Is Your Chair Killing You?

fall_chairWriting is a sedentary occupation, and writers who are serious about their efforts to live by the pen often worry about the effects of sitting for many of their waking hours. It is often said that the only way to become a writer is to sit in your chair and move your fingers on the keyboard. Now we read that an essential ingredient of our career can kill us?

Millions of people have flooded the internet with articles warning readers that sitting can kill them. Most cite the results of long term studies concluding that spending long hours in a chair leads the way to serious medical problems.

As usual, it does not take long to uncover a host of articles saying the exact opposite, or touting ways to circumvent the possibly disastrous effects of sitting all day. Most of the ideas claiming to counteract too much sitting involve exercise—always a good idea for improved health. Then BAM! Another study, Sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise, pops up to confuse the issue. It seems to have valid research behind it. Now what?

After reading a few articles, looking at the sources, and then skimming even more, I made my own plan to combat the sitting-too-long malady. My distillation of the articles I considered reasonably well-grounded gave me two takes on the idea of spending too much time sitting. One is the over all number of hours per day you are in a chair, but equally important was the duration of each period of sitting. What doesn’t work is spending all week sitting and going to the gym to work up a sweat for three hours on Saturday morning. What does work is sitting for 20-30 minutes at a time, broken up with 5-10 minutes of walking.

That’s a great plan, but not always practical. The muse has gifted you the perfect scene and your fingers are flying on the keyboard…not the time to take a break to exercise. Or you’re working on a tight deadline and can’t lose your train of thought for an exercise break. I’ve been there and done that. Before you know it, hours have gone by and you haven’t moved anything but your fingers.

And then I got a perfect birthday gift—a sit-stand desk! I absolutely love it and I can stand often without taking more than a few seconds with my fingers off the keyboard. It changes height easily, accommodates my monster monitor and two computers, and lets me change positions as often as I like.

Do you have any midday exercise tips that work for you? Please share with your fellow writers.

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Proofreading Your Work

inspect_this_page_800_wht_17900Proofreading your own work is one of the most demanding tasks required as you ready your manuscript to meet the world.  Why? Because the brain sees what it thinks is there.

Proof poof

Count the number of errors in the excerpt above.  Most people see the first four immediately, the fifth a little later, and the sixth takes a lot longer. Now read it again, using a piece of paper to block out everything below the line you’re reading. Read it aloud slowly, line by line. The mistakes pop out almost immediately.

Try the tips below. Each tip is an arrow in your quiver. Unfortunately, the silver arrow that does it all has not yet been discovered.

  1. Run the quick-fix approaches: spelling and grammar check. Bear in mind that neither of them are infallible.
  2. Make sure you’ve fixed all the editorial issues before you begin proofreading. You don’t want to go through this more than once.
  3. Take a break of at least a couple of days before beginning. Step back from the story and concentrate on words and punctuation.
  4. Work with a printed copy of the manuscript. You’ve seen it so many times on the screen, seeing it on paper is a new experience.
  5. Masking all but the line you are reading, read it aloud slowly and distinctly. Setting your computer to read it is often more helpful. Follow the computer voice with your finger, word by word. The computer will pronounce what you wrote, not what you meant, catching things like letter reversals. Your follow along on paper will catch the “sound alikes.”
  6. Almost all experts agree you should do this from front to back, and again from back to front. (Tedious, I know.)
  7. One final step I do is go back to the computer and view the manuscript reduced in size so you see at least a dozen pages at once on your screen. It should be too small to read. Scan for dense pages—those with little or no white space. Enlarge that page and see if you can break up large paragraphs into two or more smaller ones.
  8. Make sure your chapter headings are sequential. It’s amazing how often I see manuscripts with a skipped chapter number or two chapters with the same number.
  9. If at all possible, ask someone else to read it. Maybe you can find a writing friend willing to be a proofing partner.

Cross your fingers and release your baby. No matter how careful you are, someone is bound to find a few more things that can be improved. Learn from every experience.

Do you have any proofreading tips that work for you? Please share with your fellow writers.

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Conquer Your Computer

sad_broken_computer_400_clr_21658The first thing to understand is that, contrary to outward appearances, the computer is not deliberately trying to frustrate you. Kicking it or throwing it against the wall will not make it behave any better, and is probably not covered by insurance.

If violence isn’t the answer, what is? You must beat it at its own game and out-think it. You can do it. Your brain is more capable and more complex than the superest of super computers.

Here are a five tips that might help you subdue the beast, or at least make friends:

  1. Back up your work often. Stopping to think about the next scene? Hit the save button before you get up and stretch. At the end of a day’s work, back up your manuscript to a new file with a date in the title. Accidents happen. I speak from experience, but that’s another story.
  2. Are you working with a touch pad? Remember, you don’t have to actually touch the pad for it to reposition your cursor. Starting to type with your cursor who-knows-where can leave you with strange and mysterious words and characters. I often mask the touch pad with an index card to decrease the sensitivity, or disable it entirely and use a USB mouse. Mice are easier to train.
  3. Watch out for invisible characters. Carriage returns, tabs, spaces, and section or page breaks may be hiding in your manuscript and keeping it from doing what you want. If you are working in Microsoft Word, there is a paragraph symbol on the top row of icons (). When this is clicked, it shows all invisible characters in blue.
  4. Does the hour glass or whirligig appear too often and stay too long? Many things could be causing this, but try the simple solutions first. Back up your work, close all applications, and restart your computer. That clears up clutter in the short-term memory (RAM stands for random access memory, but short-term is a good way to think about it.)
    Be careful about giving commands too fast for them to be executed. That can confuse the poor thing. “Open this file,” you say, and then you notice that you clicked on the one above the one you want. “No. open this one.” That can result in a long wait, or even crash the application. Think of what it could do to traffic if you tell a driver, “Turn right.” Once he starts the turn, you shout, “No, I mean left.”
  5. Last but not least, YouTube is always there to help. Go to youtube.com and search for whatever you want to make the computer do. Countless people delight in making short videos that illustrate almost anything. “How to format a paragraph in Word” or “Line and paragraph spacing” or ” How to format a novel manuscript.” If you don’t get what you’re looking for, try to rephrase the request.

Do you have any computer tips for non-techies? Please share with your fellow writers.

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Polish Your Prose Word by Word

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No, I’m not talking about checking each word for spelling errors or typos, although that is also part of the final polish. What I’m talking about is rooting out particular words that are so common in everyday speech, but make your written dialogue wordy and unprofessional.

Adverbs: Stephen King’s quote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” is one of the mantras of writers. Many of the people who let the words flow off their tongue don’t follow the advice. I’m one of them. When the object is to get the story written from beginning to end, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Once your story is there, the plot holes are filled, the facts checked, and the characters checked for consistency, it’s time to go back and snip out those pesky adverbs.  If your verb is not strong enough to say what you want, search for a stronger and more active verb.

Example: The man walked slowlydown the lane. OR The man meandered down the lane. OR The man crept from shadow to shadow on the lane’s cracked pavement.

Looking for specific words is one of the things modern technology makes easy. You will find many lists of words to avoid in writing, and no doubt you will find your own habitual offenders.

Emphasis: Do you use the words very and really? Run a search for one of the words. In the version of Word I use on my Mac, there is a drop-down next to the magnifying glass that gives the option to list in the sidebar. My PC version automatically lists the matches in the sidebar. The program also tells how many times the word has been used. Look at each instance and rewrite using stronger, more active words to eliminate the very or really.

Passive writing: Passive writing is a much broader term than passive voice. Passive writing tends to distance the reader from the action. One telltale sign of passive writing is the use of “helping verbs.” Sometimes this is unavoidable, but in most instances a strong, active verb will not need help.
This is a list of helping verbs from https://www.englishgrammar101.com/module-3/verbs/lesson-2/helping-verbs:
to be: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been
to have: have, has, had, having
to do: do, does, did, doing, done
conditionals (modal auxiliaries): could, should, would, can, shall, will, may, might, must
Eliminate as many of them as possible in your manuscript. He ran is stronger than he was running. “He burst into the kitchen, panting from the run home” is a stronger sentence than “He had run all the way home and arrived out of breath.”

Pet phrases: Watch out for your own pet phrases. Mine is “a bit” or “a little bit” and when I’m in a hurry I over use it. It’s on my personal search list of words.

Find other suggestions of words to search and destroy:
https://dianaurban.com/words-you-should-cut-from-your-writing-immediately
https://annerallen.com/2017/06/filter-words-and-phrases-to-avoid-in-writing/
https://smartblogger.com/weak-writing/

Do you have words or phrases you over use? Please share with your fellow writers.

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Be Prepared for the Unexpected

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Preparing for the unexpected is not the same as expecting the unexpected. We prepare for the unexpected in real life—why not in our writing?

Think of all the things we do to prepare for the unexpected, and even the unthinkable. Auto insurance is mandated; if you own a home, you probably have insurance on both the home and the contents; life insurance companies stay in business funded by breadwinners who plan ways to provide for their families in the unfortunate event of their early demise. We never travel without tucking a few “what if” or “just in case” items into our bags. At least, I never do. But, of course, that doesn’t mean we prepare for every possible outcome.

What about our writing? Think about mystery novels. Is the first person that may have committed the crime the criminal? Very seldom. All too often the perpetrator is the one the author portrays as the least likely to have done it.

Okay, that’s a whodunnit and it’s supposed to keep us guessing. Red herrings are stock in trade for mystery writers. What about those of us who write in other genres? All I can say is before computers, outlines were probably written with pencils that had erasers.

Every fiction author I’ve ever asked has told me that his or her characters had surprised them while they were writing. I once spent two days choreographing a key scene in a novel, only to have one of the main characters do something unexpected when I was actually at the keyboard. How did that happen? I have no idea, but it did. So…the outline was tweaked for the next two chapters.

Having unexpected things happen always perks up a reader’s interest. Sometimes they add a bit of humor, sometimes a plot twist, and sometimes lead to a different and stronger story.

BEWARE of making the unexpected appear outlandish and so unlikely that it can be considered a deus ex machine, or a god from the machine. In ancient Greek and Roman dramas, gods or goddesses were sometimes lowered by a crane onto the stage to get the hero out of an impossible situation. The hero should be able to extricate himself, although a little help from friends may be welcome, if not too improbable.

BEWARE not to take the unexpected take the plot to a place so far from the readers’ expectations that they find no satisfaction in the ending. Even Charles Dickens got caught with that one. His book Great Expectations actually has two endings. After the book was published with an unexpected ending, the readers made such an outcry that the publisher insisted he write another ending for them.

Speaking of the unexpected—I published this a full 20 minutes before midnight to get a second March blog. WordPress disagreed and dated it April 1. Happy April Fools Day to me.

Do you have a favorite book surprise? Please share with your fellow writers.

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