Software review: “Editor” by Serenity Software

I’m working with a piece of software that might be of interest to those who self-publish. It’s got the catchy name of “Editor”, a product of Serenity Software. (I bought it retail and have no sort of relationship with the company.) I’m using it to go over my novel. So far, I like it. PC World gave it four out of five stars. Since I’ve started using it, it’s pointed out some mushy text that benefited from being changed.

The software scans the text for the following (click the image to enlarge it):

Editor - usage

Notice that this goes well beyond the spelling and grammar check that’s part of MS Word. Fortunately, I haven’t yet had any of my prose flagged for “pretentious term”, but I have gotten flagged for weak constructions such as starting a sentence with “It was…”

Editor scans the prose, numbering each sentence. It then checks each sentence for potentially incorrect, odd or clumsy constructions, punctuations, spellings, etc. The basic version of the software then gives you an output listing each sentence in which it found a potential problem.

This is the first part of the output for Editor’s scan of my book, “Verbosity’s Vengeance”. It’s telling me what it sees as potential problems with sentences 49 through 219. To fix these, I scroll through the amended OUTPUT version of my file, looking at the sentence numbers it’s inserted. Here’s what the analysis output looks like:


      –finds many mechanical errors and lists words and phrases
      that are often incorrect in novice writers’ work.

  <49> [sentence structure]
  <52> onto – the
  <58> eloquence… you
         INCORRECT ELLIPSIS; too few or too many spaces or periods? [e]
  <62> “- struggle
  <62> which
         GRAMMATICAL ERROR; use “that” or insert leading comma [G]
  <62> use – entirely
  <62> you – as
 < > [in paragraph ending with sentence 65]
  <69> is me
         POSSIBLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR: in formal English, “is I” [I] [G]
  <81> There are
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <127> Full stop
         POSSIBLE BRITISH SPELLING OR USAGE; (if punctuation) period(s) [B]
 <154> had of
         PROBABLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR; omit “of”? [G]
 <154> was him
         POSSIBLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR; in formal English, “was he” [I] [G]
 <155> It was
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <159> lever – a
 <159> retort – he
 <167> ?!
 <176> maintaining . . . escaped
         GRAMMATICAL ERROR; dangling or misplaced modifier? [G]
 <177> [sentence structure]
 <177> ..
         INCORRECT ELLIPSIS; too few or too many spaces or periods? [e]
 <182> It was
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <198> free – I’m
<  > [in paragraph ending with sentence 209]
 <219> more pain-suppression
<  > [in paragraph ending with sentence 250]

How about that? There’s a grammatical mistake in sentence 69.

Note that I considered this book finished enough that I’ve been querying it to agents for months, yet in the first five minutes, I’ve gotten three dozen relatively subtle suggestions for improvement. These are things that I missed, that my beta readers missed, that my test reader missed and that MS Word missed.

Another form of analysis within Editor offers stylistic suggestions. Here are some potential issues with sentences 2171 through 2186:

<2171> I’ve
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2174> man
         COMMONLY MISUSED TERM: do you mean “humanity”? [M]
 <2176> I’ll
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2182> toast
         SLANG EXPRESSION if you mean “finished” or “done for” [O] [L]
 <2183> great
 <2184> if
         COMMONLY MISUSED TERM; rule of thumb: if “whether” fits, use it [M]
 <2184> hasn’t
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2184> lifestyle
         JARGON TERM OR BUZZWORD; way(s) of life? [J]
 <2186> you’ve
         CONTRACTION [k]

So I might have used the empty intensifier “great” in sentence 2183? That’s good to know.

Another part of the Editor software looks for word repetition patterns. Have you ever read a book where the author used the word “gleaming” twice in one sentence? Or repeated a phrase he or she apparently loved, like “her eyes flashed darkly”? Phrases like that can pop up only a couple of times in a book, but they stick in the reader’s mind. This software looks for all repetitions of all phrases up to 6 words, throughout the entire book. This is VERY useful for weeding out those scenes that got moved, but not completely deleted from the original location.

In another analysis mode, Editor numbers the paragraphs and tells you which words get repeated in each and how many times. Here is the analysis of paragraphs #965 through #974:

#965.  The miasmic fog projectors . . .
     Words in paragraph: 75
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4) to(4) he(3) in(3)

#966.  Around the ring of . . .
     Words in paragraph: 106
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4) to(4) he(3) it(3)
       mean(3) only(3) was(3)

#968.  The Grammarian’s eyes scanned . . .
     Words in paragraph: 141
     Words used 3 or more times: he(6) of(6) to(6) his(3)
       room(3) that(3) was(3)

#970.  Professor Verbosity hadn’t been . . .
     Words in paragraph: 66
     Words used 3 or more times: to(4) be(3)

#971.  He looked around for . . .
     Words in paragraph: 119
     Words used 3 or more times: of(5) from(4) he(4) in(4)
       been(3) floor(3) part(3)

#972.  He grimaced. Anyone… including . . .
     Words in paragraph: 74
     Words used 3 or more times: was(5) he(4) that(3)

#973.  A thought formed in . . .
     Words in paragraph: 66
     Words used 3 or more times: himself(3) of(3) to(3)

#974.  The rest of the . . .
     Words in paragraph: 28
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4)

Repeating of, to, he, it, was, that, etc. might not be a problem, but I see that I also use the word “himself” three times in paragraph 973, which is relatively short at 66 words. Worth taking another look at?

The slightly more expensive version of this software comes with a plug-in for MS Word. It will analyze a .doc file on the fly, then walk you through it sentence by sentence. You can make the corrections on the spot, decide to ignore the suggestion or flag it for a later rewrite. I’ve only just started using Editor, but it has already shown me a number of ways my prose could be tightened, sharpened and cleaned up.

Is this software a substitute for a talented human content editor, copy editor and/or line editor? No. It assumes that you are already saying essentially what you want to say with your prose. It won’t tell you that the plot is too slow in the middle third or that your hero is an ass or that you spend too much time describing the food your characters are about to eat.

However, it is several important steps up from the spelling and grammar tools loaded into MS Word. The high end version of Editor is $75, a moderately significant chunk of change for an indie writer, but it’s much less than what you’d pay a decent copy editor to proofread your work.


Monthly Themes as Planning Tools for Writing

This month, instead of my usual haphazard blog writing, I’ve been doing the A to Z blogging challenge. It’s an entire month of 26 blog posts in alphabetical order, organized around some central theme. What’s different about my blogging for this is in the subject I chose: woodworking tools. All of these posts are non-fiction and have nothing whatsoever to do with writing, editing, publishing or the writing life.

My blog is a “writing blog”, which means it’s supposed to be topically focused on that. However, I deliberately chose something outside the normal scope because I needed a break from the usual; frankly, I’ve been wondering if my readers needed a break from my usual, too. I’ve discussed the trials and tribulations around my writing so much that I feared I was doing little more than whining and replowing the same ground.

From a planning standpoint, it was nice this month to have a solid structure within which to select topics and theme-related objects for each day’s post. It helps to stave off the dreaded “What shall I blog about today?” question. Does this mean that I’ve abrogated the responsibility for creativity in selection of subjects for my blog posts? Not at all. I view this as akin to using a writing prompt as the basis for a short story. Thus far, I think I’ve written more (and better) blog posts than I have in a long time.

Another effect of this A to Z Challenge is that the arrangement of letters in the month caused the letters E, K, Q and W to fall on Fridays. Since I’ve been writing and posting a new flash fiction story every Friday for several years, I saw this as another layer of writing prompt to work within. After picking the woodworking tools for each letter in the alphabet, I worked up a series of related story plots using the E, K, Q and W items. The first three stories – “Exotic Wood”, “On Bended Knee”, and “Quickly, Staunch the Wound”– were based on “E is for Exotic wood”, “K is for Kneepads” and “Q is for Quick-set epoxy.” (As of this writing, the final part of the story – i.e. the W-associated item – has yet to be revealed.)

In general, I don’t plan out extended story arcs for Friday Flash pieces. I want each piece to stand alone, so I rarely make serials out of them. This sometimes means that my stories whipsaw around in style, tone and genre from week to week. That’s probably poor planning for building an audience other than the “Surprise me again, Tony” type of audience. As with the non-fiction posts about the woodworking tools, I think these stories are among the better ones I’ve produced in recent months. I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted that for stories that had to feature a specific item like kneepads or quick-set epoxy. Nevertheless, there it is.

What has this month of thoroughly planned blogging taught me?

First, nonfiction can be as much fun to write as fiction. Second, nonfiction can be as engaging and entertaining as fiction. Third, structure and planning are foundations for productivity, but commitment and prioritization are what make good intentions turn into words on the screen.

I planned out this month of blog posts as completely as I ever planned out any of the novels I never finished. The difference? The planning I did for those novels was so complete that I lost any interest in writing out the novels themselves – I already knew what happened. For these posts, I knew what tool I was going to write about for any given letter, but I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say until I started talking.

Maybe that’s the big takeaway lesson here. Instead of looking at a thoroughly outlined book and feeling like I’ve already created the world for myself, I need to imagine a listener sitting across the table from me to whom I’m telling a story. What part of planning does that fall under? Self-hypnosis? Psychology? Autodidacticism?

I’ll say this: planning your work and your writing structure is tricky, especially when you’re trying to trick your own brain into giving up its secrets in an entertaining way.

Presuming to Edit Neil Gaiman

Let me get this out in the open: I like Neil Gaiman. I like his writing, I like his style, and I like the apparent ease with which he not only navigates the alabaster halls of writerly fame, but is polite and supportive in his interactions with his fans. He bestrides the narrow world like a colossus; I am, at best, a zed, an unnecessary letter. These are neither fanboi gush nor false modesty, but simple facts.

All of which makes this blog post a bit troublesome for me to write.

When I started posting stories on my website, one of the first things that was pointed out to me was a tic in my writing that I wasn’t even aware of. Having written, re-read and edited the stories, I posted them with this linguistic tic in place. It took someone else to point it out to me. Ever since then, I’ve been sensitive to it, like a man stung by a jellyfish will develop a hypersensitivity to it. I look for it in my own writing and, compulsively, in just about every piece of fiction I read.

When I see it in my own writing, I revise it. When I edit other people’s writing, I flag it. When I beta read for friends, I point to it.

I saw it here on the Today’s Author website and was all set to write a blog post discussing why writers should always be on the lookout for this, why you should check your own work to make sure this doesn’t crop up. Then, to my chagrin, I saw Neil Gaiman do it and it gave me pause. Here’s a guy who CLEARLY knows how to write, someone who has autographed more books than I’ll probably ever sell… but there it is. He did that thing I was all set to tell people not to do. A cat can look at a king, but who am I to edit Neil Gaiman?

If he put it there, it had to be deliberate. Since he knows what he’s doing (to put it mildly), that deliberation is worth rethinking my own reaction to it.Grumpy cat is not amused by textual repetition.

I’m talking about opening repetition, using the same words in the beginning of a paragraph.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes repetition is used deliberately, as I did in the sentence above (“When I see…”, “When I edit…”, “When I beta read…”). It establishes a rhythm for the words, an underlying chord progression that supports the changes in the sentences. That kind of intentional repetition is poetic and can be quite powerful. Neil Gaiman used it to good effect in the May tale in his Calender of Tales project.

However, in Kim Ellington’s piece, The Thrill of Chills, is a different kind of repetition. (I hope Kim doesn’t mind my drawing on her work for this illustration. After all, she can now safely say that she writes the way Neil Gaiman does, at least in this one way, which is pretty good company to keep.) A consecutive series of Kim’s paragraphs open with:

I grew…
I loved…
I didn’t know…
I prefer…

This is the kind of repetition that, had I written the blog post I set out to write, I would have suggested warranted a second look in order to vary the sentence structures. Maybe change the opening of the second paragraph to “Oh, how I loved…” or “What called to me…” or some other construction that would have the same meaning, but would avoid the repetition.

But then I read this set of openings in a set of successive paragraphs in the March tale of Neil Gaiman’s Calender of Tales:

She was dressed…
She fell…
She left…

So much for my hypersensitivity! I hit that sequence and fell out of the story as my internal editor was challenged by this repetition. What does that say about this aspect of writing? Or about me as a reader/editor? I tend to avoid even one successive repetition, lest the reader stumble on the opening of the second paragraph and be pulled out. Am I wrong? Is even three repetitions OK, but four too many? I once beta read a book for a friend that had (as I recall) twelve of the first sixteen paragraphs start with:

Bob ran…
Bob opened…
Bob took…
Bob gave…
Bob looked…
Bob angled…
Bob closed…
Bob walked…
Bob climbed…

This was too much and I said so. As I had been unaware when it was first pointed out to me, so was my friend unaware that it had taken such strong root in that book.

So, now that I’ve held up Kim’s and Neil Gaiman’s writing as exemplars of repetition, what can I do now but invite them to comment? (For the record, I contacted them both with a preview link before submitting this post to the Today’s Author overlords.) Guys, was this intentional? Was it part of an impulse that made the words sound the way you wanted them to? Do you look for this kind of thing when you self-edit, as I do? Did you intend to leave this here or did it slip through the cracks?

Also (looking for anyone’s input here), am I crazy for paying attention to this? Am I overthinking things again?

On Being An Unexpected Writer

Writing fiction is one of the central features of my life.

Confession: that sentence evokes a strange feeling of dislocation as I write it. It’s strange to think about just how many hours per week I spend writing and thinking about fiction.

This wasn’t my life’s goal, not something I always dreamed of doing when I grew up. I read loads of novels and short stories, of course, in all sorts of genres: Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, etc. To write them, though… this was never something I ever considered.

Mostly, this was due to other, stronger passions and career ambitions. In part, it was because my family and culture regarded storytelling skill as trivial bullshitting and blarney, a fine ability to go with conviviality among family and friends, but not anything that should be regarded as an actual skill with any real marketable value. In part, though, it was because I took up with my mother’s milk the assumption that (in the unfortunate lingo of Missouri in the 1970s) “only drug addicts, queers and Communists” wrote books. It might be OK to READ books sometimes, but it wouldn’t be at all respectable to WRITE them.

Needless to say, I didn’t fit in well as a child.

How strange it is, then, that after so many years of thinking that writing is something that only “other people” do, a respectable, boring, 9-to-5 day job, statistically average guy like me should recognize writing as one of the mainstays of my life. The foundations laid down in my youth still whisper that this is somehow wrong. Playing a sport of some kind (softball, bowling, cycling, hunting, etc.) would be a sufficiently manly past-time, as would the watching of other grown men play a sport of some kind (football, baseball, basketball, auto racing, etc.). Even watching cooking shows, political screaming and other forms of mindless television for hours on end would be more acceptable. After all, who in their right mind would deliberately make things up and not only write them down, but worry over the phrasing so that their lies would be more convincing? Every now and then, the cognitive dissonance can be almost overwhelming.

How important is writing to me? When other things don’t go well, I dust off my hands and get on with the next task. When my writing doesn’t go well, I agonize, lying awake at night wondering what has gone wrong with me.

Recently, I read that Miguel de Cervantes didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. He never wanted to be a writer; he worked for, and succeeded at, a career in the army. It was only after twenty-odd years of military service that he began to cast around for something else to do, some new passion in which to invest his hours. “Don Quixote” was one of the works that resulted, probably the best known work of Spanish literature in all of history.

I wonder if Major Cervantes’ superiors knew that he was a scribbling away on odd bits of parchment during his lunch breaks and on slow afternoons in the quartermaster’s office. All those reports, memos, budgets and other administrative tasks that were so vitally important at the time are now just dust, unrecorded and unremembered. If only all writers with day jobs could draw comfort from latter-day success of their hobbyist fictions!

My first real book is out in the world, trying to find a home. I’m working hard not to build up expectations for how it will fare in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition. My next book is banging at the doors of my mind, trying to get out and onto the page.

Do other writers function the way I do? Is your writing a pair of glasses through which you view the world?

Bleeding Ink

A couple of years ago, I picked up a pair of old fountain pens at a garage sale for a dollar apiece. I’d only stopped at the sale to buy a large mirror in a wooden frame, but while I was there I looked over the odds-and-ends table, which is where I saw the pens.

The black pen had a cheap steel nib and some scoring on the threads, but the barrel was in good shape. The other pen was much more interesting. For one thing, it was light brown. The nib was almost completely hidden and the back end unscrewed to reveal a plunger fill mechanism. It was like no pen I’d ever seen before.

Later that day, some closer inspection revealed some manufacturing marks. That led to some information on the Internet about my new pen. I’d stumbled onto a Parker 51, a legendary model. Smooth writing, beautiful, easy to hold, easy to use, it has a fine nib that leaves a clear line and an ink reservoir that lasts for a long, long time. My particular pen is a double-jeweled, blue diamond edition, manufactured in the third quarter of 1946. The brown is not as rare as the tan or green, but is rarer than the black or maroon.

Parker 51 header

My Parker 51… with added lens flare

The Parker 51 has been described as “the finest fountain pen ever produced”. Fanboi hyperbole aside, I did some investigation of how much such a pen would go for at auction. Through eBay and other sites, I established that my pen is worth considerably more than the dollar I paid for it.

Aside from its monetary value, I love this pen. I love that it fell into my lap. I love writing with it. I love writing words that start with the letter “f”, since they allow me to make large, swooping strokes. I love that it is unusual. I love that it fits my style of manner and dress so well.

How sad I was, then, to think that I’d ruined it.

When I first got this pen, after I’d cleaned and reconditioned it, I loaded it with Sheaffer Skrip ink, a reliable, well-respected ink designed for fountain pens. I bought three bottles: blue, black and blue-black. Conservative, I know, but I didn’t want to take any chances with my new treasure. All was well and the world was fine. Then I switched inks.

With previous pens, I’d experimented using different colors and mixtures. A 5:1 blend of black and metallic green gave a wonderfully rich ink that lent my words a sheen like that seen on foreign currency. A 2:5:1 mix of black, red and metallic green yielded a maroon color that reminded me of flayed skin, very good for writing horror. Alternating among blue, blue-black and black made me feel like writing crime drama, detective noir, legal adventures.

To change things up a bit, I tried a 1:2 mix of Sheaffer Skrip blue and Parker Quink peacock blue in my Parker 51. What could be safer for a Parker pen than Parker ink? Serious dark blue with a hint of playfulness, it looked great for weeks… until the pen started to fail.

After a while, I noticed that a bead of dark ink leaked out around the barrel seam. It stained my fingers, bled onto the papers I was handling. It turned my wonderful, magical pen into the kind of clumsy, messy apparatus that people associate with Charlie Brown’s splotches. Every morning, the bead was bigger when I took off the cap. I was appalled.

Was this the cause of my pen’s misery?

The peacock blue Quink did something to my pen. Somehow, the modern Parker ink was completely wrong for my vintage Parker pen. Was it too acidic? Too basic? Did it have a surfactant ingredient that I’d failed to notice? Old pens reach a certain equilibrium within their works. The pigment flows into microscopic cracks and solidifies, much like carbon buildup seals around the piston rings in old V8 engines. Get rid of the gunk and the engine won’t run at all. By switching inks, I disturbed the internal equilibrium of my pen.

It was horrible. Even after I got rid of the Skrip/Quink abomination and flushed the pen with pure black Sheaffer Skrip, the leak got worse. A pen I loved was turning into a pen that was distracting to use in private and which I was increasingly embarrassed to use in public. It was like having a perfectly trained dog who’d developed uncontrollable incontinence – I found myself constantly apologizing for the mess.

What to do? The leak reduced the pen’s monetary value by hundreds of dollars, but I couldn’t afford to take the pen to a shop and have it serviced. Even if I did, it would no longer be purely vintage.

It was truly a black night of the soul… black with a noticeable blue tinge. All I could do was keep loading the pen with the right ink and pray that it would find its way home again.

Thankfully, happily, miraculously, the bleeding ink tapered off a few weeks ago, then stopped. Like the long-suffering woman who touched the hem of Christ’s robe and was thereby healed of her decades-long affliction, my Parker 51 has been returned to me: safe, sound and whole. If you have a favorite writing instrument, you know how I felt.

With care and reverence, I cleaned off the last of the ink that stained the barrel seam and refilled it with Sheaffer Skrip black. My Parker 51 and I have been delivered from the valley of the shadow of pen death, and we shall rejoice in the light of a new day, forever more. Amen.

It’s not always easy to be funny

Live cat is funny. Dead cat is not. Unless it’s the other way around.

One of the perennial frustrations of my writing life is that I have an uncomfortably close connection with Schrodinger’s cat, or at least my sense of humor does.See, when I’m not trying to be funny, I can hum right along and say funny things, or at least say things that seem funny to ME. I can talk and talk, cracking wise and being silly to marvelous effect. The people I talk to and that read my stuff generally seem to agree. However, when I’m actively trying to write something funny… I get nothing. I can feel myself trying too hard, feel the phrases locking up as I try to get them down on the page, feel the kludge and clumsiness of them as they fall flat.

I’ve tried to trick myself into being funny “unintentionally” when I have something funny to write. There I’ll be, hammering out something that’s dry instead of wry, shitty instead of witty, and boring instead of something that rhymes with clever. Then, from out of nowhere, BANG! I try to surprise myself into being funny. I think of something utterly unrelated, like that part of a cow where the milk comes out. With luck, the shock of the non-sequiteur shakes loose some bit of mental gravel that will go banging about in the mental machinery, there to get ground into the magic pixie dust of humor. With LOTS of luck, this happens before the grit in the gears derails my thought process entirely.

The method is a bit like sneaking up behind Bruce Banner and pouring a glass of ice water down his shirt in hopes of getting the Hulk to come out and play. Come to think of it, the results are usually about as chaotic.

While there are some standard forms and methods to being funny, they’re only helpful when using them (and breaking them) is done in a natural way. This might be innate or it might be internalized, ritualized and habitualized through long practice. If you’ve been making people laugh for years and years, your sense of comic timing and comic word choice can appear effortless. In reality, this is no different than someone who is “effortlessly” charismatic, charming, masterful, or regal. Do it long enough, strive for excellence and expertise, use practice and focus to build on native talent, and you’ll look effortless, too. I promise.

What does it mean to have something be “naturally” funny? I don’t mean that it’s funny to everyone, since everyone’s sense of humor is different. For some people it’s nonexistent, but that’s another blog post. No, by “natural”, I mean “anything but forced-seeming”. I’m not quite there yet with respect to my comic writing. It remains, alas, far too heavily tinged with the patina of “please tell me this is funny”, and as yet possesses too little of the firm, confident brushwork that says, “this is funny, let me share it with you”. This is something I continue to strive for and to work on.

If Schrodinger had used a dog in his gedankenexperiment, I’m sure this wouldn’t be an issue. Dogs will laugh at anything.

Janus and the turning of the writing year

Janus, god of transitions

Arbitrary as it is, the end of the calender year is a traditional time to look back on what was, to consider what is and to plan for what might be. The first month of the year, January, was named for the Roman god Janus, a figure with two faces: one looking back, the other looking ahead. Although any day of the year can be a time of reflections, it is the touchstone dates that prompt the self-examination. Day-to-day living is too full of day-to-day concerns for us to take a step back and see the big picture.

It’s by no special magic that I get the Today’s Author slot for the last day of 2012. It was open and I said I’d write a post for today. By the act of reaching out to claim this day as mine, it became mine. Simple as that. Now, as I write this post, I realize that within that simple act is contained the seed of every step forward. This site is new, although the contributors have worked together on various projects and collaborative blogs in the past. How best to launch this site? To establish it and help it to find its voice? Where is the path forward, and how best shall we take it?

It will grow as anything grows: in fits and starts, fed by the remains of last season’s flush of growth, driven onward by the desire to reach for the clean air and bright light somewhere high above. I’m looking forward to the coming year and to the writing opportunities that it will bring. Some of it will be documentary, as I talk about my own experiences writing and publishing. Some will be advisory, as I try to share lessons I’ve learned. Some will be speculative, dealing with things I don’t know but wish I did.

In any event, this year will be a bit of the old, a bit of the new, a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected. Despite his strange outlook on the world, occupied both with what was and what is yet to be, Janus never stumbles. It’s a skill that’s worth learning for all of us.