Tools for Novel Writers: Proofreading

proofreading-tipsProofreading on the Cheap

I am, it must be said, a cheap S.O.B. I will drive twenty miles to a station where gas is a penny less, I will squeeze a dollar until George Washington squeals, and I will wash old aluminum foil so I can reuse it. So, now that it’s time to proofread novel #1 (“Thin  Spots,” soon to be languishing in obscurity on an online venue near you), I got some quotes, discovered people actually did want to charge money for the privilege of reading my work, and decided that perhaps I could do it myself.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a chance in Chernobyl I can just sit down and proofread nearly four hundred words of my own prose. I’m just too close to it and I’ve read it too much.

But I still want to get off cheaply if I can, so I started looking for tools.

Tool 1: Grammarly

To me, Grammarly looks like MS Word spell-and-grammar check on steroids. It looks though your document and suggests corrections based on standard usage. You can get the deluxe version, or whatever they call it, for about thirty bucks a month, so I sprang for that and was able to download a plug-in for MS Word. I used Grammarly to cull through the document for me and it was pretty okay. Not as good as a human proofreader, but pretty okay. It’s a computer program, so it can’t tell when, for example, you’re using a comma in a non-standard way in dialogue. On the other hand, in passages of exposition and such, Grammarly found a passel of legitimate comma foulups, some double words, a few spacing errors, and a smattering of other things. All in all, I’d have to say the book it more polished for having been through the Grammarly grinder.

Tool 2: NaturalReader

NaturalReader is a software program that reads your text out loud. It has a paid version that comes with various bells and whistles, but I’m using the freebie, and it works perfectly well for my needs. Said needs are simple. I need to hear somebody else read the book out loud to me so I can polish up the prose. I set the reading speed to “-3,” which slows the robot voice some, and then sit and listen with the Word doc on one side of my monitor and NaturalReader on the other. When the reader sounds out a phrase that clashes in my ear, or sets the little subconscious madman in my head to shouting better wording at me, I pause the reader and make the change in the document. I read the change back to myself, and if I’m pleased, I save the doc; if I am not pleased, I hit the Undo arrow.

Tool 3: Big Monitor

I recently invested in a twenty-three-inch monitor. It’s plenty wide and is the device that allows me to put Word on one side and NaturalReader on the other. It also allows me to have my beat sheet in view while I’m writing. You can get one of these for a little over a hundred bucks. If you can’t come up with a Benjamin all at once, save up for it. You’ll be glad you did.

Tool 4: A Real Proofreader

After all of this, I think I’m going to hire a real, live human proofreader after all. If they send me back the doc with few or no changes, that might mean I’ve hit on the magic proofreading sauce with Grammarly and NaturalReader. If I get the document back with lots of changes after using these tools, I’ll know next time to just send the thing straight to the human. It’ll hurt, because I’m so cheap, but I’ll do it.

A Final Word

Just so you know, Grammarly is not the only proofing program out there. You can read a fine summation of some popular tools at http://www.bloggertipstricks.com/online-proofreading-tools.html. NaturalReader also has competition; you can read about more reading robots at http://elearningindustry.com/14-free-text-to-speech-tools-educators-tts-teachers.

How do you get through the proofreading phase? Leave a comment and share your wisdom. Thanks!

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Writing One Novel, Editing Another

balanceBalancing Writing Tasks

It’s always good, I believe, to practice balance: between family time and work time, mandatory activities and discretionary activities, waistline measurement and that quart of fudge swirl ice cream in the freezer.

At the moment, I’m attempting to:

  • Put the final edits on my first novel, Thin Spots
  • Do marketing work, such as researching agents and publishers, for Thin Spots
  • Write my second novel, The Farthest Hour

Keeping these three plates twirling in the one hour per day , give or take, I have for fiction can be a bear, but I’m starting to get a handle on it. Here’s what I’m doing so far.

Fifty-two Card Pickup

Ever play the fifty-two card pickup joke on somebody? You get a deck of cards and ask the patsy if they want to play 52 card pickup. They say yes and you throw all the cards up into the air. Then you cry, “Okay, pick ‘em up!” It’s funny when you’re eleven. The first step is sort of like the prank. I just throw every task I can think of onto note cards, or a document, or sticky notes, whatever’s handy. At this stage, I don’t worry about the order of things, or even if the items make sense.

Order Up!

Once I’ve brainstormed the tasks, I start putting them in order by project and then by priority. The projects are the three mentioned above. The priorities are usually high, medium and low, or some version thereof. Now I have a good-looking list I can work from.

Week Mindedness

At the start of each week, I take a look at the list and pick the high priority items I think I can do in a week. If I think I can fit in some medium or low priority items, I’ll pick those, two. The selected items to into a list of things to do during the coming week.

Divide by Five

Now, I take the week’s list of to-dos and divide them into five sections, one for each business day of the week. I might decide to split a high priority item or two into five smaller pieces. I might pick one day to do several easily completed medium or low priority tasks, to clear the calendar a bit.

Why just five days and not seven? Day seven is devoted to social media tasks, like this blog, as well as to planning the next week. Day six is devoted to family, etc., but usually has enough down time in it to catch up on any fiction-related tasks from the previous five days.

Manage the Work, Don’t Let it Manage You

Whether or not you like my little method, I highly recommend you find something that works for you. I don’t believe a novelist has to write every single day to be effective, but you do need to write on a regular schedule, and pretty frequently. So figure out what works for you, and balance your way onto a best-seller list.

Got any cool ideas about time management for writers? Post it in a comment! Thanks.

Tools for Novel Writers: Critiques

thumbsButtonsSmallerCritiques: A Treasure

Few things are more valuable in crafting a novel than critiques from other people. Critiques give you viewpoints on your work you would never have come up with. Some readers find characterizations you thought perfectly clear to be confusing. Moments of conflict you thought were dramatic are, to some, just ho-hum. Witticisms you thought were hilarious are, in the eyes of some readers, just plain dumb. And just to make life more interesting, you’re bound to get the opposite opinions from other readers.

How do you figure out who is right and who is smoking dried coconut husk? I’ve been working with an excellent critique group for over four years now and have recently started getting commentary from beta readers, so I have some thoughts on the matter.

Go by the Numbers

In my critique group, we are all agreed that if just one person recommends a change, it’s likely a matter of that reader’s taste and therefore, optional for you. If two people recommend the same thing, the issue bears close inspection and, possibly, a change. If three or more call out a flaw, the best advice is to fix that sucker.

Trust Your Gut

Even in cases where a significant number of folks call out a flaw, you’re still probably dealing with a relatively small group of opinions, so the observations you’re getting are not always going to be absolutely correct. You are the judge of what changes go in and stay out. I believe the best way to decide is to trust your writer’s gut. If a change just doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t hang with the rest of the story, and you have carefully considered it, then don’t make the change. Also, pay attention to the cases where only one person recommends a change and it feels spot on. Those are changes you want to make, as well.

Experiment

Another way of dealing with changes is to try every one that’s suggested. Plugging your reviewers’ suggestions into the living body of your story is a great way to see what works and what doesn’t. This approach can also yield new plot or character developments you might not have thought of otherwise.

Work in Community

Whatever approach you take to judging input from your constructive critics, the most important thing to remember is to avoid working in a vacuum. Enlisting the brains of others to help polish your manuscript will not only make it better, it will get you away from your keyboard (or typewriter or note pad, if you’re working old-school style) and into a supportive community of writers and readers that will keep your writing going. (Note: If they’re not supportive, ditch ‘em!)

Do us all a favor and leave a comment about how you handle input from others. Thanks, and may your pages keep filling.

Tools for Novel Writers: The Fruits of Editing

apple-treeEditing Fruits

In the title for this post, I don’t mean “the fruits of editing” in the usual sense of “the results.” Instead, I’m thinking of an expression I hear in the day-job world a good bit: “let’s go after the low-hanging fruit first.” What this means is that when you’re resolving a business issue that has many facets, it’s often best to fix the easiest things first and the proceed to the more complicated stuff.

As I work on the near-final edit of my first novel, I’m discovering the fruit-tree analogy works pretty well in the fiction-writing biz, too.

I have a list of about a hundred items that need to be fixed to make the novel its best. These are categorized as fruit, which is odd, I guess, but more fun than just calling them high, medium and low.

Low-hanging Fruit:

The low-hanging fruit are things I can fix pretty quickly, without much heavy head-scratching. For example, there’s a location called “Angels’ Common.” I needed to be sure I called it that every time, and not “Angels’ Courtyard” by mistake. That was a simple matter of search-and-replace in Microsoft Word.

Halfway Up the Fruit Tree:

Halfway up the tree are items that take some thought and creativity to fix, but aren’t likely to make me bang my head against the wall. For example, my protagonist, who is a guy with his body in a coma and his soul caught in Hell, has a brother back on Earth. I got a lot of feedback indicating that I needed some more scenes with the brother, to bring a wider variety of emotions to the book, or, as one person said, “to give it heart.” So, I’m going through and adding some scenes. It’s a moderate effort to figure out where the scenes should go and then I have to write them, but the job isn’t a killer.

Way Up in the Top Branches:

High up among the skinny branches of the tree, where my perch is the most precarious, are the things that will be hardest to correct, like plot holes. One case is a contradiction I didn’t spot until I did a read-through of the whole novel. Remember how the protagonist’s body is in a coma, while his soul is in Hell? Well, at one point in the novel, Satan wants to destroy the protagonist’s body because soul-protagonist is too powerful and killing the body will weaken him. At another point, Satan is thrilled that soul-protagonist has a body on Earth because it makes him more powerful and thus more useful to Satan (assuming Satan’s nefarious plan works out). The whole body-on-Earth deal is a linchpin of the plot, so I’ve got to figure out how to resolve the contradiction without weakening the story. I am hoping that a solution will come to me as I fix the low-hanging and halfway-up issues.

Divide and Conquer

Whether you buy the whole fruit analogy or not, I strongly recommend dividing your editing work into some sort of layers. Writing a novel is complex and editing one, I’m finding, is even more so. Whatever you can do to ease your path on the way do “The (finally all edited and done) End” is worth a try.

Leave a comment about handy editing practices for the benefit of the other readers. Happy writing!

Tools for Novel Writers: Character Interviews for, well… Character

Woman interviewing a guy in a ponchoThe Character Interview

Today’s topic… character interviews! They’re very useful! True! I hate character interviews! Also true!

 

 

Nutrition label with factsCharacter Factoids

I wrote a post a while back called “I Completed a Character Interview and didn’t Scream Once.” It’s about a method of defining characters that involves completing a long list of descriptive items.

While this was a useful process, for a writer like me (no smart cracks starting “Yeah, like a…” and ending in something rude, please), the process has its limitations. When I tried this for a new character, I had a shell of factoids, but not a living, breathing person. Working through the method for an existing character was helpful for record-keeping, but it didn’t give me a better idea of who she was.

After working on my not-so-great American novel for a while, I’ve found that a performing a nuts-and-bolts character interview is not a bad way to start out. It at least gives you something to work with and keeps you from making the oft-told error of giving Jane blue eyes on page 10 and brown eyes on page 75.

Character SouloidsSouls

On the other hand, if I want to know anything about the depths of a character – goals, heart’s desires, shaken or stirred – they have to live on the page for a while and interact with the story world around them. The facets of a character’s personality are born of my own subconscious and they take a while to come out. I am well aware of the excellent craft tomes that suggests methods for eliminating, or at least, abbreviating this process; I am reading them and ever hoping to improve. In fact…

I just finished reading one of those crafty books, Writing Fiction for Dummies and there’s a bit in there about character interviews I am finding very helpful. It’s the idea of determining a character’s values, ambitions and goal. These three points are infinitely more important than weight or mother’s paint color preferences. They get to what makes a character tick, which is a large part of what drives a story. And if you know one or two aspects, you can back up or go forward into the others. For example, if you know a character’s value is financial security, that might lead to his ambition to make lots of money and that ambition to his goal of being a corporate CEO.

After I’ve lived with a character on the page for a while, I still don’t necessarily have a conscious notion of what his values, ambitions, or goal might be, but what I do have is somebody I can have a conversation with. (All that time talking to imaginary friends is finally paying off.) Once that conversation gets under way, the characters speak for themselves. I do give a prod or some direction here and there, but mostly I just let them jabber.

Demon maskExample

Now I’ll bore you with an example. It’s part of the interview with my main bad guy, Gilles de Retz, a damned soul so bad he volunteered to be converted into a demon.

N: I need to know what you want, Retzy.

D: What I want? Is this not the thing obvious? De Retz must rise! De Retz must rule! It is the natural way.

N: The natural way? What are you talking about?

D: There is the natural order and of this are the people who are better and who must rule. De Retz is such a one, perhaps above them all.

N: How do you know you’re better than everybody else?

D: It is a thing one knows. How do you know that you are a narrow-eyed, pinch-faced idiot? You just know, oui?

N: Let’s do a quick check.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Mais oui!

N: Is there a conflicting value, I wonder?

D: I am very loyal to my great Lord Satan. Of all creation, he is the only one better than de Retz.

N: Really?

D: There is the good chance of this, at least.

N: That’s good That would give you a conflict between wanting to rule everything and being the loyal second banana.

D: What? De Retz is not a banana, nor any fruit!

N: Okay, simmer down. It’s just an expression. Let’s do this again.

Interview: values (axioms; 2 or 3, conflicting): The naturally existing upper class, of which de Retz is one, should rule everybody else. Loyalty to Satan is paramount because he is the only being greater than de Retz.

Interview: ambition (flow from values; abstract): Rule everybody else. Make Satan the primary ruler.

Interview: goal (flows from ambition; concrete; objective, simple, achievable, important, difficult): Become the ruler of everything.

D: Here you have l’essence de de Retz, monsieur. I would not have thought you capable.

N: Okay, thanks, Retzy. I think.

I use the example of de Retz because he was relatively easy and so his interview was short. I’ve found so far that the good guys are more complex, which I think (hope) is good.

Put a Comment in the Weird Robot Head BoxComment box with mannekin head

I’m sure I’ll be learning and sharing more about all this as time goes on. Please leave your own genius thoughts on character interviews in a comment.

Farewell to Bloggerland… for now, anyway

farewellDear Nascent Novelist Readers,

Firstly, thanks for visiting this space. I’m grateful to you for taking your valuable time to visit.

Secondly, I won’t be posting here for a while. I’ve learned to never say never, put its possible this may be the last post here, ever. If I do get the urge to come back, well, great, so be it.

Why, you ask, as you mop a tear from your cheek? I’ve simply reached a point where my plate is too full and something has to go.

The day job has gotten very busy, in a good way. Family life is as busy as ever. Writing fiction takes time.

I find that I’m stressing out trying to get everything done and that’s counter to the entire philosophy I’ve tried to expound in this blog.

If you’d like to stay connected, you can follow my Twitter feed: @coolcarsoncraig, or you can friend me on Facebook by searching for “carson craig, nascent novelist.”

So, not goodbye, but farewell, as in may you fare well in whatever your endeavors may be.

Roadmap to Your Fiction Writing Destination

Road mapAs I have not yet reached the pinnacle of literary glory yet, or even the foothills, really, I find myself in need of keeping a day job. Fortunately for me, my day job is a good one, with nice people to work with and interesting things to do.

One of my duties is to be Keeper of the Product Roadmap. The product roadmap is the document where the group I work with keeps track of where our product is going in the near term, the middle term and the long term. As the keeper, I get to run the meetings where we apply our collective wisdom to the best future for our baby and put the results into a nifty format that helps us keep track and take action.

As I was tweaking my roadmap the other day – it’s cool, with lots of colors and things that happen automatically – anyway, as I was doing that, I started thinking about writing, as I often do. (Not that I was slacking off, boss! It was just for a minute, I swear!)

What if I was a one-man roadmapping committee for my novel? For that matter, what if I became a one-man roadmapping committee for my entire fiction-writing career?

One thing about a roadmap – it changes, so I don’t have to worry about getting stuck somewhere I don’t want to be. If I find I’m on the wrong track, I can adjust.

The roadmap for the novel is my plan, consisting of over 60 scene outlines. I am always looking at this thing, but until now it’s been in a kind of purposeless way. Now I am thinking that at some regular interval or other I should review it to see if it still makes sense. Then I can make any needed adjustments at the plan level, before I write.

As for roadmapping the whole fiction career, I haven’t even bitten that one off yet, but I’m thinking about it.

I could go without a roadmap, just pursuing fiction by whim or by notes on the back of envelopes and napkins. I might get somewhere that way, but it might not be the place I want to be – that happens so easily when you don’t have goals.

On the other hand, with roadmapping I can set goals, like when I want to complete novel #1, how many copies I want to sell in year one, etc. I can also think about the next novel and the ones after that. Will I make a series from novel #1? Will I write something separate but related in genre and subject matter? Will I write something completely different from what’s gone before? How do branding and marketing figure in? And, perhaps most importantly, what are my values, hopes and dreams?

You can keep your roadmap in whatever format you like, as:

  • It tells you what’s you want to happen
  • It tells you when you want it going to happen – start and finish
  • You can easily change it

It can get more complicated than that, but you’re a clever writer, so that should be enough to get you started. I’m going to get started myself, and perhaps return to this topic with some more thoughts on the matter.

Better put that on my roadmap before I forget.

Fallow Time

Fallow FieldIt’s the writer’s mind and heart in which written works are grown to maturity. Nowhere else does every single element needed to produce the end result come together.  It’s as if our mind/heart, or brains/guts if you like, is a field in which the seed of an idea can be planted and then nourished by time, craft and often the help of our colleagues.

It’s stressful, being a field. You have to manage all that nourishment coming in so it gets properly onto the page, while at the same time your inner resources are getting pulled out by the very thing you’re trying to create. And like a field, if you don’t have a rest period from time to time, you become so drained that no amount of nutrients put in will get anything out. In agriculture, resting a field is called letting it lie fallow. In writing, or any discipline, really, I call it the same thing: fallow time.

Of course, we wouldn’t be in this game if we didn’t have a passion for bringing our visions to life, but remember: even God took a day off. Fallow time is your chance to let the heart/mind heal and recharge so it can grow its next crop of results even better than before.

So, a few propositions:

Vacation: Vacation is part of your compensation—for most of us it’s the only payment we’re likely to get! Find a good place to stop working, reach it and then go.

Breaks: Even if it’s only five minutes, go off by yourself (without your notepad, smartphone, tablet, etc.) and chill. DO NOTHING. Think as little as possible. Find a meditation method that suits you and practice it.

Reading: Lose yourself in a good book that has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Not the newspaper, a book.

Fitness: You don’t have to be a jock. Just go outside and amble for twenty or thirty minutes. If the weather is inclement, stroll around the aisles of your cube farm (assuming you’re a resident of such), do some yoga or play some baseball on the Wii. You get the idea.

Sleep: Get enough. Most people need 7-8 hours, some more, some less. You can always tape Kimmel and watch it later.

Say no: Too often we dig our own holes using the shovel of “yes.” Refuse some requests by just pleading overload, or by showing how taking on this one additional thing will hose your other valuable activities. Or just politely decline with no explanation—you’re a grownup and you have that right.

Ty Johnston Interviews Kron Darkbow

Fantasy writer Ty Johnston is touring the blogosphere this month, in part to promote his latest e-book novel, Demon Chains, but also because he loves blog touring. His other fantasy novels include City of Rogues, Bayne’s Climb and Ghosts of the Asylum, all of which are available for the Kindle, the Nook and online atSmashwords. To learn more about Ty and his writing, follow him at his blog tyjohnston.blogspot.com. Below, Ty interviews Kron Darkbow, the main character of most of his fantasy writings.

Ty: Hello, Kron. Been a while since we’ve seen one another.

Kron: Hrrm.

Ty: What’s that supposed to mean?

Kron: It means you are wasting my time, and it means it has not been that long since we have seen one another. You were just proofreading the Demon Chains novel.

Ty: Well, yeah, but I guess I meant it’s been a while since we were … uh … writing together. After all, it’s been a month or so since I finished writing Demon Chains.

Kron: Fine. Be on your way, then.

Ty: But I just got here!

Kron: Which means you can turn right around and leave.

Ty: Why are you being this way? Why so obstinate?

Kron: You created me. You should know.

Ty: Um, well, I realize you probably don’t like me very much.

Kron: True.

Ty: But I guess it’s not because I put you in perilous situations.

Kron: Again, true.

Ty: You probably don’t like me because —

Kron: Because you are wasting my time.

Ty (smirking): Oh, yeah? What else do you have to do? I’m the one who sends you off on your adventures, and since finishing Demon Chains, I’ve yet to send you on another one.

Kron: Just because you are not forcing me to face down demons, cannibals or dark wizards does not mean I do not have other things to do. In fact, I have better things to do than talk with you.

Ty (whining): But I’m your creator!

Kron: You are also a writer, which is a notoriously wasteful way to spend one’s life.

Ty: What do you mean?

Kron: What, exactly, do you do to make the world a better place? Do you go out of your way to help your fellow man? Do you —

Ty: Now hold on a minute! I might spend my days and nights in front of a keyboard, but I try to entertain others with my prose, and from time to time I try to say something important about humanity, the universe, etc.

Kron: Which accomplishes nothing. Words, words and more words.

Ty: There’s nothing wrong with trying to entertain people!

Kron: Except you could be out there saving lives.

Ty: Well, excuse me if I’m not two hundred pounds of solid muscle with a big sword hanging on my back, and trained in the arts of melee from a dozen different nations!

Kron: You forgot about my years of training in alchemy, languages, and all manners of thwarting magic.

Ty: Yeah, you’re a regular Batm —

Kron: Don’t say it!

Ty: Say what?

Kron: You know what! Bruce and I are only distantly related. I am not based upon him.

Ty: I guess. I suppose you also have a little Frank Castle in you, and some Mack Bolan. Maybe even a smidgen of Max Rockatansky.

Kron: I have no idea who those people are.

Ty: That’s what Wikipedia is for. Look it up.

Kron: What?!? Look, I have to go. There are street scum needing beaten up, and monsters that need killing.

Ty: I suppose you’re the man for the job.

Kron: I am.

Ty: Okay, okay. I get the picture.

Kron: The what?

Ty: Nevermind. Maybe you’ll find out some day if I ever send you into the future or into my world.

Kron (grinning, all teeth): That would be interesting.

Ty: How so?

Kron: Because then I could hunt down you.

Ty (gulping): Okay, uh … that’s enough for the day, I think. We’ve taken up enough space on Carson’s blog. Um, Carson, thanks for putting up with our nonsense, and I look forward to any replies to this post.

Kron: You forgot to say goodbye, idiot.

Ty: Okay. Goodbye, idiot.

Kron: Hrrm.