The worst thing I’ve ever written didn’t kill me

Revolver
© Brian Lary/sxc.hu

In the months leading up to my college graduation, I panicked. What the hell could you do with an English degree except teach or go to law school – neither of which I was very excited about?

I took the LSAT, but only because I watched a lot of Law & Order and wanted to work with a hot detective like Benjamin Bratt. Fortunately, I got lost on the way to the exam and didn’t have enough time to eat lunch, ensuring I got a mediocre score and gave up the thought of going to law school.

I’d make a terrible lawyer.

My best friend was panicking, too. She majored in world arts and cultures, an even less practical degree (though she does know how to do a traditional Indonesian dance). So she proposed we apply to teach English in Japan through the JET program.

The application required me to write an essay, which I did quickly and without much care. After all, I was an English major so I could write, right?

By the time I had my interview, I’d forgotten what I’d written. I walked into the room where three people sat behind a table. One of them was glaring at me already.

Not a great sign.

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My wordy Valentine

I might be making a huge assumption here, but as writers we must all be fond of words, especially their ability to evoke a certain feeling or express an idea that’s formed in our heads.

Where would we be without words?

I’m a week late for Valentine’s Day, but this post is my public declaration of love for words. And I have one particular favorite word: serendipity.

Serendipity refers to the accidental discovery of something good. I love it for its meaning and its sound. It also reminds me of the first time I heard it applied to life.

When I was 14, I started my first day of high school eager for more challenging and interesting classes. I walked into my biology class full of a love of science and a desire to one day be a doctor. Written across the white board in massive letters was the word SERENDIPITY. Our teacher started the year by explaining that most of our scientific knowledge was based on serendipity. She illustrated the point by telling us the story of Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.

I also love the story of how the word was coined. There is an old Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip – ‘Serendip’ being an old word for Sri Lanka, meaning “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island”.  Horace Walpole called it “a silly fairy tale…as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” This story led him to coin the word serendipity in a letter in 1754.

See? Great stories are made of great words, but great words also are made of great stories.

What’s your favorite word? Do you like it because it evokes a memory, a feeling? Is it the sound you like? Is it the etymology? The meaning?

How to write accents and speech patterns

I’ve written a couple posts about accents – specifically, about how to write a character who has a different accent to you, and some subtle differences in British and American English.

In for a Penny coverToday I want to talk about an amazing debut novel that I think handles accents brilliantly – In for a Penny by Rose Lerner. The book knocked my knee-socks off for loads of reasons, but in this post I’m going to look at some of the ways she shows her characters’ different speech patterns.

In for a Penny tells the story of the impoverished Lord Nevinstoke (Nev) and Penelope Brown,  a brewer’s daughter with a hefty dowry. Penelope’s father began amassing his fortune when she was a baby, so she has never lived in penury. Her parents are part of a rising middle class, so they speak much differently than Penelope’s titled husband.

Here’s how Rose Lerner subtly slips in references to how they speak, without beating the reader over the head with dialect.

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Differences in British and American English (for writers)

Pop quiz.

What’s wrong with these sentences?

1. The Ireland rugby team are playing today, so my husband will be glued to the TV.

2. If I hadn’t got up so late, I would’ve got the bus.

3. I’m going to work at the weekend.

Answers

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Why my romance novel hero is the ugliest man in the world

Homunculus model
Courtesy Krishna Sadhu/etsy.com

Here’s a picture of my hero.

Quite a looker, isn’t he? Well, this picture could actually represent most of us (plus or minus the penis, of course). It’s a sensory homunculus – a representation of our bodies that emphasizes our most sensitive parts.

The sensory homunculus distorts humans based on how many sense nerves each body part has sending messages to the brain.

One of my favorite descriptions of the homunculus is from Tommy Kelly on his blog Darkling Wood: “The Homunculus is what we’d look like to everyone else if we looked the way we felt.”

When British comedian Jimmy Carr saw a picture of one of these beauties on the quiz program QI, he said: “It’s a good rule for a first date – these are the areas you should be concentrating on.”

It’s a good rule for a novel, as well. We’re told to focus on the five senses, and the sense of sight is often the easiest to cover well. But the sense of touch is hugely important in helping us understand the world around us. To create well-rounded, realistic characters, we need to describe how things feel when they brush against our characters’ skin, particularly focusing on these sensitive body parts. It’s not just about the tingles they feel, but temperature, texture and pain as well.

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