Description: Vivid and Brief

In both fiction and nonfiction, description paints a picture of characters, land, structures, objects, and the like. Just as dialogue and action need to advance the plot of a novel, so, too, should description — it should provide necessary information. The things being described should be described not only because they advance the plot, but because they somehow affect either the plot or the characters in the story. Or both. And, because description makes the setting and characters more vivid, it draws readers more deeply into the story.

Entertaining the reader is not description’s main purpose — even though some writers treat description in this manner. Some readers thoroughly enjoy long, long passages of description: of the countryside, perhaps, or clothing, or a house. Other readers react impatiently to such long descriptions and often skip ahead to get to the places where something is happening. Perhaps these readers, without consciously realizing it, are reacting to the fact that such long passages contain unnecessary information.

I’m a reader who likes description not for its own sake, but because it somehow helps me understand the characters or plot better, or helps me more sharply feel the setting. I become bored when reading long passages of description: I feel that in such cases the purpose of the description is either to increase the number of pages in the book, to avoid getting to the conflict in the novel, or to show off one’s ability to write compound-complex sentences perhaps, or choose little-known words.

Even writing books written nearly a century ago cautioned that descriptive writing needed to subordinate itself to some purpose. In A Handbook to Literature (1936), the authors state: “Descriptive writing is most successful when its details are carefully selected according to some purpose and to a definite point of view, when its images are concrete and clear, and when it makes discreet use of words of color, sound, and motion.”

In So You Want to Write Marge Piercy and Ira Wood have an entire chapter on description. They start the chapter by saying: “Descriptions are places where writers feeling their oats often let themselves go and readers nod off, put down the book or at their kindest, skip.  No description should be skippable, . . . every one should be functional. If you describe something, make it work.” 

In Chapter 21 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, I give examples of description from Sound Proof, and show the difference between description that serves almost no purpose and description that is functional. Here is a short description as it appears in Chapter 3:

The thermometer on the back stoop read 92°.

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. 

These details are short: selected for a purpose. If the details hadn’t been selected for a purpose, the passage might have read something like this:

The back stoop of the farmhouse was small by comparison to the front porch, a mere five feet by three, but covered for protection from the sun and rain. 

The two concrete steps were well-worn and pitted and the roof newly shingled with what looked like cheap tiles: in keeping with Mary’s penny-pinching.

The large outdoor thermometer, once green but now faded to white, attached to a post with two rusty screws, read 92° — and the day had hardly begun. 

Directly under the thermometer, leaning up against the faded-gray house siding, a nylon instrument case stood unprotected.

I couldn’t tell by looking what instrument it housed because the case was long, wedge-shaped and blue — like a Cheesehead after a Green Bay winter. A long zipper ran lengthwise around the case. A thick nylon strap was attached to each long end of the case by a black plastic D-hook.

The passage above contains way too many details. So many that they don’t appear selected. In fact, they weren’t selected: I just blathered on while writing them, describing everything Frank might see. The original passage, however, focuses on those details that are important to the story: the temperature and the blue nylon case. It bears repeating: in writing description, select the details that are important to the story.

Regarding description, Piercy and Wood also state: “Learn to describe briefly or in snatches, so as not to stop the story in an obvious way.” Remember that readers do not want the story to stop. So learn to describe briefly or in pieces, interspersing the descriptions with action or dialogue or other narrative.

Descriptions should not only be brief, they should be vivid. And it’s specificity that helps make descriptions vivid — the specificity of significant details. Specific details that help paint a vivid picture. And it is up to the writer to think about what those specific details might be, and then to employ them in the written description.

Description is not optional. A writer cannot decide, “I hate description, so I won’t write any.” Description presents to the reader the qualities of a person, a place, an object, even of an action — unless these are presented to the reader, the reader won’t be able to see/imagine what is happening. 

The best book I know of on description is by Rebecca McClanahan. Its title is Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. In it, she lists five qualities of good description:

  • It is carefully worded, using correct terms for things and using precise images.
  • It is sensory, making the reader, see, feel, hear, or smell things.
  • It presents things “as in a state of activity.” That is, good description creates the illusion of movement or motion forward, not an impression of static existence. 
  • It often employs figurative language.
  • Finally, and most importantly, description must be effective. It must do its job of aiding plot, characters, or action.

One of the best pieces of advice McClanahan gives is to avoid adjectives that label or explain — words such as lovely, noteworthy, remarkable. Instead, use adjectives that actually describe (rather than label or explain), such as curly, frayed, or moss-covered. Wherever possible, use concrete nouns such as barn, guitar, or shirt — rather than general nouns such as structure, instrument, or clothing.

Writing ineffective description that’s too general to be interesting, that does not affect a novel’s plot, characters, or action — is way too easy. Writing effective description takes more effort — but learning how to write effective description is not overly difficult. And learning how to do so allows a writer to see things in a new way — an interactive way in which description serves a purpose.

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For more examples of and information on description, read Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

KDP: Kindle Direct Publishing, 3

So where were we? Ah, yes, the third call from the KDP customer service operator. The call in which he told me: “The cover you have chosen does not work with books under 130 pages.”

“Okay,” I replied. “Please choose a cover that does work. Any cover will do.” He asked me to hold the line while he chose a cover that worked. After several minutes he returned to say that none of the three covers he chose worked. That was when I informed him that I had tested all ten covers and all seventy layout choices, and not a one of them worked. He replied that he would talk to the technical team and get back to me in 48 hours.  “When you call back,” I said,  “please have a cover that works. I need to get this book published quickly.” He told me he would have a cover that worked.

Meanwhile, I returned to my KDP page constantly, checking this and that, clicking here and there, wondering if I could find a loophole anywhere — something that would make my cover work.

That was when I noticed that KDP had an icon of a cover next to my manuscript. This wasn’t the cover I had tried to choose.  The cover contained the front title, subtitle, and author name. It contained only my name on the spine copy. My name in very little letters.And, somehow or other, it contained my author photo on the back. No back cover copy, no about-the-author copy. But also, and critically important — no triangles telling me that the copy didn’t fit.

Where did this cover come from? I hadn’t chosen it. And then I thought: This is the cover of my ebook. And I thought: They’ve added a back to the ebook cover, but no copy. And I thought: I wonder if the KDP program automatically flows the ebook cover into the softcover section. When the author isn’t looking. And without telling the user that this would happen.

October 27, 2018Well, in order to give my presentation, How to Self-Publish with Kindle Direct Publishing, I needed a softcover book. In my hand. To show to the students.

Hmmm. 

I clicked on the Order Proof Copy button and within minutes I received an email telling me that I would find the book in my Amazon cart  and that I had a 24-hour window in which to purchase a proof of my book. Cost, $2.19, plus shipping. I clicked. The book was sent.

I did not tell the KDP customer service operator what I had done. I figured if I told him, he would consider the problem solved. But I didn’t consider the problem solved. If when one publishes a Kindle ebook first and then proceeds to the softcover — if the ebook cover automatically flows into the softcover program and overrides everything one might want to do with Cover Creator, then I wanted to know that this is a fact. I wanted to see KDP state so in their instructions.

Just two days after I placed the order, my proof copy arrived.

And it had my name on the spine.

And my name overflowed the spine and came out on the back cover. Illustrating exactly why KDP does not permit spine copy on books of fewer than 130 pages: because the Print On Demand machines cannot line up the spine copy so precisely that it will be centered on a small spine.

At this point I was fed up with KDP’s Cover Creator problems, and with their taking so long to solve the problem they had created. I had been talking to them about this problem for eleven days and they had said or done nothing that helped. So on the evening of the eleventh day, I did something I seldom do: I wrote an irate letter to KDP Customer Service, succinctly stating the problem with their Cover Creator, expressing anger over the eleven-day delay, and requesting the courtesy of a reply the next day.

Which, to KDP’s credit, I received, approximately twelve hours after I had emailed them. Their reply, which was very polite, informed me that unfortunately Cover Creator does not work with books of fewer than 130 pages, and that anybody who wants to self-publish such a softcover book with KDP must use the downloadable template to design their own cover.

Which means, effectively, that everyone in this situation must either be able to design covers or be able to hire somebody who will design the cover for them. Or know somebody who will do it as a favor. Which, you may recall from my previous blog, Robin Koontz had already volunteered to do.

Minutes after I received the KDP reply I emailed Robin and sent her my cover photo and my author photo, and within a day she had designed a cover I loved. Robin sent me the PDF, I submitted the PDF to Kindle, and within minutes my cover (created by Robin) was approved and my book was ready to print.

CoverScrape,Rattle,Roll-Screened copy

Cover design by Robin Koontz

Although I was twelve days behind schedule due to the fact that it took KDP that number of days to inform me that their Cover Creator didn’t work for my book, I had been taking screen shots of the entire ebook and paperback publishing process. I was also able to put those screen shots into a new Keynote program and meet my commitment to the Naperville Public Library, where I presented How to Self-Publish with KDP, on October 27, 2018.

And, even though I encountered these apparently-never-tested problems in my experience with KDP, I can honestly say that, this particular problem aside, self-publishing with KDP is very easy. They have trimmed the number of steps necessary, they have streamlined the instruction and made everything not only faster, but easier. This certainly makes it easier for people to publish both ebooks and softcover books, and it makes it easier for people like me to teach others how to do so.

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Scrape, Rattle, and Roll: Reflections on This and That was published by Barbara Gregorich in 2018.

KDP: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2

After the KDP announcement that CreateSpace would cease to exist in October, 2018, I had two choices with the programs I had scheduled: (1) Cancel them; (2) Self-publish a book through KDP and rewrite my entire Keynote presentation, from Frame 1 through Frame 115.

I went for Option Two. Somehow, between August 28 and October 15, I would self-publish both an ebook and a softcover through KDP, take screenshots of the process, put them into my Keynote program, and create order out of chaos. 

Luckily, I had more blogs available to self-publish. I chose twenty of them and titled the book after one of the blogs: Scrape, Rattle, and Roll.

KDP offers users the ability to publish an ebook only, or a paperback book only. Or both, if one is so inclined. Which I definitely was. A user could create and publish the ebook first, or the softcover first. It makes no difference. This, of course, is different from CreateSpace, which published softcovers only.

ebook firstFor eight years I had been teaching how to self-publish a softcover first, then turn it into an ebook. Why not reverse the process? KDP puts the selection box for the ebook above the selection box for the softcover — so, I reasoned, they were hinting that people should publish the ebook first.

I liked this approach for one big reason: it is easier to format a manuscript for an ebook than it is to format a manuscript for a softcover book. (Except, I suppose, for an ebook heavily loaded with charts, tables, and illustrations.) Since the step that gave students the most grief in the past was formatting a manuscript (it terrified some, frustrated others, and downright stymied most of them — they stopped and proceeded no further), I hoped that doing the easier manuscript first and publishing it as an ebook would give them confidence to go on and format the manuscript again, as a softcover book.

Scrape ebook Title, for Blog

The ebook cover

So that is how I proceeded with my collection of blog articles: I published them as a Kindle ebook first. This process was incredibly easy, and as I took screenshots and loaded them into my Keynote program, I felt that things were going well. I published the ebook on September 1, 2018, just three days after receiving the news about all of CreateSpace being merged into KDP.

Then came the softcover book, with which I anticipated no problems — for the simple reason that I had already self-published eleven softcover books through CreateSpace and had had no problems.

KDP divides its self-publishing procedure into three categories:  Details, Content, and Pricing. I filled out the Details section quickly. In fact, most of the section filled itself in — the KDP program flowed it in from my ebook. That’s good: less work for the author-publisher.

Then came the Content section. There, too, I proceeded quickly. On my computer, I duplicated the manuscript of Scrape, Rattle, and Roll. (So that, if anything went wrong, I would have the original copy intact.) I then downloaded a 5”x8” KDP template and, after watching their 3-minute video, pasted my manuscript into their template, section by section. Easy peasy.

I saved that as a PDF and uploaded it to KDP. Their Spellcheck caught four issues, but those were examples of literary license (I invented a few words in poems), and I told Spellcheck to ignore them. I then opened Previewer and looked at my book online, page by page. It looked great! And this entire process was so much quicker than the CreateSpace process used to be. KDP has reduced the number of choices and the number of decisions, so the process works more quickly.

spelling errors

All that done (and done quite easily), I proceeded to KDP’s Cover Creator. Unlike the CreateSpace Cover Creator, which offered thirty choices, this one offers ten. If you don’t like any of these ten (each of which comes with five to seven different layout choices), you can download a cover template, design your own cover, and upload.

I, however, wanted to use KDP’s Cover Creator, because I figure that’s what most of my students would be using. So I chose a cover, looked at the colors and opted for black and hot pink. Then I looked at the layouts and chose a diagonal one that I liked.

I uploaded a photo for the front of the cover, uploaded my author photo, and pasted in the back cover copy and the “about the author” copy. And that is when everything came to an impasse.

KDP’s Cover Creator template would not approve my design. Two triangles (with exclamation marks inside) showed up, one next to the back cover copy, one next to the bar code area. The triangles told me my copy was too large to fit inside the area and urged me to click on Change Size. I did. But no matter what size of type I chose (eight point, for god’s sake!) and no matter which font I chose, the triangle told me that the copy did not fit and that I could not proceed.

So I deleted the back cover copy and I deleted the author copy. I could not delete the bar code. Two triangles still told me the [nonexistent] back cover copy did not fit.

triangle

After trying for a long time to solve this problem, I finally emailed KDP. In return, they sent me an email stating they would call me within 48 hours. This was on a Friday. They reminded me that they did not work on Saturdays and Sundays. 

When they called, they told me that the problem was not really the back cover copy, but the spine copy. Their Print-on-Demand printing machines could not print spines on books of fewer than 130 pages: the tolerance factor was such that the printer might push the spine copy onto the front cover, or the back cover. So no spine copy was allowed on books of under 130 pages.

Fine, I said. I never put the spine copy there in the first place, I informed them — the KDP template program flowed the title of my book, plus my name, onto the spine. “So let’s remove the spine copy,” I told the customer service representative. 

He then instructed me to place my cursor in the spine area, click on it, and start backspacing. I did that. The spine copy disappeared.

But so did the front cover copy — my book had no title, no subtitle, and no author. I pointed this out to him. He kept me on hold as he went back and forth to the technical department, asking them questions. After 59 minutes, he resolved that this had to be solved by others, and he would call me within 72 hours. This was Wednesday, so that meant he would call on Monday.

Which he did. “The cover you have chosen does not work with books under 130 pages,” he told me. Now, I had used my weekend hours, while the KDP team was off having fun, to check Each. and Every. One. of the Cover. Creator. Templates.

And each and every one had the exact same problem: the program flows the spine copy onto the template, and the copy cannot be removed, and the cover cannot be approved. Round and round in circles. You can read the rest of the story in Part 3, which will be published in two weeks . . . without spine copy.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, is one of Barbara Gregorich’s most frequently requested books. It has no spine problems.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part II

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was somewhat easy to write, probably because I had been thinking about it for three years. Some chapters took me a day to write, some two or three days. I went at it steadily, so that I would never lose touch with the purpose of the book and the tone of the book.

After I finished, I let a couple of weeks go by, and then I sat down with the manuscript and read it critically, marking it up heavily. From these marked-up pages I wrote the second draft. I showed that draft to my first two readers, listened to what they had to say, and wrote the third draft. I showed that to two more readers, and wrote the fourth (final) draft.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, my actual working title for this book was Writing the Mystery Novel, even though there were a few books with that title already out there. I knew that at some point I would change the title. When that time came, I read up on what constitutes a good nonfiction title. And subtitle. 

Many articles suggested making the title humorous and the subtitle serious. But I felt I wanted the main title to carry the message of what the book is, so that anybody searching for it could find it easily. And I wanted the subtitle to reflect what was in the book. Once I decided to title the book Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, it took me maybe a minute to come up with the subtitle, Lots of Examples. I liked the down-to-earth feeling of the word “Lots,” which is of course colloquial. 

It’s amazing how our subconscious works parallel to and in step with our consciousness on occasions. No sooner had I deliberately, consciously chosen the colloquial Lots of Examples than, out of nowhere, my subconscious prodded, Plus Dead Bodies.

So I spent maybe three hours reading up on and thinking about nonfiction titles, about five minutes deciding on my main title, and about two minutes coming up with the subtitle. But the five minutes and two minutes would never have given me the solution had I not spent those three hours researching and thinking.

Every time I decide to self-publish a book, I ask Robin Koontz to design the cover. I’m always thrilled with her cover designs, and this one is no exception. It was Robin who came up with the idea of crime scene markers for the subtitle of the book and also for the inside chapter titles. I love it! In fact, even though I know about crime scene tape, I was unaware of crime scene markers — but I am so glad that Robin was aware of them! 

Robin also came up with the dead body (don’t ask how!), the layout, the colors, and the typefaces. An immensely appealing cover, I think. (Thank you, Robin!)

Designers put great thought into not only the front cover of books, but also the back cover. Personally, I find back covers difficult to decide on. The back cover of She’s on First contains review quotes: such testimonial blurbs are the most common back cover item. The back covers of Dirty Proof and Sound Proof contain book descriptions: sort of what the inside flap copy would be like in a hardback book.

The back cover of Research Notes Volume 1 contains extensive about-the-author information. The back cover of Volume 2 contains two long review quotes about Volume 1. The back cover of Jack and Larry contains five testimonials from sources with clout. The back cover of my poetry collection, Crossing the Skyway, contains nothing but the continuation of color from the front of the cover.

For Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I was seriously thinking of describing the contents of the book (as with Dirty Proof and Sound Proof), but Robin Koontz came up with a better idea. She took the topics discussed in the twenty-five chapters and created an attractive, intriguing, eye-catching collage of these topics for the back cover. This is my favorite of all the back covers of all my books.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel was the eighth book I self-published, but it was the first of those books to contain an index. If I were using such a book as Guide and had finished reading it, then at a later date wanted to refresh my memory about what the author said about, say, subplots, I would want an index — because I couldn’t assume that every comment about subplots would be within the chapter on subplots.

So I asked Sharon Johnson, a friend who’s a professional indexer, and who indexed Women at Play back in 1993, if she would create the index. She said she would (Thank you, Sharon!), and the book has an index. I hope that many people find this index useful.

It’s interesting how things work out. If I hadn’t written my first mystery, Dirty Proof, I wouldn’t have written a second mystery with the same detective hero. And if I hadn’t written that second mystery, Sound Proof, and used it when teaching, I would have never written Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. In fiction, one thing leads to another. Just as in life.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent book is Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. 

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Part I

Perhaps a third of the way through writing the first draft of Sound Proof, my second mystery novel, I realized that I wanted to write a how-to book on writing the mystery novel. Two factors contributed to my wanting to write such a guide. 

The first was that I had been reading a lot of mystery novels which, in one way or another, annoyed me.  One might have had a far too obvious villain: somebody I recognized as the murderer by the third chapter. Another might have had a far, far too obscure minor-character villain who, when revealed to be the villain, created no emotion in me: I just didn’t care that this seldom-seen character was the guilty party. Still another mystery might have had way-too-clunky planting of clues. One may have had way-too-obvious foreshadowing, while the solution to yet another might have been totally unearned.

Annoyed at what I was encountering, I thought I could give some guidelines on techniques such as foreshadowing, or give examples of how to plant clues. I would certainly read such a how-to book, and I thought others would, too.

The second factor that contributed to my writing a guide on how to write a mystery novel stemmed from the fact that with Sound Proof I was being forced to think through writing decisions very different from those I made for Dirty Proof. For example: Sound Proof contains many more characters and is set over a five-day period at a folk music festival. As I began to write, I noticed that I needed to know where each of the seven suspects was at a particular time of day Monday through Friday. So I had to make a where-are-they chart listing the days, the time of day, and the location of the suspects. The chart would help me understand time and place, and my understanding of time and place in the novel would help the reader understand it, too.

SOUNDPROOF-Cover

Design by Robin Koontz

In Dirty Proof I had a major character villain, but in Sound Proof I had a minor character villain. I was worried: how could I keep readers from forgetting the character? So I made a chart tracking the minor character’s appearance in the novel, making sure to have the character present enough times so that the reader wouldn’t forget, but also absent enough times that the reader wouldn’t suspect.

Because I intended to write a guide book after completing Sound Proof, I kept track of all my major writing decisions. I saved all my doodles and scraps of paper. After I finished and published Sound Proof (2011), I put all my files aside for a while, so that I could think about the organization and tone of the guide book. While letting my ideas for the guide book simmer,  I wrote and published Jack and Larry in 2012 and Research Notes for Women at Play, Volume II, in 2013.

When 2014 came along, I started to organize the guide book. The first thing I did was create a working title: Writing the Mystery Novel. I’m the kind of person who needs a title before I can write a book . . . even though I may change the title after I’ve finished. In this case, after I completed the book, I changed the title to Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

After coming up with the working title, I thought about how to organize the book.

 

BookmarkPerhaps there was a time in the history of reading when every single reader read a book from beginning to end, in the order the pages were printed. If there was such a time, it clearly no longer exists. People read books, particularly nonfiction books, in any order that pleases them. Middle to End to Beginning. Beginning, End, Middle. Who knows.

I happen to read books from beginning to end, in the order the pages/chapters are printed. But I don’t want to impose my reading preference on others, and so as I began to create Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel, I made certain that the book would logically lead a reader from beginning to end, teaching skills along the way — and that any individual chapter could be read at any time and still make sense. In that respect, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel is “interactive” in that the reader can interact with the book in any order she pleases.

People who teach know that nothing works like examples — theory and instructions are abstract: examples are concrete. In addition to explaining foreshadowing, for example, it helps to show an example of foreshadowing. This is why Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel contains (as the subtitle promises) lots of examples.

Most of the examples are from Sound Proof, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I own the copyright to Sound Proof and therefore don’t need permission to publish quotes from it. Equally important is that because I wrote the novel, I knew what problems I faced when writing it, and I know what my thinking was in reaching a solution. I shared these problems and my thinking and my solutions with the reader in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, is one of Barbara Gregorich’s most frequently requested books.

From Here to There: Transitional Devices

Because I’ve been doing a lot of teaching lately, I’ve come to notice that most beginning writers have great difficulty with transitional words and phrases. That is, they don’t use transitional words and phrases. 

I suspect that one of the reasons so many beginning writers fail to think of and use transitional devices between sentences and paragraphs is that they are wrapped up in the story they’re writing, and the story is very clear to them. They fail to take the reader’s needs into consideration — not because they’re inconsiderate people, but because they haven’t yet internalized the need to build bridges that will help the reader follow  the story.

Unknown

A primary need of readers is to know where the characters are within the story and when the events are taking place. When asked to read somebody else’s writing and comment on it (critique it), perhaps the most common question readers ask of the writer is, Where are we in this scene? Are we still in the same location as in the previous paragraph? Or have we moved to another location? Because, Writer, this suddenly isn’t making sense. I don’t know where the characters are. 

The other very common question readers ask is: When? When is this action happening? The same time as the previous paragraph? Years earlier? In the future? Readers can become quickly disoriented and not know where they are in time. The writer knows: but she hasn’t clued the reader in on when the action is taking place. Or took place. Or might take place in the future.

Readers stumble when the written words don’t make it clear that a time shift or location shift occurred between the previous paragraph and the current one. This is why transitional words are critical: they help readers move through the story, just as a bridge helps people get from one side of a river to the other.

Transitional words aren’t limited to showing where or when. They can show contradiction, agreement, cause, conclusion, sequence, and many other relationships. Nor are such words limited to transitions within and between sentences: they are also needed in transitions between paragraphs. (Larger transitions, such as those between scenes or chapters, can be indicated by use of white space or a new chapter number.) Each transition serves as a bridge that carries the reader directly and safely from one thought to another . . . as opposed to sentences that contain no transitions, which require the reader to use slippery stepping-stones to reach the other side. 

imagesSome common transitional words are as follows: again, like, unlike and, but, also, then, besides, while, if, consequently, after, later, before, next, now.

Some common transitional phrases are these: in addition, in spite of, in contrast, different from, in order to, so long as, due to, for this reason, for instance, to repeat, as a result, as soon as, as long as.

Although transitional words and phrases aren’t the only way to move between sentences and paragraphs, they are a good way to do so. Using too many transitional words is a more easily corrected writing problem than is using too few transitional words.  

In addition to using transitional words such as then, after, and while, a writer can build bridges of comprehension between sentences or paragraphs by repeating a word or phrase from the first sentence in the second one. Or from the first paragraph in the second one. Unlike transitional words or phrases, these bridges built through small repetition are practically invisible to the reader. 

When they’re working well, transitional words and phrases are barely visible to the reader. That is, the reader has only a subliminal awareness of them, not an up-front, in-your-face awareness. That’s how transitional words and phrases should work: in the background, as aids, not in the foreground as attention getters.

Here’s a paragraph from my most recent book, Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers. 

His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the pubishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller.

EarlDerrBiggersCover_GregorichI hope you found that paragraph smooth reading: that is, you were able to follow what I was saying without difficulty. If you were aware of any transitional words or devices, it was probably a subliminal awareness: not an up-front, in-your-face awareness. That’s how transitional words and phrases should work: in the background, as an aid, not in the foreground commanding your attention.

Below is the same paragraph, this time with the small transitional words as well as the repeated words or phrases boldfaced, so you can see how they help lead a reader from the information in one sentence to the information in the next.

His next stop was Indianapolis, where he worked as a manuscript reader for Bobbs-Merrill and also wrote for Reader Magazine. At Bobbs-Merrill he met David Laurance Chambers, who would go on to direct the pubishing house through its most important years. Though it would provide him with a life-long connection to Bobbs-Merrill, Biggers’ stay in Indianapolis was short-lived, much as his Cleveland employment had been. In February of 1908 he moved to Boston, where he went to work for The Boston Traveller.

When you look at the big picture of what transitional words, phrases, and devices do, you see that, ultimately, they give a piece of writing a logical organization and a direction. And this is true whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Transitional words, phrases, and devices are bridges that help carry the reader from one idea or action to the next.

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Earl Derr Biggers wrote many a wonderful aphorism for Charlie Chan. Unfortunately, none of these adages dealt with transitional devices. However, don’t let that stop you from reading Barbara Gregorich’s biography of Earl Derr Biggers, which is full of transitional words and phrases in the right places.

Mountain Passes: The Cumberland Gap

When I was in third grade, my mother gave me a book whose stories told about mountain passes in history. As a result I became fascinated by mountain passes. Once I started to drive and travel across the US, I encountered mountain passes in person and became even more interested in their location and  importance.

Years ago I wrote the manuscript of a nonfiction picture book on twelve important mountain passes in US history. For each mountain pass I wrote a poem, boxed statistics, and prose. The manuscript was almost published, but ultimately wasn’t, because to produce it the way the editor envisioned it would have cost too much. I then rewrote the information as a nonfiction Middle Grades book, but there was no interest in the subject among the publishers I queried.

5543-004-252355F0All the information I collected on mountain passes is still in storage. But this is the era of the blog, and my blog is titled “Much to Write About,” and so I’m going to write briefly about mountain passes. Not all at once, but off and on.

The first important mountain pass in US history (the land wasn’t the United States yet) was the Cumberland Gap, which was formed in the Appalachian Mountains by wind erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. For tens of thousands of years the pass was traversed by animals, and for thousands of years by Indian tribes such as the Lenape, Cherokee, Miami, and Shawnee, as they crossed from one side of the mountains to the other to engage in trade and also warfare.

The pass, or rumors of it, was known to English colonists as early as the 1670s. But it wasn’t until 1750 that Thomas Walker (physician and explorer, and the man appointed guardian of young Thomas Jefferson after the death of Peter Jefferson) mapped the location of the Cumberland Gap.

Cumberland Gap
Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 1,601 feet above sea level
Grade: about 4%
Location: Near the point where the states of
Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.

As soon as the Gap’s location was made known, a few hardy men and women began to walk westward into the land of Indian tribes, taking the barest of possessions with them:  a knife, a gun, and the clothes on their back. Everything else they needed, they found or built on the other side of the mountains, or traded for with the Indian tribes.

Cumberland_GapMost people, though, wanted to take some possessions with them. Bedding, perhaps, and cooking utensils. So in 1775 the Transylvania Land Company hired Daniel Boone to hack a road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone and his crew of thirty men cleared away brush, axed small trees, and hauled away fallen logs, blazing the steep, rough, and narrow Wilderness Road.  The cleared path allowed people to cross on horseback. Twenty years later, the Wilderness Road was widened so that wagons could pass through.

More than 300,000 people poured through the Gap (into Indian lands) and claimed the land as their own. In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains.Today the Cumberland Gap and area surrounding it are part of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, visited by more than one million people each year.

Cumberland Gap

Nature’s wall blocked
their reach,
but not for long.

Carts, cattle, people —
through the breach
and gone.

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To cross a mountain pass is to enter another world. To read a book is to enter another world, too. Jack and Larry, one of Barbara Gregorich’s many books, opens into the world of 1910-1920 major league baseball.