Writing Improvement Team/Basic Writing Techniques
Tackling Common Grammatical Errors Forever
Written by Fleet Captain Kali Nicholotti
There are many parts that come together to make a really great sim, but one of the most basic is quite simple; proper use of the language in which we write. For some writers, this is more difficult than others, especially if English is not the first language of the writer in question. English, as a whole, can be difficult to master, yet, weaving words together in the manner that we do, while managing not to completely mangle those words into something unrecognizable will enable you, as a writer, to transport your readers into another realm. And in that realm, your audience will be able to stay deep within the flow of what you’ve written, allowing your characters, even more than ever before, to come to life.
But as we’ve said, mastering the language is hard, but there is a positive side to that. While there are plenty of confusing exceptions to the so-called ‘rules’ of English, most of the errors that you’ll run into here are pretty common. We’ve seen them before, and we will see them again, but hopefully, with this tutorial in hand, you’ll be able to vanquish them from your writing forever!
Spell Check! – It’s said that almost forty percent of all errors within writing occur because spell check wasn’t used. If you don’t have one built into your word processor or browser, check out this gem, which can also help those who are writing in English as their second language.
They’re/Their/There – This is, perhaps, one of the most common grammatical errors that you’ll run into when writing. Unlike many homonyms, there are three options instead of two, which makes it more difficult to remember the rules regarding each one. Still, if you keep in mind the basic apostrophe rule and remember that they’re means they are, you should be able to keep the going there, and the going to their house separate.
Your/You’re – These two words are often confused, yet they mean totally different things. Remember when you are writing that an apostrophe (‘) in the middle of a word means that you are putting two separate words together. Think about that when you sit down to write. Do you need to talk about your writing, or do you just mean you are. If you mean you are, then make sure to use the apostrophe version you’re.
Through/Threw – Though they sound the same, these are two other words that have very different meanings. When you are considering using one of them, remember to think about if you are going to be going through something like a tunnel, or if you threw something like a ball.
See/Seen/Saw – Seen is one of the most misused verbs out there. It doesn’t sound too wrong in most cases, even when it is horribly so, which means that you’ll have to remember a simple rule in order to use it correctly. These are all different tenses of the same action, so when your character has seen something, remember not to use seen unless it has a helping word (has, had, have). Keep in mind that they can always see something, or talk about how they saw something afterwards.
Core/Corps – While not as common as some other errors, this one’s important because of the members of the Corps that many writers may run into at one point or another. Remember, core is the center of something, such as an apple, while corps means ‘body’, such as in Marine Corps.
Its/It’s – Here’s another word that gets mixed up often. In order to avoid mixing up its and it’s, stop to think what you are talking about. If you are describing a property of something else in the possessive sense, such as a ship losing its shields, don’t use the apostrophe version. It’s is a shorter version of it is, so only use that version if you mean to say it is.
Moot/Mute – You might, from time to time, consider writing that something was a mute point, but that would mean the point was silent. When something doesn’t matter if it is debated or not, it is actually a moot point. And while you can debate it anyways, as the word also means that something is open for consideration and discussion, you might not want to mute the television and miss something more exciting.
Affect/Effect – This is another common grammatical mistake that can be avoided if you just remember a simple little trick. Next time you’re asking yourself which one of these to use, think about what it means. Affect is pretty much always a verb, which is an action word. On the other hand, effect is almost always a noun. When you affect something, you will always see an effect.
Could of/Could have – A lot of time, when we’re writing, we sometimes write what we’ve heard instead of what is really being said. Because of dialects and speech irregularities, it’s sometimes easy to fall into the habit of thinking a saying, statement, or commonly used phrase is one thing when it isn’t. This is one of those phrases; don’t use ‘could of’, as it doesn’t make grammatical sense. No one could of completed something, but, they could have completed it.
Looking After Grammar
Written by Fleet Captain Diego Herrera
You’ve read through grammar tutorials and you’ve even dusted off those English books from your school days. You are a veritable grammar king! Or are you? Do you really have that black belt? Can you string two subordinate clauses together with a chain and use them as lethal weapons like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon? And if so, do you make the same noises as he did.
Let’s hope not, especially if you type up your SIMs in a public library…
There are many pitfalls and stumbling blocks that are easily avoided by familiarising yourself with certain rules, examples of which are provided below. Some may look finicky (come on, you know you love finicky) but when they’re the difference between entering a writing challenge or the top SIMs competition and walking away with a victory under your belt, you’ll be glad that you took the time to brush up!
Sci-fi writing creates a range of difficulties when it comes to choosing whether or not to start a word with a capital. You have ‘Bajoran’, ‘Engineering’, ‘Commanding Officer’ and a variety of other things that are just waiting to throw a hyperspanner in the works. Fortunately, there are some handy conventions that can help you to keep your nose clean. Take a look below!
Whenever you refer to a member of an alien race, use the same rules as you would for nationality, which requires a capital letter. If someone hailed from Germany you would say:
“He is German.”
It’s the same deal if someone mistakenly thinks you’re drinking plome’ek soup when in fact your evening meal hails from a different Federation founder world‘s culture:-
“It’s actually Tellarite cuisine.”
Always use a capital! Of course, with rules come exceptions and this rule is no exception to the, er… rule. If you’re talking about Terrans, use a capital, but humans? Always lower case.
“Commander, I’ll be in Engineering.”
You will! ‘Engineering’ is a proper noun in this case, the name of the ship’s engine room. Notice it’s not the name of the ship’s Engine Room. If you’re using the title of a place name, such as ‘Ops’, ‘Engineering’, ‘Sickbay’ or ‘Ten Forward’ then you use a capital. If your location needs ‘the’ before it then you don’t in most cases, such as ‘the bridge’, ‘the observation lounge’, ‘the transporter room’. If you can put a ‘my’ in front of it then you’re also likely to be looking at lower case: ‘my quarters’.
Ranks and Duty Posts
Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. If you’re talking about ‘lieutenants’ and ‘chief engineers’ then you sometimes capitalise and you sometimes don’t! How can you tell? Well, this is the exact same rule as when to use, or not use, a capital letter for ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’!
If you’re addressing someone by their title or rank, or stating your rank as if it’s a name, use a capital:-
“I think I’ve found something, Captain.”
“You should probably ask Lieutenant Johnson.”
“I’m Kathryn Janeway, Commanding Officer of the USS Voyager.”
“I’m going to tell Mom!”
In all other cases, use a lower case letter. In some cases you might be using ‘the’, ‘my’ or ‘a’, which will give you a heads up:-
“I think I’ve found the captain.”
“You should probably ask the lieutenant.”
“Kathryn Janeway is the commanding officer of the USS Voyager.”
“I’m going to tell my mom.”
“How many ensigns does it take to change a light bulb?”
Using Commas for Subordinate Clauses
There aren’t many hard and fast rules for using commas by themselves and it can often come down to a matter of style. However, subordinate clauses need to be marked off with commas if you want your sentence to be understood the way you intended. Sometimes the meaning can be changed by omitting commas, or it can become ambiguous, or it can just look difficult to read. Here’s an example:-
He walked out into the snow although it was cold enough to numb his feet to collect his mail from the mailbox.
Without punctuation, that reads as a little stilted and it’s difficult to process. Some people might have to read that twice to get the sense behind it. With commas it becomes much easier.
He walked out into the snow, although it was cold enough to numb his feet, to collect his mail from the mailbox.
What we did there was mark off a subordinate clause, which is a part of a sentence that could be removed entirely without compromising the sense of what we’re trying to say, with commas. I did it again in the previous sentence! Suddenly this is everywhere! Below, so that you can see I’m not just making this up, is the example sentence with that whole clause removed (yes, I did just do it again!):-
He walked out into the snow to collect his mail from the mailbox.
Correctly marking off these subordinate clauses is what enables you to accurately write complex sentences, so it’s worth giving it a try!
The Dreaded Semicolon
The dreaded semicolon is a piece of punctuation often avoided because quite frankly what is it for? The answer is that it exists purely to save you time! This helpful and good natured little beastie can be deployed to join together two sentences that directly relate to one another (one might be explaining why something’s true in the other, for example), or it can join together two sentence fragments that would normally be linked by ‘but’ or ‘and’, or something similar. Here are some handy examples:-
He listened intently but there was nothing to be heard.
He listened intently; there was nothing to be heard.
Several members of the coalition decided to set a reverse course and head home in the knowledge that they were heavily outgunned and regrouping was the better option.
Several members of the coalition decided to set a reverse course and head home; they were heavily outgunned and regrouping was the better option.
Speaking for Others: The Voices You Borrow
Written by Captain Malcolm Lysander
As to speaking for other people in your sim, here’s the basic premise you should follow: feel free to write small things for other characters, as long as they are accurate with that character. Here are some examples using the characters that played in the StarBase 118 Operations sim. One example included a dialogue between the captain (Lysander) and a medical officer (Bizak): (sim)
The following also wouldn’t work:
Another example of a GOOD use of someone else’s character:
You simply have to walk a fine line between moving the sim along, and giving too much of someone else’s character. Use your good judgment, and try to use the other person’s character as little as possible, to avoid a problem. Keep your words neutral (so that you’re not stepping on the other person’s character in the wrong way), and only use the other character for simple actions, if you have to use them at all.
If you’re going to involve another character in such a way that the other character may be injured, you should CO-WRITE the sim together, or at least ask the other person how far you can go with their character. Co-writing a sim means contacting the other character via Instant Messenger or e-mail to write the sim out piece by piece. (So, one person would write one thing, and send that to the other person. Then the other person writes their response, and sends that back. Then you put all that into one sim and send it out.)
Using NPCs: An Empire at Your Command
Written by Captain Malcolm Lysander
There is a plot device that may help those of you who don’t have another person simming with you at your post. (i.e.- if you work in security, and there is another security officer on the crew, then you have another person simming with you at your post. But some posts, like Helm/Com/Ops, may only have one person stationed at them — you.) This plot device that you’ll find helpful is called the “Non Playing Character” (NPC).
Everyone is free to play as many NPCs in the sim as they wish (within reason, of course.) Many people in UFOP create two or three (some people, like Hamlet, have about 20 NPCs) “extra” characters. These characters aren’t your main characters, but every now and then you use them as someone else to interact with in the sim.
For example: Let’s say there is only one science officer on your crew. You could create another character who’s an ensign, and is also posted to science. During your sims, you could have your primary character interact with the new ensign by giving him orders, helping him fix things, or whatever. You don’t HAVE to create a character who’s in the same department as you though. You could just create a civilian character which which your primary characters falls in love with, for example.
You may create NPCs who are of equal or lesser rank than you. (i.e.- A Lieutenant can create an NPC who’s a lieutenant or an ensign. An ensign can only create NPCs who are ensigns, cadets, yeomen, etc.)
NPCs are just there to add a little depth to your sims. If your characters are always working alone, you’ll start to get bored. By showing how your main character interacts with other characters, you’re developing your character for us more, which is always good.
Avoiding Backsims, Regaining Missed Opportunities
Written by Rear Admiral Rocar Drawoh
Ever missed someone’s post and had to backsim after the plot had moved on? Alternatively, perhaps you have posted a sim that moves things on and then a fellow player posted a sim requiring responses from your character in the past even though you had moved your character on from that place or time-frame?
This is a situation we all face from time to time and generally our solution is to post a backsim, filling out the necessary gaps and asking the reader to insert it back before the current time frame. Such backsims can be over a page long, however more often than not they will be a post of just a few lines which appear at the start of our next sim with a massive leap in time to the rest of our post and little concept. Despite this common practice, there are ways to effectively avoid backsim posting.
One of the easiest and most effective methods is the ((Flashback)) which if you milk it can really help you do some character building; as it shows your character thinking about an event in the recent past or that something important was still playing on their mind some time latter. Essentially this allows you to insert the lines that have been missed within the context of your sim.
e.g.- Say a staff meeting ends and I have simmed my character back to his office, but then Commander Shartara posts a set of lines for me to reply to in the meeting. Rather than back sim, I could simply include the following lines in my next sim…
((Rocar’s Officer -Duronis II))
::Having left the conference room some moments earlier, the Ambassador sat down at his desk and picked up a PADD. As his green Ktarian eyes gazed over the information he couldn’t help but think back to something that Shartara had said to him during the meeting, Rocar’s mind going over their exchange just moments earlier::
((Flashback – Conference Room))
Shartara: Sir. . . I quite like Kate Rusby’s voice::
::Rocar chuckled a little as he’d remembered Rusby singing at his birthday. Despite his reservation he had replied…::
Rocar: Okay. . . .see if she’s free to perform at the Embassy reception on Tuesday.
((End of Flashback))
::Rocar sat in his office and shook his head in amusement at the brief exchange before the meeting had carried on and come to a close. Smiling to himself he turned his attention back to the PADD and the matter at hand.::
For added effect I would advise you to write the Flashback in the pluperfect tenses (i.e. “He HAD said” instead of “he said” or “He would have said” rather than “he would say”) as this helps convey the fact that it is an event in the past that your character is remembering.
Of course simply remembering something without reason rarely happens in RL unless we are reminded of the event, and this lends itself to the sim as it offers the writer to use a little style in artistic technique. Rather than just sticking a flashback into the middle of the sim, try and lead into it by including a trigger. For example, if you are going to flashback to an event by a lake, then describe the ripples on your characters cup of coffee catching your characters attention; if you are going to back flash to a conversation with a beautiful blond then spot a blond haired officer ahead in the corridor; or if you’re going to remember a fight with an Orion, then sim an NPC mentioning Orions to your character in everyday conversation, or pick out a key word in some dialogue that someone else simmed for you.
A flashback memory triggered something around your character is quite a stylistic way to write and helps bring a back sim into context whilst replying to the gaps you missed; you can even portray your character as giving the matter thought after the incident and thus do some good character building.
This technique can also be adapted slightly to allow for showing different side to your characters. How often in RL do you have a verbal confrontation with someone and then several hours later think of something witty you should have said? Likewise, when simming, it will occasionally happen that you write a reply to someone’s previous sim and then latter you realize that you did not maximize on the gaps in the dialogue and missed out on a chance to do some real good character development?
If this happens, then there is no need to pull your previous sim, despite your mistake. Instead, why not use thought marks and the flashback techniques to play over what happened and have your character imagine the same event with different dialogue. Perhaps start off with your character meditating or in bed ready for sleep, then have them think about what they said and imaging the alternative line that they did not say or could have said. This way you still manage to use the dialogue the way you realized you could have done, without having to pull your previous sim.
Try these two sims out, and you not only avoid the dissatisfaction of posting a few lines of disconnected back sims or having to pull sims you not happy with, you also end up writing a new sim off the back of your previous oversights. These new Sims will allow you depth and development to your character whilst using some nice writing techniques that provide you with a high quality sim and something a little bit different to usual.
Advanced Simming Tips
Written by Vice Admiral Hollis Calley
Writing Q&A With Margaret Wander Bonanno (Excerpts)
2013 Writing Improvement Month Event
FltAdmlWolf> Margaret is a published Star Trek & scifi author, You can find her list of books here: http://amzn.to/Y3vgde
DiegoHerrera> Our first question: When writing for a character or group of characters over an extended period of time (up to and including novel length), what do you think is the best way to keep them interesting?
Margaret Bonanno: I do flashbacks. Hint a little in Chapter 1, then drop a “When he was a child, he…” in a subsequent chapter. That kind of thing.
DiegoHerrera> So slowly reveal information about them instead of letting it all slip in one go?
Margaret Bonanno: Sprinkle little bits about the character through the narrative is I guess what I’m saying. Oh, yeah. Don’t want to get bogged down in a whole lot of narrative at the beginning. Just tease a bit.
DiegoHerrera> Our second opener: If writing for an inhuman character such as an alien or monster, how would you go about communicating that inhuman quality in writing?
Margaret Bonanno: Good one! Depends on just how alien it is. If it’s *really* different, start with the physical stuff. For instance, I’m fascinated by sea creatures. Created a species of telepathic jellyfish in *Preternatural* and tried to see the world through their eyes (or non-eyes, as happens to be the case). Did the same for a species of giant intelligent earthworms in *Unspoken Truth*. Start with the physical differences from humanoids, and try
Margaret Bonanno: …you try to do it through dialogue. Think of the number of times Spock has made bemused observations about human behavior. That’s really what aliens are about – holding up a mirror to what fools these humans be.
DiegoHerrera> Great! I can imagine that writing for a race of telepathic jellyfish must have been quite a challenge!
Margaret Bonanno: Give you an example: When I was a kid (See how I did that?) I inherited a bunch of old storybooks from a babysitter. One was a collection of fairy tales from Czechoslovakia. Real Grimm-type stuff, not the Disneyfied version. One story was about a princess who’d been kidnapped by a witch, who steals her eyes. Stumbling around the cabin while the witch is away, the princess finds a chest full of eyes, and starts trying them on…
Margaret Bonanno: The first is a pair of eyes stolen from a wolf. Through them the princess sees a world that’s blood red and fraught with terrors. She takes the eyes out. The next pair of eyes is from a fish. The princess sees the world as if underwater – dark and full of horrifying sea creatures ready to eat her. She throws them aside…
Margaret Bonanno: Finally she finds her own eyes. That’s all I remember of the story (the princess probably kills the witch a la Hansel and Gretel, but that wasn’t important to me). The part about “seeing through another’s eyes” was what stuck with me, and that’s what I try to do…whether it’s an alien or an atypical sort of human.
AlleranTan> Hi Margaret! My question is: Do you have a specific style guide you follow, or any particular style you adhere to or recommend? For example, I don’t capitalise the word “Human” if there are no other species in the story, but I do if there are (e.g. Toralii, Kel-Voran, Human). Just to muddy the water some more, I don’t capitalise ‘human’ or any other species/race in my fantasy work at all (orc, kobold, human). What is your preference?
Margaret Bonanno: Good question! I don’t think I’ve ever capitalized Human, though I would probably capitalize “Earther” if and when I used it. And of course I adhere to the Pocket guidelines when it comes to Vulcans, Klingons, etc.
DiegoHerrera> Guidelines laid down by the publisher, is that right?
AlleranTan> My understanding is that it’s the difference between common noun and proper noun, since “wolf” and “fox” aren’t capitalized, but say, Timber Wolf is.
Margaret Bonanno: Yes.
AlleranTan> But I know author preference does play a part in it all.
Margaret Bonanno: Probably right, AlleranTan. And for my original aliens, I tend to make up silly names.
DiegoHerrera> Do you have a method for doing it?
Margaret Bonanno: Well, the name for the giant intelligent earthworms is Deemanot, which is an acronym for – wait for it – nematode.Oops, I meant “anagram,” not “acronym.”
Margaret Bonanno: Yep. Then there were the jellyfish in *Preternatural*. Their name for themselves is S.oteri. If you pronounce the “S” as “ess,” you get ess-oh-TER-ee, as in “esoteric.”
DiegoHerrera> We often have to create alien races for our collaborative writing here, so that approach will come in handy for our writers.
Alex_Richards> Hello Margaret. When writing, I often find myself relying heavily on dialogue to set a scene rather than descriptive text/exposition. My question is twofold. First, how would you advise someone in my situation to be more inventive with their exposition, and second, what do you feel is the right balance between dialogue and narrative text?
Margaret Bonanno: The answer to both, IMO, is: When you’re done, read it aloud. If the dialogue conveys the information you want it to, but also sounds as if it is real people talking then you’ve succeeded. You want to avoid the Victorian melodrama effect of the maid stepping downstage to tell the audience what’s going on. The same thing with finding the balance between narrative and dialogue. You’re wise in understanding that too much narrative can read like a lecture, and you want to avoid that but, again, when you’ve finished a scene that’s a mix of narrative and dialogue, try reading it aloud. You’ll know if it “sounds.”
DiegoHerrera> Do you find reading aloud is a good way to run a self-edit as well? I.e. to pick up on any grammatical anomalies etc?
Margaret Bonanno: Definitely. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve found typos, words omitted, or general “WTF were you thinking????” glitches in my work. It’s a sad fact that you can’t always proofread your own text, because the eye sees what it wants to see. So reading aloud helps there, too.
KaliNicholotti> Hello Margaret and thanks for coming! My question is this. How do you motivate yourself to write, especially when you don’t feel especially like writing? Have you ever had to force yourself to just sit and write?
Margaret Bonanno: LOL – it helps to have a contract and a deadline, as in “You’re getting paid for this. The clock is ticking. Get on with it!” Then again, sometimes the work itself just pesters you to get done.Right now I’m working on something on spec. No contract, no money, just tinkering with an idea. And I’ll be in the middle of something else entirely, when I have to grab a pen and scribble a thought on the edge of a crossword before I lose it. Generally, if you want to write, you’ll write. If you don’t, you’ll make excuses. And some days it’s better to just tidy a closet or work in the garden. Hope that helps, Kali.
Vie> Firstly, welcome to the chat today – thanks for coming! I’d like to ask how you approach writing for an established series – Startrek for an obvious example – do you research the existing material first and draw ideas from it? Or do you come to it with an idea and see how that could be explored within the context of the existing material? Thank you in advance.
Margaret Bonanno: Trek is actually the only media tie-in I’ve done (though I’d love for there to be a series of nuBSG novels. Ron Moore, are you listening?), and I have the advantage of being hooked on the Original Series since the beginning. In some ways I know these characters better than some people in my Real Life however, when it came to mixing in characters from several series, as in *Catalyst of Sorrows*, I had to go back and rewatch episodes and read other novels (and the reference books – they’re very helpful) Because readers will catch you out if you make mistakes, so you have to be extra, extra careful! But, yes, research is essential regardless of what you’re writing. It’s just that with Star Trek it’s fun as well!
Vetri> A science fiction story may well include a protagonist from a very different culture to the one they are operating in, even if they are otherwise quite similar to those around them. What sort of methods would you use to convey some of that, without letting it overpower the rest of the narrative?
Margaret Bonanno: I think it goes back to the “through someone else’s eyes” thing I mentioned earlier, because it’s not limited to science fiction and actual from-another-planet aliens…it can be anyone in a strange situation. I think a lot of people become writers – or artists, actors, etc. – because they feel out of place in so-called “normal” society. It’s tapping into that and saying, “Okay, how would I feel if I were the only member of my species on this world?” that’s a good place to start. Or just think of how you felt in a strange situation, Vetri, and work from there.
Handley> Hello Margaret, thank you so much for coming! Leading on from an earlier question, do you have any advice for someone pitching a novel idea to a publisher that is set in the Star Trek universe? Are there any problems with writing for your own characters in an established (and copyrighted) universe?
Margaret Bonanno: Best advice I can give you there is to check the publisher’s website: simonsays.com I’m not sure what their current policy is regarding Trek novel submissions, but I can tell you it’s never been easy. Basic rule has always been: You must have published something else first. Generally for any kind of publishing in the U.S., you’ll need to have representation through a literary agent. And in recent years, Simon & Schuster/Pocket have undergone some “downsizing,” so that makes it even more challenging.
Cmdr_Karynn_Brice> Thanks for joining us Margaret. Have you ever gotten bored with a Character that you’ve written for a long time? If yes, what (if anything) did you do to make it interesting again?
Margaret Bonanno: Wow, never thought of that, Karynn! If it ever did happen, I’m sure I could think of a creative way to kill them off…unless, of course, they’re one of the Star Trek regulars, in which case I could just not include them in most of the scenes.
Hutch> When writing a novel, how far ahead do you plan? And how much detail do you get into at that stage? Do you leave room for your characters to do the ‘unexpected’ if the story calls for it?
Margaret Bonanno: If I’m under contract (the usual case), I’ll have had to submit an outline, and that serves as a road map to keep me from getting lost (not saying it doesn’t happen, but at least I have a template to get me back on course) But characters do have a tendency to try to go off on their own, and sometimes you can argue them back to your POV, but other times you may as well see where they’re going to take you. Characters often have better insights than the author. Sounds crazy, but it’s very often the case. They’ll smack you upside the head and say “Look, I’d never do that, okay?” Because the outline may be 10-15 pages, but you’re building a 400-page manuscript around it.
AlexMatthews> How do you combat the witers block?
Margaret Bonanno: I’ll do something mindless. As I mentioned, housework, gardening, or taking on a project like painting the living room – something where your hands are busy, but your mind is floating loose. And sometimes I find, at least, that I have to just wait I’ve always envied writers who can write pages and pages every day. I’m lucky if I get 1,000 words on a really good day. And sometimes you get stuck in one of those “Okay, what happens next?” situations, and you really have no clue…
Margaret Bonanno: I’ve tried tinkering, tossing it out, tinkering again, tossing that out, tearing my hair out, banging on the walls. Finally, you just have to walk away. Do something else, anything else, and the exact thing you need will sneak into your peripheral vision like a cat peeking around the furniture, and you’re saved!
Arden_Cain> It's great to have you here Margaret. How do you avoid placing too much of yourself into the character/s that you are writing. For example, my character here, has morphed into a partial reflection of my real self (history to an extent, personality traits and the like) even though it wasn’t my intent in the very beginning. How do you prevent situations like this to ensure that your characters are all fresh and unique?
Margaret Bonanno: Hmm, good question. Depends on what I’m writing. There may be one character who’s most like me, and I’ll go out of my way to make some things as *not* like me as possible. With Trek, that’s easy, because I tend to identify most with the Vulcan characters, and as anyone who knows me can tell you, I am *not* always in control of my emotions. OTOH, the *Preternatural* trilogy was built around a protagonist who’s almost completely autobiographical…except that Karen’s in touch with telepathic alien jellyfish, whereas I’m not. Or am I?
Margaret Bonanno: So if you *want* the character to be recognizable, pull out the stops. If not, then tinker with things. Make your character a different gender. Try a different age, hair color, ethnic background, etc.
AnoraManar> Hey Margaret, thanks so much for taking the time to be here today and answer all of our questions. It’s greatly appreciated I tend to constantly find myself in the same problem over and over again. I always have problems starting my writing. I have a middle and end, but I can’t ever work out the beginning. Any advice on how to tackle that problem?
Margaret Bonanno: Happened to me once. I began in the middle of a novel, wrote it to the end, and by then I’d found the beginning. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the beginning to mesh with the middle without a major rewrite of the middle, so I wouldn’t advise trying that – LOL…
AnoraManar> Sounds like a plan. I have an outline of ideas all the time, but never seem to have a beginning to put with them though
Margaret Bonanno: How about this: Ask yourself why. Why are you writing this? Why does this story want to be told; why are these characters rattling around in your head? Maybe see if you can work backwards from “this is where they ended up” to “this is where they started.” Maybe that will work. If all else fails, “Once upon a time…”
Jalana> Hello Margaret, thanks for being here, great to have you Earlier you’ve spoken about alien characters and seeing through their eyes. Though if you do not write from their viewpoint how do you remind the reader of their unique features without getting repetetive? Do you have a trick for that for us?
Margaret Bonanno: Little descriptors might help. “He tilted his head before he spoke so that his antennae could pick up the others’ voices…” “Like most of her species, her rapid heartbeat could be seen pulsing in her forehead…" Not all the time, but start with a full description, then abbreviate it as you go along. “Her forehead pulsed…” Or use bits of dialogue from the non-aliens. “Can you believe those extra thumbs? I was trying really hard not to stare at her hands…”
Silveira> Good evening Margaret, thankyou for coming. Now as one of the non native english writers I admit some times I have trouble “translating” in english what I really mean to say. Any tips to make it easier?
Margaret Bonanno: That’s a tough one. Probably the more you expose yourself to conversational English – in public places, conversations with friends, TV and film – the easier it might become. Quite a challenge all the same, and you’re courageous for doing it! Also, reading. The more contemporary [good] fiction you can read, the better. Diego, maybe your group can draw up a reading list of well-written fiction to help your ESL members.
Dickens> Hello, as others have said, thanks to spend some time to talk with us. It’s a great oportunity specially for us non-english speakers. When you write about a scene, do you prefer for the scene to lead the characters actions or does the characters with their personality develop the scene? I mean, you prefer them to be drawn by the circumstances or that they force those circumstances
Margaret Bonanno: Great question! Other writers have different techniques, but my stories always begin with the characters. My very first Star Trek novel, *Dwellers in the Crucible* began with the thought “What if the Kirk/Spock story was told from the POV of two female civilian characters?” The story just evolved from there. First you ask: Okay, who are these people? Then you explore what sorts of situations they might find themselves in, based on who they are.
Dickens> Quite interesting thought. So you don’t like your characters be forced to a scene or situation where they can’t get out? Or better than like, don’t tend to drive them there?
Margaret Bonanno: Oh, on the contrary, I love putting my characters into tough situations, because that shows what they’re made of. Will they be brave, self-sacrificing, resourceful, or cowardly, selfish, sneaky?
Dueld_taJoot> I find I end up using the same physical shorthand over and over, constantly focusing on characters's eyes and eyebrows, mouths and shoulders. Iâ€™m afraid it will become some kind of kabuki caricature, which will jar readers into thinking about my lack of technique, rather than about the story. Have you ever found yourself relying too much on some motif? What did you do to find alternatives? Alternatively, what, if anything, has helped you expand your own mental Stock Footage Archive of body language and expression?
Margaret Bonanno: Wow, tough one! Because I do the same thing, especially around eyes and hands. One trick is, after you’ve finished the entire manuscript, do a Search and count how many times you’ve used the same or similar description (“His hazel eyes danced with glee..”) and either find another expression, or just delete the descriptor altogether.
T-Mihn> In character creation, is it normal for them to take on a life of their own different from the original plan? As if he/she had become a living breathing person?
Margaret Bonanno: Oh, yes! I’ve had outright battles with some of my characters. Character: “You want me to put my life in danger here? I don’t think I want to do that.” Me: “It’s in the outline. Don’t be so stubborn.” Character: “Easy for you to say! You’re sitting there at your desk, and I’m the one who’s out the airlock. Nope, not doing it!” Most times you let them loose and see where they’re going. Sometimes they’re like balky children, and you have to be the Responsible Parent…
Margaret Bonanno: “Listen, I’m the Omniscient Author here, right? I’ve got my finger poised over the Delete button. Don’t make me do this!”
Writing Q&A With Melinda Snodgrass (Excerpts)
2014 Writing Improvement Month Event
Diego_Herrera> So, Melinda, officially, thank you hugely for coming to chat to us on behalf of everyone at UFOP: Starbase 118!
Melinda Snodgrass: Happy to be here. You guys are fun.
Diego_Herrera> The first of those being – what approaches do you use to make your narrative and descriptive passages involving?
Melinda Snodgrass: Well, for starters I find description agonizing to write. It’s why I much prefer writing screenplays. I have a set designer for all that. So, knowing I’m terrible at it and don’t like it I try to make sure I have 3 of the five senses mentioned and acknowledged in every scene. Touch is one that people frequently overlook, and it’s a useful tool. How does that paper towel feel against your fingers.
Melinda Snodgrass: On to narrative. Are we talking plot and structure? How do you define narrative?
Diego_Herrera> For the purposes of our group, anything that isn’t dialogue, so scene scetting, description of actions, that kind of thing.
Melinda Snodgrass: Okay. Damn I wish we could talk. This may be a bit rambling. I enjoy writing action scenes and I generally approach them as if I’m writing for Jackie Chan. What can I put in the room that can be used in interesting ways for this particular action sequence. There should have been a question mark at then end of that sentence. Doh! Anyway, the other thing I ask myself is “What does this scene actually do in the book or the movie? Does it move the plot forward? Present a new problem? Explicate character? If it doesn’t do one of those things then it probably doesn’t need to be there.
Melinda Snodgrass: One of the best lessons you can learn as a writer is how to “kill your babies”. The other sad fact is that a scene you absolutely love, love, love is probably a terrible scene.
Diego_Herrera> So, following on from the initial question, and as you’ve mentioned you like writing in the script style you’re the most awesome person to ask – you just wrote a scene that’s too dialog heavy. What do you do?
Melinda Snodgrass: When it’s a script I’m very aware that four lines/sentences is about the right length for dialog. If you find you’ve got more than that it really better important or an impassioned speech of some sort. When I’m writing dialog in a book I try to keep it West Wing short and snappy, a tennis match with the conversational ball bouncing back and forth between the characters. Long speeches over. don’t know why that word didn’t finish
Melinda Snodgrass: As for a scene being too dialog heavy. I love dialog so I don’t think that’s ever a problem assuming what is being discussed is interesting.
Diego_Herrera> Do you represent characters’ internal thoughts as you go along?
Melinda Snodgrass: What I really hate even more than description is internal dialog which you often have to have in a novel. I tend to keep it to a minimum. (And you are a mind reader because I was typing this while you typed the question.) Sometimes I just make the internal dialog obvious and let the characters say the words unless it’s going to ruin a big plot point.
Diego_Herrera> Our next question is from Kali: Do you ever feel like you can’t do more with a character?
Melinda Snodgrass: Yes. or even better with what they _do_. That whole showing not telling thing which can also become annoying if done in excess. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with a simple declarative sentence telling people what the heck is going on. You write about a character because they are experiencing the most important moments in their lives. Once that is past is there really more story to tell? Maybe not. Some writer’s will say, “that person’s story has been told.” That was the case with Tachyon in the Wild Card books. His story is done.
Melinda Snodgrass: Now if conditions change or a new problem arises then that person’s story can start again, but they have to be different when you come back to them. Characters do need to have “arcs” despite that becoming a silly cliche in Hollywood.
Diego_Herrera> You mentioned Wildcard just now and she is a fan. She would like to ask: “One of my problems in my writing is I feel like I don’t create very good plots. How do you keep your plots from falling flat?”
Melinda Snodgrass: If I’m not passionate about a story/plot then it will feel flat. I’ve never really had that happen because I have always wanted to tell that particular story. Now there are points along the journey when things get dull. What Walter Jon Williams calls Kansas/Nebraska scenes. Dull and flat, but they have to be there or the plot won’t make any sense. What you do is look forward to why you’re tell this story. Why does it matter to you.
Diego_Herrera> So if you’re not feeling it, it’s maybe not worth writing?
Melinda Snodgrass: And always remember. The events you are writing about are the most important events in your character’s life. How will it affect them? I think that’s true. Readers and viewers know when you are phoning it in, when you aren’t sincere in what you are saying. I never try to jump on a band wagon or write what’s popular. I write the stories I want to tell.
Diego_Herrera> On a related theme – Reinard asks, do you have any advice for people who find it difficult to write dialogue?
Melinda Snodgrass: Say it out loud as you write it. I look like a crazy person in my office. I speak all my dialog aloud. Another good trick is to have friends read it aloud and you listen. Now that doesn’t mean you want ti to sound just like real conversations with the ums and uhs thrown in, but you want it to flow and to be succinct, but still sound natural. Remember every word you write needs to have a reason to be there. Even dialog. If the person is hedging and talking to cover for something else you need to craft it so that’s clear to the reader/viewer.
Diego_Herrera> Leo HP asks (while we’re on dialogue) – is it difficult to get your characters to sound different when they speak?
Melinda Snodgrass: Yes, that is hard. Especially in scripts because a first reader at a studio reads hundreds of scripts and they read very quickly so they may not notice the change in name. In novels there’s nothing wrong with Jane said, John said. It helps anchor your readers, but it’s nice when readers can tell the difference without the cue. Now, that doesn’t mean you want to write in dialect. Never, ever do that. Only a few masters like Terry Partc... accent made it hard to understand her, or something like that. I really dislike seeing Pleeze ow are you?
Diego_Herrera> Do you find that makes it difficult to read?
Melinda Snodgrass: The other trick I use is that I listen to people talking in cafes and restaurants and malls. I try to imitate the cadence of their speech patterns. I do, and I think you run the risk of throwing someone out of the story if they are looking at all your fake accents. They’re not being swept into the narrative. You also run the risk of looking racist or insensitive.
Diego_Herrera> Velana would like to know your opinion on whether or not it’s better to go with self publishing or traditional publishing when your novel is complete!
Melinda Snodgrass: I am not a fan of self-publishing, particularly for new writers. The number of books a new writer sells is generally 0, zero, null, none. I also don’t want to have try and pick my cover art — I’m not an artist, I’m a writer. I also hate self-promotion. Publishers have marketing people to handle that. I also think not having an editor is dangerous. Your mom or boyfriend or girlfriend may think your book is awesome, but it might actually need work, and the eyes of a professional are very helpful. My books get better because of my editor. And with a published book you know there are gate keepers, that the money you are spending will garner you a competent piece of work.
Diego_Herrera> This brings up an interesting question – why did you choose a pen name? Is it to distinguish from a different genre, or another reason?
Melinda Snodgrass: It was mostly reader identification. The readers who enjoy Melinda’s novels probably wouldn’t be huge fans of Urban Fantasy. I didn’t want reader confusion. That’s the real reason the B was the commercial thing. Media has developed so you can tailor your reading/viewing an listening pleasure and I want to give my readers what they want and expect.
Diego_Herrera> Amanda has another question: How do you write with other people to make the result seamless rather than it LOOK like two people have written it?
Melinda Snodgrass: I’ve only really done that on screenplays, and in that case the other writer and I sit in the room together and take turns typing and bouncing dialog off each other. for novels there are various techniques, and now that I think about it I did write The Runespear with Vic Milan. We divided up characters, and wrote the chapters for those people. Then we exchanged pages and we did a rewrite on each other’s pages. Then we sat and went over good working relationship with that person and small egos.
Diego_Herrera> So dual editing rights?
Melinda Snodgrass: Yes. You have to work closely with that other person. You should also have plotted it out in advance so each person knows exactly what they are doing. That’s how James S.A. Corey works.
Diego_Herrera> Have you ever written anything with George R. R.? You guys are friends right?
Melinda Snodgrass: Oh, and you better clear any changes with the other person.
Diego_Herrera> No stealth editing!
Melinda Snodgrass: Yes, George and I did a draft of A PRINCESS OF MARS together. Ours would have been better than that mess that ended up on movie screens under the title JOHN CARTER. GRRM does love description though. I spent a lot of time cutting that way down when I’d get his pages. Too much description makes a script read slow and that’s death in Hollywood.
Diego_Herrera> He approached it from the novel standpoint?
Melinda Snodgrass: ‘John Carter was a mess. Yes, George is by nature a prose writer and I’m by nature a screenwriter.
Diego_Herrera> How do you go about writing for characters that have already been established? Such as ones that belong to a franchise like Star Trek?
Melinda Snodgrass: Oh that is so much easier than creating interesting characters from scratch. You do have to be a good mimic, however so they sound right. When I got so mad over the end of Mass Effect 3 I wrote my own Shepard story, and it was a cakewalk. All the work had been done for me. I just had to create the shrink and a sleazy journalist.
Diego_Herrera> I still love that you did that – for those of you that missed last year and our podcast, Melinda had Mass Effect rage just like we all did!
Melinda Snodgrass: I didn’t have to describe how an Asari looks. I just sent out my space opera proposal to my agents and having to describe all the alien races, the political set up etc. was a lot of work. It was fun, but work.
Diego_Herrera> A question from Zerxes on this topic: When you have a central character like Data in “Measure of a Man,” do you spend much time with that particular actor to get any input?
Melinda Snodgrass: I’m much calmer now that I wrote that story to end it properly for my Shepard. Actually no, frankly it’s not the actors job to tell us what to write. It’s our job to tell them what to say. Trek was weird because we were blocked from having much contact with the actors. On Reasonable Doubts the actors knew they could come in and tell us if a particular line was hard to say and we’d fix it, but the shape of the story and how it develops is our task.
Diego_Herrera> If writing for an inhuman character such as an alien or monster, how would you go about communicating that inhuman quality in writing?
Melinda Snodgrass: I think you do it by showing their reactions to things. Not have them react in what would seem like a normal way. I also think it’s hard to write from the POV of an inhuman. Humans are interested in other humans. Data tried to understand and become more human because that made him interesting. If he just acted like a computer he would have been dull. When I wrote Ensigns of Command I had the aliens be so legalistic they were inexplica
Melinda Snodgrass: dealing with that alien quality. Jack Williamson once said a human can’t actually craft a truly alien character because if it were that alien it wouldn’t be interesting. I think he was right.
Diego_Herrera> Cheeky followup question – did you have total leeway with them?
Melinda Snodgrass: go to my website under WRITING and read the original script before they messed with it.