We’ve Moved!

SisterMuses has a new home on the web! Please update your bookmarks and come join the party at our new website!!!

SisterMuses Logohttp://www.sistermuses.com

 

Hope to see you there!!!

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

SK and J. Leigh


Writing Creative Nonfiction

In my prior life as a university English professor, all I did was nonfiction writing. I taught it. I wrote it. I lived it. And I discovered something in the process: there is a strong tendency to want to divorce creativity from nonfiction writing. When you take a “creative writing” class in school, no one teaches you about crafting an essay or a research paper. You learn to write poetry and fiction. You learn about descriptive writing and crafting compelling characters. Unfortunately, I’ve never yet come across a creative writing class that focuses on the elegance of the written medium: crafting compelling sentence constructions, learning to manipulate the music of the language to delight your reader…even if you’re writing about astrophysics or remodeling your bathroom. I’m a huge believer in the power and beauty of language. And learning to appreciate and use this tool is truly “creative writing”.

The Beauty of Order

ColonnadeStAugustine

When we’re organizing our table of contents, we don’t often stop to consider that we’re creating something beautiful. But just as there is beauty in the structure of a snowflake and elegance in the symmetry of a flower’s petals, there is beauty and elegance in the logical ordering of a topic. Headings, subheadings, topics, subtopics, indices, appendices…all of these contribute to the order of a work. For nonfiction, the topic determines the ordering techniques. A work of literary criticism won’t have the same structure as a DIY handbook of home repairs, but both will have structure. As you determine how best to organize your work, do it with intention. Is a topical grouping approach best for your topic, or does it require a more architectural approach, with each chapter building on the last? Your book’s structure is integral to the work as a whole, much like the skeleton is integral to the human body. A badly structured book is not likely to be successful, because, ultimately, it won’t be understandable. So consider carefully how to lay out your project, and don’t be afraid to rearrange things in the editing phase if the structure doesn’t flow.

Order operates on both a macro level — the table of contents — and a micro level — the ordering of words and sentences and paragraphs. Both are critically important to the success of your project, and both are opportunities for you to be “creative” in your use of your tool (language).

The Elegance of Prose

Yes, fiction is also prose. And it’s helpful to remember that! Just because you are writing about the works of Mary Shelley or the physics of motion doesn’t mean that you have to avoid figurative or descriptive language. But it does mean that your language needs to suit your topic. Elegance and beauty in language can come in many different forms. Language doesn’t have to be ornate and flowery and full of metaphors and descriptors to be lovely. There is beauty in simplicity and clarity too.

Know your topic, and know your audience’s expectations. If you’re writing a serious medical text, humor probably doesn’t have a place. But a book on dieting for mass consumption might call for a dash of humor to lighten up the topic. (Did you notice the food and diet imagery in that sentence? Don’t be afraid to have fun every once in a while! It’s good to make your readers smile.) Proportion is key: too much play with your subject can become tedious, so use it judiciously.

Delighting your reader is one of the best ways to keep them returning to you and your writing. No matter what you write, you will develop a unique style that sets your treatment apart from other books on the same subject. Your style is what keeps your audience coming back. Your readers learn to identify your name not only with a certain unique approach to the subject matter, but also with a mode of expression. The way you use humor, the way you break complex ideas into digestible pieces, the way your sentences flow, the vocabulary you use…all of these contribute to your unique treatment. It’s not too much to say that your style is part of your brand, and it carries through everything you write, whether it’s on your blog or in your latest book. So pay close attention to the way you craft your prose — it will become a hallmark of your work.

Elements of Nonfiction Style

As you work on your project and consider your style and approach and presentation, pay special attention to these four areas: diction (word choice), sentence structure, syntactical order, and sentence length. Let’s work through a short example so you can see how powerful tweaks to these elements can be, and how “creative” writing can make an enormous difference in your nonfiction project.

Version 1 (rough draft)

Getting a baby to sleep through the night is a task most parents dread. Sleep training methods seem either harsh (letting a baby cry it out until she falls asleep or the timer goes off) or too time-consuming (some gentle sleep training methods take weeks, if not months, to get results). Parents may feel added pressure from grandparents or friends to “do something” about their baby’s sleep habits. Adding this to exhaustion makes for a desperate situation. 

Not bad, but not great. It’s a bit of a yawner. The audience for this piece is clearly exhausted parents who are confused about the best way to help their baby sleep. They’re a bit desperate and strung out, and they may be feeling sensitive or even defensive about the decision they need to make. So let’s try livening this up by addressing the four elements I list above.

Version 2

Whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” never had kids. Helping a baby learn to sleep on her own is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, not least because of the dizzying array of sleep training methods out there today. Should exhausted parents set the timer for their baby and just walk away, fighting down tears as their baby wails in her crib alone? Or should they invest weeks — or even months — in a gentle method that may not provide a solution soon enough? And in our social media culture, grandma isn’t the only one sharing her opinion — everyone has something to say about the decision. It’s almost too much for the sleep deprived mind to process.

What do you think? It’s more fun and more relevant, and the flow is much better. There’s a bit of humor in there as well, because this is an emotionally charged topic for many parents, and a smile can cut through some of that frustration.

We could continue to tweak this passage, but I think you get the picture. Creativity isn’t just for fiction writers, so add facets to your work until your gem of  a project truly sparkles. Fascinating, creative, and well-organized writing will keep your readers coming back for more! 


Help us help a friend!

All right, folks. We need your help.

Some of you may already know that David Farland has been a huge inspiration and wonderful teacher for both S.K. and me.  Well, last month, his son Ben was in a terrible accident which will likely run his family into over a million dollars in medical bills (they don’t have insurance). Because of the brain trauma and all the related injuries, he has been fighting for his life and there were times when the doctors weren’t sure if he would live.  He seems to have turned the corner and is doing better every day.  But the ordeal has been so hard for his family, and it’s far from over.

So, we would like to announce that, for the month of May,

all the money we make on the sales of our books will go to Ben’s cause.

DaLR is free, but that means that basically you can download the whole Lost Road Chronicles trilogy for under $10.  This fundraiser also applies to the paperbacks.

On S.K.’s side of things, Silesia: The Outworlder is free for Kindle right now, so you can get both available volumes of the Silesia Trilogy for just $2!!  (That’s a steal, folks!) As with the Lost Road Chronicles, this fundraiser also applies to the paperback versions.

We really want to make this a huge success for our friend and mentor and his family…and we can’t do that without you, our awesome readers. So if you would, please take just a second to tweet this post and share it on FB, Pinterest, and all your social media sites!  Better yet, gift the books to someone you think might enjoy them.  And even better, do all three!  :-)

Please help us help a friend!  Dave is just an incredible teacher and writer, and we really want to give back somehow for all that he’s done for us.

Learn more about Ben Wolverton’s case here:
http://www.helpwolverton.com/

Find the Lost Road Chronicles on Amazon here. And find the Silesia Trilogy on Amazon here.

Thanks, y’all!!!

Peace and love,

J. Leigh and S.K.


Writerly Recipes — Lemon Ginger Tea

Well, it’s that time of year around here…for some reason the nasty bronchitis/cold/ick goes around in early spring down here, and I swear half the people I know are struggling through it right now.  Being sick is, generally speaking, a rather unpleasant sort of thing, and I try to avoid it as much as possible.  I’ve warded off this spring’s epidemic with my favorite tea.  Anything that can keep me writing and fighting is good in my book!  And this tea has the benefit of being insanely delicious.

So.  Here you are…Lemon Ginger Tea.  Are you ready for this?  It’s really, really complicated.

You need:

  • 1/2 Lemon
  • Ginger (fresh is best, but I’ve used powdered and even crystallized ginger before)
  • Honey (get local honey if you can!)
  • 1 cup Hot Water

Got that?  Now here are the uber-difficult instructions.  Squeeze the lemon into the hot water.  Grate in about a teaspoon of fresh ginger, or toss in a few shakes of powdered ginger, or add a chunk or two of crystallized ginger (or heck, add crystallized ginger AND fresh ginger!).  Add honey to taste.  I like about 2 teaspoons.  Stir.  Enjoy.

That’s all there is to it!  It’s incredibly powerful as an immune booster, because lemons have much more Vitamin C than oranges (and orange juice in cartons loses its Vitamin C due to denaturing in about a day after opening), and ginger is a huge help for respiratory and circulatory health.  And of course honey is just a super food all on its own.

Now grab that cup of tea and go cozy up with a good book to write or read!


J. Leigh’s Website Overhaul

I’m in the process of renovating my author website…Wordpress is making things so much easier for me!  *happy dance*  I didn’t really have time to keep the old site maintained, because I’m a terrible coder and it takes me hours to figure out how to do anything.  It should probably annoy me that I spent almost an entire day trying to figure out how to create a Lightbox gallery for my artwork on my old site, and now I can just create a page and click “Add Gallery” and voila!  Easy-peasy.  But it doesn’t annoy me.  Not much, anyway.

Anyway, pop on over and see how you like it!  I tried to keep the feel of the old website while streamlining it a bit.  And excuse the mess…it’s still coming along.


Ten Quirky Things about S.K.

Hi all!

I’ll be back with some more serious posts next week…but in the meantime, would you like to know a few things about me that aren’t in my author bio?

Like the fact that I have a horrible time making decisions when sunglasses and restaurants with atmosphere are involved?

Or the fact that Silesia: The Outworlder was inspired by a nightmare?

If you’d like to see the rest of my quirky facts, head on over to BestsellerBound Recommends for my “Tell Us One Thing” author interview!  (And no, I don’t ship cheesecakes.)

Happy writing and reading!

SK

 


Vivid vs. Violet Verbiage — The Vivid

Now that we’ve cleared up the meaning of purple prose, I can talk a little bit about what makes great prose so beautifully vivid.

Please note that, for all I’m warning you to avoid the overly-ostentatious verbiage, I’m not recommending reducing your vocabulary to the grade-school level.  No, your writing should always bring some challenge to the reader — it should expand their horizons, imaginative, philosophical, and intellectual.

Now, what makes prose beautiful?  Quite simply, it is using good words well.  Besides all the things we’ve talked about elsewhere (rhythm, cadence, sound), it is fundamentally about using the right words at the right time.  For instance, both “foggy” and “murky” can describe an obscured environment, but they convey this sense in two totally different ways.  Foggy has a more pleasant connotation, whereas murky suggests latent evil and mystery.

Likewise, “gloomy” and “murky” both have dark connotations, but in different ways.  Gloomy has a feeling of something sad, repressed, weighted down, rather passively bringing people in that environment into the same sort of state.  Murky almost feels more actively evil…something that tries to entangle hapless travelers in confusion and danger.  (It is not for no reason that Tolkien called the dark, sinister version of the Greenwood “Mirkwood.”)

All right.  So, we know that we need to use the right word for the job, and to construct our sentences carefully, descriptively, and rhythmically.  But what else?  Is there anything else?

I’ve read some great fiction where the writers used clear, expressive prose.  Sentences flowed with no jarring rhythmical errors, scenes came to life with bright and lush description…. And that was fine.  I love those books.  They are beautiful, well-written, and have their own flair of poetry and lyrical merit.

Lately I’ve discovered something else, though — a new way to bring life to prose.  I first noticed it in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races.  Some people may think she went overboard on her metaphorical prowess, but simply the fact of what she did made me completely reevaluate how I thought about “poetic” prose.

For instance, in The Raven Boys, she talks about how Ronan “dissolved what was left of his heart in electronic loops.”  This simple sentence is sheer. utter. genius.  Just look at how much she conveys, how vividly she conveys it, in so few words.  The dissolving suggests just how loud the music is playing.  Instead of telling us exactly that Ronan is listening to techno or electronica, she suggests it through “electronic loops.”  And the best part of all is that she says “what was left of his heart” instead of “his heart” which in just a few words clues the reader into a hugely important aspect of this kid’s character.

So what exactly did Stiefvater do?  She used fairly typical language — but in remarkably unexpected ways.  I remember in The Scorpio Races she talked about bicycles “bucking off” their riders, or how someone’s breath is “dark, the underside of the sea.”  For one thing, we don’t usually think of someone’s breath being “dark”…but what a vivid picture that paints!  And describing it as the “underside of the sea” links the character to the wild, mysterious, and deadly sea.  She employs a metaphor without ever using “like” or “as”, but in a way, the comparison is even stronger.

I have to credit Stiefvater for opening my eyes to a whole new way of understanding vivid language.  It invokes a fresh and almost…skewed…way of looking at reality, in the sense that you’re still examining reality, but not straight-on as most people do.  You look for connections that you never knew existed.  When you make a comparison or a metaphor, you avoid the old cliched tropes, the old standbys, the familiar similarities.  You look for the unexpected, the startling, the “why didn’t I ever think of that” connections — and I don’t mean you’re trying to shock or appall your reader.  You’re trying to delight by making them see the world in a new way.

For instance, say you wanted to describe your character running away as fast as possible.  You could say, “Anna bolted, fast as a rabbit.”  Yawn.  Everyone knows rabbits are fast.  Everyone knows that when you want to describe something as fast, you use a rabbit.  Booooring.  Well, what if you said, “Anna bolted, quick as fear.”  Huhhh???  Suddenly that invokes whole new vistas of meaning.  Not only is there the suggestion that Anna is running because she’s terrified, but it also makes you think about what fear is like, maybe in a way you’ve never thought of before.  In other words — you think about the thing being described as well as the thing used to make the description.

Sometimes even inverting a description can be a fun way to convey an idea.  For instance, going back to the fear idea, we all know how “fear runs like ice through her veins.”  But what if you read, “a chill inched through her veins like fear.”  Nice.  Or, similarly, “shame rushed like blood to my cheeks.”  We all know that blood does rush to your cheeks when you’re ashamed or embarrassed, but really, you don’t feel the blood so much as the shame.  It’s a quirky way of making you think twice about how you understand both shame and blushing.

Another way of spicing up the prose is to use a metaphor which itself contrasts two things that are either vastly different in character, or vastly different in degree.  For instance, in Prism I describe a conflict between two characters as being “like watching a fight between lions or gods.”  On the one hand, I suggest the rather raw, animal anger driving them — something not human, but in a sub-human way (though the lion image is intentionally used to convey something awesome and majestic, as well as terrifying).  But on the other hand, they are compared to gods, suggesting something so high above ordinary human experience that it’s almost incomprehensible — something also not human, but in that lofty, super-human sort of way.  In both cases, you get a sense of the utter foreignness of their conflict, but in two opposite ways.  They are both these things, and yet at the same time we know that they’re just two men.

Using language like this can really add another dimension to your prose.  It’s not necessary to do it all the time (and some readers might not like it), but when you do, using language in new and unexpected ways can really delight and tantalize your reader.

Notice that, even while the descriptions are unexpected, they don’t pull you out of the fictional world the way purple prose does.  I’d almost argue that it weaves you into the world of imagination tighter than ever.  The experience of reading a book like that — for me — is so…wildly alive that I don’t want to leave.  Especially if the descriptions really do a good job of matching the narrating character’s voice.  That’s hugely important — but the topic for another post.

Finally, notice that in these few examples I’ve given, no huge long multisyllabic words were used that required the venerable Oxford English Dictionary to decipher.  You can create beautiful, vivid, unbelievably poetic prose with ordinary (though not necessarily simple) words.  In a sense the most important skill it requires is not a vast vocabulary, but an ability to see the world in an excitingly fresh way.  Give it a shot.  I bet you’ll find that it makes you a better writer — even if you don’t use these metaphoric techniques often — simply because it broadens your vision and view of reality.


Vivid vs. Violet Verbiage — The Violet

As S.K. noted in her last blog post…it’s been a crazy end to the old year and an even crazier start to the new year for us around here.  Apologies for being MIA…

At any rate, today I want to talk about something I’ve said I want to talk about many times in the past — the habit of writing vivid prose.  Now, to approach this topic properly, we first need to distinguish vivid prose from amethystine cabochons of literary splendor.  Yes.  We want to know what makes prose purple, and what makes it perfect.

So, in this post, I will give a brief overview of purpleness in prose.  Next time I’ll talk about real ways to bring your prose to life.

Purple prose, in case you aren’t quite clear on the meaning, is the habit of emblazoning the folia of your illustrious manuscript with ostentatious expressions of literary genius.  I.e., it means overwriting everything.  It means looking up every adjective, every verb, every noun in the thesaurus and pinpointing the one that sounds the most snobbishly pretentious and erudite, on the assumption that it will make your prose more “sophisticated.”  It doesn’t.  It makes it sound ridiculous.

Besides, you run the risk of using a word that has entirely the wrong meaning for what you’re trying to convey — but because it’s listed as a synonym for the word you should have used, you assumed it has the same connotation.  It may not.  And someone who actually knows the meaning of the word is just going to laugh at you for being a rube.  Sorry, but it’s the cold hard truth.

Imagine that I wanted to describe a character as chubby.  So I look up “chubby” in the thesaurus and go through and…hmm, brawny is a great word!  Yes, it’s listed as a synonym with chubby under the word, “fleshy.”  So, without doing a double-check on my chosen word, I plop it into my sentence: “The brawny little woman with small round eyes…”  Um.  No.  That would not be the image I’m trying to convey.

Besides the risk of sounding like an idiot, purple prose can actually defeat the purpose of good writing.  I read a story once where the author used that word I used earlier — cabochon — to describe tears.  Okay, is cabochon a good word in a sense to describe a teardrop?  Maybe, in this way: a cabochon is a gemstone that has been polished into a smooth shape, rather than being faceted.  Okay, a teardrop isn’t exactly faceted, so, yeah.  Technically, you could describe a teardrop as a cabochon.  Now, does that make it good fiction writing?

No.

Why not?  Well, when you’re writing about a deep emotion, like grief or mourning, over-describing can actually work against you.  It puts up barriers between the reader and the character.  It makes the reader pay attention to the prose, rather than what the prose is saying.  So, instead of feeling the character’s grief, the reader sits back and wonders, “What the heck is a cabochon?”  NOT the effect you want.

Purple prose is notorious for distancing the reader from the story.  Using a great vocabulary is one thing.  Using inappropriately grandiose vocabulary is something else entirely.

One final note.  A writer might think purple prose makes them sound smart, but readers are actually quite adept at detecting pseudo-intellectual fluff.  They can smell purple prose a mile away.  If they get even the slightest whiff of a sense that you’re using words you don’t really understand just to make your prose sound loftier, you will not see the end of their ridicule.

Writers ye be warned.


Jazzing up the Editing Process

Hi all!

Goodness…the holidays and the New Year obviously swallowed up the SisterMuses! We have both been busily writing…just invisibly. I am feverishly working on The Artifex (Book III of the Silesia Trilogy), which will be released on August 31, 2013. J. Leigh is immersed in the world of The Madness Project, which she plans to release on June 1.  It looks to be an exciting year for the SisterMuses!

Today, I’m over at Engelia McCullough’s blog guest posting about the editing process. If editing always gets you down or you feel daunted by that phase of your literary journey, head on over here for some easy ways to take the sting out of the process! Thanks, Engelia, for hosting me today!

Happy writing (and editing)!!!

S.K.


The Lords of Askalon…Now Available!!!

It’s finally here, everyone!  So excited to announce the release of The Lords of Askalon, Book II in the Silesia Trilogy!  The ebook is available today on Smashwords!  The Kindle version should be out tomorrow and the paperback will follow shortly!

A few words of thanks are in order…

To my amazing husband and kids for being so enthusiastic and supportive of this project!

To J. Leigh Bralick, my SisterMuse, my beta reader, and my cover designer!  You are a treasure…and it is so much fun to collaborate with you!

To my parents, who always encouraged me to meet any challenge with chin up and a smile…thank you for giving me the confidence to follow my dreams!

And finally…a huge thank you to all my readers and fans who have waited so patiently!

The Lords of Askalon


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 176 other followers