5 Signs of Leximania, the Love of Words

Most writers love words. They adore the sound of them. They revel in learning new words. They marvel over a well-turned phrase. Do you?

I’ll define Leximania as an intense love of—bordering on obsession with—words. It’s not necessary to have leximania to be a writer…but it helps. After all, to a writer, words are like a sculptor’s clay, a composer’s musical notes, a painter’s palette and brush. Words are the tiny bits of noting which, when joined, make literature. They’re the atoms of a writer’s universe, so it’s understandable if writers take an unusual level of interest in them.

When one of my daughters entered high school, we gave her a dictionary for her birthday. That evening, she came to me. “Dad, I think I found a mistake.” She showed it to me, and, sure enough, there was an error in her dictionary.

I was very proud of her. That’s what I’m talking about—not just finding the mistake, but paging through the dictionary, maintaining an interest in the words and definitions, and getting lost in them long enough to notice the mistake. That’s Leximania.

In Chapter 31 of Theodore A. Rees Cheney’s book on editing, Getting the Words Right, he says, “Unless you become a work geek, you’ll have trouble making it as a writer.” He defines a word geek as one who listens to other people’s use of words, both spoken and written; one to whom a dictionary is a friend; and one who delights in discovering and using new words.

There’s a time in our lives when we’re all leximaniacs. Between the ages of 18 and 36 months, you were learning 10-20 new words a week. At that age, you loved learning new words. When you heard a word, and learned what it meant, you rolled it around; you sounded it out; you used it.

Back then, you had particular fascination for words that were fun to say, including abracadabra, blob, banana, baboon, balloon, cuckoo, hocus-pocus, itty-bitty, kitty-cat, knickknack, mumbo-jumbo, teeny-weeny, teepee, topsy-turvy, yo-yo, and zig-zag. Note the interest in rhythm, alliteration, and repetition.

At some point, your vocabulary growth spurt tapered off. Most of us decide we know enough to get by, and don’t bother learning many new words after that.

For writers, leximania either never subsides, or is renewed at some point. However, it’s expanded beyond a love of fun-to-say words. It now includes obscure words with precise definitions or connotations that are perfect fits for a story in progress. It includes unusual parings of words that convey just the right idea. It includes words that give a sentence almost poetic rhythm and flow. It includes short, abrupt words to end a sentence with punch.

To sum up, here are some common symptoms of leximania. Do you:

  • Turn to a dictionary or thesaurus for one word, and end up lost in the book for ten or more minutes?
  • Read or hear an unfamiliar word, look it up, and use it several times that week?
  • Listen to people speaking and try to detect their repeated words and phrases, the rhythm patterns of their sentences?
  • Make a conscious and systematic effort to build your vocabulary?
  • Pause while reading a book to repeat a word or phrase and just admire the author’s genius in word usage?

If you answered yes to two questions, you may have the early onset. Three affirmative answers confirms the diagnosis. Four or more ‘yes’ responses suggest a severe, and probably incurable, case…one from which you don’t seek a cure.

Leximania, though rare, isn’t harmful and may actually extend your life. If you ‘suffer’ from it, my advice is to consider becoming a writer. Ending disclaimer: I’m no doctor, I’m just—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Top 10 Best Things about Being a Writer

Every week this blog reveals deep, mystic secrets about how you can become a best-selling author. See what you’ve been missing by posting cat photos instead of checking out my site?

But why should you want to be a writer in the first place? That is a question never answered in any of my posts…until now.

I interviewed every author on this planet (had to limit it, I only had a week), and compiled each of their reasons for being a writer into a vast database. Then I used artificial intelligence software to analyze those data and order the list by response frequency.

Either that, or I made up some reasons myself. One of those two methods, for sure.

Without further agonizing delays or obvious stalling tactics, I present, in the style of David Letterman, my Top 10 List of the best things about being a writer:

#10. Friends aren’t just friends—they’re character ideas.

#9. Free hobby; it only costs your time…and your sanity.

#8. Don’t like this world? Create your own.

#7. Get back at your Language Arts teacher by breaking rules she taught you.

#6. Commit crimes, but don’t do the time. (So long as they’re fictional crimes.)

#5. Free exotic vacations! Well, you go there in your mind, but you can visit outlandish places, like Antarctica, the Moon, the year 1850, Imaginationia, or even New York City.

We’re down to the top 4 best things about being a writer:

#4. Built-in excuse for insane behavior. “You’re a writer? That explains it. You’re free to go.”

#3. What other people call loafing, you call working.

#2. Sweet revenge on everyone who’s ever wronged you. Kill ‘em in your books.

And the number one top best thing about being a writer:

#1. Writer’s conferences—in the wee hours, hijinks ensue. A few shenanigans also.

If that list doesn’t make you want to be a writer, then you’ll have to make up, I mean compile, your own. Or you can go back to posting cat photos, it makes no difference to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Map of All Story Plots

When you’re stuck for a story idea, it may seem like other authors have already written all the good tales. Every time you think of a plot, for example, your head swims with titles that have covered that plot, worn it thin.

Are there only so many plots, you wonder, peopled with different characters, set in different places and times, portraying different themes, and written in different tones and styles?

Others have wondered that before you, and developed their own lists of all plot types. Prepare to be confused, and then (perhaps) unconfused.

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker declared there are seven plot types: Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, The Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Rebirth, Comedy, and Tragedy.

One year earlier, Ronald B. Tobias came out with his book, 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. His list included plots such as Revenge, Transformation, and Wretched Excess.

Much earlier, in 1916, the book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti introduced thirty-six plot categories, including Obtaining, Rivalry of Superior and Inferior, and Loss of Loved Ones.

Great, you’re thinking, but how many are there—seven, twenty, or thirty-six? That depends on the way you like to categorize things. You could cut a pizza into seven, twenty, or thirty-six pieces, and they’d still add up to the same pie.

That’s what I wanted to explore today. How do those categorization schemes compare to each other? Can you take Booker’s seven plots and see where Tobias’ twenty fit into them? Do Polti’s thirty-six plots fit somehow with Tobias’ and Booker’s taxonomies?

I couldn’t find any example of someone doing this, so I did it. I designated each of Booker’s categories with a B-number: B1, B2, etc. I did similarly with Tobias’ 20 (T1, T2, etc.) and Polti’s 36 (P1, P2, etc.)

Then the trouble started. Many didn’t fit well at all. In such cases, I read the descriptions the authors gave for their categories and chose the one in the other’s categories that seemed most like the one I was considering. You may disagree with the way I’ve mapped them, and I’d love to know your reasoning.

For your careful study, wry amusement, and utter disgust, here is my mapping of the three plot schema against each other:

By now, some questions have occurred to you. One might be, “Can’t a single story be a mixture of two or more of those plot types?” Answer: Yes, there’s no law against that.

Others of you are asking, “Why are the love stories listed as comedies?” Answer: Booker defined his comedy category as including more than humorous stories, and in particular included love stories in that group.

Lastly, there are those asking, “Of what use is this map? Come to think of it, of what use are the three taxonomies?” Answer: for those who asked that, I have no answer that will satisfy you. Go ahead and just write any old story whether it fits a pre-discovered plot category or not.

For those who didn’t ask that last question, you’re probably comfortable with the fact that some people like to take a mass of data and try to organize it somehow, to create filing categories like a Dewey decimal system or biological taxonomies.

Whether you think there are seven, twenty, or thirty-six plot types, or if you don’t see the point in dividing that pizza at all, there are plenty of stories remaining for you to write. Let’s see if the next one you create will be better than any authored by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Quit Your Job to Write Full Time?

Raise your hand if you hate your day job. Haven’t you had enough of meetings, projects, deadlines, office politics, commuting, performance reviews, and dealing with jerks? Sure, there’s a steady paycheck, health care, and someday a retirement package, but those are small compensation for all the stress and aggravation, right?

You’ve been writing fiction as a hobby at home for some time now, and have sold a few stories, received payment as a published author. What if…

Yeah. What if you quit that 9-to-5 grind and became a writer full-time? Freed of the hassle and pressure, able to write all day every day, you would craft higher-quality stories, right? You could crank out best-selling novels.

Yeah. You’ll be your own boss. There will be book signings, major interviews, and book launch parties. You’ll get an agent to do all the negotiating. When those advance checks and royalties roll in, you’ll hire an accountant to keep track of it all. You’ll get a faster car, and a new house. On an island.

Um, yeah. You’re hesitating. After all, that day job is the devil you know, and writing full-time is a leap into the unfamiliar. Those best-sellers aren’t guaranteed, are they?

You know you want to write full-time, so it’s a question of when, not whether. How will you know when the time is right? What are the signposts you must see before taking this off-ramp in your life? Here is my list of ways to know you’re ready:

  • You’re ready for the productivity increase. You’ve been used to writing on the fly, using time you stole from other aspects of your life. When you write full-time, that will be your new job. Now, time won’t be your problem, unless you waste it with nonessential activities. Do you have a long list of story ideas, ready to go?
  • You’re ready for the lifestyle change. Now, when your alarm clock rings, it’s time to wake up. As a full-time writer, you’ll set your own hours, but it will be tempting to stay in bed. Chances are your day job involves plenty of contact with other people. Your writing job won’t; there will be long hours of all-alone time. Maybe you’re used to several restaurant choices for lunch; for a full-time writer, lunch awaits in the fridge.
  •  Your housemates and dependents are ready. Your decision may affect others. What do they think of this? Do they understand you’ll be working at home for long hours and you require quiet conditions? Do they have unreasonable expectations of the chances of achieving fame and fortune? If your income takes a downward trend, will they suffer?
  • You’re ready for the financial changes. You may have been used to a steady salary; prepare for an erratic income with good years and bad ones. You’ll be self-employed, so there will be tax changes, too. That employer-obtained health care goes away, so be prepared to pick up those costs. Don’t forget your 401K, either.

While researching for this blog post, I came across some must-read sources. Mark (M.K.) Gilroy has a short but informative video about the financial aspects. This NPR interview of author Sonny Brewer discusses how your day job may still end up influencing your stories when you shift to full-time writing. Jeff Yeager’s guest-post on Brian Klems’ blog provides ten great questions you should ask yourself before quitting your day job. A post by Holly Lisle relates her experience, both good and bad, when she made the switch. Aurora M. Suarez interviewed romance novelist Ines Bautista-Yao about her fears, her preparations, and the lessons she learned. Check out each of these posts.

Are you ready to quit your day job to write full-time? It’s a difficult decision, I know. I can’t make it for you, and you have to decide based on the facts and feelings in your particular situation. Perhaps this post has given you some things to think about before you decide. That’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Those Blue Pencil Blues

What’s that about a blue pencil? It’s the traditional implement of editors, dating from the days of paper manuscripts. Yes, I’m dealing with editing today—your editing.

That’s right. You must edit your own work before submitting it. Attack it with all the dispassionate, ruthless vigor you can. Hack, cut, and tweak until you fashion it into a story that makes you proud. Only that will make it publishable.

I’ve discussed editing before, but have learned more since then. I read the book Getting the Words Right, 39 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Theodore A. Rees Cheney, and recommend it as a great rulebook for editing. The folks at The Write Life blogged about 25 tips for editing, then put those tips into a handy checklist form.

That checklist contains many items that aren’t problems for me and left out things that are, and that got me thinking how editing is an individual thing. Each of us has our own quirky flaws and our own strengths. Any checklist I develop must be different from yours. And also ever-changing, as we discover new things to beware of.

Moreover, the ordering of items in that online checklist bothered me. I sought a checklist that started with the big, story-shaping editing aspect, and proceeded to the fine-tuning parts of editing.

Anita Mumm wrote a post describing the four different phases of editing. Developmental Editing refers to the big stuff, including whole sections and scenes, overall style and tone, major characters, plot arcs, etc. Line Editing is all about tackling the paragraphs and sentences, improving their structure and flow, making the work more readable. Copy Editing focuses on punctuation, grammar, and word use. Proofreading is the last check for anything missed in previous edits, and works best when you read your story aloud.

Here’s my editing checklist, provided as a starter for you to modify, altering and tuning it to your needs. I’ve divided it into the four types of editing, and it contains items I’ve found useful for my short stories. Each phase of editing works best when some time has elapsed since you wrote your first draft, ideally weeks or even months. That provides the right emotional distance for a critical editing job.

Developmental Editing

  • Choose the best voice for telling the story (first-person or third, close or omniscient)
  • Choose the best POV character
  • Endure main characters are appealing, relatable, 3-dimensional, not stereotyped
  • Ensure each main character has a motivation, a goal, an external or internal conflict, and an epiphany
  • Ensure secondary characters are necessary, and still secondary. Should one be promoted to lead?
  • Ensure scenes are in the best order for telling the story
  • Cut unnecessary sections or scenes
  • Ensure each section is about one thing
  • Maintain a single tone and style
  • Fill plot holes
  • Fix story threads that go nowhere
  • Pace the action and create tension where appropriate

Line Editing

  • Craft an irresistible hook
  • Make sure sentences vary in length and structure
  • Ensure each word in a sentence has a purpose
  • Phrase things positively
  • Chose simple words, the precise words needed
  • Use strong verbs in place of was/is/has/be/etc.
  • Phrase sentences in active voice
  • Introduce each scene to orient the reader to characters and setting
  • Put the reader in the scene by reaching all five senses
  • Sprinkle setting descriptions throughout scenes, with the right details
  • In each scene, ensure all the dialoguing characters want something
  • Let the reader know what the POV character is feeling and thinking
  • Ensure characters react to what other characters say and do
  • Use appropriate and distinct character dialogue, but don’t overdue accents
  • Don’t shy away from “said,” but have characters do things while talking
  • Find new ways to word your favorite, overused words and phrases
  • Delete or twist clichés
  • End each section with a cliff-hangar
  • Transition logically and smoothly between paragraphs and sections
  • Use, but don’t overuse, repetition for emphasis

Copy Editing

  • Use “that” and “which” appropriately
  • Delete “that” when you can
  • Use commas and periods correctly in dialogue
  • Make each adverb earn its place
  • Select the correct word (further/farther, continuous/continual, nauseous/nauseated, etc.)
  • Find and correct the misspellings the spell-checker missed

Proofreading

  • Read the story out loud
  • Correct anything that trips you up, throws you out of the story, or sounds odd

Feel free to steal my list and modify it to suit you. Delete things that aren’t problems for you. Add items that your critique group and other editors have commented on in your work. Now you know the one with the cure for those low-down blue pencil blues; it’s—

Poseidon’s Scribe

P&E Readers Poll Results

The folks at Critters.org have announced the final results of the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll for the most popular fiction of 2016.

My story, “After the Martianstied for third (with two other stories) out of thirty-nine entries in the Science Fiction short story category. That’s wonderful! The story earned a Top Ten Finisher emblem, and it ended up in the top eight percent of the entries.

Thanks to everyone who voted for my story.

The anthology In a Cat’s Eye (in which my story “The Cats of Nerio-3” appears) didn’t do as well, placing seventeenth out of sixty in the Anthology category. Still, that’s in the top third of many, many entries. Thanks also to those who cast a vote for that anthology.

You readers did me a great honor by voting. Now I need to get busy, working to ensure the best fiction of 2017 gets written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

5 Rules for Writing Humor Right

You may think it’s difficult to write funny stories, but the truth is it’s excruciatingly agonizing. Also, if you endure all that pain and get the humor wrong, readers will laugh at you (and your mismatched clothes and uncombed hair) rather than at your story.

Since humorous writing is so tough to get right, why don’t we forget the whole thing? For one, if we can manage to tell a funny story, readers like it. An amusing tale lifts them from the gloomy tedium of their dreary lives, the poor things. Think of it as a public service, kind of a ‘clown-author saves the world’ idea.

I know, I know. I hear you saying, “But, Steve, I write serious fiction. I don’t need to know how to write humor.” Okay, surf elsewhere if you want. But you really should spice up your “serious fiction” with occasional bursts of frivolity, if only to break up the interminable stretches of seriousity.

For those still reading this, I’m about to reveal my five simple rules for writing humor. Well, they’re not that simple, and aren’t actually rules, but at least they do total up to five. To develop them, I scoured the Internet (and it needed a good scouring). Then I spent literally lots of minutes searching for good advice on writing humor. I found that good advice from Brian A. Klems, Joe Bunting, Annie Binns, and Joe Bunting again. While blindfolded, I then chose only the choicest rules, right up until I got tired. After five. Here they are:

1. Maintain the elephant of surprise. Take common sayings or clichés and tie them in knots. Go in directions the reader doesn’t expect.

B. Dare to ask why pants come in pairs. Start with the ordinary, the mundane, the familiar, and the everyday, then find some weird aspect about it all. Look at it from a bizarre angle. Drive your reader to that vantage and invite her to look, too. (Note, “Hey, Babe, let me drive you to my bizarre-angled vantage to look at my weird aspect” is not a recommended pick-up line. Ever. It’s a metaphor.)

III. It’s still legal to discriminate against words. Choose words carefully. Unearth a thesaurus and examine its guts. Select specific words, not general ones. Seek words that sound humorous when juxtaposed. (I think the word ‘juxtaposed’ is kinda funny all by itself.)

Four. It’s a story, not a routine. When a comedian performs a stand-up routine, he feels free to change topics several times. You can’t do that. Your story must hang together as an integral whole, not consist of disconnected jokes. I blogged once about how some movies do that well and some do it poorly.

7. No, sorry—5. Wait for it… Structure your sentences so the last words have the most impact. Ideally, the joke is in the very last word. Develop a comedic sense of timing so that you’re not rushing to get to that ending punch. Let your sentences roll along, lulling the reader, and then swing your sledgehammer. (Metaphor again.)

If you study those five rules carefully, I can guarantee that…well, that you’ve studied them carefully. You’re going to need a lot of practice to actually write funny stories, and so will—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Last Chance, the Final Day to Vote

You meant to vote in the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll, you really did. But time slipped away and you kinda forgot.

Wait! It’s not too late! There is still time to vote, if you do it now. You can vote for my stories, or you can vote for those of another author. It doesn’t matter. Just vote!

Of course, I’d be grateful if you’d cast a vote for my story “After the Martians” in the Science Fiction Short Story category, and for the anthology In a Cat’s Eye, in the Anthology category. My story “The Cats of Nerio-3” appears in that delightful anthology.

According to the latest vote count, “After the Martians” is fifth out of thirty-seven, and In a Cat’s Eye is tied for  thirteenth out of sixty. Let’s vote them each up to number one!

Since you’re almost out of time, click on any of the links or pictures in this post and vote. If it seems confusing, see the more explanatory instructions here.

You can stop reading this post, because this is not the time for reading. This is the time to vote for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Should You Enter Writing Contests?

You’ve heard there are writing contests out there. Wouldn’t it be great to win one? Should you devote time, energy, and possibly some money, to enter one or more of them? Let’s explore these questions.

What’s in it for you?

If you win, you get whatever prize the contest offers, generally a monetary prize. Some contests publish the winning entries. Also, there’s the prestige of being a contest winner. You’re “an award-winning author.” You can cite that contest among your achievements. When you submit stories for publication, you can mention in your cover letter that one of your tales won the XYZ Writing Contest.

Some contests offer second and third prizes that carry their own prestige too.

If you lose the contest, you also lose the entry fee you paid, if any. You may also experience a brief moment of disappointment, dejection, etc. This should be brief; you shouldn’t have your heart set on winning a contest. Losing should prompt no more than a fleeting twinge of sadness before you move on with life.

How do contests work?

Say you wanted to set up a writing contest yourself. How would you do it? You’d make sure you had prize money (or whatever type of prize you were going to offer) available. You’d advertise your contest, specifying the rules about how to enter, genre(s), submission guidelines, submission fees, any other restrictions, etc.

You’d assemble a panel of judges, people with demonstrated writing skills or other literary credentials, people you trust, who are willing to wade through numerous submissions. Realize these are people, not angels. They have biases, pet peeves, favorite styles, etc.

You have to decide whether to charge a fee for submissions. If your prize money comes from a giant pile o’ cash you have sitting around, you might not need to charge for entry. However, you might consider charging a fee (1) if there is no giant pile o’ cash, (2) if you can’t seem to lure the judges you want without paying them something, or (3) if you anticipate a tsunami-type volume of entries and need a way to limit them.

(There’s one other, less high-minded, reason you might charge a fee. If your motivation is not so much about finding and promoting undiscovered writers, but is more about swindling gullible rubes, you’d definitely require a fee for submissions and disguise your contest as legitimate.)

Lastly, you’d set up some way to have the judges review the submissions and render a judgement. You could set up some sort of voting mechanism; you could have stages of reviews where not all the first stage judges read every submission but only a subset. You could structure it in any of several ways.

That’s what you’d do if you were setting up your own writing contest, right? That’s pretty much how it happens.

How do you win?

Yeah…about that. If I knew a precise, never-fail method for winning contests, I wouldn’t be wasting time writing blog posts. Let’s restate that question as “How do you increase your odds of winning?”

Mathematically, if every submission had an equal chance, your odds would be one out of the number of entries. Like a well-run lottery, someone’s going to win, and it might be you.

However, the submissions don’t all have an equal chance, and you want to make yours rise above the rest. (In a scam contest run mainly to exploit vulnerable writers, you need to be a friend or relative of the main judge.)

For a legitimate contest, the way to increase your odds of winning is to (1) strictly observe all the contest rules for entering, and (2) follow all the same rules of story writing as you would if you were submitting to an editor for publication. Regarding (2), those story-writing rules consist of all the same advice I’ve been giving for years in this blog: strong and endearing main characters, high-stakes conflict, vivid setting, logical and well-paced plot, distinctive style and voice, etc.

Should you enter?

Obviously, it’s a question that depends on (1) whether you think a particular contest might be a scam, (2) whether there’s an entry fee, and if so, whether you’re willing to pay it, and (3) whether you have a story that meets the contest’s rules, and other factors specific to the situation. You’ll have to answer this one yourself.

One more thing…

Oh, yeah, while you’ve got contests on your mind, don’t forget to vote for my story “After the Martians” and the book In a Cat’s Eye in the Preditors & Editors poll, in the Science Fiction Short Story and Anthology categories, respectively. The voting period closes on January 14th. See the instructions in last week’s blog post.

Whether you enter a contest or not, at least you’ll make your choice armed with a complete knowledge of the opinions of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

It’s 2017; What’s Your Favorite Story from 2016?

<Clink!> ~kazoo blast~ Happy New Year! Yes, the ol’ Earth made it one more time around its elliptical orbit to a particular, and arbitrary, point. Let’s party!

I know a productive way you could begin 2017. You could click over to the Critters Writers Workshop site and vote in their annual Preditors & Editors Poll for your favorite books published during 2016.

The poll includes a variety of categories. Although it’s not a scientific poll, winning it gives the fortunate author some bragging rights, and even making it to the top ten is an honor.

You could (ahem) even vote for two of my stories. One of them, After the Martians,” is in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story category. In the Anthologies category, the book In a Cat’s Eye contains my story “The Cats of Nerio-3.” The links in this paragraph and the book cover images open a new tab taking you straight to the correct poll category to vote.

To vote, click the button beside your favorite story’s (or anthology’s) title, then enter your name and e-mail address, then scroll to the bottom where you’ll see the image of a book’s cover (not mine). Type the author’s name of that book in the box to prove you’re not a spam robot. You’ll receive an e-mail to confirm your vote; just click the link in the e-mail and you’re done. Please vote before January 14, when they close the polling.

Recently, In a Cat’s Eye received a five-star review on Amazon by Katherine A. Lashley. She singled out “The Cats of Nerio-3” as one of her favorites in the book, saying it “does an amazing job in exploring the future of humans, artificial intelligence, and cats.” Thank you very much, Katherine!

If you haven’t read “After the Martians” or In a Cat’s Eye, you can still vote for them in the Preditors & Editors poll, but I also recommend reading them. Whether you vote for my stories or those written by others, I thank you for supporting authors. We value any scrap of appreciation thrown our way. Take it from—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe