Writing Advice

3 Secrets of Sentence Length Power

5 July 2015

From JohnKrone.com:

1.Sentence length in stories, effect absorption of the lines. Sentence length in ads affect sales. Sentence length in blogs, affect opt-ins and return visitors. Here’s why.

Readers have a limited amount of “working memory” to comprehend each sentence.  Children or adults have the similar memory limitations. We all do.  So most readers regardless of what they’re reading, prefer short sentences.

The “Optimal Recognition Point” ORP, is a specific point in each word that our eye seeks, for that word recognition. Our eye then moves to the next word. The eye movement is called a “saccade”. This process continues until our eye encounters the period. At this point, it assembles the words to form a meaning of the sentence.

. . . .

Since readers have a limited amount of working memory, and they must store the sentence contents until they reach the period, it creates a length limit.  Inside the readers brain. They can’t help it. So what happens when we exceed the length limit?

Memory decay. The meaning of the sentence starts to diminish.

. . . .

2. Surveyed readers preferred 8 words in a sentence.

Here’s  a surprise though. Most writers average 17 words per sentence.  Here’s a good way to remember how expression size affects the reading experience. Imagine I give you a math problem (7 x 15) + (2 x 4 ) = what?

The way you read a math problem is similar to how a reader tries to find the point in a sentence.   The meaning or the “point”, is what they’re after.  No meaning can be concluded until the end of the sentence is reached.

 That creates a potential problem, if we lose site of that fact. Because they don’t know where it’s going, they must store the whole line while they read.  They must store the entire sentence in their “working memory” until they reach the period.  A long sentence is like a long math problem. (8 x 13) + ((55 x 5) *18) + (79 – 26) = what?  The longer the problem the more overwhelming it becomes to the brain. There’s actually a term for it, micro stress.

Link to the rest at JohnKrone.com and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

The Difference Between Mistakes and Failure

27 June 2015

From author Laura Drake:

I am not an old soul. I am a klutz and a fairly slow learner. I bumble through life, making almost every mistake possible before finding the right way.  People (most notably, my long-suffering parents) tried to explain things to me. But that’s apparently not how I learn. And I don’t think I’m alone.

This used to make me feel like a failure. But it doesn’t anymore.

. . . .

Do you remember when you were little? If you don’t, observe a child who is preschool age, attempting something new to them. They try, make mistakes, learn, and move on. They don’t beat themselves up, because they seem to know instinctively that making mistakes is how you learn. Do you, as an adult, fault them for that? Of course not! You explain, and demonstrate and encourage, until they get it, or decide it isn’t for them, and they move on to try the next thing.

. . . .

But something happens around the golden years of junior high (yes, that’s sarcasm). Peer opinion becomes a red-hot pressure cooker. It’s no longer okay to make mistakes. We look around and decide we’re behind—everyone around us has it together, and we never got the manual. We watch adults, observing their competence and confidence.

So you start racing, trying to catch up. You don’t take chances anymore, because you may make a mistake. And everyone will find out that you are clueless. You stick to things you know. You don’t try new things, because you can’t take the chance that you might not be good at them.

. . . .

Somewhere around forty, I gave up looking for the manual. I accepted my ‘process’. I’m always going to stumble through life, making mistakes. I relaxed when I realized that my whole life is an experiment.

. . . .

Mistakes aren’t failure.

Each mistake I make brings me closer to the correct conclusion. Mistakes are an essential part of learning!

. . . .

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Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Here’s a link to Laura Drake’s books

New Struggles in Self-Publishing

24 June 2015

From author Dave Farland:

I hesitate to mention problems with self-publishing. In some genres, such as romance or self-help books, the industry is doing great. But for those who are trying to sell fiction, it seems that the markets are contracting, and it appears that things will go from bad to worse.

If you’ve been self-publishing for the past few years, you probably remember the good old days. For example, a few years ago I put my novel The Golden Queen up as a free e-book for a week and forgot about it. I was going to mention on my social media what I had done, but seriously got busy with something else. Three days later, I got an email from someone who said, “Why don’t you take your free e-book down and let someone else have a shot at the #1 spot.” I’d given away 15,000 copies in three days, and had sold thousands of dollars in inventory on the other two books in the series.

. . . .

With e-books, you can’t sell them unless you can advertise them. Of course, the folks at Amazon try to set their rates at about $1.70 a click on their advertisements. If every potential buyer who clicked on an advertisement actually bought a book, that would be a good deal. But in most cases, fewer than 1 in 10 people who click on a book ad will actually buy the book. Unfortunately, in my studies, Facebook ads don’t pay for themselves, and neither do any other kinds of ads that are sold online. That’s why we don’t see a lot of ads for books from major publishers online.

. . . .

Let’s say that you put your new book up for sale on Amazon. You tell all your friends and family, and get folks to announce it to their friends. You do a big blog party and get blogs up on twenty sites besides your own. Your book comes out … and it’s a blip on Amazon’s radar.

Amazon has lots of other books for sale. You’re a little blip. How do they know to promote your book?

Well, they have to look for independent verification. So they look at the number of reviews that you have on Amazon and on Goodreads. They try to make sure that the reviews are from real buyers instead of sock puppets. They look at the ratings given to the book in the form of stars, and then they decide whether to begin cross-promoting your book.

If you’ve got a book that has a high velocity of sales and an extremely high customer satisfaction rating, they’ll help promote your book, and that can be a great thing.

But here’s the problem: The people who get the highest velocity of sales almost always already have a pretty good customer base. They’ve got say 50,000 fans. If you’re a brand new author, you might have a great book, but you very likely don’t have 50,000 fans. So even if you do get picked up for promotion, you won’t get promoted heavily or for very long.

Meanwhile, let’s say that a new author comes out with a traditionally published book in hardcover and it gets put on the New Release shelf at Barnes and Noble. Hundreds of thousands of book buyers will walk by the shelf and see it. That book has visibility that your book doesn’t. Indeed, if people like it, they can take a picture of the ISBN number and order the book as an e-book right away. That’s how many e-books are bought.

Of course, the big publishers charge more for your e-book than you would like, but Amazon respects that. In fact, their algorithms will place higher-priced books onto the bestseller lists above books that are sold above deep discount. Thus, if you put your book online for 99 cents and promote it widely, you might make lots of sales, but you won’t make traction onto the bestseller list.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Christine for the tip.

Here’s a link to David Farland’s books

You Don’t Have to Get it Right the First Time

16 June 2015

From Writability:

Confession: sometimes, when one of my cross-posted onto tumblr posts explodes, I like to cruise through the comments and tags. It’s a fun and quick way to see what people think about the posts and the feedback has often been pretty thought-provoking.

The posts that get tumblr-happy are often craft posts. And the comments and tags, I’ve noticed, often include writers stressing out about trying to nail all of the writing tidbit dos and don’ts while drafting.

Except here’s the thing: with the exception of writing tips specifically geared for first drafting, most are not meant to be tackled while first drafting.

To clarify:

Things you should be focusing on while first drafting:

  1. Getting the story written.
  2. See #1

Things you don’t need to worry about while first drafting:

  1. Getting your opening right.
  2. Getting your middle right.
  3. Getting your ending right.
  4. Getting your characters right.
  5. Getting the worldbuilding right.
  6. Getting the sentence-level writing right.
  7. Getting the pacing right.
  8. Getting anything perfect the first time.

The truth is, the first draft is for you, the author.

Link to the rest at Writability and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

The Procrastination Doom Loop—and How to Break It

12 June 2015

From The Atlantic:

When I woke up this morning, I had one goal: Finish this article by 11 a.m.

So, predictably, by the time it was 10 a.m., I had made and consumed two cups of coffee, taken out the trash, cleaned my room while taking a deliberately slow approach to folding my shirts, gone on a walk outside to clear my head, had a thing of yogurt and fruit to reward the physical exertion, sent an email to my aunt and sister, read about 100 Tweets (favorited three; written and deleted one), despaired at my lack of progress, comforted myself by eating a second breakfast, opened several tabs from ESPN.com on my browser … and written absolutely nothing.

What’s the matter with me?* Nothing, according to research that conveniently justifies this sort of behavior to my editors.

. . . .

Productive people sometimes confuse the difference between reasonable delay and true procrastination. The former can be useful (“I’ll respond to this email when I have more time to write it”). The latter is, by definition, self-defeating (“I should respond to this email right now, and I have time, and my fingers are on the keys, and the Internet connection is perfectly strong, and nobody is asking me to do anything else, but I just … don’t … feel like it.”).

When scientists have studied procrastination, they’ve typically focused on how people are miserable at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, everybody recognizes, in the abstract, that it’s important to go to the dentist every few months. The pain is upfront and obvious—dental work is torture—and the rewards of cleaner teeth are often remote, so we allow the appointment to slip through our minds and off our calendars. Across several categories including dieting, saving money, and sending important emails, we constantly choose short and small rewards (whose benefits are dubious, but immediate) over longer and larger payouts (whose benefits are obvious, but distant).

In the last few years, however, scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotion. Procrastination “really has nothing to do with time-management,” Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told Psychological Science. “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

. . . .

]P]rocrastination happens for two basic reasons: (1) We delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task, and (2) We assume that our mood will change in the near future. See if you recognize any of these excuses…

  • If I take a nap now, I’ll have more focus later.
  • If I eat this cake now, that’ll be my cheat for the month, and I’ll have more willpower.
  • If I send a few Tweets now, my fingers will be used to typing sentences, which will make this article easier to write.
  • If I watch TV now, I’ll feel relaxed and more likely to call the doctor’s office tomorrow morning.

This approach isn’t merely self-defeating. It also creates a procrastination doom loop. Putting off an important task makes us feel anxious, guilty, and even ashamed, Eric Jaffe wrote. Anxiety, guilt, and shame make us less likely to have the emotional and cognitive energy to be productive. That makes us even less likely to begin the task, in the first place. Which makes us feel guilty. Which makes us less productive. And around we go.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

On being a writing teacher struggling with writer’s block

9 June 2015

From The Washington Post:

When summer comes, great and yawning and wide, the students go away. It is, for us college teachers of writing, an unbroken stretch of space when we—if we choose—can listen to our own voices. Finally, I have time to write. I am writing. Or at least, I should be.

As a teaching professor at a private liberal arts college, my job is, first and foremost, to teach and advise undergraduates. But I teach writing. This passion of mucking about with words and language and making sense out of the mystery of how it happens—that’s what brought me into the classroom in the first place.

Before I began teaching college students fulltime a few years ago, I wrote a lot. I was a newspaper journalist at small dailies. I will admit I was not the most prolific of writers. My editors, I know, thought I was a bit slow, a bit obsessive. I loved nothing better than to tinker with a story even as it was being laid out on a page. But in my nine years writing for newspapers, the appetite to fill pages each day was insatiable. And so I wrote more words than I ever knew I had in me. Sometimes, I would start the writing in my head, in my car on my way into the office after an interview or meeting. When I got to my desk, I could just sit down at the keyboard and let the words unspool from my fingers. It was my trick. But it was not magic. A piece of writing was like a knot, and if I worked and worked on it long enough, it usually fell into shape.

I started my novel in graduate school four years ago, where I was a student, writer, and a new experience for me, a teacher. At first, I leaned on my laurels a bit. I thought journalism was good training for fiction writing. What I did not anticipate was how lonely it can be to work on a longer project. The satisfactory circle of writing and publishing doesn’t happen when you’re wrestling with plot and characters for years on end and learning a new career that you’ve wholly fallen in love with.

. . . .

It is so much easier to talk about students’ writing, to field questions about thesis statements and research questions and library databases, to sit with them together over a draft, our heads bent over their words. I am full of animated advice when my students come to me about writer’s block. I wave around handouts. I remind them of exercises we’ve practiced in class.

. . . .

“What’s the secret?” one student asked me a couple of years ago. “Secret?” I repeated blankly, and then I realized what he thought: that I’ve been tapped as the Keeper of the Keys of Good Writing.

. . . .

What I need to do to write is weed the vegetable garden. What I need to do is to paint the fence. What I need to do is to wash every window, inside and out. What I need to do is plan a class I am not teaching until Spring 2016. What I need to do is order more books from the library, because if I am ordering books, I am doing research, and that means I’m writing, right?

. . . .

“The writing teacher who doesn’t write,” she wrote, “is in no more position to diagnose difficulties and offer advice than a soccer coach who has never played soccer.”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Dave for the tip.

25 Common Phrases That You’re Saying Wrong

4 June 2015

From Lifehack:

Being a freelance writer, I often find myself messing up common phrases. When I’m unsure, I do a quick Google search to make sure that what I’m writing is actually what I’m trying to say. This inspired me to come up with a list of common phrases that people frequently get wrong. Some of them aren’t completely our fault because the incorrect way of saying them has actually become the “norm”. But we’re still wrong.

Here’s my list of common phrases that you might be saying incorrectly.

. . . .

1: Nip it in the butt vs. Nip it in the bud

Nipping something in the bud means that you’re putting an end to it before it has a chance to grow or start. Nipping something in the butt means you’re biting its behind.

2: I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less

Saying that you could care less about a topic implies that you do care about it at least a little. What you usually mean is that you don’t care about the topic at all, hence “I couldn’t care less”.

. . . .

10: Extract revenge vs. Exact revenge

When you extract something, you’re taking it out of something else. When you exact onto something, you’re dishing it out. Therefore, extracting revenge on someone would mean you’re taking out that person’s revenge. Exacting revenge onto them means that you’re taking your revenge out on them.

. . . .

15: Expresso vs. Espresso

I’m sure those of you who work at coffee shops have had people order an expresso before. There’s no such drink. The drink you’re trying to order is an espresso.

16: Momento vs. Memento

Momento isn’t a word. A memento is a keepsake.

Link to the rest at Lifehack

Craft

4 June 2015

From author Patricia C. Wrede:

Craft, to me, is the skill part of writing, the part you can analyze and learn. It’s techniques, viewpoint, grammar, and style. It includes the mechanics of characterization, dialog, description, and action, as well as highly macro-level things like plot and pacing, worldbuilding, backstory, and characterization. It involves practically every angle from which one can look at and evaluate a piece of writing with any objectivity. It is, after all, fairly easy to determine whether someone has slipped from first person to third person, mis-tagged their dialog, or written grammatically correct sentences.

Craft is so endemic to writing, and so fundamental, that it is easy to confuse it with the Art part. This leads to two related problems: first, people trying to find a more objective definition
of “good art” latch on to elements of craft as a way to measure artistic merit; second, people who want a recipe for writing focus on craft (because they can learn it) and think that the craft part of writing is all they need to get right.

. . . .

Unfortunately, it is quite possible for a story to be technically excellent without being artistically so. A novel can be well-constructed in every measurable aspect and still be boring – and a boring story is definitely not good art, and probably not good craft, either, however well-made it may be in its other aspects.

. . . .

Technical writing skills alone are thus manifestly not enough to create a successful piece of writing (unless the writer has their own idiosyncratic definition of “successful” and doesn’t much care whether their work gets read or sells). Strong writing skills can, however, compensate to some extent for weak artistry, just as strongly artistic work can cover a certain amount of weak skill levels. Ideally, of course, one would have both strong technical skills and strong artistic ability in equal measure, but even among experienced writers at the height of their careers, this is rare. For beginners … well, there are geniuses who are gifted with both skill and artistry right from the start, but they are rare. Don’t count on being one.

Link to the rest at Patricia C. Wrede and thanks to Liana for the tip.

Here’s a link to Patricia C. Wrede’s books

The Truth About Writer’s Block

2 June 2015

From NYT bestseller and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Some authors never get “Writer’s Block,” and they don’t believe that it exists. They’ll blithely say, “Do doctors ever get ‘Doctor’s block,’ or do plumbers ever get ‘plumber’s block’?” and they think that they’ve just scored a point.

If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have told you much the same.

The truth is, doctors do get doctor’s block. Plumbers do get plumber’s block. It’s just that only writers have been smart enough to give the problem a name.

Think about it. Have you ever known someone who didn’t like their work environment, so they just got up and quit from a job that perhaps they had loved a year before? It’s a huge problem. I’ve worked as a manager in a number of businesses and believe me, employee retention is a big problem for management. So we have to make sure that the employees know that we care about them, that they’re properly reimbursed for their time, talents, and expertise, and that they’re given a nice work environment.

Right now, in my online writing workshops at www.mystorydoctor.com, I’m training a number of professionals with high-paying jobs that they were probably once happy with—lawyers, doctors, dentists, pilots, government officials, and execs in Fortune 500 companies. But all of them have decided that they would rather write.

But being a writer can be a tough job. If you’re starting out, early in your career you probably don’t get much in the way of benefits. Instead of praise from fans, you get torn apart by the critics in your writing group. Instead of a pleasant office, you may be writing in a dusty cellar. Instead of big paychecks, your first stories might be paid in copies of the small-press magazine that you just got published in.

. . . .

Several years ago, an agent called and asked me to hurry up and get a book turned in—the last novel in my Runelords series. Now, I’m going to be honest here. He called at a very bad time. I had gone to Oregon to take care of my mother, who was dying. I had literally been holding her hand, trying to comfort her, when my agent called. You can imagine that I wasn’t in a great mood to write.

On the phone my agent relayed a threatening message from my editor—one that I found outrageous. I thought about calling my publisher and demanding a new editor. I thought about just quitting my work with the publisher altogether.

In short, I became blocked on that project.

I tried working on it over and over again, but each time that I did I felt . . . confused. I couldn’t focus. I began to worry that I was getting Alzheimer disease, or something else. So I began taking vitamins and exercising, trying to get back on track.

Each time that I tried to write on that project, I also found myself getting angry all over again and feeling a keen sense of despair.

. . . .

People are most often blocked by negative criticism. The criticism might come from literary critics, from writers in a writing group, from editors, from random terrorists posting on Amazon.com, from family members or friends, or even a thought that flashes through the back of a writer’s own mind.

Some writers get anxious. They set unrealistic deadlines for themselves, or they feel undue pressure with their work. They may worry about tough critics or the possibility of bad reviews—or they might worry that they’ll actually succeed. And those worries block the creative process.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to David Farland’s books

From Dream to Nightmare: John Steinbeck on the Perils of Publicity and the Dark Side of Success

18 May 2015

From Brain Pickings:

Wedged in time between Thoreau and Palmer, and a generation before Joni Mitchell bemoaned the dark side of success, another icon of creative culture brushed up against the harsh reality of how personally and creatively trying public and commercial triumph can be. Having just attained significant critical acclaim, financial profit, and public recognition for the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) found himself in an unfamiliar and surprisingly uncomfortable position.

. . . .

“I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success,” he wrote in an extraordinary letter of creative courage as he all but destroyed a manuscript that didn’t live up to his standards of style and integrity, setting out to rework it into what became The Grapes of Wrath — the novel that earned Steinbeck a Pulitzer in 1940 and paved the way for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But even as he labored at his masterpiece, the demons of fame, publicity, and commercial success kept beckoning from the sidelines.

Writing in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath — his magnificent testament to the power of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt — Steinbeck laments in an entry from early 1938:

People I liked have changed. Thinking there is money, they want it. And even if they don’t want anything, they watch me and they aren’t natural any more… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me.

. . . .

A couple of days later, in an entry that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that “publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Steinbeck resolves with disgruntlement on par with Kierkegaard’s:

The mail this morning — just a mass of requests. Driving me crazy… It becomes increasingly apparent that I must make a stand against joining things as I have against speaking. The mail is full of requests to use my name. Another request to be a clay pigeon. I won’t do any of these public things. Can’t. It isn’t my nature and I won’t be stampeded. And so the stand must be made and I must keep out of politics. Now these two things are constantly working at me.

It’s hard not to think of C.S. Lewis who, in contemplating the ideal daily routine, pointed his warm wit at the issue and observed: “It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.” But for Steinbeck this became less a matter of happiness than one of spiritual survival.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

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