Wednesday, February 1, 2023

2023 - February - How-To Books

How-To Books 

If you're writing for yourself, no one will see or care how you write or use words or string sentences along. It's when the goal is to write a story that someone else will rave about or pay money for that the writer must look at what story is and how the patterns of prose and story engage the mind of another person.

The secret to a great story is that they are written and ruthlessly edited so that the words create a movie in the reader's mind.

There's nothing new about the craft of storytelling or the patterns of plot. To write quality stories requires learning those worthwhile story techniques and devices that have been handed down for centuries.

Every day writers go online and read blogs or listen to podcasts on the various aspects of writing. Trouble is, those are only quickie overviews. If a writer is serious about learning to write well and tell a story well, they invariable turn to the proven how-to books that teach a technique, device, or aspect of fiction or nonfiction.

I always advocate that a writer who wants the low-down on a particular aspect of storytelling to get at least three books on the subject, read each, take notes, study examples, and do any exercises those books recommend. And, no, I do not advocate buying the books. I recommend borrowing them from a local library. If one or all three (or more) books prove valuable, then spend the money to own the book and make it your bible. After all, such a book's author is your writing mentor.

I've said it before and I'll say it again—talent will take a writer only so far, it is craft that enhances talent and liberates creativity. Check out the shelves of your local library and consider using the Library Loan System to advantage and write the stories of your heart.

P.S. If you need a book recommendation on a technique or device, let me know.

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Sunday, January 8, 2023

2023 - January - Looking back, Looking Forward


I began this Writers Cheat Sheet Blog fifteen years ago. That's a lot of years, a lot of blog posts, and a helluva lot of words committed to the subject of writing well and telling a story well.

Fifteen years ago, writers were keen to learn the craft of telling good stories and writing using proven techniques for engaging the reader. They waited until they masters the techniques and devices of storytelling.

Not so since and the digital age of self-publishing-and-get-rich. The Internet abounds with quickie information on how to write the novel or short story, fiction or nonfiction, and be an author–and do it in thirty days or even ten weeks. Truth is, it takes years to achieve quality writing and quality storytelling because there is so much to learn about story, about characterizations, about plot.

Yes, templates and computer programs abound to make the story writing quick and simple. But writing is not simple. Telling a story that another person can see as a movie in their mind isn't easy— it's downright hard. 

Getting a story seen is ten times more difficult in today's ultra-flooded marketplace. It's still true now as back in 2007— it seems everyone thinks they can write The Great American Novel. And they write one and self-publish. 

I'm not down on the self-publishing, just on the glut of poor quality and draft reads that are out there. Over the holidays, I spent hours looking for a book to read and finding none I could read from beginning to end. Most I stopped after the first chapter. One I was 60% through when the plot went off on a tangent.

Of course, writing successful, marketable stories takes time and know-how. It requires a commitment to learn craft, to strive to write well and to strive to tell a story well. It's climbing the ladder one rung at a time. There are no swift elevators to the top or to success.

So, as the new year gets underway, it's that time of year to set down, in writing, the New Year's Resolutions. After all, as your desire is, so should be your deed. 

Why write down goals? Because writing the down, committing them to paper is a commitment to giving the writing priority. Writing down goals is one big step in making goals concrete. Writing down goals becomes a contract with the subconscious that shouts "I INTEND TO SUCCEED."

As you aspire to become the author you plan to become, what goals will you strive for that are realistic and achievable in 2023? 

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Thursday, December 1, 2022

2022 December - The 12 Days of Christmas

As is often the case, math turns out not to be a writer's strong suit. That's because words are (or should be) a writer's forte. 

So, just for fun, I'm deviating from a writing topic to boggle your mind with this question:

Just how many gifts did "My True Love" give? 

Or sate your curiosity with this question:

How much did all the gifts cost, either individually or as a total. 

Being a writer, you could use either question as a writing prompt by taking one POV-Viewpoint (i.e., be the giver or the receiver or the person fulfilling the order, etc). If you come up with something under 200 words, feel free to share it in the comments section below. Write short in any genre or in any style. See where your imagination leads you.

However, if you just want the facts, the mathematical input and total, go to


In any event, I wish you all the Happiest of Holidays!

Catherine E. McLean

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Wednesday, November 2, 2022

2022 November - The Anchoring of Time and Place

Writers are admonished to "anchor the reader in a time and place" when opening a story. The best way, of course, is to weave in clues or provide tidbits that vividly or subtlety describe the setting, era, or time of day or night without stopping the action. For example:

Lady Eleanor Black sidled into the midnight shadows of vines that clung to the stone edifice of Covenant Gardens.

In this example, there is a particular character (Lady Eleanor Black) doing something interesting (sidling into shadows) and who is at a particular place (Covenant Gardens). The clues are there that indicate this is nighttime and it's Regency England. Of course, the reader of such historicals becomes curious as to why Lady Black is hiding behind the vines and so the reader continues to read.

Sometimes— and to be used only when all else fails— a writer might resort to using the point-blank method of a subheader before the story's opening paragraph, like:

Regency London

Lady Eleanor Black sidled into the midnight shadows of vines that clung to the stone edifice of Covenant Gardens.

Another method of opening a story is with intriguing dialogue, like this from one of my medieval WIPs:

"Are you not afraid, Good Woman, being out here by thyself?"  Mallory shifted his cloak and sat upon the stump where she had bade him. Overhead the trees stood silent, for no evening breeze trespassed in the King's wood.

And there is always the tried and true method of starting in action, like:

A shrill whistle blew with sufficient intensity to gain the attention of the small group of colony's miners yelling both profanity and encouragement to the two men tangled in hand to hand combat in the center of their circle. 

Yet, far too often writers open with a description of the setting, like this:

On the horizon, swiftly barreling down the valley between the high peaks, came black thunder clouds. Pitchforks of lightning flashed from sky to ground but were replaced by a deluge of rain. The creeks and gullies soon filled with water, gushing and racing to empty into the nearby creeks, the creeks into the river--a river swollen from a week of rain--and all of that water emptying into the dam basin. The water there was now well over flood stage. 

Why is this a poor opening? The three reasons why are: 

1) nothing is really happening

2) no character or person is involved

3) there is no distinct and opinionated POV-Viewpoint

Read the paragraph again. Notice that a picture is painted of scenery as if it's a report. This is also viewpointless narration, which brings me to reason number two—no specific character or person is involved in action. If a person were involved, this opening might become:

My gaze riveted on the horizon where thunder clouds swiftly barreled down the valley between the high peaks. I scrambled up the rocky path to higher ground, cursing myself for deciding to hike to the caves to find silent sanctuary and sort out my husband's newly confessed infidelity. Now I was going to get soaked for my impulsive impulse to run and hide until the hurt eased. My life couldn't get any worse.
Pitchforks of lightning flashed from sky to ground.
I paused to watch the display, then shifted my gaze to a wall of rain coming down from the blackest of clouds, drenching the rugged slope of The Iron Face.
Flash flood!  Flash flood! echoed in my mind.
Huge raindrops pelted my back, soaking through my denim jacket.
I had to get to safety.

The character POV-Viewpoint version is also an example of showing, not telling, because everything is filtered by a distinct, opinionated POV-Viewpoint of a woman narrator.

Take a look at your most recent WIP (Work In Progress). Which method of anchoring your reader in a time and place did you use for your opening? If not one of the above mentioned types, what did you open your story with?

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Saturday, October 1, 2022

2022 - October - Wicked Words

Red Flag Words & Phrases

Writers have crutch phases and crutch words they use when drafting. These are habit words, that is, words that are placed on the page without consciously thinking about them being overused words.

When critique partners point out such overused words or phrases, start a Red Flag List of them and ruthlessly remove them when you self-edit. 

But go an extra mile— once aware of such Red Flag Words, start to eradicate typing them or using them as you draft. It's best to do one Red Flag word or phrase at a time. After all, you can't catch every one all at once, right?

Okay, so once you achieve success with one Red Flag word or phrase minimized (yes, minimized, because sometimes it might just be the right word to leave on the page!), move on to the next word on your list.

If you're curious about what are the most wicked Red Flag Words, they are: WAS and its companion WERE. Next is AND, BUT, JUST, SO, ONLY. 

How can you figure out if you have such Red Flag Words in such quantities that its detrimental to the manuscript? Here's how:

Take ten pages of your writing, any ten. Use your computer's search and find feature and look for WAS. If your word processor highlights in color, look at the pages—are they dotted with highlights or does the highlight appear in clusters? In both instances, can you cut down on the number by providing better, image-provoking verbs? 

Now, is also a good time to get your computer to tell you how many WASes is in your sample. Divide the number of WASes into the number of words. What is the ratio? Strive for a ratio of one WAS per page (or one in 331 words).

For the record, when I had writers do this exercise in my online courses, one writer discovered she used was once every 15 words—in other words, in every sentence (the average sentence is 20 words). She even had two wases in one sentence.

As for me, when I began checking my work, I was lucky to get one was in 441 words. Ten years later, the average was one in a thousand. My current work in progress has a chapter that I found only one was in 3,544 words.

Keep in mind that nothing is written in stone. Some of those WASes will have to remain. Also keep in mind that the overuse of Red Flag Words at some point will drone like angry bees in a reader's mind,and the reader will either quit reading or not feel the story is worth a five-star review, let alone tell others about the story.

If you do a WAS ratio, let me know your score.