About Marcy Kennedy

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How to Legally Use Your Own Photos on Your Blog

Using Your Own Photos on Your BlogAlongside the photos offered on free stock sites and through WANA Commons on Flickr, many people are opting to use their own photos on their blog. After all, you can’t get into trouble for using your own pictures, can you? Last week Melinda VanLone gave us 7 free and legal places to find stock photos and 7 places to inexpensively buy hard-to-find pictures. She’s back today to help us sort through what we can and can’t take pictures of. Please join me in welcoming and thanking Melinda for taking the time to help us stay out of trouble 🙂 (All the pictures in this post were also taken by her. Aren’t they gorgeous?)


How to Legally Take and Use Your Own Photos on Your Blog

By Melinda VanLone (@MelindaVan)

With all the talk of law suits and copyright, you might be wondering if it’s safer to not use any images at all. I’m happy to tell you there’s no need to go to extremes. We’ve already talked about places where you can find free, or inexpensive, images for your blog.

This week I’d like to point out another method of dressing up your articles. By far the safest, and easiest, approach to the problem is simply to take your own images. Get a good camera, take it with you everywhere you go, and snap images of anything you think might come in handy someday. Use your imagination. Even a photo of a stop sign can be useful. 

Of course, there are some things you should keep in mind as a fledgling shutterbug. Even with your own photography, there are legal issues to consider. (Please note: I’m NOT a lawyer. This is NOT legal advice. I have to put this disclaimer to cover my own behind…which is something I’m trying to teach you to do.)

Public PlacesUsing your own photos on your blog

Taking photos in public places is, in general, legal. If you are on the sidewalk, and taking a picture of a street scene, a park, a house, or the people on the sidewalk or in the park, that’s ok. Those people have no expectation of privacy, so they are fair game. If you are getting random crowd shots, go ahead…snap away. If you would like a close up of someone, courtesy would dictate that you let them know or ask them if they mind. But you don’t have to. 

This includes children. Yes, it’s perfectly legal to take photos of children you don’t know in a public place. You might find yourself on the wrong end of an angry mother, or someone might call the police just to make sure you’re not a pedophile. But it’s legal both to take the photo and to use it on your blog. You don’t even need parental permission (unless you plan on selling the photo to a stock website–they’ll want a model release).

When I’m getting shots of people, I try to use a telephoto lens. Stay a good distance away and just zoom in on them. Chances are they’ll never know you took the photo.

What’s not ok is to take the shot if there’s an expectation of privacy. In general, this means restrooms, locker rooms, or other places like that. Just because your crazy neighbor always stands naked next to the open window in their bathroom doesn’t mean you have a right to stand on the street, take a photo, and blog about it. They have an expectation of privacy, even though they left that window open. Feel free to point and laugh, just not with your camera.

Private PropertyUsing your own photos in your blog

It’s off limits unless you have permission. Yes, you can stand on the sidewalk and take a photo of that beautiful house, no matter how much the property owner gives you the evil eye. No, you can’t stand in their driveway without permission to get the shot. It’s called trespassing, and it can get you arrested or, if you’re in Texas, shot. If you’re in a restaurant or bar, that’s private property that is open to the public, which is an odd mix. They can post a “no photography” sign and you must comply with it. If there’s no sign, you’re ok to take the photo. But they can ask you to stop, or leave. If you don’t, they can have you arrested for trespass.

Photos of Other Art

Someone else’s photo/artwork/poster/logo/etc. are protected by copyright. You taking a photo of it does not remove their copyright. You’ll need permission from the copyright owner to use your photo unless it falls under fair use. If you’re wondering about that museum trip you have scheduled, a lot of that artwork has passed out of copyright protection and is ok to photograph (see previously mentioned private property open to the public note).  

Photos Where You Might Endanger Others

In general, photographing accidents, fires, or public officials going about their jobs in a public place is legal. If you will block traffic or hinder them from doing their job in order to get that awesome shot, don’t. They have the right to arrest you if you get in the way.

Military Installations

Military installations are, in general, off limits. You can try to get a photo of those from the sidewalk or street but don’t be surprised if soldiers with guns show up. If there’s a fence, usually they’ll have a sign telling you to go away. I’d take their word for it.

(Marcy here: FBI buildings are also off limits for obvious reasons. They don’t know if you’re a tourist or a terrorist. Back when my husband lived in D.C., I reached for my camera to take a picture of the emblem on an FBI building, and he quickly informed me of my mistake before I got myself into trouble.)

Public Attractions

It’s usually legal to take a photo of tourist attractions, whether public or privately owned, unless they’ve posted signs to the contrary.

The Up-The-Skirt Cam

This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Please don’t photograph someone’s private body parts without their permission. Even if they are in a public place. In most states it’s illegal for you to stick your camera up a woman’s skirt and snap a photo, even if she is in the park and not wearing any underwear. Just…don’t. 

What’s This About Fair Use?

According to Wikipedia, fair use is “a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship.” I would add blogging to that list. If you’re doing a book, movie, or restaurant review, fair use would be using a shot of the book cover, movie poster, or image of the restaurant.  Please note, the idea that blogging is journalism is still being debated in the courts. Therefore, think about what you’re saying and/or doing. If in doubt, make friends with a lawyer you can hit up for advice.

I Got the Shot! Now What?

Once you have that great shot, be careful what you DO with the photo. Yes, you own it. Yes, you may use it on your blog or even sell it. However, be sure that when you use a photo with people that you aren’t disparaging them. Taking a random shot of someone sitting on a park bench, and then putting the photo with a blog post about drug users, is implying that they are a drug user. That leaves you right in the middle of something that could be considered slander.

Ask yourself: if that were me in the photo, would I be upset at how I’m using it? Would any reasonable person? If that were my child up there next to my blog post, would it upset me? If you are in the slightest doubt, don’t use it. This is a blog, and if you’re not making money from your blog it’s not worth the lawsuit if you’re wrong. Or simply use photos without people. It’s hard for a piece of fruit or a stop sign to sue you.

But I Don’t Know Anything About Photography!

A fantastic resource for photographers, whether you are a beginner or advanced professional, is http://digital-photography-school.com/. They have tutorials for the basics, and assignments for the advanced, and a ton of advice. Don’t be afraid of it, just go for it! Who knows, you might stumble on a whole new hobby that will bring you joy.

What other questions do you have about using your own photos? Have you already been using photos you’ve taken yourself on your blog?

Melinda VanLoneMelinda VanLone is a science fiction/fantasy author with a Master’s degree in Publishing. She spent too many years to confess to working in graphic design and production before moving on to explore life as a writer. She’s a Photoshop expert, technology addict, and MMORPG lover. Melinda’s current work-in-progress, The Demon You Know, will be published in 2012. You can visit her website at http://www.melindavan.com/.

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The Dark Knight Rises: Is Your Safety Net Hurting You?

The Dark Knight Rises Batman movieDo the safety nets we give ourselves stand in the way of our success?

In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has been “gone” from Gotham City for eight years. After the death of Harvey Dent (Two-Face), many consider Batman a villain, and Gotham hasn’t needed him. The police have violent and organized crime under control. Bruce Wayne is a recluse.

Until a new villain, known only as Bane, arrives in Gotham. He plans to first tyrannize and then destroy Gotham with a nuclear detonation. Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement and becomes Batman again to protect the city, and is betrayed into Bane’s hands. Bane cripples him and dumps him into a prison that’s essentially a hole with only one way out—straight up.

“Why didn’t you just kill me?” Bruce asks.

“You don’t fear death,” Bane says. “You welcome it. Your punishment must be more severe.”

Bruce is willing to die, so death won’t hurt him as much as seeing Gotham turn to dust. Bane leaves a television active so Bruce can watch the plot unfold.

Even while he is in the prison and claims to fear death, Bruce says, “I do fear death. I fear dying in here while my city burns and I’m not there to save it.”

It wasn’t death he feared at all. It was dying, forgotten, in a hole, rather than dying a hero, in the process disappointing everyone who depended on him—losing his ability to be Batman.

Bruce Wayne, unlike most people, didn’t need to stop fearing death. He didn’t fear death. He feared life.

After his wounds heal, Bruce makes two attempts to climb out. Anyone who wishes to escape ties on a rope (to keep them from dying when they fall) and tries to climb the curved, vertical wall.

Both of his tries fail. He’s running out of time before Bane concludes his reign of terror by killing everyone.

Finally the man in the next cell tells Bruce the secret. He has to climb out the way the only one who ever succeeded, a child, did—without a rope. To succeed, he has to be willing to risk complete failure because the fear that comes with it will make him strong. It’ll make him fight harder than he otherwise would have.

Sometimes you have to let go of the rope if you want to succeed.

When Bruce leaves behind the safety net of the rope, he’s able to make the jump. He’s also able to realize that Alfred (his faithful butler) was right when he accused him of being afraid of living and moving on beyond Batman. Batman was the rope, the safety net, in his life.

Not all safety nets are bad. My husband and I keep an emergency fund in case we have unexpected expenses. When I rode horses, I always wore a helmet.

But I’ve also cut some safety nets because I’m better, stronger, and happier without them.

Grief can be a safety net. So can anger.

Because my mother-in-law has been divorced four times, my husband and I agreed before we got married that we’d only consider divorce in the case of adultery or abuse. Without divorce as our safety net, we had to be certain we were making the right choice, and we’re forced to work hard to keep our marriage good.

Blogging and being on social media cut my writer’s safety net. Now if I fail, I do it publicly. And if I quit, you’ll all know it. I don’t have the safety net of anonymity anymore.

What safety net might be holding you back from a happy life?

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Is Omniscient POV Dying?

Gilbert Morris The River Rose

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

A couple months ago, I was excited to be offered a chance to read and review Gilbert Morris’ The River Rose. The River Rose is a historical romance about a woman steamboat captain in 1850, and Gilbert Morris co-authored my favorite series of books during my late high school and early university years, the Cheney Duvall, M.D. series.

I love a clean read (referring to content rather than editing). I love a strong female protagonist. And I love a detail-rich world. The River Rose gave me all of these, and yet, I found myself disappointed.

Because of my great respect for this author, for all he’s achieved, and for the Cheney Duvall series, which still makes me laugh and continues to sit on my shelf of favorites after all these years, I refuse to publicly speak ill of this book, especially since I think the problem is one of personal preference.

I don’t like omniscient POV.

I’ll write more about point of view (POV) in another series of posts, but here’s a basic way to think of it.

When we’re young, our mothers or fathers or grandparents tell us stories. They’ll tell us what each character is thinking or feeling at any moment. They’ll even tell us things the characters don’t yet know. They’re all-knowing in the story world.

And we’re alright with that because we don’t want to experience the story as if we were one of the characters. We want to be safely watching from a distance while our loved one gives us the big picture view.

This used to be the case in most fiction 100 years ago. It would have been improper somehow to poke intimately into a stranger’s story, and we weren’t that far removed from the days when most people were illiterate and the majority of stories were still told orally. Omniscient POV was the norm.

But as we grow and as our society changed, we no longer want to be told a story. We want to see it and live it. We gobble up reality TV. We watch movies in 3-D. Our video games are using cameras to capture our movements to power avatars we created to look like us. We now want stories written in first person or in intimate third person (deep POV). We want to feel like we’re part of the story. At least, I do. I’ll be one of the first standing in line when they create a Star Trek-style holodeck.

So it’s not simply The River Rose. I felt the same way about Rachel Aaron’s excellently written Spirit Thief series. Despite the unique plot and beautiful language, I couldn’t connect.

Even though omniscient POV shouldn’t be confused with the head-hopping that will get your book rejected by agents and readers alike, to my brain, conditioned to first person and intimate third person styles, I felt jarred out of the story whenever I was told something the character I was currently trying to identify with couldn’t possibly know. I subconsciously sought that identification even once I figured out the book used omniscient POV.

Many genres still embrace omniscient POV, including historical fiction, so I’m sure other people will love this book. For these reasons, I’m excited to be able to give away a copy to one person today (US only). Share this post and leave a comment to be entered.

Do you feel the same way about omniscient POV? Do you think we’ll see less and less of it in the coming years or do you think, like many fashion trends, it’ll be back?

I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

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In Time: Does Death Serve a Purpose?

In TimeDoes death serve a purpose?

The movie In Time is set in a world where time is the currency instead of money. Everyone is genetically engineered to look 25 years old forever, but once you hit 25, you only have one year left to live unless you earn more time. Not surprisingly, the poor live day to day and minute to minute. The rich live forever.

Will Salas lives in the poorest time zone. He saves the life of a rich man, with over a century on his arm, who wants to die.

“The day comes when you’ve had enough,” the rich man says after revealing he’s lived 105 years already. “Your mind can be spent, even if your body’s not. We want to die. We need to.”

While Will sleeps, the rich man gives him all his time and dies. Will ends up accused of his murder and runs for it. He travels to the richest time zone, where he wins almost 1,000 years in a poker game. The man he loses to doesn’t need that time, but his pride is wounded, so he invites Will to a dinner party where he hopes to win it back in another game.

At the party, Will meets his host’s daughter, Sylvia Weis.

“What do you do, Will?” she asks.

“I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”

“Yes, why bother?” she says in a dry voice. “What’s the hurry?”

“Right. Why do today what you can do in a century?

As they dance together, Sylvia tells him she doesn’t believe his story of “coming from time” (their way of saying old money). She saw him at a restaurant earlier in the day where he was eating a little too fast. When you don’t have much time, you try to fit as much as you can into every second.

“Sometimes I envy them,” Sylvia says, referring to the people who live in the poorest time zones.

Will frowns. “You don’t know anything.”

The clock is good for no one. The poor die, and the rich don’t live. We can all live forever as long as we don’t do anything foolish. Doesn’t that scare you? That maybe you’ll never do anything foolish, or courageous, or worth a d*mn?”

Death is terrible and sad (even if, like me, you believe in an afterlife), but perhaps facing death teaches us things we couldn’t learn otherwise.

Death imposes a deadline on us that we can’t cheat or extend. It forces us, if we’re wise, to make the most of each day.

If we want to achieve something, we’re motivated to start and work toward it rather than putting it off indefinitely.

We learn to value those we love. We cherish our time with them, celebrate each birthday. We apologize and say I love you because we never know if the words we say will be the last ones they ever hear.

We have the saying “You only live once” for a reason. It reminds us to sometimes spend a little more to go to that fancy restaurant for our anniversary. To take the trip to Europe we always talked about. To leave a lasting mark for good on the world with whatever time we have.

And I wonder if the people who do that, who live each day as if they’re not sure they’ll have another, aren’t able to meet death at the end without fear, knowing their time has been well spent.

Do you think death might serve a purpose? Are we only meant to be on this earth for a limited amount of time?

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7 Free and Legal Places to Find Photos

Roni Loren You Can Get Sued for Using Pictures on Your BlogLast Friday, when Roni Loren shared her personal experience story in her post Bloggers Beware: You CAN Get Sued for Using Pics on Your Blog, the blogosphere exploded in panic. Almost every blogger I know was pulling down pictures they’d found on Google Images or other places because they weren’t sure if those pictures violated copyright and they didn’t want to take the chance. Some writers with photo heavy posts found their blogs gutted.

I felt terrible for them, and so did the techie talented Melinda VanLone who offered to come by today and share an amazing list of places where we can legally get photos. And many of them are free!


Where Can We Find Pictures for Our Blogs?

By Melinda VanLone (@MelindaVan)

We have the power to get our words out to millions of people all over the world through our blogs. Naturally, we want to decorate those words with pretty pictures because studies show people pay more attention to images than they do words.

But just where do we get the images? One wrong step and we could wind up in court, facing costly litigation. It’s a scary thing to contemplate.  

What’s a blogger to do?

Stock photo websites to the rescue. There are hundreds of them out there, but they aren’t all created equal. Here are some I’ve personally used and can recommend…

Free Pictures Here!

Some sites offer free images, under a creative commons license. What does this mean? It means you can use the image on your blog or even your book cover. Most often you must credit the photographer (although some don’t demand that). A simple line somewhere on the page (or back of the book or inside flap) that says “photo courtesy of XXX XXXX” or whatever verbiage they give you to use is enough. It’s painless, and it helps support a fellow artist in their goal of getting their name out there. You can go one step further and put a link attached to the photo which directs people to the photographer’s website. We all like link-backs! It’s a scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours type of scenario. Not a bad price to pay.

Stock Exchange http://www.sxc.hu/ Photos provided free of charge for the greater good. There’s a link with each image detailing exactly what you may do with it, or not, as the case may be. The power behind this site is Getty images and iStockPhoto (both pay sites that are power houses in the stock photo industry), which means you can be sure they’ve done the best they can to make sure you don’t end up in trouble. 

Free Digital Photos http://www.freedigitalphotos.net This site offers photos both for free and for a fee, depending on what you want to do with the image. Some will be offered free but have a watermark (a light imprint indicating the photographer), or you can pay a small fee for a watermark-free version. They also let you pin most of their images to Pinterest, a bonus.

Morgue File http://www.freedigitalphotos.net They don’t have the biggest selection, and the quality is sometimes a bit dubious, but the price is right and the license is generous (you can use them on your website/book cover/business card, you can alter the image as you wish, etc.). Most don’t even require attribution. 

Open Photo http://openphoto.net The user interface is a bit clunky. To download the image, look for a tiny link below it. Each image explains what they’d like in return, such as attribution or a link. 

Flickr http://www.flickr.com Not every image is available for use, of course, but there are plenty that are, and they are free with just an attribution. They have the best explanation of the Creative Commons license in easy to understand language: http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/ (Marcy here – Kristen Lamb, the WANA mama, has opened a WANACommons group on Flickr in response to Roni’s post. Contribute the photos you’re willing to share, and feel free to use any photos from this group without fear.)

StockVault http://www.stockvault.net I list this one with a caveat. The images are free, but the license is a bit…fuzzy. Basically you can use the images for your website or personal use (business card), but you can’t use them on anything you intend to sell (book cover) or in any way that might make the person in the image “look bad.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, and I suspect everyone has a different view of what “looks bad.” You can avoid the issue entirely by not using any image with people in it or by making sure your blog topic isn’t a controversial one.

Every Stock Photo http://www.everystockphoto.com/ This is a license-specific photo search engine. They index and search millions of freely licensed photos, from many sources, and present them in an integrated search. The license is listed with each image, and each is different, so be sure to read what you’re allowed to do. They do not host the images themselves. They simply help you search.

For a Few Dollars More

Some sites offer royalty free images for a fee or on a monthly/yearly subscription basis. This can range anywhere from a few pennies to several hundred dollars, depending on what you are going to do with the image. Most often, the price hinges on the size of the image you want to download. For a blog, you don’t need a big image so the price will be relatively small.

The license they give you allows you one time only use of the photo. That means you can use it on your blog but not on your book cover unless you pay another fee. The fee is “per instance.” Can you use it again in your blog at a later date? Yes. Can you use it on your business card also? Not without buying it again.

Why would you use one of these sites? Because the variety and scope of images is much larger and, in general, the quality is much higher. For hard to find things, sometimes this is the only option.

iStockPhoto http://www.istockphoto.com/ One of my favorites. They have a wide variety of images and most are high quality. They have a standard license which covers just about anything a blogger would be using the image for, plus there’s an extended license available for purchase in case you need more. Be aware that some images are marked for “editorial use” only, which means you can use them for a blog but are limited in other applications. 

Photos.com http://www.photos.com/ Purchase individually or in image packs or subscription. Great variety and quality, and they’re easy to search. 

Dreamstime http://www.dreamstime.com/?gclid=CJX2i9Dbq7ECFaOMTAodeBMAkg You buy credits, then spend them on the image you want. Different size images will require different amounts of credits. They have a monthly subscription, but unless you plan on downloading 700 images in a month, the pay-as-you-go plan is probably the best for an occasional blog image. They also have a “free image” section. The license agreement is pretty liberal, which is what makes this a nice go-to site. You can alter the images, use them on everything from your blog to a book cover, etc. You can also buy exclusive rights if you want or need to (as in you want an image that only you can use forever). 

Jupiter Images http://www.jupiterimages.com/ A more professional website and a conglomerate of several sites in one. It’s also more expensive. If you’re looking for a unique image for a book cover, this is a great place to search because it hunts several places at once. Be sure to check the price of the image before you fall in love.  

Big Stock Photo http://www.bigstockphoto.com/ You can pay as you go or save a bit by buying a package of credits. They also have a few free images available. The license is a bit more limited than others but nothing that should stop you from using them. Each instance requires you to purchase the image again (as in, once for your blog and once for your business card, etc.). They have a wide selection, and the quality is good.

123RF http://www.123rf.com/ The subscription price on this site is one of the few I’ve thought might be worth it—if you don’t mind spending time every day for a month finding images to download. For one month, you can download up to 26 images a day. If you planned it right, you could end up with quite a stockpile of blog photos for a decent price. 

Shutterstock http://www.shutterstock.com A little more expensive than some of the others, but they have images you might not find elsewhere. Go here for the hard-to-find thing you don’t mind paying for.

How did you react to Roni’s post? Did you have to take down photos from your blog or had you been using free stock photos prior to this?

Melinda VanLoneMelinda VanLone is a science fiction/fantasy author with a Master’s degree in Publishing. She spent too many years to confess to working in graphic design and production before moving on to explore life as a writer. She’s a Photoshop expert, technology addict, and MMORPG lover. Melinda’s current work-in-progress, The Demon You Know, will be published in 2012. You can visit her website at http://www.melindavan.com/.

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I hope you’ll check out the newly released mini-books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series–Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster–both currently available for 99 cents.

Are You Brave Enough to Take Responsibility for Your Actions?

Disney Pixar's BraveAre you Brave enough to take responsibility for your actions?

Set in the Scottish Highlands during the 10th century, Brave is the story of Merida, daughter of King Fergus of Clan DunBroch. Merida’s mother wants her to be a proper lady and marry one of her father’s allies, while Merida wants to shoot her bow and ride her horse. She wants her freedom.

While running away from the three firstborn sons who’ve come to compete in Highland games for her hand, Merida ends up in a Stonehenge-like stone circle. A path of will-o’-the-wisps appears, and Merida chases after them. They lead her to a witch’s cabin.

Merida promises to buy all the witch’s carvings, plus give her a silver necklace in exchange for one thing—a spell to change her mother. “I want a spell to change my mum,” Merida says. “That will change my fate.”

Merida blames her mother for all that appears to be wrong with her life, but doesn’t give her mother any credit for the good things she has.

After Merida’s mother eats the magical cake and turns into a bear, Merida refuses to take responsibility.

“It’s not my fault!” she exclaims. “I didn’t ask her to change you into a bear. I just wanted her to change…you.”

Merida blames the witch for changing her mother in the same way that she blamed her mother for the things she didn’t like about her life. Merida and her mother return to the witch’s cabin, but the witch is gone. She left a message for Merida, though, telling her to “mend the bond torn by pride” before the second sunrise if she wants her mother to change back.

Merida thinks this means the tapestry she sliced with a sword earlier in the movie. She manages to sew up the tapestry and throw it over her mother just in time.

But it doesn’t work.

Her mother doesn’t change back until Merida apologizes. What Merida finally realizes is that the freedom to choose her own path also comes with the necessity of taking responsibility for her actions.

Our past, our families, the things that happen to us through our lives influence us, but in the end, the responsibility for how we live is ours.

Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will – his personal responsibility.”Albert Einstein

It’s not only in the big things where we love to shove responsibility onto someone else.

When we get a speeding ticket and blame the police officer, wasn’t it actually our fault for speeding in the first place?

When we forget to do something our spouse asked us to, and blame them because they didn’t remind us, wasn’t it actually our fault for not paying better attention?

Failure to take responsibility holds us back the same way it held back Merida from having a good relationship with her mother. Until we can accept responsibility for our shortcomings and failures, we can’t fix them.

When do you find it most difficult to take responsibility? Is it in the big things…or the little ones? Do you think it’s human nature to put the responsibility on others rather than accepting it for ourselves?

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Three Ways The Emotion Thesaurus Helps You Write Better

The Emotion Thesaurus

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

As writers, our job is to create a meaningful emotional experience for readers. One of the best ways to do this is to convey the quality and depth of our characters’ feelings through their thoughts, body language, and visceral reactions. This is the primary focus of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and is at the root of the “show don’t tell” principle.
–       Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi in Emotion Amplifiers (A Companion Guide to The Emotion Thesaurus)

Writers are just like every other profession in one important way—the right tools make our job easier.

The Emotion Thesaurus is one of those tools.

When we’re writing, it’s easy to fall into certain standbys without even realizing it. He’s angry—he frowns. She’s frustrated—she sighs.

But those unimaginative responses don’t begin to do credit to the variety of non-verbal communication we use every day or to the unique, three-dimensional characters we’re supposed to create.

That’s where The Emotion Thesaurus comes in. Today I wanted to give you the three ways I think The Emotion Thesaurus can help you write better stories.

(Just for the record – I don’t get any sort of compensation if you buy The Emotion Thesaurus after reading this. I’m recommending it because I’ve used it, liked it, and think it can be a tool almost any fiction writer could benefit from.)

(1) The Emotion Thesaurus Saves Research Time

Because I want to find fresh ways to express emotions in my writing, I often spend a lot of time, especially at the editing stage, looking up emotions online and studying non-verbal communication. Even as someone who has a degree in Social Psychology and loves digging into what makes people tick, I don’t enjoy how much time this eats up and I’m tempted to skip it.

The Emotion Thesaurus brings the research you need together in one place. Each entry defines the emotion and gives physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, signs of that emotion over the long-term, and cues that the emotion is being repressed.

What that allows us to do is figure out what emotion our character is feeling and look through the lists to find expressions that fit our character and the situation they’re in.

Then we can personalize it. For example, one of the internal sensations for agitation is feeling overheated. How will your character describe that sensation? A middle-aged woman with a good sense of humor might think of it in terms of getting a taste of the hot flashes she’ll experience in menopause. A teenager might liken it to when the air conditioning broke in their house for three whole days. A character with money might describe it as similar to how he felt when he stayed in the sauna too long. Same sensation. Different points of view. Infinite possibilities.

(2) The Emotion Thesaurus Helps with Ideas for Increasing Tension

As you read through the list of characteristics for the emotion you want to convey, you’ll notice some symptoms of that emotion are perfect for increasing tension.

In the agitation entry, the first three mental responses listed are

  • Mounting frustration that causes thoughts to blank
  • Compounding mistakes
  • A tendency to lie to cover up or excuse

You can use agitation to lay the groundwork for bad things to come or to make the current scene more stressful. Many emotions, even positive ones, can have these undesirable consequences.

Becca and Angela also include a “Writer’s Tip” at the end of each emotion with a special hint for other ways you can use that particular emotion to add tension or some other depth to your story.

(3) The Emotion Thesaurus Keeps Characters’ Emotional Arcs Believable

One of the tricks Blake Snyder shares in Save the Cat is that in every scene the character needs to end at a different emotional place from where they began. I struggle with this because I tend to be hyper-logical and tamp down on my emotions. I’m not always certain of the progression an emotion might take in someone who’s less like a Borg.

Becca and Angela added a “May Escalate To” list for each emotion. So, for example, if your character starts the scene agitated (or becomes agitated early on in the scene), you can look at the list and see that likely emotional outcomes by the end of the scene or in the following scene are annoyance, frustration, anxiety, or anger. Then you can go look at the physical signs of those emotions. In helps us bring our character to that next step.

Another thing mentioned by Becca and Angela in their front matter (which is a great look at emotion in itself) is that we often need to seek the root emotion to bring out the correct signs. A person might believe they’re angry, but that anger might actually be a cover-up for something else. So while your character might be screaming at their teenager for wreaking the car, they’re also grabbing their child into a hug because the true emotion isn’t anger—it’s fear and relief that their child survived.

For places where you can buy The Emotion Thesaurus and a lot of great free resources, make sure you check out Becca and Angela’s site The Bookshelf Muse.

What’s your biggest struggle when writing character emotions? Have you checked out The Emotion Thesaurus?

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.

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The Amazing Spider-Man: Doing Good vs. Doing What’s Right

The Amazing SpidermanSometimes it isn’t easy to know what the right thing to do is.

After Peter Parker forgets to pick up his Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man and she has to walk home alone at night, putting herself in danger, Uncle Ben is fed up with Peter acting out and shirking responsibility. He tells Peter that his father lived by a code: “If you can do good things for other people, you have the moral obligation to do those things.”

In other words, when you have a particular talent or ability that could help others, your responsibility as a decent human being is to use your skills to benefit others.

It’s a clunky replacement for the traditional Spider-Man theme of With great power comes great responsibility. And while on the surface it could seem both the new version and the old version are essentially saying the same thing, Uncle Ben’s new line better reflects the subtle questions raised by the plot.

Because in saying that when we are able to do good things for other people, we’re morally obligated to do those things, we have to ask ourselves two questions.

Whose definition of good are we using?

And do we have a full enough view of the big picture to know what the truly good thing to do would be?

Dr. Connors, the villain in The Amazing Spider-Man, wants to release a gas into the air above New York to mutate everyone into giant lizards. As a lizard-person, he’s stronger, faster, and able to regenerate. In his own way, Connors believes he’d be helping turn people into something “better.” Humanity, in its current state, is weak. He has the power to perfect humanity. Wouldn’t that be a good thing that’s within his ability to do?

And when Peter Parker should have acted to stop the thief who later shot Uncle Ben, he stood by because he felt like the store clerk was getting what he deserved for being a jerk. In some ways, Captain Stacy was right in calling Spider-Man a vigilante. Peter felt his personal view of justice was the only right one.

For most of the movie, however, Peter’s actions fall more cleanly into a category of good accepted by the majority of people. He’s catching bad guys and helping advance science. And yet, he acts without a broad enough understanding of the consequences of his actions and the wider implications.

When he goes to dinner at Gwen Stacy’s home, he and Captain Stacy argue over whether Spider-Man is a hero or a hooligan. Peter suggests Spider-Man is doing good because he’s catching car thieves and other criminals.

“If the police wanted those car thieves off the street,” Captain Stacy says, “they would be.”

“Then why are they still on the streets?” Peter asks.

“Because they’re small fish, and we want them to lead us to the boss.”

The police were working with a bigger understanding. They wanted to catch the person in charge of the car theft ring, not just the low-level, easily replaced lackey Spidey webs to the wall. Were Spidey’s actions good? Yes. He took a criminal off the street. But did they also potentially sabotage a greater good and a longer-term plan?

Peter also gives the equation to Dr. Connors that allows the re-growth of limbs but also creates monsters. He didn’t know enough about Connor’s character or the morality (or lack thereof) of the bigwigs in Oscorp to so blithely share the equation his father worked so hard to hide.

While I do believe that we all need to use the talents we’ve been given to help others, I also believe we need to do so with a dose of humility. It’s so easy to look at what other people are or aren’t doing and think we know better.  It’s also easy to judge them from the outside looking in.

Great power isn’t just about having the responsibility to act. Great power means we have the responsibility to think about the consequences if we act, to seek the bigger picture first. And great power sometimes means waiting until the right moment to act.

How do you walk the line between knowing when to use your skills to try to help others and when not to? Do you think having good intentions makes up for it when we accidentally cause harm?

If you’re a writer, check out Jami Gold’s helpful post on How The Amazing Spiderman Rocks Subtext. Lisa Hall-Wilson also has an interesting Spiderman-themed post on The Cost of Keeping Secrets.

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How to Use Sound to Make Your Novel Stand Out In A Sea of Noise

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

If you’re limiting yourself to just naming a sound, you’re missing out on the richness that the sense of sound could bring to your fiction. You’re speaking to your reader in a monotone.

Next to sight, sound is the most commonly used sense in fiction, but three techniques can help you change the sounds you use from plain background noise into something that adds new depth to your stories.

Use Onomatopoeia for an Echo

Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like its definition—hiss, buzz, creak, swish, clatter.

The blade scraped across his stubble.

If you’ve ever listened to a man shave using a razor rather than an electric trimmer, scrape imitates the sound you’ll hear with each swipe.

Another poetry technique worth judiciously stealing is the repetition of sounds within words to mimic the sound you’re describing. One of the best known examples is from the final lines of Tennyson’s “Come Down, O Maid.”

The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmur of innumerable bees.

A morning dove’s call at a quiet summer’s twilight carries the same long o sound as moan, and the sequence of m’s and n’s followed by the zee sound in bees creates a buzz like a swarm.

Because most of us vocalize in our minds when we read, onomatopoeic words and phrases help us hear the sound you’re describing. (Speed readers are trained to stop this internal vocalization because it slows reading speed, but it’s also one of the things that helps make reading so pleasurable.)

Don’t overuse this technique. Not everyone likes it. Personally, used frugally at moments when you really need to emphasize a sound, I love it. (And so does Janice Hardy, former instructor for Writer’s Digest, so I’m in good company.)

Play With the Emotional Effects of Sound Deprivation or Sounds We Can’t Control

Using the sense of sound effectively in fiction isn’t all about the type of sound. Sometimes it’s about the lack of sound, the volume, the duration, or whether we have any control over the sound.

When the power goes out in your house at night, do you sleep through it or does the sudden loss of the white noise of the appliances wake you up? Do you find the loss peaceful or, after a while, does the silence become almost oppressive and ominous?

Scientists have studied the effects of sensory deprivation on the human body, and discovered a short period of sensory deprivation, like being underwater, can be relaxing. Over extended periods of time, though, it can lead to hallucinations, decreased memory function, and loss of identity, which is why it’s used as “white torture.” If you place your character in a situation where they can’t hear, they’re likely to be disoriented at first, feeling almost like their ears are clogged. If you place them alone for a long period of time somewhere like the wilds of Utah in winter, the silence will begin to play tricks with their mind.

If we have the ability to make a sound stop, we’re more able to tolerate it than if we have to endure it with no knowledge of when it might end. While our body eventually learns to ignore soft noises like the ticking of a clock in the background, louder noises or noises intended to motivate us to action can’t be tuned out in the same way. In my last truck, the parking break broke, but I didn’t realize it until I’d set it for a ferry ride, and the warning ding kept going after I released it. I had to drive over an hour with no way to make it stop. The sound never bothered me before, but by the end of that drive, I was tense and irritable and fighting a headache.

Let Sound Set the Mood

They don’t call it mood music for nothing. Your choice of sounds can alter the whole feel of a scene, so choose carefully to create the mood you want your reader to feel. If you want to lighten a scene, add a funny or embarrassing sound to a somber or romantic moment.

One of my favorite lines from my co-writer in our historical fantasy is when our female lead’s closest friend says to her, “The wind carries the voices of the dead tonight.” It highlighted not only the grief they shared but couldn’t speak of, but also their dread and uncertainty over what they’d face the next day.

What sound annoys you most? And which do you find most soothing?

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 below to receive updates next time I post here because you don’t want to miss the final sense! If you missed the previous posts, you can find the three techniques for smell, taste, and touch here.

Photo Credit: Peter Mazurek (Obtained via www.sxc.hu)

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Are You Working Too Hard?

Are You Working Too HardAre there limits beyond which we can’t—and shouldn’t—push ourselves even in pursuit of our goals?

In Episode 1 of Battlestar Galactica’s first season, the humans are on the run from the Cylons (machines originally created to serve humans). The Cylons’ attempted extermination of humanity left less than 50,000 survivors, and all of them now live on the small cluster of ships protected by the Battlestar Galactica.

Somehow the Cylons are able to track the human’s FTL (faster-than-light) jumps. They attack every 33 minutes, down to the second. FTL jumps are extremely difficult to plot safely, and when the episode opens, the humans are struggling to have jump coordinates ready every thirty-three minutes while also maintaining their equipment. If a ship breaks down and they can’t repair it in 33 minutes, the Cylons will kill everyone on that ship.

Because FTL jumps feel like riding a rollercoaster, not even the civilians have had more than a few minutes sleep. The fleet’s fighter pilots and other essential military personnel are running on stimulants (what they call stims).

“Five days now,” Dr. Gaius Baltar says in a rant to the Cylon delusion only he can see. “There are limits…to the human body. To the human mind. Tolerances that you can’t push beyond. All those are facts. Proven facts. Everyone has their limit.”

They can’t keep going. They have to find a way to shake the Cylons or they will all die.

The Cylons’ plan of attack is perfect because, as humans, we do have limits. We can only push so hard for so long before our bodies give out. No amount of determination can change that.

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working seven days a week on average. During some stretches, I worked 12- to 14-hour days. I was tired. I was sick every month with something new (and worked anyway). My creative well was dry. And even though I was working hard in pursuit of my dream and trying to be a responsible adult, I recently realized that I’d reached my limit physically, emotionally, and creatively.

In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who works with palliative care patients in the final months of their lives, explains that the second-most common regret expressed by dying people is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” They feel like they missed out on the more important things in life in order to succeed at work.

The temptation to burn ourselves out in support of our dreams is something almost anyone in any profession can fall prey to. We might think we’re being dedicated, and sometimes there are times when we do need to push hard, but we also need to rest. Without it, we’ll ruin our health and relationships. We won’t be doing our best work. And when we look back on the end of our lives and see only work, we’ll regret it.

Ignoring the need to rest is short-term thinking.

Because of this, and because I want my life to be more than the sum total of what I’m able to produce, I’m making a change. It’s not going to be an easy change for me. I have emotional baggage (why can’t the airline lose that for us, eh?) that means I feel guilty and afraid when I’m not working. I know it’s not healthy. It’s not balanced. And there’s only one way I know to fix it.

I am taking one day a week completely off from work. No social media. No writing. Maybe even no housework. I’m also setting aside one afternoon/evening a week to spend time with my husband. He deserves more of my time than he’s been getting.

Maybe this change means I’ll reach my goals a little slower. Maybe it means we have to live a simpler life and pinch a few more pennies in the short term.

And you know what? I’m okay with that, because I’m in this for the long haul. A life well-lived is about the long haul.

Have you been burning yourself out in the pursuit of your dreams because you think that’s the only way to “make it?” Or are you instead fighting, like me, to find a balance? I’d love to hear about the choice you’ve made and how/why you’re putting it into action.

(For an excellent, non-geeky look at this topic, check out Emma Burcart’s post “Sometimes We Just Need a Break.” For writers, I also love Kristen Lamb’s beautiful post “There Is A Season” where she talks about needing to let our minds, bodies, and imaginations rest if we want to be career authors rather than one-hit wonders.)

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Photo Credit: Michael Lorenzo (obtained via www.sxc.hu)

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