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.

Editing and re-editing

Is everyone on vacation? It’s been a rough week, as far as blog readers go. I can see how many readers there are! I’m watching you and I’m not feeling the joy right now. It’s times like these I think, why bother? My post is late this week too, due to a family emergency.

And furthermore, and as an aside, I travelled to Rochester, New York Monday (the afore-mentioned emergency) and had lunch in a Cracker Barrel (don’t ask, it’s because this particular restaurant chain is the only one where you can get “greens” yet greens are never ordered by the person who insists we must stop at Cracker Barrel). There we were at the Cracker Barrel and I discovered that they had Halloween decorations out, complete with eerily laughing brooms which skimmed magically across the floor. Just what everyone needs, right? Brooms that travel by themselves?

But the point is, on July 18th we are subjected to Halloween crap? If I’m not mistaken, it’s over three months until we will need any of it, if “need” is the operational word here.

When we were at the front counter paying the bill, the Cracker Barrel lady tried to push candy on us.

“Three for the price of two!” she promised.

“Well, I see you have your Halloween stuff out already,” I said, ignoring the candy offer.

“Oh, yes,” she said, as if this were a good thing.

And I, being in a not-good frame of mind, said, “You know that is exactly what I hate about your place here. I can’t stand it that you have this stuff out so early.”

Ignoring my obvious disdain, she said, “Our Thanksgiving display is out too, over there.” She pointed to an area on the other side of the store. The “store” by the way, could be the subject of a whole other blog, but a talking broom that skims the floor is a clue as to the quality of the merchandise sold there.

I said, “You know, it’s July and I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to think about Thanksgiving. When does the Christmas stuff come out, anyway?” (I may have said something a little worse than “stuff”, I’m not sure, but remember, I was in a crappy mood.)

“The last week in July,” she announced, and I think she was kind of proud about that, as if, we can SO compete with the big time – the box stores and Macy’s and even J.C. Penney and Sears!

Whatever.

Here’s the real blog content now:

A few months back a friend of mine commented that when she searched for my books on Amazon, they don’t both come up under Lynn Schneider, but Whatever Happened to Lily? the print version, comes up only under Lynette. So searching for books under the author name of Lynn Schneider does not bring up everything, which is two print versions and two kindle versions, but one print and two kindle versions. Not good.

Way back when, without properly thinking it through, I listed the author name as “Lynette” then decided I wanted to change it to Lynn. But too late, the author name is listed as Lynette. I asked CreateSpace about this and they informed me that that I’d have to rerelease the book because the author name can’t be changed.

The kindle versions are not an issue. These are easily changed.

I’m going to rerelease both the print and kindle versions of the novel, but first I thought I’d edit it again, to see if it could still stand up to my newly acquired writing standards. This is what I found.

I found a lot of overused, duplicate, unnecessary words. I tend to use words like “that”, “so”, and “just” way too much. These words are “throwaway words”. Many times they can be eliminated. For instance, take this sentence:

I had known what it would likely say, that my wife looked nice, that my daughter was beautiful and that I looked wonderful. And she did say all that and more, that she had cried when she saw it, that it had likely been a mistake to ask to see it, because it had upset her more than she would have thought possible.

I count way too many “thats”, in fact there are six of them. Some of these are superfluous. Here is the correction:

I had known what it would likely say, that my wife looked nice, my daughter was beautiful and I looked wonderful. And she did say all that and more. She had cried when she saw it, and it had likely been a mistake to ask to see it, because it had upset her more than she would have thought possible.

Take this sentence: He thought that he might go back inside. The “that” is not needed. He thought he might go back inside.

Sometimes “that” is needed, but 75% of the time it’s not. So I always have to edit for “that”.

Other words I overuse (especially in dialogue) are “just” and “so”. I’m not sure why, but I tend to use these words ad nauseum and must edit them out.

For example:

“So, I was just walking by your house and saw that the light was on in your room, so I figured that it would be okay for me to ring your doorbell.”

This can (and should) be edited, unless for some reason, all those extraneous words seem necessary in order to make the point, that the character is kind of clueless.

“I was walking by your house and saw the light was on in your room, and figured it would be okay for me to ring your doorbell.”

The corrected sentence gets rid of a couple of occurrences of “so” and “that” and a “just”.

Another thing I noticed and which I wanted to fix, is inappropriate punctuation after sentences that contain dialogue.

“That has nothing to do with me,” she shut the refrigerator with a thump.

Incorrect!

If dialog is followed by an attribution (she said, for example), it can be thus:

“That has nothing to do with me,” she said and she shut the refrigerator with a thump.

Or:

“That has nothing to do with me.” She shut the refrigerator with a thump.

But really, I wanted to edit the character, Jay. The more I thought about it, the more I believed he was a crude jerk, when he goes for a run in order to “decide” whether he should continue his cyber-relationship with Lily or not. What a weasel. He runs and thinks about how his marriage sucks and how it’s not really his fault, that it’s Nan’s fault – blah, blah. Meh. He needs to own it. He is the one who wanted it, he decided to do it, he needs to be responsible for his decisions without blaming others. Here is the new passage:

As I ran, I thought about my marriage to Nan. It had been on a gradual decline and I couldn’t say when it had first begun, but I wondered if now that Grace was gone, there really wasn’t a reason for us to be together any longer, as she had suggested. She was tired of the whole situation, of me, and my feelings for Lily.

[Seems like he is telling himself what he wants to hear in the above paragraph.]

If I were honest with myself I would have to admit that I loved her, but not like I’d loved Lily. She seemed unapproachable to me now. No matter what I said or did, I couldn’t get past the wall she had built up between us. She didn’t want me now. I had a role in it too, of course, with what was happening between Lily and me. I tried to tell myself it was Nan who was solely responsible, but I knew it wasn’t so.

[He’s being honest with himself, aren’t we lucky? She’d (Nan) had built up a wall. With good reason, and he’s starting to feel like he might have done some things to affect their situation. Wow. How very perceptive.]

My chest hurt, and I had to stop. I felt bad, shaking and nauseous. I wondered if I had overdone it, was I having some sort of attack? A heart attack maybe? I had never entertained the possibility that such a thing could happen. I was healthy, a runner. Look at my father, still vital in his eighties. But something felt twisted, and I sank down onto the sand.

[My male characters all tend to have physical issues, chest pains and the like, when they get upset.]

My breathing slowed and I felt better and realized it must have been some kind of panic attack, that the combination of the run and my delusions about myself had thrown me into.

[An aha moment, he’s realized he has delusions about himself.]

Because it had nothing to do with Nan. It wasn’t my perceived notion that my marriage was going sour that would make it okay to establish some sort of relationship with Lily. It was me. I was solely responsible for it, I wanted it. I didn’t have the strength to not want it. I wanted to know Lily again. I wanted to have something with her. I couldn’t stop it. I was a weak, horrible person. I knew that. But I couldn’t stop it.

[Finally. He acknowledges what the reader already knows. The author wanted him to come across as a very sympathetic character, but blaming others for his actions doesn’t work. He will still be a nice guy in the readers’ eyes, I think, but with imperfections and real-life temptations and decisions to make.]

By the time I reached home, I’d made my decision what to do about Lily and I needed to tell Nan what had happened.

My male characters aren’t alpha males, like in romance novels. One of my good friends told me she thought I did women characters better and my male characters were a little “wussy”. I’d like to think Jay isn’t wussy, but he’s no alpha male.

I don’t believe in alpha males. I don’t think there are any, but if there is a sliding scale between alpha and wussy, Jay falls somewhere in between.

The above are some of the things I needed to do to my novel to (I hope) improve it. I hadn’t read it in a long time, more than a year, and I found I still liked it, but there were a few things I wanted to change about it to make it even better.

Stuff That Has to be Cut Out of a Novel – Part 3

I have a closeted penchant for bluegrass music. As such, I felt the need to devote a chapter to it, in my novel, Second Stories. Some turn up their noses at bluegrass and say “but it’s so whi-iii-ney!” That’s precisely why I like it. I like the whine, and the close harmony.

I am a fan of the Dixie Chicks, may they rest in peace (as a group) because there is speculation that they have broken up and the sisters, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, remain as the Dixie Chicks and Natalie Maines is out. Back when Ms. Maines was their lead singer, they released an album, Taking the Long Way, and there was a song on that CD that moved me called Silent House. It was written for Natalie’s grandmother who had Alzheimer’s and the message is, I will remember so you can forget.

I thought about that and decided to interview my father about some things I feared he’d forget and I’d never know what he knew unless I asked him while he could still remember. I sat him down, and typed as fast as I could while he talked, about his experiences in World War II.

The story of my Dad’s experience is immortalized in the final Alice chapter that was cut from the book. Clint is the veteran in the story, and his wife has died, and his kids decided he needed to be put into Assisted Living. He is unhappy there, and wants Alice to marry him. Not that it’s a great love affair, but Alice is a young woman at 81 (he’s 90, it’s all relative), and he believes it to be mutually beneficial, since Alice is a widow. None of this is relative to my father, it’s the specifics of the war experience that are his story.

Alice turns down the proposal, of course. Lydia, (wife of Geo, the depressed guy who makes up his own reality and believes it) learns of the marriage proposal and she and her sister-in-law decide that Alice is a “one man woman”. Lydia thinks about that, and it is one of the many reasons she makes the decision to stay with her undeserving husband of forty years.

I thought the story of Alice and Clint added something to the novel, but the editor said out with it. So out it went.


My father was drafted into the army, which was the norm. He was working in the oil fields, single, uneducated. He was drafted so he could be cannon fodder, basically. One of the guys who risks everything and there’s a 50/50 chance you will live through it. You either will or you won’t. 50/50.

The things he told me gave me the shivers, and especially so when I realized that but for his probably being just plain lucky, I might not be here. He was born lucky, I think. Many of the things he’s done in his life have turned out well, when it could have been very different.

He was in the Battle of the Bulge, and never knew, from day to day, if he’d be shot by the Germans. He slept in foxholes filled with water. He woke one morning to see a church maybe 100 yards away, completely destroyed, that had been standing when he fell into the exhausted sleep only a soldier can describe, the night before. It had been bombed while he slept, and it never woke him, he was that tired.

These stories never surfaced before, not when we were kids or afterwards. He didn’t talk about it, and if I hadn’t asked him about it a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t know about any of it. I asked him if he had nightmares, or flashbacks about it. I figured something that traumatic must have caused a lot of sleepless nights.

“No,” he said. “I put it behind me. I didn’t think about it.”

He didn’t think about it. Can people really do that? I think some can. He grew up poor, lived through the depression, and was “raised like a barn cat”. You survived. You did what you had to do. That’s exactly what he did. He did what he had to, and when it was over with, he didn’t think about it. He went on with his life, he got married, raised a family, started a business. He became someone, someone he’d always wanted to be. A business man. A family man. Someone the people in town all knew.

It’s hard for me to comprehend this. How can anyone forget? I think it’s possible for some, and maybe more men of that generation could do it than of ours, but the horrors of war are lost on us civilians, we can only imagine how terrible it is. I guess I’m glad he could forget about what happened back then, and the close calls he had, but I still wonder about it. And know he’ll soon forget forever. I’m glad I asked him about that part of his life. And now that I have done that, I have the memory so he doesn’t have to remember it. Like the Silent House song,

And I will try to connect
All the pieces you left
I will carry it on
And let you forget

Click here to be redirected to Veteran’s Day

When It Doesn’t Belong in Your Book, Make It a Short Story

Earlier this year, I blogged about stuff that needs to be cut out of a novel. If it doesn’t contribute to the story, out with it. And the offshoot stuff about Alice and her grief, her widowhood and eventual recovery, while interesting, did not really have anything to do with the storyline of Second Stories. I was told to cut three chapters about Alice. I posted the first chapter, entitled “Alice“, and now I’ve edited the second chapter that didn’t make the cut.

Alice is Geo’s mother. Geo is a really screwed up character. Alice didn’t know how screwed up her son was, because he wouldn’t have allowed her to know, and people just didn’t talk about depression back then, in the sixties. We can’t blame Alice for that, it’s just the way it evolved. Perhaps she might have been more vigilant, but she didn’t know what to look for. We can excuse her for that.

Alice is a good person, what’s not to like about her? She is a good wife, and a good mother (with the exception noted above), and she’s even a good mother-in-law to Lydia, who is married to the above-mentioned screwed up character. Alice does what she thinks is right, and has an unremarkable yet happy life, and goes down life’s highway until her husband gets sick suddenly and dies within six weeks of his diagnosis.

Like many of us, Alice doesn’t think too deeply about things, she’s more concerned with whether the weather will hold for her weekly trip to the grocery store. She’s sees what happens around her but it strangely doesn’t seem real to her. And when family members died, she was much younger. Oh. Yes, Grandpa died. He was eighty-something. Oh, well, then. People die when they get to that age.

Unless a person dies at a young age, or maybe in an accident at a less than young age but still not old age, at some point we all examine our own mortality and the light comes on. Hey, we’re going to actually die one day. When George died, that was Alice’s wakeup call. She was grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, but more that she hadn’t been able to do anything for him. She hadn’t had the education, or the time, to think about death, so she could discuss it with him.

Alice could have withered into a comfortable widowhood but she made a choice not to do that. She chose to do for others what she couldn’t do for George, and become a hospice volunteer so that she might help some people who are at the end of their lives. I could probably write a book about Alice and her hospice adventures. But here is one of them, her very first hospice experience.

Click here to be redirected to White Place

Cliches – Four Rules About Them

A cliché is like a bad apple.

How can an author tell if his work is cliché-ridden, with the obvious phrases and also the lesser known culprits? There are a number of websites that list them, I liked this one.

In the following paragraph, I have included several of the more blatant offenders, and some others maybe a bit more obscure, but just as annoying.

For all intents and purposes, clichés should be avoided at all cost. Your readers weren’t born yesterday and by and large, most readers know the score, and clichés won’t pass the sniff test. It’s the same old, same old. Been there, done that. You’ll bore them to tears. If you must use a cliché, take the plunge and mix it up. Twists and turns on clichés can be your ticket to success. Let this be your wakeup call. Overuse of clichés is a very real concern. You don’t want readers thinking it’s the same old story, a broken record. Instead, think outside the box. Time and time again, art imitates life. What’s not to like, about understated elegance? To my way of thinking, it’s a perfect storm. Your readers will get your drift, but your writing will be fresh as a daisy. It’s easier said than done, I know, but hang in there!

Wow. That was painful. I count 28.

For all intents and purposes, at all cost, born yesterday, by and large, know the score, pass the sniff test, same old same old, been there done that, bore them to tears, take the plunge, mix it up, twists and turns, ticket to success, wakeup call, a very real concern, same old story, broken record, think outside the box, time and time again, art imitates life, what’s not to like, understated elegance, to my way of thinking, a perfect storm, get your drift, fresh as a daisy, easier said than done, hang in there.

Did I miss any?

There is software available which allows you to insert your book text and it will count the number of clichés and overused phrases it finds. This paragraph would have probably exceeded its capacity, an “out of bounds index” or “too many inputs” or “an unknown error has occurred”. I especially like that last one.

Rule for cliché use (according to me):

1. If you must use a cliché, change it around, make it a little different. Recently I used the phrase “that shoe is on the wrong foot”. I hoped the reader would realize that the cliché I was imitating was “if the shoe were on the other foot”, which means if the situation were reversed. In this context, during an argument between a wife and her husband, she means to say, “You’ve got it wrong. The situation is reversed.”

2. Recognize that it is a cliché and make a reference to it. In one case, when a person of dubious authority refers to a bunch of other people as “losers”, one of the other people says, “Isn’t that the pot and the kettle thing? Being called a loser by her?” The speaker knows it is a cliché and refers to that, thus implying that he is above saying something trite.

3. Sometimes it seems good to use clichés in dialogue. People use them, it’s the way we normally speak. In a moment of anger, when a woman is being accused of not being committed enough (and this is after forty bad years), she says, “When does it become okay to throw in the towel? On my death bed?” I think it is appropriate to use this here. She was angry, it expresses what she felt at the moment. If I had avoided it, I’m not sure it would have been as effective.

4. If there is any doubt whether to use a cliché or not, don’t.

I’d like to leave you with this thought:

With clichés, when push comes to shove, you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, because at the end of the day you are never quite sure whether to go with the flow or take the ball and run with it.

Sorry.

Stuff that has to be cut out of a novel

You might remember, in a previous post I talked about first books being autobiographical. I wrote a chapter in Second Stories, which closely mirrored a situation I encountered first hand. I don’t want to be too specific, since I don’t want to share a story all over the whole entire world wide web net thingy such that the person it was patterned after might be identified, but there was a death, and the story of Alice could have happened the way it did, but that part really is fictional.

The chapters about Alice were rejected by my editor, as not having anything to do with the actual novel. I realized he was right, I just liked them. I liked the story of Alice and how she evolved into widowhood, how she dealt with the death of her husband. I have two other chapters about her, and I’d like to share them with my readers so I’ve posted the first one on my website, and also here. Two more coming, about Alice’s adventures with her volunteer work in hospice and an assisted living facility. None of these chapters are in Second Stories.

And it’s a little autobiographical too, since I lost someone once, before I felt it was time to really lose her. And some of the feelings Alice experienced are my own, both because I have been through the loss of a loved one, and because I’ve had what could have been a near-death experience. We change how we view death, when it has been close enough that we confronted it eye-to-eye. It becomes less scary.

Click here to be redirected to Alice