Writing

Why I’m Changing Up My Blog

Marcy Kennedy's BlogI’ll be making some changes to my blogging schedule starting April 1, 2012.

As many of you already know, I think Kristen Lamb and her WANA (We Are Not Alone) methods are the smart road for writers to take when it comes to balancing the load of writing and platform building while still making time to live your life.

In her post Sacred Cow Tipping – More Common Blogging Misconceptions, Kristen points out two pitfalls we often fall into as new writer-bloggers. We feel we need to have separate blogs for separate topics and we give all our energy to a group blog at the expense of our own. I did both these things, and I was burning myself out, leaving little time for my novel or my life away from my computer.

Lisa Hall-Wilson and I have absolutely loved the year and a half we gave to Girls With Pens, and we don’t regret a moment of it. But it’s time for us to take the next step. We will no longer be blogging at Girls With Pens. (We’re also not getting rid of it entirely—read on.)

So with Girls With Pens shutting down, instead of posting here Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays (which I have been), I’ll be posting Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Instead of having separate blogs for separate topics, I’ll be loosely grouping my topics into days. If you’re only interested in one of the topics, I won’t be offended if you ignore the others 🙂

Mondays will be where fantasy, science fiction, and real life collide in posts like Who’s Your Unicorn and The Lie of Helen of Troy.

Wednesdays will be devoted to posts on writing, editing, platform building, and blogging like 6 Grammar Mistakes that Will Cost You Readers and What Do We Mean By “Strong Female Characters?” If you’ve also been following Girls With Pens, you already know what to expect on these days. I’m simply moving locations.

Friday will be the new day for interviews with fantasy and science fiction authors to help you pick your next weekend read, behind the scenes looks at the worlds within the books (like my Bertie Botts posts), v-logs, and mash-ups.

I’ll still be bringing you excellent guest posters, but they won’t have a set day.

What about Girls With Pens? Even though we’re shutting down the blog, you can sign up for our monthly Girls With Pens newsletter where we’ll be bringing you interviews with industry professionals.

I hope that you’ll sign up for my blog here, and if you’d like to hangout online, you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. I’m also on Pinterest, and would love to have you follow my boards and get a chance to see your boards in return.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

What Do We Mean By “Strong Female Characters?”

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I planned to post today on “Creating Strong Yet Likeable Female Characters.” As I was researching helpful links to include, I came across a post from the New York Times called “A Plague of Strong Female Characters.” And I realized that, before we can talk about how to make sure strong female characters are also likeable, I first need to cover the inevitable debate over what we mean by strong female character.

In the NYT article, Carina Chocano writes, “I get the feeling that what most people mean or hear when they say or hear strong female character is female characters who are tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling. . . in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff.”

She goes on to conclude that “Strength, in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of virtue. And what we think of as virtuous, or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. Strong female characters, in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out.”

And yes, those stereotypes float around in books and movies—the character that could go from being a woman to a man with a simple name change and a haircut.

But when you think about strong women in real life, is that the image that comes to mind? Because, you see, what makes for a strong female character is exactly what makes for a strong woman.

Strong female characters, like strong women, can enjoy painting their nails, wearing makeup, and putting on a beautiful dress. They can wear stilettos, or ballet flats, or hiking boots. They can be moms, even stay-at-home moms. They can be musicians or cooks or doctors. They can cry. They can comfort a friend. They can listen. And yes, they can even be afraid of bugs.

None of those things define a strong woman or a strong female character.

So what does it mean when we talk about a strong female character?

Strong Female Characters Are Smart

Smart can mean book smart the way a quantum physicist is, but it can also mean a woman with common sense that lets her find creative solutions to everyday problems. Or it can mean a woman who’s talented with using her hands and can paint a picture or fix a car.

She has a skill that earns respect and contributes to society. Her intelligence makes her competent, able to help others, and not totally dependent on another person for her entire existence. (Some dependence is okay—none of us are entirely self-sufficient.)

Hermione Granger’s character in Harry Potter didn’t “play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine,” yet she was a strong female character largely because of her intelligence and magical talent. She contributed to the search for Horcruxes in a meaningful way, so much so that Ron (in the movie version) admitted, “We wouldn’t last two days without her.”

Strong Female Characters Act

We’ve all seen the female character who stands by when she clearly should have acted. As much as I love the classic The Princess Bride, would it have killed Buttercup to whack the ROUS with a stick while it was gnawing on Wesley? A strong woman would have defended her beloved.

When she can, a strong female character escapes on her own rather than waiting for someone else to rescue her. Tameri Etherton wrote an excellent post on Danielle from Ever After, a strong female character who worked to change her bad situation.

A strong female character also makes decisions, rather than always waiting on someone else to call the shots. Captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager listens to advice from Chakotay (her male first officer) and Tuvok (her male chief of security), but she doesn’t always take it, and if they’re not there to advise her, she’s strong enough to act on her own.

The difference between a strong female character who acts and a weak one who simply reacts is the difference between Buffy and Bella.

Strong Female Characters Stand Up for What They Believe In

Whether or not you agree with all the decisions made by President Laura Roslin in Battlestar Galactica, she stood up for what she thought was right. From sending Starbuck back to Caprica to retrieve the Arrow of Apollo (that’s supposed to help lead them to Earth) to fixing the election to prevent sniveling Dr. Gaius Baltar from being elected, she didn’t sit by if what was happening violated her beliefs of right and wrong.

She might be frightened and injured, and risking great loss, but as her hands shake and tears well up in her eyes, a strong woman stands up for what she believes in.

A strong female character, like a strong woman, can stand side-by-side with a man, confident in the knowledge that they are different but nevertheless equal.

How do you define strength in a woman? What do you think goes into a strong female character?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

6 Grammar Mistakes That Will Cost You Readers

Make these mistakes in a query letter, and your work might never see publication. Make these mistakes in a blog often enough, and your readers will find another similar blog that doesn’t make them cringe.

Mistake #1: Your/You’re

This mistake is why I can only take Facebook in small doses some days.

Add to the list it’s/its.
Please also add their/there/they’re.

This is a ridiculously simple mistake to avoid. Just stop and ask whether your sentence requires a possessive or a contraction.

Your is possessive, implying ownership: “I love your blog.”
You’re is a contraction of you are. The apostrophe indicates that you and are smashed together to make them shorter and smoother to say: “You’re giving me a headache with all this grammar talk.”

Their = possessive
There = a place (“I’ve been there”) or a pronoun (“There is no way I’m jumping off that cliff.”)
They’re = they are

It’s = it is (or it has)
Its = possessive

Mistake #2: Leaving Out a Serial Comma

A serial comma involves placing a comma after every item in a series: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate, and cranberries.”

You could write this without the serial comma: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate and cranberries.”

Serial commas aren’t mandatory, but they are recommended by most major style guides for a very simple reason—they eliminate the risk of being unintentionally funny.

“A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking and birthing babies.”
Is it just me, or does that sound like she’s serving up roast baby for dinner?

But add a serial comma and we have “A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking, and birthing babies.” Now we have a clear tribute to mothers rather than cannibalism.

The only thing worse than being boring is being unintentionally funny. Once people laugh at you, that’s all they’re going to remember about your post. At least if you’re boring, they forget about you.

I live by the better safe than sorry rule. If I always use a serial comma, I never run the risk of leaving it out when I should have put it in.

Mistake #3: Could of, Should of, Would of

“I could of finished that 10 oz. steak if I wanted to, but I’m watching my waistline.”

This mistake crops up when people write the same way they speak. When we speak, we often slur could’ve (the contraction of could have) so that it sounds like could of.

Of can be used correctly in many different ways. This isn’t one of them. You might be able to get away with it in speech, but not in your writing.

Mistake #4: To/Too/Two

I know. This one just seems like the first English speakers were being mean. Not only do these all sound the same, but they’re only one letter different from each other.

Two is a number: “If you already have one chocolate bar and I give you mine, then you have two chocolate bars and I’m going to be asking you to share.” Hold up two fingers. They form half a W. To and too don’t have that shape in them. They are not numbers. If that doesn’t work for you, remember that two (as a number) starts the same way as twins.

Too is an adverb expressing the idea of “excessively,” “also,” or “as well”: “This word has one too many o‘s in it.”

To is a preposition. It’s used to begin a prepositional phrase or an infinitive. The best way to remember to is to place it where neither two nor too will work.

“I went to church on Sunday.” (preposition)

“I want to eat your chocolate.” (infinitive)

Mistake #5: Lack of Parallelism in Lists

Parallelism in a list makes your sentences easier for your reader to understand.

“To contribute to Easter dinner, I peeled two potatoes, three yams, and baked a pie.”

Your reader will understand this sentence, but it will feel awkward. And grammar Nazis will snicker at you behind their hands.

Take the sentence apart, and you’ll see the problem.

To contribute to Easter dinner, I . . .

  • peeled two potatoes
  • three yams
  • baked a pie.

You wouldn’t say, “To contribute to Easter dinner, I two yams.” At least I hope you wouldn’t. You need to add a verb in front of “three yams” to make this sentence parallel. “Peeled,” “washed,” “chopped,” or “mashed” would all be correct.

Mistake #6: Dangling Participles

A dangling participle is a word or phrase that’s placed so it modifies the wrong thing. This is another one where your readers will find you extremely funny for all the wrong reasons.

“Walking down the road, the house came into view.”
A house taking a walk? I’d buy tickets to see that.

“Featuring an ensuite hot tub and extra fluffy pillows, we highly recommend this hotel for honeymooning couples.”
The mental image of people with hot tubs where their bellies should be and pillows for arms . . . I probably won’t stop laughing long enough to read the rest of what you’ve written.

“After rotting in the back of the fridge for three months, my husband cleaned out his forgotten leftovers.”
Based on this sentence, I need to take my husband to a doctor to find out why he’s rotting.

What are some grammar gaffes that drive you nuts?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

(This was a replay of a post I wrote originally for Girls With Pens and which first appeared on May 9, 2011. Because it’s still one of my favorites, I decided to share it with you here today.)

Something Like This, But Not This

Writing can be one of the most confusing professions around. We’re told that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and unique–but not too fresh and unique. We go to our critique group or send out our manuscript to beta readers and what one person loves, another hates. And everyone wants to tell us how they think our book should end.

And we end up feeling exactly like this . . .

Have you ever been in a situation where none of the advice you’re being given makes sense and you start to suspect that the person giving it doesn’t have any more of a clue than you do? 😉

3 Reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help Became A Bestseller

Kathryn Stockett's The HelpTime to get honest. We all want our book to become a runaway bestseller and get turned into a movie.

And we all know exactly what it takes to get there–a great book and word of mouth. That hasn’t changed and won’t change no matter what technological advancements come along. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Social media maven Kristen Lamb pointed out that one of the best ways for novelists to create a great book is to examine successful books to figure out what worked for them. Once we recognize what helped make them great, we can incorporate those things into our own books.

So today I wanted to look at three reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a bestseller.

Unique Character Voices

The Help uses three first-person narrators to tell the story. (It’s not as easy as Stockett makes it look.)  Even if you weren’t told each time you hit a switch, you could identify which character was speaking because Stockett gave them each a unique voice.

How? Well, she kept in mind their background, education, and personalities.

Abileen’s voice is lyrical but filled with grammatical mistakes. She uses “they” when she should use “their,” and “a” when she should use “of.” You can hear the accent of black women in the South 60 years ago when she says, “First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic” (pg. 1).

This is Abileen’s voice, and only Abileen can say it just this way because of who she is. She dropped out of school young to work, but always had a knack for writing, and she’s been writing her prayers ever since so she doesn’t lose the ability. She’s older than the other POV characters, and it shows in her accent and attitudes, and in the slightly slower way she moves about things.

Minny’s is sarcastic, cynical, jaded. Her speech is sprinkled with profanity and criticisms of the foolishness she sees around her. Her metaphors tend to center around food.

What makes Minny so different from Abileen? She’s younger and has more education so she lacks the accent and grammatical mistakes, she’s extremely practical, but it’s more than that. Minny looks at the world the way she does in large part because her alcoholic husband beats her. And her food metaphors spring out of her love for cooking. She never burns the fried chicken.

Whether you have one POV character or ten, each of them needs to sounds like an individual.

A Theme People Connect With

You might think the theme of The Help is civil rights and equality for blacks and women. While those issues play a huge role in the book (after all, Skeeter is writing a book that tells the real story of black maids in the South), if that was the theme, it wouldn’t connect with people on an emotional level the way this book did. Civil rights is a political issue you vote on, not something that reaches in, grabs your heart, and squeezes it until it aches.

Stockett weaves a much more subtle and poignant theme throughout each POV character’s story–the struggle to feel worthy, worthwhile, loved, and valuable.

Skeeter feels like an embarrassment to her mother. She’s unmarried and dresses in ways that give her mother heart palpitations. Her hair is completely unmanageable. When she finally gets a boyfriend, she’s forced to choose between being herself and being who he wants her to be.

Minny works for Celia Foote. Celia comes from Sugar Ditch (basically the wrong side of the tracks). She desperately wants to make friends, but her heart of gold is overlooked because she’s tacky and trashy and married to the ex-boyfriend of Hilly, who has all the other white women under her thumb.

Abileen works for a woman who’s ashamed of her daughter. Elisabeth barely picks her toddler up because Mae Mobley is fat with a bald spot on the back of her head. Abileen spends the book trying to teach Mae Mobley that she is kind, she is smart, and she is important.

Each story connects to the theme in a different way, but it’s there under them all. And it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Fresh Descriptions and Metaphors

George Orwell advised, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” His point was that if you’ve seen it in other books before, it’s no longer fresh. It might even be verging on cliched. Worse, it makes your book forgettable.

The best metaphors stick in people’s minds because they don’t remember ever hearing them before. They also stick because they give people something tangible to hang on to.

The dread in my stomach is flat and hard and hot, like a brick in the sun (pg. 178). When I read this, I understood dread in a new way. My gut reaction was “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels. She just put into words something I’ve known all along but haven’t been able to articulate.” That makes for a memorable metaphor.

It smells like meat, like hamburger defrosting on the counter (pg. 232). Even now, months later, this metaphor still turns my stomach. This is how she described the smell of a miscarried baby. I’ve never seen a miscarried baby, never smelled what that sort of death smells like, but with this description, I knew. Stockett associated something unfamiliar to most of us to something familiar to most of us, allowing us to play an intimate part in a foreign experience. That also makes for a memorable metaphor.

Have you read The Help? What did you love about it? What else do you think made it a bestseller?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available. (You also might want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.) All are available in both print and ebook.

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

Making This Year Better Than The Last

Did you make a New Year’s resolution yesterday? Did you know that you have a 78% chance of breaking it?

A few years ago, I gave up on making New Year’s resolutions because I always broke them and ended up feeling like a failure. This past year, though, I noticed another more serious problem.

My life has become triage.

Instead of acting, I spent most of my time reacting. Fires kept cropping up, and I survived by dealing with the biggest and badest first. Everything else tanked. I gained 20 pounds. My husband began to complain that he didn’t get any time with me anymore because I’m always working. I don’t remember what a day off looks like. Lisa and I are scrambling to prepare for the conference we’re headed to in New York this month.

I want this year to be better than the last.

Part of my problem goes back to my failed New Year’s resolutions, and why I was consistently breaking them. To make this year better than the last, I need to care for myself as well as I care for my characters. You see, I give them goals, but I mostly only had ambitions for myself.

An ambition is an abstract, high-level concept. For example, “I want a well-behaved dog” or “I want a happy marriage.” Two people can have the same ambition, but the way it plays out in their lives can be diametrically opposed based on how they define that ambition. Goals are how you reach your ambition. Without them, you can float around for years never certain if you’re making any progress toward your ambition.

If all you have is ambitions, you’re bound for disappointment and failure because you don’t have any direct control over whether an ambition is reached or not.

For example, “I want an agent this year” or “I want to lose 20 pounds.” Those are ambitions because nothing you do will guarantee they happen. You might change your eating habits and hit the gym, and only lose 10 pounds because you gained muscle as well. Or because that’s the healthy weight your body wants to be at.  

Goals, however, are in your control.

I do a lot of work for non-profit clients writing grant proposals. One of the things that separates successful grants from unsuccessful ones is that the successful ones set goals (they call them objectives) that are SMART.

S – specific

M – measurable

A – attainable

R – realistic

T – time-bound

So if your ambition is to land an agent this year (it’s one of the ambitions on my new list), set SMART goals to reach it.

For example, “I will query one new agent every week in 2012 except for the weeks of Christmas and Thanksgiving.” (Noah Lukeman suggests querying 50 agents before you give up on that particular project.)

Specific – You’ve given the number of agents (one) and what you’re going to do (query). You also specified what you’re not going to do.

Measurable – You either did or you didn’t send out a query each week.

Attainable– You can query an agent a week. That’s within the realm of what’s allowable when it comes to agents. You couldn’t talk to an agent on the phone every week any more than you can probably call up Suzanne Collins or Daniel Craig and expect to have a chat.

Realistic – This really depends on you. Maybe that isn’t realistic for you depending on what you know your personal limitations are. Maybe what you can do is query one new agent every two weeks. But you get the point. Don’t set an unrealistic goal like “I’m going to query 50 agents every week.”

Time-Bound – You have from Monday to Sunday each week to complete this goal. You have from January 1 to December 31 of 2012 to complete this goal.

If you reach your goal, you’re that much more likely to also fulfill your ambition.

I’m not just working on my goals and ambitions for my career, but also for the rest of my life. As writers, it can be easy to become a slave to our work, but some sacrifices are too great.

You see, I don’t just want to be remembered as a great writer at the end of my life. I also want to be remembered as a great wife. As a great friend. As a great daughter, and sister, and cousin, and niece. Perhaps one day as a great mother and grandmother and aunt.

To do that, I need to make this year better than the last.

What’s one ambition you have for this year, and one of the goals that you’re setting to try to meet it?

Enter your email address to follow this blog:

What To Do When Your Loved Ones Want You To Quit

Broken HeartThe holidays are a wonderful time, but they can also be a difficult time for writers as we face questions (and criticism) from our friends and family. So I thought I’d update a post that I wrote almost a year ago in the hope that it will help you as much as writing it helped me. For those of you who aren’t writers, maybe it will help you understand the writer next to you a little better.

******************************************************************************

If you want to be a writer, the most difficult challenge you’re going to face isn’t writer’s block. It isn’t learning how to properly use a semi colon or write a lead or find your voice. It isn’t even getting an agent or making enough money to pay the bills.

If you want to be a writer, the most difficult challenge you’ll face comes when someone you love says one of the following things about your career:

“You need to start making better decisions.”

“It’s time you grew up and acted like a responsible adult.”

“You can still write as a hobby, but you need to get a real job.”

In her post “Are We Born to Create,” bestselling author Kristen Lamb wrote, “Many of us, when we tell our family that we want to be a writer, what they hear is akin to, ‘Blah, blah, throwing away college education blah blah cult blah Kool-Aid, blah blah writer.’”

And it hurts.

You want them to recognize how hard you work and how worthwhile your job is. More than that, you want them to be proud of you.

If they keep at it long enough or if you hear it from enough people, the pain crescendos to a level where you can’t ignore it anymore. You start to doubt yourself and the decisions you’ve made. You’re forced into doing one of two things. Either you build a protective wall around that part of your life, perhaps even your whole life, and you exclude them from it, or you give up the career you love for something more acceptable.

Neither is a good solution.

So next time you face these joy-stealing, dream-killing, confidence-shaking lies, here’s how to survive.

Remind Yourself that the World Needs Writers

When I was growing up, a lot of people pushed for me to become a veterinarian or a teacher, despite the fact that I faint at the sight of blood and don’t have the patience to deal with a roomful of children or teenagers (hey, at least I’m honest about my limitations). They told me (in not so many words) that becoming a writer was a waste of my potential. Why would I throw away my future?

The world needs writers.

Without writers, we wouldn’t have classic literature or textbooks to study. We wouldn’t have the books, journal articles, and other written resources teachers use to learn their subjects and prepare their lesson plans.

Without writers, the millions of people whose favorite pastime is curling up with a book or magazine would have to fall back on watching TV or movies . . . except that without writers, we wouldn’t have TV shows or movies.

Without writers, politicians would become a lot less eloquent. (You don’t really think they write their speeches themselves, do you?)

Without writers, both print and online newspapers would have no content.

Without writers charities and non-profits wouldn’t be able to get their message out and bring in the funds they need to help people.

Without writers, we’d have to revert to preserving all the new advances in knowledge through oral traditions. Any student of history will tell you what a flawed method that is.

Ask for Clarification on What It Means to Have a Real Job

Some well-meaning relatives may go so far as to suggest you should have gotten a job at a fast food place long ago. I believe that all law-abiding work is honorable, but don’t understand why a minimum-wage job is a “real job” while writing isn’t. What does having a “real job” mean?

Does it mean helping people?

After publication of an article that Lisa Hall-Wilson and I co-wrote on pornography addiction, we received an email thanking us and telling us that we might have saved a marriage. It’s not the only thank you email I’ve received. My words make a difference.

Does it mean fighting traffic?

Seems to me that telecommuting and home offices are a growing trend because people don’t want to fight traffic, burn increasingly expensive gas, and worry about bad weather.

Does it mean someone else needs to sign your paychecks?

Someone else does sign my checks. And I’ll let you in on a secret—those paychecks bring in more than I could ever make from a minimum-wage job.

Does it mean putting on a tie, or khakis and a polo shirt/blouse, or a uniform?

I could put those on to sit at home if I really wanted, though I’m not sure why I would when I can work in sweats.

Does it mean having the respect of clients and colleagues?

If you’re professional, you can build good relationships, a good reputation, and develop regular clients regardless of your job title. I’ve earned enough respect in my field to teach at conferences and judge writing contests.

Find Some Allies

This world will always have people who feel that they know better than you what you should do with your life. It’ll always have people who find it easy to judge you for your choices even though they’ve never been in your position. It’ll always have people who draw attention to your failures and weaknesses rather than your successes and strengths.

Find yourself some people who’ll call you out on evil rather than on personal preference, who have your back, and who will fight harder for you than you do for yourself. You need the support. Even Batman had Robin and Superman had Lois Lane.

Keep In Mind Who You Really Need to Please

When it comes right down to it, other people’s opinions don’t matter. You have to make your own decisions and follow your own conscience. You are accountable only to God.

So have a good cry and some chocolate. Realize that it’s always going to sting. And then pick yourself up off the floor, sit your bottom back down in your computer chair, and meet that deadline . . . and the one after that . . . and the one after that . . .

Are you following your dream or did you give it up because your friends or family didn’t approve? Are you a writer who’s faced some of these criticisms? How did you handle it?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available. (You also might want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.) All are available in both print and ebook.

Enter your email address:
Delivered by FeedBurner

Image Credit: freeimages.com/Kiomi

Using the Military Correctly in Your Fiction

In honor of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day this week, we wanted to bring you a special guest post on how to believably use military characters in your fiction. So I enlisted my husband to help out.

Chris is a former Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve. For five years, he served as a Combat Engineer with the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, with which he deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Take it away Chris . . .

******************************************************************************************************

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military characters or former military characters have become increasingly popular in fiction. But for writers who haven’t been in the military, getting the details right can be a challenge.

Getting them wrong can destroy your book’s chances. Some estimates suggest that 20% of the current US population either is in the military or has served in the military at some point—and that number doesn’t even include their friends and family. If you get it wrong, people will notice.

Understanding how to realistically write military characters is important for historical fiction writers, thriller writers, science fiction and fantasy writers (knowing our military system helps you invent new ones), mystery writers, and even romance writers. So what does it take to get it right?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing about fictional military stuff:

Get the names of the members of each branch correct

Marines are not Soldiers, Soldiers are not Airmen, Airmen are not Sailors, and Sailors are not Coast Guardsmen. Each member of the military is proud to have earned their respective title, so use their titles accordingly.

When speaking generally about members of a specific branch of service, remember that members of the Air Force are Airmen, members of the Army are Soldiers, members of the Coast Guard are Coast Guardsmen, members of the Navy are Sailors, and members of the Marine Corps are Marines.

Use correct rank designations

If you ever watch A Few Good Men (in which two Marines are on trial for murdering a fellow Marine who complained about his working conditions aboard the Guantanamo Bay naval base), the two Marines on trial are not called the same thing every time. Private First Class (PFC) Louden Downey is referred to as Private several times, and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson is several times referred to as Corporal. Neither of those uses is correct in terms of the Marine Corps. PFC Downey would always be called Private First Class, PFC, or simply Marine. LCpl Dawson would always be referred to as either Lance Corporal or simply Marine.

A good place to find US military ranks is http://www.defense.gov/about/insignias/enlisted.aspx for enlisted ranks and http://www.defense.gov/about/insignias/officers.aspx for officer ranks.

Correctly describe military equipment and activities

Also in A Few Good Men, you see military inferiors being blatantly disrespectful to their superiors, Marines saluting indoors when not under cover or under arms (wearing a head cover or armed with a weapon), and military members easily losing their composure and destroying their military bearing.

Being disrespectful to superiors causes dissention in the ranks, a breakdown of the military discipline that is necessary to complete a mission or achieve an objective, and can actually get the disrespectful person hauled in front of a court martial (military court) and, eventually, put in confinement/sent to prison.

Marines and Sailors don’t salute indoors unless they are under cover (for example, a Reserve unit conducts a formation inside on the drill deck because the weather outside is too poor for a formation, so they’re all wearing their covers) or under arms (armed with a rifle, pistol, or ceremonial sword).

Bearing is one of the most important things a servicemember can have, and is related to military discipline. A person who loses their bearing is a person who loses face in front of his or her peers and superiors. It’s an admirable quality for a person to be able to hold a good “poker face” no matter the situation.

Correct terminology matters

I also tend to see military weapons referred to as guns (they’re rifles or weapons, not guns); boats referred to as ships, and vice-versa (a boat in naval terminology refers to a submarine, whereas a ship refers to surface vessels, like aircraft carriers); or combat personnel using the wrong hand signals. A good–though not always 100% correct–resource for this is http://www.jargondatabase.com/Category/Military.

Use military dates and times correctly

The correct way to write military dates is in a YEAR/MONTH/DAY format. For example, September 5, 2011, would be written as 20110905.

Make sure you’re getting military time correct, too. Anything from one minute after midnight to one minute before 10am would be written as (for example) 0930. 10am to 12pm would be written as (for example) 1030. For anything after 1259, you would write it the same way, but add 12 to whatever the time is, so 1pm would be 1300. The only time that this does not apply to is exactly at midnight, which is written as 0000, though is often said to be 2400.

Someone who was in the military wouldn’t say, “I’ll meet you there at 7:30 tonight.” They’d be more likely to say, “I’ll meet you there at 1930.”

What questions do you have about how to correctly use the military and military characters in your fiction? Have you seen some of these mistakes before in movies or books?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Point of View in Fiction is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

Enter your email address to follow this blog: