Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 3: Pitfalls, Why Are There Always Pitfalls?


As with everything, pitfalls await you as you experiment with connotation. For one thing, connotation can be cultural. 9-1-1 instantly brings up painful memories for people in the United States, but this combination of numbers might leave a blank stare on the face of someone who lives in South Africa for instance. Both are English speaking, so they share a language, but that culture did not experience the tragic events of September 11.

Continue reading »

What is true culturally is also true individually. Your experiences within your culture differ from your neighbors, your coworker’s, even your own relatives. So what you find meaningful is not what someone else might. Every family has its stories, its inside jokes. These create a micro culture that is specific to that family. “Johnny, do you want a chicken leg?” mades my great aunt bust up laughing, but leaves me cold. She and her brother shared a chicken-leg story from their childhood. They’ve told me it, but I wasn’t there, I don’t remember the mundane story, but the event is etched vividly on Grandpa’s and Great Aunt’s minds such that chicken legs now have additional connotation, but a connotation that cannot be mined to reinforce the emotional scenery of any story I might write.

Another risk is that of purple prose. If you push too hard too fast with heavily laden connotations, you can wind up overwriting your scene such that it becomes melodramatic, trite, or comic. So when I push, I try to get readers to review the words, and then I question them about spots where I felt I might have pushed too hard if they haven’t already mentioned it.

This is a clunker from my past that I took a brief risk with: He finished his run of the line with a feather of hope tickling his liver. The grounds upon which I based this risk were that among the four humors, hope is associated with sanguine, blood, and liver, so I went for the liver tickle. Problem is, the four humors are more remote than, say, liver and onion jokes. And the association of liver with hope is a distant connotation that just doesn’t ring soundly enough with modern readers to rely upon it. Solution? Just drop the last three words. I knew at the time it was likely headed for the axe, but it is worth taking risks. I’ve been amazed at what uncomfortable risks have paid off. Try them, just be prepared to execute them.

The Writer’s Toolbox
Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses
Part 2: The Charlie Horse Syndrome and Other Ill Applied Connotations

So we’ve just reviewed what connotation is and how it can be used, but let’s look at what happens when the word with the wrong connotation is used. Enter our bad guy:

His lip curled into a leer as he towered over her. She shuddered every time he moved, at every flex of his fist, at every step that brought him closer. He pushed his fuzzy black hair away from his stone-cold eyes, and said…

Queue the sound of a record scratch…Huh? Fuzzy hair? Bunnies are fuzzy, chicks are fuzzy, our childhood teddy bears are fuzzy. Clowns have fuzzy hair, your BFF has fuzzy hair on bad hair days, newborns have fuzzy heads…Do you see the commonality? All of these things are nonthreatening.

Continue reading »

Threatening things are not fuzzy: Wild boars bristle; hissing cats raise their hackles; and gorillas thump their chests as their hair stands on end. While you might stretch the denotation of fuzzy to cover a boar, hissing cat, or angry gorilla, the connotation just screams out against it. So here, the villain has got himself a comic do. Read it again, only this time substitute the word wild for fuzzy. Same tangle-haired look, different feel. One builds your tension, one ruins it.

The title example is one of my favorites and really underlines the point well. In it, the scene is dire and the pain all but unendurable. Note how the end undermines a lot of work to portray a desperate situation. In this example, our fantasy hero is being tortured by magic:

Every time the witch curled her finger or touched him, Gerrick felt another muscle convulse. She brushed Gerrick’s leg and his calves curled in pain. She traced her finger lightly up his thigh and blazed a fiery trail of knots up to his groin. She curled her lips in her knife-edged smile and leaned over to kiss his naked stomach. The muscled clamped so hard he choked on a mouthful of vomit. She worked her way up to his chest. His diaphragm snapped tight, knocking his breath from his laboring lungs. His heart clenched, shooting pain down his arm. By the time he threw his head back under the ratcheting of his neck muscles, he was in agony; the Charlie horse all over his body was the worst pain he’d ever felt.

A Charlie horse? A Charlie Horse is what Hubby gets in the middle of the your favorite show, and he goes hopping around holding his leg going, “Ow-ow-ow! Charlie horse, Charlie horse!” It’s a funny pain when you see someone with it. It’s a mundane pain, one I would say most would not associated with the worst pain they ever had. And frankly, the words Charlie horse just plain sounds light weight, even humorous.

So you see, real heroes don’t get Charlie horses.

The Writer’s Toolbox: Real Heroes Don’t Get Charlie Horses—Connotation Vs. Denotation

Part One: The Sacchariferous RoseToolbox2

What is in a name? A Rosa Indica by any other nomenclature reeks as sacchariferous…doesn’t it?

Not in a book, it doesn’t. A rose by any other name smells as sweet sounds a lot sweeter than the above rendition put together with synonyms.  The denotation of the words, the dictionary definition,  is close enough between the two that all substitutions either have the same dictionary definition or are listed in the thesaurus as synonyms.   So why do the two lines feel so different?

Continue reading »

Writing is an artificial means of creating something tangible within our minds.  The only tools authors have to reach into the minds of the readers are words and their conveyance.  But to tell a story is not merely to depict a map of places, a timeline of events, and a phenotype of characters.  The heart of a story is to convey an emotional experience to the reader.  This is where denotation can fall short of the task.

Enter connotation.  Connotation is the baggage that many words carry that you usually won’t find in a dictionary.  Words gather associations over time and across different cultures.  Take an apple for instance.  Strictly speaking, a fruit that evokes little emotion in me when I pick one up at the supermarket.  But pair it with the word Big, and now we have an exciting metropolis.  Or paint it multicolored stripes, and we think computer.  Or put it next to a snake, and we conjure temptation in out minds.  The apple hasn’t changed, just how you relate to it.

The same thing can be done with just about any word.  For instance consider the meaning of these five sentences:

The clouds moved across the sky

The clouds floated across the sky

The clouds lazed across the sky

The clouds raced across the sky

The clouds roiled across the sky

Do you feel a different relationship to the sentences?  Do you picture fluffy white clouds piled high on a warm sunny day for floated and lazed?  Do you see a blustery day for raced?  For roiled, are the clouds dark and threatening? Is a storm is coming?

And yet each entry is in essence the same as the first, moved.   What has changed is our emotional connection to each sentence.  This is because, through their use, words collect meanings that they did not originally have, and using a word with the right meaning and background for the tone of your situation enhances the emotion.

This emotional connection is the heart of engaging a reader, and connotation is a powerful tool to do that.

A Well-Paved Road to an Indie Author’s Success: Part 2, Lesson’s Learned

By Ralph Kern

Screen shot 2015-03-10 at 11.54.10 AM

Amazon Review: Take a little Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke then add a dash of Star Trek, shake well and enjoy.

So from all that, what have I learned?

1. Editing is vital.  And yet something I’m cr#p at. I don’t enjoy it, and I’d rather be doing something else entirely. What I do love is the coming out with the story and even more than that, the research that goes into it. A good percentage of you will probably be the same. Some of you may enjoy it, but I know I don’t.


Continue reading »

2. You find an editor who compliments you. I’ve had three editors. All have improved my manuscript. But, when you find someone who, when faced with your work, somehow has an X Factor…that’s when the magic happens. Editing suddenly goes from being a crushing chore, to something you look forwards to. My current (and hopefully permanent) editor compliments me in that she doesn’t let me get away with stuff and constantly teaches. For example, in the draft of my second book she looked at, she ran ‘Find’ on Word for passive voice, and sent it straight back with a load of guidance on how to sort it before she would review it properly. Why? Surely it’s her job to sort that kind of thing out? Well no actually, it’s mine. That’s something I can do to improve the book, and she shouldn’t have to deal with laziness AND polishing. And now, for next time, I’ve learned a little something extra.

3. Target your audience. Mine is in America, On the SF/F Chronicles, this is a raging debate where people have clearly expressed their views, both pro and con, on “Americanization.” Whether an author chooses to do it or not, that’s their decision. For me, it became a point that was no longer optional, but critical.

4. Sales rank is everything. Lose it, and you will struggle to regain it. Your only chance to beat the odds is to grab those early adopters. If you’ve built that sales rank as a self-published author and then decide to go to a publisher, keep it on your bookshelf. And remember, if you have that sales rank, it will be you deciding on the publisher, not the publisher deciding on you.

5. Paralysis by analysis. The way I did okay for myself was by charging forwards. I’ve seen critiquing threads where people have agonized over the odd sentence, and it probably matters not an iota to a reader. Bearing in mind points 1 and 2, which ended with don’t be lazy, sometimes you just have to pick something and do it.

6. Reviewers are all individuals. Some of them consider three stars good, some five. Some are just harsh—one said I should be shot. Currently I stand at 131 Amazon reviews with a bunch on the odd website. Fortunately I’m at four stars average which keeps visibility high. Hopefully, that will creep up now that (also hopefully) no one will be able to find the plethora of errors previously in it, and I’ve addressed the concerns given in point 3. But definitely use reviewers. If they raise a point, you can actually do something about it! Why just sit there grumbling about the fact your readers are moaning about you saying, “He was sat on a chair” as opposed to “He was sitting on a chair”? (I kid you not, that came up on several reviews!). Sure a traditional publisher might get them sorted from the get go, but if you’re not traditionally published, then you can sort it out!

7. Whether fame or fortune, you can get that with self-publishing. But treat it with the same drive for quality that a traditional publisher seeks. It should just be a case of who foots the bills. Decide if you think the cut you give the publisher is worth it, considering that you can probably do it for yourself. In the short term, going with a traditional publisher will be a saving for you. In the mid to long term, it might be a different story. Interestingly, many SF TV series and film coming out this year are based on self-published books.

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 6.35.31 PM

Sergeant Ralph arresting the competition?

Ralph Kern started the path that lead him to become author with a few jaunts about the world. He began with adegree in aerospace technology from Coventry University, worked in Milan on designing a satellite, hopped across “the Pond” to get his pilot’s license in the States (even before his driver’s license), then wound up back in England. There he flew air cadets in motor gliders and for a year was an officer cadet in the TA (Territorial Army). After all of this, he had a bit of a quarter-life crisis. He succumbed to the kid inside and chucked it all for a career chasing bad guys, becoming a police officer. In the course of rising to sergeant, his job has exposed him to many things that started him thinking about “the big issues.” He noticed a hole in his life that made him turn to writing, where he, like the authors he has read and loved all of his life (Arthur C Clarke, Stephen Baxter, Alistair Reynolds and many more), can confront those larger issues.

A Well-Paved Road to an Indie Author’s Success: Part 1

By Ralph Kern

Screen shot 2015-06-03 at 6.05.32 PM

One hung-over New Year’s Day 2013, I decided to knock something off the bucket list and started to write a novel. Seven or eight months later, I had a sparkly first draft. In my isolation from other writers, I thought it was the bees knees. I self-published it on Draft 2 Digital, which at that point put it out across all major e-book sellers. It did okay, but not brilliantly, and I got a fair few sales and a few reviews. All of them said pretty much “loved the story, but he soooooo needs an editor.”

Continue reading »

So I decided to pull it, and spent the best part of six months picking through it, again in isolation, although at that point, I think I had joined the SF/F Chronicles, an online science fiction and fantasy community, where I picked up some stuff that certainly helped. What I came out with at the end of that period was a draft someone would feel comfortable putting before a publisher. My decision not to seek a publisher was pure pragmatism, and one that proved correct financially. I then rereleased it.

This time, it didn’t just do okay, it rocketed, no pun intended considering the novel’s subject matter. At the height, I was hovering around eighteenth in SF on Amazon’s Top 100 List and that was in the company of traditional publishers, self-published authors, and everything between. I was full of beans. I was selling better than many of my heroes of literature. Sales were at over one hundred a day. For a while, I was earning far more than I was from my job. I paid off a car loan and had money to spare.

The reviews were pouring in at a rate of several a day. (I have only “come out” to a couple of people who know me in person as an author, so those reviews were genuine ones.) The general theme was still the same, people loved the story, they loved the subject matter but hated the editing. So after a few months, I thought, fine, I’ll use some of this cash and get an edit done.

I got it done, updated the file, and let it roll for a bit longer. I was still getting overwhelmingly positive reviews, yet still had comments of typos and grammar mistakes. This frustrated me. How could I still be getting these when I’d had it tidied up? Turned out, the majority of my readers are in the States. There are a surprising number of subtle differences between UK English and US, which is also the international standard.

My thought process at the time was screw em, I AM English, I’ve got it on my author page that I am, so they know it and should accept it. In other words, they can put up with it.

At around this time I got approached by two publishers, Tantor, who wanted to publish my book as an audio book, and Tickety Boo Press.

So I negotiated with Tantor and got a reasonable advance and royalty rate from them. I didn’t feel particularly disadvantaged by not having an agent to do it.

Then I responded to Tickety Boo Press. Two things about them perked my interest. One was that my edit would be done by Ian Sales, who would bring some SF pedigree to proceedings, then it would get Americanized with a US editor, all on Tickety Boo’s tick.

Fine, let’s do it.

Screen shot 2015-03-10 at 11.54.10 AM

Endeavor, book one of the Sleeping Gods series, has been compared to A.C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and has been on 7 Amazon Top 100 Lists.

Since we first looked at the stars, there has been a silence, no signs of alien life, no one who has tried to speak to us, a mystery that a long dead scientist called the Fermi Paradox.
“Where are they?”
In 2118, the first daring mission to another star, Tau Ceti, twelve light years away is launched. Tom Hites and Harry Cosgrove command the Starship Endeavour on an epic journey to solve the Fermi Paradox. From the first, nearly disastrous steps on a distant world, their quest takes them further than they ever imagined. Out amidst the mysterious long abandoned worlds and ancient relics they discover, some strange, some wonderful and some deadly, that question they seek to answer becomes:
“Where are they now?”