Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Smart Edit Software Review

I purchased SmartEdit to help copy-edit my manuscript. I am pleased with it, and will touch on why. But it cannot replace a solid grounding in grammar rules, I discovered when reading a friend’s manuscript. She also used Smart Edit.
Here’s a screenshot of SmartEdit overlaid on your manuscript

It takes SmartEdit several minutes to go through all of the things it checks on your manuscript. When finished, it lists possible problems, giving you a snippet of each one. When clicked, it takes you to that place in the manuscript. Nothing is highlighted or changed. Snippet by snippet, the writer decides what to do with each problem, or possible problem. Here are the things it checks:
Adverbs: These are the pesky words that end in “ly,” that are especially deadly when used as part of a dialog tag. “I’m mad,” he shouted angrily. It also picks up many other overused words such as “really,” “only.” (Two of my pets.)
Repeated phrases: If I see that I’ve used “I don’t know” 100 times, it’s a problem. I’ve not only overused the phrase, but I have a totally clueless character who needs to get a clue or be seriously downgraded in importance. I found this in a YA manuscript written a good number of years ago by yours truly.
Repeated words: This tallies the number of times a particular word is repeated. It’s useful, but I have a better way of checking for this, which I will write about in another post. 
Possibly misused words: This tallies things like the misuse of accept/except; breath/breathe; illusion/allusion; advise/advice. The list is long, and if you’re prone to this type of error, SmartEdit is worth the cost for this alone.   
Clichés: If a character uses a cliché in dialogue, that’s one thing, but the narrative voice should not use clichés.  
Redundancies: SmartEdit found these in my manuscript: “empty space,” “fall down,” “reason why,” tiny bit.” 
Sentence openers: SmartEdit shows the number of times a sentence is opened with a particular word. This is useful if there are too many sentences on a page opening with the same word. 
Sentence length: SmartEdit creates a graph of the sentence lengths in the manuscript. I haven’t found this to be useful. 
Dialog tags: SmartEdit counts the number of times “said” is used, as well as every other dialog tag. There are times when the person speaking the dialog is obvious, so the word “said,” if present, should be removed. With all dialog tags listed, it also alerts you to other possible problems. On the YA manuscript I mentioned above, it tagged “thought,” “decided,” “wondered,” and “remembered.” These are all problems that need to be fixed for obvious reasons.
User defined: SmartEdit will also check for words or phrases that the writer wants it to zero in on. This works the same as everything else in SmartEdit, however I found this to be clunky when working with my personal list of weasel words, as I call them. I have a more streamlined way of checking for those, which I will discuss in a different post. 
SmartEdit also checks for proper nouns, acronyms, foreign words and phrases, profanity, AND it checks punctuation
On the punctuation side, SmartEdit checks for curly and straight quotes and apostrophes. Have you ever looked at your manuscript and noticed, every once in a while, a straight quote interspersed with the curly ones? It would take too long to explain why it happens, but SmartEdit finds them.  
Exclamation points: I’ve read that an average sized novel can employ one exclamation point. If you run SmartEdit and discover more than three, I suspect some deleting is in order.  
Em-dashes, en-dashes, and ellipses: SmartEdit finds these, but what it doesn’t tell you is that these constructions should also be used sparingly. Not as sparingly as exclamation points, but rarely, nonetheless. Or so I was told numerous times, from numerous judges, on contest entries. The characters in my friend’s manuscript use ellipses in about 50% of all dialogue. About 95% of that needs to be removed. Same goes for em-dashes and en-dashes, although she didn’t overuse them. I have been told by contest judges that I overuse them. (Or used to, before I knew better.)
SmartEdit will also find when there are two or more spaces between sentences. The use of a double space between sentences was dropped a decade or more ago, however we’re probably all guilty of adding an extra space every now and again, by accident. 
Comprehensive as SmartEdit is, here are places where it’s not helpful at all: 
Semicolons are never used in fiction. SmartEdit doesn’t catch them, and my friend used them liberally in her manuscript. It would be nice, too, if SmartEdit cautioned people on the overuse of ellipses, em-dashes and en-dashes, instead of simply tallying them. I suppose its creators assume an understanding that they’re not to be overused. 
Run-on sentences, or what is known as comma splices. SmartEdit doesn’t catch these, nor does Microsoft Word’s grammar checker. Run-on sentences occur when there are two independent clauses, which should be separated by a period. If they are separated by a comma, a conjunction must be used as well. My friend’s manuscript had way too many run-on sentences, which agents and editors see as a mark of an amateur, among other issues, which I will discuss in another post. 
Misplaced modifiers: SmartEdit won’t catch these. “Joanie and I run to the fence on high alert.” The sentence sounds as if the fence is on high alert. 
Gerunds: (verbs ending with “ing”): SmartEdit doesn’t catch these, which often make for clunky prose. “The child was dancing and laughing.” Removing the to-be verb (was) and the gerunds, the sentence reads, “The child danced and laughed.” [True, it’s a bald, uninteresting sentence, but the verbs are stronger. It’s a better base on which to build.]
User-defined words and phrases: I mentioned this above. While SmartEdit will catch them for you, I’ve found a better way to deal with them. Because writing about it would add a couple hundred words to this post, I will do that in a separate one, next week. I will also touch on some other important issues that SmartEdit doesn’t catch, which mark a work as amateurish.  
So that’s it for SmartEdit. It shouldn’t need to be said, but in case it does, while SmartEdit helps tremendously with copy edits, if you have story problems that would prevent a manuscript from being publishable, SmartEdit can do absolutely nothing to remedy that. You need a human being who specializes in developmental edits for that. 
Have you tried editing software? Which one do you use? What have you discovered about it? Strengths? Weaknesses? Is it very similar to SmartEdit? 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

My method of finding story ideas

Writers are often asked where they come up with their ideas. I thought I would share mine.
First off, I study tropes. Every genre has its tropes, aka story hooks. Romance has dozens of them, such as “Baby on a Doorstep,” “Beloved enemy,” “Presumed Dead,” “Mail-Order Bride”–to name a few of my favorites. Stories will often combine two or three tropes for plenty of exciting conflict. Add a specific hero with a need, a specific heroine with a need, a specific setting and a specific time period, and you’ve got a one-sentence log line for a book. It’s the specifics–the twists on the tropes–that take an idea from generic to salable.
Several years ago, I collected hundreds of interesting (to me) log lines from all of the various Harlequin and Silhouette (Series Romance) linestucked them away in files and never looked at them again until a few months ago. This happened (not looking at them for so long) because I had switched from writing series romance manuscripts to writing for the young adult market, which uses entirely different tropes. (And yes, I collected files of YA tropes, as well.)
Tip: If you’re searching for starter ideas in your chosen genre, study the tropes. 
A few months ago, I took my hundreds of log lines and culled the ones that either are 1. no longer interesting to me, 2. would not work for my intended audience (inspirational historical series romance), or 3. employed tropes that have been done to death, such as “marriage of convenience.” 
Beginning last week, I got serious about my plan to write a series of books that take place in fictional Twin Forks, Washington between the years 1910-1922
For each of my generic log lines, I asked, what enneagram character types and combinations would work for this idea? If the idea is generic enough, there are often dozens of possibilities. So I drilled down farther. I asked, what character types are most likely to be in this situation? Once I came up with the expected, I asked myself if using unexpected types and combinations might make a more intriguing story.
Being that I’m a lifelong student of the enneagram, I know how individual character types behave under pressure, as well as how each type might behave with each other type. Of 45 possible character combinations, I find about 27 combinations to be interesting enough for me to want to write at least one novel about.
Once I had chosen a character combo for each idea, I looked at my time period, 1910-1922. A lot happens during that time. There’s Peary’s expedition to the North Pole; the lead-up to World War I (sinking of the Titanic, the Lusitania). After April of 1917, there are American soldiers going off to war, and between 1918-1920, there is the influenza pandemic. There’s the end of the war in November, 1918 and soldiers returning from the war in the spring of 1919. There’s the German and Bolshevik scare during and after the war. Women get the right to vote in August, 1920, and the country is in Prohibition from 1920-1933, although each state has individual laws about it. Prohibition went into effect earlier than 1920 in Washington state.
It was great fun to match ideas with things that were going on during the 12-year span. Here’s an example of what my process looks like:
Oops! I see a mistake on my card: The US got involved in WWI in April 1917. This story takes place 2 years prior, not 2.75 years prior.
Anyway, I now have 50 ideas for stories that take place in Twin Forks between 1910-1922, all slotted into a specific month and year. I can begin to make connections between the characters who live in this small town. The characters can age over time. Doing this will add tremendous depth to the series with each successive book. These ideas, I hope, will comprise my writing journey from today until I cease from writing.
If my publisher doesn’t like one or more of the ideas, there are plenty more on my master blueprint. And/or, I can self-publish. It feels comfortable to have many viable ideas, should one or more not pan out.
So this is my answer to people who ask, “where do you get your story ideas?”
Is your process similar to mine? Or different?
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