Building an Image with Words

Consider these three sentences:

  1. It was a dark and stormy night.
  2. Great crashing Zeus’s fire split the ink-black sky into razor blades.
  3. Lightning pierced the heavens, banishing night for a heartbeat.

Number 1 was insipid. If it created an image in your mind it was probably Snoopy typing on his doghouse in the comic strip Peanuts. It’s lazy writing.

Image result for it was a dark and stormy night

Number 2 is purple prose, with mixed metaphors and reaching, confusing imagery (Zeus’s fire? You’re counting on your audience instantly knowing the Greek god threw lightning, not flames). The reader must work to form an image.

Number 3 works. You see the lightning brightening the sky for a moment. Maybe “heartbeat” won’t be seen as a unit of time and therefore briefly confuse the reader, or maybe it won’t be an issue at all.

Create Movies in the Reader’s Mind

Readers need to see what your words describe, effortlessly, instantly. The magic of reading is that every reader is their own cinematographer—no two readers imagine the same thing, but we must give just enough for them to build a wondrous scene.

Over-describing bogs down the reader; the writer is trying to take over the cinematography role. Lazy writing doesn’t give enough or doesn’t entice the reader to imagine the scene. Finding balance is an author’s job.

Those Pesky English Rules 

Rules of English allow an image to be built from words.

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice

Passive voice makes the reader wait to build the picture. “The ball was thrown by Scott to the dog.” This passive construction forces the reader to imagine a ball. What kind of ball? Ah, it was thrown, so it’s smallish, oh, Scott threw a ball (revise image), where? To the dog. The image is built in fits and starts.

Now, “Scott threw the ball to his dog.” The image progresses easily. Scott, oh, he’s throwing a ball to his dog.

Proper Modifier Placement

“Scott fed his dog because he was drooling.” Who was drooling? “Scott fed his drooling dog.” Ah, there’s the picture (what kind of dog did you see?).

Adjectives, as my English teacher bleated, means you’re using the wrong word. Adjectives modify a word. “I’m very tired.” Does this describe you as well as, “I’m exhausted” or “I’m out-on-my-feet” or “I’m on my lips” … each example is a tad more out there, but they are better than “I’m very tired.”

Punctuation is Always a Clarifier

“A good breakfast includes two of the following bread fries bacon ham and eggs.” Ugg. Do you see the difference between the following two sentences?

  • A good breakfast includes two of the following: bread, fries, bacon, ham and eggs.
  • A good breakfast includes two of the following: bread, fries, bacon, ham, and eggs.

The Oxford comma makes it clear that ham and eggs are separate items, not a singular ham and eggs. (And yes, “or” would have made that clear, too).

I admit it. I can be a lazy writer despite my efforts to the contrary. Thank the dear Lord for editors!

Everybody Needs an Editor!

Maybe your blog post doesn’t, but if you’re working on a document of any size, like a short story, novel, or non-fiction book, you’re going to need an editor.

The human mind is a miraculous thing. If you’re the author, you can read a sentence and never see the typo because you aren’t reading what’s there, you’re reading what you meant to put there.

See the source image
That’s why my cheeks look like that!

If you’re a grammarian, English wizard, or savant in language, you may need just the lightest of editors, but there are three levels of editing, and three strata of editing. We’ll go from the most expensive to the least:

Ghostwriter: Written language isn’t your friend, you’re dyslexic, skipped that day in school, or just not practiced enough, but you have a great idea for a book. You can talk about it, just not write it well. You need a ghostwriter, who isn’t really an editor, but close enough. This is expensive, expect to pay up front, and DO NOT suggest to a ghost you split the royalties.

Book Doctor: The person who could have used a Ghost writes it anyway. Badly. The prose is on life support, so you need a Book Doctor to rewrite your book. Cheaper than a ghost, but still pricey.

Editor: There are three levels of editing:

  1. Story editing: This is an editor who looks at the story structure, unifies genre, clarifies character arcs, and helps identify holes and logic fallacies. You’ll want a professional for this, but you may not need this if you know what you’re doing. Story editing can come at the outline stage or later.
  2. Copy editor: Confirms the story is tied up with a bow.
  3. Proof editor: This is word by word, line by line editing. They catch the typos.

That can all be very expensive, but there are some short cuts:

Beta Readers: These are friends who love books and will read a draft, giving you input on clarity and shortcomings. Each reader will bring something different to the table. Figure out your pool of beta readers, send the first draft to half and then after you implement their changes, send that draft to the other half.

Word Checker: This comes with MS Word and can be set to check grammar and spelling. It’s pretty weak though.

Grammarly Basic and Pro: The free version is enough for me. It’s better than Word Checker. The paid version catches even more “premium” errors.

Never just “accept all changes.” This is machine checking and you should look at each error. Some aren’t errors at all.

Finally, we all have that friend who is a member of the Grammar Military. These folks can’t help but mark up text. I check out books at the library, and a Five-Star Grammar General with similar taste in books has pencil-marked the typos in almost every book I read. Only once have I seen a book with her penciled checkmark that meant there were no typos.

EVERYTHING has typos. Get over it. A handful of typos in a book length project is a success. A boatload, not so much.

Always go with the free stuff first, but PLEASE embolden your beta readers to rip it up if necessary. Feedback is good; critique is good; editing is not shameful or mean anything about your writing. Everyone needs an editor. Sometimes you’ll need to pay, but not always.

Why I Do What I Do

I blame Bonnie. And a whole lot of other people I care about.Prevail Press

Writing should never be a singular pursuit. Oh, sure, the actual writing part is man-to-machine, but zeitgeist of writing should, for the sanity of all, be a group endeavor. For this reason, I have founded several writing groups. A writing group is a bunch of writers encouraging and possibly critiquing one another, not everyone working on the same project.

Currently, I’m a member of the Writing Block (so named because several of the founding members lived on the same block and who doesn’t like a play on words?). We’ve been together for—ready?—15 YEARS! That’s longer than primary school.

Some members were novelist, bloggers, a poet for a while, and people with the vague notion they should be writers. Up until a few years ago, several had written books and a couple used a vanity press to publish theirs (and still have boxes of books in their garages), I published mine through my private publishing company, and none had gone the traditional publisher route.

Then Bonnie Manning Anderson finished Always Look for the Magic and began shopping it around. Let me tell you something about this book. It’s fabulous! A middle-grade book, it transported me to Depression Era America into the lives of wonderful kids battling to help one of them be a magician. Adventure abounds. She sent it out and sent it out, and no bites. Heartbreaking.

I attended a church Leadership Meeting and over lunch discussed all the books so many people were writing and found myself frustrated for their future plight. In todays publishing world, you must have a platform or a radical idea that can sell millions of books to secure a contract. There are three options: Traditional publishing (almost impossible to obtain), self-publishing (difficult but not impossible), or vanity press (expensive and not nearly as helpful as they claim to be).

We needed an alternative and I was inspired to create it. My publishing company had been private, for my ghostwriting clients only, but what if I opened it up to anyone? What were the important points?

  • Keep the cost low and recoverable (as a ghostwriter, I never took clients who couldn’t make up the cost with book sales; I’d do the same thing here).
    • Solution: Author only pays for the time of the provider, so book design, cover design, editing, administration, etc. I wouldn’t take a dime of royalty until all costs were recovered.
  • Take only quality books to preserve the brand.
    • Solution: Create an acceptance review board to determine quality.
  • Avoid any appearance of profiteering.
    • Solution: I won’t lock authors into using our services. If they have others who can do the work, as long as I approve, that’s good enough.
  • Make it as attractive to authors as I can.
    • Solution: After cost recovery, Prevail Press gets 10% of the royalty and the author gets the rest (typically 60% of retail cost). No printing minimums, only have printed what you need. Amazon makes this easy. Author owns copyright and can withdraw any time they want to.
  • Ensure Integrity:
    • Solution: Establish a Board of Directors who can oversee finance, advise me on operations and hold me accountable.
  • What about Marketing?
    • Solution: This is a tough one, but by developing a network of authors, we can help promote one another’s books. Much will still be on the author, but we can help get the word out.

Our first book was Bonnie Manning Anderson’s Always Look for the Magic, and several more after that. I hope many more to follow.

That’s your introduction to Prevail Press. The rest of the month I’ll focus on the author journey and writing tips. Your questions are welcome!

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I Write, Therefore I Am… Tired a Lot

Yesterday I told you why I love books. I doubt it’s a big surprise that I became a writer after that.

My first novel was in 5th grade. It was 30 pages long and in the shape of a coffin. Much to my surprise, when I was going through my parent’s things after they passed, I found it. Mom liked to hang onto things. It was just eh but the start of things to come.

My second novel was in 8th grade. We were assigned to write the journal of someone on the Western Movement. Mine was a hundred pages, surprisingly good, and earned me an A. My teacher suggested trying to get it published. I thought he was being nice. Still have it; he wasn’t kidding. Color me amazed.

I became a playwright in college, a screenwriter after that (terrible, terrible movie–so glad we didn’t have Internet back then).

Several dozen plays after that and a marriage later, I began my first real novel. It was supposed to be a 6,000 word dime novel (bet you don’t remember them) but it turned into an epic 150,000 word suspense novel. No traditional publishers bit and I understand why. It was uneven and had voice problems.

I began working as a technical writer but needed more income, so I turned to ghostwriting. Twelve books later, I was inspired by my children to write my own.

Do Angels Still Fall? was the result, a middle-grade novel about a boy and his angel. Because I had established Prevail Press to publish my client’s books (most of whom didn’t need it), I published Angels that way. Soon thereafter, I began Me and the Maniac in Outer Space.

A word about backing up your work. I kept it all on a thumbdrive, which I lost at a play. The fragments I had left on my computer became a different, longer book. It was supposed to be an adventure but became so much more. Redundant backup is the key, but this worked out for me. Thank the Lord for happy accidents.

Throughout much of this process, I was part of a writer’s group… but I’m getting ahead of myself. More tomorrow. 🙂

Passion Ignites!

I love books. I love writing books. I love reading books. Where did all that passion come from? I’m happy to tell you. 🙂

Fifty years ago, when I was five years old, I began dislocating my right hip. Not on purpose, mind you, just by walking, or turning, or playing soccer (which is why I hate soccer). Fortunately, I learned to read when I was 4. This becomes relevant later.

After a year of doctors, I got a diagnosis. And crutches. And a “he’ll never walk again” admonition. This did nothing for my social life. Six-year-old kids were about playing. I couldn’t, so my friendships went on hold.

Fifty years ago, there was no Internet, no video games, four TV channels, no VCR or DVDs. The only thing to do was read and read I did. I read the grade school library that first year. The second year, I worked on the Jr. High library, and the 3rd year the public library. Books were my only friends and I was never lonely. That and inexperienced doctors who didn’t know much about my bone disease. The first doctor was wrong. My right leg healed in 14 months. Then my left leg got it but after 3 years I could walk again!

Spider-Man leaning on concrete brick while reading book
I love comic books, too!  (Thank you, Raj Eiamworakul from UpSplash!)

Funny thing, though. After three years of reading way above grade, playing was dull. So was school. Books never got dull.

That’s why I love books.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about my writing journeys, and eventually how Prevail Press, a home for today’s writers, came about. Stay tuned, er… place a bookmark! Yeah, that fits the metaphor better…