K.I.S.S. Bad Writing Goodbye

Hi folks! Today we have a guest post from Grammarly.com’s Nikolas Baron, who’s written an excellent piece that offers great advice on how to keep your writing simple and easy to digest. I learned a lot from this piece and highly recommend it. Thanks for sharing it, Nick. Now without further ado…

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In this post, I’m going to try to convince you that not only is simple writing more pleasant for readers, it is also a perfect method to KISS bad writing goodbye. Our mantra for today – K.I.S.S. Keep It Super Simple.

With this goal in mind, my entire entry will be written whilst I refrain from using any words more than two sound units. I borrowed this superb idea from Ruth Randell, a writer who wrote a novel that targets British adults whom she has observed to struggle with getting past the headlines in the press. I must admit that this exercise practice, with the added constraint, was initially a challenge at the beginning start, but trust me, with some effort, your brain will rewire itself without much of a struggle.

The thing about writing is that the more complex it is, the more readers you’ll be leaving out. And frankly, unless you’re writing a PhD in neural science on lab monkeys, I’m guessing you’ll want as big of a target audience as you can get. No one wants to be baffled by hard words or abstruse terms. So my first advice is to keep the jargon at the door.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that you should unlearn what English teachers taught you since grade school. I don’t want to be the one children quote when they want to drop out. What I’m saying is quite the contrary opposite REVERSE (that’s the word). Big words do have their rightful place as well, but that isn’t what makes for the kind of poignant writing we’re striving towards. What is helpful about giving this practice a shot is that it forces you to exhaust every single word that you can think of in an attempt to convey your thoughts in a clear and concise fashion.

Next, don’t pen down the first thing you think of. That is a feature linked to writers who can’t quite be bothered to invest time in cutting down their ideas. Your final product shouldn’t look like an exact copy of your draft. The process of any skilled writer will bring you through a journey, from a series of cluttered musings due to the urge to say many things, to a shorter, more modest display of words. This very aptly discerns between a novice and a writer who has honed his skill.

If you’re now starting to fathom how simple is really not that easy, I’ll let you in on the golden rule. Keep it to one idea per sentence. Not only will this be the ticket to solving your grammar issues, shorter lines also make for writing that brings more of an impact to your readers. Research shows that a normal person can focus without strained efforts for up to eight seconds, one second less than a goldfish. Now, I’m not sure what you inferred from that, but as the species that reside on top of the food chain, let’s pray that the goldfish don’t find out their knack for longer brain function than us. Who knows what a world governed by fishes would be like.

Lastly, keeping it super simple usually requires a heavy changing of words and phrases, where the delete key will become your best friend – don’t hate it. Always look out for words that you can cut out. Usually, a ‘finished’ text can be reduced by at least ten percent. At the same time, don’t forget to check for slip-ups with grammar. Be a grammar Nazi and grammar check every line, leaving no stone unturned. To lighten my load, I like to employ the help of Grammarly (the only three-sound unit word I’d use) to double-check certain rigid rules of the language.

And it’s done! We survived this post using only of two-sound words! It wasn’t that hard, was it?

By Nikolas Baron

My Next Novel? Yeah, That’s Finished.

Had a long weekend out of town so this is my first chance to share with you, the reader, but Thursday evening I nailed down the first draft of the second book in the Among the Dead series, Pathways of the Dead. Even now I can scarcely believe that it’s happened; I began what would become known as Pathways last summer and pushed through it even during the Room 3 publication process. I had anticipated the finished first draft in March or April. May is acceptable enough, but it had begun to feel like it just wasn’t going to happen.

Of course, this is far from the finish line. The book is still working its way through the various layers of critiques and editors (TWO editors on this one in addition to the critique group and beta readers). The next stage of the voyage begins on the 24th, when I send a first draft that’s been altered with critique comments to my content editor. She’ll sanity-check the thing and make sure that I haven’t somehow put a character’s pants on his head, that sort of thing. Common errors. From there I incorporate her changes and get it out to my lovely, dedicated beta readers. All of this goes on while the critique group continues to read through the evolving drafts until they reach the end. Once ALL of that’s done, it goes to my final editor for final say.

This is a change. While the editing process on the last two books have not been solely on my shoulders, there have been phases that were nothing but my own changes. If all goes well, this book will see nothing like that. I’ll make my own changes in tandem with suggestions from other authors, readers, and editors, making for a far more polished reading experience.

In the meantime, you can expect to see a new cover for Corridors to accompany a revised edition (no major cheats, just some cleaning-up of the text) that feeds right into Pathways. Pathways cover reveal will be done about a month prior to release, so watch this space for more information.

In the meantime, a quick FAQ for folks who read the first book. This will evolve over time and sit on the Among the Dead page.

1. What is this Pathways nonsense? I thought the sequel was called City of the Dead. I wanted that to be so, but the version of City that I had crafted would have been north of 200K+ words. A thematic split also became apparent during the drafting process, and so it only felt natural to split the two books. City of the Dead is still coming, it’s just book 3.

2. What do you mean by a thematic split? Among the Dead is a series that incorporates elements of many different genres. Book 1, Corridors of the Dead, was an urban fantasy-cum-coming-of-age tale. Pathways is more of an action film with some mystery elements. Book 3, City of the Dead, is a cross between a fantasy and a mystery with some elements of a metaphysical journey. Book 4, Portal of the Dead, is a fantasy thriller. Now imagine trying to maintain some thematic consistency between an action film and a slower mystery novel and you see why City had to be split.

3. Is it still a trilogy? No. Among the Dead is now four books.

4. Are you going to be one of those authors who just keeps going and going with the series? Given the ultimate ending of this series, it would be pretty difficult to keep going. I do have a few ideas for prequels under my vest, but those would be far, far off and only for a good reason. I do think that some of the characters introduced over the course of the series would constitute that good reason, such as Omarosa and Anushka.

5. Omarosa? Isn’t she that woman from the Apprentice? The name Omarosa is actually Babylonian; it referred to a mistress of the universe, probably meaning “the sea.” The name is highly appropriate for the character devoid of any popular connections. Besides, I like the name. We’re taking it back.

6. Who are some of the new characters? Well, you know about Omarosa. I don’t want to give too much away, but you’ll meet the creator of the robot, Jazshael, from Corridors of the Dead (and oh boy will you meet him). He’s a very interesting, complex character who will pop up again and again through the rest of the series. The original founder of the Acolytes, Alma, will appear. Two characters from Room 3 make appearances as well – see if you can spot them. Both have prominent roles, though one is a younger version of himself.

7. How many characters die this time? Will your blood lust ever be satisfied? ALL OF THE CHARACTERS. ALL OF THEM. AND NEVER.

8. Where does Room 3 fit into all of this? Room 3 is a side-story to the series. You wouldn’t need to read it to understand what happens in Among the Dead, but some of the issues that pop up make a whole lot more sense when you understand just what the Watchers were up to in London in the late aughts. In time, I’ll fill in the gaps for folks who might have missed these connections.

9. Are you going to write about magick and fantasy all your life? No, sheesh, MOM. I actually have three literary books in the pipeline and am toying with the idea of using the whole Labor Day Rush method to write one of them. Crazy? Oh, probably, but it’s the best way I can think of to give myself the breathing room necessary to get one of those books out.

10. Okay, I’m interested. When can I buy it? Patience. Good work takes time…I’ll let you know as soon as I can.

Bottom line? STAY TUNED….

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How to use Grammarly to Improve Your Writing

Today we’re going to take a look at Grammarly, a helpful tool to sharpen your writing. This includes simple step-by-step instructions on submitting your document and running it through the Grammarly engine.

Full disclosure up front: Grammarly sponsors Shaggin the Muse and my novels, but it’s not exactly a form of monetary compensation. They gave me an opportunity to use Grammarly to its full potential, which is pretty awesome since I’d tested it out once or twice in the past and found it useful. Now I’m not trying to do a sales pitch here at all – I am not and never have been that sort of guy – but I do like to share things that might help other writers, and I think Grammarly has a lot to offer. I wanted to walk you guys through a pretty simple tutorial and show you what I’ve gained from using it in just the last few weeks. I mean, sure, I could talk about the benefits that I’ve seen, but I’d much rather show than tell, so I wrote up a brief tutorial on how to use it and what you can get.

I’m not getting paid for this beyond the sponsorship – I just want to give you guys another option. We all benefit from better books. To that end, I would like to let you know that this will soon be an ongoing series detailing some of the tools that writers can use; Scrivener is in the near future, if you’re interested in that one.

But today, Grammarly. First, obviously, you’ll need to sign up for a trial account or purchase one. This tutorial assumes that you’ve done one of those and have a login.

1. Open your document in Word or whatever other editing tool you’re using. For this tutorial, I’ll be using the current state of Chapter 2 from City of the Dead.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 1

2. Go to Grammarly.com and log in.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 2

3. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the control buttons; Paste, of course, allows you to paste any text that you’ve copied. Upload allows you to upload a text document. We’ll get to Start Review shortly, along with the plagiarism tool. Copy and Download provide methods to get your cleaned-up text out of the editor, and Clear allows you to remove the text that you’ve imported.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you want to maintain your document’s formatting, you must use the Upload button to import and the Download button to export.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 3

4. Upload (or Copy and paste) the text from your Word document. I copied and pasted here just for simplicity’s sake.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 4

5. Click the Start Review button. You’ll get the option to choose what type of work you’re checking; obviously I default to creative, but there are some other great options. Once you’ve selected your paper type, click Start Review again.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 5

Note that Grammarly caps document size at under 20 pages; there is a very good reason for this, as it can take quite some time for even a 19 page document.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 6

Grammarly processes your document. Go grab a sandwich or something.

How to Use Grammarly -  Step 7

6. Once processing is complete, Grammarly populates the grammar information box on the right-hand side of the screen. The top of the box shows the number of issues found (this is not always an accurate measure of how well-written your document may be, as we’ll see), a numeric score (79 out of 100 is actually quite good), an option for a summary, and the option to save/print the report as a PDF. Below that are the issues that Grammarly found, with the number of those “violations” indicated in the blue bubble.  Click on the Summary link.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 8

Summary offers the same information from before, along with the number of enhancement suggestions and the meaning of your score.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 9

7. Close the summary and click on the first highlight item that you see in the text; in this instance, it’s “the bed”. A grammar pop-up appears, offering you the option to see either a short explanation of the issue or a long explanation. You also have the option of taking a question to the community or ignoring the issue. As you can see, this example is actually quite fine (“the” is a necessary article in this sentence), but not all issues are false positives, so you need to really go through it with a fine-tooth comb. I click the Ignore button for false positives.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 10

8. To make changes, click on the text inside the highlighted area and make your changes as you normally would; you can see how I’ve altered the sentence below. When you’re finished, click the Next-> link.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 11

As you can see below, Grammarly may not be perfect and have some suggestions that don’t really work, which is why the app is not a replacement for an editor, just a method to strengthen your work via proofreading.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 12

9. When you’ve finished running through your changes, go to the top and click the Review Changes button. As usual, you will be able to choose your paper type. Click Review Changes again, and Grammarly will check your new version.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 13

10. Click the Summary button and you can see the new ratings and suggestions; as you can see, the changes that I made on the first pass lifted the score from 79 to 93, a number with which I’m way more comfortable. At this stage, I’d feel okay sending it on to my editor.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 14

11. Use the Copy and/or Download button to pull the information out of Grammarly.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 15

12. If you want to check another document, you need to click the Clear button. With this done, you can start the process all over again.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 16

Now let’s take a look at some of the other features that I enjoy about Grammarly. You’ll want to click on the Dashboard link.

How to Use Grammarly - Step 17

Below is the dashboard view. We’ll talk about the components in a bit.

How to Use Grammarly - Dashboard

First is what I think of as the Documents Checked and Statistics subsection. This shows the number of documents that you’ve checked, the average score, and the trend over time. You can view this for week, month, and year.

How to Use Grammarly - Documents Checked

Next is the Grammar subsection, which shows the most common issues found in documents which you’ve submitted. You can click on the category name to find out more information on just what that section entails.

How to Use Grammarly - Grammar Count

On the right-hand side is your personal grammar handbook. You don’t get this one right away; Grammarly has to run through a few documents before it can identify the items that you might need to focus on.

How to Use Grammarly - Grammar Handbook

Clicking on the book opens a view that shows some of the grammar issues that you might need to review. Just a note, the one below shows up for me because of the amount of dialogue that I use. Every single instance of this has been related to dialogue, so it’s best to be smart when it comes to usage here. I suspect that a larger sample size will enable Grammarly to truly identify those grammar rules that present a problem for me (and I do have a few). I see this feature having a lot of potential, but it’s still pretty early on in my Grammarly experience, so I can only offer you a real thumbnail view.

How to Use Grammarly - Grammar Handbook 2So there you go, a high-level view of how to run your document through and a glimpse of how things work. Let me know if you have any questions or comments, or would like to see anything more in-depth.

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Farpoint Convention Wrap-up and General Thoughts

Morning all. I know it might seem a little odd that I didn’t liveblog the third day of my Farpoint convention experience. Maybe it seemed that I had lost interest, I’m not sure, but no. The truth is that Sunday turned out to be such a busy day that I simply didn’t have the time to handle sales and update the blog. Good news, right? Absolutely. While I didn’t break even (and let’s face it, few authors do), I increased my visibility, made some friends, and had a blast. So let’s tidy up the loose ends on this thing.

First I want to express my deepest gratitude to my table neighbors, Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Mike McPhail (both from Dark Quest Books) for giving a rookie some pointers.

They gave me some brilliant ideas for future appearances and pointed out what might not be working. I appreciate that. I treat my publication business in the same manner that I treat my day job – any new knowledge is useful – and they gave me a lot to chew on. Hope to run into them at future shows.

I know my Friday entry seemed a little pessimistic, and Saturday morning felt a little rough, but at some point I finally “got” that I was there for a marketing/PR appearance, not to make money. Once that clicked, I started to warm up and ended up having a blast. It funny, too; once that occurred, my sales picked up. My three-day numbers wouldn’t blow anyone away, but it a pretty good start for a newbie.

As I mentioned on Saturday, I got to meet Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad fame and Felicia Day. I also got to shake the hand of Peter David, the author who has handled writing duties on the Dark Tower comic series. I know I’ve talked about my love-hate relationship with that series, but overall it had more good than bad, and it felt great to share my enthusiasm with him.

Sunday felt good. I had more visitors and felt more able to get into the flow. I engaged folks as they passed and managed to draw a few folks who seemed interested. We had to leave early as the other business needed some tending – that does, after all, help to fund this side of things – but overall I felt positive about the experience. So positive, in fact…

That I can confirm we’ll be making an appearance at Parafest 2013 in Bethlehem, PA from September 6th to 8th. I’ve also sent in my registration for the Gaithersburg Book Festival, but I want to wait until that fully set up before confirming that date. I have a few other shows on my radar for the coming months, but we’ll leave that a surprise for now.

I’m also proud to announce that I’m partnering with Grammarly, a site that provides a strong second set of eyes for your work. I do think the site can replace the work of a good editor, but it goes several steps beyond Word’s grammar feature and can sharpen up drafts before they go to your editor. I’ve tried it out, and so far I like it. Give it a spin and see what you think.

Other items…we’re in the process of working on the City of the Dead cover. I can’t say too much else as things are in flux. If this weekend taught me nothing else, it’s that I may need to reconsider the current look. We’ll see.

That it for today. Watch this space for more news.

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