Free Writing Assistance

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This is how I imagine Cinnamon, my golden retriever, is when left alone with my work-in-progress.

Sometimes my grammar stinks.

There. I admitted it. No matter how hard I strive for flawless grammar, sometimes I goof. I might confuse which with that, end a sentence in a preposition, or the very worst thing ever – use passive voice.

I know, right? Every time this happens I cringe. Every freaking time.

Why can I spot flaws in other’s writing but miss it in mine? WHY is that?! It drives me nuts!

Writers need thick skin. In a perfect world, writers would sport the skin of a rhinoceros or crocodile. In reality, writers sport the skin of a Giant Day Gecko, fragile and easily torn.

When I first co-founded The Mountain Scribes, a writing group serving West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, I had a bad habit of submitting my first draft for critique from other members.

Boy was that a rotten idea! I quickly learned to read through and fix as many mistakes as I could before submitting to the group.

Thankfully friends like author Laura Emmons, who I met through my local NaNoWriMo group, suggested tools that helped them polish up their literary works. Here are my top three free, cloud-based editors, and best of all, they’re free!

  1. Hemingway App – The Hemingway Editor not only polishes up your writing, but it also allows you to format the text, import text from MS Word files, and export it as HTML right to your blog.
  2. After the Deadline – This was the first service I used. It’s also cloud-based but unlike the other two apps listed here, it only offers the bare basics. The one thing it does better than the others, in my humblest opinion, is find passive voice. It may hate passive voice more than I do.
  3. ProWritingAid – While you can get a premium membership, the free service reviews up to 3k words at a time, giving you 19 different reports in return. The reports range from diction checks to sticky sentences to overused words and a lot more.

Have you ever used these apps? Are there any in this list you haven’t used? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

Do You Compare Yourself to This Girl?

A couple of days ago, I read an NPR article about the word girl in book titles. The article discussed how publishers promote books by comparing them to other books. While they were talking about the title, comparing books is a tactic authors should consider using when shopping their books around to agents and publishers.

Jane Friedman, Co-Founder and Editor at The Hot Sheet, Columnist at Publishers Weekly and Instructor, Media Studies at University of Virginia, agrees when it comes to comparing your books to other authors in a query letter, “This can be helpful as long as you do it tastefully, and without self-aggrandizement. It’s usually best to compare the work in terms of style, voice, or theme, rather than in terms of sales, success, or quality.”

Back to the topic of titles, however, Goodreads’ list of books with the word girl in the title contains several hundred entries. Here are the top twenty entries:

  1. The Diary of a Young Girl
  2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  3. The Girl Who Played with Fire
  4. Girl with a Pearl Earring
  5. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
  6. Girl, Interrupted
  7. The Other Boelyn Girl
  8. Stargirl
  9. Kiss the Girls
  10. The Girl Who Chased the Moon
  11. Gone Girl
  12. Morality for Beautiful Girls
  13. Wintergirls
  14. The Goose Girl
  15. The Welsh Girl
  16. There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom
  17. The Little Match Girl
  18. Story of a Girl
  19. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
  20. Living Dead Girl

As you can see, the list covers a wide range of genres including, but certainly not limited to, cozy mystery, horror, historical fiction, and young adult. The use of ‘girl’ in the title is hardly a new trend (Pioneer Girl, anyone?), so why does it work?

“I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the world girl in their title,” Crime novelist Megan Abbott said in the NPR interview. She went on to say the use of ‘girl’ in the title isn’t about the content, but instead is a kind of shorthand letting others know what to expect.

Maybe it’s because, as Cyndi Lauper said, Girls Just Want to Have Fun?

Over the weekend I revamped one of the stories in my largely unpublished short story collection, Haunted Women of the Appalachians, which is still in an editing loop the size of the High Roller Ferris Wheel in Las Vegas, for the WV Writers annual writing contest. The NPR title has me rethinking the story’s title. Maybe I should add “girl” to it and see what happens.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your theories in the comments section, below.

7 Ways to Improve Your Writing

Every writer I know wants to be a better writer. Who wouldn’t want to write perfectly polished first drafts that go straight from manuscript form to the New York Times bestseller list? It would save a lot of time and heartache.

Unfortunately that is not the case. Whether you’re a seasoned pro with a bookshelf of bestsellers or a budding author struggling to finish your inaugural first draft, there is still room for improvement because, like people, our language is always changing.

You don’t have to go back to college or attend an online class to improve your writing. Achieving this is rather easy, but it takes discipline and a willingness to follow through. Here are some easy ways to improve your writing, regardless of your skill level.

1. Own Your Style – Grammar and spelling are the two things readers nitpick the most when reading your work. Some contemporary literary types will tell you it’s okay to start a sentence with the word “and” or “but” and end a sentence with a preposition such as “for” or “at“.

While the narrator in my Treasure Pines series might state something like “And for the most part, it was true.“, you will never, ever hear, “But she wasn’t sure where she put it at.The only time you should use these things in your novel is in dialogue.

2. Ditch the Passive Voice – Passive voice weakens literary writing. (It also fills it with zombies.) While passive voice is more accepted in conversational writing, like dialogue or blog posts, try to keep it out of your book. A lot of people don’t know when they’re using passive voice, but this video helps you learn how to recognize it. Don’t let the zombies win!

3. Read –  The best writers are also readers. Reading helps you know what you want in your own writing. More importantly, it helps you know what you want to avoid.

4. Join a Writing Group – Look for a group on a site like Meetup or search on your social media network of choice. Put the word out there that you’re looking for other writers. You could even start your own group. Trust me. If you build a writing group, writers will join.

5. Do You Plot or Pants? – During a Facebook conversation with Chris Bohjalian, New York Times bestselling author of Midwives, I asked him about his outline process. He said he doesn’t use one. He’s a total “pantser”, writing by the seat of his pants from Page 1 until The End. It’s okay to be a pantser and for some, like Chris Bohjalian, it works great.

Other authors prefer to outline. I’m one of these people. While I’ve pants’ed every short story I’ve ever written (and don’t see that changing), I’m a die hard plotter when it comes to writing anything over a couple of thousand words. J. K. Rowling is also a plotter.

If you’re a die-hard plotter, change things up and try pantsing. And if you’re a pantser, then try a loose outline, such as a mind map or a timeline. You don’t have to stick with it, but trying something new can take your writing to the next level.

6. Find an Editor – Finish your first draft and put it through a site like After the Deadline to get initial feedback on your writing. Accept that your first draft is probably 35% total crap that’s never going to make it to the final version that goes to print, and find yourself an editor. HAUNTED WOMEN OF THE APPALACHIANS would never have reached the beta reading stage without the help of Sheila from Sage Editing.

7. Ditch Your Laptop – Silence your phone. Go somewhere with horrible cell service and no WiFi. Take a notebook and a couple of ink pens, and write. Write whatever pops into your head. Make lists. Write about what you see, hear, and smell. You’ll be surprised at what detail you can add to your writing by doing this. As much as I love my laptop, this is one of my favorite things to do.

What other methods to improve your writing would you add to this list? Is there any you disagree with? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!

I Won NaNoWriMo Now Where Is My Book?

Anyone who writes 50k words within the 30-day time period (i.e. the already hectic month of November) is eligible to “win” NaNoWriMo. The site requires you to validate your novel by copying and pasting everything you’ve written into a magical box.

It’s okay. Once your novel’s validated the site forgets whatever it saw, so nobody’s stealing your ideas. Besides, there are no original ideas. I mentioned (the highlighted, glossy parts of) an idea to a couple of friends in front of someone else who said, “Oh! So it’s JUST like Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY?” Um, no, totally NOT like that. Kudos that she knew Shirley Jackson was the author, but I digress.

According to an array of reputable sources, including Writer’s Digest, a novel in the genre of general literary fiction is somewhere between 85,000 and 100,000 words. Depending on your genre and intended audience though, your novel might be slightly longer or much shorter.

If you just finished NaNoWriMo for the first time, then you might be thinking, “But I wrote 50,000 words!” So you did. Good job! And now it’s time to write the rest of the book.

While writing my current NaNoWriMo winner, a cozy mystery, ONE SQUASHED VICTORY, the characters revealed the ending scene, how the book will wrap up, and the plot for books two and three. But I still have about 27,000 words to go before I can say the first draft of the novel is really done.

Even after I write those words, there’s still a lot to go as outlined in “Revisions, Bloody Revisions,” a Midnight Ink blog post by Tracy Weber. Some authors the book, send it to the publisher, and from there it’s on your shelf or e-reader. Tracy uses a 14-step process. Mine is at least 14. (Does she mention drinking copious amounts of wine and coffee while crying on the dog’s shoulder because it’s 3:30 A.M. and everyone else is asleep?)

So there you have it! While finishing up this book, HAUNTED WOMEN OF THE APPALACHIANS (my NaNoWriMo “win” for both 2013 and 2014) is on the verge of dropping into the hands of my benelovent beta readers. It’s only slightly less terrifying as the day I put my sons on the school bus for the first time. Wish me luck!

Do you have any questions for me? Any comments on this topic? I’d love to discuss them with you in the comments section below!

Why We Need to be Less Critical of Ourselves

They say authors are their own worst critics. I have found this to be true, not only when it comes to an author critiquing his or her own work, but also when receiving critiques about our work from others — even if those others are people close to us.

My writing group takes turns critiquing each others’ submissions on a regular basis. The submission might be a piece of flash fiction, or it could be a fraction of a larger work, such as my novel-in-progress titled HAUNTED WOMEN OF THE APPALACHIANS.

Critiquing versus Editing

There is a definite line between critiquing and editing. The members of my group not only have different writing styles and genres, but we also have different methods of critiquing each others’ works. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is kind of an awesome thing.

When submitting something, we have the option to put a notation at the top clearly stating what we’re looking for in the critique. It might be something like:

  • I’m looking for egregious errors only.
  • Everything from plot holes to pronoun choices.
  • I need help with character development.
  • I’d like feedback on my scene transitions.
You get the idea, and for the most part this system is pretty flawless. If there is no notation, then the person reading it critiques in whatever style they are most comfortable.
However on one submission in the not-so-distant past, I forgot to put what I was looking for at the top. This piece was already in the hands of my editor. What I really wanted was a general overview, but I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything.
So what I got from one member of our group was an in-depth critique. It was completely different from my style of critiquing and bordered on editing. Upon first glance, I did not take it well.
What? No! That’s not How it Works!
Thoughts like It’s not what I wanted at all! and How could this person edit my work? It’s mine! ran through my head as I glanced over the comments, each one neatly organized in its own little speech bubble. If I took all the suggestions, it would require me to change a lot of things, and I kind of don’t do well with change.
Here’s a confession: I didn’t even read through them all on the first time around. About halfway through the digital document, I closed it out with plans to revisit it later. The only mention I made of it during our meeting was a request not to edit my work or remove words and phrases, but to strike through or highlight them so I have a clear reference when reading through the comments.
I couldn’t say anything else. There was just too much to digest. When it comes to my writing, I am tenderhearted. My skin is thin as rice paper. These words I put together are like little bits of my soul. To paraphrase a metaphor from Julie, a friend, home school mom and fellow writer, “When I put my pen to the page, I bleed.” In other words, regardless whether it is literary fiction, non-fiction, or science fiction, we authors put a lot into our work.
Revisiting the Critique
A few days later, armed with a Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino, I went back and read through the comments again. A lot of the comments brought up good points, such as talking more about the floor plan of the setting to give readers a clearer picture. There were still a few I disagreed with, but this time I didn’t beat myself up over them.
Looking back, I am so glad I didn’t allow my emotions to run my mouth at the meeting. I probably would have hurt someone who I consider a friend.
It was easy to see, after a few days went by, the critique itself wasn’t what bothered me. It was my reaction to it. I took the comments way too personal. They weren’t an attack on my writing. They were just comments from one person’s point of view.
I’m not alone, though. A lot of artists are quite passionate about their work, from painters, to musicians, to writers, to actors, and everyone in between. Even Lucy Lawless (aka Xena, Warrior Princess) isn’t immune to critiques as you can see from this video of her teaming up with Kenny Loggins to turn his hit Footloose into a duet.
As authors, we are not going to please all of the people all of the time. Not everyone will love the things we write. Some of you might be critiquing this blog post as you read it, and that’s okay. (And if you do, please leave a comment below so we can talk about it…in a couple of days. Heh.)
Less Self-Criticism and More Investment
I’m not suggesting we stop critiquing our own works, but that we stop being so critical of ourselves. Instead of writing for other people, write for just one person — you. At the end of the day, you are the person who has to live with the words, phrases, sentences, stories, chapters, and novels you publish for an audience, whether it is a social media status update or New York Times bestseller.
Other people can decide whether or not to invest in your work, but your investment in your work grows whenever you spend time on it. The time you spend beating yourself up because you don’t like what one person has to say during a single moment can be spent doing something more productive, like fixing plot holes.
We need to weather all critiques, both positive and negative ones. In a way it prepares us for the future, when readers publicly review our works on sites like Goodreads and Amazon. There’s a blog article by Mary Bue MacLean titled “Thoughts on Success, Failure & Non-Attachment” which explores the concept of recovering from a setback and includes a short, helpful video on the topic.
Let’s Chat about Critiquing!
Have you ever received a critique or review of your writing that made you cringe? How did you handle it? I’d love to discuss this in the comments section below!