Saturday, October 1, 2016

Structured Creativity Liberates

 October, November, and December 2016


Imagination and creativity may be the source of tales, but without a logical way to present the story, the reader won't buy the book and the reader won't be able to suspend their disbelief in a fictional or fantastic world.

It's a fact that logic and creativity are at odds with each other. It's also a fact that logic will always trump creativity.

I believe writers should stop the battle between logic and creativity. The two can work together. The two can become a system that works to structure creativity and produce work in a timely fashion, which nets the writer less frustration.

One of the tools of structuring creativity is the development and use of cheat sheets. Such cheat sheets take the form of forms, lists, questions, and reminders. Reminders can be instructions to do this and not to do that. Reminders can be material taken from online or how-to book sources (sort of refreshing both the logical mind and the subconscious).

Ideally, such forms, such cheat sheets, will add just enough structure to avoid countless rewrites, going off on tangents, and ending up with a story that fizzles.

When drafting a story
, most writers put down the first thing that comes to mind, which invariably turns out to not fit the story or scene or character. Once the writer realizes the problem, or has a critique partner point out the problem, the writer quits the tale. Why? Because they don't know how to fix the problem or it's just too much trouble to go back and make changes.

So, if you're finally frustrated
with story ideas that dwindle to oblivion or minor characters taking over the story, or the story hanging a hard left turn into a corner, or you hate rewriting ad infinitum, then consider structuring your creativity.

One example of a cheat sheet that will prevent a secondary character from taking over the story is a "Master Character Work Sheet." This master form will be used solely for the story's protagonist, antagonist, and if you have one, the Second Major Character who is usually the Romantic Lead.

This master sheet can take whatever form you need. It might be a questionnaire or interview sheet or a list of key questions to get at the core of the characters values and morals. Those questions also cover appearance, family history, work history, education, likes and dislikes, and the way the character thinks and acts. No other character in the story gets such scrutiny or attention except the three main characters.

Best of all, you get to know those main characters and how they are alike and opposite. You'll discover what buttons to push to drive them and the plot and the story. You may also discover the theme of the story and realize the inevitable resolution. All of this done before writing that first draft. All of this done without wasting words or rewriting. And when you do write the draft, it will be so much better. And don't forget, there will always be rewrites because only a genius could turn out a perfect manuscript from the get-go.

Someone will say structuring creativity and creating forms is time consuming.
They'd rather write and find out as they go. Okay, then as you finish your day's writing, post what you learned to your character worksheets and other forms or lists. That way you'll prevent contradictions and inaccuracies.

Keep in mind that all story worksheets must be tailored for you because no two minds create alike.

Although I discourage people from using online and forms in how-to books on writing, there is nothing wrong with picking out salient points and questions to form your own work sheets.

Lastly, every producing writer has a process.
The definition of "process" is: a particular course of action intended to achieve a result.

If you want to write more fluidly, turn out completed stories that readers will enjoy, then consider how liberating it will be to have forms to keep you on track and which help you create twists and turns in a plot that will wow readers.

For a list of 2017 Topics, go to:
 Click on the logo to get FREE Cheat Sheets for - 

What is Story?

10 Types of Writers

POV-Viewpoint - how hard is it to learn

Also available:  Terrific Titles - the all-inclusive Guide to Creating Story Titles

Friday, July 1, 2016

3 Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make


There are lists published on the Internet and in many how-to write fiction books stating the biggest mistakes new writers make. Some lists deal with storytelling, others craft elements, and others are wish lists by editors and agents on what mistakes they wish novice writers would stop making.

I have my own lists, but in this blog post, I want to address the three things I see as handicapping new writers and the self-published writer. They are:

1) Illusion vs. Reality.
The illusion— just because a writer got A's in English or praised for their writing in school, that qualifies them to write and publish their work without needed input from editors or beta readers or even other, more experienced writers and authors.

The reality is this— becoming a storyteller, not just the average writer, means finding out and learning precisely what the rules and guidelines are for writing fiction that sells.

Here's another reality check— By my last count, there are one hundred and forty-four (144) aspects to writing good fiction and telling a story well. How many do you know? How many have you mastered until they appear naturally a you write?

Another reality—
too many writers would rather write then learn fiction techniques and devices. Yet, here's the thing— talent will take a writer only so far. It is craft that enhances talent and liberates creativity. Best of all, craft can be learned.

Oh, right, the reality—
Learning is not fun, it's hard work. Writing is the fun stuff. Look at it this way: if you wanted to learn to swim, would you go and jump into the deep end of a pool?

Not a good idea you say? Well, you're right. You're more likely to drown then learn to swim. Instead, you would start in the shallow end of the pool with people who know how to swim and who would coach you, or you would take lessons from professionals at the pool's facility. You'd start off learning to float, advance to swim strokes, and if you really liked swimming and were good at it, you would take more lessons to learn breaststrokes and butterfly strokes. In other words, your talent for swimming would be boosted tremendously. Why, you might even be good enough to swim with the big guys in the Olympics.

As a writer, it's the same thing. Don't jump into the pool of writing, floundering, drowning in the sea of millions of other writers publishing on the Internet.

Here's another reality check, a statistic.
A few months ago I came across a statement that 4,500 books are added EACH DAY to the 15 million already out there. How is your book going to stand out? I likely won't unless it is a well told and well written story that appeals to readers.

So, make it your mission to become that special someone who has mastered fiction writing to become a true storyteller. Be that special someone who can grab and hold a reader's attention and take them on a fantastic journey.

2)Failure to understand what a story is and where a story actually starts.
  In a nutshell, a well-told story is about an interesting character in an interesting setting, facing an interesting problem. That interesting character is, of course, the protagonist and by the end of the tale he or she has solved the problem and learned a life-lesson or have achieved something valuable.

Unfortunately, it's not easy to get to the point of a story (the plot's theme). Stories tend to come in bits and pieces, what-ifs, and so on. There's figuring out the setting, who's who in the story, ad infinitum.

Rarely are the first words written down the beginning of the story. In actuality (the reality), ninety-percent of what the writer knows won't go into the story. That's right, only ten percent of all that information a writer has to know to figure out the story ends up being what is necessary for the reader to know to enjoy the story.

However, the story can't be distilled and knitted into a tale worth a reader's hard earned money without the writer's explorations into plot and extrapolations of characters.

Think of it this way—
writing is like looking at an iceberg. Ten percent floats above the sea. The ninety percent below sea level supports the visible. 

Or, you might think of it as the writer writes a snowstorm of words but a storyteller is master of sculpting that snow, compacting it, into brilliant worlds of wonder and awe.

3) Failure to join a writer's group before attempting to publish (be that traditionally, self-publish or independently published) and to understand the quality of fiction writing needed for a story to appeal to readers (including editors and agents).

The reality is that only another writer knows what a writer goes through from the idea that sparks a story to the finished, camera-ready or digital-ready copy. In the current publishing world, it's also necessary that writers market their own work, regardless of who publishes the book.

And again, drawing on the analogy of learning to swim from earlier in this post— it's a lot easier to learn to swim with others who are learning and from those that have already mastered how to swim.

In addition to joining a writer's group, a writer can teach themselves about the various aspects of a novel or short story. However, to test that knowledge or to figure out the full impact of an aspect, it helps to know people who have successfully used it, understand the pros and cons of it, and why and how to tweak the "guidelines" or "rules" because there is a valid reason to do so.

Another reality check— a writer should be a voracious reader. This helps avoid cliched or tropes that are unsalable.

In addition, reading helps learn things by osmosis. That is, by reading good storytelling, the subconscious mind better understands the underpinnings of a story or a character's arc (even if the conscious mind doesn't).

Another aspect is to fully understand that words have weight, connotation, denotation, and a sound. There are even degrees, like pique is not the same thing as wrath (the two are extremes of anger). Same for love, hate, etc. In other words, a storyteller is a wordsmith.

Some reading this will keep their blinders on because the fantasy of writing and creating is what gives them a life-high. Reality burst such bubbles. And yet, reality is the key to success. Learning can be fun. And nothing beats the fireworks-burst of joy when readers crave your stories.

NEXT UPDATE TO THIS BLOG: October 1 —  Structured Creativity Liberates
 Click on the logo to get FREE Cheat Sheets for - 

What is Story?

10 Types of Writers

POV-Viewpoint - how hard is it to learn

Also available:  Terrific Titles - the all-inclusive Guide to Creating Story Titles

Friday, April 1, 2016

Said is dead... Really?

Another list of synonyms and words to substitute for "said" came in my email box recently. From time to time, I copy such lists and file them in my "verb" binder because they remind me not to follow such rhetoric.

However, before I hit the delete button on this latest list for said substitutes, I realized the words came from a list being used in grade school. Students who are given such lists are being encouraged to broaden their verb vocabularies, which is a good thing. Only what is good for the student isn't necessarily good when writing fiction.

Okay, so technically said is a verb, but it can also be an adjective. More importantly, when writing fiction, said is part of a speech tag that shows who's talking. The trouble with most substitutes for said is that they constitute "telling" not "showing." When writing fiction, showing is better than telling. For example, if a person wrote: "You did it," John said, pointing his finger at Matt. This is a basic bit of dialogue with a speech tag that has a beat (or stage business).

Yet, what really shows the accusation is the dialogue itself, "You did it" coupled with the stage business (or beat) of "pointing his finger at Matt." Then again, this can be shown even better as: John pointed his finger at Matt. "You did it!"

On the other hand, if you follow the rhetoric of swapping words, like "accused" for said, you get: "You did it, Matt," John accused. This is not only awkward but also blatant telling. Sadly, I see too much of this in newbie writers' manuscripts and in self- and independently-published novels.

Other things I noticed on the list of said substitutes were such words as barked, bawled, bleated, and bubbled. You can't bark and talk at the same time. That's a physical impossibility. Okay, so commands can be "barked out" by someone giving orders. For example: The sergeant barked out, "Give me twenty!" Every recruit dropped to the ground and did twenty pushups.

Out of curiosity, I checked a more lengthy list (four pages) that was in my file. I wondered how many were "telling" verbs, and how many could safely be swapped when writing fiction. Here's what I discovered:

    Total words on the list: 397
    Number of words that worked as listed when swapped out for said: 8 (hollered, yelled, shouted, whispered, muttered, mumbled, replied, and answered).
    Number of words that worked if "out" was added to them: 35  

(examples: barked out, cried out, blurted out, hissed out, and wheezed out).
    That left a balance of 354 synonyms for said.

Some of those remaining synonyms were rather odd words that should be avoided, like: bossed, preached, professed, empathized, acquiesced, ad-libbed, advocated, foretold, granted, decreed, nagged, itemized, and resumed. (They are "telling" not "showing.")

There were also some baffling words on the list. One was exclaimed, which is so cliched because if there is an exclamation point, the reader knows the words are exclaimed. Then there was whistled. I would like to hear dialogue whistled, wouldn't you?

Of course, if pages of fiction are peppered with saids, something should be done to not only eliminate as many saids as possible but to also convert most of those "telling" words into beats or stage business.

However, if you've drafted a story using synonym substitutes for said, perhaps you should resurrect a few saids. After all, to most readers, said is as invisible as the word "the."

For the remaining synonyms you've used for said, consider those red-flag words of warning to revise and show instead of tell.
 Click on the logo to get FREE Cheat Sheets for
What is Story?
10 Types of Writers
POV-Viewpoint - how hard is it to learn

Also available:  Terrific Titles - the all-inclusive Guide to Creating Story Titles

# # #

Friday, January 1, 2016

2016 - New Year, new format

January, February, March Edition

In order to have a real relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to cultivate it.  –Julia Cameron

Do you believe a writer is born not made?

Do you believe that something as intrinsic as storytelling cannot be taught?

Do you believe that there is something mysterious about the creative process?

Well, I'm a realist. I believe that the true definition of a writer is what Sol Stein said: "A writer is someone who cannot not write."

That is, regardless of whether or not said writer ever gets published or self-publishes, they cannot stop writing the story or the stories of their heart.

But here's what strikes me as curious—newbie writers think what they've been taught about English and prose is good enough for writing fiction. It's not. Why? Because it takes a step-by-step learning process to master techniques and devices of fiction writing to tell a story so well that readers cannot put the story down until they get to "the end."

And let me be the first to burst the bubble about creativity. It's nothing more than your imagination. That imagination is part of your subconscious. That imagination is part of who you are. It's not to be feared or put on a pedestal like some god. So, get to know that imagination, your child within who thinks outside the box to create stories.

Now, think about this:

If you want to swim and compete in a swimming contest or Olympics, do you go to the nearest pool and jump into the deep end, expecting your instinct will allow you to swim lap upon lap like a pro?

Chances are you'll sink to the bottom and drown. To learn to swim you might go to the Y and take a fundamental swimming course, then you advance to other courses that teach techniques and styles of swimming. You practice. You learn to swim well, and then you enter a meet and test yourself against other swimmers to see where you stand.

If you want to win first place in a horse competition, you don't buy a horse and then enter a horse show. You buy the horse, you get someone to teach you the basics of how to ride and control the horse. Then you advance to a riding instructor that teaches you to be one with the horse, to sit properly in the saddle, to balance properly, to control the horse with your body movements.  Then you test your ability in the show ring.

If you want to learn to break boards with a karate chop, you don't just slap a plank. You take karate lessons, starting with the fundamentals and working up to that chop.

Can you name any endeavor that doesn't require understanding techniques? 

Oh, so you think because you got A's in English and your teachers say you have a flare for prose that you know fiction writing? Think again. I have cataloged 144 aspects to fiction writing. All have to be mastered in order to tell a story well and which are needed to engage a reader and submerge them in a story world.

So if you want to go from writing the ordinary, pedestrian, and amateur stories and novels to writing ones that will stand out among the 4,500 new works being added each day to the already fifteen million books currently being published, isn't it time to learn the craft elements of fiction and storytelling? 

And here's the beauty of it—

            Writers are self-taught.

The information is out there. The courses, classes, tutoring, mentoring, and self-help books, videos, workshops, and conference. There are even writer's groups that should be joined in order to learn craft elements, bounce ideas off of, and get the facts about storytelling that works.

Talent only takes a writer so far. It's craft that enhances and liberates creativity. Craft can be learned.

May your New Year be one of where your writing resolutions are fulfilled.

Wishing you much success with all your writing,

Catherine E. McLean

***Comments are always welcome. Questions are always answered.

Connect with Catherine HERE  and join her private email list for updates to this blog and for notices of upcoming courses and workshops.

****As announced last month, the Writers Cheat Sheet Blog is going to a quarterly update this year so I have more time to write stories as well as making time for the many workshops and courses I'm scheduled to present.

Next topic (April, May, June): Said is not Dead    

Upcoming online workshops -
"Hooks" for NEORWA, January 10-24, 2016
"Cause & Effect Sequences" for Pennwriters, Feb. 1-29, 2016