Don’t waste your time polishing a turd. Ask yourself:

Does this sentence read badly? Is it confusing or unclear? Does it paint a strong enough picture? Does it look or sound awkward? Is it communicating all that is needs to? Does it spark the right kind of emotions? Should it be punchier, more flowery, or more…something else?

Here are the big problems in my passage:

In fact, the more I looked at this passage, the more I realized that nearly the whole thing needed to be scrapped. Sure, I could fix the awkward sentences. But why bother when the whole thing is flat and fails to immerse the reader? So I typed up a new version:

This is, as you can see, a good bit longer. But it is setting the scene in a way that the previous version didn’t. I’ve added several action beats and details so make the scene more vivid. I slowed down a bit, to increase the tension. This new version is also much clearer. But, it is still far from perfect. So on to the next step!

Step 2: Add specificity

I have a lot of theories about the value of creating more unique and specific imagery in a scene. I wrote about it in my most esoteric blog post about inscape. But the general idea is this: adding the occasional punch of specificity to a scene helps to make it more vivid, more memorable, and lends your world greater texture. So look at your text and see if there are any opportunities to do this (without overdoing it).

I identified one solid opportunity. Saying that several curtains are stirring either makes it seem as if they are all moving at once, which is not the intended meaning and would be unlikely. Either that, or it seems as if he is summarizing several events as he moves along, which doesn’t provide the immediacy I’m looking for. So it would be better to have one set of curtains stir, and to describe them, as this is a minor world-building opportunity. Like so:

My world is pseudo-Victorian in era and style, so I made the curtains floral and gave them tassels. I deliberately did not specify the kind of flowers or the fabric, however, because this character would not think of such things.

Step 3: Consider the verbs

The easiest way to strengthen a passage is to strengthen its verbs. The verb is like the mitochondrion of the sentence; it’s the powerhouse. The right verb is both strong and precise in meaning. So, first, pick out all of the verbs in the section of text you’re polishing. Then ask yourself if there is a more powerful or more exact word that would be better. Careful not to choose a stronger word at the expense of exactness of meaning. Consult a thesaurus as necessary. If changing the verb necessitates the tweaking of other elements of the sentence, see to it.

Most of these verbs were already working, but there were certainly a few that could be either strengthened for made more precise. “Trudge” made him sound too exhausted. “Barked” is fine, but I thought “howl” might me more atmospheric. “Looked” is OK, but as he is peeking quickly over his shoulder, I can use a stronger and more precise verb. The others I considered and decided that they were good choices, or at the very least that I could think of none better. “Grunt” might sound a little caveman-y, for example, but it feels right for the character.  Here’s the improved verbs:

“Trod” has the same meaning, but sounds less labored. I thought “notice” had a more precise meaning than “watch.” “Witnessed” seemed truer to the purpose than “seen.” Also, I felt that “discerned,”  to make-out a difference, was an improvement on “detected.” And with that settled, we move on to the next step!

Step 4: Word Diversity

Look for unintentional word and sound repetitions. Great prose is made up of varied and engaging words. Sometimes repetition is unavoidable, and sometimes it can be used for effect. But otherwise, strive for variety.

Using the text statistics in Scrivener, I identified five words that had been repeated in a very short space. Next, I look to see which one would be better to change, and if a change is possible (sometimes it isn’t). Here’s what I landed on:

Step 5: Trim it Down

Next, look to cut any unnecessary words. Pay particular attention to adverbs, ‘that’s, prepositional phrases, articles, and needless adjectives. Cutting fat makes for tighter, more energetic prose. Here’s what I chose to cut:

Step 6: Punch It Up!

Skim through and look for any opportunity to make this section more remarkable. Maybe add a simile, or a short, punchy sentence. Can you make it more beautiful? Can you up the tension?

I split up Peer’s pause and the silence that follows into two sentences, because shorter sentences add tension. This section isn’t particularly important, so I didn’t see the need to add any more flowery language here.

Step 7: Check the Rhythm

Lastly, I read the passage aloud to make sure the sound is working (or I let the robot inside my laptop read it aloud for me). I listen especially for a variety of sentence length and structure. If I find myself stumbling over a sentence, it likely needs to be reworked. Well written prose is musical.

I changed only one sentence in this step. Upon reading it aloud, I realized that I had two compound sentences in a row, each with “and” as the conjunction. This made the paragraph sound singsongy. It was simple enough to change. And with that, I am pleased with this section of text and ready to move on to the next.

And that’s it! If you compare this last version to the first, I think you’ll find a significant improvement. I continue on in this way through the entire scene, and then I repeat steps 4 and  7 for the scene as a whole—checking to make sure I don’t have too much word repetition and that everything flows well.

It might seem like a long process, and it is in a way. But I find that the more I write and edit, the more I internalize these guidelines, and the better my first drafts turn out. This scene was one that needed a lot of work, but there are many pages in this particular draft that need much less attention.

And, just to be clear, this is the step I take just before sending the manuscript to my editor. This is an edit, but certainly not the final one. I also do not begin this step until after I am confident that the overall story is working–that the pacing is sound, and characters are interesting, and the events build purposefully towards a conclusion.

It’s a lot of work, getting a manuscript ready for publication. But with so many poorly edited books on Amazon, this is one straightforward and very doable way that you can make your work stand out. You might think that readers don’t notice or care about this sort of nitty-gritty editing. But stories are made up of sentences and words; with more powerful words and more effecting sentences, you can build a better story. And readers will take note.

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Character Interview: Bray Marron

In anticipation of the third book of The Marked Series, Lamentation of the Marked, here is a quick little interview with one of the protagonists, Bray Marron.

*** This character interview is intended for those who have already read Division of the Marked and Elevation of the Marked. There are spoilers! If you haven’t read the first two books or have not yet finished, do yourself a favor and don’t read on. ****

M: I force a bright smile. “Alright, Bray, are you ready to answer a few questions
for your readers?”

B: She glowers. “I have more important things to do. This is a waste of my time.”

M: “Well, I appreciate that you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, what with Yarrow still being unaccounted for and all, but this really won’t take long. And we could chat about that…erm, if you’d like.”

B: “You could tell me where he is.”

M: “That’s true, I could.”

B: “But you won’t.”

M: “Well, no. But I did write in a character with a gift that can help you find him. So…ah,” my voice rises awkwardly, “you’re welcome?”

B: She looks as if she’s contemplating violence. Then sighs. “Fine. What do you want to know?”

M: “Ok, question the first: why do you think you had such a hard time getting along with Yarrow when you met again as adults?

B: “My winning personality.”

M: “Um, care to elaborate?”

B: “No.”

M: I sigh, thinking I should dream up less stubborn characters in the future. “You aren’t always so combative. We see you, over the first two books, get along well with several people outside of your inner circle: Ellora, Su-Hwan… But at first, with Yarrow, you had a really hard time. Why?”

B: “No, I didn’t.”

M: I puff out my cheeks in exasperation.

B: “No, really. I didn’t. I was, from the start, so drawn to him that is scared me. I didn’t trust it, or him. I put up my guard, and held onto it for as long as I could. Which wasn’t actually all that long…”

M: “Wow. An honest answer. Thank you for that.”

B: “Just trying to move this along. Yarrow…he is alright, isn’t he?” She seems as if she’s trying to sound casual, but fails spectacularly.

M: “Well, to be honest, he’s had a rough go of it since you’ve last seen him. There are going to be hard days ahead, for both of you. For everyone.”

B: She leans forward in her seat, intent. “We failed to kill Quade Asher, and I have no illusions that he’ll cease his campaign for control, not now that he’s announced his intentions to the world. I admit, I’m afraid of what that man might do next. He won’t take this defeat with composure.”

M: “No. He won’t. Do you feel confident that the Chisanta will be ready for whatever he tries next?”

B: Bray’s lips thin and she shakes her head slowly. “Confident? No. His ability to manipulate thoughts makes him uniquely dangerous. We have the tools to undo him, but it will take careful coordination…”

M: “Are you afraid of him?”

B: “I would be very stupid if I weren’t.”

M: “Let’s talk a little about your past. You had a difficult childhood—”

B: “No. I had a terrible two years. Most of my childhood, while my Da was still alive, was just fine. We weren’t well off, but we had enough—we had each other.”

M: “That’s a loss you still haven’t recovered from, is it?”

B: She rubs her brow, looking weary. “I’m beginning to think we never recover when…” She shakes her head. “We just keep moving on, with parts of us missing.”

M: “You’re think of Adearre, too, I take it?”

B: “I think of Adearre often.”

M: “Care to—”

B: “No. I don’t want to talk about that.”

M: “Ok. Fair enough. Let’s play a word association game. I’ll say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to mind. No pausing to think.”

B: She rolls her eyes. “I really don’t have time for this. Yarrow—”

M: “Just another minute, then I’ll let you go. Promise.”

B: “Fine. Begin.”

M: “Quade.”

B: “Control.”

M: “Gift.”

B: “Sacrifice.”

M: “Spirit.”

B: “Blighter.”

M: “Friend.”

B: “Peer.”

M: “Book.”

B: “Yarrow.”

M: “Love.”

B: “Yarrow.”

M: “Fate.”

B: “Yarrow.”

M: I chuckle. “I’m beginning to sense of theme, here. Alright, very well, you can go. Go and find him, and I’m sorry for what is to come.”

B: She hops up from her chair and turns to the door. She looks over her shoulder at me, her expression unreadable. “Don’t let it take too long.” And with that, she turns her back and walks straight through the wall.

M: I shake my head sadly. “Oh, Bray. Finding him will be the least of your problems.”

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The Testing of the Marked: Are you Chiona or Cosanta?

Made a little quiz. Take the test and find out: are you Chiona or Cosanta? Be sure to let me know your result! Much better than the real testing, in which you would get pummeled. 🙂 I got Cosanta, though I think it was a pretty close call.

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