Sunday, November 30, 2014

December 2014 - Don't underutilize the dictionary and thesaurus

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

-- Mark Twain, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Words have meaning.

That seems straightforward and obvious, but you'd be surprised at how many writers put the wrong word down on a page. What am I talking about? Well, here's a little quiz— What is the root word that applies to this list:

pissed off
go ballistic

Answer:  It's "anger."

What I've just pointed out is that anger comes in many forms. There are also many degrees of anger. In it's mildest form, anger amounts to annoyance or pique (indignation). In the extreme, anger is livid rage that may be extremely violent.

If you haven't grasped the idea yet, let me state it this way:  using the precise word, the correct word for what is actually happening or going on, insures that the reader immediately understands just how emotional your character actually is.

Of course, "angry" is just one of many words that writers tend to slap on a page when drafting.
In revision, the wise writer will ask "how __angry, sad, etc.__ was he?" Which often means going to a dictionary and looking up the exact meaning of the word to test if it's the right choice. In other cases, it might mean looking through a thesaurus until you hit on the correct word.

As to other words like "angry?" Here are a few—


You might want to add angry and the words above to your Master Revision Check List Cheat Sheet, do a global search through your work, and see if you have any in your manuscript. If you find one, evaluate it by asking: does this correctly and accurately convey the meaning or emotion or action taking place?

After all, a reader only has the words on a page to go by to form images in their mind. Isn't it time you use the most precise one, the most vivid nouns and verbs in your storytelling?

DARE TO BE A GREAT WRITER -- January 2015 will start a year-long series on "Revision Is A Process." Each month I'll post the self-editing steps to revising fiction that will cut down on the frustration of revising and help insure bloopers, glitches, typos, etc. are caught before sending a work to readers, critique partners, or editors.  For those who aim to self-publish, self-editing is the first step in generating a worthy book.

To follow this blog --  Connect with Catherine at her home website HERE or follow by e-mail using the box at the upper right on this blog page. 

***Christmas Gift Idea for yourself or a fellow writer:
"Terrific Titles--an all-inclusive guide to creating story titles"

*** Christmas Gift Ideas for Readers (all available at and other book outlets):

ADRADA TO ZOOL an anthology of short stories
JEWELS OF THE SKY, a futuristic (sci-fi) adventure
KARMA AND MAYHEM, a paranormal fantasy romance

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

November 2014 - Don't go overboard and drown in descriptions

"To live through a story . . . a reader must capture it with his own senses."
– Dwight Swain

For a reader to be anchored in a time and place, to feel the urgency and drama or the mood of any scene, means writing with vividness and economy. It means showing, not telling. But how much description is too much? How much telling is too much?

There are no easy answers.

On the minimalist side, the average sentence is considered twenty words.  One "rule" says no more than three sentences (that's twenty to sixty words) in any given spot. At the other extreme is someone who uses such a unique, narrative voice and such evocative language that a reader would happily listen to a detailed description of an ocean and become lost in the feel of the waves coming onshore, the smell of salt air, and the squawk of gulls.

There is also Point of View and Viewpoint to consider. The omniscient narrator (God or The-Fly-On-The-Wall) tends to tell all and describe all. On the other hand, first person and the deepest third person narratives filter everything through the character's highly opinionated voice, which means the character is not going to stop and describe a lot of things in detail. The character can't take that kind of time because the character is on a mission or quest to achieve a story or scene goal, or solve a problem.

And, of course, there are thousands of blended points of view with varying degrees of showing and telling. One size does not fit all.

But there is a "tipping point." At some point, the description will either slow the story to a crawl or stop the action. When that happens, the reader skims to get to "the good stuff" and that means action or dialogue.

My advice is— do not stop the initial draft process to edit or limit descriptions. Write what you must. Once that draft is done, make one pass through the work looking for wall-to-wall words, that is, any page with four or fewer paragraphs. When you find a page like that, use a highlighter and highlight every word of description. That way you "see" the bulk of words. Next is to cut adjectives and adverbs or replace them with one, vivid, image-producing noun or verb. Lastly, determine if there is a way to say the same thing better, and with more economy of words, but which doesn't violate the point-of-view or viewpoint.

Revision is a process. Describing to show more with less wording, is a matter of using good writing craft devices and techniques.

Craft can be learned. And craft enhances talent!

 ***THIS BLOG IS UPDATED THE FIRST OF EACH MONTH --- December 2014 - Don't underutilize the dictionary and thesaurus

***Christmas Gift Idea for yourself or a fellow writer:
"Terrific Titles--an all-inclusive guide to creating story titles"

*** Christmas Gift Ideas for Readers (all available at and other book outlets):

ADRADA TO ZOOL an anthology of short stories

JEWELS OF THE SKY, a futuristic (sci-fi) adventure
KARMA AND MAYHEM, a paranormal fantasy romance

***Connect with Catherine at her home website HERE
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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

October 2014 - Don't put your whole story into one file because...

I like things broken down into manageable increments, so when I draft a story, each chapter has a separate file. After the final polish of all the chapters, I'll merge them into one document for submission. 

When I was writing short stories, one computer file sufficed —  UNTIL — I was into writing novels.  At a writers' conference, the after-hours topic came up of one file or chapter files for novels. Well, the floodgates of stories about computer crashes, hard drives having damaged sectors, dropped laptops, floppy disks (and later the 3.5" ones) being damaged by  unintentional exposure to heat/cold, and so on, was my wake-up call. A few conferences later, there was the "theft" stories that then had me backing things up. So, I'm all for—

1) keeping one hard copy around of all completed work (I keep the drafts and the backup paperwork, sketches, research, etc. in a Banker's Box) but the final, finished document I put in a 3-ring binder.

2) keeping a backup disk (CD or USB) copy (which is in an environmentally safe place so it will last the eight years, or so, that's their average lifespan before they have to be recopied)

3) keeping a backup on my external hard drive (my own "little cloud" because I don't believe in or trust The Cloud)


4) one hard copy always goes to my daughter who lives out of state (in case of an unforeseen natural disaster - fire, tornado, etc.)

Have I ever had a problem with losing a story? Not the entire story, but yes, a long, long time ago, one story had no Chapter 13 because the computer developed "a bad sector."  Was I devastated by the loss? No. I had a hard copy (at the time I didn't have a computer with floppy disks). Of course, I didn't like having to retype 5,000 or so words, but at least it wasn't the entire novel.

So, have you ever lost a story or a piece of one to a computer glitch? Lost a USB drive or CD with your story on it? What happened and how did you remedy things so it wouldn't happen again?

 ***THIS BLOG IS UPDATED THE FIRST OF EACH MONTH November 2014 - Don't go overboard and drown in descriptions


Monday, September 1, 2014

September 2014 - Don't Shun How-to Books Because—

My pet peeve is the writer who says they don't read how-to books on writing because: 1) they don't want to write like someone else or b) they'd rather learn as they go and just write (the frustrating trial-and-error method).

Okay, so there are how-to books that basically say "write like this and you'll sell a blockbuster." There are also far more how-to books by authors that spout the rhetoric of bygone fiction philosophies. I should know, I've read some 400 how-to books on fiction writing over the years.

For those wondering, my shelves hold a meager forty keepers in the way of how-to books. Those are the books that teach concisely and clearly. Interestingly enough, the best of the best on my shelves are by multi-published authors who teach writing at universities known for their fiction writers. And, hey, good teachers know how to teach. I consider each of those author-teachers to be my mentors.

Which brings me back to the old trial and error learning, the write-as-you-go experience. Trial and error is a time-sucker. It  creates frustrations and causes stories to dead-end or get completely out of hand by going in first one direction then another. Another thing about trial and error is that it actually reinforces bad writing habits. And I know first-hand that bad writing habits are darn hard to unlearn. However, you can't learn fiction techniques if you don't know what they are and, more importantly, why they work and when to use them.

Now, some will say they can get writing how-to's at online blogs and writing websites. Trouble is, the information isn't going to be very comprehensive. The Internet is known for brief blogs and essays, which gives an overview of just an aspect of the device or technique. The best how-to books are tens of thousands of words that cover all aspects of a fiction-writing device or technique. So, the more you know, the better choices you can make for your style of writing fiction. And to know means not just reading a how-to book, but STUDYING the technique and doing exercises to convince your story-telling self to use them in your stories. This is part of "the learning curve."

If you think I spent a fortune on how-to books, well, that's not so. I always go to the local libraries and get a copy or request a library loan for one. If I discover a "keeper," I'll buy myself a copy and study it, adding tools of the trade to my repertoire.

If you ask me which of my keeper books tops my list as the very best one, it is ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser. It may be billed as a book for nonfiction writing, but it actually changed my thinking and attitude on writing well and telling a story well— and it had advice on writing good fiction.

So, do you read — or do you read, study, and practice — fiction writing techniques from how-to books? If you do, what's the one book that top's your list?

 ***THIS BLOG IS UPDATED THE FIRST OF EACH MONTH - October 2014 - Don't put your whole story into one file because ...

  ***My September and October workshops:

--Candid Characters (what's hidden in the answers to those character questionnaires)
--Writing Believable Dialogue
--Bloopers and Writing Blunders
--Characters, Clues and Creativity
--Prologues–do you really need one?
--The Master Project Bible
--Show, Don't Tell

Information is at —

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Friday, August 1, 2014

August 2014 - Don't write for your college professor

Who do you write for? Is it your grade school teacher? Is it your high school teacher? Is it your college professor?

Okay, so over your lifetime, you likely wrote for all three of those teachers. They taught you to use words and symbols (the English language) to convey ideas. Yet to write good fiction, you will write for a different audience— "the reader." Your reader.

When writing genre fiction, you write "informally" rather than formally. Formal writing is for literary, academic, or business. But you need the diction, syntax, and vocabulary that a mass-market reader will easily understand. The key words here are "easily understand." How can you tell if you write for the reader? By getting a Flesch-Kincaid score. Just google Flesch-Kincaid and pick one of the free online test sites like

That F-K score tells you how simple or complex comprehension will be for what you wrote. Dr. Seuss comes in at 1.02 for GREEN EGGS AND HAM. That's first grade level. A grade level of 22 would be grad level.

Now, here's the thing— for fiction, you want a score between fourth and eighth grades. That's where the greatest comprehension level for genre stories is said to be. Otherwise, you're writing for yourself— or professors.  By the way, this blog entry came in at 6.21.

So, if curiosity got the better of you and you took the F-K test, won't you share your score, revelations, or thoughts?

September 2014 - Don't shun how-to books unless . . .

WRITE BETTER, LEARN CRAFT --- isn't it time you attended one of my in-person or online workshops?  This fall's schedule is posted here.

Connect with me  so you are notified of updates to this blog.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

July 2014 - Don't blatantly talk to the reader (Author Intrusion)

Quack, quack, quack . . .

Author Intrusion, or the "intrusive narrator" happens when the author inadvertently or deliberately steps out of the story and directly addresses the reader. Doing so is as intrusive as a quacking duck waddling across the page. You see, Author Intrusions make the reader suddenly realize another "voice" is narrating— or the author is now speaking directly to them (the reader). When either happens, the action of the story stops. The writer is not longer invisible, or working covertly behind the scenes but is center stage.

Most annoying and distracting are Author Intrusions in the form of "spoiler alerts."
A phrase like: "little did he realize he'd be dead tomorrow" is such an Author Intrusion. It's a blatant one because that's information the narrative character would not know, see, or realize but which the author, knowing the story or plot, would— and gleefully, it seems, feels compelled to share the information with the reader about what's about to transpire. Thus the drama, the anticipation, and the curiosity that's been keeping the reader reading is gone. Such "spoilers" are not foreshadowing. They actually ruin the story for the reader.

Another type of Author Intrusion is when the writer expounds on themes or takes a stand on an issue
(and pontificates or lapses into their personal dogma). Those opinions have very little to do with the character's point-of-view and viewpoint. That's why it is so very important to know the story's characters before writing the story— to know the character's personalities, their "voice" (their diction, syntax, and vocabulary). Such things make characters individuals and independent of the author's interests and opinions.

Coupled with the above is
when a writer saturates a story with facts and data (which said writer found so fascinating while doing research or speaking with "experts"). Setting details that bring a scene to life are one thing but swamping the story with too much detail bores the reader.

However, my pet peeve concerning Author Intrusions is when a character of the opposite sex than the writer sounds like the writer’s sex. This happens a lot in romance fiction when the female author portrays her Alpha Male Romantic Lead acting emotionally and angsting like a woman. Worse yet is that female author having this hero spout "feminine" words, which readers recognize and shout, "a guy would never say that!"

It's not easy to identify Author Intrusions because they can be subtle. However, an excellent way to find Author Intrusions is to have critique partners and readers who "hear" the differences in narrating characters and who will note when the author steps on the page or the characters deviate from being "real story people."

Best, of course, would be for the author to develop and cultivate a keen "inner ear"
that hears the different narrative voices of the characters and also recognizes words and phrases that are not part and parcel of that character's characters. Again, to know a character before writing the story is an asset.

So, what's your pet peeve when it comes to Author Intrusions?

August 2014's topic—  Don't write for your college professor

ANNOUNCING: I will be giving a hands-on, online course, "Characters, Clues, and Creativity," October 1-31, 2014 hosted by Pennwriters. Details are currently HERE.
***  Make sure you're notified when this blog updates by joining my private e-mail list at Connect With Catherine
***Comments and questions on craft are always welcomed and answered either here or, if you prefer, by private email (go to Connect With Catherine)
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Sunday, June 1, 2014

June 2014 - Don't repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat . . .

Have you gotten feedback on your writing that says you're repeating words? Okay, so critiquers will often cite repetition of "red flag words" like: was, were, there, so, and, as, just, or but.

However, what I'm addressing this month are words and phrases not so easily found. It's the old can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees syndrome.

You see, every word or phrase leaves an echo in the reader's mind.
Words like "the" scarcely leave an echo, but use a word like fortuitous and the "echo" lingers. And lingers.

Now, the Muse, which is your storytelling subconscious, loves rhythm and rhyme. That's why it will latch onto words just to hear them resonate again. And again. Which means that if you use an "echoing" word (like fortuitous) in the next sentence, or the next paragraph or on the next page, the reader has not forgotten that word. The reader, on a subconscious level, begins begins to wonder—  and anticipates— if there will be a payoff when the third repetition occurs. This is also an example of the Rule of Three, which is a good thing if there is a payoff. Not such a good thing if there isn't.

What's the Rule of Three you ask? It's about deliberately repeating something three times, and the third time is a payoff or offers a surprise or results in a wow factor. For example: mention a Winchester rifle in chapter one, then mention the Winchester in chapter eighteen. With that second appearance and "echo," the reader thinks the rifle is VERY important (because it has been mentioned a second time). The reader now anticipates that the rifle will be used a third time. When the gun is used, and in a significant way, that's the payoff. 

Do you know what happens when the reader pays attention to the rifle after the second mention, but the rifle is never brought into play again? On a subconscious level, the reader is irritated— and not likely to enjoy any more stories by that writer.

How do you know if you're repeating words or phrases that don't generate a payoff?
Self-editing with a keen internal ear and listening carefully helps.  Better yet is to read passages out loud or have someone read the story and you listen. Even better is to join a critique group or find critique partners who can see the forest for the trees and hear the echos across the valleys of words.

After all, craft enhances talent and craft can be learned. And here's a tip: craft makes the difference between a ordinary writer and a great storyteller.

***This blog is updated the first of each month. Next month:
July 2014 — Don't blatantly talk to the reader (Author Intrusion)

*** Note: Act now! 
Make sure you're notified when this blog updates by joining my private e-mail list.

***Comments and questions on craft are always welcomed and answered.

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

May 2014 - Don't be a grammar slave master with dialogue

Stop . . .    Stop!      Stop,     "Stop."   'stop' 
Stop—         Stop.      STOP!     Stop!    Stop?

Effective dialogue relies on the placement of punctuation and appropriate grammar (not necessarily correct grammar) so the reader "hears" the tone of the words or thoughts, which, in turn, makes for the distinct voice of the person speaking or thinking those words.
With dialogue, the simplest change of a punctuation mark or italics or capitalization can affect how the words are translated by the reader. So, pause a moment and go back and look at— slowly look at— and read each "stop" out loud using the pause or emphasis that the pieces of punctuation call for.

Do you hear the differences?

If you don't, it could be because you are skimming as you read.  In other words, you are just reading the words and ignoring the power and connotation of the punctuation.

You see, in order to "hear" your characters or the story's narrator as they speak or narrate, it's necessary to understand the silence and pause of punctuation marks. After all, readers are not mind readers. They only have the words— and the punctuation— to transform what they're reading into a "visual" and "audio" that is the movie unfolding in their mind when they read.

For those who wonder why I did not include a colon or semicolon among the punctuation, that's because in all the years of my being a secretary, taking dictation and listening to people speak, I have never heard a person use a semicolon or colon (and some of my bosses were very highly educated). But there's also the fact that when a reader sees colons or semicolons on a page of informal/genre fiction, the reader is, for a split second, jerked out of the story world and reminded they are reading. Which means that the colon's and semicolon's use has put a flickering glitch in "the movie" that is a story. Too many glitches and suddenly the story isn't worth reading, is it?

So, when next you revise your fiction, take a look at the punctuation. Does it serve the narrator of your tale? Does is give an accurate voice to your characters?

****AVAILABLE MAY 2, 2014:    (Click the books for more information)

***This blog is updated the first of each month. Topic for June 2014 is --  Don't repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat . . . 

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April 2014 - Don't warm up with a prologue


Remember Alice in Wonderland?  Her story started in her ordinary world with her sitting under a tree, reading a boring book. The instant Alice saw the White Rabbit, her life changed. Great stories begin with a protagonist (a hero or heroine) going about their regular life only to have some "white rabbit" appear, plunging them down the rabbit hole of change--and into a wonderland of adventures.

    Alice's story didn't need a prologue. To be honest, a prologue is ineffective for two basic reasons: 

a) the writer has a misconception about what the true purpose of a prologue is, and
b) the prologue has no value to the reader because it is a messages-in-disguise from the writer's storytelling self, which was meant strictly for the writer in order that they could write the story.

     So what is a prologue?  A prologue is a writing device that introduces or foreshadows a foreboding element— one that cannot be incorporated into the main story but which is essential to the reader anxiously worrying, or becoming keenly curious, about what will happen in the story.

    The five "foreboding" elements are:

1) An aura of violence, such as a murder, a heist, a stalker, or the evil emperor about to blow up the universe. The reader anticipates sitting on the edge of their seat to know the story's outcome. The explosive opening of the movie Die Hard With a Vengeance is an example.

2) A sense of the romantic, such as "matchmakers" (children, meddling relatives, friends, neighbors, angels, fortune tellers, etc.) who plot from the onset to get the hero and heroine together.

3) A historical event (real or imaginary depending on the genre) that must be explained to the reader to set the stage. For example, certain time periods in the Crusades, or say the Civil War, where the story is based on a little-known political, moral, ethical, or social issue or the norms of that era. This also applies to science fiction and fantasy where the reader requires an anchor in a new "universe" or an unfamiliar "world order."  Recall the opening of the movie Star Wars. Without that lead-in screen of words, the viewer has no idea where--or when in time--the story takes place.

4) An incident that foreshadows the entire novel. In my novel, KARMA AND MAYHEM, the samurai's reincarnation had to be explained to the reader because the samurai didn't make an actual appearance until Chapter 22. However, because the prologue dealt with the story's stakes and the samurai's part in it, the reader understood the behind-the-scenes actions of that samurai when the characters did not. (By the way, this is the only story I've ever written that needed a prologue.)

5) A sense of drama with a characterizational sketch or vignette that is so important that without it the story would fail for the reader. The ideal use of this technique is to foreshadow the story's antagonist (the villain), leaving no doubt in the reader's mind about the menace that villain poses. If a prologue is a sketch about the protagonist, then that's back history and should be incorporated into the story as the story unfolds. 

    So why are prologues used so promiscuously?  I believe it is a direct result of writers who have not learned to distinguish between what a writer needs to know to form the story and what the reader needs to know to enjoy the story.

    Let me put it another way:  When an idea transforms into a story, the storytelling self provides a bounty of information, much blatantly obvious, some disguised in metaphors and imagery, and an initial "prologue dump." Sure, every word acquaints the writer with the characters and the story's plot and conflict, but does the reader need to know all of that from the very start? No.

    Dealing with what the writer must know, and the reader needs to know, is like having a conversation between Alice (the writer's logical self) and the Cheshire Cat (the paradoxical storytelling self). In the confusing banter, a prologue may initially seem worthwhile, but unless it meets the criteria of one of the five foreshadowing elements, the reader isn't likely to find the rabbit hole.

    So, when a story begins, isn't it better to forgo the use of a prologue and, instead, produce a White Rabbit for the reader to chase through the pages of a grand adventure?

***for a copy of the complete article "The Purpose of Prologue" go to:

**** This blog is updated the first of each month. 
May's topic: Don't be a grammar slave master with dialogue

****Be sure to use the contact form for my private mailing list, which will notify you when this blog is updated, just go  here or join me at my author's group (they get the news first!)
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Saturday, March 1, 2014

March 2014 - Don't get cute with spellings or names

Photo by C.E.McLean@2013
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet is commonly quoted from William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet argues that the names of things do not matter, only what things are.

    If you're a writer, I can't stress enough that a name is the first tag of identification a reader SEES when they read a story. That name makes a first, and a lasting, impression that doesn't allow for do-overs.

    You see, the moment a reader's eyes alight on a name, the voice inside their head sounds out that name. As the sound resonates, the mind calls forth references accumulated in the subconscious over a lifetime of media input (TV, books, movies, etc.) and real life encounters of real people. The mind then conjures "a person" to belong to that name. The question is: does the reader's image match the one the author had in mind?  For example:       Eli   or   Elli  
    The first name, Eli, is a male name.  The second, Elli, is a female name. One L is the deciding factor between a male and a female character to the reader.

    I share this with you because I once found the above name in a published short story. When I came to the word Eli, my mind went to an archetype of characteristics for a male protagonist (a proud man, with a dynamic nature and with the drive of a biblical man of authority.)  It took several paragraphs before I realized that the name I was sounding out in my head was doing feminine things. That confused me. Then, in one telling sentence with pronoun references, it became clear that the name was misspelled and should have been Elli, a woman.

    My reaction was to stop reading right then and there. My second reaction was "how dare the author confuse me!" Well, such reactions are typical of most readers. Once "hoodwinked" like that, readers become skeptical about the author's credibility to tell a story. The result is that hoodwinked readers avoid buying or reading by that author again. 

    Now if you're thinking: why didn't the editor catch this before publication? I have no idea—and that short story was not an e-published one but from a reputable hard-cover press.

    So, here's a cheat-sheet worthy bit of advice:

    * avoid incorrectly spelled gender names (don't let the reader think it's a woman when it's a man)
    * avoid using gender-neutral name if at all possible for they can become extremely confusing (for example: Sidney and Noel had a date. Which is female? Which male? Or are they of the same sex?)
    * avoid names that are impossible to pronounce except by the author
    * avoid names that sound alike and/or start with the same letter of the alphabet, thus creating sing-song names (for example: Bill, Jill, Phil, Lil, Will)
    * avoid innovative spellings of names that can't be quickly sounded out by syllables (in other words, no Zacoetkatanahtku which will make the reader work so hard they end up calling the character "Bob" or "Z" or "Zaco")
* avoid inventing names because they will have no obvious meaning  (every name has a hidden or obvious meaning associated with it, for example: Sarah, Sara, Sarrah, Saree, Xara, Jada, Sorcha, and all the other forms of Sarah mean "princess." In other words, no matter how her name is spelled or in what language, a Sarah will embody some aspect of a princess. Whether that "princess" quality is good or evil, well, that's another story.)

    So, strive for simple, archetype names, and names with built-in characteristics of character (not stereotypes). Strive to use names that resonate consciously and subconsciously by their sound quality. And, lastly, strive for spellings that look as good as the name sounds. That's triple insurance to insure heroes, heroines, and villains vividly come alive on the page for the reader.

    After all, a rose by any other name just might not smell the same.

**** This blog is updated the first of each month. 
         April 2014 - Don't warm up with a prologue

To be notified of updates to this blog, join me at Starscape Fiction  (at - )

PS - I'm thinking about giving a workshop on "The Noise of Their Name" - everything a writer needs to know about generating and using names for characters (heroes, heroines, villains, sidekicks, etc.), places, props, weapons, gadgets, businesses, ships, aliens, fantasy creatures, etc. If you'd like to be notified about this workshop, please go here.

@ 2014 Catherine E. McLean

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

01 FEB 2014 - Don't ignore story and scene structures

Readers don't care how a story is structured as long as it's enjoyable to read. However, as a writer who wants to generate a story that readers will enjoy, that means using story and scene structures.

So just what is a story?
Basically, a story is about someone going on a journey. Yep, it's as simple as that. But here's the thing: that "journey" can be heart rending, mind-blowingly psychological, or even life-threatening. As to who takes that journey, it's the protagonist. No one else. Lastly, that journey will have a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  And the journey will actually begins where something happens that necessitates an interesting protagonist, in an interesting setting, making their goal one of confronting an interesting antagonist.

Did you notice the key words "interesting." After all, not just any protagonist will do. Not just any setting will do. Not just any antagonist will do. You see, the reader wants larger-than-life protagonists, heroes and heroines.

Also, most of the story hinges on what opposes the hero or heroine. The antagonist is that opposition. But here's the thing: an antagonist can be a single dastardly villain or a series of "complicating characters," who may or may not be evil per se but who make life miserable or difficult for the protagonist. Antagonist also run the gauntlet from aliens, entities, evil monsters, Nature, and, yes, even to the protagonist being his own worst enemy.

Keep in mind that it's in the significant confrontations
that a protagonist's and an antagonist's true ethics and morals are put to the test. Such confrontations also have dire consequences, which is called "high stakes" — it's what's "at stake." 

A marketable story showcases characters in conflict utilizing a series of happenings called scenes. Again, the reader doesn't see the structure of a story let alone the scene's structure, but the writer needs to hone their writing skills in order to pull off a good-to-great scene, and then know if that scene should be followed with a sequel. Scene structure is: a character (usually the protagonist) going after a goal, but their efforts are thwarted, and they end up failing. However, maybe they get the goal they sought, but then something unexpected happens and the character is in bind. Sequel structure happens after then "scene disaster." This is when the protagonist goes off to regroup or lick their wounds and tries to figure out just what went wrong and why. It's an emotional reaction followed by analysis of ways to fix the problem, and ends with a new goal being set. Which is then followed by the scene to obtain that new goal. Here's a tip: sequels can flow like a scene. Here's another tip: not all scenes are followed with a sequel.

Here's a third tip: Using scene-and-sequel structure ensures the reader understands what's going on and becomes immersed so deeply into the story world's characters that the reader forgets what time of day it is and keeps turning pages. In other words, scene-sequel structure paces a story.

Scene and sequel structure is not a topic easily condensed. There are books on the subject. So, if you're a writer who wants to become a good storyteller, then isn't it time you read a few how-to books on the subject and learned the art and craft of scene-sequel structures?


March 2014 - Don't get cute with spellings or names

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

January 2014 - Don't write wall-to-wall words

Seven years ago, I started writing these 'cheat sheet' posts. Looking back, I found the first year's series of do's and don'ts was so worthwhile that I'm going back to that theme. Let's begin with: Don't write wall to wall words.

Just one caveat: if you write literary fiction, you probably don't have to consider wall-to-wall words. That's the nature of literary writing. However, if your aim is genre and mass market fiction, then you will want to avoid wall-to-wall words, which amounts to a visual brick wall to a reader when they eye a page.

Want to know if you have a wall-to-wall word problem? There's a simple test for it.  Print out five pages to a chapter of your short story or novel. Why a print out? Because you need to line the sheets up to see the paragraphing flow. Next, take a highlighter and mark those five or so blank spaces of every paragraph's indentation. Now, count how many indents you have to a page, and watch to see whether a big paragraph at the bottom of one page continues as a big paragraph onto the next page. If you have four (4) or fewer paragraphs per page, you likely have wall-to-wall words.

If you discover you have wall-to-wall words, what do you do? You go back to the basics of what a paragraph is. A paragraph is a unit of one topic sentence followed by a few sentences that deal with that topic. When the topic changes, that's a new paragraph. Often what happens in those big, long paragraphs is that too many "topics" or "ideas" or "actions" were put together.

When writing fiction, think 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, 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.

All those paragraph indentations add white space to a page. And if you're writing high action scenes, you'll have very short sentence and lots of paragraphing. If the pace is to be slower, you'll have longer paragraphs and longer sentences.

So, did you take the test, and if so, won't you comment on the results?

****This blog is updated the first of each month.  February 2014 - Don't ignore story and scene structures

-SPECIAL NOTE- January 8, 2014, is the deadline for registering for my online workshop, "Revision Boot Camp" which runs Jan. 13-31, 2014.

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