Several years ago, I read a great article on a unique bit of American history. Those who know me know I’m a sucker for history trivia, but this one really stuck with me. Despite not agreeing with all author David Goldman’s conclusions, it is something I’ve never forgotten, and something I reflect on, especially in the month of July. In honor of July 4th (even though we are a bit past it), I tracked this article down so I could share this bit of history and showcase the effect a single question—the right question—can have on a reader, even years later.
Did You Know?
Did you know that the United States of America is the only country that has a national anthem that ends in a question? In fact, our anthem begins with a question as well. I know this might seem irrelevant to life or to writing, but just bear with me on this one, I promise it makes sense by the end. The last line of the anthem says “Oh, say! does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
This was not just a meaningless question at the time of its writing, this was vital to the men fighting in the war. Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British ship off the coast. He was there negotiating the release of a friend who had been captured. After witnessing a night of the fort taking a severe beating, the Americans on the ship strained to see how their fellows fared in morning. They were relieved to see that the flag did in fact still wave over the fort, and that their cause had not been abandoned nor overcome. They rallied thanks to that flag. The British gave up their attack, and Key’s poem was printed in the paper shortly thereafter (and eventually set to music).
Back To Today . . .
There is one quote from Goldman’s article that is particularly relevant to the power this question has for the American people:
"The opening question — can you still see our flag? — is a synecdoche of sorts for a bigger question — does that flag “yet wave/O’er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”? The second question refers not only to the battle at hand, but to the destiny of the country. The question is not only whether the flag of freedom still flies over America but also whether America itself is still brave and free.”
(David P. Goldman, A National Anthem that Begins and Ends with a Question)
As Goldman points out, this is an existential question. The answer to this question is not an absolute; it is ever-changing, and it depends on the person. In fact, the question itself is up for debate (my interpretation is a bit different than his). We all interpret what America means to us individually. But as we all are faced with difficult and controversial issues in today’s complex world, these are worthwhile questions to consider. Is the great American experiment still worth fighting for? Is the concept of what it means to be an American still a worthy goal? And are we personally living this ideal on a daily basis? Does the flag still wave for us?
How Does This Relate to Your Writing?
It is a brave choice to end anything with a question—be it poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or academic. There’s a reason why ours is the only national anthem to end this way. It is not the easy way. In fact, in most cases I would advise authors to avoid ending on a question. That said, it can be an extremely powerful choice if done right.
Presentation certainly is important here, but it can successfully be done using a variety of methods—through characters, narration, or even directly in academic/nonfiction contexts. Really, I think it comes down to the question itself. Merely rhetorical and it falls flat. Leading questions suggest the answer you desire, not one readers discover for themselves. But when you really want your reader to challenge an idea—question something, especially something deeply personal—consider using the existential question and leave your reader looking like Rodin’s Thinker.
Succeed, and I assure you they will never forget your book.
***First published on OC-Writers.com
Muliebrity: the quality of being a woman (Merriam-Webster Definition)
With all that is happening in the world, there is a growing awareness of the need in our culture for strong women, both in real life and in fiction. The kick-ass heroine is admittedly one of my favorite archetypes, but I’m also seeing some books that go too far, creating an unattainable—and therefore two-dimensional—ideal character.
I don’t know where this quote originated, but I’ve always remembered it: the character is in the flaws.
Flaw: Quirk, Peccadillo, Vulnerability
Don’t get too hung up on the term ‘flaw’, I don’t necessarily mean it as a negative. Instead, it is the quirks, peccadillos, insecurities, and vulnerabilities that make someone interesting. It could also be more typical flaw-like traits as well—criminal activity, biases, etc. Your characters, main or secondary, will always be rather flat without these traits.
Being a woman is complex. We all have flaws and things that some find annoying, and others find charming. They are a part of us and they make us who we are, just as our history and experiences do. It is part of being a real person. And if you reflect on your favorite characters in literature, I bet you can list the flaws of each one. In fact, I bet they are a large part of why you like that character. We tend to like characters who share similar traits or struggles, or are the type of person we want to be. But who can relate to the perfect person?
Classic Flawed Female Characters
Let’s look at some classics:
– Anne Shirley (of Green Gables) – She’s a chatterbox, has an overactive imagination, is incredibly stubborn, and is lacking in confidence concerning her appearance. And yet, that’s all part of her charm, and some (but not all) of those traits function as both quality and flaw.
– Emma Woodhouse – Vain and prideful, she is often criticized for her nosiness, her self-importance, and her refusal to acknowledge that which she does not wish to see. And yet, those flaws do not negate her good qualities nor the good intentions behind her actions.
– Hermione Granger – She’s a bit of a know-it-all, a bit of a teacher’s pet, and occasionally rather manipulative. She also has some deep-set insecurities about failure, and about how to deal with her feelings for Ron. And yet, she totally owns her nerdy qualities, and her flaws make her stronger and better able to help her friends.
Strong Female Leads
These female characters are all strong leads. They may not be kick-ass in the traditional sense necessarily, but their inner strength comes through in spite of—and really because of—their flaws. They are vulnerable and weak at times. Women have struggles and obstacles, but it does not diminish their strength, nor do their moments of true power diminish their femininity. The qualities of women are complex and varied. Honor that by ensuring your female characters have the full range of muliebrity.
***First published on OC-Writers.com
Let me take you back to your high school English class. Don’t worry, the rest of high school you can continue to forget! Now if you will recall that series of classroom lectures on rhetorical appeals . . . remember that? Ethos, Pathos, and Logos? When I bring these up with authors, many of them ask how these could possibly apply to their writing. They write fiction/memoir/ biography/business/children’s . . . etc., not essays or academic works. In reality, you likely use them without even thinking about it. But putting a little thought behind them can really grow your writing. You’ll even be surprised how helpful they can be in daily life if you think to apply them. Let’s break them down.
Pathos is often the most relatable for authors. This is an appeal to the reader’s sense of love, fear, sympathy, hate, and any other emotion or perspective you want your audience to experience. Pathos is how you get your reader to connect emotionally with your characters and feel that need to find out what happens next, that need to read the next book. Here are some ways that you can consider Pathos for your writing:
This is another appeal that can be readily identified, even in novels. In academic writing, this is the logical presentation of evidence to support your thesis and convince the reader of your argument. In creative writing, however, you can identify this in the structure of your plot and in the structure of your individual scenes. There must be a logical flow to your storyline, as well as logical rules to how things function. Let’s look at some examples of how to use Logos in your writing:
Ethos is the one appeal that is more elusive in creative writing. Traditionally it means the author’s perspective, background, or credibility—what makes an author qualified to speak on a subject. While absolutely applicable to nonfiction writers, especially of the professional/technical/academic variety, it is less relevant in writing fiction. However, it can be applied to characters in your novel as well as in marketing your book. Let’s take a look at how it might be applied:
Other Rhetorical Appeals
There are two other logical appeals, though they are used far less frequently.
Telos is the purpose of a speech, and keeping it in mind for characters can be very helpful. What is their purpose or intention in what they are saying; what is their motive?
Kairos is the other logical appeal that gets lost in the mix today. This is using your setting—time and place—to its greatest effect. In terms of creative writing, it can be used to determine how certain elements play out. Maybe your character’s big speech would be more effective in a different setting or at a different point in the story. Reflect on motive and setting together as you are editing your story to make sure you are getting the most out of your scenes.
Whether you plan out your books in advance or free-write them with only a bare minimum of structure in place, Ethos, Pathos, and Logos can be useful tools in your writing arsenal. If you are a planner, use them to develop your outline and structure the development of your story and characters. If you are a free-writer, keep them in mind as you write and then use them as an editing tool. Review your draft and look at it analytically. Develop your story, characters, and scenes with the active intention to use all three collaboratively and in new, creative ways.
Don’t forget, you can also ask your beta readers and editors to keep these in mind as they read and give feedback. Develop a list of questions for readers to consider either while reading or after finishing. Do the events play out in a logical way? Are the motives behind why characters made certain decisions clear? Do the characters elicit the correct response from your readers? Don’t be discouraged if your readers have differing reactions, that is completely normal. Instead, look for trends and then address anything that seems to be a consistent issue.
Now, go out and Ethos, Pathos, and Logos your way to writing success!
***First published on OC-Writers.com
Audiobooks are big business these days, but for self-published authors it means one more arena to invest in—and it’s not a cheap one. It can be tempting to try to do it yourself. There is a time and place for this approach, but wherever quality plays such an important role, investing in a professional is usually worth the money.
I’ve worked on several audiobook projects and worked with several audiobook professionals. Here are some great takeaways I learned from them.
Good narration is essential to your audiobook project. It can make or break the book. There are those who believe that authors can’t narrate their own book. I haven’t found this to be the case, at least not in nonfiction. However, you still need to ask yourself if you really have the talent to do the job well. Try recording a sample and listening to it. Then ask ten other people to listen to it. If they agree the narration is good, consider doing it yourself. Otherwise, there are great narrators on Audible and on other websites where you can hire freelancers.
Let’s look at doing it yourself first. Here are some tips from the pros:
If you decide to hire a narrator, ask about their equipment, experience, and process. What kind of equipment do they use? Are they familiar with the requirements for Audible? Do they do accents and different voices? Do they dramatize their narration?
Make sure to ask for examples, preferably in genres similar to your own books. ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange, the major marketplace for authors seeking book narrators) requires a two-page audition sample for their narrators to bid on your project. But, if you want to be extra careful, you can ask the narrator to do the first chapter as a sample. However this should be a PAID sample to make sure you are getting their full effort.
Most narrators offer prices in terms of finished hours, or the final number of hours in the recording. This is not the number of hours they are actually devoting to the project, which will be much higher, so be respectful of your freelancer’s time.
Editing and Mastering
This is another area where it can be tempting to DIY. There are several audio editing programs that are cheap or even free. However, I know from experience that they often have a steep learning curve if you want to get truly professional results. If you are willing to put in the time to learn how to use them, by all means do so. However, I would advise most authors to spend their time doing what they do best . . . writing.
Hiring an editor and audio mastering service is usually well worth the investment. Some narrators will do this for you as a part of their service. If they do, make sure they have the proper experience to produce professional sound quality and understand the requirements of audiobook files. Otherwise, there are several companies out there that can help you out. Make sure the service you hire knows the file requirements and standards for audiobooks on Audible as well as other distribution sites. These might include things like file naming conventions, how much silence to start and end each file, correct file formats, consistency in levels and tone, and other such requirements. Audible has very strict acceptance criteria and if your files fail, you will have to fix it or even re-record it. This review process can take time, and if you have to fix files, you could extend that time by weeks, affecting your sales and profits.
The audiobook market is in high growth and high demand, especially for nonfiction books. While not everybody will be able to take advantage of audio right off the bat, investing the time and money may be very worthwhile. But, this is one area where every author should take a hard look at whether the DIY approach will serve your book well. Like elsewhere in independent book publishing, there are instances where you can do some of the work yourself, but in general I recommend investing in professionals.
There are all sorts of resources to help you find the right pro for your project. Below are a couple I recommend. If you’d like more information about Audible standards and requirements, how to interview narrators and audio masterers, or other information related to audiobook projects, please reach out to me and I will see how I can help you.
For Audio Mastering:
www.stmastering.co.uk (Ask for Chris, I’ve worked with him and I highly recommend his work!)
***First published on OC-Writers.com
Ever think you are measuring your productivity all wrong? There is a lot of talk about productivity and how to set goals. Daily word counts or page counts are common metrics used by authors now. Other metrics might be easier or harder. Some authors count productive as writing anything. Others want 5000 words each and every day. And then there are those who feel they are only productive if they write something that meets their goal for quality, regardless of quantity. But these are all tangible goals. Maybe what you are missing is the intangible.
There is one factor that everyone seems to be missing . . . everyone that is except today’s CEOs. Several years ago, a CEO I worked for told me that he was once advised by fellow CEOs to spend at least one hour each day just thinking about his business. Nothing else. Just thinking. Let’s ponder this concept for a minute. The country’s and world’s greatest business minds devote time to nothing but thinking about their business, goals, and new ideas for their company, products, etc. I really took this to heart when I first heard it, and it’s something I like to share with my clients. Never forget: Thinking counts as being productive.
The Art of Pondering
While I am not a published author (yet), this is a lesson I have applied to my business as an editor and consultant as well as my personal writing. I will spend time just thinking about my client’s projects or thinking about ideas, plot points, and world-building elements for my own work. Just letting them flow in and out of my mind. Usually, I try to have a journal or computer nearby to jot down any good ideas that come to me, but that is not my primary purpose. I really try to just think. And typically, if I come up with something really good, it sticks in my head. It is something I will continue to ponder and flesh out in my mind for several days. I’ve actually outlined entire stories and articles in my head before putting a single word down on paper. I don’t know about you, but that counts as being pretty productive in my book.
The Flip Side
Now, there is a flip side here. Just because thinking counts for productivity, doesn’t mean you should abandon your other goals. It is very easy to get into the trap of only thinking, and never actually writing. I should know, I have fallen into this trap before and it helps to have a schedule to stick to. It requires a certain amount of balance. So, to start, I would recommend choosing one or two days of your writing schedule and either adding thinking time to it (best case scenario) or substituting it for your writing goal. Stick to this schedule and try it out for a bit and make adjustments as needed to add or remove time. You won’t be sorry.
Now go on . . . grab a cup of coffee and get your think on.
***First published on OC-Writers.com