Marathon Writer, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Trench Warfare

David Jones (1895 – 1974) was a British painter, artist, poet, and writer. Born into a Welsh family living in England, he spent many years in Wales. In his mid twenties, he converted to Roman Catholicism.  His experiences in the Great War as a soldier with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, religious beliefs, and Welsh heritage helped form his work.

Recently, I read Epoch and Artist, a collection of his earlier writings, collected and republished in 1959. It was tough going. He was an extremely smart, well-educated man, who spent a lot of time thinking about art, life, spirituality, and the relationships among those three things. He frequently wandered into military metaphors, which since I spent time in uniform, I found comforting. I understood them.

In an essay on the dilemma between creating goods that were convenient and useful, but shoddy and without an artistic esthetic, he wrote

“I have no advice to offer except to suggest that the reader should make his own reconnaissances. From his own limited bit of trench he may quite possibly secure identifications which may clarify the situation on other sectors. At least he will know, by direct contact, the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front. Which is more than they know at H. Q. [headquarters] for all of their revised maps.

“The contractual is essential. You have to have been there. Ars [Latin for a female personification of art, skill, and craft] is adamant about one thing: she compels you to do an infantryman’s job. She insists on the tactile. The artist in man is the infantryman in man, so that . . . all men are [by birth, members] of this infantry, though not all serve with this infantry. To pursue the analogy, this continued employment away from the unit [that is, pursuing a life not actively making art] has made habitual and widespread a staff mentality. Today most of us are staff-wallahs of one sort or another. [Staff-wallahs are people who run things for other people, but would never think of doing the activity themselves.]”

That comment, “We have to have been there” goes far beyond the topic he was addressing in the essay. In that one sentence beats the heart of being a creative person. We can read all we want about our chosen art. We can talk about it, and think about it. The absolute essence is that we do it, starting from wherever we are at any given moment.

A couple of years ago I met a man who didn’t go exploring what was in front of him. At a writing class’ first meeting, he said he so wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how to begin. The next week, his first class submission was rough and disjointed, but it had real potential, and class members told him that. The next class, he had nothing to submit. Same thing the third class. He didn’t show up the fourth class, or ever again.

I ran into him a few months later and said how sorry we were that he hadn’t continued. “Oh,” he replied, “I discovered I wasn’t a real writer,” and proceeded to give me all the reasons why he wasn’t. He’d never had the advantages that the rest of us in class had. (To this day, I wonder what he thought those advantages were.) His ideas weren’t any good. (Actually, they were quiet good.) He didn’t have time to devote to writing. (Maybe he didn’t, but he could have found some.) Writing wasn’t really important in the world, anyway. (Talk about not knowing what the nature and depth of the entanglements to his immediate front.) He’d love, just love, to be a writer, but it was obvious after the first class that future was closed to him.

It was so sad, and I knew there was nothing I could do but wish him well in whatever he chose to do in place of writing.

Insist on the tactile. Be a writer.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Return on Investment

Last year, I spend a lot of time conquering learning curves on social media. If social media were a musical instrument, I’d have progressed beyond playing scales, but no way am I ready to play in Carnegie Hall.

Then, media creep began to set in, as in just one more site, one more e-mail check, one more clicked link to the point I knew it was getting out of hand.

What was valuable? What was fun, but maybe, not the best use of my time?

I started to answer that question by dividing sites I visited into business-related or not business-related. Sites don’t have to be 100% one or the other. For some, I guessed at a percentage, for example one site was 40% business/60% not business. Then I did a couple of practice runs. If I went straight through my business-related sites, how long did that take? If I went straight through my non-business sites, how long does that take? For the mixed sites, I looked at only business messages on the business run and only the non-business on that second run.

I came up with a stunning figure that only 10% of my on-line time (how long I spent visiting sites) and effort (how much I interacted through likes, comments, pluses, etc.) was spent on business; 90% was fun, but had little or no relationship to helping me be a more successful writer.

Let’s be clear here. I’m not saying that every on-line interaction has to be all business. However, fun, especially when it’s 90% of online time, as it is in my case, runs headlong into an immovable object: 168 hours in a week. That’s all the time there is and all the time there will be. (Come Sunday we’ll be one hour short until autumn. Sigh.)

Enter Return on Investment (ROI), which is a comparison between time and effort spent versus reward.

There is a myth that every contact is valuable because it might eventually lead to a new business opportunity. As business people, how long can we wait for a return? If we’re cultivating a potential new publisher who we hope will eventually republish our entire back list, the down-the-road reward justifies this being a high ROI. On the other hand, the individual customer who might or might not buy one book, is a low ROI candidate.

High Returns

  • A high ROI doesn’t necessarily mean an easy site to visit. Material may be difficult, or take a long time to read and process, but it also returns high rewards as well.
  • High ROIs pay off quickly, within days or weeks.
  • The best high ROI is easiest to measure. We sell something. We get money. We open up new markets.
  • Other high ROIs include problem solving, skills development, and mastering our craft.
  • High ROIs don’t have to be about dollars and cents. We make or sustain friendships that are important to us. Forget networking, which is impersonal. Real networking means sustaining personal connections on a one-to-one level.
  • High ROIs are also about inspiration. If we come away from a site with more confidence or joy, that works.

Moderate Returns

  • A moderate ROI means balancing in the middle: a little challenging to use, but worth the effort because of the return.
  • I rate a lot of things as moderate ROIs when they are coming or going. Perhaps we’re auditioning a new site that we just discovered. Or our needs have changed, but a site we’ve followed for years hasn’t changed along with us. Or vice versa. This happened to me recently. An on-line newsletter to which I subscribe changed focus. I’m finding much less content that’s useful. I’ve downgraded that site from high to medium ROI, and I suspect I’ll unsubscribe sometime in the next few months.
  • Is using this resource hard, but enjoyable and I’m willing to put the time in for a lower, but still pleasing reward?

Low Returns

  • A low ROI means, at the end of the day, how much further ahead was I because I spent two hours looking at knitting patterns, or cat videos, or stupid joke sites? And yes, there are days when we need 2 hours of patterns, videos, or jokes. Hopefully, this isn’t every day.
  • Perhaps we’re on a learning curve and find this site hard to use now, but we have great hopes for a higher return in the near future.

One way to look at our time on-line?

  • Pick two average weeks to do this. Weeks where we’re not on deadline, we don’t have an unusual number of commitments, etc.
  • List all the social media we use.
  • Track, daily how much time we spend on each social media site and what we did there.
  • Rate each activity as a high, moderate, or low ROI.
  • One day’s tracking might look something like this. Do a separate sheet for each day.
How I spent today online

How I spent today online

It was a slow e-mail day. One of the ways I’ve streamlined my e-mail time is by having separate business and personal folders into which I shift mail from my Inbox. And I have strong filters to trap junk mail. Of the 2.5 hours I spent on line, most of it gave me a high return. I’m thinking I really have to make some decisions about one of my Facebook groups.

At the end of two weeks look at all the sheets. Have any patterns emerged that give us a clue of how we might want to change our Internet time?

The thing I found most helpful was that I now separate my business time on-line and my fun time. I run through my list of business-related sites and messages first. I always visit those sites. The fun sites, sometimes I get to them, sometimes they have to wait a few days.

That’s the beauty of the Internet. We can always come back to it tomorrow.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Drama Queens

It’s a little unsettled around here right now. An elderly relative has put off longer than he should have writing things like a Power of Attorney and Advanced Directive. We’re not sure how the current crisis is going to play out, but we don’t think it’s going to be fun.

We are going to lose the beautiful old trees in our commons because the Fire Department says they are too close to the buildings, and would block access in case of fire. If our landlord had paid attention to regulations in the first place, and given those trees periodic care, like proper pruning, this wouldn’t be happening.

I’ll write the first chapter of my next mystery some time this week. Starting a new book is always an emotionally fraught time, and I’ve got more than my usual mad on at editors and publishers in general. Why the heck is book published so complicated? Why can’t I just write and forget all that other publishing and marketing nonsense?

My relative, the Fire Inspector, my landlord, and the publishing world in general need a good piece of my mind.  I’ve laid awake the past few nights preparing a number of vitriolic speeches I’ll never deliver.

I was always a Drama Queen, even before I knew what that kind of over the top behaviour was called. It would be more accurate to say I was a closet Drama Queen. A young woman growing up in the South was expected to meet certain public standards. Privately, I gave my emotions full vent. I had scathing conversations that didn’t do anyone one bit of good because the people I had them with weren’t in the room with me. Sometimes, they weren’t even in the same state.

When I took my first playwriting class, it came to me that these anger-logues in my head sounded identical to drama, tension and angst packed scenes that we were being encouraged to write for the stage. Could it be that I would be better off writing out my frustrations than keeping them in my head?

As it turned out, that was exactly the case. Out was far better than in.

Try this: the next time we’re hopping mad or sad or feeling any strong negative emotions, write down what we’d love to say to the other person.  No holes barred. Just let it rip. Also, write what we think they would say or do in response. We can give those voices character names, if we want. Most times I call them simply A and B. A says this, and then B says that, and so on.

Here’s what I’ve discovered happens

  • I’m shocked at how downright mean and hurtful I’m capable of being to another person.
  • Sometimes the other person, even if he or she is only in my head, says or does something that surprises me.
  • I have a chance to polish those zingers, the lines I usually wish later that I could have thought of at the time.
  • I also have a chance to admit that I don’t want to say those mean and hurtful things, and discover alternate lines that I’d be willing to say for real.
  • This is a wonderful energy drain. I get to stop having repeated, unproductive conversations in my head, when I should be drifting off to sleep.

If we save what we’ve written, we might be able to use this conversation in a future story.

Let’s make ourselves a promise to keep drama on the page, where it belongs, not in our lives.

Oh, yeah. Happy Mardi Gras. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll. Eat pancakes. Wear beads. Make a mask. Make gumbo. We’re doing all of those things at our house today.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Value Added Tax on Ideas

How many idea notebooks do you have on the go?

I’m a one binder to ring them all gal. At the other end of the scale, other writers have notebooks beside their bed, in their car, in their purse or backpack, in the kitchen, beside their TV watching chair, and some, even in the bathroom. I hope that last one is the waterproof version that engineers and biologists use in the field.

It’s not  how many ideas books we have that’s important. It’s how we use them. The first great reason for keeping an ideas book is that the act of writing down an idea gives us pleasure. Nothing more. We have no intention of doing anything with the idea, but at least it’s out of our head and on paper.

In the 2014 movie, Authors AnonymousAlan Mooney has no intention of writing anything. He’s happy dictating character names and ideas into a recorder. Taking a side trip from ideas, this is a movie every writer who has been or plans to be in a critique group should see. It is so familiar, and so painful to watch.

It doesn’t matter where ideas come from

Truth time. How many of the ideas we’ve written in our idea books have we actually used?

Writers can come up with more ideas in a minute than we’d be able to use in a year. Try this: get a pencil, paper, and timer. Ignore computers for this because there’s something about putting pen to paper that generates more creative ideas than typing into a keyboard. I don’t know why, and neither do neuroscientists, but they are working on it.

Don’t write down entire ideas during the timed minute — that uses too much time. Instead, jot down key words, like “3 girls Cherry St.” After the minute is up, flush out each idea into a complete sentence.

Here’s my one minute’s worth of ideas

  • A high school student gets her first job, in a bakery.
  • Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.
  • A man’s pet monkey foils a bank robbery.
  • On the C-train, a man has a strange encounter with a woman who insists they are friends, but he has no memory of knowing her.
  • What if 3-parent babies were the norm, and a couple had to get special permission to have a 2-parent baby?

Practice capture and release

We schedule haircuts, dental appointments, spa treatments for ourselves; vet visits for our pets; and maybe even repeating mundane chores like defrosting the freezer or checking the smoke alarms. Ideas need periodic check-ups as well. We start by setting aside a couple of hours, on a regular basis, to examine and arrange ideas — what we might call adding a Value Added Tax to them.

Yes, I mean really scheduling, as in writing “Idea review: 2 – 4 pm” in our calendar so that has the same authority as “Dentist: 2:30 – cleaning” or “Mortimer to vet for vaccination, March 12.” And saying, “No, I can’t come to a meeting that day. I have a dental appointment.” We don’t have to say, “No, I  can’t come to a meeting that day. I’m spending the afternoon capturing and releasing ideas.” Simply saying, “Sorry, that time is already booked” is all that’s needed.

I try to do this about four times a year. Your mileage may differ, but several times a year is a good idea.

Cold case ideas fall into three categories

What was I thinking?

This includes cryptic single words, like “fertilizer,” which, sadly, we no longer have a clue what the idea was. The 3-parent/2-parent idea would take a ton of research that I don’t actually want to do. The girl in the bakery, after further thought, is another coming of age/epiphany/how I learned about the real world idea that’s been done to death.

In general, over 99% of ideas, once they’ve had a chance to cool, fall into this category. Release them back into the wild. Be free, little idea. You have my best wishes for finding a nesting place somewhere else.

Has something, but lacks something, too

The pet monkey/bank robbery story and the C-train encounter feel like that. There is a germ of an idea there, but I’m not sure what.

I rewrite these partial ideas in a section that, depending on the mood I’m in, I call Mix-and-Match or Ideas á La Carte. Part of the idea examination process is periodically to go back to this section to see if I combine two or three disparate ideas, does an entire idea gel?

I also check these lists when something I’m already writing needs punching up. What’s there often provides a sub-plots or a twist for a plot that’s rapidly heading for staleness.

The keepers

Less than 0.01% of ideas are real corkers. They’re rare and important enough that they deserve their own pages. Turn to a blank page in the notebook. Write the idea at the top of the page. Three six-year-old girls, all of whom live on streets with Cherry in the name, disappear on the same afternoon.

Spend time looking at one question: Why has this idea got its hooks in me? What does it touch in my life or my belief system?

Don’t plot. Think of this fledging idea as a small, terrified animal. If we go prodding it with a plotting stick, it will either run away or curl up in a ball.

What intrigues me about writing about three missing girls?

  • I hate the media circus that happens when a child disappears. People should leave those poor parents alone.
  • It’s a sick and dangerous world. Lives can change in a split second.
  • The incredible mystery of three disappearances at the same time.
  • I don’t believe in alien abductions, but some people do, I mean really believe. Ditto conspiracy theories. Ditto mediums helping the police; they’d be coming out of the woodwork.
  • Police are going to focus on looking for connections. What if there aren’t any? What about an absolutely random act? Humans build patterns, even if none exist. What happens if the pattern is so totally wrong that it leads in the opposite direction from where the police should go?

At some point, a promising keeper idea becomes the next thing we know we’re going to write. When that happens, it’s time for that idea to graduate to it’s own notebook or Scrivener file. And this is so much more likely to happen if we weed out the gems from among the hundreds of ideas that so gleefully embed themselves in our heads, and our notebooks.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — being an ordinary writer is wonderful

I think of myself as an ordinary writer. I’m not brilliant, especially talented, or have extraordinary gifts. However, I have spent a long time learning to construct meaningful sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Writers like to hang out with other writers. Because of that, we forget what a truly remarkable life even ordinary writers have.

We create imaginary worlds, starting with nothing more than an overheard conversation, an idea that won’t let us go, or an image that stops us in our tracks.

We focus on that imaginary world long enough to write 450,000 words, hoping that 90,000 of them will be keepers, and trusting that those keeper words will gel into a novel.

We are incredible pack rats, filing away a tattoo we saw on the subway, the taste of Aunt Sophie’s lemon pie, the way steam rises from downtown buildings when the temperature drops to forty below, and an article on the neurological basis of fear. One day, when we’re mildly distracted, walking to work or doing the dishes, we suddenly know that our next book is about a terrified, tattooed, homeless man, named Raoul Cardinal, huddled against a downtown building, trying to sell lemon pies from a cart, and knowing he has to get out of Winnipeg today, or he’s going to die.

Painters don’t display a portrait with only the base coat in place. Sculptures don’t put a partially carved block of wood out for everyone to see. Dancers don’t bring a couple of minutes of a work being choreographed to the stage, and ask the audience what movements should come next. But, writers trust other writers, and even non-writers with our unfinished work. Other writers, knowing what a great gift this is, try their best to give helpful, not hurtful, suggestions.

We know this is a tough business, yet we still open our hearts to other writers, particularly new writers. Many of us believe that when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.

All of this seems like no big deal to us. It’s the way writers live. Take my word for it, it is a big deal. We should celebrate being ordinary more often.

With that in mind, I’m crowd-sourcing a problem. I working with a new character named Lollie Whitsunday. She was born and raised in England, but now lives in Canada. Lollie is a nickname that evolved in childhood before she could pronounce her first name correctly. The problem is, I can’t think of a first name that would devolve into Lollie.

The name of everyone who suggests a name will be put into a hat. I’ll and draw one name, and send that person a copy of Some Welcome Home, the first book in my mystery series.

Ideas are cheap, though not, of course, the ideas about Lollie’s first name. What ideas really need is a Value Added Tax. Hope to see you next Tuesday, February 10th, for more about taxing ideas.

Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – To Do or Not To Do?

To-do List Myth

We put items on a list in order to get them done.

To-Do List Reality

The more things on a list, the more things that are never completed. The longer the list, the greater the guilt, and guilt is a strong de-motivator.

We say we put things on our to-do list so we can get them done, but in reality, we’re know one of three outcomes is likely

  • We get the item done.
  • So much time passes that the item becomes irrelevant and we cross it off the list.
  • The item remains on our list for a long time, generating guilt and convincing us we are ineffective, bad people

Feeds and Seeds

To-do lists are made up of feeds and seeds. These terms were coined by Douglas Rushkoff, in Present shock : when everything happens now. Feeds aren’t a problem; seeds are. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Feeds are temporary

  • The United Fund Campaign closes at 3:00 PM on Friday. If we’ve already made a donation or don’t plan to, we basically don’t care.
  • Feeds don’t stack. By 4:00 PM on Friday, that message is off our to-do list.

Seeds stack

  • Seeds are spring-loaded and often generated by other people.
  • They send us e-mails, assign us tasks, or have expectations for our help and cooperation. Each time we get a seed message, we open a loop on our to-do list. That loop remains open until we’ve done the required task.
  • Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet completed stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer.  We open more loops in one hour than our grandparents opened in several weeks.
  • Seeds stack. Right now I’m carrying about 50 seeds on my to-do list, and I suspect I’m at the low end of the scale. Many people have over 200 loops open; some have over 500.

Unwind the Spring-Loaded Seeds

The biggest thing we need to do with seeds is unwind the spring-loading someone else applied and re-load it so it works for us. Opening an e-mail isn’t a commitment to do something; it’s a chance to assess what is being asked of us. Instead of grabbing a pen and adding Read article Carmine sent me for Tuesday’s meeting, to my to-do list, what I really need to do is an assessment.

  • The article is twenty-seven pages long.
  • Carmen has no idea what my workload is like between now and Tuesday. Essentially, she’s put the ball in my court and I am conditioned to value her spring-loading over my need to control my own time.
  • If I give this situation any thought at all, I console myself that the meeting is next Tuesday, and not thirty minutes from now.

What are my choices?

  • Look at my calendar and see if I have a block of time to read a twenty-seven page article.
  • Ask Carmen exactly how this article relates to Tuesday’s meeting. If she says it will be a large part of the afternoon’s discussion, then I’m going to have to find time to read it; but if she says that she’s planning to use the 3 principles in the sidebar on page 19 as a discussion guide, then I know I can get by with a lot less reading.
  • Negotiate a mutually-agreed spring-reloading with Carmen. This includes letting go of some tasks.

Seeds Take Time

The next biggest thing we can do for ourselves is remember that each seed, each loop, each to-do item, whatever we want to call them, is a time commitment. Look up Alice’s new Zip code takes less than 5 minutes. Repaint the bathroom takes an entire weekend, maybe longer.

It may help to add a time element to an entry. Look up Alice’s new Zip code (5 minutes). If we see we have several less than 5 minute items, we can group them together and get them done all at once. Or if we have that bathroom to paint, maybe we need to pick the weekend we plan to do it.

Also, it helps to break down big jobs, like the bathroom, into the first small step. Instead of reminding ourselves to Repaint the bathroom, how about reminding ourselves to Measure bathroom walls, so we’ll know how much paint to buy?

Personalize our Lists

The third thing we can do is make our to-do lists fit our personality. Some people go gaga over a slick black leather notebook, pristine white paper, and a premium fountain pen. Other people like colors, doodling, and silly messages to ourselves. If you’d like to see some cool things people are doing with their to-do lists, I recommend checking out the Google + community, The Bullet Journal.

My to-do list? Electronic all the way. iCal with 20 color-coded categories and as many automatic repeating reminders as I can build in. For my permanent records, a PDF copy of the previous month saved at the beginning of the next month.

One of the things I’d like us to do this year is build a bookshelf of books we’ve found helpful getting us into writing and keeping us there. I’m devoting the last Tuesday of each month to building that bookshelf. Next Tuesday, January 27, I’m focusing on the first book. I’ll tell  you which book got me into serious writing, and why. See you then.

Editing, My point of view, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Fifth (and Final) Edit

This is it. We’re so close to finishing the  novel we can taste it. Remember that books are never finished, they are only abandoned at interesting places, and it’s time we abandon this one.

The fifth edit has only one task and one question

  • The Task: have a commercial printer print the updated copy and bind it. Sit down and read for enjoyment, as if this was a book we’d bought, been given, or checked out of the library.
  • The Question: Was this a good read?

The hardest thing at this point is to not tinker. Yes, tidy up any glaring errors, but resist the urge to tinker. We are finished with this book until we get it out there, find it a home, and talk to our new editor.

Do we have a publisher waiting for this manuscript?

  • If we do, contact the publisher. Are there any changes since the most recent guidelines were distributed? Do our final format changes to match the publisher’s requirements.
  • If we don’t have a publisher yet, find a recent standard formatting guide and stick to it. On the Style Sheet indicate which formatting guide was used as a reference.

Final Formatting

  • Make sure that the Style Sheet is complete and correct.
  • Make sure we have all needed permissions in writing.
  • Go over all supplemental material like dedication, introduction, acknowledgment, and synopsis one more time. Make sure our submission package is complete.
  • Format all material consistent with the publishers requirements or any other guide we are using.
  • Do a final grammar check. Pay attention to punctuation marks, especially commas, semi-colons and quotation marks. Here’s Nick Stockton’s recent WIRED blog that explains why our brain misses errors in material we’ve already looked at over and over and over. Unfortunately, it only tells us why it happens, not what to do about it. One step at a time.
  • Do a final spelling check.
  • Do a final word count.
  • Have a final hard copy commercially printed, single-side only for our archives
  • Copy the final, complete, and formatted draft to our back-up discs. Again make 3 discs, one to keep, one to have someone locally keep, and one to have someone who lives at least 500 miles way keep.


  • Write a cover letter.
  • Go looking for a publisher.

Archive all material

  • Go through all electronic and print material. Decide what can be deleted and what should be archived.
  • Cull unnecessary archival material.
  • If this is a series, determine what needs to be brought forward into the files for the next book.

This is a good place to take a vacation.

And, that’s what I’m doing. This concludes my 2014 series on Writing a Novel. Thanks for hanging in for the entire year. Next week, Tuesday, December 30, I’m taking a break. See you back for 2015 on Tuesday, January 6th for the start of a new topic. Still working on what that topic will be.

Happy New Year everyone.

Editing, My point of view, Nuts and bolts, Writing

Write the Novel – Fourth Edit – All Those Pesky Words

I’ve just finished writing a 88,000 word novel. There are probably an equal number of spaces and punctuation marks. That makes roughly 176,000 potential mistakes. One human brains simply cannot find that many mistakes. We need computer help.

Word Frequency

I write in Scrivener and, eventually, compile the entire book into Word. Scrivener does both a total word frequency count, and a word frequency count. Thanks to Astrid at Literature and Latte, who showed me how to do the frequency word count. The trick is to select all of the chapters in the book and wait for the total word count to finish. Then click on text stats, go down to the frequency word count and click on the triangle.

This is better than Word, which gives me a total count, but no word frequency. I’ve also looked at some word frequency applications, but they all appear to be done by small companies that I don’t know and am not particularly interested in risking a virus by downloading.

Start small

Small, common words — the, a, to, and, in, of, her, she, was, I, that, we, had, he, etc. — will show up tons of times in any book-length manuscript. How much is too much? Anything over 9%. Several years ago, my husband commented that the showed up an awful lot in my writing. Turned out to be over 15% of my total word count. That means for that 88,000 word manuscript, roughly 13,000 of those words would be the. Fortunately, I’ve gotten my the quotient way down. In the book I’ve just finished the appears 4,243 times. That 4.8% of the total word count.

Common Prepositions such as, above, after, as, at, by, for, in, of, on, onto, over, to toward, up, and others should be looked at as a group. Our use of an individual preposition may be under the 9% guideline, but taken together they may far exceed, usually because we are in love with preposition-rich sentences: After lunch, she stopped by the library in the park on Main Street as a way of introducing herself to Mary James. (7 prepositions in one sentence).

My combine preposition count for this latest book is 4,949 prepositions, or 5.6%, well below where I have to worry about it.

The Special Case of as

Give special attention to the preposition as. If it’s being used judiciously in similes (a comparison using as or like – Jake’s reaction made her as mad as a hornet), it’s probably okay. If it’s being used to indicates two actions happen at the same time — As I got out of the cab, I remembered why I didn’t trust Harold, it’s not okay. Try substituting whileWhile I got out of the cab, I remembered why I didn’t trust Harold. If while doesn’t make the sentence better, as it doesn’t here, rewrite the sentence.

Check ten overused words at a time

After getting through small words and prepositions, make a list of the next 10 most frequent words.  Scan the entire manuscript for one word at a time. Delete or rewrite as many as possible. Yes, this is tedious and it takes time. It’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of novel writing. Like kneading bread dough, as we rework these overused words, we should feel our book tighten and hold its shape.

When searching one word at a time, whole words should be off. Instead use common roots for the search.

  • If we look for smile and have whole words on, the search will miss smiles, smiled, smiling and any other words that aren’t exactly smile.
  • If we look for smil (the root common to all of these words), and have whole words off, the machine will pick up all of the word forms. It may also pick up a few non-smile words, but that usually isn’t a hassle, unless one of our characters is named Smiley.

Words most often overused are

  • likely to add no additional information (yes, yeah, no, not)
  • equivocators (might, still, just, any, only, should, would, can, could, likely)
  • repeaters (Her eyes were blue in color replaced by Her eyes were blue because there’s nothing else blue can be but a color.)
  • pseudo-action verbs (make, thought, think, tell, told, turn, take, took, put, look, stood)
  • distancing words (Patricia wondered if she could trust Melvin puts Patricia between the reader and the action. Was Melvin trustworthy? is a much better way of phrasing the same thing. )

The author is the only one who can decide how many sets of 10 words are enough. At the point when we find ourselves making smaller and smaller edits, it’s time to move on to the fifth and final edit.

But before we go to the fifth edit, use the grammar checker. Use the spell checker. At least twice, all the way through the book.


Spelling differs from country to country. In my case, I’m a Canadian, likely writing for an American publisher. Do I use American or Canadian spelling? I’ve chosen to use American because spell checkers, for the most part, are made in America and are likely to be more accurate for their spelling, even if they happen to offer alternative dictionaries. If I happen to sell to a Canadian publisher who wants Canadian spelling used, at least I’m faced with only having to go back and edit a small amount of words. We need to mention in our Style Sheet which country’s spelling we used and why.

Should we add character, place, and business names to our dictionary? For me, it depends on how easy it is to add new words and to later remove them. The argument for adding them is that those names will be checked along with all the other words. The argument against adding them is that they will all carry over to future documents. Suppose I have a character named Carl Ramsy, so I add Ramsy to my dictionary. A few books down the line, I have a character named Stephanie Ramsey. My dictionary will want to substitute the Ramsy for Ramsey. This can get quite annoying. In any case, a list of all proper nouns — names, places, businesses, etc. should always be in the Style Sheet.

Be sure Allow Hyphenation is turned off when we start to work on the book. Hyphenated words drive proof-setters crazy. In fiction, no hyphens is the way to go.


Writing software usually includes a grammar checking. It really, really helps to remember that these programs are based on algorithms, not on absolute rules. Frequently, suggestions for changing sentences range from mildly annoying to outrageously funny (having a dark sense of humor helps). It has to be our human brains that says yes or no to the changes and know why we are saying yes or no.

That means learning grammar. I love books like Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Transitive Vampire (grammar) and The Well-Tempered Sentence (punctuation) and Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves a whole lot better than, say, The Chicago Manual of Style. I have nothing against CMS, in fact, it provides a HUGE amount of help, which is the problem. Sometimes I need a quick reference. For those of us who might like to learn grammar in small bits, like one rule a day, I recommend Daily Writing Tips.

Where to start learning grammar?

How about by mastering the top 10 mistakes that writers make

  • Agreement (subjects and verbs, pronouns and antecedents)
  • Comma splices (place where semi-colon is the proper punctuation)
  • Misplaced/dangling modifiers
  • Passive voice
  • Possessive case
  • Pronoun reference
  • Punctuation using commas, semi-colons, or colons incorrectly
  • Sentence fragments
  • Word choice (wrong word(s) used)
  • Wordiness

Source: TheRobert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre Resources for English Language Learners

Next Tuesday, December 23, we conclude not only with the Fifth and Final Edit — The Fine Tooth Comb, but also a year’s worth of blogs on Writing the Novel. Thanks for staying with me for 52 weeks, all the way from the first blog on the Theme Statement.

Happy holidays.

Editing, My point of view, Nuts and bolts, Writing

Write the Novel — Third Edit — Last Chance to Remove Book Killers

Even if you’re going great guns, I doubt you’ve finished the second edit, which involves printing an entire copy and reading it all the way through, marking and making notes as you go.

So this week’s blog is about what to do when you have finished. What comes next — the third edit — is the last chance to get rid of book killers. Some book killers don’t show up until we have a chance to read the entire story, in sequence, in a concentrated time period; in other words, while we’re doing the second edit.

To do the next part, it helps to draw a bar graph. I’ve posted one on my web site. Feel free to print a copy and use it. Or make your own. The blank chart looks like this.

Third Edit Blank Chart

Third Edit Blank Chart

We each have to decide where our condition of enoughess falls. For me it’s always over 80%, up to 90% if I can get there. Books rarely meet 100% of our expectations, so we shouldn’t drive ourselves crazy trying to get there. It’s likely that at least one category will have a higher condition of enoughness, one a lower, and three fall somewhere in the middle. The chart above has a mechanical limitation because I could color in blanks in 10% increments. If you feel your goal is 83% or 92%, feel free to draw a line at those estimated values.

Go through questions a section at a time; for example, all the questions under Flow. Looking at the book as a whole, what percentage of the book met all of the criteria under Flow? Color that percentage with your first color; in my case, green. What remaining percentage absolutely, positively must be fixed? Color that with your second color; I use red. What remaining percentage, up to 100% would be nice if I could fix, but frankly, I think I’ve done that section as well as I’m going to on this book. Color that with your third color; my third color is yellow.

The one exception to the 100% rule is if there is a small bit of material that is highly important and must be fixed. That’s the case with my character Lorenzo in the chart below.

Repeat for each line in the chart. At the bottom of the chart, describe what absolutely has to be fixed. A completed chart might look like this.

What a completed chart looks like

What a completed chart looks like


  • Does each situation result in the point of view character(s) making a decision, which leads to consequences and a new situation?
  • Are there plot highs and lows throughout the book?
  • Do they come closer together and become higher/lower as the book’s end approaches?
  • If there is violence and/or sex, does it always advance the plot?
  • Did we feel impatient or antsy at any point? (All right, all ready, we know she missed her senior prom. Get over it.)
  • Are details absolutely consistent throughout the book?


  • Is each major character a rich, fully-developed human being, with likeable and unlikeable qualities?
  • Does each major character have clear goals, and motivations?
  • Is each character’s dialog unique enough that the reader can probably tell who’s speaking even without dialog tags?
  • Were there parts of the book where the villain’s world view made sense?
  • Were any physical actions or sensory inputs used too often? (I had one book where chills ran up or down everyone’s spine far too often.)


  • Was what we put our characters’ through worth it? Did they get enough bang for the cost they had to pay?
  • What plot element satisfied the story, but left the character unsatisfied? (She caught the killer, but by doing so she lost custody of her niece.)


  • Is the language lyrical? (Lyrical doesn’t necessarily mean nice or pretty. If we’re writing about a prostitute in downtown Boston, does the language convey what it’s like to live on the street, in winter, in Boston?)


  • How often did we mirror the characters’ emotions? (If the character was supposed to be afraid, were we afraid? If they were sad, were we sad? If they were furious, were we furious? If we maintained an emotional equilibrium all the way through, we haven’t written nearly close enough to the character’s bone.)
  • How often did we manage a characters’ emotional reaction that was unique, neither cliché, nor inappropriate?
  • By the time we finished the book, were we at least tired, and preferably emotionally exhausted?

A copy of changes we make should be attached to our Second Edit printed copy, just to keep everything up to date. Small changes can be noted directly on the page. Long changes, for example sorting out the problem of Lorenzo breaking parole, can be printed on separate pages and added. I like to tip in mine because it allows the new page to function like all the other pages and turn easily. Here’s how to tip in a page.

  • Fold the left edge of the new page under about 1/2 inch.
  • Snuggle the fold near the binding.
  • Either tape or glue the folded edge to the next page.

I’m posting the Fourth Edit — All Those Pesky Words Tuesday, December 16, and the fifth, and final edit — The Fine Tooth Comb — the week after on Tuesday, December 23. We’re all busy with the holidays, but that’s the nice thing about blogs. If you don’t get back until after New Years, those two blogs will be waiting for your return.

Have a wonderful holiday season.

Editing, My point of view, Writing

Write the Novel – Second Edit Pass – The Big One

Last week, I wrote about making a first editing pass to format our final manuscript. Now it’s time for the second edit, and it’s a big one.

Our brains process information differently from a page and from a computer screen. This edit is the place that, even if we’ve managed to be paperless so far, we need a written copy for editing. Mistakes we’ve missed on the computer screen are more likely to come to our attention on paper.

For editing, it is really, really helpful to have absolutely everything in one binding.  What I do is build two files. The first file contains the material that will not appear in the book, though it will be submitted to the editor. This file includes

  • Blurb: the book in 100 words.
  • Synopsis: a short summary of the book
  • Style sheet : Editors and typesetters can not read our minds. We must give them a guide book. Style sheets include correct spelling of character and place names, abbreviations, correct spellings of foreign words, places where a different font is used for emphasis, and specialized vocabulary, such as military, legal, or medical terms.
  • Permissions for use: if we’ve had to get permissions to use any material, include a copy of that permission in this file.

The second file is material that will appear in the book.

  • Cover page: Title; author information (and if writing under a pseudonym, that too); contact information; agent and contact information; if we have one.
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgment: Who contributed to this book?
  • Introduction: Set the context for the book.
  • Manuscript, beginning with Chapter 1, page 1 and going to the end of the story
  • Background information
  • Glossary

Books almost always have a dedication and acknowledgement. Introductions, background information, and glossaries are sometimes included.  These last three are needed if a major plot element is likely to be unfamiliar to our general readers. Suppose we’ve written a book where cactus theft is a major plot device.

Introductions and background information may contain similar material, but with a different focus.

  • An introduction would contain my personal connection to the topic: the shock and sadness I felt when I came out of my house one morning, and realized that my neighbor’s 125-year old Saguaro cactus had been stolen.
  •  The background information would present facts, figures, history, etc. I wanted the reader to know about cactus theft; why it is such an ecological disaster; and what the reader can do to help. By combining this real life information into a background section, we avoid interrupting the story line so that characters can discuss this information for the benefit (or lack of it) for the reader.

Glossaries contain words that might not be familiar to the reader such as Cacti Horticulturist Specialist, Saguaro cactus, and the Cactus and Succulent Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Since I don’t have a high-volume printer, I put my two files on a thumb drive and have my local office supply store print them, and put them together with a coil binder. That way I’m sure no pages will go astray.

I use a black pen and a yellow highlighter. Some writers prefer multiple highlighters to differentiate different kinds of editing. That works as well. With pen and markers nearby, sit down and read the entire book, as we would a book we purchased or checked out of the library.

Marathon reading is not the way to go here. Try to take in no more than 20 to 25 pages in a session. For a 325-page book, this means we’ll need between 13 and 17 sessions. Yes, we can do two or three sessions in one day, but allow at least a couple of hours to pass between each session.

The Heart of this Edit

  • Does the story capture and hold our interest from page 1?
  • Does it flow smoothly?
  • Does tension build?
  • Are there timely and satisfying resolutions to the main plot and all sub-plots?
  • Does the material touch our hearts?
  • Do we find ourselves thinking about what we’ve read?
  • As we go from session to session, do we have to back track to remember what we read previously, or does our place in the story come naturally to us as we resume reading?

As we discover places where the answer to any of those questions is no, resist the urge to stop editing and do a rewrite. The purpose of this edit is to see the story as a whole.

As we read, here are some nitty-gritty details to check.

Chapter beginnings

  • Start by flipping through the pages, looking for the beginning of each chapter.
  • Are all of the chapters there?
  • Are they numbered sequentially, without gaps or duplications?
  • Is there a forced page break at the end of each chapter?
  • Does the Chapter heading start at the same place on the page?
  • Is each first paragraph in a chapter formatted consistently?

Header and footer

Unless my publisher requests something different, I put only the book’s name, right justified, in the same font as the rest of the manuscript, in the header. My reason is that contests will usually disqualify an entry if the writer’s name appears anywhere in the manuscript. By not including my name in the header, I remove the possibility this disqualifier slips in unnoticed. Later, if my publisher wants my name in the header, it’s simple to insert it.

The footer should contain a page number, centred, in the same font as the rest of the manuscript. The cover page isn’t usually numbered, but the rest of the pages are numbered sequentially. As I go through the manuscript, I check that there is a page number on each page. Gremlins happen.


Because we work piecemeal, it’s easy to lose continuity. Blue eyes become green eyes fifty pages later. James is in two places at the same time. Phyllis talks about being in college, and then later says she never went to college. Highlight, write margin notes, and keep going.

Proper names

Highlight the first time a character’s full name appears. Do the same for the first time any proper noun (places, company names, etc.) appears.

Missing research

Note any places we meant to check facts or verify something, and haven’t done that yet.

When we’ve finished the entire manuscript, go back to the computer. Make copies of the two files, and edit on the copies, using the highlighted manuscript as a guide to clean the manuscript.

  • Complete the research and change details if needed.
  • Correct chapter, header, and footer omissions or inconsistencies.
  • Iron out continuity issues.
  • Transfer all of the proper names to the Style Sheet.
  • Grammar check the entire manuscript.
  • Spell check the entire manuscript – twice.

Next week, on Tuesday, December 9th, The Third Editing Pass — our last chance to get rid of book killers. Hope to see you back.