RANDOM THOUGHTS


May 2024
Just Write It

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If all you do is talk about writing a book—but never actually complete a manuscript—you’re nothing more than a wannabe. However, if you’re serious about a career as a writer, here are some tips to take with you on your journey.

1. Put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or vocal cords to a recording device. Use whatever method works for you. Thinking about writing won’t make you a novelist, doing it will.

2. Come up with a hook. This will go on your first page and should engage readers while foreshadowing the story ahead.

3. Do not go back to edit your work until you've completed the first draft. Go back too soon, and you may become enmeshed in an endless loop of second-guessing your words and never complete the manuscript. It’s called a first draft for a reason. Keep moving forward. You’ll have plenty of time to revise and edit once you have set down the skeleton of your story.

4. Commit to a regular writing schedule. Select a time each day that you can devote to writing. Maybe it’s in the evening when your home is quiet, maybe it’s on your lunch hour while at work, or maybe it’s weekend afternoons. It’s better to work every day. However, as long as you continue to move forward—even if you only have a day or two a week to write—you’ll see progress.

5. Try to write a minimum number of words during each work session. Most manuscripts are usually written on letter-size paper with one-inch margins in 12-point Times New Roman font with double-spaced lines. Doing so results in approximately 250 words per page. Determine how many pages you can write a day depending on how much time you can invest in each session. I try to write 1,000 words in a 4-hour session, which works out to about a page an hour. At this rate, you could theoretically write an 80,000-word book in eighty days—less than three months. Even if you can only devote half that time to writing, you could finish a manuscript in six months.

6. The goal of your first draft is to tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

7. Some of your writing time may be devoted to research. Although this may not add any pages to your manuscript, that’s okay because your research counts as part of the process.

8. Once you complete your first draft, let it sit for a while before you go back to rewrite it.

9. When you do reread your first draft, you will probably find a thousand things you want to change. This may be a good time to decide whether you might benefit from a structural or developmental edit of your manuscript.

10. If you forego a structural/developmental edit, take the time to ensure your manuscript includes all the stages listed in last month's blog on story structure.

What to Avoid

Formatting can cause more problems than it’s worth. At this early stage, your manuscript should be no-frills. Don’t try to get fancy by using different fonts and sizes or adding glyphs. Doing that can turn into a nightmare when you try to publish your book. I wrote a YA series in which a group of characters all had symbols instead of names. When I tried to convert the text for an e-book, I ended up with a lot of empty little boxes instead of the various symbols I had chosen, and they played havoc with the spacing. Don’t get overly crafty when writing your first draft, especially if you plan to publish it yourself. Keep it simple.

Information dumps—also known as backstory—can bog down the flow of a story, especially at the beginning of the book. Think of them like artichokes. Eating one leaf at a time is better than trying to cram the whole artichoke down your throat.

What are you waiting for? Go write!


April 2024
Story Structure

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I love fiction. I’ve been an avid reader since my third-grade teacher took my class to the library on a field trip. I’ve had a love affair with books from that day forward. Everything I initially learned about writing I learned from reading. But that kind of education can leave a hole in your writer’s arsenal. The rest of my education came from writers’ conferences, proofreading and copyediting courses, and research.

As much as I want to believe great fiction breaks new ground, it’s actually very formulaic. Think of the different acts in a play or the way drama builds between commercials on television. It’s all about plot structure.

Regardless of genre, fiction should include the following stages:

Status Quo: It's just another day in the protagonist's life. We see what their life is all about and get a feel for their personality.

Inciting Incident: Something out of the ordinary happens, a high-stakes problem that takes the protagonist out of his or her comfort zone and forces them to make unexpected decisions.

Rising Action: This is where the story arc develops. The protagonist faces a series of increasing complications and responds to each challenge, which causes the hero to change or grow. They should face failures as well as victories.

Impasse: The protagonist is confronted by an almost insurmountable difficulty and struggles over what to do.

Climax: The protagonist makes a choice or takes action, and it should be the most difficult decision they have ever made.

Resolution: Also known as the denouement, this is where the characters come to terms with what happened, the conflicts are resolved, and any questions are answered. The story arc is complete.

Sounds simple enough. Here is how it would work for “The Three Little Pigs” (the kinder, gentler version):

Status quo: The three little pigs set out to build their homes. They each have a different idea of what materials to use and how much effort each one wants to put into it.

Inciting incident: A wolf spots them and says he is going to eat them.

Rising action: The pigs hide in their respective homes. The wolf blows down the houses made of straw and wood. However, those pigs escape and seek safety in their brother’s brick house.

Impasse: The wolf huffs and puffs but can’t blow the brick house down.

Climax: The wolf climbs on the roof and sneaks down the chimney. However, the homeowner has a big pot of boiling water blocking the fireplace opening.

Resolution: The wolf is stopped; the pigs are saved.

This is not the original James Halliwell-Phillips version of “The Story of the Three Little Pigs,” which includes three deaths and is a cautionary tale for any pig who dreams of building a house without first apprenticing with a bricklayer’s union. However, it does illustrate how the above stages work for even the simplest of tales.

In a nutshell, a solid story structure introduces a problem and increases its stakes until the protagonist is forced to change in such a dramatic fashion that it brings about results that resolve the problem.


March 2024
A Humorous Look at the Rules of Writing

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Sometimes, the best way to learn something is to see it done poorly.

The website www.plainlanguage.gov features an article called “How to Write Good” that has examples of excellent writing advice written in a contradictory way. As noted on the Plain Language web page, the first twenty-three entries were written by Frank L. Visco for Writers Digest (June 1986), and rules twenty-four through fifty-three are based on William Safire’s Rules for Writers.

HOW TO WRITE GOOD

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?



24. Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.
25. It behooves you to avoid archaic expressions.
26. Avoid archaeic spellings too.
27. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
28. Don’t use commas, that, are not, necessary.
29. Do not use hyperbole; not one in a million can do it effectively.
30. Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
31. Subject and verb always has to agree.
32. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
33. Use youre spell chekker to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errers.
34. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
35. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
36. Don’t never use no double negatives.
37. Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
38. Hopefully, you will use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
39. Eschew obfuscation.
40. No sentence fragments.
41. Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.
42. A writer must not shift your point of view.
43. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
44. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
45. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
46. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
47. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
48. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
49. Always pick on the correct idiom.
50. The adverb always follows the verb.
51. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
52. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
53. And always be sure to finish what

Note: www.plainlanguage.gov is a federal website that states its content is in the public domain and can be reprinted without explicit permission.


February 2024
Style Sheets

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I first learned about style sheets when I took a copyediting course, and I can see their importance to editors. They ensure continuity and promise the finished product will fall within expected parameters.

Serial commas? Yes. A.M. or a.m.? The latter. Starting sentences with the year written as a numeral? Fine.

Style sheets eliminate ambiguity. Which is why they are a wonderful addition to a writer’s toolbox.

Copy editors usually create one for every book or series they work on, listing characters’ names and descriptions, as well as the names of all the locations where scenes take place, i.e., street names, towns, and topography. They also include a timeline for when things happen, so Aunt Phyllis doesn’t announce she’s three months pregnant on Thursday only to give birth to a full-term baby the following month.

So, it makes sense for writers to create a style sheet as well. It would help them during rewrites when they can’t remember where Jason proposed to Ella, or that the Unqi people from the planet Gur say “peg-we” just before they kill you.

And it could make your editors' jobs easier if you provide them with all this wonderful information ahead of time. Why should you care about making an editor’s job easier? Because it means you’ll get your manuscript back more quickly. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t want their edited manuscript back “yesterday.”

So, what kinds of details should be include on a style sheet?

Title of the book
Point of view if it differs from previous works in a series
Formatting (chapter headers, indents, section breaks)
Characters’ names, chapter in which they first appear, ages, descriptions, odd traits, clothing—if important
Settings including addresses, descriptions, and topography
Unusual props, tools, items
Unusual spelling or vocabulary
Grammar and punctuation guidelines that differ from the norm
A timeline of events

I have a terrible memory and have always had trouble remembering details. When I first started writing, I had no knowledge of style sheets, but I knew I had to have something to help keep the details straight in my manuscript. My YA fantasy series about the "Library of Illumination" covers thirteen different worlds, each one distinctly different. To stay on track, I created pages on my website—that only I know how to access—where I keep all my “world-building” details. So, I guess you could say I recognized the need for style sheets early on. I just didn’t realize they already existed or know how wonderful it would be to share the information contained on them with my editors.

Oops. My bad.


January 2024
E – I – E – I – OH!

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The rhyme I learned in elementery school: "I before E except after C, or when sounded as A, as in neighbor and weigh" didn't quite hit the mark.


December 2023
The Holiday Season Is Upon Us

December has been crazy, and I haven't had time to put my thoughts together, but I'm hoping to rectify that in January as I work on editing my latest novel (in between proofreading jobs, of course) and move it toward publication. Perhaps we'll talk about editing software that helps with the process. Until then, my best wishes for a festive holiday season and a prosperous new year.


November 2023
So Many Editors, So Much Confusion

As a proofreader, I look for mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I want your work to be as error-free as possible so its flow is not interrupted by readers who suddenly stop to ask themselves, “Is that really how you spell dirigible?” A good copy editor also corrects those types of mistakes, so, what’s the difference between a proofreader and a copy editor?

Note: I should point out that the different types of readers and editors listed below are in the reverse order of when you actually need them.

A proofreader’s job is to make sure your completed manuscript, article, letter, etc., is technically correct. It is your last line of defense before going to print. Proofreaders are like the person at the circus who runs around after the animals in the ring with a bucket and a shovel. Cleanup. Not very glamorous, but imagine the mess without them.

A copy editor should be hired at an earlier stage in the writing process. They will point out problems with your spelling, grammar, and punctuation—just like a proofreader would—but more importantly, they’ll help you with content and flow. A good copy editor will call attention to problems with sentence structure and style and improve the readability of your work. They’ll look for double words (the the) and character inconsistencies (like the protagonist’s height changing from five-foot-nine in an early chapter to six-foot-four in a later one). They’ll point out if you use too many exclamation points, distracting dialog tags, or if the POV hops from one person to another mid-sentence. Sometimes, copyediting is referred to as line editing.

You may want to have some beta readers give you feedback from a regular reader’s point of view. You can just ask for their general observations, or, if something is bothering you, ask them specific questions. And while it is always nice to have your best friend and favorite aunt tell you how wonderful your writing is, you’re looking for non-biased feedback, so look for beta readers who aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings.

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

Early on, you may want to have a developmental editor look at your work. This should happen during the first stages of the writing process, probably around the time you complete your outline or first draft. A developmental editor will go over the basic structure and tell you what’s missing. Or what’s not necessary. A developmental edit will help you organize your thoughts and give you advice about quirks—like too many characters with similar names. Or white room syndrome, in which details that ground the setting are missing, so your characters may as well be speaking in a white room. And they can point out problems with character motivation and theme. To me, it makes more sense to have this done after you’ve written your first draft, so you can rewrite effectively before hiring a copyeditor or proofreader. Sometimes, a developmental editor is referred to as a substantive editor.

Every time your work is edited, it opens your writing up to the possibility of new mistakes in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. That’s why proofreading should be saved for last. Proofreaders are here to make sure the final product is as close to perfect as possible.


October 2023
Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules for Writing

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October 11 commemorates the late Elmore Leonard’s birthday. The American author and screenwriter was known for his westerns, crime novels, and suspense thrillers. In his honor, I’m blogging the bare bones of his Ten Rules for Writing, which were published in The New York Times in 2001. The original article is much longer, but I’m going to cut to the chase and give you the basics. If they stoke your imagination, you can do a little poking around to learn more.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing:

  1. Never open a book with weather.

  2. Avoid prologues.

  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!

  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Then there’s the un-numbered rule he used to sum up the list: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

I’m just giving you the bare bones here. I left out all the “hooptedoodle.” If you want to know more, google it.

I’m discussing this list because it deals directly with the process of copyediting. One of a copy editor’s jobs is to make a writer’s words more readable. Several of these rules, when followed, do the exact same thing.

Below is a button that should link you to the original article in the New York Times, however, I don’t know if you can access it without a subscription. If not, do a little digging. You’ll find it.

Happy birthday, Elmore Leonard.


September 2023
In the beginning . . .

I got it into my head that after twenty-five years of newswriting, copyediting, and being the author and publisher of twenty fiction and non-fiction books—not to mention having a general love of words—I would hang out my shingle as a proofreader and put myself to work. But aside from my books, I’ve never actually proofread for print before. So, I hunkered down and took a proofreading course that certified me.

Let me just say that the course was a humbling experience. The rules a proofreader needs to follow change with the category of writing being worked on. Books are different from transcripts, which are different from dissertations, which are nothing like journalism, or business letters, or science writing. So even though you may have the correct rules of grammar and punctuation for some forms of writing embedded in your brain, they can trip you up. It’s like the clothing in your closet. Even if those killer sherpa boots make you feel confident and sure of yourself, you probably shouldn’t wear them to an interview at a law firm. You need to select the right clothing and accessories for the occasion; the same holds true for proofreading guidelines.

I think it's fun to proofread authors—because I am one—and I understand how much my fellow writers cherish their words. My tools of the trade for that task would start with the Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. However, that’s not the only type of proofreading I do. When working on business brochures for a marketing firm, the Associated Press Stylebook and Webster’s New World College Dictionary are the tools I turn toward.

And the list of resources goes on. There’s the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, just to mention a few. Plus, the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, the New Century Dictionary, etc. Too bad they don’t all agree. Some will have you hyphenate compound words, while another will write them as two words without a hyphen, and a third will merge them into one single word. It’s like the old saying, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”

It took me a while to get into the process, all the while wondering if I was up to the task. And then, one day, I realized that it’s not just me second-guessing my ability. Everyone carries certain rules of grammar and punctuation with them from childhood, rules that they believe are completely accurate. And they’re right. The rules we’ve learned—work in certain situations. They just don’t work in all situations. And that’s why we need to hire a proofreader whenever we want our words to shine.

I used the inclusive “we” in my last sentence because (with the exception of this blog) I don't usually proofread my own work. I'm too close to it and after a while, I become blind to my own mistakes.

Don’t we all?