Cut the Clutter: Introduction

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I’m a surgeon. Not a medical surgeon, but a verbal surgeon. All serious writers should have verbal surgeon beside their names, for just as medical surgeons cut into patients’ bodies, so verbal surgeons dig deep into sentences, cutting out words, adding words, and many other things to make their writing strong and healthy.

One of the cardinal rules of clear, clean writing is “cut the clutter.” This means taking out unnecessary words, redundancies, and similar things that clutter our prose. Once they’re trashed, sentences become clear and easier to read. They’ll be more concise. This is the mark of a professional, after all. A professional writer’s prose isn’t cluttered.

Cluttered writing can be irritating. Many years ago, when I was a young, budding writer taking college-level English classes, one of my professors gave us students handouts to take home. He’d written about authors and literature he wouldn’t have time to cover in class. I’d learned how important it was to write concisely, without clutter, so when I saw his work…Ugh! An English professor, of all people! Oh, I tried reading what he’d written, but I grew so frustrated wading through his verbosity that I tossed his handouts in a waste basket.

So, if we don’t want a frustrated reader to toss our work away…write concisely! Concise writing doesn’t mean lots of short sentences, though many beginning writers have a mistaken notion that it is. Concise writing means making every word count toward clarity. Effective, clear writing is concise and uses various sentence structures and lengths.

More on “cutting the clutter” in the next post.

They Didn’t Go On The Trail of Tears

A Brief Background

When explorers roamed the southeastern region of North America in the 1500s, they encountered five indigenous tribes more culturally advanced than others. Collectively, they were called the Civilized Tribes. Four resided in Alabama: the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Creeks (aka Muscogees) while the fifth tribe—the Seminoles— lived in Florida. Of the four in Alabama, the Creek Confederacy dominated.

One indigenous band still resides in my state. In fact, they have a reservation not far from where I live. But didn’t President Andrew Jackson send all the state’s tribes to Oklahoma after the Indian Removal Act of 1830?  Yes, he did. Well, almost. We’ll get into that later.

The tribal band that avoided the Removal Act are the Poarch Creeks. More about them later.

Creek Towns

The Creeks lived in permanent towns, either in cabins with clay floors and thatched roofs or in wigwams.  Each town had a square in the middle of four surrounding sheds, long and low, which served as government buildings and housing for its warriors. Inside them, tribal issues were debated and discussed, and decisions made.

As one walked off the square and past these large sheds, he/she would come upon the residential district—cabins scattered about and clustered together according to families. Some houses were built along rivers and creeks.

Creek Winter Home, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson, Wetumpka, AL. Photo by the author.

By the eighteenth century, the Creek Confederacy had grown to fifty towns with a population close to 20,000 people.

Creek Summer Home, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson, Wetumpka, AL. Photo by the author.

The Creek War (1813-1814)

Without going into detail because it’s beyond the scope of this post, war broke out in Alabama Country in 1813. The United States was already engaged in a second war against Great Britain. But this war was fought against a band of warrior Creeks called the Red Sticks, so-named because their war clubs were red. These Creeks were prophets and mystics who claimed supernatural powers.

Why did this war begin? Several factors contributed.

  1. Settlers were pouring into the Alabama country, then part of the Mississippi Territory. This caused friction between the white men and some of the tribes.
  2. A civil war between the tribes was starting between those who supported the white man and his culture and those who wanted to keep their ancient culture and traditions.
  3. A Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, was an ally of the British. They sent him down from Canada to rouse the tribes in the southeast to attack settlers on the frontier. A great orator and persuader, twenty-nine Creek towns rallied to his call to eliminate the white man from their land. Five Creek towns remained peaceful, however, as did most of the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees.
Tecumseh, drawn about 1808 and based on a sketch.. He’s around 45 years old in this picture. Credit: Wikipedia.org.

Before he went back to Canada, Tecumseh gave a prophecy: “When I return home and stamp my foot, a comet will appear in the sky and the earth will shake.” Well, both things came to pass, for British scientists in Canada had told him about the comet. As for the earth shaking, a minor earthquake did occur where these Red Stick Creeks were, but it was just a coincidence. .

The mystical Red Sticks preached war and prophesied to their people. In February of 1813, war broke out. The Creek War was a small war within the context of the larger War of 1812. It ended with a surrender to General Andrew Jackson in 1814, after his decisive victory at Horseshoe Bend. An interesting bit of trivia regarding this battle: two famous figures in the future Texas Revolution fought with Jackson here. Their names? Sam Houston, who was wounded in the battle, and Davy Crockett. On August 9, 1814, Creek chiefs signed a treaty at Fort Jackson (in present-day Wetumpka), ending the war and ceding 20 million acres of land.

The Poarch Creeks

In 1830, Congress passed the Relocation Act. This forced the Creeks and other Civilized Tribes, except the Cherokees, to leave their native land for a new territory that would one day become the state of Oklahoma. The Cherokees began getting forced out of Alabama in 1838, after Congress passed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. All of these tribes suffered horribly, and many members perished, along the 1,000 + miles they walked. It is aptly called the Trail of Tears and it’s one of American history’s saddest episodes.

Along Alabama’s Tensaw River, however, north of Mobile, a band of Creeks loyal to the white man were allowed to remain. These had worked as traders and scouts. However, they were eventually forced to move further north. They eventually called themselves the Poarch Creeks, named for their reservation in Poarch, Alabama. They’ve lived in that state for over 200 years.

For more interesting information and history of the Poarch Creeks, visit their website at History – Poarch Band of Creek Indians (pci-nsn.gov)

Bibliography

History – Poarch Band of Creek Indians (pci-nsn.gov), The Poarch Creek Indians, 2005-2021

National Trail of Tears Association, “Trail of Tears Association Alabama Chapter,” Muscle Shoals, Alabama, alabamatota.com/history/

Holland, James W. Victory at the Horseshoe: Andrew Jackson and the Creek War. Tuscaloosa, AL:Eastern National with The University of Alabama Press and Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, 2004.

McMillan, Malcolm C. The Land Called Alabama, Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1968

Riegel, Robert E. and Athearn, Robert G. America Moves West, Hinsdake, Illinois: The Dryden Press, Inc., 1971.

Anna Sewell, a Late Bloomer

Many famous authors had literary success late in life. Today, we’ll take a brief look at one of them–Anna Sewell.

Anna only wrote one book, but wow! It’s still in print, has been made into movies, translated into other languages, and inspired similar stories. Its title? Black Beauty, a horse story told from the horse’s point of view. And a true classic.

Black Beauty cover, First Edition, 1877

Anna grew up in Victorian England. When she was fourteen-years-old, she fell and broke her ankles on her way home from school. This led to a decline in her health. Meanwhile, her father struggled to earn his family a living and moved the family from one place to another. Her mother wrote Christian books for children which Anna proofread and edited.

Anna’s health eventually declined to the point where she could no longer walk, so to get around, she moved about town in carriages. This created in her a love for the horses who drew her and her vehicles up and down busy streets. She witnessed firsthand how people abused her beloved animals, and thus was born her beautiful tale, Black Beauty.

By 1871, her health had deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t leave her room, so she picked up pen and paper and began writing her story. She was fifty-one years old. After a while, she quit writing for a spell then resumed in 1876 even though she was suffering severe pain. When it was finished, her literary mother found a publisher for her. In November 1877, Anna experienced the joy of seeing her words in print. She died five months later. We can’t say with certainty what caused her death—most likely either hepatitis or phthisis.

Other Links:

Atlas, Nava. “Anna Sewell” Anna Sewell, Author of Black Beauty | LiteraryLadiesGuide

Anna Sewell (Author of Black Beauty) (goodreads.com)

QUICK TIP: Are You Listening?

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Are you listening to the words you write? If your computer has a voice recorder, or if you have another type of recorder, try reading your manuscript aloud into it. Reading aloud helps writers spot mistakes they missed through silent reading. By playing back their words and listening closely, writers hear their prose’s rhythm and pace, spot poorly written dialogue, wordiness, and other stylistic errors. Some versions of Microsoft Word have a Read Aloud feature which I find helpful. If your version has this feature, click onto it and let the computer read it back to you while you follow along with a hard copy of your manuscript. You’ll be surprised at the things you’ll spot that need fixing.

Four Traits of a Good Beta Reader

Over thirty years ago, when I began my writing career, my literary passion drove me to learn everything I could about writing as fast as possible. One of the many ways I learned was through beta readers. Though I now have numerous bylines, and several books I’ve either written or contributed to, I still use them. All serious writers do.

Beta readers are critical to our writing careers. Why? Because when we’re caught up in our work, objectivity takes a backseat. True, we can put our work aside for a few days then read it with fresh eyes, and we should. We’ll spot things we missed. Good beta readers, however, will help us produce an even more polished work.

What Is a Beta Reader?

Good beta readers are those who read our work seeking such things as holes in our story’s plot, weak story openings and endings, awkward phrasing, narrative inconsistencies, storylines that aren’t believable, poor characterization, poorly written dialogue, and similar things.

My Rule for Beta Readers

Notice that little adjective I used—good. Not all beta readers are the same. From my earliest writing days, I’ve followed one rule: If all a reader does is give me a pat on the back and says my work is good, I never let that person see another manuscript.

Though I never tell beta readers this because I don’t want to hurt their feelings if things don’t work out, I’ve always been strict about it. Pats on the back without constructive critiques don’t help us improve. No matter how advanced we are, we always have room to get better.

Fortunately, as time has passed, I’ve developed friendships with good beta readers. Unlike my early years, I no longer have to “test drive” them. Nowadays, I rarely have to implement my rule.

Traits of a Good Beta Reader

  • Honest Feedback. Good beta readers aren’t afraid to give honest feedback. If they don’t like what we’ve written, they’ll tell us and then they’ll say why. However, they’ll word their opinion in such a way that it doesn’t kill a writer’s dream. Not only will they point out a work’s weaknesses, though. They’ll also point out its strengths. In other words, they’ll offer valid feedback and sound  advice.
  • Knowledgeable. Good beta readers are serious writers themselves who are knowledgeable about the craft.
  • Readers. Good beta readers are serious readers. That is, they read critically. They understand why they like certain books, why they don’t, and can give solid reasons for it. This person may not necessarily be a writer, but he/she         knows what makes good literature.
  • Understands Our Genre. Good beta readers understand our genre. Because different genres have different rules, they must first  understand our genre so they don’t offer bad advice. I could advise someone on historical fiction, for example, because that’s my specialty. On the other hand, any advice I might offer on a romance novel would be questionable. I’ve not read that many romance novels, though I have read a few.

Beta Readers To Avoid

  • Family. Family members are usually reluctant to offer their honest input for fear of hurting our feelings or ruining a relationship. But if a family member does meet the above-mentioned criteria, I believe that person would be fine.
  • Friends Who Aren’t Writers. They don’t meet the criteria.
  • Token Readers. These people read a manuscript, or perhaps just scan it, then they make a comment or two on a page and leave it at that. Writers need in- depth beta readers, not the token variety.
  • Attaboy Readers. These people just give us a pat on the back. “Attaboy. Good job,” they say. No one’s writing is perfect. We don’t need praise. We do need constructive criticism if we want to improve.

Some Final Advice

  • If we can find more than one good beta reader, our finished manuscript will be all the better.
  • If two or more beta readers make the same comment about our work, we’d be wise to heed their advice and revise accordingly.
  • Always thank your beta readers. Because they sacrificed some of their time to help, a little gratitude goes a long way

And thank you for visiting today.

Ernest Hemingway Quote: On Writing

Ernest Hemingway at Work

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ectasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer” (Old Newsman Writes, from Esquire (December 1934)

Called to be a Writer: How to Know For Sure

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“I’m going to be a writer one day.”

“I’m going to write a book and get rich.”

“Writing’s easy. I think I’ll become an author.”

Oh, how many times have I heard people tell me such things! Throughout my long writing career, that’s for sure. Well, that’s great. But once I start explaining all the work that goes into it most, but not all of them, back away. At other times when people tell me they want to become a writer, I just nod and smile unless they ask for advice. Why? Because I’m waiting to see how serious they are, to see if God has truly called them.

Let’s face it. Writing professionally isn’t for the fainthearted, nor is it for the lonely. Like any ministry, if a person isn’t called to write, I don’t recommend doing it. I wouldn’t recommend myself to be a choir director, either, because frogs sing better than I do.

Do you feel called to be a writer? Here are three things to consider to help you know for sure:

.Psalm 37: 4  “Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” (KJV)

This verse doesn’t mean we can desire anything and the Lord will give it. Rather, it means that if we delight in Him and put Him first in our lives, He’ll put His desires in our heart. So, if we follow this pattern, delighting in God first, and if He’s called us to be a writer, He’ll plant that literary dream within us. It will grow into a passion, and the passion will become so strong we’ll refuse to quit no matter what or who may try to hinder us.

John 10:10   “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I   am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more   abundantly.” (KJV)

Eric Liddell

Our Lord and Savior has called us to an abundant life, one that overflows with joy and fulfillment. If we’re called, we’ll experience that joy while we write. Like Eric Liddell said in the movie Chariots of Fire: he felt God’s pleasure when he ran. If we’re called to write, we’ll also feel God’s pleasure.

1 Samuel 17:35 “Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this  uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the  armies of the living God.” (KJV)

Before David accepted Goliath’s challenge, God had prepared him by teaching him how to fight lions and bears. Likewise, God prepares us for whatever He’s called us to do. Just as He enabled David to kill Goliath, so He’ll enable called writers to succeed. Not fame and fortune, necessarily. Few writers have this. But they will reach the skill level where they can sell their work. It may not happen overnight, and usually doesn’t, but through hard work and study (preparation), and a little bit of talent, God will bring on and bless the bylines.

Has God called you to be a writer? If so, never quit pursuing your dream.

Pantser/No Pantser Writing

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Are you a panster or a no pantser? Or, are you somewhere in- between like me?

Pantsers, writers who don’t use outlines, write “by the seat of their pants.” Other writers, the no pantsers, use outlines. Each way of writing has its own advantages and disadvantages.

ADVANTAGES OF A PANTSER

  1. Writing is livelier.
  2. Characters “take over” the story and move it in unexpected directions, which can          surprise the writer and delight readers.
  3. New character POVs can appear, along with new, and surprising plots.

DISADVANTAGES OF A PANTSER

  1. The plot is liable to have holes in it, requiring lots of revision as the writer works out plot problems.
  2. Writing will often be too wordy. This means lots of cutting back on unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases.
  3. Some scenes may appear in the initial draft that may have to be deleted later. Also, some plot angles and unbelievable storylines may have to be cut–more work, more revision.

ADVANTAGES OF A NO PANTSER

  1. The writer knows every detail of where his/her story is going.
  2. Plot problems have been worked out before the story is written. This saves time for the writer and helps him/her write faster.

DISADVANTAGES OF A NO PANSTER

  1. Writers are locked into their outline, limiting other plot options.
  2. If the writer isn’t careful, outlined writing can sound stiff.

THE IN-BETWEEN

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As I mentioned earlier, some writers are like me: in-between the two methods. What do I mean by this? How I wrote my Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters series will explain.

As I sat at my laptop to begin my first book in the series, I knew how the series would begin and how it would end. However, I had no idea what would happen in the middle.

Then, after I wrote my first few chapters, the story “got legs” and took off. New characters popped up along the way, new subplots and plot complications arose. It was great fun, releasing my characters to do whatever they wanted.

One character, though, proved stubborn—a Creole fellow named Philippe. I tried hard to enlist him in the Confederate Navy. I even wrote his navy scenes. With every writing, though, Philippe kept screaming at me: “Army! Put me in the Army!” When I finally listened to him, his story took off like a cannon shot across a ship’s bow.

The outlining came in when I wrote the novel’s chronology. I needed to be sure that my characters “did their thing” within the right historical time frame. Their stories revolved around the historical events they experienced. I didn’t tell them what to do, they told me what they wanted to do and how they wanted to respond to these events.

So, are you a pantser, a no pantser, or somewhere in-between? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Feel free to share them in the comments.

Three Steps to Writing Effective Devotionals

One great way to break into Christian writing is through devotions. They’re still in demand in numerous Christian markets, and in devotional magazines such as The Upper Room, The Secret Place, and The Quiet Hour.

Typically, devotions are no longer than 300 words. Sometimes, though, they’re shorter. Because they’re short, many folks think they’re easy to write. Oh, the basic format is easy, but it takes mental “elbow grease” to write them. All the rules of good writing apply.

Basic Devotional Format

  1. The Anecdote. An anecdote is a brief story or illustration that’s tied to a specific Bible truth or spiritual principle. It should illustrate one truth, and only one truth.  A devotional is not a Bible study.
  2. The Transition. The transition smoothly moves the illustration toward the Bible verse or truth the writer is discussing. It can be a word, a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph.
  3. The Application. The application brings out the devotional’s truth then applies it to a reader’s life. The application should be positive in nature, challenging the reader to act upon the devotion’s lesson in a practical way. Writers should always include themselves in the application by using inclusive pronouns such as we and  us. Devotions are not sermons, so we don’t need to preach.

Let’s study a devotional I sold to Evangel, a publication of the Free Methodist Church, back in 1998. I’m using this one because I own the copyright to it.

Contented as a Dog

One day this past summer, I watched my dog lay beneath my fig tree. She rested her gold-colored head between her forepaws and shut her eyes. I laughed to myself, thinking how easy she had it. I fed her every day, gave her water, took her on walks, played with her—essentially, I provided for her every need, and she was content.

We who know God have it made too, if we would just learn to be content.

But it’s hard to be content with the world hawking its luxuries. Every time we visit a shopping mall or turn on the TV, we’re bombarded with temptations to buy things we don’t need. Don’t misunderstand me. Nothing’s wrong with owning a few luxuries, so long as we’re not discontented with God’s provision. It’s the grasping hand God frowns upon, the compulsion to want more. “And if I have food and covering, with these things we shall be content,” Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:8 (NAS). If this is true of animals like my dog, how much more should it be of us.

Analysis: “Contented as a Dog”

1.Anecdote:

One day this past summer, I watched my dog lay beneath my fig tree….(Good anecdotes must include some action and also, if the anecdote warrants it, dialogue.)

Last sentence: I fed her every day, gave her water, took her on walks, played with her—essentially, I provided for her every need, and she was content. (Here I shared the truth: be content like my dog.)

2.Transition:

We who know God have it made too, if we would just learn to be content. (My dog had it made, and we who know God had it made. This leads to my application. Notice that I repeated the word content from the preceding  paragraph. Such repetition is one way to establish a smooth transition.)

3.Application and Challenge:

But it’s hard to be content with the world hawking its luxuries. Every time we visit a shopping mall or turn on the TV, we’re bombarded with temptations to  buy things we don’t need. Don’t misunderstand me. Nothing’s wrong with         owning a few luxuries, so long as we’re not discontented with God’s provision. It’s the grasping hand God frowns upon, the compulsion to want more. “And if I  have food and covering, with these things we shall be content,” Paul said in 1       Timothy 6:8 (NAS). If this is true of animals like my dog, how much more should  it be of us. (Notice three things here: inclusive pronouns, repetition of the central truth of being content, and expansion of this truth with a challenge in the last sentence that ties back to the anecdote.)

Why not give devotional writing a try? I think you’ll enjoy writing them as much as I do.

Characterization: Too Many Characters?

James Michener, Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain Photo

Occasionally, I’ve read book reviews where the critic says the author had too many characters. In my opinion, this criticism is not always valid. Though, of course, often it is. It depends on the genre. If a book is a saga, a long book with a complicated plot, then expect lots of characters. I like sagas but then, I also enjoy extra-long movies and television miniseries provided they’re done well.

One of my favorite writers whose books contain a large cast is James Michener. Numerous well-known authors other than Michener can be cited here as well: Herman Wouk’s World War Two series: Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, and even Louis L’Amour’s last novel set during the Middle Ages, The Walking Drum, falls into this large cast category.

The downside of having too many characters is that it can make a story hard to follow and confuse readers. Oftentimes, it causes them to put down a book. Should we put lots of characters in our stories? And in the same scene? As a rule, I don’t recommend this, except in the case I mentioned above– if we’re writing a saga. Yet even if we’re writing a saga, I would not allow lots of characters to overload a scene.

Tips for Handling a Large Cast of Characters

  1. Don’t give characters similar sounding names.
  2. When they’re first introduced, spend time describing them in a memorable way by giving them unique features and dialogue.
  3. To reduce the number of characters in your story, ask yourself this: “Is he/she important to my story’s plot?” If not, either make the character a nameless walk-on or get rid of him/her. Another option— merge the character into another, more important character so that the two become one.
  4. Use a Cast of Characters List on the book’s opening pages, listing all of the main characters, to help readers keep track of them.