Thursday, March 24, 2016

Healthy Writing Habits

Sandy Tritt

I finish my day at 6 p.m. My eyes are dry and tired. My shoulders ache. My wrists are sore. My legs ache. In fact, it seems like every bone and every tissue in my body is screaming. Sitting for eight-to-ten hours while moving nothing other than my fingers is hard on my body—much harder than most people realize. Writing—and editing—is not for sissies. However, it doesn’t have to be this hard on us. How can we make it easier? Here’s a rundown by body part.

EYES. I have special computer glasses that have large lenses and plastic frames. They aren’t pretty and they aren’t stylish, but they sure are practical. My optometrist has formulated them to be perfect for my vision for the exact distance between my eyes and my laptop screen—a formula that is slightly different than the “reading” view of my bifocals—and I don’t have to tilt my neck to see through that tiny square.

My optometrist also advised that I must—not that I should, but that I must—look off into the distance at least every 30 minutes, for at least 15 seconds. Fortunately, I sit near French doors with a view of trees, so I can look at those trees. It doesn’t matter what we see, but we need to focus on something at a distance to give our eyes a little rest.

Finally, I keep a damp washcloth in a sandwich baggie next to me. Once or twice a day, I toss a small ice cube in as well. Every hour or so—especially in the afternoons when my eyes feel stressed—I take a five minute break and put the damp washcloth over my eyes. I avoid eye drops because they tend to make my eyes drier soon after using. But the cold, wet washcloth hydrates my eyes and reduces swelling. It’s my mini-vacation and helps me to keep on chugging along.

WRISTS. Anyone who sits at a keyboard all day knows how hard typing is on our wrists. Many suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. After much experimentation, I found a lap desk that is the exact right height for my laptop, allowing my wrists to rest at a level equal to my elbows. There are many exercises and suggestions on the web for coping with carpal tunnel. I find that when my wrist first begins to ache, I wear a wrist brace to bed. Sometimes, I even wear a less-restricting one while working. And, of course, I make sure my wrists are supported and not just dangling in mid-air. It’s much easier to heal from slight stress than it is full-blown carpal tunnel, so listen to your body, research the web, and nip this condition before it starts.

SHOULDERS/BACK. My shoulders and sometimes my back often feel the stress of my chair-potato career. Every morning, I stretch before beginning work. Additionally, I stretch every hour (yes, all those health professionals recommend it’s critically important to get up and move around at least once an hour). The stretches that work for me may not work for you, but if you search the web for “stretches for back and shoulders” you’ll find quite a few to choose from. And, yes, DO get up every hour and walk around a bit.

I’m fortunate that my neighbor is a splendid massage therapist (Thanks, Shelly!), so I also visit her whenever my aches don’t disappear after a good night’s sleep. A good massage can rub away those aches and make us feel (almost) brand new again. Finally, I sometimes use a rice-bag shoulder pillow, which wraps around my neck and provides a bit of weight that feels blissful—especially if I toss the thing in the microwave for a minute beforehand.

LEGS. Sitting for hours with our legs dangling or square in front of us can cause stress both on our legs and lower backs. Try changing your posture frequently, and sometimes use a footstool (or box) on which to rest your legs. Also switch out the chair you work in, perhaps going from the standard office chair to an ergonomic variety—and back again. It is the variety of positions that is important. Most of the time, I work from a La-Z-Boy, which keeps my legs up and elevated—and provides the perfect resting place for my special kitty. One of our editors suggests sitting on an exercise ball for an hour or two a day. It will stretch and challenge various muscles while allowing you to get some work done. Regardless of where you sit, be sure to get up and move—and stretch—at least once an hour.

Writing and editing—or any other job that requires super-gluing your butt to a chair and not moving for hours at a time—can be harder on your body than earning your keep by muscle power. However, if you force yourself to take frequent breaks (set an alarm, if you need to, as sometimes we get so involved in our work we forget about time), change your posture often, and find the equipment that works best for you, you can end your workday with enough energy to enjoy the evening hours.

Good luck—and keep writing!

UPDATE: I sent this blog out to our editors—as I do with everything before it’s published—and they responded with so many tips on how to sneak in a bit of exercise while working at a desk that we decided to do a second blog on, well, sneaking in exercise while you work. Look for it to appear in the near future.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"I'll Throw It Out There and See What Happens"

Hope Clark

For the third time in as many weeks, an author has picked my brain about how I write (daily), how I edit (daily), and how often I market (daily), then said they prefer to be a hobbyist. They cannot afford to invest the time into a book like I do, don't care to hire a graphic artist for the cover, prefer not to hire an editor, and don't belong to a critique group . . . so they'll write it the best they can and throw it up on Amazon "and see what happens."

Those four words . . . like ten long nails scratching on a chalkboard.

I have no problem with people writing as a hobby. I encourage it, actually. I have no problem with people publishing as a hobby. I encourage that, too. But . . . when they hint that they do not have the time to do it right . . . when part-time is an excuse for not doing it thoroughly, I just want to get to a microphone and rant!

Of course, ranting to anyone is not the way to make them understand. I don't want someone shaking their finger at me, either. So I try to educate.

I explain:

1) A book not prepared with a professional eye will not sell.
2) A book not edited hard by people other than the writer will not sell.
3) A book placed on Amazon with no steady promotion will not sell.
4) A book published without the author marketing herself will not sell.

One gentleman threw those words at me, "and see what happens," and I simply replied, "It won't sell." He looked like I'd slapped him.

I smiled to ease the rift evident in his face. "Amazon, and the entire publishing world, is glutted with books. Thousands of authors are fighting to be heard, to promote, to sell, some with multiple books under their belt. Thousands of writers are fighting to make writing a career. With them clamoring every day to write and market, to blog, sign, social network, travel, how do you think a reader will find your book with you doing nothing to promote it? There are just too many books out there for that to be feasible."

We parted friends. I hope he heard me. I really hope he didn't spend all that time writing only to just throw it out there "and see what happens." None of us need any more of that. As both readers and writers, we can all appreciate seeing more of the well-written, well-edited, well-marketed books.


- Hope

Be sure to visit Hope at FUNDSFORWRITERS.COM


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Character Profiling

Charlotte Firbank-King

Ever sit in a busy mall and just watch people? If you don’t, you should. The exercise will benefit your writing—and show how important just the right word can be.

I sit outside a cafĂ©, sipping my espresso. Across the way a woman runs to a somewhat unkempt, bearded man sitting on a high planter. He puts a cell phone in his worn leather jacket pocket. The woman is thin, wearing unremarkable clothes—dirty clothes, actually. Her jeans have seen better days, her shirt is wrinkled and stained. I’m guessing they’re forty-something.

I instantly put them in a box—they look a bit redneck. If she’d been fashionable, I would have called her slender, not thin. Interesting how an image—along with the words used to describe that image—can shift the image fractionally from wealthy to poor.

Then he lifts his hand. He has a Rolex watch on his wrist and his nails are manicured. He’s also wearing Gucci shoes—maybe he’s doing the planned-scruffy trend. If I’d realized that earlier, I would have used scruffy as opposed to unkempt when I first saw him. The word we choose is everything.

She still looks, well, soiled, though. Actually, more like a battered wife, I decide. But her nails are also manicured—bright red—at odds with her drab clothes. They aren’t standing close enough—so not his wife.

They don’t appear emotionally invested, at least, not as lovers.

She looks around distractedly and runs her fingers through tangled hair—she’s worried someone will see her—attack her?

Then he puts his hands on her waist. Okay, this changes things.

She has troubled, rejected, and defensive written all over her.

Got it! She’s married to an out-of-work man who beats her, and this guy is her wealthy lover. She’s afraid her husband will catch them together and kill them.

Then my story gets blown out of the water.

A twelve-year-old girl runs to them, screeching with joy and holding a puppy in the air. The woman puts a hand to her breast and laughs. The man pats the woman on the hip, and they both put their arms around the child, all three laughing.

The real story? The pup had wandered off while Child and Dad were shopping, and Child had gone off to search for it. Mum had been gardening at home when Dad phoned to tell her the pup was gone. She dropped her gardening and ran straight to the mall, not taking time to clean up first. The parents were concerned about the child’s distress if the pup wasn’t found. I called her clothes dirty, not muddied, which they were.

I had it so wrong—and all because I misinterpreted the signs. The reason I know this for sure is because when they sat near me, I came clean and asked them. Now I had all the right words and the story was clear.

The way I misinterpreted their story is exactly how a reader will misinterpret a story if we don’t give them the exact words that help them unravel the story. There are tiny insinuations behind words. Thin is different from slender—and both are different from skinny. Unkempt is different from scruffy—and both are different from frazzled.

Every single word we write needs to count—and needs to carry as much information as it can. It’s vitally important to choose the words that give the reader a good map of your story.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Editors Speak: Things that Make Our Eyes Twitch

The IFW Editors

A couple of weeks ago, our editors contributed to a conversation about pet peeves, which led to last week’s blog on commonly confused words. Our editors are concerned about things that happen in writing that confuse the reader or pull her/him out of the story. Following are some of the things our editors advised writers to avoid.


What drives me crazy is head-hopping. I've even seen it in published books—such as one from a best-selling author. In the middle of a dramatic scene, the main character is thinking of leaving her family and moving to the city to go to school. It was well written—until the author popped into the maid's POV to describe what the character looked like. At that point I tossed the book across the room.


Personification. Or, maybe I should say unintentional personification, because sometimes writers can intentionally use personification for comedic relief or for effect. But when you’re just reading along and see something like, “his knee didn’t notice the tree limb” or “the clock smiled down from the mantle,” you just scratch your head.


I hate excessive “shopping lists.” He opened the suitcase and found underwear bleached sparkling white, undershirts that matched the underwear, socks in every dark color, brand-name deodorant, a razor and a replacement blade, a yellow toothbrush, mint whitening toothpaste, and the strongest mouthwash on the market. After the first two items, the reader’s eyes glaze over—if they haven’t quit reading. Decide what's most important and never list more than three items. And, if none of them are important, skip the details!


Some writers fail to mention a character’s name on the first page, using “he” or “she” over and over. Perhaps they think this adds mystery or intrigue, but all it really does is prevent the reader from feeling any sort of empathy for the character.

The converse is just as distressing, such as when ten or twelve new characters are introduced by name on the first page. How on earth can we make sense of that many people, especially when we don't know who is the main character?


One of my pet peeves: Long, rambling sentences that go on and on and start with one subject but end up with an entirely different subject, like a vacation that gets sidetracked because the map has a crease in it, which happened frequently before the days of cell phones and GPS devices, which have changed the world as we know it--and, perhaps, changed the subject of our sentence as well.


One concerning thing that drives me crazy is the tendency of some writers to find up to a zillion ways to overuse prepositions in a sentence throughout a story until the sanity of the reader begins to melt into an abyss of blackness. YIKES! Cut the insanity! Cut the prepositions!


Too many adjectives. And adverbs. And ellipses. And exclamation marks. And sentences that begin with conjunctions.


This one recently became a pet peeve of mine: using unnecessarily large (read: pretentious) adjectives. I was reading a style guide that preached “simple and direct,” but every other word was annoyingly complex or obscure. Another pet peeve is using two or three adjectives in a series—to describe a single item—but the adjectives are all synonyms.


It annoys me when a character “gawks”: John noticed the wind rustling the leaves of the oak tree instead of Wind rustled the leaves of the oak tree. A “gawking character” exists whenever a writer places a character between a reader and the action. Another example: Angelica heard the truck round the bend and saw it come down the street. Instead, write: Tires squealed, then a pickup sped around the bend and down the street.


My pet annoyance is errors in paragraphing, such as when a paragraph includes dialogue (without tags) from one character and action from another. Example:

"Hey, Pops! Want to see me do a cartwheel?" He sucked on his pipe. 

 "Can you also do a split?" She sneezed six times, then nodded.

This should be written:

"Hey, Pops! Want to see me do a cartwheel?" 

 He sucked on his pipe. "Can you also do a split?" 

 She sneezed six times, then nodded.

Then we know who is speaking.


My peeve: Using "creative" dialogue tags that don't make sense:
“It was free,” I scowled. “What more do you want?”

“Extra jelly,” she laughed.

You can't smile, scowl or even laugh words! You can say them, scream them, and state them, amongst others. You can also say something, then smile, scowl, or laugh. But these are actions and require a sentence of their own. They are not dialogue tags!


We have tip sheets to address most of these situations, so if there are any you want to study in more depth, let us know and we’ll be happy to send you a tutorial.

Do you have the same pet peeves as us? Are there any annoying writing habits that aren't on our list that you think should be? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.