Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

This is sort of a “what if” page. It’s going to be short and sweet. It’s really just a contained rant.

So many Internet sites, Yahoo Answers, Facebook, etc. have a way for you to “like” a page or a comment, but they don’t have a thumbs down option.

Example: Like this particular politician? Give him a thumbs up.

What if I hate that person and I want to say so? I don’t even get a vote. You can only vote in favor of the person, or the cute kitty playing the trombone, or whatever. There’s no option to say, “Hell, no.” Why is that?

Instead of this:

A social media page the way it usually is.

A social media page the way it usually is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wouldn’t the public get a more accurate idea how everyone else feels about the subject if they could see this?

A social media page the way it should be.

A social media page the way it should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your opinion? What if all social media were the way I think they should be? What complications could you create for a main character with a thumbs down type of page? Tell me in the comments (thumbs up or down).

Michael

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My Interview on WLT’s Blog

I was honored to be interviewed recently by the nice folks at Scribe, the Writers’ League of Texas’ blog, for their Meet the Members segment. It posted today. Head on over to their blog to read the interview.

http://writersleagueoftexas.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/meet-the-members-19/

If you’re a writer, you couldn’t ask for a better organization than theirs. They have a great annual Agents and Editors Conference in Austin (June 27th to June 29th this year), and wonderful workshops and writing retreats. Check them out.

http://www.writersleague.org/

Are you a member of a writer’s organization? How do you feel they’ve helped you?

Michael

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Using What Ifs To Generate Story Ideas

I have (over the past two years) written several posts about the idea of using the phrase “What if” as an idea generator for developing a plot.

What If novels are often about large historical events, Kennedy’s assassination, the D-Day invasion, the birth of Alexander the Great; and they usually veer in a direction like this.

“What if Lee Harvey Oswald were stopped before the assassination, or perhaps Kennedy was only wounded and didn’t die?” What would he have accomplished during his presidency? How would that have changed our lives today?

“What if the D-Day landing hadn’t happened?” Perhaps a storm sank most of the landing craft, or Hitler discovered the real staging areas and bombed them before they could debark. How would the war have turned out? Would we be living in a German-centric world?

“What if Phillip II of Macedon had fathered only girls?” Would the empire have been thrown into chaos with Macedonian generals fighting to gain power instead of spreading their territory far and wide? (Note: It was very chaotic after Alexander’s death anyway, and the Macedonian Empire did break apart into smaller kingdoms.)

The implication of a “what if” storyline is usually that our lives today, or at least the lives of a few succeeding generations in that area of the world would be radically different in some way. For writers, it can also be a powerful tool to develop smaller story ideas. The “what if” doesn’t have to be applied to large events, not even to historical ones. For the writer, it can be used to mentally carry an event into the future, to establish what might occur to a character (or characters) in a given situation.

What if someone (let’s call him Doug), instead of taking his usual route when he walks his dog, one morning detours onto a side street? What could happen? Maybe he stumbles on several men kidnapping a woman. Maybe he’s not wearing his glasses so he can’t see them very well, but they don’t know that. Soon he’s on the run. How does he deal with the dog? Taking the dog with him could place the dog in danger, but also might add another dimension to the story. What if the dog is the story? Maybe the bad guys follow Doug back to his house and kill him and his family, but one of the thugs can’t bear to leave the dog behind. (A totally different story).

That’s the idea behind using What Ifs. Take a simple, everyday situation, and wonder what would happen if one element was changed. Look for more What If posts in the coming months.

What techniques do you use to generate story ideas?

Michael

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What I’m Working on Right Now

A couple of weeks ago, a question was asked at the Fiction Writers and Editors Group at LinkedIn. It was simply, “What are you working on?” After I had responded, along with a hundred or so other writers, it occurred to me that my response would make a good blog post, so, here it is. Here is a list of all the projects I’m currently working on, along with some thoughts on things I need to find time for (but haven’t been able to so far).

I’m looking for an agent for one of my books, my second novel, a thriller called The Jagged Man. I sent out a round of queries for it late last year, and I’ve received some favorable rejections. A couple of the agents haven’t responded, and it’s been nearly three months now, so another round is going to go out as soon as I can finish researching a few more agents who I think would be good fits for it. I also entered it in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Contest. I submitted (what I think is) an excellent pitch for it, so I’m hoping it will at least make it into the second round of the contest.

I mentioned If a Butterfly in my last post. I’m doing some minor polishing on it, preparing to probably go indie with it. In its original form it was an overly-long mainstream novel. It’s now 240,000 words, edited down from 330K (but still too long for most agents to touch it). I describe it as being something like Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon, but with a Monarch butterfly. (Basic Plot) During a Monarch’s migration, an astronaut on the ISS attempts to resist a charming Russian cosmonaut, a vacationing couple unknowingly drive into a hurricane, a rock deejay heads inexorably toward an on-the-air implosion, a woman with multiple personality disorder becomes lost in the Grand Canyon (and her primary alter hides from her rescuers because he thinks they are out to beat him up). The book is complex, and deals with a wide range of societal foibles. My plan is to separate the story into two sections (which is very do-able thanks to a logical breaking point midway), and publish it as two books.

At the same time, I’m working on the first draft of my third novel. It’s a mystery/thriller called The Hawthorn’s Sting. It’s about thirty-percent done, and should end up about 90,000 words. I would like to have the draft finished in the next three months. Depending on its state of readiness, I might also need to write and prepare a pitch for it before the Writers’ League of Texas’ Agents and Editors Conference near the end of June (although it’s more likely that I’ll still be pitching Jagged Man then.

Let’s stick with pitching for a second. I will also (possibly) be pitching another book at the same conference. My wife and I took a twenty-three day trip to England in 2010. We have a blog about that trip called Travels With Flio Widdix: How to Maintain Your Savings and Sanity Abroad. The site is underway, and will eventually be full of tips, tricks and hints about traveling, and will have lots of pictures. It’s about spending all that time together without killing each other, and is also a fish out of water story (different environment, driving on the “wrong” side of the road, etc.). We’re developing the site with the express intent of turning it into a book. June may be too early for Flio, because we haven’t built a readership for the blog yet, but I may pitch the idea to a few of the agents who specialize in non-fiction, and see if it floats. So, I need to prepare a pitch for it too.

Also, I’m taking a Two-Year Novel Course at the Forward Motion writer’s website. We get a new assignment every Friday for two years. The first assignments were about making basic decisions about the plot, theme, and characters of a potential novel. The first year is geared toward preparing and writing the first draft of a novel, and the second year is about polishing, editing, and marketing. The course started in January, and we’ve now had nine assignments. It’s not my usual way of working, but I’m giving it a shot with the thought of being prepared for NaNoWriMo this November, ready with a complete plot outline for once (instead of just placing the seat of my pants in my writing chair). The book is going to be a crime/mystery novel about a murder committed in a small town. Everyone in town believes they know who did it, but the deceased was such a bad guy that everyone is protecting the person or persons they suspect.

I maintain two websites, my writing site, and my wife’s quilting site. I just took pictures the other day of a few quilts she’ll be submitting for entrance into this year’s International Quilt Festivals in Houston and Chicago. I need to edit and prepare them for her to send with her entry forms. I also have my writer’s Facebook page, my Twitter account, and my writer’s blog (the thing you’re reading now). I’m trying to build readership for all of them, but I’m finding it hard to devote enough time to handle so much social media adequately. When I focus on one of them, I let the others go. When I focus on all of them, I get behind on my writing. I still post at least once a week on both blogs, and at least twice a week on Twitter, but it hasn’t been easy.

I also have ideas for (and have done partial work on) two other novels and one short story. One of the novels is a massive, multi-book project that I’ve already written over 100,000 words on; and the other (still mostly in the research and idea stage) is going to be a revision of the Arthurian legend, setting it in modern New Orleans, Houston, and Las Vegas (Louisiana voodoo meets computer wizardry at Comdex). I honestly don’t know when either of them will get worked on, though.

In addition to all that, I have the usual chores. Running the occasional errand (groceries, banking, etc.). I help out a little with Minay’s aging mother, but she handles the vast majority of that. I do more basic things, mostly. Mowing season in Houston is going to arrive any day now, and there’s always trash and recycling, of course. When I retired, I also took over washing the dishes. I even vacuum upon occasion (yes — shocking, I know). Just regular stuff. Minay still does the cooking, though. That’s a task better left to the professionals. I can boil water, and make a mean grilled cheese sandwich, but I don’t multi-task in the kitchen very well. Full meals are beyond my skills. And, oh yes, I have to take a short break from my writing soon to do our taxes (lucky me!).

What are you working on?

Michael

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Artist Retreat III – January 2014

In my last post, I talked about the writer’s retreat I went to in Alpine, Texas. A couple of months ago, I was invited to another retreat, much closer this time, in Galveston. A couple of friends of mine, Dominick D’Aunno and Matt Adams, decided to host a space for writers and artist to get away from their regular routine for a few days and just write or paint or whatever. I jumped at the chance.

I’ll be the first to admit that, in terms of creative space, I have it better than some others. My wife is very supportive of my work, and she leaves me alone for long stretches of the day and/or evening to create in whatever way works for me at the moment. Even so, there are interruptions. Daily life is like that, and I had been pushing myself to finish a number of projects this year. Unfortunately, I kept coming up with new projects; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was finding my ability to stay focused was eroding, and I was multi-tasking to the point that I wasn’t finishing anything. I decided the retreat would allow me time to finalize the plot outline for The Hawthorn’s Sting (my newest thriller), and to push forward with the first draft. I had already written about a quarter of it, and then I got bogged down in minutia. I think it’s a good story, and this looked like a good opportunity to move it forward.

Unlike the previous retreat, there were no specific rules or regulations. We didn’t hold classes, or critique each other’s work (although some of it was shared when we wanted an opinion). Each of us had our own bedroom in a wonderful beach house, next to Stewart Beach in Galveston. we brought our own food and beverages, but often shared it pot luck style. We ate when we wanted to, slept when we wanted to, and worked when we wanted to (which for most of us consumed more than half of our time). In the evenings, some of us watched movies, while others ignored the TV, inserted our earbuds, cranked up our iPods, and continued to work. It was wonderful.

Marti Corn and Alyssa Woods hard at work.

Marti Corn and Alyssa Woods hard at work.

In the end, I did very little work on Hawthorn’s Sting. I shifted focus to the problem I’ve been having with my first novel, If a Butterfly. I stopped querying agents on it about a year ago because of the response I had been getting. I know — as the author — I’m biased, but I think it’s an amazing story. The general reaction has been (from the few agents who have looked at it) that it’s a great idea, and the execution is good, but most felt it was too long (originally 330,000 words, now trimmed to 240,000), and they wouldn’t be able to sell publishers on a novel that long from a first-time author. I understand. It’s a big commitment.

I took the four days, and worked out a game plan to self-publish it after I split it into two novels. I realized when I examined it further, that the novel actually has two climaxes, and the first one occurs fairly close to the current mid-point. So I’m going to do some polishing, maybe even a little more trimming, but I will end up with a first novel and a sequel, each of them about 120,000 words.

I came away from the time in Galveston, with a clearer set of goals, and a concrete plan to deal with a couple of books that I think will be very marketable in these shorter versions.

Sunrise on Stewart Beach at Galveston.

Sunrise on Stewart Beach at Galveston.

Next week I’ll do a post, listing all the projects I’m currently working on, partly to give you a sense of what I’ve been trying to slog through, and also to put them out there so I’ll be more likely to commit fully to them and get them finished.

How do you deal with all of the “real life” minutiae that works its way into your writing day?

Michael

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Writer’s League of Texas’ 2013 Summer Writing Retreat

At last summer’s WLT Agents & Editors Conference, in Austin, Texas (June 21-23, 2013), I was finally ready to seriously pitch my thriller, The Jagged Man. I thought the book was ready, too. I had been working on it for several years, but I felt it was finished. A final read-through for grammatical errors, a little polishing and some tightening (it was about 120,000 words then), and it would be ready.

And I had a great pitch. The pitch had undergone at least a gazillion revisions (okay, maybe just a billion). I started revising and polishing it a couple of months before the conference. I had given an off-the-cuff version the previous year, when it was still a work in progress, but then I had been more intently focused on my (apparently unmarketable) very large mainstream novel, If a Butterfly. I tried to only pitch it to the right agents, not those interested in only YA or non-fiction, for example. I had eight “yes, query me” responses before the conference was over. Six were pretty enthusiastic. Number Seven said to query him, but he wondered why the bad guy wouldn’t get bored after 8,000 years (good point), and I think I got the eighth “yes” because it was late in the evening and the agent seemed a little tipsy. Not that I blame her. Facing hundreds of wannabe authors one right after the other, I would want to be a little tipsy too.

Anyway, I was sure the novel could be ready in a few weeks (except maybe for that final scene on the edge of the cliff – the one that I had been carrying in my head for years, but had been avoiding, afraid I would screw it up). As soon as I started thinking about how ready it had to be before I sent it out (one of the agents wanted a “full”), I realized it was actually less finished than I thought.

I needed some help.

After hearing about the Summer Retreat (July 21st to July 26th), I signed up for the “Shaping Your Book to Sell” workshop, taught by Carol Dawson, author of The Waking Spell, Body of Knowledge, Meeting the Minotaur, and The Mother-in-Law Diaries. The workshop was about revising manuscripts, and learning to shift focus from the creative side of the brain to the editing side.

At first I thought I would drive there. It was 600 miles from my house, north of Houston, to Alpine, Texas (out in the West Texas desert). I knew I couldn’t drive that far by myself without stopping for the night somewhere. I searched for hotels west of San Antonio, thinking maybe Kerrville or Comfort would be likely locations. I would still be exhausted when I got to Alpine, so I would probably want to get there the day before the retreat started. That would mean adding the cost of two nights in a hotel room (another couple-hundred dollars probably). I didn’t think gas for my car would be too expensive. I have a Prius, and it gets a little over 45 mpg, so I could do the trip for about 27 gallons, a little more than two fill-ups. I found out that Amtrak made a stop in Alpine, and I could get a round-trip ticket for less than it would cost me for the hotel stays.

I reserved a round-trip ticket on the train’s lower level, in coach, for $195. Not too much less than the cost of two nights in a hotel,  The train was a fifteen hour trip, but it was overnight. I could just sleep, and arrive refreshed and ready for the retreat. Right? No, I felt like I was riding in a tubercular ward. Half the people in the car seemed to be seriously sick. Here’s a little fragment I captured on the ride:

She coughs again, a growling percussive sound. I imagine the droplets from her germy throat bursting into the atmosphere the same way miniscule particles of glass spread outward from the impact of a bullet on a beer bottle.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well on the ride there. I had a few other adventures once I arrived, some of which because I hadn’t brought my car, and became dependent on others to ferry me around occasionally, although mostly I walked unless I needed to go somewhere in a hurry. Mountains SE of Alpine, from the Sul Ross University campus.

Mountains SE of Alpine, from the Sul Ross University campus.

The name Writer’s Retreat (for me) had always conjured up an image of wandering off somewhere, away from distractions so I could focus on a particular piece of writing. This retreat was intended to be different. Each day, for five days, we met in a group from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, and worked in a group setting, reading excerpts, critiquing, restructuring elements that weren’t working, paring our novels down to their cores.

I discovered, with Carol’s guidance, that I was introducing my heroine early enough in the story, but she wasn’t doing anything related to the action, so most of my notes were related to rearranging sections of my novel (and throwing away dead wood). It was an invigorating experience. On the final day, Carol, who had taken the first five chapters from each of our stories, gave us individual critiques. Her comments were extremely helpful to me, and I returned to Houston with a much better understanding of the process of editing, and a willingness to be ruthless with my own material. I killed my darlings left and right for the next month, and had a much better book for it.

So, final conclusion, if you can afford it, and have material that’s ready for editing, I highly recommend the Writer’s League of Texas’ Summer Writing Retreats. They are well worth it.

Have you been to a writing retreat? What was your experience like?

Michael

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A Writing Space of My Own

After Minay and I got married in 1982 — yes, it’s been over thirty years, and she hasn’t killed me yet — I made sure I had an area to write in. Sometimes it was makeshift, like the corner in the second bedroom of our first apartment (which also served as our exercise room and library). You can see in the picture below that we’ve just moved in (August, 1982), and I’m sitting on my exercise bike in my bathrobe, typing on an old IBM electric typewriter.

Michael typing from a bike seat (old image, saved as a gif)

Michael typing from a bike seat (old image, saved as a gif)

I had hair then, and I do have hair now. Most of the follicles just can’t stand their neighbors, so they have restraining orders.

It was several years later before I got my first PC, but I have always had a space to use for writing. I’ve also always shared it with books (and sometimes exercise equipment), but for the last ten years or so, I’ve shared the space with my wife too. Minay discovered computers after I did, and she’s not into the technical stuff as much as I am, but she does communicate through e-mail and uses computer programs to create some of the designs for her quilts, so she does need a space for her computer.

We lived in apartments for several years, but bought our first house in 1992. It was an older house, constructed in the 1960’s, but it had three bedrooms and a lot more space than any of our apartments had. I claimed a room as a study, and Minay claimed one as a sewing and fabric storage room, but the cable for the Internet connection was in my study, so we set up a desk for her computer in there too. Here I am in front of my 286, apparently playing a game of Breakout instead of writing.

Not a bad hair day. Another old gif image.

Not a bad hair day. Another old gif image.

As I recall, I was wearing the washcloth because I had a massive headache that day, and the cool, dampened cloth helped. Minay decided to document the moment.

We stayed in that house for twenty years, and in the Spring of 2012, we bought a new house (in Spring, Texas). When we first looked at it, I had hopes for a room of my own. It was two stories, and about 400 square feet larger than our old house. It also had an extra room that would make a wonderful sewing and fabric storage room for Minay, so I had visions of finally getting a study all to myself. It was not to be. The large room worked very well for fabric storage, and for a fabric cutting and ironing space, but there was no good place in there to set up a sewing machine. So, Minay has an FSF (Fabric Storage Facility), and a separate sewing room, so she still has a space on one wall of my study for her computer. Here’s a floor plan of the room.

Michael's Study

Michael’s Study

It’s a little more crowded that it looks, there’s an extra stand-alone shelf for music CD’s underneath the window, and some of my percussion equipment (congas and tablas) is by the storage cabinet. An exercise ball sits next to them, and some milk crates with hanging file folders are scattered around. I keep research materials in the crates while I’m working on a project. Minay is (almost always) only in there in the morning, usually for two or three hours, and then she moves into one of her other areas to piece or sew fabric. That gives me several hours a day to work on my writing. Here’s a picture of my workspace.

My Writing Shelves

My Writing Shelves

 You can see it has everything I need: a laptop on a cooling stand, an external monitor, wi-fi and Ethernet, lots of sticky notes, and other notes taped and pinned to various shelves, a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, a scanner, a color laser printer, storage shelves, a coffee mug and warmer (very important), water, headphones, pens, my tape recorder, a calculator, four external hard drives for backup, a mounted Monarch butterfly to remind me of my first finished novel, and my writing and reference books. Another larger shelf of reference books is right behind me, and two floor to ceiling bookshelves (as you can see in the floor plan) fill the rest of the walls to my right. I built the bookshelves and shelves myself. Some sections of them were in my old study. I repainted, reassembled, and repurposed them to use here in the new house.

I’m happy with my space. It serves its purpose. If I ever get rich and famous, though, I think I’ll build myself a little cabin in the back of my mansion, cover it with solar panels head to toe (so I can generate my own power), and see what it’s like to really have A Writing Space of My Own.

What kind of a space do you have to work in? Are you happy with it? If not, what would you rather have instead?

Michael

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Writing Retreats

I’ve been to two writing retreats in the last six months, and they were both wonderful (and an extremely rare experience for me). I don’t know what your writing situation is like, but let me tell you a little bit about mine. I retired in 2009, after nearly forty years in the workforce (thirty of it in educational fields), determined to develop a new career as a writer. I had been trying to fit writing into my spare time for the previous two decades (with some limited success). “Now,” I thought, “I’ll finally be able to write full time.”

Life rarely works out the way you expect it. How does the saying go, “Men make plans, and the gods laugh?”

Two weeks after I retired from Rice University, at the end of September 2009, my mom died after an extended bout with Alzheimer’s. My wife’s parents were also experiencing a variety of health problems at the time, and were beginning to require continual care, but wanted to stay in their home. 2010 turned into a year of driving from our house to theirs several times a week (round-trip about thirty miles), and dealing with keeping them fed and medicated, and making trips to take them to the hospital for falls and other medical emergencies.

2011 was a year of upheaval. We moved Minay’s parents from their home to a nearby assisted living facility, and moved ourselves to a new house (which cut the round-trips to about twelve miles). We needed to visit them less, but still needed to supply them with toiletries and a few other things. That whole year we were trying to settle into our new home, prep both of our old homes for sale, and still deal with calls in the middle of the night when one of them fell or needed something, plus take them to doctor’s appointments, etc.

2012 continued in a similar fashion, with a few more medical scares, and dealing with both of the old houses until they finally sold. Minay’s dad died early in 2013, and her mom was moved into the memory care unit of her facility, where she is now, and just celebrated her 90th birthday. We don’t drive as far anymore, and there haven’t been any emergencies lately, so …fingers crossed. There are still the usual interruptions, of course (errands to run, a lawn to mow, etc.).

Was I getting any writing done during all of this? Of course I was. Was it completely-uninterrupted, free-to-cogitate-on-anything writing? Almost never. I have brief periods of blissfully-alone writing time, sometimes an hour or more when I can focus intently on the task at hand. I do have a study  to write in, and books and equipment to use (I’ll do a post on that next), but the interruptions are there, and I need to write around them.

They made an announcement at the 2013 Writer’s League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference about conference attendees being able to get a discount for WLT’s Summer Writing Retreat. The reduction in price made it very tempting, and I wanted to do some polishing on my thriller, The Jagged Man, before I sent it to the agents I had pitched it to at the conference. I called Minay and asked her what she thought. Being on a fixed income now, we discuss any large purchases in advance. She said I should do it. At the time, she was in the middle of a three-day break from me for the conference. Maybe the thought of an extra five days when she could eat anything she wanted (I’m a picky eater), and work on her quilts without interruptions from me (it works in both directions), sounded good to her.

At any rate, I signed up for the retreat, and a month later found myself in Alpine, Texas (in the far western part of the state) for five days of intensive study, writing, and restructuring Jagged Man. It was just the push I needed. I spent a couple of months after that, polishing and trimming; and ended up completely rewriting about a third of the book before sending it out to the eight agents who had asked to see it (as of 1-25-2014, six of them have responded with rejections, but very nice ones). I’m going to send out another round of queries in a few days.

In December I got an invitation from my friend, Dominick D’Aunno, to attend something called Artist Retreat III, which was held in Galveston for the first week of 2014. It was more freeform than the retreat in Alpine, and I was only there for the first four days, but it was wonderful to be able to focus on one project (or a dozen if I wanted) and just write or edit or take pictures (all of which feed my soul). I ended up making some long-overdue decisions about how to market my first novel, If a Butterfly, and began taking steps to prepare it for a re-edit in Scrivener and a conversion to several e-book formats.

Both retreats were worthwhile experiences because of the progress I made each time, but I still haven’t been able to manage to replicate that kind of productivity at home. I’ll add posts about each of the retreats in the next couple of weeks.

What have you done to maximize your writing productivity? Do you have any suggestions?

Michael

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Editing With Wordles, An Overview

Wordle.net is a website that can allow you to see which words you use the most in a document. More on it in a minute.

At some point in the editing process, after the first draft (and maybe after the second one, too), I start to get picky about individual sentences and word choice. I usually realize I’ve overused certain words, like the word “that.” The word “that” can often be eliminated, creating a cleaner sentence.

If I know what word to target, I can do a Search and Replace. Let’s change these two first-draft sentences from my novel, The Jagged Man, into better ones.

I could change He was viewing images that Bradley Palmer had taken in his lab at Cornell University.

…to He was viewing images Bradley Palmer had taken in his lab at Cornell University.

…or change She had never been that great at delegating authority, never sure why people would listen to her.

…to She had never been great at delegating authority, never sure why people would listen to her.

Looking at it again might even prompt me to change the whole sentence to something like She had never been a delegator, never sure why people would listen to her.

When I ran a Search and Replace for the word “that” on a copy of the whole book (just as a test), there were 1,287 uses of it in 450 pages. Obviously I wouldn’t eliminate all of them, but if I trimmed half of them out of the book, I would have trimmed the book by at least a couple of pages by eliminating half of the instances of this one word. Imagine how much you could trim if you applied that principle to all the unnecessary words in your book; but how do you know which words you’re using too often?

Here’s a test you can try. Paste the following sentence into Wordle’s Create Window, and click on the Go button.

“If I ran this very long sentence through the very fine program, Wordle, I would very quickly discover that I had used the word very so very much that it would display much larger than the other very useful words in the sentence.”

It will probably display something like this.

Wordle for the word very, using the default setting.

Wordle for the word “very” using the default setting/

Wordle resizes words in proportion to the number of times they are used in the pasted text. Two of the words (much and sentence) are larger than the others. Both words were used twice in the sentence, so they’re larger than the other words.

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. “The word very was used five times. Where is it?”

Good catch. Wordle’s default setting is to ignore words it believes are “stop” words (very common or unimportant words, such as “the,” “and,” or “but” …and, apparently, “very”). Also, the font they used (randomly chosen) makes some of the words difficult to read, so I usually make two adjustments. Check out Wordle’s FAQ for other ways you can adjust the way it displays.

1. In the Language Menu, I check the setting “Do not remove common words” (this will make stop words like “very” and “it” and “if” reappear).

2. In the Layout Menu, I check “Horizontal” as opposed to the current “Mostly Horizontal” setting. It just makes the text easier to read.

Those two changes will return something like this:

Wordle test for the word "very" after adjustments.

Wordle test for the word “very” after adjustments.

Now you can see the overused word “very” is back, and is larger than all the other words (although “the” and “I” are fairly large too).

You can dump the text of an entire novel into Wordle, and use the settings I suggested above to see which words are used the most often across the span of the entire novel, or you can use their default setting to gain some other insights about your book.

This is a Wordle I created from the full text of The Jagged Man (using the default setting) shortly after I finished the first draft.

A Wordle of the full text of The Jagged Man, on the default setting

A Wordle of the full text of The Jagged Man, on the default setting

Johnny and Sarah are the protagonists in the novel, Vieuxos is the villain, and Jake is a flunky who works for Vieuxos. From the Wordle, it would seem that Sarah and Jake are the two dominant characters. Seeing this displayed as a Wordle made me reexamine the structure of the book and see whether it was really true. It wasn’t. Sarah and Jake were the two most talked about characters, so their names appeared more frequently.

At the very least, seeing a graphical representation of the word use in your book can give you something to  think about. Will it make you a better writer? Not by itself. Just consider it a possible analysis tool. Another similar word analyzer is TagCrowd.

Do you have any particular analysis methods that you have found helpful?

Michael

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Getting Unstuck From the Dreaded Writer’s Block

You’re facing the blank page, and nothing’s happening (either in your mind or with your fingers). No words are appearing on the screen (I almost said “on the page,” but my tech-geek gene stopped me). Writer’s block has arrived. Or has it? True writer’s block, I think, is more feared than experienced. (Pause for the sake of clarity: We’re only talking about first draft — or sometimes second draft — writing, not editing or polishing, that’s a whole different ball game).

What do I mean? Obviously, as writers, there are times when we find it easier to write than others. Unless you’ve come up with a foolproof formula or technique to make outside influences disappear, our days are filled with constant interruptions that impede our ability to generate the words we desperately need in order to complete a project. Sometimes the interruptions are external (like the errands I have to go run today), but most of the time it’s the voices in our heads giving us reasons to do something else, and (in my case, at least) usually temporary.

But, if you’re really stuck (even though the brain is obviously functioning, because it’s saying things like “stupid, moronic, son-of-a-stupid story”), here are some suggestions that have worked for me in the past.

Don’t get stuck in the first place. I know. Easier said than done. The Nike motto, “just do it,” is actually very zen-like. Be in the moment with your writing, not in the past or the future, and the negative part of your mind (the critic) won’t be there to interfere and slow you down. Like most aspects of zen, it’s as easy as “just doing it,” and also as hard as letting go of everything else in your life that’s interfering. The way to achieve the ability to allow that frame of mind to be present, is to not try (see below). If you can manage to do this on command, you’re 90% ahead of the rest of the pack.

Don’t try. Listen to Yoda. In The Empire Strikes Back, Episode Two or Episode Five of Star Wars (depending on your viewpoint), Luke is trying to learn the ways of The Force, and he is “blocked.” Nothing is working. Yoda gives him this piece of advice.

                         YODA
Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say? You must unlearn what you have learned.

                        LUKE
All right. I’ll give it a try.

                        YODA
No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.

“Trying” to do something already has a built in negativity, a hint of potential failure. “Doing” something implies completion and success. Jump in with both feet every day and write (no matter what). Even if it’s crap, it’s a starting point (and it’s more than you would have written if you’d done nothing).

Don’t be led astray. Multi-tasking is the enemy of good writing. You can’t be in your characters’ minds, or following the action playing out in your own head, if you’re also trying to answer e-mails, look at puppies and kitties on the Internet, or check the ball scores. When you’re writing, close your web browsers, close your e-mail, shut off your phones. For those two, three, four hours (or whatever time you’ve allotted for writing) be with your characters, getting their story onto the hard drive. (Note to self: Back up hard drive).

Make an exceedingly long, painfully detailed, excessively stupid list (about your story). If you’re stuck, however temporarily, it will almost always be for one of two reasons, something is or isn’t happening in your life, or something’s happening in your story (that you don’t want) or isn’t happening in your story (that you do want to happen). If you are dealing with problems in your own life (physical, monetary, relationships, etc.), those will always be in the way while you’re writing, unless you can find a way to write about them. (Note to self: Start writing more about my own crappy life). If you’re trying to navigate one of your characters’ problems, or a structural problem with your story, making a list can help. Do this during research or brainstorming time, not writing time.

Let’s assume it’s a problem with your plot. Make a really long list of potential ways your characters can get out of their problem. Make it as long as you think you can make it, and then add some more ways. Stop and glance through the list. Add three more things. Do these as quickly as possible. Set yourself a timed deadline (it will make you write faster), and a minimum number of ideas to generate (say twenty, then do a few more). Don’t stop to think about any of the ideas as you write, just jot it down move on to the next one. No matter how stupid an idea seems at the time, write it down anyway. Writing the bad ideas down does two things: It clears it out of the way so you can think of another; and it will give you a comparison point for the truly brilliant idea you come up with a minute later. Yes, this is a form of brainstorming. What it also might do is provide you with a number of choices for your characters to pick from when they are facing other situations later.

If you’re in a rut, move sideways (or turn around). If your characters are heading down a particular path, and you can see it’s a boring place for them (and your readers) to be, shift sideways, or do a complete reversal. An unexpected phone call with bad news, a car veering into their lane, or a mushroom cloud appearing on the horizon would change their motivation (and the direction of the story). One of your characters could actually speak the truth (instead of holding back like they have been so far in the story). A character could discover they are pregnant, or their hair is falling out. A character could pull the keys out of the ignition on a busy freeway (in anger), and throw them out the window. Have one of your characters do something unexpected, or not in their nature. Then write about it (don’t stop to think about it, just write). Scenes like this will sometimes develop into important scenes for the novel. Sometimes they will be utter crap, but you will have worked your way around the blockage, and can throw the scene away and continue.

Don’t research during writing time. Separate your research time from your writing time. The going away from your story and coming back is wasted time, but more importantly it interrupts the flow of your writing. Just insert a note wherever you are on the page, and research it later, things like [[do dogs have pits?]], [[what’s that round knob on a banister called?]], [[can a man outrun a lion?]], etc. I put my notes in double square brackets [[like this]], so I can (later, during research time) use the Find feature in my writing program to locate my notes easily. Just search for two opening brackets  [[  and there your notes are.

Don’t just start in the middle, stop there too. You’ve heard the advice to “start your stories in the middle,” meaning to place your characters at a crucial moment in the story (bullets or fists are flying, a crisis is underway, etc.). Treat your writing the same way. Don’t start each day’s writing at the beginning of a new chapter. At the end of your day’s writing, stop in the middle of a chapter. I usually stop in the middle of some bit of action, or some moment of conflict, in the middle of a paragraph. I often stop in the middle of a sentence. That forces me to think about what will happen next. Sometimes I will envision it before I go to sleep, and I’ll dream about it. The next morning I don’t have to think about what to write first, the rest of the chapter is already spread out in front of me, ready to be written.

And always remember what Steve Martin said, “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” (Note to self: Buy more scotch).

Do you have any techniques (for block-breaking) that have worked well for you?

Michael

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