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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In the beginning…

3d Character At Maze Shows Challenge Or ConfusedThe best selling book of all time starts with those words. It’s as familiar and enticing as “Once upon a time…” inviting you to enter another life, another time and place.

Call me Ishmael.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Everyone has a favorite opening line or two or three. Search for “beginning a novel,” and you find hundreds of millions of articles—some more relevant than others, but they all seem to agree about the importance of the first page, if not the first sentence.

But what about your own book? Every book starts with an idea, a thought that will soon be a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. The details won’t be clear at first, the ending might even be uncertain, but even pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants rather than using an outline) have a basic idea before sitting at the keyboard, and even outliners can end up with a completely different book than the original outline suggested. That’s why the first draft is called a first draft. It is still malleable and the pearls are not necessarily strung the right way.

So, back to the beginning—your beginning. It has to pack a punch. The punch doesn’t have to be an upper cut to the jaw or a kick in the stomach, unless your book is a thriller or action adventure. A good beginning evokes an emotion. It can make the reader laugh, or be ripe with promise of young love, or set a dark mood of mystery or impending disaster. If you’re writing nonfiction, the beginning can promise to solve a problem for the reader, it should reach the pain points.

If you’re writing memoir, the beginning is particularly challenging. Why would a reader want to read your story? Your job is to form a bond with the reader. Give them a reason to like you and take an interest in your story. This can be your good humor in the face of difficulties, or your willingness to jump into an adventure they can share with you.

One not-so-secret secret is that the beginning of the book is seldom the beginning of the story. The background can be told in bits and snippets as the story progresses, or even in full-fledged flashbacks. You must know the time line of the story intimately, but you’d be surprised how many “vital” pieces don’t have to be written into the book. When the reader needs some background to understand a scene or character’s action, feed that piece of the background.

When you sit down to write, don’t stare at a blank screen stressing over the killer opening. Write your story. You can come back any time you write a scene that strikes you as a powerful beginning, even if it’s not the beginning of the story. If that scene is in chapter three, it doesn’t mean the first two chapters were wasted time, your pearls can be strung in a different order.

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

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JUST START WRITING, DON’T WAIT FOR A KILLER FIRST LINE!

 

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We Can ALL be Winners!

What did you learn from watching the winners_raising_hands_800_clr_7607Winter Olympics?

I learned a lot and noticed some things I already knew, like I’m really good at procrastinating. Now that the Games are over, I’m trying to justify all that potential writing time that I spent on the couch admiring the skill, grit, and sheer determination of the athletes.

Writers have a different venue to display their skill, and they have a different version of a gold medal—yet many similarities exist in the lives of writers and those of athletes. I sat down at my computer this morning to work on revisions of my latest manuscript and wondered how many of the Olympian athletes were getting up and spending hours of effort working to improve their performance for the next race. Most of them, I’m sure.

  • Persistence and self-motivation must exist in both worlds. Both the writer and the Olympian athlete must devote an insane amount of time and effort to master their skill. No one makes them do it; they do it because they love what they do.
  • Amateur athletes and writers are in the privileged position of setting their own goals and defining their own success criteria. They tailor their lives to suit the goals.
  • Consistency is another key ingredient. No one gets to be an Olympic skier by deciding to go skiing every Sunday afternoon when the weather is nice. Nor can a writer become a successful author by sitting down at the computer when the inspiration hits.
  • There will be pain. Not every step is fun, but keeping your eye on the goal can keep you going. So will sharing with others that have similar goals. Olympians often train in clusters, benefiting from shared venues and coaches. Similarly, writers can go to conferences and workshops, benefiting from sharing knowledge of experts and gaining confidence from sharing with their peers.
  • A successful athlete, like a successful writer, knows there is always more to learn. If you’re not coachable, you’ll get stuck along the path. Keep learning and moving forward toward whatever goal you have.
  • Many athletes are thrilled to be a part of the Olympic experience, knowing it would take a major miracle to even get in front of a TV camera, not to mention a medal of any sort. Similarly, many authors are thrilled to hold a book in their hands with their name on the cover, knowing it would take a severe disturbance in the laws of the universe for their book to become a best seller. That’s not always the goal. Define your own success and work toward it, one word at a time.

Do you have the Olympian determination in your writing life? Please share any hints with your fellow writers.

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