Friday, July 1, 2016

3 Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make


There are lists published on the Internet and in many how-to write fiction books stating the biggest mistakes new writers make. Some lists deal with storytelling, others craft elements, and others are wish lists by editors and agents on what mistakes they wish novice writers would stop making.

I have my own lists, but in this blog post, I want to address the three things I see as handicapping new writers and the self-published writer. They are:

1) Illusion vs. Reality.
The illusion— just because a writer got A's in English or praised for their writing in school, that qualifies them to write and publish their work without needed input from editors or beta readers or even other, more experienced writers and authors.

The reality is this— becoming a storyteller, not just the average writer, means finding out and learning precisely what the rules and guidelines are for writing fiction that sells.

Here's another reality check— By my last count, there are one hundred and forty-four (144) aspects to writing good fiction and telling a story well. How many do you know? How many have you mastered until they appear naturally a you write?

Another reality—
too many writers would rather write then learn fiction techniques and devices. Yet, here's the thing— talent will take a writer only so far. It is craft that enhances talent and liberates creativity. Best of all, craft can be learned.

Oh, right, the reality—
Learning is not fun, it's hard work. Writing is the fun stuff. Look at it this way: if you wanted to learn to swim, would you go and jump into the deep end of a pool?

Not a good idea you say? Well, you're right. You're more likely to drown then learn to swim. Instead, you would start in the shallow end of the pool with people who know how to swim and who would coach you, or you would take lessons from professionals at the pool's facility. You'd start off learning to float, advance to swim strokes, and if you really liked swimming and were good at it, you would take more lessons to learn breaststrokes and butterfly strokes. In other words, your talent for swimming would be boosted tremendously. Why, you might even be good enough to swim with the big guys in the Olympics.

As a writer, it's the same thing. Don't jump into the pool of writing, floundering, drowning in the sea of millions of other writers publishing on the Internet.

Here's another reality check, a statistic.
A few months ago I came across a statement that 4,500 books are added EACH DAY to the 15 million already out there. How is your book going to stand out? I likely won't unless it is a well told and well written story that appeals to readers.

So, make it your mission to become that special someone who has mastered fiction writing to become a true storyteller. Be that special someone who can grab and hold a reader's attention and take them on a fantastic journey.

2)Failure to understand what a story is and where a story actually starts.
  In a nutshell, a well-told story is about an interesting character in an interesting setting, facing an interesting problem. That interesting character is, of course, the protagonist and by the end of the tale he or she has solved the problem and learned a life-lesson or have achieved something valuable.

Unfortunately, it's not easy to get to the point of a story (the plot's theme). Stories tend to come in bits and pieces, what-ifs, and so on. There's figuring out the setting, who's who in the story, ad infinitum.

Rarely are the first words written down the beginning of the story. In actuality (the reality), ninety-percent of what the writer knows won't go into the story. That's right, only ten percent of all that information a writer has to know to figure out the story ends up being what is necessary for the reader to know to enjoy the story.

However, the story can't be distilled and knitted into a tale worth a reader's hard earned money without the writer's explorations into plot and extrapolations of characters.

Think of it this way—
writing is like looking at an iceberg. Ten percent floats above the sea. The ninety percent below sea level supports the visible. 

Or, you might think of it as the writer writes a snowstorm of words but a storyteller is master of sculpting that snow, compacting it, into brilliant worlds of wonder and awe.

3) Failure to join a writer's group before attempting to publish (be that traditionally, self-publish or independently published) and to understand the quality of fiction writing needed for a story to appeal to readers (including editors and agents).

The reality is that only another writer knows what a writer goes through from the idea that sparks a story to the finished, camera-ready or digital-ready copy. In the current publishing world, it's also necessary that writers market their own work, regardless of who publishes the book.

And again, drawing on the analogy of learning to swim from earlier in this post— it's a lot easier to learn to swim with others who are learning and from those that have already mastered how to swim.

In addition to joining a writer's group, a writer can teach themselves about the various aspects of a novel or short story. However, to test that knowledge or to figure out the full impact of an aspect, it helps to know people who have successfully used it, understand the pros and cons of it, and why and how to tweak the "guidelines" or "rules" because there is a valid reason to do so.

Another reality check— a writer should be a voracious reader. This helps avoid cliched or tropes that are unsalable.

In addition, reading helps learn things by osmosis. That is, by reading good storytelling, the subconscious mind better understands the underpinnings of a story or a character's arc (even if the conscious mind doesn't).

Another aspect is to fully understand that words have weight, connotation, denotation, and a sound. There are even degrees, like pique is not the same thing as wrath (the two are extremes of anger). Same for love, hate, etc. In other words, a storyteller is a wordsmith.

Some reading this will keep their blinders on because the fantasy of writing and creating is what gives them a life-high. Reality burst such bubbles. And yet, reality is the key to success. Learning can be fun. And nothing beats the fireworks-burst of joy when readers crave your stories.

NEXT UPDATE TO THIS BLOG: October 1 —  Structured Creativity Liberates
 Click on the logo to get FREE Cheat Sheets for - 

What is Story?

10 Types of Writers

POV-Viewpoint - how hard is it to learn

Also available:  Terrific Titles - the all-inclusive Guide to Creating Story Titles

Friday, April 1, 2016

Said is dead... Really?

Another list of synonyms and words to substitute for "said" came in my email box recently. From time to time, I copy such lists and file them in my "verb" binder because they remind me not to follow such rhetoric.

However, before I hit the delete button on this latest list for said substitutes, I realized the words came from a list being used in grade school. Students who are given such lists are being encouraged to broaden their verb vocabularies, which is a good thing. Only what is good for the student isn't necessarily good when writing fiction.

Okay, so technically said is a verb, but it can also be an adjective. More importantly, when writing fiction, said is part of a speech tag that shows who's talking. The trouble with most substitutes for said is that they constitute "telling" not "showing." When writing fiction, showing is better than telling. For example, if a person wrote: "You did it," John said, pointing his finger at Matt. This is a basic bit of dialogue with a speech tag that has a beat (or stage business).

Yet, what really shows the accusation is the dialogue itself, "You did it" coupled with the stage business (or beat) of "pointing his finger at Matt." Then again, this can be shown even better as: John pointed his finger at Matt. "You did it!"

On the other hand, if you follow the rhetoric of swapping words, like "accused" for said, you get: "You did it, Matt," John accused. This is not only awkward but also blatant telling. Sadly, I see too much of this in newbie writers' manuscripts and in self- and independently-published novels.

Other things I noticed on the list of said substitutes were such words as barked, bawled, bleated, and bubbled. You can't bark and talk at the same time. That's a physical impossibility. Okay, so commands can be "barked out" by someone giving orders. For example: The sergeant barked out, "Give me twenty!" Every recruit dropped to the ground and did twenty pushups.

Out of curiosity, I checked a more lengthy list (four pages) that was in my file. I wondered how many were "telling" verbs, and how many could safely be swapped when writing fiction. Here's what I discovered:

    Total words on the list: 397
    Number of words that worked as listed when swapped out for said: 8 (hollered, yelled, shouted, whispered, muttered, mumbled, replied, and answered).
    Number of words that worked if "out" was added to them: 35  

(examples: barked out, cried out, blurted out, hissed out, and wheezed out).
    That left a balance of 354 synonyms for said.

Some of those remaining synonyms were rather odd words that should be avoided, like: bossed, preached, professed, empathized, acquiesced, ad-libbed, advocated, foretold, granted, decreed, nagged, itemized, and resumed. (They are "telling" not "showing.")

There were also some baffling words on the list. One was exclaimed, which is so cliched because if there is an exclamation point, the reader knows the words are exclaimed. Then there was whistled. I would like to hear dialogue whistled, wouldn't you?

Of course, if pages of fiction are peppered with saids, something should be done to not only eliminate as many saids as possible but to also convert most of those "telling" words into beats or stage business.

However, if you've drafted a story using synonym substitutes for said, perhaps you should resurrect a few saids. After all, to most readers, said is as invisible as the word "the."

For the remaining synonyms you've used for said, consider those red-flag words of warning to revise and show instead of tell.
 Click on the logo to get FREE Cheat Sheets for
What is Story?
10 Types of Writers
POV-Viewpoint - how hard is it to learn

Also available:  Terrific Titles - the all-inclusive Guide to Creating Story Titles

# # #

Friday, January 1, 2016

2016 - New Year, new format

January, February, March Edition

In order to have a real relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to cultivate it.  –Julia Cameron

Do you believe a writer is born not made?

Do you believe that something as intrinsic as storytelling cannot be taught?

Do you believe that there is something mysterious about the creative process?

Well, I'm a realist. I believe that the true definition of a writer is what Sol Stein said: "A writer is someone who cannot not write."

That is, regardless of whether or not said writer ever gets published or self-publishes, they cannot stop writing the story or the stories of their heart.

But here's what strikes me as curious—newbie writers think what they've been taught about English and prose is good enough for writing fiction. It's not. Why? Because it takes a step-by-step learning process to master techniques and devices of fiction writing to tell a story so well that readers cannot put the story down until they get to "the end."

And let me be the first to burst the bubble about creativity. It's nothing more than your imagination. That imagination is part of your subconscious. That imagination is part of who you are. It's not to be feared or put on a pedestal like some god. So, get to know that imagination, your child within who thinks outside the box to create stories.

Now, think about this:

If you want to swim and compete in a swimming contest or Olympics, do you go to the nearest pool and jump into the deep end, expecting your instinct will allow you to swim lap upon lap like a pro?

Chances are you'll sink to the bottom and drown. To learn to swim you might go to the Y and take a fundamental swimming course, then you advance to other courses that teach techniques and styles of swimming. You practice. You learn to swim well, and then you enter a meet and test yourself against other swimmers to see where you stand.

If you want to win first place in a horse competition, you don't buy a horse and then enter a horse show. You buy the horse, you get someone to teach you the basics of how to ride and control the horse. Then you advance to a riding instructor that teaches you to be one with the horse, to sit properly in the saddle, to balance properly, to control the horse with your body movements.  Then you test your ability in the show ring.

If you want to learn to break boards with a karate chop, you don't just slap a plank. You take karate lessons, starting with the fundamentals and working up to that chop.

Can you name any endeavor that doesn't require understanding techniques? 

Oh, so you think because you got A's in English and your teachers say you have a flare for prose that you know fiction writing? Think again. I have cataloged 144 aspects to fiction writing. All have to be mastered in order to tell a story well and which are needed to engage a reader and submerge them in a story world.

So if you want to go from writing the ordinary, pedestrian, and amateur stories and novels to writing ones that will stand out among the 4,500 new works being added each day to the already fifteen million books currently being published, isn't it time to learn the craft elements of fiction and storytelling? 

And here's the beauty of it—

            Writers are self-taught.

The information is out there. The courses, classes, tutoring, mentoring, and self-help books, videos, workshops, and conference. There are even writer's groups that should be joined in order to learn craft elements, bounce ideas off of, and get the facts about storytelling that works.

Talent only takes a writer so far. It's craft that enhances and liberates creativity. Craft can be learned.

May your New Year be one of where your writing resolutions are fulfilled.

Wishing you much success with all your writing,

Catherine E. McLean

***Comments are always welcome. Questions are always answered.

Connect with Catherine HERE  and join her private email list for updates to this blog and for notices of upcoming courses and workshops.

****As announced last month, the Writers Cheat Sheet Blog is going to a quarterly update this year so I have more time to write stories as well as making time for the many workshops and courses I'm scheduled to present.

Next topic (April, May, June): Said is not Dead    

Upcoming online workshops -
"Hooks" for NEORWA, January 10-24, 2016
"Cause & Effect Sequences" for Pennwriters, Feb. 1-29, 2016  

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

December 2015 — Read It Again

 #12 Revision is a Process
This is Part 12 of a 12-part series on Revision is a Process @ 2015 All Rights Reserved

When revising, the focus should be on clarity, with vigilance to the exact meaning of words and how they provide vivid imagery. - Catherine E. McLean

A first draft holds the possibility of what will be a great story. Revision turns that rough diamond into a spectacular gem worth a reader's money and time.

If you have systematically gone through your manuscript
and made changes for all the elements covered in this year's twelve-part series on revision, now it's time to print a fresh hard copy to read it through.

This read-through is to make sure all the changes you made worked to better the flow and to create vivid word pictures. As you read, use a red pen (or other vivid colored pen) to mark any  typos or spelling or homonym errors you might discover.

Once done fixing those final read-through glitches, you may think your manuscript is the best you can make it, but it isn't ready for the world just yet. Now it's time to give your manuscript to someone who will give you honest, "reader" feedback. That's right, you want "fresh eyes" to see the story. You want beta readers.

How do you find beta readers? One way is to network on blogs for your genre, or by going to writing conferences or workshops and making friends with people who like to read your genre.

If you're planning on going the self-published or independently-published route, you need not only beta readers but also the best fiction editor you can afford. With 4,500 books a day being added to the already 15 million available, your works needs to stand out from the rest, and that means quality storytelling that's been ruthlessly self-edited and then edited professionally.

As always, persevere in telling a story well.

One last thing, in 2016, the Writers Cheat Sheet Blog will be updated quarterly instead of monthly. I'm changing the schedule because of the increased workshop and course instructions I'll be doing. I also want time to write and market my own fiction. So, the topics for 2016 will be:

     January, February, and March 2016 - Become the writer you want to be
     April, May and June 2016 - Said is not Dead
     July, August, and September 2016 - 3 Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make
     October, November, and December 2016 - Structured Creativity Liberates


Have a Happy Holiday Season and a Wonderful New Year,

Catherine E. McLean   

**** WARNING – the free PDFs that went with this series will be removed Jan. 1st, 2016.
*** Questions and comments are welcomed and are always answered.

*** Permission is granted to forward a link to this blog or mention it on any social media.

*** Upcoming 2016 Workshops: 
             January - HOOKS
                    February - CAUSE & EFFECT SEQUENCES
        Information is at:

*** IN 2016, these posts will be put into one file for downloading. To be notified when this is available, Connect With Catherine at

*** "Terrific Titles—an all inclusive guide to creating story titles" and other Writers Cheat Sheets are available HERE.

***Free Holiday Recipes!
# # #

Sunday, November 1, 2015

#11 Revision is a Process

 November 2015 --- Punctuation Pitfalls 
                                 & Grammar Glitches
 This is Part 11 of a 12-part series on Revision is a Process @ 2015 - Catherine E. McLean - All Rights Reserved
Voice won't matter if the reader can't get past grammatical errors flaring brighter than fireworks on the 4th of July. — Flo Fitzpatrick

You don't have to be a grammar guru or an English major to be a good writer. However, what you need to become, and strive for, is the awareness of the sound of silence or the pause of emphasis that punctuation adds to the narrative and how they make the words flow.

To put it another way, you have to develop an inner ear that hears the pause and a mind that knows whether that's you mentally taking a breath or it's a legitimate pause that requires a piece of punctuation.

Punctuation provides the road signs for the reader so they can grasp the sound and flow of the words. So, let's look at—


Period = Halt/Stop, then go on

Comma = a "brief-breath pause" to separate or set off words, clauses, or phrases

Ellipses = RED FLAG - DANGER: When writing genre fiction, an ellipses means TO TRIAL OFF (nothing else). If your text or dialogue isn't trailing off to nothingness, don't use ellipses. Likely you need a period or a dash or the sentence restructured.

Italics = emphasis, telepathic conversation, answering oneself, foreign names, unfamiliar terms, etc. Resist using italics for one word or words with three or fewer letters. Why? Because they go unseen. You might hear the emphasis, but chances are your reader won't. And, do not pepper a page with italics or fill pages with italics. (Yes, there exceptions, there are always exceptions.)

Underlining = on hard copy it indicates italics (see italics above)

ALL CAPS = shouting (to be used rarely). When combined with an exclamation point, it is yelling, rage, or extreme excitement.

Exclamation Point = emphasis, surprise, excitement (sounds two to four octaves higher when read) RED FLAG DANGER: it's overused to the point of peppering pages and dialogue. Limit yourself to one exclamation point per chapter.

= an abrupt truncation of dialogue or thought— or an interruption to add in a new thought, explanation or information. (Like I just did.)

A pair of dashes usually sets off inserted material—like this—but again, don't pepper pages with dashes. PLEASE NOTE: Dashes dash along so the reader keeps reading. Dashes take the place of semicolons and colons in informal writing and genre fiction.

Question Mark = a question has been asked

SYMBOLS –RED FLAG DANGER: Do not use symbols when storytelling, it stops the reader in their tracks and takes them out of the story.

= same general use as for dashes but usually used for irony, a first-person, or stream-of-consciousness narrative, etc.

Asterisk = one asterisk could be placed at the start and stop of telepathic conversations that are italicized. Three asterisks with a space between on a line is a mechanical device that indicates a major scene break in a story, however, for the reader's sake, use words of transition whenever possible.

—UNSUITABLE FOR GENRE FICTION: Colons, semicolons, brackets, bolding, and a change of font or text size

Now for a closer look at the piece of punctuation that gives writers headaches and drives editors nuts—the comma.


Although the comma is the workhorse of fiction and most writing venues, writers often suffer "comma trauma." As mentioned earlier, in the heat of drafting a writer hears a pause, but in actuality, that pause was the writer taking a breath.

That's why it's important to do one revision pass and look at every comma used. Verify that each is necessary. If in doubt, remove the comma. Does the passage or sentence still make sense and how does the rhythm of the sentence change as a result?

Another pitfall of comma usage is the "comma conjunction."
There are two basic problems with comma-conjunctions: 1) the comma is necessary but it's missing, and 2) a comma has been inserted but it doesn't join two sentences.

When revising, do two separate passes for the comma conjunction.  One will be for "and" and the other will be for "but."  You see, those two words link most compound sentences. When you find "and" or "but," triple check that you have two separate sentences. If you have two, insert the comma. If you don't, continue searching and verifying.

But wait a minute. If you joined two sentences, how long is that combined sentence? Long sentences tend to be convoluted and awkward, which forces a reader to stop and go back to reread.  And as has been said many times in this year's posts, you don't want the reader stopping. You want them to stay immersed in your story.

Now, the average sentence is twenty words, or so the experts claim. It's okay to have long sentences but if in doubt, here's a simple test: read that combined sentence out loud. Did you run out of breath? If so, it's too long. Break the sentences apart. And when you read such combined sentences out loud, do listen carefully for how the words flow. Does anything sound awkward? Maybe you need to not only break the sentences part but restructure them for better flow.

However, the more common problem with conjunction commas is that they are missing. Again, to locate where those commas should be added in, find "and" and "but" and see if you have two sentences that need to be joined.

Moving on, we come to the pitfall of the introductory clause comma-trauma. An introductory clause needs a comma to separate the clause from the main sentence. Seems easy enough, but in the heat of drafting, those commas often go missing. Again, do a separate pass through your work to check the beginning of your sentences. Do you have clauses that need commas? If you are not sure of what an introductory clause is, maybe it's time you brushed up on comma usage with a grammar manual.


As to grammar glitches, the main one is the use of passive verbs and passive sentence constructions. Not all are bad, but a high percentage weakens the vividness of the storytelling. Examples of passiveness are:

The man was bitten by the dog.
The mailman was going down the sidewalk.
The children were happily playing hopscotch.
The flowers looked pretty in the sunlight.
The tree shaded the riverbank.
She wore a hat.

Passiveness is also a hallmark of telling. It's better to show:

The Doberman bit Mike. (Better is: The Doberman sank its teeth into Mike's ankle.)

The mailman strode up the sidewalk toward Mrs. Black's cottage.

As they played hopscotch, the four sisters laughed so hard none could complete their turns.

Sunlight glossed the ruby-red tulips and gilded their yellow centers.

The oak's ancient branches, newly leafed, offered a mottled shade along the river's bank.

A pink pillbox hat perched on top of Mrs. Brown's head of curly gray hair.
Here are the red-flag words that often indicate passiveness:

                LY ending words
                ING ending words

Then look for abstract words like:

generic descriptions of colors (you want to be specific and give a visual of the shade or hue of the color— it's not red but crimson)

generic flora and fauna (not a flower but a rose, not a tree but a hemlock)

not small but as small as an ant
not tall but as tall as a skyscraper
not big but as big as a bus
not short but knee-high

Let me repeat— to tell a story well is to cultivate an inner ear that "hears" the way words flow as well as the imagery specific words that help the reader see a vivid movie in their mind of the story you envisioned. Reading a manuscript's text out loud can help uncover problems.  Reading great storyteller's books out loud can help you better hear good writing.

*** This blog is updated the 1st of each month and the next topic is December 2015 — Read It Again

----MARK YOUR CALENDARS FOR these workshop—both are open to all writers:

 JANUARY 10-24, 2016 "HOOKS"–an online workshop I'm doing for Northeast Ohio Romance Writers


FEBRUARY 1-29, 2016 CAUSE AND EFFECT SEQUENCES sponsored by Pennwriters.

 More workshop listings are available at

*** Questions and comments are welcomed and are always answered.

*** If you'd like recommendations on how-to books about devices and techniques of fiction, contact me.

*** Permission is granted to forward a link to this blog or mention it on any social media.

*** IN 2016, these posts will be put into one file for downloading. To be notified when this is available, Connect With Catherine

*** "Terrific Titles—an all inclusive guide to creating story titles."  Other Writers Cheat Sheets are available HERE.

# # #