The Cliché Finder

I submitted an entry for the Fourth Annual Life Lessons Essay contest from Real Simple magazine, which is about the only mag I read. I like the format of it, the non-busy pages, the photography, the good ideas.

The rules for submission are, maximum of 1,500 words and you are given a topic to write about. As I was preparing to send off my entry, I reread the website and there is a section with helpful suggestions, and one is “don’t use clichés”. I did an earlier post on clichés. Not too unusual, many blogs have done the same thing. Clichés are a drag. I can really spot them now, and unless they are deliberate, or twisted in some way, I tend to quit reading when I find one.

It occurred to me that a really neat idea would be to develop a little webpage which a user could paste his text into and check that text against a database of common clichés. But wait! It has already been done. The Cliché Finder will check your writing and highlight offending phrases. Of course, who knows how current, or comprehensive that database is? How often is it updated? Anyway, it’s a good idea.

This is what happened when I clicked the button:

An  Unhandled Exception. As an ex-IT person, I can tell you this is not a good thing. This is sloppy programming. Obviously it didn’t like something about my text but instead of telling me what was wrong, it just croaked. I experimented to find out what the problem was. I put in one paragraph and it worked. I put in the next paragraph and it didn’t work.

The difference? It did not like the apostrophe in a contraction. Don’t, wouldn’t, can’t, didn’t, etc. Really? That seems pretty basic and is something the programmer should fix. Also, further down, I noticed it didn’t like quotes either. So the phrase “back home” (quotes included) caused it to blow up. There could be other things that offend the Cliché Finder too, but I didn’t spot them.

If this happens, I wonder how good the tool is. But it is a very good idea. Maybe some sort of interactive site where users could comment on what problems were found, and also add entries to the database as needed.

And guess what? My entry did not point out any clichés, when I removed all the apostrophes and quote marks. Cool.

Treadmills and Blog Stats and Electric Appliances

Treadmill update: Still using that great playlist. I think it’s just about perfect now, good warm up and cool down songs, and I like how the ZZ Top stuff is always about the same tempo, no matter what song it is. It’s a long, stretched-out stride because it’s just a bit slower, intermixed with the faster pieces. Because of the ZZ Top songs, this has made me think 3.3 MPH might be my top speed. Of course, a taller person would probably have different requirements but this works for me. According to my friend Mary, elevation is the key, speed isn’t as important. (More about my friend, Mary later.) I’ve started doing that, and true to my exercise-nature, I’ve started out with 1% and will continue with that until it seems “easy”, if that ever happens.

Blog stats update: I thought July wasn’t going to make it, that it would be the first month that wouldn’t show an increase in readership, but that wasn’t the case. It’s now August that I think may be a problem. See these stats. Where have all the readers gone?

Maybe I’ll slip in an extra post, see if I can bump it up to at least equal July. Is that cheating?

We (my husband and I) recently traveled to Florida by car. We discovered we could take I77 instead of I75 and it would add almost nothing to our trip. I saw that we would be going close to Charleston, SC where my friend, Mary, lives.

Mary was one of my best friends in high school, and though we lost track of each other for many years, recently, we’ve been in touch again. She hosted a one-week get together at her lovely waterfront home in April of 2010, which we coined the GTE (Get Together Extravaganza). The preparation and logistics of getting seven women together for a week was intimidating. The morning after we’d all finally got there, Mary had gift bags for all of us, and included were matching tee shirts, coffee mugs, and funny sunglasses, among other things. Here is a picture of the seven of us.

I hadn’t realized how appliance-happy Mary was, until our recent visit. The first night, I don’t think we used any appliances but early next morning, we were treated to coffee via the new Keurig coffeemaker. We were suitably impressed by this very high tech device. Then Mary whipped out the Electric Egg Poacher and five minutes later she slid a perfectly cooked egg onto toast. While I watched, she went to the closet to get the Electric Garlic Baker. Yes, there really is an appliance just for that. She had a dinner party that evening, so around 5-ish out came the Electric Martini Shaker. After a few dirty martinis and citrus something martinis were imbibed, we settled into dinner (which was delicious, but to my knowledge, no special appliances were used in its preparation). At the table we used the Battery-Operated Wine Decorker to liberate about three bottles of red wine. The next morning, we had waffles on the (you guessed it!) Electric Waffle Maker. And now I hear that Mary is now the owner of an Electric Crepe Maker, and the next time we go, it’s crepes, Baby!

By the way, everything was delicious, thank you again, Mary!

I’m ending this post with a general gripe, and if anyone can help me – PLEASE! I am losing my mind, losing “it”, losing control, losing my temper. No matter what application I’m in, Word, email, any application where I am typing along (and I’m pretty fast, back in the 60’s I could do 60 wpm – that’s words per minute with no errors). Anyway, I am happily typing along and all of a sudden my cursor is somewhere else in the document! The typed words are then in their new location, whkeyboard? ich of course makes absolutely no sense. It’s happened here, as I have typed this about 10 times. Is it my laptop, is it my keyboard? OMG, it just happened, see that, up there?

Sorry this post is not about writing. I haven’t been doing much writing, but I did compose a poem to be used at the beginning of the book. I have also completed a short prologue, and I am still working on my Snowflake Methodology. Also I thought I’d like to do a post on music, what music I listen to while writing, and music that is included in my novels.

The Snowflake Method – Step 3 (Names of Characters)

Step 1 of Step 3 of the Snowflake Methodology. This part defines the characters, and asks for particulars about each one. You can define as many characters as you  like, even the minor ones. I have defined my three main characters so far: Luke, Kate and Abby.

Each defined character has the following criteria: Name, ambition, story goal, conflict, epiphany, one sentence summary and one paragraph summary.

Let’s start with names, and how we pick them. Here are some of the don’t do’s:

  • Don’t name a character some really common name (e.g. Tom Jones) unless there is a good reason to do it.
  • Don’t name any of the characters the same first name because that’s confusing, unless there is a good reason to do it.
  • Don’t name characters names that sound alike or start with the same letter, like Jen and Joan and John, unless there is a good reason to do it.
  • Don’t name characters something really fake-sounding. Have you ever been reading a novel and thought, that is a such dumb sounding name, no one has a name like that. Example: Amber Summerfield. Too nice, too beautiful, too cutesy. But again, unless there is a good reason to do it. And my apologies to anyone named Amber Summerfield out there. Your name is pretty, but probably not going to show up in my novel.

I like names that are semi-common but not “John Smith” common.

Certain names conjure up personality types for me. It may be because of people I’ve met in my life who have certain traits. So I might use the name because that’s the way whats-his-face was and that’s the way I want my character to be. Or the fact that I don’t know anyone with that particular name works too because then it isn’t tarnished by anything that I might associate with the name and I can make him have whichever traits and characteristics I want.

Luke Koslov. Luke makes me think of the strong, silent type. Of a sensual, yet subtle male. Probably tallish, probably not dark, probably not handsome in the traditional way. I chose this name because I think a man named Luke could be capable of what I intend to put him through. I chose Koslov because I intend to go a little bit into the fact that his father’s family was originally from Russia. I perceive Russian men as strong, silent, a bit on the chauvinist side, but I could be entirely wrong about that. Luke’s father is though.

Kathleen Willoughby Koslov. I think of Kate as the strong, take-charge type. Someone who wants things her way and does what it takes to get there. A self-starter, an A-type. And Kate will be all this, and more, and probably not a likeable character. Which brings up an interesting topic, of characters and their likeability. I’ve had the criticism that my female characters are “mean”. I never meant that they should be that, just that they might want things other than what has been pre-programmed for them, and that they do what needs to be done, in order to get off the hamster wheel. Kate is going to be, well, a little nasty actually.

Abigail Pentergast Dorchester. The Pentergast part will become clear. And she couldn’t help the Dorchester part, when she married John Dorchester, widower, with two insufferable daughters. She took his name, maybe to get rid of Pentergast. I don’t think I know anyone named Abby, but I like the name, so she can be whatever I want her to be. I think she must be a convincingly nice person, forgiving, and loving, and deep, and somewhat spiritual. Not so much in an organized religious way, but grateful for life, and nature, and dedicated to preserving it, life and nature, that is. An organic woman, a gardener, a recycler, pure but not simple, used to being “second best” and longing to be someone’s first choice for once.

Ambition. Coming soon.

Literary Crushes – Who is Yours?

Enough time has gone by, that I’m treating myself to another Scott Spencer novel, although this time I am not quite so enamored. The title is “Willing”, and it is about a man who goes on a sex tour to a few relatively obscure foreign countries, and is paid a rather handsome sum to write a book about it. I’m guessing that such an assignment might not be unappealing to a number of male writers.

I think, to read Mr. Spencer, one must not be sexually squeamish, as there is something in every one to send a few shock waves. But the way he talks about such things, so naturally, I can’t help but get a picture of the kind of person Mr. Spencer might be. I’m guessing, the quiet, introspective type, much like Jonathon Franzen, that the outward persona does not match the man inside.

My author friend Benison O’Reilly coined a term (at least I think she is responsible for it, so I am giving her due honors here), “literary crush” and mine is on Mr. Spencer. Hers is on Mr. Franzen. But that is not to say I haven’t had literary crushes on women too, and two of them are Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg, who write in a way in which I could only hope to come close.

I would have to use the term “envious” when it comes to these three authors. It’s what I would want for myself, to write in such a way. Recently, I read an interesting post which examined the difference between “jealousy” and “envy”. Jealousy is when you want what another person has and you attack it in a negative way, the I-am-just-as-good-as-that-writer so poor me, why am I consistently ignored and kicked around? Envy is when you see what good things others have done, and want the same for yourself, but in a positive way, it allows you to strive for more, for better writing, for lovelier sentences, for better hooks and dialogue and characters, by seeing the good in others.

Back to Willing, Mr. Spencer breaks a lot of rules with this one. There is not one quotation mark in the whole novel. The dialogue is intermixed with the narrative. We are told in the How To books to put each person’s dialogue in a separate paragraph. Nope, he doesn’t do that either. So we have dialogue, which we aren’t always sure really is dialogue, and two or more people speaking in the same paragraph, so we aren’t always sure who is doing the talking. But somehow it works. There are pages with hardly any whitespace, another faux pas. Lack of whitespace makes readers weary, shorter paragraphs and single lines mix it up visually and the reader is less intimidated by droning on and on, so they say.

I am only two thirds through the book, and I have only found a couple of sexual reference that might be construed as troubling, even though one would think there would be more, given the subject. But I have found (so far) six editing errors, five which were duplicate words or wrongly phrased such that I knew it was   unintentional, and one punctuation error. I always feel a little compensated when I find errors in the works of “real authors” (if I dare use that term), as if – see, we are all fallible!

So, even if this is not my favorite of his novels, the writing is still all there, superb, funny, gripping descriptions of characters (of which there are a great number). Take this description of himself, on the first page, written in first person POV:

Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.

Gives you a pretty good idea, right? I especially loved the reference to a lunch bag.

Or this description of someone encountered at one of the stops:

One was a heavyset guy with a shaved head who looked like the world’s most enormous baby, with a nose like a knuckle and dark little eyes the size of watermelon seeds.

The book is crammed with stuff like this. On every page, there are great thoughts and descriptions. This author understands people, he gets it so right. Humorous, witty, and insightful.

And yes, I am envious.

The Snowflake Method – Step 2

Update: Treadmill 101. I’ve continued treadmilling, thanks to the excellent playlist I’ve assembled. I couldn’t have done it without that playlist. And another reason I’ve succeeded at my (approximately) fiftieth attempt at an exercise program: I have more discretionary time, now that I no longer have a day job. Setting the alarm early in order to slog through it before getting ready for work is an exercise in procrastination and a means to formulate spectacularly creative excuses in one’s own mind as to WHY it would be insane/unwise/dangerous to hit that treadmill.

A friend sent me a Pandora station created from the twelve songs I listed and I learned two things from it:

  1. Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones is great, and would be an excellent addition to my workout playlist, and, in fact, what better way to begin the whole 40 minutes than with this song? It lends itself well to the warm up portion because it is not too fast, yet very uplifting. And who doesn’t love Mick Jagger anyway? (Picture his rugged, craggy, unbotoxed and unsurgically altered face now.)
  2. The quality of songs one gets from Pandora when you put in “She’s Not There” by the Zombies is abysmal. I never heard so much awful, tuneless, lyricless, clueless music by goofy English groups in my life. Talk about caterwaul. Garage bands who should have stayed there, or been demoted to the basement. There was a lot of really bad stuff written and performed in those days, just listen to the Oldies TV Music Channel if you don’t believe it.

Start Me Up is now the #1 song on the playlist, and Proud Mary, by CCR, moves to #11, replacing Making Some Noise by Tom Petty, which is out. Sorry Tom, but I said it was the weakest link and it is. And I love Proud Mary and it lends itself to a cool down, the same way it did for the warm up.

Onto the real blog stuff which is, Step 2 of the Snowflake Method.

Snowflake Step 2: Expands the one sentence summary into a one paragraph summary, with five sentences, and follows the Three Act structure.

Act 1 is the first quarter of the book, Act 2 is the middle half of the book, and Act 3 is the final quarter. The “three disaster” formula is suggested, with one disaster at the end of Act 1, another in the middle of Act 2 and the final at the end of Act 2. Act 3 is the wrap-up, the conclusion.

I thought the idea of “disasters” was odd, and I believed it too formulaic. But when I went back through Whatever Happened to Lily? I noticed something interesting.

At a little past one quarter of the book, Lily stops writing to Jay. Disaster 1.

At the halfway mark, Jay learns of Nan’s pregnancy and nearly blows it, by his callous remarks to her when she informs him. I thought that was a disaster because if Nan hadn’t been willing to forgive him, the story could have had a much different outcome. Disaster 2.

At the three-quarter mark, Lily comes back into his life. Disaster 3.

Unconsciously, I must have been following this pattern.

  • Act 1 is Jay’s early life, the good days with Lily.
  • Act 2 is his life without her, his quest to find her, his acceptance that she doesn’t want to be found, and his new life with Nan and their daughter.
  • Act 3 is the renewed relationship with Lily and the resolution.

The five sentences of the paragraph should summarize:

  • The backdrop, the setup of the story.
  • Through Act 1 to the first disaster.
  • Halfway through Act 2 to the second disaster.
  • Through Act 2 to the third disaster.
  • Wrap-up. The end of the story

I wrote my summary paragraph. But I can’t decide if I should post it here because if I do everyone will know what the book is about, and then they won’t have to read it. It will be like the Reader’s Digest Condensed version only more so, since it’s only one paragraph. The Twitter version of a novel.

I like this methodology so far. I believe it’s going to work for me.