Saturday, December 1, 2012

December 2012 - Widows & Orphans

  "Prefer the standard to the offbeat." Strunk & White

    There are two references to "widow and orphans" and these are:

#1 any page where from one to six words takes up a line no matter where it falls on the page (usually the end of a paragraph).

#2 the "keep together" feature of a document that, when on, prevents one line, or partial line, from appearing at the top of a page all by itself.

    A prime example of #1 is the opening paragraph sentence above.

Technically the experts consider widows and orphans as the first line of only a few words that is at the top of a page, thus there would be the odd look of extra white space. Since space is money in any publication, the line with one to six words is wasted. So came into being the "hold together" default feature of word processing programs that keeps widows and orphan words with their paragraphs. That means a page may have less than a 1" bottom margin or an extra blank line making for a 1" plus bottom margin.
    As a writer of fiction, you want to turn off your widows/orphan default feature because book publishers need to know actual lines in use and they don't want "extra" blank lines on any page.
    But here's the thing: spotting a widow or orphaned line is a godsend for tightening prose and gaining extra lines to use elsewhere in a story. Say you find you have three orphan words at the end of a paragraph just setting on a line by themselves. When you look at the paragraph it belongs to, you'll notice the ragged right margin has a lot of white spaces. Now, look at the line with the biggest white space and see if you can:

a) go to the line and swap out a shorter word for a big word, like "infinitesimal" becomes "tiny"


b) look for prepositional phrases, clauses, or repetitions of had, that, there, etc. and revise to eliminate them

The upshot is that when the computer resets the paragraph, those orphaned words will vanish.

Here's something else to consider: when I judge contest entries, I often find the last page has only a few lines, or a few paragraphs. Any end-of-chapter page that is not half full is a prime candidate for a widows-orphans check. Based on my own experience, there are enough widows-orphans lines that a writer could gain a page of text (often more). So, if a novel has 28 chapters, that's 28 pages that could be better used and that's 7,000 to 9,268 words that could improve the story. Then again, if an editor says to cut and tighten, well, one way is to look for those widows and orphans and get rid of them.

So, it bears thinking about adding a note to your revision to-do list and look for widows and orphan lines as well as the last page of a chapter for "orphaned" paragraphs. You do have a revision "cheat sheet," don't you?

Because of the publication of my paranormal-fantasy-romance e-book Karma and Mayhem and Jewels of the Sky, a fantasy/sci-fi adventure (a.k.a. my Women's Starscape Fiction), Rimstone Concepts, will be publishing some of my "Cheat Sheets." Currently available for download are: "10 Types of Writers" and "Revision 'Cheat Sheets'–the Overview Process."

If you'd like notification of other Cheat Sheet titles, etc. becoming available, join me at Twitter (which is also where I announce my book releases, public appearances, workshops, guest blogging, interviews, and blog updates, etc.).

Wishing you Happy Holidays and a great New Year!

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Monday, November 5, 2012

November 2012 - Colons and Semicolons

"Drop ornate punctuation and work toward simplicity." -John Long WRITERS LITTLE BOOK OF WISDOM

    My research has proven that there is a definitive line between those that use semicolons and colons and those that don't. That line separates informal genre fiction writing and literary fiction writing. Yes, every genre has a literary arm in which the level of writing is high enough and the readership is such that it warrants use of colons and semicolons. However, most of the fiction in the marketplace is aimed at ordinary folks which means avoiding use of colons and semicolons because:

1) colons and semicolons are formal, mechanical pieces of punctuation better utilized in business communications and literary and scientific works. Of all the punctuation marks, the colon and semicolon are the most misunderstood and misused and the novice writer, especially, should avoid them or learn or relearn to use them properly.

2) 99% of people do not think or speak in semicolons or colons.   Thus actual dialogue, both spoken and internalizations (thoughts), will not include colons or semicolons. Of course, there will be a rare exception for the highly educated mind or a particularity of personality. However, most story people are "ordinary" people which must appeal to the majority of "ordinary" readers.

3) it was pointed out to me a few months ago by a reader that when they saw the semicolon, they were reminded of an emoticon, that the author was winking back at them. This shocked me because a writer of genre fiction knows the worst thing to have happen is a reader stopping as they read a story. Yet, the winking semicolon is a reality because of the use of semicolons in everyday e-mails.

    What does all this mean?  It means that a writer, and more importantly a storyteller,  has to first know who their reader is and then decide what guideline to use about the semicolon or colon appearing in their own work. If the decision is to write informal genre fiction, then the dash is the substitution of choice for both the colon and semicolon.  The other choice is to rewrite and use simpler sentence structures. After all, dialogue must mimic real speech, not duplicate it and to that end the "rules" of punctuation and grammar don't necessarily apply.  If they are strictly applied, the dialogue becomes stilted and unrealistic to the reader's inner ear.

   As always, adding a check for colons and semicolons is a good idea when revising so consider adding them to your revision check list.  You do have one, don't you?

Stop in next month for Widows and Orphans. 

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October 2012 - Dashes

"When you begin to think about what exactly you're trying to say, you become a writer." --Theodore A.  Rees Cheney, GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT

    If ellipses means to trail off (see September's THE SAMPLER), dashes flag "an abrupt switch or change." Sort of the yin and yang of dialogue, which includes both the spoken words or internalizations (thoughts) of characters.
    Like all punctuation marks, a dash has a "sound of silence" (a certain length of pause) that a reader "hears" as they read and which helps a reader understand what's going on.
    Let's look at common ways dashes are effective in dialogue passages and fiction:

    1) The dash sets aside, like: 

You know him–he's the guy who does the car commercials on TV–the one with three wives.

 Now compare this to:  You know him, he's the guy who does the car commercials on TV, the one with three wives. 

Or: You know him–he's the guy who does the car commercials on TV, the one with three wives. 

All are correct–but did you hear the difference in the delivery? There is a difference. A difference that results from the punctuation. (And if you didn't hear the differences?  Well take the time to start really listening to how your characters speak–and listen to how real people talk. Or even close your eyes while watching TV and listen to your favorite characters speak.)

    2) A dash can "show" stammering, hesitation, faltering by setting a string of words together like: I–I lost it. Or: 
I–I–  I lost it.

    3) The dash can show an abrupt switch of thought: He loves me–he loves me not! Compare this to: He loves me, he loves me not. Or: He loves me. He loves me not.

    4) The dash also is used to show an abrupt interruption or cutting off, especially in spoken dialogue between two characters, like:

    "You can't be serious, my boss would never—"
    "Engage in an affair? Jeez, you're so naive!"
    5) A dash often inserts vital information or adds an explanation for clarification: She killed him–shot him six times.

    Keep in mind that a dash creates emphatic separation of words. It has a special forcefulness and should be used only when a deliberate effect is needed. Likely the most dash useage will be when a character is under stress, duress, or terrified. And dashes will be more prevalent with first-person and the deepest of third person narrative then any omniscient style of POV and Viewpoint.

    When is a good time to make a pass through a manuscript for dash use or misuse? When it's time to make the last pass for punctuation. You do have a "cheat sheet" for revising your fiction, don't you? If your list of "punctuation to check for" doesn't include the dash, make it so.

Stop back on November 1 for a few words on Colons and semicolons.

Note: for some reason this didn't stay posted during October so I'm reposting it - Catherine

Saturday, September 1, 2012

September 2012 - Ellipses

    "Just because your notebook or computer screen will accept anything doesn't mean your readers will." --Paul Raymond Martin, GETTING PUBLISHED

    Reading is more than looking at a word and hearing the sound of it in your mind. Writing to be understood, to share an idea, or to create an image relies on how the words are strung together in sentences and, in particular, on the use of punctuation. It's said that punctuation marks are the road signs that help the reader perceive, understand, and make sense of what is written.
    One of the most misunderstood and misused punctuation marks is the ellipses—those three dots that are especially useful in dialogue (and dialogue includes both the spoken word and internalizations, which are actual thoughts of a character.
    Obviously peppering a page with ellipses is to be avoided because their effect is diminished or their effect is to make a character seem unbelievable. However, what's vital to remember is this: ellipses in genre fiction means only one thing, to trail off.
    In other words, when a character is talking or thinking or doing the narrating, their sentences or thoughts will likely, at certain points, dribble down to nothing, thus that "voice" the reader hears in their mind will trail off and that's the right place to insert an ellipses.
    One other way the ellipses is helpful in fiction writing is to "show" a character's timidity or shyness. Some of the young heroines of author Barbara Cortland were effectively portrayed because of the use of ellipses.
    Another way to think of the use of ellipses is to remember the ellipses, like all punctuation marks, has a specific "pause of silence" which a reader employs in order to comprehend the meaning and emotional aspect of a sentence or sentence fragment. For example, the following punctuation marks change the way the word is "heard" and the meaning (thus showing):

Stop ...

    To make dialogue passages sound more realistic means making one pass during the manuscript's final polishing stage to verify that all ellipses being used actually do mean "to trail off." Your readers will appreciate that. So, add an ellipses check onto your revision to do list–you do have a revision "cheat sheet," don't you?

Stop back on October 1 for a few words on Dashes.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August 2012 - Big and small

    "A stereotype is to characterization what a cliche is to description."
          -- Gary Provost GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT 

What's wrong with this picture: The big dog bit the little dog?

Right--you cannot visualize, cannot picture, how big or how small or even what kind of "dog" this writer is talking about.Now try this: The Great Dane nipped the tip of the Basset Hound's tail.

Let's face it, in the heat of drafting a lot of words are grabbed, especially words like:


It is in revising that such words should be hunted down and the sentence revised so that there is imagery for the reader to grasp. In other words, seek nouns and verbs, ones that instantly provide a picture in a reader's mind. For example: It's not a little house, it's a log cabin or a bungalow or an igloo built for two. It's not a large car, it's a stretch limousine. It's not a dog, it's a Doberman.

Of course, sometimes it helps (and adds variety) to use a metaphor or simile, add a comparison, or even use opposites. The result means the reader won't stop to have to puzzle out what the writer actually meant. After all, readers are not mind readers. They only have the words on a page to go by.  So, to make your writing vivid, considering adding the above word list to your revision Cheat Sheet. You do have a check list for revising, don't you?

Stop back on September 1 for a few words on Ellipses.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

July 2012 -- AND and BUT

    "Fluid, easy wording keeps attention on the story, not the writing.--John Long WRITERS LITTLE BOOK OF WISDOM

      One of the first writing no-nos drilled into a writer is to avoid starting sentences with "and" and "but." The second is to stop peppering a page or having "crops of" (i.e., clusters of) "and" and "but." Why? Because repetitions like these drone in a reader's mind and, after a while, on a subconscious level, keep a reader from enjoying the story.
    In drafting the first copy of a story, "and" is particularly used in by the "stream of story consciousness" and "writing by the seat of your pants" writer. This makes for sentences and clause being strung together into what's called a LS--a Long Sentence--or a RO--a Run On sentence. Thus in revision, it's  necessary to look at any sentence that takes up two full lines. Consider this: if a sentence is considered 20 words, two lines in Times New Roman, 12 point font, can run anywhere from 24 to as high as 39 words or more. Long sentences are devilishly awkward to understand because they contain too many elements (clauses and prepositional phrases) as well as too many ideas.
    As to the use of "but," the word has it's place now and then as a conjunction. However, if that conjunction joins two very long sentences, the whole may become overly complicated and require a reader to stop and reread to make sense of what's going on.  As most writers know, nothing a writer does should stop a reader from enjoying the tale.
    Since clarity is also paramount for a reader staying engrossed in the story, it's a wise storyteller who does a pass through their work for "and" and one for "but" and minimize their use. So, add "and" and "but" to your revision cheat sheet. You do have a check list for revising, don't you?
    The blog topic for August 1 will be a few words on Big and small.

KARMA AND MAYHEM, a paranormal fantasy romance to be published soon by Soul Mate Publishing -

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

June 2012 - Had is a Handicap

    "The most useful skill a wrier can acquire is the ability to edit one's work ruthlessly. --Paul Raymond Martin, GETTING PUBLISHED

While browsing Wikipedia, I came across:

1) Had is an alternative for Hadit, the Thelemic version of an Egyptian god.

2) HAD is the abbreviation for Hole Accumulation Diode, a technique for reducing electronic noise.

3) Had is the abbreviation for technology blog hackaday (usually written as HaD

Who knew? However, these oddities aside, for a writer and storyteller "had" is a verb, the simple past tense and past participle of the word "have."

Although had seems like such a little word, an inconsequential word, one to be skimmed over, failure to understand its impact on the reader leads many writers astray. And as useful as had can be when working with past tense, the danger is, of course, overuse either as unintentional "crops of" (repeated in a short space of paragraphs) or "peppering a page or pages."

The second red-flag danger is the "apostrophe D" dilemma. Does an "apostrophe D" mean: had or would? (I'd, He'd, She'd, They'd, etc.). Most people will read it as "had" so, if there will be any doubt--and for clarity's sake--write out "would" and the reader never has to be jarred out of the story to go back and translate.

Of course, had is especially useful when dropping into a bonafide flashback. However, once in the flashback, the idea is to stop peppering the segment with hads and make the flashback run as if it were a scene happening in the now. Then, when it's time, transition out of the flashback with a couple of hads and return to the present story world.

Lastly, there are passivity issues with using had because had is often accompanied by "been."  Such constructions as "had been gone" or "had been seen" should be double checked to see if one good, vivid, image provoking verb might work better or if the sentence needs to be recast.

Of course, a writer cannot eliminate every instance of had or had been but cutting down the frequency helps the reader continue reading (and they won't notice a writer at work). So, place "had" and "apostrophe D" on your revision cheat sheet so you do one pass for them. You do have a revision checklist, right?

Stop by July 1 for a look at "And and But."

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Sampler - May 2012

To Paragraph or Not to Paragraph

    "A paragraph indentation cues the reader to pause and take a deep breath."  --WRITERS LITTLE BOOK OF WISDOM

Wall-to-wall words is a grey wall that turns readers off.  A manuscript page with four or fewer paragraphs is bordering on wall-to-wall words and so each paragraph should be looked at to see if too many "topics" or "ideas" or "actions" were run together.  Paragraphing is also used to achieve a balance and to control the story's pace.  Both result in the easy flow and enjoyment of reading a story.  Paragraphs also open up a page to white space.  That paragraph-generated white space is an important mechanical device to use judiciously and for effect.

However, an easier way for a writer to understand when to paragraph boils down to thinking of paragraphing like this: The reader is in a theater seat watching the story play out on a stage. Onto that stage comes Character A. The reader is fascinated by Character A and keeps their attention on Character A while he handles props, moves about, thinks, breathes, and speaks.

Now Character B comes on stage to interact with Character A. The instant that Character B entered, the reader immediately switches their attention to what Character B is doing and saying. When Character A replies or reacts to Character B, the reader must switch their attention back to Character A.   In other words, if you're writing genre fiction (not mainstream or literary) every switch of the reader's attention means a new paragraph.

Such switching also applies to a noise or other stage business happening either on stage (like a phone ringing) or a car backfiring on the street outside.  In a nutshell, any worthwhile distraction that the reader must pay attention to gets paragraphed.  For example:

    Marsha grabbed the revolver from under her purse.  She pointed the weapon at John. "Don't make me use this."
    John growled low in his throat and glared at Marsha. "You won't shoot me, I'm your husband!"
    The doorbell chimed.

It's not: 

    Marsha grabbed the revolver off the counter top.
    "Don't make me use this."
    John growled low in his throat.
    He glared at Marsha.
"You won't shoot me, I'm your husband!" The doorbell chimed.

Another type of paragraphing is the "transition." That is, it's a word, phrase, or as many words as is necessary to alert the reader to a change of location or the passing of time, like: 

             Meanwhile back at the warehouse, Tom cursed his luck.
          Two hours later, Tom's plane landed at LAX

What seem to confuse a lot of writers is paragraphing dialogue. Whenever possible, dialogue remains with the focal character who the reader is supposed to be paying attention to.  For example:

    Marsha glanced at the gun she'd laid her purse over. Then she looked at her husband and the hard expression in his eyes frightened her.  He was not about to leave. In as calm and controlled voice she could muster, she said, "Just leave, John.  I don't want any trouble."


  Marsha glanced at the gun she'd laid her purse over.
  Then she looked at her husband and the hard expression in his eyes frightened her.  
  He was not about to leave. 
  In as calm and controlled voice she could muster, she said, "Just leave, John.  I don't want any trouble."

Lastly, paragraphing helps set the story's pace--short paragraphs increase pace, long ones slow it down.  Short paragraphs with short sentences really speed up the read.  Long sentences in long paragraphs really slows the read to a crawl. Such paragraphs also govern if the material will be formal or informal (i.e., usually literary equals long paragraphs and genre equals short paragraphs). 

As Theodore Rees Cheney said in GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT: A paragraph, for example, might be unified in its subject, scope, tone, style, point of view, character, scene, and tense, but unless all the logical connections between sentences within a paragraph and all the logical connections between paragraphs are clear, the total piece is not coherent.

Cheney also said that no one knows the proper length for a paragraph . . . no one can give any very helpful guidelines for the length of an "average" paragraph.  This is so very true.  Unfortunately, paragraphing is something learned by trial and error and figuring out what works and what doesn't work for the individual style of narration being used and the story being written.  Yet, the more knowledge a writer has, the more educated choices they can make. So, on your revision "cheat sheet" make a note to look at your paragraphing.

And do stop back to this blog on June 1 for The Sampler's: "Had is a Handicap."

Catherine E. McLean
KARMA AND MAYHEM, a paranormal-fantasy-romance from will be published late this summer.   Http:// or go to my home web page 

Guest blogging May 1, 2012 on the NINE TYPES OF WRITERS a Strands of Pattern

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Sampler - April 2012 - NUMBERS

"Every writer must fashion an editor's hat and keep it close at hand." --GETTING PUBLISHED by Paul Raymond Martin

When writing fiction, the issue of numbers written out or spelled out can be mind-boggling.  In general when writing numbers for a piece of fiction:

1) All numbers are written out as words.
2) In dialogue, numbers are spoken as words.
3) In internalizations, numbers are thought of in words.

Why is this? Because a person is deeply engrossed in reading what's been written and hears a voice narrating in their head, and then, suddenly, a number appears on the page.  That number is like a red flag waving. Thus for that second the reader is jarred out of the reading enjoyment either consciously or subconsciously. For example, I was reading a Jim Butcher (Dresden Files) book and seven-eighths of the way through the book, my eyes stop on a 5--the number five. This was so unexpected that I stopped and stared at that 5. What was it doing on the page? Hadn't someone edited the book? 

Okay, let's not go there.  Most writers know the quality of manuscripts from the big publishers have deteriorated from what they used to be because editors are processing books, not editing them.  But what about the author?  Hadn't he seen that glitch?

Now, yes, there can be instances where numbers will appear in a manuscript or book, like military time or June 1, 1999, etc. but here's the thing--those numbers don't stop the reader nor do they draw attention to themselves. And that's the key--if you have numbers in your fiction manuscript, be sure they don't stop the reader from reading and enjoying the story.

That being said, I also have to admit that some publishers have their own in-house rules. And you won't know what those rules are until you get a piece accepted by them. Other publishers will state they use the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associate Press Stylebook. Here's the thing, those two texts are the bible for journalists and technical writers, who are nonfiction writers.  (FYI: Both say to write out single-digit numbers like the five.)  So, if you're writing fiction and have been using the journalistic method for writing numbers, it'll be hard to break that habit when writing short stories and novels.  Which means you might want to jot on your "Revision Cheat Sheet" that you should make one pass through your work to look for numbers that should be converted into words.

Stop back to this blog on May 1 for The Sampler's "Paragraphing."  Also check the author-interview that has just been posted at

Catherine E. McLean
***KARMA & MAYHEM- This  paranormal-fantasy-romance will soon be published by
***All updates can be found at my home website -

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Friday, March 2, 2012

There and There Was

    "Too many words clog the action and blunt the dramatic saber.--John Long, WRITERS LITTLE BOOK OF WISDOM.   
    Are you using a blunt saber by inadvertently employing expletives in your writing? 
    No, I'm not talking about profanity.  I'm talking about "a word or phrase that does not contribute any meaning but is added to fill out a sentence or which stands in place of and anticipates a following word or phrase."  Here are examples of such expletives:

    There was
    There was to be
    There were
    There were to be
    There are
    There is
    There will be
    There came to be
    There weren't
    The "expletive" is, of course, the word "there."  Like other red-flag words, "there" is overused in manuscripts.  Most often "there" appears at the beginning of a sentence or it will introduces a clause.  Needless to say, using "there" is ambiguous.  It's also passive writing, especially when linked with verbs like was, were, is, etc. 
    Not only does the use and overuse of "there" diminish clarity but it also tells or reports instead of showing through the Point of View and Viewpoint of the narrative.
    So, it's a good idea to add "there" to your Cheat Sheet To-Do List for revisions.  You do have such a personalized cheat sheet, don't you?

***KARMA & MAYHEM, my fantasy-paranormal romance will soon be published by
***Updates on my workshop schedule are at my website:
***Join me at Linked-In:   or befriend me at Facebook

Stop back to this blog on April 1 for The Sampler's: "Numbers."
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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Sampler - February 2012

    Between Christmas and New Years, I went online to download an e-book to see what one looked like on my e-reader.  After fifteen hours of searching, I didn't download any books.  I would find interesting teasers (back page blurbs and synopses) but, when I went to read the opening pages, the irritating overuse of WAS, WERE, and WAS/WERE-INGS (a WAS or WERE followed by an ING-ending word) made for blatantly boring, omniscient narratives that turned me off.  These e-books read like first drafts--not polished stories.
    As a writer and storyteller, it's been drilled into me that was is a wuss when it comes to action-active, imagery-provoking sentence structures.  But there's another problem with the overuse--the repetition of the sound of "wuz" which buzzes on a subconscious level.  At what point does the word become so irritating that the reader stops reading and throws the book against the wall?  Okay, in reality, I dare not throw my e-reader against anything because it's too costly to replace, but the urge was there.
    I sampled some of those first e-chapter pages for the overuse of WAS and found:  1 WAS every 15, 19, 21, 22, 35, 37, and 43 words.  That's approximately one per sentence!  Extrapolating that, WAS could appear (and buzz, buzz, buzz) anywhere from 6,633 to 2,325 times in a 100,000 word novel.  That's also a range of from 16 to 6 per page.  But, those may be conservative numbers because I came across sentences with doubled-up wases like:  "What she WAS THINKING WAS GIVING her a headache."
    More appalling to me is that one of those e-books had an author's acknowledgment to her critique partners thanking them for their expertise.  Did none of those people tell her about the repetition of WAS and WERE?  Or that she wrote passively?
    Then again, what would make a writer consistently use and overuse WAS and WERE?  Likely it stems from being educated to use the English language, grammar, and punctuation to communicate--to "report" and "tell, not show"--thus generating such passive constructions as The man was bitten by the dog.  No, this passive  sentence cannot be fixed simply by changing WAS BITTEN to the active verb "bite" because that would make no sense (The man bite by the dog.).  "Man" and "dog" are also generalities--they do not evoke a vivid image in a reader's mind.  Better is:  The Doberman bit Charlie, the mailman.  (Now we have a mental picture of what happened and to whom.) 
    Along with WAS and WERE are the "helpers"--those ING-ending words (which are verb-phrases) that should be axed in favor of action-active words.  Such exchanges include:

        Passive        To   Active

        was going             went (but better would be stating
                                        exactly HOW they went)
        were traveling       traveled
        was eating            ate
        were enjoying       enjoyed
        was gathering       gathered
        were generating    generated

    Now after saying how bad WAS and WERE are, I have to also admit they do have their uses and some passivity and telling have merit.  The difference boils down to a writer that writes and a storyteller who knows how to use verbs to create mental pictures for the reader and keeps the reader engrossed in a tale. 
    You might also go to I was their guest blogger talking about how writers sabotage their story.  This blog post included an exercise-challenge on "was."  Consider taking the challenge and see how you fare.
    I also urge you to make one of your self-editing mantras:  WAS is a wuss.  If you do, you'll be ahead of those "rough-draft quality" e-books I keep finding.

Catherine E. McLean
"The writer works hard so that the reader doesn't have to."--CRAFT & TECHNIQUE x Paul Raymond Martin
Stop back to this blog on March 1 for The Sampler's: "There and There Was."
***Updates on my workshop schedule are at my website:
***Join me at Linked-In:   or befriend me at Facebook (and you'll receive notices of workshops and The Sampler topics)
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