Friday, December 1, 2017

My belief is you have one chance to make a first impression. - Kevin McCarthy

Would you eat off a plate that still has spaghetti sauce residue on it because it hasn't been washed? Yuck, right?

Well, that's equivalent to what happens when you write a story and the presentation fails to capture the reader's attention from the get-go and flow effortlessly like a movie in the reader's mind. That's why it's said that you have about eight sound bytes (or one sentence) to catch a reader's attention.

So, what's involved in capturing the reader's attention? It amounts to:

1. A "hook" opening. Such an opening is the "grabber" that creates curiosity or raises a question that the reader becomes curious enough and reads the next word, the next line, the next sentence, the rest of the paragraph, the first page, and even that first chapter.

2. Action. But what exactly is meant by action? In truth, action can be many things. It can be dialogue – one with a speech tag attribute to the reader know if a male or female is speaking. It can be a character facing a decision. It can be a matter of life and death. It can be drama, urgency, or tension from something about to happen. 

3) A problem or dilemma. The problem can be a character frantically dealing with a problem (like being attacked) or it can be the hint of a problem brewing (like being stalked or a dam reaching critical a stage from flooding rains). A problem can be as simple as needing to get a new job or as complex as a group of crooks planning a heist.

Determining what makes a good hook or an intriguing enough story beginning isn't easy. However, determining what turns readers off the quickest is. 

Here are 15 elements of how not to start or open a story:

1) Do not start with spelling errors, grammar errors, paragraphing errors, punctuation errors (no semicolons or colons), or pronoun reference errors 

2) Remember that if you write genre fiction for the masses, the readability scale should be sixth to eighth grade level

3) Avoid starting with a description of the setting

4) Avoid starting with background information on the character's life (the writer needs such information to write the story, but the reader doesn't need it at the beginning of a tale)

5) Do not open with a dream or nightmare

6) Do not open with an alarm clock going off

7) Avoid an absence of dialogue (and avoid wall-to-wall words)

8) Avoid using dialogue from a character the reader has no idea who that character is (or how important to the story that character is)

9) Do not start with the weather

10) Do not start with a description of a character's physical being or attire

11) Do not start a story with a premonition or blatantly telling the reader "She had no idea how bad her day would become." or that "Death would be waiting for him before he had finished his morning coffee."

12) Do not start with a prologue (chances are the writer needed to know the information in that prologue in order to write the rest of the story. However, if anything—anything—from that prologue is in the text of the story, ax the prologue.) 

13) Do not start a story with a minor character. The reader expects the first named person to be an important person, who is usually the protagonist.

14) Do not introduce a cast or group of characters (Start with the main character (the protagonist) interacting with one other character. Then, one by one introduce other main characters.)

15) Do not start with a character thinking (however, if they are planning murder or some other interesting or intriguing course of action. Even so, keep the internalizing to a minimum.)

If you've looked over your manuscript and scrubbed all fifteen of the above from it, good for you. Only doing so is no guarantee the rest of the story is as polished as it needs to be. 

It pays to take the time to learn better storytelling craft and skills, ruthlessly self-edit, and even pay for the best editor you can (one who understands voice and your genre).

Wishing you all the best with your writing this holiday season.

Merry Christmas & have a Happy New Year!

***********January 2018 — Who should you believe?

Give yourself a Christmas Gift -

     Revision is a Process   Barnes & Noble

     144 Aspects of a Novel Online Course (Feb.1-28,2018)

     1 on 1 Courses with real-time feedback

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November 2017 - Never Assume

You can never guess or assume what anyone is going to think.
— J. J. Abrams

Touching the mind of another person, especially with the written word has many pitfalls.

The major one for writers is that what you meant isn't necessarily what you wrote down on the page. For example:                     The mirror winked back.

Did reading that make you stop and think about what was going on?

Did you laugh at the impossibility of a mirror actually winking?

Well, this is a prime example where logic trumps creativity. And remember, logic always trumps creativity. Besides, readers are logical people and when they see something like this, the writer's credibility nosedives.

The fix is simple. Just show and convey that a character looked in the mirror and winked at themselves, like–

Marsha paused before the hall mirror. Seeing her flawless makeup and hairdo, she winked. Yeah, kiddo, you're stunning. John is in for one helluva surprise.

Yes, showing always requires more words. However, in the above example, the reader will easily believe what's going on.

Here's another example, which is my all-time favorite:

                            He put his head through the door and knocked.

How do you put a head through a door if you're not a ghost?

Okay, how about you rewrite this to show what was actually meant. Feel free to share your version in the comment section.

******Topic for December will be "First Impressions Count"

Second Notice ...............


Are you struggling with some aspect of writing fiction? Well, here's your chance to get help. I am opening the 2018 Writers Cheat Sheets monthly blog posts up to your questions or topics. 

You can state your question or state your problem with a comment at this blog site or, if you wish to remain anonymous, email your question to me at —

Deadline is December 5, 2017.

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

October 2017 - It's Not Dialogue But Written Standard Dialogue

Pay attention, please: the reader has only the words on the page to go by to form a movie in their mind and to HEAR the voice of the narrator or character.

Whether writing spoken, internalized, or telepathic dialogue, you are not writing exactly what a character says or thinks but what's been termed "Standard Written Dialogue." That's to avoid such things as: "Ah, you know, George, I—I—think, um, he's dead." Instead you write: "George, I think he's dead." or even "George!
The guy's dead."

Pay attention, please: the rules of grammar and punctuation go out the window when writing dialogue.

Why? Because to follow the formal rules of English nets stilted and unrealistic sounding characters or narrative voice. For example: To whom are you talking? That would suit a character with a lofty attitude and education but not an ordinary Joe. So just simply state: Who are you talking to?

A lot of problems with dialogue can be fixed by paying attention to the punctuation and using ones that convey the meaning, the voice of the speakers (or thinker), and provides the correct rhythm for the voice (the pause of silence). 

As you read the following, LISTEN for how you hear the word when you see it and its punctuation mark—

    Stop . . .    
    Stop (or Stop)


Notice that there is no colon or semicolon among the above. That's because colons and semicolons are symbols that do not instantly convey the rhythm or sound of silence. 

Okay, so it might be correct grammar and proper English to use colons and semicolons, but in fiction, using them actually hinders a reader's enjoyment because it's a rough spot in the text. Those colons and semicolons take the reader out of the story world. On a subconscious level, that grates. Do it enough times and the reader finds your five-star story worth only two stars. 

Need to hone your skills with dialogue mechanics?
For a limited time, I'm offering a one-on-one online course on DIALOGUE MECHANICS. You can find information here.
Of course, if you want to know more about dialogue and dialogue mechanic do's and don'ts, read Sections 9 and 11 of REVISION IS A PROCESS.) 

Your input is needed for 2018's blog topics.

Are you struggling with some aspect of writing fiction? Well, here's your chance to get help. I am opening the 2018 Writers Cheat Sheets monthly blog posts up to your questions. 

You can state your question or state your problem with a comment at this blog site or, if you wish to remain anonymous, email your question to me at 

Deadline is December 5, 2017.

November's blog topic is
Never Assume

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Septemer 2017 - To Trope or Not to Trope

Cliches are what make you understand something. 
--Matthew Vaughn


Is it impossible to write something without using a trope or tropes?

Well, I once read that it is impossible to do that. That's because there are no new story plots.

The definition of a trope
is basically the use of figurative language – via word, phrase, or even an image – for artistic effect like a figure of speech or metaphor. Tropes help convey things quickly to the reader without writing reams to explain.
An example is the stereotyping of certain characters, like Scrooge, the penny-pinching miser, or Jessica, voluptuous blond bombshell in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Yet, tropes are fiction writing tools that can be used as is or be tweaked into something fresher. Thus the old becomes new again.

Are you aware that genre fiction follows tropes? Some time-tested and valued, other's are cliched and to be avoided. For instance, a good trope for a romance is that the ending is one of HEA (Happily Ever After). The not-so-good trope of a science-fiction story would be the overdone, cliched Adam and Eve story.

Tropes are also patterns. Stories have structure which follows a blueprint or pattern. That's a good thing in genre fiction because it guarantees a reader will find the type of story they crave. Plots tropes are what makes genres popular. What is fantasy without a quest or magic? What is sci-fi without science and the extrapolation of the future? What is a mystery if it doesn't have a crime-solver? And a good romance will have a HEA (happily ever after).

The most overused tropes lend themselves to parody, irony, and can even become a bit snarky—or cool or scary what ifs.

Tropes are neither good or bad. But caution is always advised. Once again it's the guideline of "know the rules before you break or tweak them."

I wish you all the best with your writing endeavors,

Catherine E. McLean

 October's topic will be - It's Not Dialogue But Written Standard Dialogue

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:

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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