Month: April 2013

Writing Update – Reading Aloud

I wanted to give a brief update on what I’ve been working on and doing lately, and also propose a revising challenge. I recently went to view a staged read-through of a play that one of my writing group members has been working on – and I thought it was so interesting to see the piece we’d been work-shopping blocked out and was read by talented stage actors. The evening really emphasized how having actors read lines and move through them in even a rudimentary way could add life to a script, and point out aspects that, in sole reading, were not as obvious. Such as redundancies or sections where there’s not enough going on. Descriptions that might have worked in theory but leave the audience confused.

It inspired me to go back and look at a few of my character exchanges and focus on the timing and word choice. I returned to reading aloud my work, which I haven’t done in awhile. I wanted to see what areas even I tripped over or couldn’t read confidently. I also wanted to make sure that, in the vacuum of writing, I hadn’t forgotten how real people speak and interact with each other.

So I challenge you to return to what you’re writing now and review the timing of your dialogue or its word choice. Can you read your work aloud to see how it sounds – or better yet, ask someone to read it aloud to you? Then you’ll truly be able to hear and see how someone coming in blind to your work interprets the motives and tone you might be taking for granted.

Creating a Research Binder

One class that I took during my Masters program was a class on how to approach research. It didn’t take long after I began writing my novel that I realized I was going to need to do some heavy research for the project. I wanted what I was saying to be accurate and credible, and for that – I needed to work through everything I needed to collect that would help me as I continued deeper into the story.

Thus, the research binder. The binder sections I used were: Synopsis * Setting / Location * Photographs * Characters (special nuances, physical characteristics, types of disorders) * Info Dump * Bibliography.

Let’s go through each:

 Synopsis – This can help you organize the big picture of your novel or story. You can also practice your 60-second sell, so that when you’re writing your query letter or pitching the project to an agent / editor / investor, you sound confident and practiced. You can keep drafts as your story changes, so you can also see the progression and go back if you ever feel lost in the woods.

Setting / Location – Here you can provide information about the Where. Where does your story take place? How will you incorporate it into the story? What information will you need to get started? Also remember the time period as well. If you need to, physically go to the place or a similar location and write down what you observe. Interview people to get their impressions of the place, and remember the 5 senses: what are the smells? Textures? Sounds? Tastes? What do you see?

Photographs – I’m a visual person, so I used this section to store photographs that might help me later. A photograph that had a certain building I wanted to describe, a photograph of a woman who reminded me of my character, or a photograph of the type of car my character drives. Keeping these handy helped me as I needed a visual jolt or reminder as I wrote.

Characters – Get to know your characters, and if you assign any physical characteristics to them, ailments, neuroses, or hobbies – do the research on those and collect the information here. Even if you don’t provide a WebMD description of some disorder, being well-versed in its symptoms and complexities will deepen your writing and give you credibility.

Info Dump – This was basically my catch-all area, for any research that came up that I thought was important, but didn’t nicely fit into these other categories.

Bibliography – So important! You must keep a running bibliography of your sources and clippings. If you do bring your book to an editor or agent, you want to be able to back up your information, especially if it is pivotal to your story, or something like – say, “general” knowledge – like the date of a war, or a description or location of a famous building.

So there you have the beginnings of your binder! One last suggestion before you go off on your own: research and write at the same time! I know it might be tempting – especially for those Type A personalities – to want to do all the research and THEN start writing, but if you try that – you’ll likely never sit down and write. Learn how to write questions to yourself while you write, but don’t stop! You can always go back later with your research and weave it into the story or plot. Sometimes, if I forget the last name or detail of something, as I’m writing I [PUT IT CAPS IN BRACKETS] so that I don’t even need to pause much and break the writing stream. But then I also don’t risk (or so I hope) losing it and forgetting to come back later.

How do you research? Have suggestions? Share them in the comments section below.

To the Point: Estimating Word Count

Today’s “To the Point” is how to estimate word count. Okay, so these days you can get an exact word count if you’re typing in Microsoft Word or somewhere where you can do an electronic word count. But what if you’re trying to estimate the amount of space your text will occupy on a page? This becomes important when you’re trying to estimate the number of pages your book will be published. Small headlines or subheads, for instance, are counted by a computer the same as body copy, whereas if they have a different size or font, when you’re thinking about publishing, you might count those differently.

For short manuscripts, it’s often quickest to count each word on a page and multiply that by the number of pages. The standard is multiplying the number of pages in your manuscript by 250 – the average number of words on a double-spaced typewritten page.

Writing Prompt: April 19, 2013

The well-worn saying opines that love is in the air in the springtime. To counterbalance that, I thought this was a good Friday writing prompt, with a nice Facebook tie-in. Once again, from Luke Neff’s Tumblr blog – it’s a great graphic and I’m looking forward to doing this one myself – though come on, of course Spring Break is a spike!

Happy writing!

Writing Prompt Facebook

How To Write a Personal Statement

Here are a few handy tips to keep in mind for anyone trying to write a personal statement. These can be tough! As much as writing about yourself may seem like a simple task, learning how to concisely and effectively break down the core of who you are in a few paragraphs or a page can be challenging. And there’s so much advice out there, knowing who to listen to and whose advice to take can be confusing.

My suggestion? If this advice makes sense to you, then use it. If not, trust yourself first.

What is a personal statement?

You can write a personal statement for a university, for a business, for an organization, or for colleagues. It should reflect your personality and your intellect, and your writing ability.

What should a personal statement do?

Your personal statement should make you stand out from the pile and be thoughtful, analytical, and self-aware. Admission officers read many of these a day, and are looking for—to put it plainly—the interesting ones. I can tell you from experience that after working daily on personal statements, they can start looking the same – and that’s what you don’t want.

Where to start.

Sometimes, the beginning is the hardest. Before you jump in, I highly suggest answering a few questions and writing up an outline, even if it’s incredibly rough. Be honest as you answer these questions – you want to find and cultivate your voice.

  • What is unique about your life story? If you had to give a 60 second blurb about your life and who you were, what would it be? What notable accomplishments or experiences do you have that set you apart from the rest?
  • What’s your angle? Do you know how you want to approach this statement?
  • Read the prompt(s) and make sure you know what the requirements are.

As you begin…

Advice I give students:

  • Anecdotes. For those who want to start with a personal story about a loved one – a word of caution. When you’re done, ask yourself – does this story tell something important about me, or about my loved one? Make sure the story ties in with what you’re trying to say about yourself – and is not just an interesting story.
  • A good foundation to follow as you organize your statement: My background + my experiences = who I am and my goals.
  • Be prepared to revise and rewrite. Give yourself time to write several drafts. Be prepared to show your statement to a reader or two and get advice. Don’t just turn in the first thing you write.
  • Relax. If you’re stuck, start by writing out some stories.

What to avoid.

  • Redundancy. If you’re submitting a resume and/or transcript with your personal statement, avoid just regurgitating what is already on those documents. Don’t list out all your accolades or mention a  work experience unless it ties into what you’re trying to say.
  • Self-promotion. No one likes a braggart, and making statements like, “I’m intelligent, creative, and a team player” are meaningless as the reader knows you’re biased and would rather make those judgments for himself or herself.
  • The words, “I’ve always wanted to be a _________ because…”
  • Mentioning monetary reasons for why you want to be admitted.

Once you get a good draft, I have one last piece of advice: proofread your work! Make sure your document is free of errors and typos. Then remember to relax! Good luck!

Writing Prompt of the Day: April 12

For today’s writing prompt, we again go to Luke Neff‘s tumblr blog for inspiration.

Writing Prompt List

So here’s my list!

Answer questions honestly.
Be kind.
Consider others before you act.
Don’t double dip.
Experience new activities when you can.
Find the time to call your mom.
Go out more.
Help out unasked.
Inquire, investigate, and follow-up on things you don’t know.
Joke around.
Kill them with kindness.
Laugh at least once every day.
Maintain (some) self-control.
Never eat raw horseradish sauce.
Open doors for others.
Pet a furry friend once a day.
Quilt. Just kidding—I can’t quilt. Quit a nasty habit each month.
Remember – you get to start over tomorrow.
Stay focused.
Travel alone. With friends. With the one you love.
Untie your shoelaces before you take off your shoes.
Visit your hometown at least once every few years.
Wake up when your alarm actually goes off.
Xanadu can be yours if you are happy with what you have, but strive for something more. (Are you impressed with my “x” word?)
Your friends are probably right.
Zeroes at the end of a paycheck aren’t everything.

Now it’s your turn! What would your list look like? You can draw some stories from it afterwards, I’m sure.

Some Common Grammar Mix-Ups

Lately, as I’ve been editing blogs and articles, I’ve noticed a few reoccurring misused words and grammar mix-ups and wanted to share them here, as a quick refresher (or new lesson) to new bloggers and writers. Remember, it’s all in the details.

It’s vs. Its

This is a common mistake that happens in writing. Even native speakers often switch one for the other in writing, but it is important to understand the difference.

It’s is a contraction (the shortening of shortening a word by combination or omission) of “it is” or “it has.

Its is the possessive form of “it.”

People often mistake these two most likely because in almost every other situation, the apostrophe + “s” indicates possession (Such as “Barry’s ball”). However, in this case, the apostrophe in It’s is a mark of omission, not possession.

The tip to remember (no exceptions) is that if you can replace the words “it is” or “it has” with it’s, then that’s the one to use.

Otherwise, use its.

Examples of It’s
When asked about the weather outside, Sarah said, “It’s raining.”
He asked for the check. “It’s on the table,” she said.

Examples of Its
The golf club had its own customized handle.
The dog scratches its ear.


Complimentary vs. Complementary

Another switch-up, especially in sales copy, comes from the usage of complimentary vs. complementary. These are two entirely different words (though both are adjectives), so the tip to remember is to go back to the root definition of complimentary – compliment.

As a compliment is something nice or flattering you say to someone, complimentary means flattering, or expressing praise. This can also be used to mean “free,” so when you’re talking about items “on the house” – use complimentary.

Whereas complementary means something that completes a set or enhances or satisfies a lack in something else. When talking about linens or table settings that tie a room together, use the word complementary.

Examples of Complimentary
Tonight the restaurant is offering a complimentary glass of wine to all patrons who arrive before 5:00 p.m.
Her boyfriend was very complimentary of her on her birthday.

Examples of Complementary
The glass of wine was complementary to the prime rib dinner.
The silverware was complementary to the glassware set and linens.

Everyday vs. Every Day

I’ve seen these words misused in articles online and in blogs I’m proofing. Again, it’s difficult because both are legitimate terms, but one is an adjective while the other is a noun phrase.

Everyday is an adjective, which means it describes something that either occurs every day, or is commonplace. Adjectives modify nouns, so when you want to describe a noun as “ordinary,” or “common,” use everyday.

Every day, however, is a noun phrase. It not only consists of a noun “day,” but of an adjective modifying that noun (“every”). Therefore, this functions just like an adverb. What’s an adverb? You can think of them items that modify verbs—which means they usually tell you when, where, how, in what manner, or to what extent, an action is performed. So every day is usually used to answer the question, “When?”

Tip to remember: Every day can usually be replaced with the term “each day” – if you can sub in “each day” for every day, than that’s what you want to use.

Examples of Everyday
As I continue my lessons, I hope to decrease my three-putt holes, which is presently an everyday problem for me.
Taking a walk on your lunch hour is a nice break from the everyday office routine.

Examples of Every Day
We offer you the best service and prices every day.
You know you love your job when you’re excited to go to work every day.


Premier v. Premiere

This is a bit tricky, because there are still some references that disagree, but this homophone (words that sound like but have different meanings or spellings) mix-up still occurs more often than it should, and I side with those who believe that these words have different definitions.

First off, I’m talking about the adjective form of premier (not the noun). The noun premiere is often used mistakenly when the writer should be using premier.

Premier refers to something that is first, best, or most important.

Premiere as a noun is “a first performance or exhibition of” something; as a verb it is “to have the first public performance…”

Thus, the tip to remember here is that when there’s an “e” at the end, you can associate it with entertainment – and then remember that it has to do with an opening of a show, play, movie, etc.

In business writing and sales copy, you’re most likely going to be using premier more often.

Examples of Premier
As one of the nation’s premier Gulf Coast resorts, we offer our guests the best in facilities, amenities, and personalized service.
The tournament in Augusta is the premier match-up of the world’s best professional golfers.

Examples of Premiere
He was nervous as tomorrow was the premiere of his first full-length feature film.
The show was to premiere in August, in New York City.

What other homophones or lexicon mix-ups have you experienced as a writer, blogger, proofreader or editor? Share your thoughts and experiences below.

Writing Update – Submitting to Magazines

I’ve been working on rewriting my short memoir piece – trying out a couple different endings – I’m pretty happy with it at this point. Now comes the scary part – submitting it out to literary magazines. Especially as I know from sitting on the other end of the table – sometimes, all it takes is one reader’s opinion to push you out of the running. Depending on a magazine’s reading policies, your piece might be read by one of the staff once, and if that one person doesn’t like it – out it goes. Or sometimes it might be a good piece, but it might not fit with the issue or with the direction the magazine wants to go at that moment.

Enter in The Big Roundtable, a journalism project by Michael Shapiro currently on Kickstarter. If funded, his project would use crowd-sourcing to read through non-fiction pieces and hopefully get more non-fiction published and promoted for people to read. Each writer will also get paid a dollar for every time someone “buys” their story.

An interesting concept, and one that I’m certainly up for supporting if it helps get more stories circulated and in front of readers. It’s always tough to know that your story is out there, being read by strangers who have the power to reject it, approve it, and publish it.

But if you wish to be a writer, you must learn to handle rejection and the potential of rejection. And as Epictetus said, “If you wish to be a writer, write.”

April Fools’ – 5 Memorable Literary Hoaxes

In honor of April Fools’ Day, let’s take a look at some memorable literary hoaxes. The timing is almost perfect, as it was only last week that I discovered no. 5.

5. Nikki Heat novels written by Richard Castle

Richard Castle is a best-selling author and dashing literary rouge. He does take credit for writing the Nikki Heat novels as well. The only problem is: he’s fictional character in the TV show, Castle.

And yet, the other day, Amazon recommended I buy his books. It was late, and I had to do a double-take because for a moment my brain didn’t process the information correctly. I went to the author profile page and there, smiling charmingly back at me, was actor Nathan Fillion, next to a short author blurb for Richard Castle.

What a great marketing tool, and a playful hoax. The best part about this discovery was the amount and quality of reviews for the books online (4 stars, 709 reviews).  People really love them, and of course the internet is abound with rumors of the actual author. But honestly, I’m okay with the mystery.


4. The collected works of JT LeRoy

Does anyone remember Sarah or the collection of short pieces published in 1999/2000 by Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy—stories based upon the life of Cherry Vanilla, a young transvestite prostitute? Though the stories were published as fiction, most assumed that the author was writing from life experience. The author himself at first refused to be interviewed, and then was later revealed to be Laura Albert, a middle-aged white woman who had been using what she claimed was a pseudonym for her stories. This was one of the first hoaxes I remember discussing in depth, discussing the fraud and whether an author from a “privileged” class could or should write from such a personal viewpoint of a disenfranchised class or if writers could and should write from the point of view of sexes and races not their own.


3. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter

Another novel written under a pseudonym that also turned out to be controversial was a novel that I remember reading when I was younger and enjoying. The Education of Little Tree was written by Forrest Carter, and after it was republished in 1980, it made its way to the New York Times Bestseller list in nonfiction, and sold over 1 million copies. But Forrest Carter was not, as he purported, a Native American Cherokee. On the contrary, Forrest was a pseudonym for Asa Earl Carter, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a “rabid segregationist” who hotly opposed the civil rights movement and integration. Although admittedly, he tried to leave that life behind him before becoming a novelist, he took great pains to conceal his past, and although he claims to be part Cherokee, his relatives dispute that claim. Thus, while The Education of Little Tree passed itself as a factual memoir, it was not – although the truth about Asa Earl Carter’s motivations and story remain in debate.


2. Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe

In honor of April Fools’ more playful side, I wanted to add in another, less serious, hoax. Naked Came the Stranger was the 1969 brainchild of Mike McGrady, a writer for the New York daily, Newsday. McGrady believed that American literature was suffering, and that a book could sell regardless of the quality of writing within it—as long as it contained a lot of sex (sounding familiar to any recent UK National Book Award winners?). So he recruited a team of other journalists and wrote Naked Came the Stranger, deliberately writing a confusing storyline with different journalists writing different chapters, and editing any chapters that were too well-written. The best part about this story? When the book was published (under a pseudonym Penelope Ashe), it became a solid best-seller, spending 13 weeks on the New York Times list. It sold 20,000 copies before the authors admitted to the hoax, which then popularized the novel even more.


1. The War of the Worlds

Yes, this has been talked to death, but I love it all the same. I’ve listened to The War of the Worlds broadcast by Orson Welles many times trying to imagine what someone tuning in back in 1938 might have thought, even for moments, when they listened to the story. What would they have thought? What would you do if you heard the news that your country, your planet, might have been invaded by an alien race—and a dangerous and deadly race to boot. I would have probably packed a bag and headed to my a fall-out shelter. This was a great Halloween hoax.


What about you? Do you have a favorite literary hoax? Or one that you remember (James Frey anyone?) for a particular reason? Share your thoughts below!

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