Tag Archives: Writing

W-H-I-P is a Four-Letter Word: Action Verbs for Fiction Writers

After my brother-in-law read the first draft of Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula, he remarked, “She is doing an awful lot of whipping.” And sure enough, Cassidy was: whipping her head around, her body, leg, a tight fist. I hadn’t realized my enormous love for this particular action verb until I’d re-read my fight scenes. Usage was downright flagrant and utterly cringe-worthy. It was humiliating! Okay, humiliating might be a wee-bit dramatic, but to this day, I swear I have an aversion to the word “whip,” and even wince when I see it in other written works. I can barely tolerate saying it!

“Whip” is my four-letter word and a reminder to not get lazy in my writing and push myself. (Note: I still use W-H-I-P in my writing, but selectively, and with grave reservations.)

If you find that your reservoir of action verbs runs on the dry side (or you forego verbs altogether and talk like this: “I home.”), help is on the way! More action verbs than you’ll ever know what to do with, though I challenge you to select five from the following lists each day and slip them into conversation, especially you “Verbophobics.” Good heavens! There is such a thing! I kid you not! Consult Wiktionary, if you don’t believe me. 😉

Fighting Words: http://linestorm.tumblr.com/post/98608734568/fighting-words-active-verbs-to-use-in-a-fight

Writing Tips: Choose Active, Precise Verbs: http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~cainproj/writingtips/preciseverbs.html

1,000 Words To Write By: http://dragonwritingprompts.blogspot.com/2009/02/1000-verbs-to-write-by.html

Elise Stokes lives with her husband and four children. She was an elementary school teacher before becoming a full-time mom. With a daughter in middle school and two in high school, Elise’s understanding of the challenges facing girls in that age range inspired her to create a series that will motivate girls to value individualism, courage, integrity, and intelligence. The stories in Cassidy Jones Adventures are fun and relatable, and a bit edgy without taking the reader uncomfortably out of bounds. Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula, Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift, Cassidy Jones and the Seventh Attendant, and Cassidy Jones and the Luminous are the first four books in the series.

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Me Write Funny One Day, Part 1: So Long and Thanks For All the Frogs

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Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.  –E.B. White

frog-mascot-dies

 So . . . let’s kill some frogs, shall we?

In my last post I explored the phenomenon of the reluctant reader, concluding that both graphic novel formats and humor can be key to ditching the X Box in favor of a book.  Not every writer can whip out a graphic novel, but most of us can make our writing funnier.  In the next two posts, I’ll talk about what makes writing funny, how to get more (but not too much) funny into your writing, and how to identify books for middle grade readers that don’t equate funny with the words “fart” and “butt.”   (Am I right, weary parent?)

 It’s All About That Layering  

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, good humorous fiction is a chuckle wrapped in a guffaw inside a knowing smile.  By that I mean that, while Meghan Trainor may be all about that bass, true humorous fiction is all about that layering. Some jokes take a full chapter to develop, some take several chapters, and some even take the whole book.  In this post we’ll focus on the simplest layer, the thin veneer, if you will, of humor: the famous (and infamous) one-liner.

Did you hear the one about the one-liner?  (. . . it felt all a-groan)

One-liners are quick, one-dimensional jokes most anyone can write now and then.  Part of the reason they are so easy to write is that there are a myriad of forms to choose from. Here are some common categories along with examples from my novels Kibble Talk and Dog Goner (from my ongoing Kibble Talk series).

 1. EXAGGERATION.        Zach is so thin and bony he could hoola hoop with a Cheerio.

 I do a lot of exaggerating in my novels and it can be a blast to write—I just let my mind spiral out in ever more ridiculous circles until I hit the right image.  But two caveats.

First, it is easy to be overly cruel.  If you are writing for children, a little wincing on the part of your readers is okay as long as it’s only a tiny little wince and it’s accompanied by a chuckle.  If you’re writing for adults, you can go for the gut punch, but again, there must be a correspondingly impactful laugh.

Second, if you are writing in first person dialogue, make sure your language conforms to the way your character (in terms of age, education, etc.) would speak and think about the world.  In the example above, a nine year old is describing her best friend’s super skinny older brother. Your average nine year old is familiar with both hoola hooping and Cheerios cereal. On the other hand, your average nine-year-old would not be so familiar (one hopes) with someone being so skinny he could fit into the barrel of a 9-gage shotgun.

Here’s a few more examples of exaggeration from my writing:

  • His face was kind of pointy, with eyes so small it looked like they might disappear the next time he blinked.
  • That lady could talk the ears off a field of corn.
  • Dinky prancing is worse than a hip-hopping hippo.

2. SURPRISE:        “I am a humble man and I will shout that from the mountaintops,” Mr. Higginbotham said.

Here the reader anticipates that the last half of the sentence will reinforce the message given in the first half, but instead, it entirely contradicts it. This type of one-liner is perfect for delineating a ridiculous character—one who, like Mr. Higginbotham, is oblivious to his own contradictions.  It is funny to your audience because they do see the contradiction.

3. Set up a funny visual. (Here Tawny is describing her dog to us for the very first time.  The actual one-liner is the last sentence, but you need the lead-up for it to make sense.)

Dinky is huge. He is a Great Dane and an especially great one at that. He weighs more than my dad and is taller than my dad when they are both down on all fours. His undersides are the color of whipped cream, his back, legs and head are caramel, and his face and ears are chocolate brown.  I like to think he’s the world’s largest ice cream sundae! 

 I like this visual in particular because it explains a great deal more than just Dinky’s size and coloring.  Without her coming out and telling us, it provides an immediate sense of Tawny’s feelings for her dog.  Using those same exact colors, she could have compared him to a military tank in desert camouflage.  Instead, he is every child’s dream—an enormous sweet treat.

4. PHRASE TWIST:  Jenny has a way with words, and by that I mean that when she is using words, people get out of her way.

I use this style of one-liner the least in my fiction because a) the jokes tend to be formulaic and can come off as wooden, and b) your audience must be familiar with the original phrase and I can’t be as sure of that with children.  But if cleverly done, they are very memorable because the reader already knows the original line.

5. BODY HUMOR:

This isn’t so much a category as a caveat. In all of these one-liner formats, body humor is always an option.  Both kids and adults (you know who you are!) DO think butts and farts are funny. But if you want your books to be enjoyed by all ages, as I do, you will want to limit them. The Kibble Talk series is certainly not immune to body part and body effluence jokes. After all, these are talking dog books, and dogs aren’t exactly shy about their bodies.  But I use them sparingly, and to even things out, I add in plenty of one-liners that only adult readers are likely to get, such as a math teacher talking about the finer points of isosceles triangles, how table manners are genetically determined, and even references to The Fonz and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Rotten Tomato Blaster is No Laughing Matter

The challenge when it comes to one-liners is not in the writing, but in deciding where, when, and how much to use them. The well-placed one liner in an otherwise serious book (mystery, crime, romance, etc.) will endear your readers to you, especially when it arrives like a lifeline just after an emotionally fraught moment. But what do you do when your whole genre is humor?  One thing you don’t do is rely so heavily on one-liners that they are essentially the only layer of humor in the book.

Sadly, I see this most often in children’s humorous fiction. Wanting to please her audience, the writer thinks to herself: “Children, and especially boys, like jokes, so all I need to do is write a lot of them and they will love my books.”  Sigh.

frog not amused

When that happens, the book becomes a series of throwaway lines and personal slams drowning in a soup of endless whining and negativity, very much like this sentence. The first few quips may be entertaining, but after a short while of having to react to them over and over again, the reader feels as if he or she is in a batting cage at the receiving end of a pitching machine well stocked with rotten tomatoes. Splat! Splat! Make it stop!  Splat!

Of course, the real problem is that with so much of the page (and so much of the writer’s mental energy) devoted to the next one-liner, there’s little room left for character development and storyline.

By all means use one-liners, but make them an occasional treat, not the main course. For true humorous fiction—satisfying humorous fiction—the funny must go wider and deeper.

The House That Funny Built

Stay tuned for my next Emblazoners post, Me Write Funny One Day Part 2, where I will share my methods for doing just that. I’ll be pulling examples from two of my favorite series (Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as well as more from my Kibble Talk series, so it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever to rush out and read all those tomorrow, now, would it?  Just sayin. And if you can find a young person to read them with, all the better—cause just like hugs, funny is best when shared.

No frogs were harmed

How do YOU funny?
If you’re a writer, how much emphasis do you put on humor? Where do you usually use it?  If you’re a parent, how much does humor seem to matter to your young reader(s)?

kibble talkBio pic white backgroundDog Goner

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Fight Scenes: Fast and Furious

I admit it. I’m a skimmer. Show me a bloated chunk of descriptive text and my eyes glaze over. I don’t care about every detail in a room, or each step that must be performed in making a sandwich. I have a decent enough imagination. Fling what’s relevant at me and I’ll sketch out the rest. If you bog me down, I swear I’ll skim! Might even leapfrog to the good stuff (Ahhhhh, dialogue…). My request especially applies to fight scenes. Have mercy. Please be brief.

Tips for writing an exciting fight scene from an author who has the attention span of a gnat (My next blog post: Cliches: Are they really so evil?):

1. Don’t Overload

Most readers aren’t using a piece of fiction as a step-by-step guide for learning kickass Kung fu moves (They’ve got Youtube for that). So don’t be tedious. Provide the skeleton for the scene and allow the reader to fill in the meat. They won’t visualize the blow-by-blow the way you do anyway. They’ll see it the way James Cameron does. 😉

2.   “KA-POW” And Move On

Have you ever thrown a punch? A fist comes at you fast. There’s little time to compute before impact, if you even see the blow coming. This is the feel you want to create in your writing. Pulses will race, if you keep your sentences succinct. Write them like a wallop. Fast and furious. Choose powerful verbs and leave frilly adverbs be. They’ll only drag the action down.

3.  It’s More Than A Fight

Battles need to amount to more than busted noses and kicked in teeth. The fight should reveal the inner workings of your characters— the good, the bad, and the ugly. For example, in the Cassidy Jones Adventure series, violence brings out “the beast” in my teenage mutant, Cassidy Jones. As she is pummeling her opponent, she is also fighting her feral side, trying not to cross the line. Sometimes she wins, sometimes the beast does, and sometimes Cassidy capitulates. Her “partner-in-crime,” Emery Phillips, displays no moral conflict in the midst of combat. A means-to-an-end sort of fella, he does what has to be done, calmly and efficiently. There are times I suspect ice runs through that boy’s veins. I want the reader to feel the same uncertainty.

4. Get Visceral

The whole smell-sound-taste-touch thing— yeah, do that. It doesn’t take much to awaken the senses. Cartilage snapping, knuckles cracking, blood rushing, heart pounding, sweat flying, the smell of BO, the taste of vomit— all good sensory stuff. First and foremost, make your readers care. Insert the reader into your character’s skin, or else they won’t give a hoot what you do to the poor bloke. So get visceral. Make your readers feel what your characters feel.

5. Learn From The Experts (And The Self-Proclaimed Ones)

If you aren’t an accomplished black belt like I am (in the art of donkey dust), Youtube can prove to be an invaluable resource. Watch fight matches, lots of them, and take notes. I even watch instructional videos so I can somewhat understand how to perform and counteract specific moves. I won’t bore readers with foot placement and whatnot, but it helps me to know execution in order to choreograph a “realistic” fight scene. Then I run my realistic fight scene by my sister who is an accomplished black belt. If I get a thumbs-up that the scene is plausible (in the implausible world of superheroes), then it’s a wrap.

I hope this has been helpful. It has been for me. The entire time writing this post I’ve been dying to read over the fight scene I finished last night. I suspect there’s an adverb or two that needs to be demolished. There always is!

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Elise.Stokes1.crop5x7.0045Elise Stokes lives with her husband and four children. She was an elementary school teacher before becoming a full-time mom. With a daughter in middle school and two in high school, Elise’s understanding of the challenges facing girls in that age range inspired her to create a series that will motivate girls to value individualism, courage, integrity, and intelligence. The stories in Cassidy Jones Adventures are fun and relatable, and a bit edgy without taking the reader uncomfortably out of bounds. Cassidy Jones and the Secret FormulaCassidy Jones and Vulcan’s GiftCassidy Jones and the Seventh Attendant, and Cassidy Jones and the Luminous are the first four books in the series.

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What in the World are Videogames Doing to Our Readers?

I know what you are thinking. ‘Here comes another anti-videogame message.’ We’ve been hearing it for years. Videogames are damaging our children. They are the reason for all of the corruption. Children have lost their desire for creativity and imagination. Kids are more prone to excessive violence and they now all have ADHD. Videogames are the reason that America is in the sorry state it is in…blah yada blah.

Well if that is where you are thinking this post is going, you are WRONG! If you think that access to videogames is destroying a child’s creativity, I dare you to spend twenty minutes watching an eight or nine-year-old kid play Minecraft. It will BLOW. YOUR. MIND! Seriously, as the father of nine-year-old twins, the volcano-moated fortresses that my children build in that game are amazing! Honestly, they put my old Lego and Lincoln Log creations to shame…but I digress.

Videogames have come a long way from the old Mario and Marble Madness days of the original Nintendo. Games now demand a sense of realism. Game developers have progressed in their ability to immerse a gamer into a story. Don’t believe me? Go and play Last of Us, Mass Effect, Skyward Sword, Skyrim or any of the Uncharted games. Heck, go play Pokemon (although I ABSOLUTELY do not want to hear about what stupid Pokemon you capture, what their weaknesses are, and who they evolve into). The advances in gaming have been seriously amazing and there is no reason to believe that it will be tapering off any time soon.

So…what does this mean for us as writers, especially those of us that shoot for the midgrade audience? Have we lost our target audience forever? Are they drowned in a sea of visual stimulation and mindless button mashing? I say NO! In fact, I shout it from the rooftops!

Why you might ask? What possible reason can this thirty-something aged Clydesdale (that is a triathlon reference for those of you who might be wondering) have for such a response? To answer your unspoken question, I must take you all back with me to my youth and the glory days of the old Nintendo. Remember those fascinating times? Blowing into the cartridges until you were light-headed? Stuffing one game on top of another in the console with the hope that you could find that sweet spot and the screen would stop flashing and the game would fire up? Rage quitting a game by slamming your controller to the floor after reaching the end boss only to die for the last time and be forced to start over?

In those days there were no studies about the effects of prolonged videogame exposure (well, I’m sure there were, but due to a lack of social media, most parents were blissfully unaware of them). The adults in those days discovered one simple thing. Nintendos were built in babysitters! Videogames kept their destructive, attention-craved, overly energetic little boys from leaving Legos all over the floor, coloring on the walls, and beating the stuffing out of any sibling within reach…for hours at a time! It was a wonderful age for both parent and male child (I know there are many female gamers, but lets face it, those early Nintendo games were made for us guys). However, for all of those boy children that grew up on videogames…there were girl children. Girl children that watched as their brothers’ eyes became glued to TV screens and dismissed everything around them. In many cases, those poor siblings became the replacement babysitters and job-doers. They were the children that got things done while their brothers wasted hour after hour in front of the tube, controller in hand, every bit as plugged in as the inanimate console they played.

Well, guess what? Now those sisters are Moms! And you know what else? They don’t want their own kids to follow down the same path as those brothers of old…and they have a strategy. Oh yes, those wily mothers have plotted together and they have come up with ways to keep their children from becoming too entrenched in gaming. Now they even conspire through social media to keep videogames from rotting out the brains of their precious darlings. Pinterest boards and Facebook groups have ended the limitless gaming that the boys of my generation took for granted. Now kids have to work for those precious nuggets of game time. They do jobs, they play outside, they do art projects, they do homework…and they read!!!

Yes, mothers are a bigger advocate for reading than ever before. But…we must accept the fact that videogames have altered the minds of our readers. Kids now have experienced a realism through story telling that didn’t exist before. So, as authors competing for their limited time and attention, we must up our game as well. Now, I am a huge fan of fantasy, and I have often wondered what I could do to hold a child’s interest for prolonged periods of time. What can I do to keep a child reading, even when the sirens call of a videogame beckons?

For me, I have found that the solution lies in the minor details. Often, when a child is telling me what they have found appealing in my book, it turned out to be some minor thing that I considered unimportant at the time. They added a sense of realism for the reader that even videogames couldn’t provide. Simple things such as picking burrs out of socks after beating through the brush, the ache in the back after sitting for a prolonged period of time, or the pain and swelling of feet after a long hike.

The question is, how can we as authors provide those kinds of details to kids? The kind they can’t pick up in the game world. Sure, we can always fall back on research, but I propose a better solution. Experience!!! If we as authors challenge ourselves to try something new, we can use the knowledge and information we’ve gathered in our writing. It was always easy for me to write that my characters were tired after a trying ordeal, but after staggering across the finish-line of a half-marathon or a summersaulting over the finish mat of the Spudman triathlon, I truly knew what exhaustion meant. I now understand how muscles can turn to watery jello and how calves can burn as though you are actually standing in the midst of a fire. I now realize that fleeing from an enemy is more than simply pressing down on the b button for an unending sprint up and over the mountain to the safety of the plains on the other side.

After taking combat classes, I realize that close quarters combat is more than simply throwing a series of punches and blocks. It is all about position, speed, timing, breathing, conditioning, and everything else that can give you an advantage over an enemy. The experiences I gained there were something that made my combat scenes much more realistic and lent a sense of immediacy that had been lacking before.

Now, I am not proposing that we go out and experience everything that we plan to put our characters through. Is your character going to jail? DON’T GO AND GET ARRESTED! Sometimes we need to use our imaginations, and of course, we need to research. But sometimes, a dash of real life experience in an adventure might just be the secret ingredient in the mix to winning the fight for a child’s attention. Whether that battle might be to get our next book onto the bookshelf in the home, or simply to keep our current book in their hands five minutes after a mother calls out those sweet, magical words that nearly every kid longs to hear:

“You can play now!”

JR JR Simmons lives in Northern Utah with his wife and 4 boys. He loves spending time with his family and coaching his kids in all of their different sports. He is an avid gamer and is very excited that his boys are picking up on his hobby. JR was recently introduced to triathlons and has since found that he loves the sport. Most nights he can be found either sitting down with a good game or hunched over his iPad writing.

Teen Slang And Writing: Don’t Date Yourself, Dawg

Yo, want to mark where you fall on the generation timeline? Address folks with “Yo.” Or ask your teenager, “Did you hook-up with your friends today?” (This innocent question gets quite a reaction around here, let me tell you!) Slang evolves. What means one thing in one generation can mean something completely different in another. An insult in your generation could be a compliment in the next, or a sick slang expression could be like speaking Hungarian.

slang

Tips for using slang in teen novels:

1. Use slang sparingly. Eavesdrop on a conversation between teenagers (for research purposes, of course). How often do they use slang? Not often, I’d venture.

When writing, toss in a slang word, here and there, for authenticity and color. Take care not to overdo it, or risk obliterating your characters. Dialogue heavily laden with slang can come across forced and unnatural. Slang choices should enrich your characters, not make them laughable. Be wise; be conservative.

2. Know your slang. We’re doing “research” again. What slang words do you hear teens using in conversation? Ask them what unfamiliar terms means, or jot expressions down and search their meaning on:

Urban Dictionary: http://www.urbandictionary.com/

And/Or

The Online Slang Dictionary: http://onlineslangdictionary.com/

But beware! Don’t assume a slang word or phrase is current because it appears on these websites. When in doubt, ask an expert: members of your target audience. If you receive a blank stare or an “Ewwwwww,” best to avoid using that expression.

You can consult teachers or other professionals who interact with teenagers, as well. Social networks are also a great source. Read through conversation threads on your teenage Facebook friends’ posts and take notes on language usage.

3. Stick with timeless and universal expressions. You can’t go wrong with “awesome” or “cool,” in my humble opinion. At least, they don’t make my teens wince, and they’re widely known, unlike other expressions I’ve used. I once wrote that I was “pissed” about something on Facebook. A British friend told me he did a double take when he saw my comment coming through his feed. Apparently, pissed means drunk as a skunk in England.

Don’t date your book, or yourself. Educate yourself on current teen slang, use it sparingly and wisely in your writing, and opt for a timeless classic over trendy. And when you spot a sign in Old Navy that says flip-flops are on sale, don’t shout across the store to your teenage daughters, “Girls! Thongs are on sale!” Yeah, that went over well.

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Elise-2.Stokes.crop5x7.0045Elise Stokes lives with her husband and four children. She was an elementary school teacher before becoming a full-time mom. With a daughter in middle school and two in high school, Elise’s understanding of the challenges facing girls in that age range inspired her to create a series that will motivate young teens to value individualism, courage, integrity, and intelligence.

The stories in the Cassidy Jones Adventures series are fun and relatable, and a bit edgy without taking the reader uncomfortably out of bounds.