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!

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!

National Novel Writing Month

If you follow me on Facebook, then recently you might have noticed status updates like:

Today I poisoned someone, broke someone else’s leg, and convinced someone to walk off with the keys to a cabinet holding a murder weapon. ‪#‎WriterLife‬ ‪#‎BestJobEver‬

In case you’re worried, I reconsidered the broken leg and gave the person a mild concussion and a bruised collarbone instead. But I digress.

November is National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. In 2012 and 2013, I wrote the first and second halves of HAUNTED WOMEN OF THE APPALACHIANS, a collection of thirteen fictional short stories inspired by authentic Appalachian lore.

Writing a Novel versus Writing a Short Story

This year I’m writing a cozy mystery, tentatively titled One Squashed Victory. The story takes place in the fictional town of Treasure Pines, North Carolina, about forty minutes west of the Outer Banks. The characters include:

  • The victim, who steals his neighbor’s gourd and enters it into a contest
  • The amateur sleuth, who by day is a single librarian who isn’t looking for love, but might find it despite her attempts to thwart it
  • The sleuth’s private investigator brother who trusts the local police to find the real killer
  • Their dad, who is accused of the crime of killing his neighbor, the victim
  • A wannabee starlet who dresses as a pirate using eyeliner and his mother’s yoga pants (He’s in his 20’s. It’s not pretty. His day job involves a camouflage tuxedo.)

Writing a novel is different than writing a short story. A short story can let the reader draw their own conclusions about why things happened, or how the plot ends.

Starting the novel was pretty similar to writing a short story. But then I had to keep the momentum going. I’m 14k words into the book and it seems to be going well.

A backstory involving the sleuth and her high school sweetheart tempers the main story line and helps provide some romantic comedy balance to the serious main plot.

It’s Bound to be a Squash-buckling Good Time

Because the murder takes place during Blackbeard Days, there are some puns starting with the title of the book itself.

Those who “win” NaNoWriMo will have written 50k words in 30 days. This is the push many people need to get their novel off the ground. I’ve been kicking this one around since August when I traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to pick up Captain Jack, my crested gecko.

You can read about that in last week’s blog entry, How a Runaway Gourd Vine Led to a Cozy Mystery.

And now here’s a look at the inspiration for the wannabee starlet. Enjoy, and afterward please leave your comments and questions in the area below. I’d love to discuss them with you!

P.S. Thanks very much to my pal Anthony for suggesting the term “squash-buckling” during one of our writing sessions.

7 Ways Writers Differ from Everyone Else

Writers are not normal. I know this because I am a writer and my family tells me all the time how abnormal I am compared to them.

I like to think I’m the normal one and they’re weird, but whatever.

However when I get together with my writing group, it makes me realize that they might be onto something after all. Here are some common traits I see among members of my writing group as well as in other friends who are writers.

1. Writers always think about writing.
Whether it’s a character in their book, an idea for a new book, or someone else’s book, writers are always either jotting down or making mental notes about something writing-related.

2. Writers get really excited about writing.
If you really want to make a writer happy, then give them time, tools, and space to write. They will love you for it. My favorite gifts from my family include a journal covered in pink faux leather and a Doctor Who themed ink pen.

3. Writers get more emotional about writing.
They also get more emotional about reading, but that’s a different blog post for a different day. Only my fellow writers understand when I tell them that I cried over something that happened to the characters in my book.

4. Writers surround themselves with writing.
This one is huge. My desk not only holds my laptop, but it also bears host to a pile of hotel scratch pads, a small milk pitcher full of various writing utensils, stacks of journals and notebooks, sticky notes, and a pile of books on topics ranging from romantic fiction to how to organize your next novel.

5. Writers enjoy talking about writing.
If you want to make friends with a writer, then ask them about their book. Really listen as they explain it to you. Better yet, read the things they write, regardless if it is their blog or their latest bestseller.

6. Writers often balance chaos.
Getting lost in your writing means being distracted from things that might otherwise need your attention. Writers are gluttons for slipping into “the zone” and forgetting to do things like eat lunch, stay hydrated, sleep, and so forth.

7. Writers don’t give up.
Writers have terrific highs when things are going their way, and terrible lows when things don’t work out so well. Regardless of how it’s going, they don’t give up.

Are you a writer? Do you agree with the list? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

3 Reasons Why Writers Need Blanket Forts

I want to build a blanket fort. It is not for my sons, who are aged 18 and 17 and entirely capable of building their own stereotypical manly blanket forts. I don’t want to share it with my husband, because he thinks the idea is silly.

When I close my eyes and picture my perfect blanket fort, it has things like a chenille bedspread roof, fairy lights along the tie-dyed , a bean bag chair floor, a small bookshelf, and a maybe a goldfish bowl full of skittles.

Come on, everyone knows it’s not logical to put a goldfish in a blanket fort.

But getting back to my point, everyone could use some time in a blanket fort. This is especially true if you are a writer, and here are three reasons why:

1. Relaxation
Going into a blanket fort transports you into another realm. All the stress from the world outside the blanket fort disappears. You don’t have to look at your phone or laptop. You can read a book, take a nap, or just curl up and daydream about stuff.

2. Inspiration
All that daydreaming can lead to inspiration. One minute you’re wondering why the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal (Go on, look it up!), and the next your main character butts in with a thought. Then another character pipes up. Before you know it, the ideas are flowing like crazy.

3. Socialization
Can you imagine having your next writers’ group meeting in a blanket fort? Put away your notebooks, pens, and laptops in favor of a board game like Boggle or, my favorite, Scrabble! As soon as you tell your friends and family you have a blanket fort, they will beat down the fabric door to join you. (If they don’t try to have you diagnosed with Peter Pan Syndrome.)

So who’s ready to build a blanket fort? If you aren’t sure where to start, then check out the following YouTube video.

I’d love to hear your thoughts (or see the results of your fort-building) in the comments below!

OMG Shakespeare – Innovative or Idiotic?

OMG is right. Have you seen this? Someone butchered classic works of literature. I’m talking timeless treasures from the Lord Bard himself, William Shakespeare.

Juliet: Srsly U R so hawt.
Romeo: IKR?

However, this is not the first time someone has altered a Shakespearean work. Let us review:

While the above works were inspired by Shakespeare, they all retain a certain amount of literary integrity. They respect basic elements of literature such as spelling and grammar. The OMG series, on the other hand, fails to do that. Here’s an example of what you can expect from OMG Shakespeare:

So what do you think? Are the “greatest stories ever told from the greatest playwright of all time in emoji” an innovative attempt to gain popularity with the current generation of teenagers? Or are they just idiotic?

Leave your comments below!