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.


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.


What Are They Thinking?

Should you tell your readers what your characters are thinking? There are several ways to look at this question.

The most common viewpoint nowadays seems to be third-person limited. In this style of writing, the reader sort of lives inside one character’s head, either for the duration of a scene or possibly for the entire novel. We’re privy to that character’s thoughts, but we see the other characters only from the outside. We have to infer what they’re thinking and feeling from what they say and do.

In third-person omniscient, the author feels free to jump from one character’s head to another character’s, freely telling us what each of them is thinking and feeling. This viewpoint is less used today than formerly. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just unfashionable. Poorly handled, it can rob the story of immediacy. When it’s well done, readers won’t even notice.

In third-person external, the reader is a TV camera. We see and hear only what the camera sees and hears; we learn none of the thoughts or feelings of any of the characters, unless they happen to share them in a conversation with another character. This type of writing can be punchy and effective in a crime novel, but in a thoughtful literary work it may seem very dry.

It’s possible to flip back and forth within a single story. Indeed, some writers jump from third-person to first-person, or from past tense to present tense, quite freely. But again, the fashion in commercial fiction seems to be to adopt one particular type of viewpoint and stick with it.

So let’s suppose you’re planning to use third-person limited. Good choice. However, a hidden danger lurks. You can carelessly tell the reader too much about what your viewpoint character is thinking and feeling. Sometimes it’s better to just get on with the action and let the reader infer what must have been in your lead character’s head.

If you find yourself writing a paragraph in which your lead character debates, silently and internally, about what to do next, loud alarm bells should go off in your head. This paragraph is likely to reveal that you, the author, don’t know what’s going to happen next, and are using the page to work it out:

Dick was usually home by this time. Carol wasn’t sure whether to call his office to ask if he was working late, call the local hospitals to learn if there had been an accident, or let the dinner burn to teach him a lesson.

Don’t do this. Or rather, do it only if it’s thematically relevant — if Carol is prone to dithering indecisively, a trait that is imperiling her marriage. In that case, go right ahead. Otherwise, I would strongly recommend settling for something like this:

When Dick hadn’t arrived home by 6:45, Carol phoned his office, but nobody answered. She decided to let the dinner burn to teach him a lesson.

This gets rid of the author’s thought processes, which very seldom belong on the page.


Had a look last night and today at a program for writers called Scrivener. It offers some real advantages in letting you construct and rearrange a long document such as a novel. (Script-writing formats are also supported.) You can take notes on any passage and they’ll appear in a sidebar, and if you want to search just the text of the notes, you can do so. You can open two chapters in a side-by-side or up-and-down window and compare the text. Files you delete go to the Trash in the Scrivener project¬† itself, so you can always retrieve them. It auto-saves. This is all good stuff.

Scrivener can compile your text while omitting certain sections if you like, which could be useful for quickly printing out alternate versions for your readers. It’s important to note, however, that Scrivener is mainly a writing tool, not a formatting tool for desktop publishing. It can output your files in .rtf, .pdf, .doc, or OpenOffice .odt format, for example, but if you care about how your finished files look, you’ll have to plan on tweaking them in some other program.

In my initial experiments, it was outputting the titles of all of my chapters (based on the section names I had entered in its project browser) in 12pt Courier, which is not what I wanted. I emailed tech support, and a couple of days later received an answer that told me how to suppress the automatically generated chapter titles. This is okay with me. I can enter chapter titles manually myself.

The point of the compile/export routine, for me, is that I want to back up my daily work sessions in a standard format (.odt). I don’t quite trust Scrivener, or any program from a small company, enough to back up my work only in its proprietary format. Its own files are kept in folders (visible in Windows, but you have to trick the Mac into displaying the folder contents) in .rtf files, so yeah, in theory you can extract everything even from a Scrivener backup. But the .rtf files are numbered, not named. If you got into trouble with Scrivener crashing (or not working on your new computer) and needed to get at your creative work, reassembling it would be a fairly gruesome business.

Word processors haven’t really changed much in the past 25 years, have they? Bells and whistles have been added to the output side of your typical word processor: You can add graphics or tables, for example, or page headers and footers. Scrivener is not too good at that sort of thing; it tries, but it’s not a champ. What hasn’t changed in the standard word processor is the input side, and that’s where Scrivener excels.

I think I’ll have to buy it. (It’s not expensive.) I may not switch over with my current project, but for the next project I’ll give it a serious workout.

Ten Little Words

I can tell you how to write great fiction in ten words. There are only two rules:

  1. Tell a good story.
  2. Put the reader in the scene.

Back in the 1980s I had a 3×5 card with those two rules thumbtacked on the wall above my typewriter. By now I don’t remember whether I picked them up in a how-to-write book, or whether they were my own insight. The book I was working on at that time, Walk the Moons Road, was soon bought and published by Del Rey, a fact that suggests those notions may not have been entirely off-base.

The tricky bit is in knowing what the rules mean, and how to apply them.

We can have long, earnest debates about what does or does not constitute “a good story.” At the risk of oversimplifying, I’d say a good story is one the reader cares about. If the reader stops caring, or never starts, it’s not a good story. Recently I was reading a crime novel called Skeletons by Kate Wilhelm. I’ve liked some of her books, but about 2/3 of the way through this one I put it down and haven’t picked it up again. I had stopped caring. There were good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys were really creepy, and the good guys were in great danger … but that was the extent of it. An annoying level of danger, but no reason to care.

The fact that you, the writer, care about your characters is a good start, but it’s not enough. As they say in classes on logic, it’s necessary but not sufficient. Your readers will have to care too. This is why books on writing tell you to choose a likable lead character. Even a zombie can be likable, I suppose; I don’t read zombie books, so I’m not an authority on how to make a zombie likable; I’ll leave that up to you.

Another way to phrase Rule Two would be, “The writing must be clear.” You must provide enough sensory details that your readers can picture the scene, and you must arrange the details in such a way that the mental effort needed to assemble the picture is not too arduous.

How arduous it will be depends on how intelligent you anticipate your readers will be. Some novels require considerable mental effort — and reward it. Others, though marketed to adults, are carefully written at an 8th-grade reading comprehension level. I’m sure the authors of the latter sort of stories know their market.

Writing clearly is really the whole enchilada. Every sentence and every paragraph must serve somehow to make the scene clear to the reader. However, the writing skills you’ll need are various. Pronouns will need clear antecedents. Adjectives and verbs will need to be chosen with care. (As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”) When you’re drafting an action scene, events will almost certainly need to be set down on the page in strictly serial order. Your readers will probably be curious what the characters look like, so you’ll need to tell them. When two characters are interacting, readers will need some hints about their facial expressions, gestures, and body language. Whatever decision you make about viewpoint, you’ll need to handle it with care.

And so on ad infinitum. But it all boils down to that very simple idea: Put the reader in the scene. In the scene. As if the reader were standing there invisibly, watching the drama unfold.

If the drama is not clear to you in your own mind, you won’t be able to put the reader in the scene — but that’s a topic for another time.

Hoo Dat Opp Dar?

In the early 1960s, before the United States became deeply involved in the war in Vietnam, Art Hoppe did a series of columns for the San Francisco Chronicle in which he satirized the conflict (in what we would now say is a rather racist way) by describing it as an ongoing dispute between two leaders in hilly country — Hoo Dat Opp Dar and Hoo Dat Don Dar.

Taking these questions seriously is a key to understanding how to write powerful fiction. Who is that? Who is it really? Is he like me? Does he think the way I think and feel the way I feel?

Every writer of fiction is an amateur psychologist. (We will tiptoe lightly past Jonathan Kellerman, who was at one time a professional psychologist.) That is, every writer of fiction has a concrete and practical idea of who people are. To write fiction at all, you have to have some notion of what’s going on in the heads of your characters. Who’s that up there? Who’s that down there?

One important difference between good fiction and the other kind — perhaps the important difference — is that writers of good fiction have more insightful theories about the human psyche. They also know how to assemble their ruminations into good stories, but you can’t forge a good story using poorly imagined characters.

This is one reason why mathematicians and chess players often do their best work when they’re 20 years old (or even younger), while fiction writers often remain active and produce wonderful work when they’re over 60. It takes time to develop an understanding of what it means to be human.

Procrustean Publishing

I was very pleased, a few short months ago, when a literary agent said she loved the first book in my YA fantasy series and would like to market it. Who wouldn’t be thrilled?

The book was a bit long, she said. Publishers hesitate to take on a new author whose first book is above 100,000 words. My book was at about 122,000. So I rolled up my sleeves and cut 5,000 words, and she agreed that she could try to sell it that way. It’s still on the long side, but possibly part of the point of the exercise was that she will now be able to assure potential publishers that I’m flexible. (I also told her I would be willing to use a pen name, if anybody thought having a man who is over 65 write for a market that consists first and foremost of teenage girls was too weird.)

I’m now working hard on Book III. (I’ve already sent her Book II.) Because the series is really all just one monstrously long and complex tale, I have now found that I need to go back and make a few tiny changes in Book I. I’m sure tiny changes are okay, but today I felt I needed to restore an 800-word scene that I had cut. I’ve already scissored in a couple of shorter bits that are entirely new. Book I is growing again.

How this will play out in the one-size-fits-all world of publishing remains to be seen. I’d like to believe that a publisher will be so thrilled by the series that I’ll be given carte blanche to do as I will. That seems very unlikely. Paper is expensive. Shipping books to bookstores is expensive. And aside from the economic factor, I’m sure some publishers figure a buyer is more likely to try a new author if the book isn’t so fat/thick/massive/bulky as to be intimidating.

What I haven’t yet done is read through the entire text of Books I and II after finishing III (and possibly IV, which won’t be done before the end of the year). At that point, I might find that I need to add a few things — for continuity, for flavor, or just because I get a kick out of fresh ideas.

I’m not quite to the point of hoping that the series doesn’t sell to a mainstream publisher. There’s a certain panache in being published by a real publisher. It would be a feather in my cap, as my father used to say. The distribution would be good, I wouldn’t have to worry about cover art, more people would read and enjoy the books — there are some real advantages. But I am starting to feel that there’s also something to be said for self-publishing. In spite of all the added headaches, in spite of the ego deflation, if I self-publish I can edit the entire series into lapidary coherence before I unleash it on the world — and I won’t be forced to cut to fit a narrow word count.

One of the things I’ve added to Book I is a brief epigraph. It’s a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” That describes the theme of my story pretty darn well … and it’s also a good motto for any author, especially an author who can foresee a potential clash between the publishing industry and the sometimes inconvenient but always vital needs of the story itself.