Wednesday, August 2, 2017

August 2017 - Common English Simplified?

In general, fiction is divided into 'literary fiction' and 'commercial fiction.' Nobody can definitively say what separates one from the other, but that doesn't stop everybody (including me) from trying. Your book probably will be perceived as one or the other, and that will affect how it is read, packaged and marketed. Nancy Kress

Do you know the reading level of the average person?

Do you know the reading level of those you expect to read your fiction or nonfiction?

Do you even care?

Well, you should care.

You see, too many writers forget that using simple language helps a reader enjoy what they read. The exception, of course, is dialogue. In that case, the words must be in the voice of the speaker.

I believe every writer should, now and then, run their work through the F-K test. F-K stands for the Flesch-Kincaid. The F-K calculates how difficult a passage in English is to understand. The test includes not only the words but also their meaning and the overall meaning of a sentence or a paragraph.

The F-K includes two tests. One is the Flesch Reading Ease. The other is the Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level. Both use word length and sentence length. However, the two weigh different factors. The result is that text with a high score on Reading Ease nets a low score on the Grade Level test. And that's a good thing to keep in mind.

The F-K scale is so useful it comes with word processing programs like WordPerfect and WordPro. For Microsoft Word users, you'll have to check: http://casemed.case.edu/cpcpold/students/module4/Word_Readability.pdf

When I began writing genre fiction, I was told to strive for a 6th grade level and not exceed 8th-9th grade level. That was wise advice. After all, it's the job of a writer to put words on a page so that the reader instantly grasps imagery, ideas, and meanings.

How about taking the time to test a section of your work? Where does it fall on the F-K scale? Feel free to share your findings with a comment to this blog.

P.S.— For the curious, I use WordPerfect as a word processing program. Here's what this post netted on the Flesch-Kincaid score➡





***Next topic:   September - To Trope or Not To Trope

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

July - The Greatest Pronoun Reference Error






Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar. — E. B. White






It is what it is or is it?

Let's get one thing straight about the use of pronouns when writing fiction:  A pronoun refers back to the LAST USED NOUN.

Pronouns are valuable because they substitute for repeating a noun or name over and over again, but you don't have to go overboard using pronouns. Too many he, she, or it pronouns can pepper pages and at some point, and on a subconscious level, those repetitions will turn a good story into a not-so-good story for the reader.

In your revision process (you do have one, right?), make a special pass to check the pronouns you've put on your pages. What do they actually refer to? Remember, clarity trumps all rules and, therefore, you can repeat a noun-name. Again, it's better to rewrite for clarity then adhere to the strict rules of grammar.

As to the pronoun that causes the greatest problems? That would be the word it. Here are examples where it needs more clarity:


    A)  He saw it hesitate when it turned its head. Although it looked exactly like a bird of paradise, it was not.


There are 5 repetitions of it. If you've been following this blog, you also know there are a couple of other problems with the sentences. I won't elaborate because this post is about pronouns. You can, however, leave a comment if you know what else went wrong in these sentences.

    B) The wound still bleeds. Should I put it out of its misery?

I'd like to see someone put a wound out of its misery, wouldn't you?

    C)     The wind ruffled his hair as it blew in from the ocean.
   
Personally, I've never seen hair blow in from an ocean. 


As you can see, it is not about what a writer means, it's about using the correct words to clarify and help a reader form an image in their mind. 


***The topic for August is Common English Simplified?



 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

June 2017 - Don't Start Where You Started






Like many writers, I started by writing short stories. I needed to learn how to write and stories are the most practical way to do this, and less soul-destroying than working your way through a lengthy novel and then discovering it's rubbish. — Kate Atkinson
 
Where does a story really start? 


You've likely heard that the first three chapters or the first 100 pages of what you initially wrote of a story should be cut because that isn't where the story really started.

Ahem—I disagree with that thinking. You see, those words and pages were actually where the story started FOR YOU—you needed that information in order to write the rest of the story.
   
Much of that foundation was likely world building information and characterizational skits or vignettes so you, the writer, get to know the lay of the land and the characters. It's like an iceberg, 10% is seen above water, but it's the 90% below the waterline that support it. In essence, only 10% of what the writer learns about all the aspects of their tale will make it into the story because the reader doesn't need all that information.

The real problem comes in trying to decide where the story actually begins. The answer is that a story begins with an interesting character, in an interesting setting, facing an interesting problem or dilemma. Of course, that interesting character is the protagonist. After all, a story depends on one person's struggle with a problem.
   
The start of a story is also the point where the protagonist's ordinary life takes a nose dive into the abyss of an uncertain future of trials and tribulations, even a face-off with an antagonist that seems overwhelming.

Here's a secret in decoding the start of a story—ask: Where does life for the protagonist change and they can no longer go on as they had been before? This will be the scene where they are confronted by the story problem (or get an inkling of the problem) and must decide to (or be forced to) tackle the problem.

Even the protagonist that decides to shun the problem eventually finds they have to step in because the consequence are too great to ignore.


********July's topic will be  - The Greatest Pronoun Reference Error





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Monday, May 1, 2017

2017 - May - Nightmares for Authors— Freudian Slips, Miscommunications, or Worse

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT! 
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Onward to this month's blog post —


He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips, betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. —Sigmund Freud



The can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees syndrome strikes authors all the time. We are so close to our work and the creation of our fiction and fantastic stories that we are not aware of minor miscommunication between our conscious and subconscious brains that result in problems, like Freudian slips.

A Freudian slip is an involuntary word substitution that supposedly reveals something you're repressing, hiding, or simply trying not to talk about. On the plus side, such faux pas are the tools a writer can use to mangle a character's speech and add levity to the story, or at least at that point in the story.

Technically a Freudian slip is a parapraxis, which is 'big word' but it really is a minor, inadvertent memory mistake, one linked to the unconscious mind.

Such slips are even said to reveal the unconscious's secret thoughts, beliefs, wishes, and feelings. A great many Freudian slips seem to have a basis in sex drives or sexual repression. For instance, someone calls his or her spouse by an ex's name. A character, too, can do that and so that's something worth keeping in the draft if your intent is levity, or realism.

Of course, many Freudian slips lead to laughter, after all, laughter breaks the tension of the shock and embarrassment of what you realize you wrote (or said) or how you let your mind wander.

Such slips of the keyboard or pen include writing a scientific explanation between a hero who's smitten by the heroine and explaining, "The orgasm multiplies exponentially." instead of "The organisms . . . "

And while drafting a scene to a medieval romance, I once described the castle's giant fireplace as being sex men wide (instead of six men wide). I'm still trying to live that one down with my critique group.

Have you made any Freudian slips in your writing or stories? Have you found one in print? Please share one in the comments because I would love to collect a few more for my files.

*****June's topic will be Don't Start Where You Started— Start Where the Story Really Begins


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Saturday, April 1, 2017

2017 - April - Break the rules?

     Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are a kind of magic; their purpose is to be invisible. If the sleight of hand works, we will not notice a comma or a quotation mark but will translate each instantly into a pause or an awareness of voice . . .  Janet Burroway (Writing Fiction)

 
Do You Really Need to Know What's 
Behind 'The Rule' Before You Break or Tweak It?





 
This is the cardinal rule:  When writing fiction, nothing must stop the reader and take them out of the enjoyment of the story. 

That's also what creates the magic in reading something written by a storyteller.

Interestingly enough, the fastest way to break the magic spell and jerk a reader out of a story is to use semicolons, colons, brackets, and adhere to the use of proper and formal grammar and punctuation.

Most of the newly self-published or independently-published writers don't realize the rules for grammar and punctuation, the rules for sentence structures, and all the other "rules" for writing they were taught do not necessarily apply to writing fiction.

Why is that?

It's because of the narrative voice coming off the page
. Be that voice one of the omniscient storyteller or an actual character, that voice will have a distinct vocabulary, diction, and syntax. More importantly, that narrative voice will be highly opinionated. To impose strict rules of grammar and punctuation stilts that voice so it sound unnatural. In other words, the narrative voice has to sound true for not only spoken dialogue but also for internalizations and telepathic conversations.

This tweaking and breaking of the rules particularly applies to the deep third person POV-Viewpoint and the I-persona of the first person POV-Viewpoint. These two are where one specific voice narrates everything for the duration of the story or a scene.


I'm all for creating the magic that keeps a reader engrossed in the story, are you?

*********Next month's topic will be Nightmares for Authors— Freudian Slips, Miscommunications, or Worse

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

2017 - March - Sensory Illusion or Delusion?

Not creating delusions is enlightenment. Bodhidharma
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/delusions.html
Not creating delusions is enlightenment. Bodhidharma
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/delusions.html

Not creating delusions is enlightenment. - Bodhidharma
Not creating delusions is enlightenment. Bodhidharma
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/delusions.html



So you're thinking about writing a book or are writing one. Did you know that 81% of the population thinks they have an idea for a book? As I post this, the world population total has ticked past 7,487,760,700. I was going to do the math for the 81%, but my calculator didn't have enough slots for entering a billion. So here's another figure for you—as of the fall of 2016, in the U.S. there were 4,500 books a day being added to the already 15 million out there. 

With so many books being written and self- or independently-published, how hard can it be to write a book?

The answer
could depend on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. 




It also depends on how well the left and right halves of your brain communicate. Most of the time they are at war with each other. You see, the left brain is logic and the right brain is creativity. It's also a fact that logic will always trump creativity. So, technically, neither side can write a book without the mutual cooperation of the other.

Over the years, I've concluded that most writers believe in the mysticism of their creative selves, their Muse. That it produces the magic that is a story.

Hogwash. There is no mysticism, no muse, but there is the imagination. The imagination is part and parcel of the subconscious left brain where creativity, insight, intuition, feelings, and, most importantly, non-verbal communication dwells. In other words, the imagination doesn't talk, it delivers feelings, imagery, etc., up to the conscious, logical brain. It's up to the logical mind to translate. Logic is how we
make sense of everything we perceive. And that's why Logic will always trump Creativity.

And therein is created another problem. Should creativity actually produce a completed novel, logic will point out the fallacies, the unbelievableness, and grammar and syntax errors. That means countless rewrites and revision, all of which can become so overwhelming that a writer sets the work aside and moves on to another story. After all, imagineering a story is always more fun.

But the downside soon rears its head. Logic says there are problems with the tale, with the characters, with just about everything and if that tale gets published without great editing, what reader will give it a good-read rating?

The creative self might say
that if everyone's turning out novels, writing a book must be easy. Yet logic whispers that writing a good book, one readers will give five-star ratings to or ones that makes best-seller status, will not be easy at all. The truth lies in the logic
talent will take you only so far, that knowledge and practice of the art and craft of fiction writing enhances and liberates creativity. Best of all, craft can be learned, resulting in a story worth a reader's purchase and enjoyment. 


So, which of your two brain halves thinks writing a novel is an illusion (considered magical by naive observers) or delusion (an erroneous belief that is held in the face of evidence to the contrary)? 

The truth lies in the logic.

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****Next month's topic is What's Behind the Rules?


I wonder how many reading this will get the pun of my closing line. A simple "got it" comment would be nice.

 


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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

2017 February -- Eye and Brain Coordination?



... The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning-bug and
lightning. — Mark Twain


Eye coordination is the ability of both eyes to work together as a team.
Each eye sees a slightly different image when it gazes at or focuses on something. The brain, through a process called fusion, blends the two eye-images into one three-dimensional picture. 


Proofreading using a tablet, laptop, or computer screen is highly ineffective because those screens are pixels that move, making it doubly difficult to focus on each letter typed onto the screen, let alone an entire manuscript of words. If you must proofread on your computer, here's a tip: change the font to Courier or Courier New and zoom the text up to 125% or 130% view. Why Courier or Courier New? Because that is a non-proportional font which is extremely easy for the eyes to see each letter because the letters are the same size. Proportional fonts, like Times New Roman, cram letters together because an L is not the same width as an M, etc. 

Can you read this—


    For emaxlpe, it deson’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aepapr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm ... S1M1L4RLY, Y0UR M1ND 15 R34D1NG 7H15 4U70M471C4LLY W17H0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17.
   

I'll bet you barely hiccuped skimming through the words
because, you see, your brain is a code cracking machine that logically wants order and so it creates order out of misspelled words.

This code-cracking is also what happens when you've read and proofread your manuscript only to find glitches and typos went unnoticed until an editor or reader spots them.

People will tell you to become a better proofreader
, as if that was all there was to it. Proofreading is an essential in any writer's or author's toolkit. Only gaining mastery of proofreading isn't easy because first you have to recognize it's a skill— one that can be learned.

Secondly, in order to stop the mind from code-cracking and skimming over words, you have to slow down and look at each word, get your eyes to focus, and give your eyes time to look at EVERY word, comprehend its meaning, and then move on to the next word. Which means, the best and most productive way to proofread is going to be with hard copy.

Of course there are tricks
to slowing the eye-mind mangling. They are:

Trick #1 -  begin at the bottom right of the page and read to the left before going UP to the next line and going from right to left (and doing so all the way up to the top of the page).

Trick #2 - Using two rulers or two pieces of white paper, place one tool above and the other under a sentence. This will single out the words and cut down the clutter of letters so the eyes can focus on individual words. Do one sentence at a time and move your tools down the page, sentence by sentence.

Trick #3 - Using your word processing program, find the end of every sentence's punctuation and return carriage three times. This separates the sentences and allows for better focus on the words. This method will also showcase long sentences as well as verifying you have a variety of sentence lengths (which is a good thing).

Try all three methods to find one that works best for you. Yes, these methods take time, but the result will be well worth the effort.

Then keep in mind:


1. Concentration is key - Proofreading requires concentration, patience, and time. Prepare mentally. Ensure that you are not tired, rushed, or distracted. Get rid of distractions and potential interruptions. (Switch off the cell phone, turn off the television, or radio, and stay away from emails.)

2. Run a hard copy and read it out loud. Reading out loud means you can listen and hear errors your eyes miss.

3. Trust no word. Read each word of text, each sentence, and each paragraph slowly and carefully. Take nothing for granted. Watch for small word errors, like an, and, of, form/from, is, it, the. These are easy to miss, but more often then not, those words are actually missing from the text and need to be inserted.

4. Double-check numbers. Are you following AP (Associated Press, journalism style) or the Chicago Manual of Style (which publishers of fiction use)? If writing fiction, and with only a very few exceptions, all numbers are written as words. That's because a reader is reading and creating a movie in their mind.

5. Take regular breaks to avoid fatigue and eye strain. Don't rush. Allow twenty minutes or more of a break to give your eyes a rest.

6. Proofread more than once. Allow a day or more before going back through a short story manuscript that you've just proofread. A surprising number of errors can be found in the second (or third) pass. For novel length, it may take a week or more before the story fades enough to proofread.

7. Have a list of specifics you need to look for. In other words, use a Revision Cheat Sheet. This will help you manage your time and not feel overwhelmed by proofreading. And do look for one type of problem at a time.

8. Trust a good dictionary. The fluidity of the language means new words get added and words that were once hyphenated no longer are.

One final comment.
There are proofreading sites online and most word processing programs have grammar and spell checkers, but if you trust them, you're shooting yourself in the foot. For example, it is:
   
    a SASE (a self-addressed, stamped envelope)
    a history lesson

Not:

    an SASE (an self-addressed, stamped envelope)
    an history lesson
   
To be a great storyteller means getting the eyes and brain working as a team so every word that you put on the page is the correct one.


 ****Next month's topic is Sensory Delusion


Available Spring 2017- REVISION IS A PROCESS


Available now - TERRIFIC TITLES
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Sunday, January 1, 2017

2017 January - Four Major Bloopers and Blunders to Avoid


    "The only thing you own are the skills in your hands and the knowledge in your mind." – Mac Slavo

 

    This year the Writers Cheat Sheet blog returns to first-of-the-month topics. We begin the year with discussing four major bloopers and blunders. 


Some people think bloopers and blunders are the same thing, but there is a difference:

      — A blooper is an embarrassing mistake.

      — A blunder is to commit a faux pas or make a serious mistake or be
clumsy.

For a writer, and in addition to the usual typos, grammar glitches, and punctuation pitfalls, blunders also include heavy-handed prose, going off on tangents, pontificating, and other elements that turn readers off.

Unless you're a genius of a writer and storyteller, who turns out a perfect manuscript the first try, most first drafts are riddled with an assortment of bloopers and blunders. What I'm about to address is not the nitpicking stuff but major bloopers and blunders that have to do with basic techniques and devices of great fiction. Devices and techniques that are not taught in schools. A few writers learn fiction techniques and devices by osmosis because they are extremely avid readers. Other writers learn such skills by studying and taking courses on how to write good fiction.

Over the years, I've accumulated a list of sixteen craft blunders and bloopers,
which appear in the manuscripts of contest entries and the work of novices and self-published writers. I have also made this "C.E.McLean-16 Bloopers & Blunders List" into a free Writers Cheat Sheet, which is available HERE

Of those sixteen items, four top my list as chronic.
It's not a matter of reading about the craft skills, it's a matter of understanding and mastering them that will set a work apart from everyone else's in the e-universe and the realms of publishing. The four are:

        1) Point of View (POV) and Viewpoint
        2) Show, Don't Tell
        3) Cause-Effect Sequences
        4) Dialogue (both internal and spoken, plus dialogue mechanics)

Why is POV-Viewpoint number one? Because 90% of the story depends on who is narrating.

Notice I did not say first-person, second-person, or third-person narration. Those are pronouns. Keep in mind that the voice coming up off the page, the voice a reader hears, is the true storyteller of a tale. For example, as you read this post, you hear my voice in your mind. It's one distinct voice. It's not a hodgepodge or a mix of viewpoints. Believe it or not, for readers, the simply told tale works best. Which means a writer must pick and adhere to using an effective narrator to tell the tale.

Next on the list is Show, Don't Tell.
POV-Viewpoint affects all aspects of show-don't-tell. In the majority of reader-favored stories, showing is preferred over telling. Showing allows for high emotions and high drama. It allows for a vividness that helps create a motion picture in the readers mind as the reader reads. It's the difference between writing "dog" and "Doberman."

However, most writers' schooling is about "telling" and "reporting"
which enables them to communicate in the world. It's not about writing quality fiction.

Of course, POV-Viewpoint that shows means
the narrator, that voice coming up and off a page, the voice the reader hears in their mind, is the witness who observers and who draws conclusions based on their background and experiences in life. They will, in their own vocabulary, diction, and syntax, relate the tale with their highly biased and opinionated view of what transpires.

As to number three on my list, Cause-and-Effect Sequences,
that's as hard a subject to grasp as POV-Viewpoint. But there is one "red-flag" word that should be looked for when self-editing a work. That word is "as" and especially when it leads a clause at or near the end of a sentence. Nine times out of ten, that "as" indicates a reversed or skewed cause-effect. For example—

    The icy wind lashed his faced and whipped through his hair as it blew in from the chilly Arctic Sea.
Yes, there's more than just a cause-effect error here.
There's also a pronoun reference error with "it" that adds confusion. Since a pronoun refers back to the last used noun, here "it" refers to "his hair." This means "his hair" blew in from the chilly Arctic Sea.

In the correct sequence of cause-effect, and correcting the pronoun reference error to provide the reader with instant clarity, here are two examples of how the sentence might be re-written, and which eliminates "as" altogether—

    1) The icy wind, blowing in from the frigid Arctic Sea, lashed his face and whipped through his hair.

    2) Blowing in from the frigid Arctic Sea, the icy wind lashed his face and whipped through his hair.

Which is best? That will depend on the overall POV-Viewpoint chosen for the entire tale.

And, lastly, number four on the list is Dialogue.
The most prevalent problem with writing dialogue is that the rules of grammar and punctuation do not necessarily apply.

It doesn't matter
if the words are spoken out loud, thought internally, or even heard or voiced telepathically. Why? Because for a reader to believe the dialogue, that dialogue must sound as if it would have been spoken by a real person. 

It's been said a thousand times
that one of the quickest ways to destroy a character's voice and credibility is to adhere to strict rules of grammar and punctuation. That's why writers must master writing Standard Written Dialogue and utilizing the best Dialogue Mechanics to "show" not tell how the words are thought or spoken.

One of my favorite examples of destroying a character's voice comes from a short story I wrote years ago where my starship captain heard "farting" biotubes. A steeped-in-proper-English editor wanted to change farting to the "flatulence." I'd like to hear Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise say flatulent bio tubes, wouldn't you? Then again flatulence also means "pompously embellished language."

Knowledge is power.
When you learn the techniques and devices of writing quality fiction, you gain the knowledge to write well and tell a story well—and go from being just another writer to becoming a competent—even great—storyteller.

Learn fiction writing techniques and devices and you will own the knowledge. Then you will have the power that enchants readers.

***Next month's topic will be "Eye and Brain Coordination?"



Upcoming online course Feb. 1-27, 2017

 

Flyer Available HERE

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Available soon - REVISION IS A PROCESS



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