The Great American Novel

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was a kid that grew up in my grandparents’ house.  My grandparents were well-meaning, yet they were half a century older than me, and they both grew up in the Great Depression.  As such, we frequently saw things very differently.  One frequent source of our contention was when I wanted a new toy.

Now, don’t get me wrong… my grandparents had money.  Granddaddy was a wise investor in the stock market, and his investments paid off quite handsomely.  However, though he was the sole breadwinner, he was not the one in charge of buying me anything.

Grandma had no problem spending money on something in which she saw value.  For example, at twelve years old, she didn’t buy me Maybelline eye shadow or Wet ‘n Wild nail polish.  No, she took me right down to the department store’s Estee Lauder counter and bought me only the best.  But, by golly, if I wanted a new Barbie doll, she would wave her hand and dismiss me with, “Bosh!  You don’t need a new one.  There’s a whole trunk full of your mother’s Barbie dolls up in the attic.”  So I often had to play with twenty year old toys when all my friends who had new ones.  As such, I never really liked playing Barbies.  I mean, come on!  If all your friends had Surfing or Skating Barbie and Ken, whose knees and arms bent and who had good hair, would you want to be the weird kid who brought 1962 Barbie and Ken to the party?

For today’s Throwback Thursday, I’ll share with you a story about how I imagined I would write stories.  As you already know if you’ve followed my blog for long, among other things, I loved to write stories when I was a kid.  One of my other favorite pastimes was climbing trees.  (Sadly, I was not allowed to build a treehouse, which for me would’ve been a dream come true.)  The summer when I was eight-years old, I attempted to combine these two passions.  I considered myself quite lucky one day when I found an old cigar box.  I knew what I needed to do.  I nailed that box high up in my favorite climbing tree.  I loaded the box with loose leaf paper and pencils, and I imagined that I would spend hours in said tree writing The Great American Novel.  I just knew that with that perfect setting, my heart would pour out through my pencil and bleed onto the paper, and people would come from miles around to read my work.

What I did not count on was the host of problems that ensued.  I did not bring, nor did I own, a clipboard.  I was not allowed to take my books outside, and I couldn’t think of anything else flat to use as a lap desk.  Ergo, when I attempted to write by pressing my paper against the tree, as you can imagine, the bark of the tree made for a bumpy surface, and my writing was quite illegible.  I was frustrated to say the least.  At the end of my first day writing in my “aerial office,” I left with a mass of crumbled paper and ideas that still swirled in my head as I couldn’t get them out on paper.

The other thing I didn’t count on was the Florida weather.  Overnight, it rained, and by the time I got outside to play the next day, my paper and cigar box were ruined.  My dreams were shattered!

I thought I would never have something as cool as my “aerial office” again in which I could write my heart out.  However, that Christmas, Santa Claus (who I’m sure was inspired by my Granddaddy who was a lot wiser to my desires than my Grandma, as long as they were educational) brought me my very own toy typewriter!  Not only was this good for writing stories, but it also worked well for playing office.  Of course, when I was busy playing outside, Grandma decided to use it to type out her recipe cards!

You’ve all heard me mention my toy typewriter before.  Sadly, once I got my first real manual typewriter (pictured in my header above) for the Christmas when I turned eleven, Grandma put my toy typewriter up in the attic, then sometime later, she gave it to Goodwill.  (Apparently she had no problem saving ancient Barbies, but two year old typewriters had to go!)  At any rate, I recently found a duplicate of my old toy typewriter on eBay, and I purchased it.  Yay, me!

Time to talk:  Do you type with the correct fingers?  Have you ever used a manual typewriter or even an electric one?  Would you allow your granddaughter to build a treehouse in your tree?

No Fear

Have no fear… I’ve been super busy lately and am unable to even sleep and breathe appropriately, much less keep up with my blog… or yours!  Despite what I set for my 2015 goals, I’ve not had much time to do anything I wanted to do for myself at all.  That said, I am still here, though I’m keeping odd hours, and I might not be available to read and reply to everything as often as I’d like.  But rest assured, I am keeping up with you all, slowly but surely.  Please send me positive vibes that things will calm down soon, and I’ll be back here with you where I belong.

Let’s talk:  Have you ever over-extended yourself in an effort to help someone else, then found you had little time left for yourself?  Do you get frustrated when you can’t keep your normal schedule because other aspects of life get in the way?  Have you missed me this month?  😉  (If the answer to that last question is no, please feel free to keep that to yourself.  LOL!)

Dirty Little Secrets

If you’re a writer like me, you already know it’s always a good idea to have someone else proofread your work before you declare it finalized.  Actually, it’s best if several “someones” can proofread your work and point out any errors.  Of course, this outside help doesn’t do much good if they’re not proficient in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  And I know you already know that simply using the spell check feature is not a reliable method of proofreading.  I don’t know the particulars of other writing or word processing programs, but I’m going to share some of the dirty little secrets I’ve learned while proofreading my work in Microsoft Word.

I start by searching the entire novel for a period followed by an apostrophe as well as a question mark followed by an apostrophe.  Sometimes these are warranted in that I may have written dialog wherein another person was quoted.  But more often than not, I’ve found that I made a mistake and meant to put an end quotation mark rather than an apostrophe.

The next thing I do is cut and paste one chapter at a time into a blank document.  Then I search for quotation marks.  Word highlights my searched items in yellow so I can see them easily while I scroll down.  On the left side of the screen, it tells me how many searched items were found.  If there’s not an even number of quotation marks, I already know I can expect a problem.  (The exception to this is, of course, when a stream of dialog is continued to a consecutive paragraph, thus eliminating the end quotation mark from the original paragraph and causing an odd number to occur.)  Viewing one paragraph at a time within one chapter at a time makes this go quickly, yet it’s also where I catch the lion’s share of my typographical errors.

Once that part is complete, I work on the novel as a whole rather than breaking it into individual chapters.  The next order of business is to search for “[space] and she” then “[space] and he.”  When the search results turn up, I then manually scan each entry to see if a comma appears before the word “and.”  Because of the grammar rule regarding using a comma between two independent clauses, this is one that sometimes gets missed when I’m writing quickly.  (And it’s also a comma that Word often wants to direct me to eliminate, though it is actually supposed to be there.)  Those are about the only punctuation corrections that I trust to searching as opposed to looking for them manually.

Next, I move on to spelling.  Of course I run spellcheck and see what turns up.  But that’s never enough.  After that, I search for any variation of character names (such as Michelle versus Michele – both spellings are technically correct, though I’m going for consistency), street names, city names, and any other proper nouns.  Occasionally, we can make an error like that and never notice it, and the computer will also never catch it for us.

Finally, I look for consistencies.  For example, I tend to sometimes interchange “toward” and “towards,” as well as “backward” and “backwards.”  (With these words, as well as afterward/afterwards and backward/backwards, the ones ending with S are the British spelling.  Without the S is the American spelling.  Technically, both can be considered correct, and Word never alerts me to either.)  Also, if you prefer to use the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma), you may want to search for “[comma] [space] and” to make sure you were consistent throughout your work.

So there you have it… a few of Rachel’s dirty little secrets to make your life a little easier.  I hope this helps.  Happy writing; happy proofreading!

Let’s talk:  Do you proofread your own work?  Do you do your own editing?  Do you have any dirty little secrets (on proofreading) that you want to share with us?

Where Cats Hide

Meet Cleo.  Cleo is half-sphynx, meaning one of her parents was a full-blooded hairless cat.  As you can see here, Cleo has no whiskers, no eyebrows, and no ear hair.  She also has no hair on her face or tail.  The “hair” that’s on her body isn’t actually fur at all, but technically it’s undercoat.  Unlike fur, it’s wavy, especially when she bathes, and it is softer than velvet.  Additionally, she has webbed toes.

We adopted Cleo from the SPCA in 2012, when she was three years old.  Unlike my other cats, she’s not particularly social with other animals, and she’s adopted me as her only person.  She doesn’t allow my son or my sister to pick her up, and she doesn’t wander far from my side, day or night.  Unlike my other cats, she doesn’t look for cubbies or cramped areas to sneak into and hide.

Her favorite sleeping position is covering her eyes with one or both paws so she can hide from people and pets, as well as from light.  So where does she hide?  Behind her paws!  Instead of hiding from everyone else, she prefers to hide everyone else from her!

Time to talk:  How many pets have you owned in your lifetime?  Do you have a favorite sleeping position, or can you sleep anywhere?  Would you ever consider owning a hairless cat?

Tropical Fish and the Greek Alphabet

Tropical fish and the Greek alphabet aren’t the only categories that include betas.  “What else?” you ask…  Beta readers, of course!

As writers, we need to enlist the help of beta readers to identify any potential problems before we unleash our story on the world.  For the months (or years) that we spend writing, we hear from others just how creative we are and what a cool idea our current work is progress is.  But when we ask for beta readers, we hear crickets.

Oftentimes, people really don’t have the time to commit to reading a book.  But for many people, I believe the reason they don’t volunteer is because they have no clue what is expected of them.  So for those people, I offer this post.

A beta reader is essentially a test pilot (or unfortunately sometimes a crash dummy).  As a beta reader, you are not expected to be a grammar or punctuation specialist.  That is a job for the proofreader and should have been done before the book made its way to you.  That being said, if you do happen to find any grammar or punctuation errors, I’m sure the author would love to know.  (Last year, I beta read for an author friend who wrote a chapter book for the 9 to 12 age group.  He sent a specific list of questions and specifically told me that I was not to look for any errors under any circumstances, as those were already addressed and he would not be making additional changes.  However, despite his instructions, when I found the word “heal” instead of “heel” as it referred to a person’s foot, I told him anyway… And he was grateful.)

Beta readers are good way for the author to learn if the story makes sense and is able to be followed without difficulty.  They let the author know if certain characters are weak or if the dialog sounds forced.  They identify if the story is interesting and if the descriptions paint a vivid picture.  Some questions an author might ask a beta reader are as follows:

  1. Did the book hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  2. Did the style of writing appeal to you? Why or why not?
  3. Are there any parts that should be condensed or even deleted?
  4. Were there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or stop reading?
  5. Could you relate to the main character? Were you able to put yourself in her shoes?
  6. Did any characters need more development? Which ones and why?
  7. Is there anything that might have made any of the characters more interesting or three-dimensional?
  8. Were there too many characters or too few? Were any of their names too similar?
  9. Was there enough conflict and suspense to keep your interest?
  10. Did you feel that the story started to lag at any point? Where?
  11. Were you ever confused at any point? If so, were your questions soon answered?
  12. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in timeframes, locations, characters’ histories, or any other details?
  13. Did the dialogue sound natural? If not, was a particular character’s dialogue worse than others’?
  14. Was there too much description or explanation, or not enough?
  15. Was there too much backstory or too many flashbacks? Could any of it be deleted and still make sense?
  16. At any point, did the story feel rushed? Did any part of it drag on too long?
  17. Were you able to accurately predict the end before you got to the end?
  18. Were you satisfied with the end? Was the end believable?
  19. Was this book too long or too short?
  20. If this book was published, would you recommend it to others? Would you read anything else by this author?

Many of those questions may not even be applicable to certain stories.  It’s certainly not supposed to feel like a homework assignment or create more work for the beta reader, but it should identify any specific potential problems to the author that they can address before they either seek a literary agent or self-publish.

Another reason people may not be beating down a writer’s door to volunteer to be a beta reader is that they’re afraid to criticize the author’s work.  Friends, I guarantee that a good writer would appreciate your well-meant constructive criticism a lot more than they’d appreciate a yes-man who gives only false compliments.  You don’t have to feel like those two angry judges on The Muppet Show when you offer your suggestions.

So there you have it.  YOU may very well be the difference between just another book and the next New York Times Bestseller.  Your efforts will probably be recognized in the book’s Acknowledgements.  You’ll likely get a free copy of the finished book, and maybe even an autographed first edition.  And your writer friend will value you more than you know.

Time to talk:  Have you ever specifically been asked to be a beta reader for a friend?  Did you accept the challenge?  If so, were you honest with your critique, or did you whitewash it?  If you’re a writer, do you rely only on friends and family to beta read for you, or have you ever asked strangers?

Happy Birthday, Judy Blume!

If you’re a female human over the age of twelve and you’ve never read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, then you must look outside right now and see if in fact you are living under a rock.

When I was a kid, I loved the school days when we got those magazines (which were more like four page flyers) where we could select books to purchase. (Weren’t those Weekly Readers or Scholastic Magazines?)  I also loved when the public library’s bookmobile would come to school or when school would have a book fair.  Okay, the truth is, because I went to Christian school, a lot of what we got to read was censored and had to be on an “approved Christian reading list,” so I missed out on a lot of my friends’ favorites such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  I didn’t actually get to read that until much later.  But many of Judy’s books were on our approved list, and Blubber was the first one of hers that I read.  She definitely hooked me and drew me in, and I wanted to own and read everything she wrote.  Sadly, with not all of her work being available to my school, and with my Grandma being unable to drive to take me to a bookstore, I was not able to actually read everything of hers until my own daughter went to school and discovered her.

Mrs. Blume was born on February 12, 1938, in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  She published her first book in 1969, with thirteen more books being published in the 1970s.  She’s won more than ninety literary awards, she’s sold millions of copies of her books, and she’s reached the New York Times Best Seller List numerous times over.  She was also named by the Library of Congress to its Living Legends in the Writers and Artists category for her significant contributions to America’s cultural heritage.

With all that success, it’s hard to believe that she received nothing but rejections for two years before one of her works was ever published.  Coming this June, we can expect Judy’s latest work, In the Unlikely Event, to hit the stands.

Happy 77th Birthday, Mrs. Blume!

Let’s Talk:  Have you ever read a Judy Blume book?  If so, which was your favorite?  Would you ever re-read them now that you’re an adult?