Beta-Readers

There never used to be such a thing as beta-readers. There were critique groups, to be sure, where other writers would read your work and offer criticisms or suggestions. That was a form of beta-reading, but the term “beta-reader” popped out of the woodwork only after it became common knowledge that unreleased software.is tested by beta-testers. (The term “beta” refers to the fact that alpha-testing is done in-house by the software developers themselves. A beta-tester is an outside person, and may bring a fresh perspective to the testing process, thereby uncovering defects that the alpha-testers missed.)

Probably the insanely competitive nature of publishing has something to do with the trend toward beta-reading. One has the sense that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens finished their manuscripts and sent them directly off to the publisher. The idea of having a select group of readers read the unpublished novel and give you comments might even have seemed bizarre in the 19th century. Who but the writer could possibly know what he or she intended? If the reader failed to comprehend or appreciate the material, that would have been thought the reader’s fault, not the writer’s.

Or at least, that’s my speculation. Be that as it may, today beta-readers are felt to have something useful to contribute to the process of authorship. With that in mind, I’ve slapped together a list of questions that one might provide to one’s beta-readers alongside the manuscript. This list is not, for the most part, my own work. It’s based on a very nice blog post in a group blog called The Kill Zone, and seems to have been written by guest blogger Jodie Renner. I reorganized the ideas, rewrote some of the questions, and added a couple of questions that relate specifically to fantasy/sf books, which are often part of a series.

Oh, and I found that blog thanks to a link in a piece Nat Russo wrote on beta-readers in his blog.

When you’re ready to present your work to a few beta-readers, below are some questions you may want to steer them toward:

About the beginning and the ending:

Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, did you find the beginning dull or confusing? Was there something you wished would happen in the opening that didn’t happen? What was it?

Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when the story takes place? If not, did you feel that the beginning was “floating,” with no anchors to tell where and when it was happening, or did you think you knew, but guess wrong?

Was the ending satisfying? Was it believable? Did the ending of one book leave you wanting to read the next book in the series?

About the characters:

Could you relate to the main characters? Did you feel their pain, confusion, or excitement?

Did you find it easy to believe the characters were real people, or did they seem stiff and artificial to you? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

Which characters did you really connect to? Which characters seemed kind of blah, so that you wished they had more development or focus, or you wanted to know more about them?

Did you get confused about who’s who among the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Are any of the characters or their names too similar, so that you weren’t sure who you were reading about?

Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, was there a particular character whose dialogue sounded artificial or not the way that person would speak?

About the world of the story:

Did the setting interest you? Did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you, so that you understood where you were and what was going on, or did the descriptions seem blah, jumbled, or too short?

Did the world of the story seem real to you, including the magic (or future technology) and the way people live? Or did you notice things that didn’t seem to make sense? If something didn’t make sense to you, what was it?

About the story itself:

Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

Was there a point at which you felt the story started to sag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where did that happen, exactly?

Were there any parts that confused you, or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts? Were there places where you felt disgusted or uncomfortable? What were those places? Please try to describe why you felt the way you did.

Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details? If so, what were they?

Which scenes did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

Were there places where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down? Were there parts you thought might be condensed or even deleted?

Which parts of the story resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

Which parts would you like to see developed further or brought more to life?

About the writing:

In scenes where there was a lot of dialogue, did you ever find it hard to keep track of who was speaking?

Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

Did you notice any grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? If so, what were they?

Do you think the writing style suits the story? Or was it too elevated? Too modern? Too casual?

Were there scenes or lines that you really liked?

More About Scrivener

Yesterday I finished the draft of Book III of the Leafstone Saga, my four-volume series of fantasy novels, and started fleshing out my ideas for Book IV. A couple of weeks ago I bought Scrivener, and this seemed the right moment to give it a serious try.

After only one day with it, I’m convinced. I’ve barely tapped its features, and already I can see how useful it’s going to be.

Starting a novel means jotting down a ton of notes. At least, that’s how I work. I’m told some writers are “pantsers.” They write by the seat of their pants, without outlining or even planning what will come next. I’ve never met a pantser, and if there is such a creature its feeding and mating habits will remain forever mysterious to me. I mean, when you draft a scene of course you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Even if you’ve outlined, things will change when you start writing the scenes. But to start writing a book without knowing where you’re headed? I shudder to imagine it.

As a writer, my motto is, “Well begun is half done.” I outline.

So anyway, here I am, taking notes for The Firepearl Chalice. Until yesterday I had only a couple of vague ideas about the overall direction of the plot. Now I’m starting to fill in the details.

In a conventional word processor, a file full of notes quickly becomes a disorganized mess. Ideas are scattered higgledy-piggledy, hither and yon. Continuity is close to nil.

In Scrivener, organizing one’s ideas is a stroll in the park. The binder (the left panel, which in many programs would be called a browser, except in Scrivener it isn’t a browser per se, it’s more powerful than that) can contain a dozen files or more. You’re always looking at one of them in the main window (or two, if you split the screen), but they’re all open at once. Moving from one file to another is a single click, so if you suddenly get an idea for one of the other characters, you simply switch to that document, enter the idea, and then hit the back button. Slam-dunk. The files can be grouped freely into folders — one folder for the characters, one for the settings, one for the plot, or whatever. The organization is totally up to you.

Technically, you could keep a dozen Word or OpenOffice files open on your screen at the same time, but switching from one to another gets to be fairly annoying, because you have to scroll up or down through a linear list. There are no folders in the list.

Plus, when it comes time to back up your work, if you’ve created a dozen Word files they have to be backed up by drag-copying. You can do this one file at a time, which is a pain and also error-prone, as you may miss one; or you can drag-copy a whole folder, at which point Windows is going to ask you some slightly confusing questions about what you want to do. Scrivener backs up the whole project as a single zip file, and always gives it a new filename based on the date and time of the backup. Saving sequential backups is handled for you.

As an added fillip, you never have to remember to save your work, because Scrivener automatically saves whenever you haven’t typed for two seconds. Oh, and highlighter. Got an especially important insight? Sure, in OpenOffice you can underline it, but there’s only one kind of underline. Scrivener has dozens of highlighter colors, so you can make the page as messy as you like.

Don’t want to stare at your computer desktop while writing? Hit F11. The desktop disappears, leaving you with one Scrivener page on a blank screen or one with the soothing backdrop of your choice.

Not sure yet how it will handle actual outlining, but I’m optimistic.

Get to the Point.

Over on Mythic Scribes, a forum for fantasy writers, someone posted a short excerpt in what he described as an old-fashioned style. It wasn’t very old-fashioned, as several of us pointed out. But it got me thinking. If one were to write in a truly old-fashioned style, what would it look like?

Kris Rusch wrote a thought-provoking blog piece a couple of months ago about Serious Writer Voice. Her point was that far too many writers today write in the same style. Their voices lack individuality.

Arguably, Hemingway deserves some of the blame for this. He made short punchy sentences fashionable. The pulp crime fiction of the 1930s also has a heavy footprint, though the best crime writers breathe life into their blued-steel sentences. Here’s Ross MacDonald, from The Far Side of the Dollar:

He rose in a quick jerky movement and went to the door. I thought he was going to tell me to leave, but he didn’t. He stood against the closed door in the attitude of a man facing a rifle squad.

That’s not MacDonald’s best writing, but it serves nicely to illustrate the hard-boiled style.

Contrast that with 19th century writing. Opening Nicholas Nickleby at random, I find Dickens doing this:

On this repetition of Mr. Mantalini’s fatal threat, Madame Mantalini wrung her hands and implored the interference of Ralph Nickleby; and after a great quantity of tears and talking, and several attempts on the part of Mr. Mantalini to reach the door, preparatory to straight-way committing violence upon himself, that gentleman was prevailed upon, with difficulty, to promise that he wouldn’t be a body. This great point attained, Madame Mantalini argued the question of the allowance, and Mr. Mantalini did the same, taking occasion to show that he could live with uncommon satisfaction upon bread and water and go clad in rags, but that he could not support existence with the additional burden of being mistrusted by the object of his most devoted and disinterested affection.

Not having read the novel in some years, I’m not prepared to say precisely what’s going on in this passage, other than a domestic dispute. But it hardly matters. The point is simple: That is old-fashioned writing. Today’s writer would probably want to break the first sentence apart by putting a period after “Ralph Nickleby,” but it would be wrong to do so. The semicolon splice has the specific function of tying together the emotional outburst in the first half of the sentence (“wrung her hands and implored”) and the “great quantity of tears” in the second half. The second sentence is an uninterrupted flow of 62 words.

Many writers in the 19th century had studied Latin, and those who hadn’t were influenced by those who had. This type of sentence is directly inspired by the Latin period (a sort of extended sentence). I’d like to see today’s aspiring authors (a few of them, at least) tackle that style — not to duplicate it, necessarily, but to learn from it. We’re the poorer for its loss.

The Story So Far…

Mostly I’ve been keeping this project under wraps. It’s time to pull back the edge of the burlap and let you peek underneath.

A year or so ago I started working on a series of YA (that’s Young Adult) fantasy novels — a four-volume series. It’s the largest creative project I’ve ever attempted, and I have to say it’s going very well. Last July I finished the first volume, The Leafstone Shield, and started scouting around for a literary agent. Finding an agent is a frustrating process! Agents are deluged with submissions from aspiring writers, and don’t even have time to dig through the mountain of emails. While waiting for responses, I started working on the second installment, The Ribbonglass Tree.

Toward the end of the year, through an unlikely series of coincidences, I found an agent who actually took the time to sit down and read The Leafstone Shield. She loved it, and she’s now attempting to find a publisher. I finished the second book and started working on volume three, The Heartsong Fountain.

I now have a complete draft of The Heartsong Fountain. Finished it yesterday. I still need to go back through it and tidy up a few details, but alongside that I can start doing detailed development work (a plot outline and sketches of a few key scenes) on the final installment, The Firepearl Chalice.

The four volumes link to tell a single long story. That was part of the challenge — to give each book an emotionally satisfying ending, even though the story isn’t finished! In one sense the Leafstone Saga is a standard tale of epic fantasy. Kyura thinks she’s just an ordinary 17-year-old girl, working in her uncle’s inn, until she discovers she’s the hereditary priest/king of the distant land where she was born. Her father’s whole family was brutally murdered, and some seriously bad things are happening in the land of her birth. It’s up to her to go there and set things right. Unfortunately, Kyura and her friend Meery can’t afford train tickets, and Kyura’s crazy cousin Tornibrac (the current ruler) is trying to have her killed before she even starts on the journey.

A hundred fantasy novels have used similar plot premises — the trope is sometimes referred to as The Chosen One. But the Leafstone Saga has, I hope, some fresh elements that set it apart. For one thing, the setting is not crypto-Medieval, it’s more 19th century. Jostling against the wizards and elves are rifles and pistols, railroad trains, and even a few large, elegant horseless carriages. Magic carpets being old-fashioned and unreliable, the evil wizard zips across the sky in a big glass bubble called an aerosphere. Oh, and texting. See, a wizard can create a pair of blank books. You have one, and your friend has one. Whatever you write in your book (using pen and ink) will magically appear in your friend’s book, and what your friend writes will show up in yours.

It’s not steampunk, because there’s no steam and not much punk. But it’s not weighed down with knights and sword-fights, that’s for sure.

The cast of colorful characters is large. You’ll meet Tierolyn ac Mornath, a down-on-his-luck concert pianist (his instrument is called a hammer-harp, but you get the idea) with an ego the size of a house. Tierolyn’s faithful servant Pimmick always wears a high-crowned hat with a chin-strap so nobody will see his horns. Pimmick is a half-breed demon, but really a very nice person most of the time. Alixia C’Voy is on the run from her truly despicable father, who has arranged for her to marry the leader of a cult that brutally subjugates women. Alixia has fallen in with Spindler, a good-looking but possibly dangerous young thief. To finance Kyura’s expedition, Alixia and Spindler will have to pull off a jewel heist. Alixia’s governess, the straight-laced Madame Scraull, thoroughly disapproves, but finds herself swept up in the action.

Also in the crew are the ghost of a soldier, Zvolnar, who seems not to have been very bright even when he was alive, an ogre named Walf, who hires out to break people’s arms because it pays better than hauling rocks, and the evil wizard Posthilnueze, whose five-syllable name sounds like you’re saying it with a mouth full of rocks. Not to mention Arik, a young ox-tender with a mysterious past and an uncertain future. Kyura is probably falling in love with Arik, and he disappears much too soon!

So that’s what’s going on. While working on Book IV, I also have to create a decent website (to which this blog will eventually migrate). The publishing industry being brutally competitive, there’s no guarantee that my agent will be able to find a publisher. I may end up having to self-publish, which will be even more work.

Why am I going to all this trouble? Well, I think you’ll like Kyura and her crew. I like them, anyhow — and I think a writer has to have a certain loyalty to his or her characters. Life has to be breathed into them. That’s my job.

Head Hurts Now

Stumbled onto a website for writers. It’s called Writer Unboxed. A sort of super-blog with many contributors as well as two co-founders and two assistant editors. Wow, what a great resource!

Uh, let me get back to you on that.

The list of founders, editors, and contributors is nicely displayed in the right-hand column. I had a look. Of the first eleven people I checked, only one (one of the co-founders) has actually published a novel. What’s worse, a couple of them are in the how-to-write-fiction business but haven’t published novels.

I’m not disparaging the content of the site, which I’ve barely glanced at. But the phrase “the halt leading the blind” does rather leap at one, doesn’t it?

My chore for this afternoon is to check out authors’ websites so as to scrape up some tips on how to set up my own. (My current website, musicwords.net, is extremely moldy. Don’t even go there.) Guess I’ll have to look elsewhere for real writers — Unboxed does seem to mean Unboxed. As in, not shipped to bookstores.

Grammaroiditis

In what may shortly become an ongoing crusade to save aspiring writers from the depredations of automated grammar- and style-checking software, last night I had a look at AutoCrit. They have a 7-day free trial, so don’t believe anything I say; check it out for yourself.

I uploaded the opening chapter from Book II of my impending YA fantasy series. AutoCrit’s web-based user interface is quite nice, I’ll give them that. The results of its critical operations are mixed.

Their customer support desk sends an automated follow-up email when you sign up for the free trial. I took the liberty of replying to that email, just on the off-chance that they might find some feedback from a dissatisfied potential customer useful — and this morning (two days later) I have a reply from the site’s owner/developer, thanking me for my comments and asking whether I might like to chat about their plans for AutoCrit. This is good news indeed, not because it feeds my ego (though of course it does) but because it indicates that AutoCrit is still in active development and may improve in the future.

In case you don’t want to wade through the details, let’s put the bottom line up at the top: A software-based system of this sort may help you improve your writing by letting you see a couple of specific things you will want to tweak. In my case, AutoCrit helped me discover that I use the words “probably,” “maybe,” and “certainly” too often. You might find it useful in a different way. But the challenges facing developers of this sort of software seem nearly insurmountable. Much of what AutoCrit tries to help with, it doesn’t help with.

Below is what I told them in my first email, expanded for clarity. (I have since sent a longer, more detailed critique.) First up, the check for long words:

*****

I can understand it flagging words that are from my fantasy universe (such as “leafstone”) as having three or more syllables, even when they don’t. But it also thinks “seethed,” “squatted,” “desire,” and “horseless” have three or more syllables. Better dictionary access might solve this problem.

On a more serious note, it thinks “had” is a marker for passive voice. This is simply wrong. “Had” is a marker for perfect tense, and is often used in active voice constructions. (A sample sentence, from my uploaded work: “They had succeeded.”) The primary markers for passive voice are “be,” “been,” “was,” and “were.” (And even those are more likely to be used as a copula with a predicate adjective, or as past continuous tense markers, than in passive voice.) Granted, passive voice is often a sign of weak writing; but it’s hard to see how a computer could reliably spot it.

The notion that phrases such as “as if” and “not even” are cliches is simply bizarre.

The search for potential homonym misuse produces so many results [displayed on-screen as red blocks on the words] as to be useless. Nobody is going to go through a long passage trying visually to ignore all of the red highlights on “an,” “two,” “but,” “one,” and “be” in search of a stray usage of “discreet” where “discrete” was intended. (After which they’d have to look it up in any case, since the homonym finder doesn’t offer definitions of the alternative words.)

Arguably, the phrase frequency counter should not flag two-word phrases in which the first word is an article or the second word is “and.” That information is not useful. I had to sift through quite a long list of three-word phrases (such as “the knitting needle”) to find one that I actually think might be worth editing (“gasping for breath”) so it isn’t used twice in the same chapter.

Why the show vs. tell counter should flag the pronoun “it” as indicating telling is rather mystifying.

Now about pacing. The explanation for this feature says, “The paragraphs highlighted in AutoCrit indicate the slow paced paragraphs in your story.” Below is the first paragraph that AutoCrit thinks is slow-paced. It happens to be the very first paragraph in the novel, and I’m not unaware of the desirability of starting off with a bang:

“Everyone else in the railroad car — more than twenty people, of assorted sizes, shapes, and ages — was shouting and screaming in panic. They were pressed against the windows and gabbling about a forest fire, an inferno on both sides of the track, a roaring furnace into the midst of which the train had, suddenly and without warning, plunged. Some of them were choking and coughing, seemingly on smoke. But Kyura couldn’t smell any smoke, and when she looked out the nearest window the countryside lay peaceful, trees and fields green in the summer dawn.”

AutoCrit thinks that’s slow-paced. What can I say?

One might be tempted to assume that AutoCrit is simply looking for long paragraphs and flagging them as slow-paced, but this seems not to be the case. Some long paragraphs are not flagged, yet the following paragraph consists of a single sentence, and it was flagged as slow-paced:

“What she was going to do when she got there, other than get quickly and messily dead, she had no idea at all.”

In sum, I can think of no possible use for the pacing test, whatever it is. The same could be said for the test of uncommon words in fiction, which cavalierly flags such words as blindness, escaped, reward, padded, cheat, and ripped.

*****

I didn’t pull any punches in this email, but I didn’t have to look hard for problems, either. My advice to writers is simple: If you want to learn to write better, learn to write better. Buy a couple of books on prose style, and read every page carefully. Someday we may have software that can be truly helpful, but we’re not quite there yet.

A Guiding Light

A few days ago, a fellow on the Facebook authors’ group where I hang out mentioned that he was working on his first novel and could use some mentoring. I replied that if he was serious about that, he should send me a personal message. I didn’t hear from him; I hope he found somebody suitable.

Possibly I was too modest and self-deprecating in my offer. But it set me thinking. If I were mentoring an aspiring author, what points would I emphasize? Without going into too much detail on any of them, here are my Power Point bullet points:

  1. Master the mechanics of English prose. Yes, having a professional editor go over your manuscript when you feel it’s finished is always a good idea — but you can’t count on an editor to understand what you meant to say if your writing is muddled. Also, some editors are not very good. They will miss errors, or “fix” things that you got right to begin with. Your name will be on the front cover, so you can’t pass the buck.
  2. Master the mechanics of storytelling. This is a distinct type of expertise, quite different from grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You need to know how to handle dialog tags and flashbacks. You need to understand conflict and rising action. You need to know about viewpoint.
  3. Read widely. Even if you’re writing genre fiction (as I do), it’s very worthwhile to dip into literature now and then. Even if you don’t care for the relaxed pacing of literature, you’ll learn what good writing looks like. Read nonfiction too! If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, a wide acquaintance with history and the variety of human cultures will be indispensable. How-to-write books are a wonderful resource.
  4. Know your own motivation. Are you writing just for your own pleasure? Or do you hope to find a commercial market for your work? (The two are not mutually exclusive.) If you’re hoping to market your work, you’ll need to understand the business — the markets, contract law, manuscript preparation, all sorts of stuff.
  5. Develop good habits! Write every day. Make daily backups of your work.
  6. Don’t be afraid to rewrite, or simply to throw out stuff that isn’t working. I keep a separate file called “scraps.” Whenever I delete a paragraph or a scene, I paste it into the scraps file. That way, if I change my mind, I’ll still have it. The larger point is this: Being too enamored of your own pearly prose is a recipe for failure.

I could enlarge the list, but that’s enough mentoring for today.

Them

Scrounging at the used book sale, I picked up a copy of Hothouse, a 1962 science fiction novel by Brian Aldiss. I’ve been trying to get into it, but after only 40 pages I’m getting stalled out.

Last night I grabbed Ross MacDonald’s The Doomsters, a 1958 whodunit, off of my shelf. I’ve read it, but I didn’t remember the title. After 40 pages I remember the plot, so there’s not much reason to go on.

I’ve been asking myself why I enjoy the opening of The Doomsters, while the opening of Hothouse bores me. I don’t think it’s a difference in writing style. MacDonald’s cheap hard-boiled prose doesn’t hold up too well. Aldiss’s attempt at visionary futuristic planetology is painfully lame, but I don’t think that’s the problem either.

I think it’s because MacDonald’s characters are vivid. They’re real. Aldiss’s characters are flat pieces of cardboard. In the opening pages of The Doomsters, private eye Lew Archer meets Carl Hallman, who has just escaped from a mental hospital. Hallman’s thinking is disorganized, he evades answering questions, and by page 21 he has socked Archer on the jaw and stolen Archer’s car. We don’t know whether to be frightened of Hallman, or to sympathize with his plight. Maybe he’s right: Maybe his father was murdered. Or maybe he’s just paranoid.

Here are some samples of Aldiss’s dialog:

“Fetch Lily-yo,” Toy told Gren.

And further down the page:

“Clat has fallen!” cried Gren.

And then:

“Lie still, Clat! Do not move!” called Lily-yo. “I will come to you.”

After another page of action, Clat (who is a little girl) is dead. But we’ve never even met her, prior to her accident — and now that she’s dead, none of the others mourns her. Lily-yo (the adult) blames herself for Clat’s death, even though she wasn’t present when Clat fell. Lily-yo decides it’s time to pass the torch of leadership on to the children. Essentially, she’s planning to commit suicide. Does she have a reason to want to live? Don’t ask. Aldiss doesn’t care.

Cardboard characters — not a good thing.

The Bad Guy

Every plotted novel needs an antagonist — someone to make the hero’s struggle difficult. In a few cases, the antagonist might be the raw forces of nature rather than a human, as in some of the stories of Jack London. Or it might be the dark side of the hero’s own personality, as in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. But most often it will be a human villain of one sort or another.

The temptation, for the aspiring writer, is to have the villain throw into the hero’s path whatever dangers and obstacles are necessary to keep the plot bubbling. When the story starts to sag, have the villain do something nasty! That’s a reasonable approach, but it has to be handled with care. Here’s why:

The villain, whoever he is (and we’ll assume it’s a guy, though female villains can be just as devilish as their male counterparts), doesn’t do things merely in order to make the hero’s life difficult. Nor in order to make the author’s job easier. In his own head, the villain is the hero of the story! The villain has a goal, a human motivation, and will only do things that make sense to him at the time. He may misjudge and do things that fail to advance his twisted agenda, but if his only agenda is “make that damned hero suffer!”, the writer has failed to create a realistic character.

Not all writers care about crafting realistic characters, of course. Arguably, they should care.

While we’re on the subject, fictional villains have a silly habit of wanting to explain themselves. At the climax of the story, the villain has the hero flat on his or her back, is holding the gun, and has obviously won the contest. And strange as it must seem, rather than simply shooting the hero in the head and walking away in smug satisfaction, the villain always pauses to boast. There are two reasons for this ridiculous scene. First, the writer needs the villain to explain to the reader exactly how he has done all the nasty things he has done. Second and even more important, the villain’s sudden attack of Chatty Cathy gives the hero just barely time to grab the gun and shoot the villain, thereby turning the tables and turning disaster into triumph. It’s a happy ending!

I’m pretty sure there were a lot of chatty villains in the James Bond movies, but it didn’t end there. I’ve seen the same discouraging flaw in the generally terrific crime novels of Michael Connelly. Real bad guys do not act like this. At least, most of them don’t. Sure, a few of them have that kind of big ego, but they don’t all. 

Do not let your villain stop to explain. Come up with some other plot twist.

It’s a convention of the modern crime novel, and to some extent of all plotted fiction, that at the climax of the story the hero has to go up against the villain single-handed. And preferably without adequate weapons. This is because there’s less tension if the hero has allies or a grenade launcher. The reader wants the hero’s victory to be as admirable as possible, and coming from behind is more admirable than strolling to victory in a contest where the villain was obviously outmatched.

Again, Michael Connelly: In a couple of his Harry Bosch novels, the reasons for police backup not being called were thin and unconvincing. Connelly needed Bosch to go one-on-one against the killer, and Bosch is a cop, so there had to be some contrived way to keep him from calling for backup. You know, a busted radio. Whatever.

Making the final confrontation believable is hard work.

Your Grammar Wears Army Boots

I like having an automatic spell-checker. As I’ve gotten older, the connections between my brain and my fingers get scrambled more often. That little squiggly red underline saves me any amount of embarrassment.

I’ve never used a grammar/style checker. Last night I thought I’d see what this type of software has to offer. I jetted over to the ProWritingAid page and uploaded a sample of my work to see what it would do. The free web-based interface is quite nice, I have to admit — especially since the site has no list of features that I could find explaining exactly what the checking process will flag. And the report that the software produces includes a number of possibly useful categories of commentary — overused words check, cliches and redundancies check, grammar check, and so on.

Now, bear in mind. I’m a professional. I cannot presume to assert that ProWritingAid would not provide some benefit to an amateur. I will, however, state that in my personal opinion, if you don’t already know what you’re doing this software is likely to make your writing worse rather than better.

A full list of its malfeasances would be tedious to construct, and probably just as tedious to read. It flagged dozens of things in my modest sample that it thought needed attention. Most of them were simply irrelevant — but how could an amateur writer be certain of that? Some were based on a sort of caveman understanding of “strong” vs. “weak” wording. In two instances it recommended removing commas; in one instance removing the comma would have changed the meaning of the sentence so as to make it incorrect; in the other instance it would merely have made the sentence clumsy and harder to read.

Whenever ProWritingAid sees a word ending in -ly it admonishes, “Use adverbs sparingly in your writing, especially creative writing. You can often use a stronger verb, or omit it.” But the software can’t tell whether a given usage is needed to make your meaning clear, and it certainly can’t tell whether a given adverb even makes sense in context. It always flags passive verbs, recommending active verbs instead; but there are important reasons why a passive verb is sometimes a better choice than an active verb. One may want, for instance, to put the important noun at the beginning of the sentence, where its prominence will emphasize its importance.

Consider this sentence from the writing sample I offered up to ProWritingAid’s tender mercies:

In her shadow, as it were (though with so many lanterns in the room there were no shadows at all) stood a blond girl, somewhat younger, whose hair was cropped short, a style so bizarre as to be almost scandalous.

ProWritingAid flagged “was cropped” as a passive verb, but to make it active would be almost impossible. It would require a flashback to an earlier novel in the series — hardly practical in the middle of a sentence. ProWritingAid also suggested deleting “as it were,” whining, “Readability may be enhanced by removing this.” Given the context, this advice is simply ridiculous. But how would the amateur writer be able to tell?

As an added fillip, the software missed the punctuation error in that sentence. Can you spot it? I missed it myself until just now. There should have been a comma after the closing parenthesis.

ProWritingAid’s advice is not helpful; all it does is make the aspiring writer feel uneasy. Software that promotes anxiety and guilt in its users is a problem, not a solution.

If you want to write better, buy and absorb a copy of The Elements of Style. Read a lot of good writing and notice how good writers build their sentences and paragraphs. Track down a professional whose work you admire and ask nicely if he or she would consent to help you improve your prose. Take a few pages of your own writing and try rewriting the same material in five different ways — and then ask yourself which sentences you prefer, and what the subtle differences are in meaning and tone.

But don’t rely on grammar/style checking software. Better yet, don’t even go near it.