How to Enjoy your Thin Skin

Don't let writing criticism depress youLast post, we talked about the gentle art of giving criticism. Receiving it is a whole different ball game — and it doesn’t matter who gives it. Number one thing to remember is that criticism will always sting … but it doesn’t have to destroy your self-esteem.

Here’s how it works. When you write first-draft, you’re getting your story down. That’s all.

Typically, the average writer does a lot of “telling” rather than showing at this stage, and if you share first-draft material with people you will almost inevitably receive criticism on everything from “telling not showing” to “head-hopping” to “spelling mistakes”.

If you can stand receiving criticism at the first-draft stage, you’ve just saved yourself weeks of revision time. You can use the comments you’ve received as a guide to what to tackle.

And here’s a tip: Think of criticism not as “criticism”, but as feedback — because that is what it is.

If you’re the sort of writer who is crushed to the point of extinction by people not unconditionally loving your work, don’t share first-draft material.

(There’s another even-more-important reason not to ask people to read your first-draft material: Unless you’re dealing with a conceptual editor that you’ve hired on your own, it’s actually disrespectful to force beta readers to read material that is not as polished as you can make it. And they won’t want to beta-read for you again!)

Why a Revision Checklist can Cut Down on Criticism

To avoid the sort of criticism that makes you cringe and give up writing, either share only small portions of your book or share only short stories with other writers — not Aunt Maisie or your best friend, Jill — or revise your novel or story before sharing, going through a “checklist”.

Using a revision structure or a checklist makes this process a lot less painful. You won’t get “lost” in the revisions and end up endlessly editing one paragraph for days until you’ve killed any spark of life in it. If you use a structure and/or revision checklist, you will feel like you know what you’re doing–and what you’re looking out for.

Here’s my basic revision checklist:

  • Head-hopping — Switching POVs (points-of-view)inadvertently
  • Telling not showing — Big clues: passive voice; “had”s and “felt”s
  • Foreshadowing — Do you need to insert foreshadowing events? Are you missing any?
  • Voice consistency — Does each character have a distinct, recognizable “voice”?
  • Plot holes — Fill them in
  • Scenes — Does each one advance the story? What changes in this scene?

And only then do you worry about the mechanics: Spelling, punctuation, grammar

Once you’ve revised your novel or story, taking care of the above, you’re ready to seek beta readers or send the little beast out to an editor or two. Even then, you will often get ruthless and not particularly gentle criticism, so don’t be disappointed if that happens. Let it smart for a day or so, don’t respond defensively or angrily, then assess each point and decide “do I agree with this? Would it, in fact, make my story better?” A good portion of professional or knowledgeable critique points will in fact do just that.

All Writers Receive Criticism

The bottom line is that all writers have to deal with criticism: Some exciting and helpful; some hurtful and unjust. And not all people will love your book. If you aim to please everyone, your book will become the ultimate wimp of books, so just tell your story, get it out … and make sure you are prepared for criticism. Even famous authors get ruthless criticism from agents, beta readers and editors. Well, maybe not top earners like J. K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins at this point in their careers — but look how disappointing, dark and off-course their final books the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series turned out to be.

It’s guaranteed: A writer who doesn’t allow criticism and refuses the advice of editors produces self-indulgent, unbalanced and often seriously bloated stories. No matter how famous they might be.

Thickening Your Skin: Try Writing Short-short Fiction and Join a Supportive Group

Flash FictionA great way dip your toe in the pool of writer’s groups, giving and receiving feedback: Join Holly Lisle’s free How to Write Flash Fiction that Doesn’t Suck. It’s a three-week course. You can work at your own pace, and you’ll be given access to her Flash Fiction forum, where you can post your under-a-thousand word stories (we aim for 500 words but no one rips your heart out if you go a little longer) and receive feedback from writers who care.

Holly Lisle has written over thirty published novels; most of them in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. She is that rare bird, an author who has had success in traditional print publishing as well as ePublishing, and who also understands the world of marketing and copywriting. Check out her novels as well as her books on writing … and when her paid courses open up, which they do occasionally, jump on the chance to join. Her “How to Think Sideways” course has been life-changing for me as a writer, and one of my other favorites — also causing frequent writing epiphanies and excitement — is “How to Write Page-Turning Scenes”.

Next post, I’ll introduce to another writer whose books and website are equally inspirational, but I’m off to do some writing for myself, right now.

Meanwhile, if you need an example of flash fiction, and you don’t mind fantasy, please visit my Marya Miller, Writer site and read one of my Flash Fiction stories on my “Fiction” page.

Keep writing!

The Gentle Art of Criticism

over-zealous writing criticism can make us despairAs a writer, informed criticism can be one of your most exciting learning opportunities. Without criticism, you could spend years holed up with your laptop, making the same writing mistakes, over and over again.

So welcome criticism: And if you feel particularly flattened by an over-zealous critic don’t angrily dismiss the criticism or write a defensive refutation. Realize that person isn’t as skilled as critiquing as he or she may be at writing. Go away, have a cup of tea, come back and write out what you are thankful for that your critic pointed out (ignoring rampantly silly points, like “I think Daphne would have worn red, not blue.”)

(Do this and you might be surprised to discover that one or two of the points they dumped on your head are helpful and valid.)

But what if you’ve received criticism from a professional such as a magazine editor?

First, realize that if a magazine editor takes the time to personally criticize specific points in your story or article, this means you are not a crappy writer! Magazine editors are busy, busy people. They don’t have time to waste on writing that doesn’t grab them. So take their criticism as an encouraging sign: They thought your story idea workable and/or they can see you have a spark of talent and potential as a writer and future contributor.

If an editor or agent criticizes points in a story or article, and asks for a re-write, do it! You’re in! Tackle the re-write point by point. Now is not the time for despair: Fixing a few sentences or cutting out a tangent is all that now stands between you and publication.

Don’t be overzealous

If you are in a writer’s group, taking criticism from peers, you will find there are two sorts: Pros and the over-zealous. A “pro” may be an established writer or a newbie—but what he or she is “pro” at is constructive criticism. Likewise, the overzealous may be newbies or seasoned writers with professional credits under their belts—but they suck at critiquing.

There are two common reasons for overzealousness: Number one is a nasty reason—ego tripping. There are those who just love slamming someone else’s work and telling them how to re-write it: The old “put yourself up by putting others down” routine. ‘Nuff said. If that happens, you are probably in the wrong writer’s group. Leave, and go find one where love of writing, not ego, is the focus.

The second common reason: Being over-anxious to contribute. You genuinely want to help. You want to prove you are a valuable group member. That’s fine, but don’t let these noble aims carry you away.  Remember that you are not just criticizing a story—you are talking to a real person; perhaps one who is sharing things through stories for the first time. Even the most experienced writers can feel flattened or overwhelmed if you find fault with every sentence or paragraph.

And do comment only on what you are asked to comment on. If someone wants you to look for spelling mistakes, don’t pull apart every concept or comma.

Resist the compulsion to nitpick

This not a post-mortem, in which every last shred of muscle or tissue is dissected and pulled apart—and it shouldn’t feel like one. A critique should feel more to the person whose piece is being criticized like a really exciting brainstorming session that sparks new insights or ideas.

If a story is really full of amateurish mistakes, holes and inconsistencies, realize that the writer won’t be able to put your brilliant suggestions into practice because he or she has not yet learned her craft. So don’t waste your time (and crush him or her) by dealing with each problem individually, if there are more than three “mistakes”: Make a general statement about the underlying problem and provide a link to what the writer needs next.

Example:

example of helpful writing criticism

 

 

 

If there are less than handful of things that really jolt you right out of the story, mention them—but don’t suggest how to fix them unless the writer asks for suggestions.

  • Right: “When the old woman throws the cat out the window, it feels out of character.”
  • Wrong: “Old women NEVER throw cats out of windows. I would have her put the cat in a basket, tie a length of kitchen string to the handle, and lower it carefully, ignoring the flames as much as possible.”

Never tell a writer what her character would or wouldn’t do. Only he or she knows. You can only comment on how an action strikes you and what it makes you feel.

Trust your writer to get your point and make his or her own fixes. Anything beyond that, and you risk frustrating, annoying or demoralizing your writer.

Make it a habit to criticize no more than three major points, or you will overwhelm and demoralize your writer. Consign the nit-picky stuff to “if she asks”.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about receiving writing criticism–without letting it annihilate you.

Be the Heroine in your Own Life

sunlightDo you ever get lost in a TV program or a good book, to the point where you daydream about your heroine (or hero) and wish you could enter their world? That’s one of the most fun parts about being both a reader and a writer: But how much do you let yourself be the heroine (or hero) in your own life?

I don’t mean you should rush out and look for people to rescue or allow yourself to become some victim imperilled by a psychotic killer. Being a heroine in your own life is all about the small, quiet moments we take for granted: Sitting in your front porch, noticing how the sun sparkles on the window of a car parked down the road while your neighbor’s tree waves gently in the breeze. Feeling the crisp morning air while you sip your morning coffee. Staring at your little black cat while she stares enigmatically back at you.

Being the heroine in your own story is about stopping to notice where you are, who you are, how far you’ve journeyed, and what you have to be thankful for.

Say it aloud to yourself, putting yourself in the third person: “This is the life of _________, and right now, this morning/afternoon/evening, she is_____________ and ____________________.”

Stop and think what a miracle that is. Here you are, living your own story, able to choose:

  • Your values
  • Your beliefs
  • What you are going to do next
  • What goals you will set
  • How you will take action and move towards them
  • Whether or not it’s time for a rest
  • How you will choose to respond to any and every situation

So write your own story with appreciation, joy and courage; and above all, hope. It’s your story—no one else’s. You get to decide who the villains are, how you will handle them, and what you want the outcome to be.

hospitalThe villain might be an actual person from your past or in your present; or it might be an impersonal and implacable villain, such as cancer. What these villains can’t take away from you is the present moment.

You are alive, and you alone get to choose how you will spend that moment.

In that moment, you are in your own story—not outside of life; not bypassed because of disability, illness or loss. You are special, you are unique: No one else is doing what you’re doing, feeling what you’re feeling, and seeing what you see.

So take a moment to stop and be in “the now”. Take a moment to love yourself and your story, and thank yourself for being “me”.

Don’t numb yourself with busy-ness or distraction. Don’t wait for someone else to give you “permission”.

Make the choice. Be the heroine (or hero) in your own life.

Defining Yourself with your Writing… or Not

ArtistYears ago, in the early nineties, I had the oddest experience. I was grappling at the time with defining myself. Was I a writer? An artist? A musician?

The problem was, I was borderline “good” in all these areas, but instead of just settling down and concentrating on one, I would go through addictive, obsessive-compulsive bursts. At that moment in time, my current creative addiction was working on a cartoon strip about a heavy metal band, named “Forky Mendez”. But I also had to work for a living, so when a friend invited me to an entrepreneurial business seminar, I went.

The presentation was given by a fabulous woman with platinum hair, a hot pink business suit and stiletto heels–the epitome of Millionaire Success. As the presentation got heavily under way, my mind began to wander–and I “saw”, standing in the aisle in front of me, a large wolf with mesmerizing golden eyes.

It was a vision. A genuine, bona-fide vision.

Suddenly, the presenter broke off. Turned out that she was also an authentic medicine woman, with thirty-five years Native American apprenticeship/training behind her. She told us that “Wolf” was standing in front of her, insistent that he had a message for someone in the audience.  The vision was so strong, I knew it was for me.

“A Message from Wolf”

pawprintShe asked if people would mind if she delivered the message. They seemed intrigued, and quickly told her to get on with it. She began to walk down the aisle towards me–and stopped, turning to a woman over to my left, some rows ahead. She began to give the woman a message about being a caretaker to her mother, addressing doubts and fears she was facing. I remember feeling astonished, while the Wolf continued to stare at me. (“But the message is for ME…”)

She finished her message, and started to walk back up to the dais. Then she turned round.

“There’s one other person… Wolf isn’t finished yet.”

She walked up to me and said this (nearly word-for-word, as I remember it):

“You’re at a crossroads. You’re wondering which path to take–should it be art? Music? Writing? Wolf says, the answer is this: YOU are the medium. You are the artist. You can choose whichever communication media you like: It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s the best one, that day, for delivering the message.”

She then went on to describe how Wolf had suddenly transformed into her minds eye as a “cartoon wolf, with a fat cigar”–which I found interesting, considering I was currently absorbed in cartooning.

She did not know me. I was just a face in the audience and she was just a hot-millionaire-type presenter in a hot pink suit, but that was the message. And I saw a Wolf.

Make of it what you will. I’ve never been into New Age stuff or the Woogie-woogie. I didn’t wear crystals or frolic naked in the moonlight on Samhain. My fantasy life/outlet was strictly limited to voractiously reading books like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea books.

But I never forgot what that presenter said; and I’ve never forgot “seeing” the Wolf, with his hypnotic yellow eyes.

How do You Connect?

Does it make me a better writer/artist/musician?

I’d like to think so. But it is what it is. (Many experts would say that not specializing detracts.)

Does it make me a great one in any of these areas?

No, of course not. I’m still on the journey. But during ten years of being a musician, another ten as an artist and the current ten as a writer again, writing has always been the one thing I’ve never put aside: And if I’m not writing for a creative outlet, then I’m working in the field. (I’ve been a magazine and newspaper editor, newspaper general manager, freelancer, and I’m currently a ghostwriter rediscovering poetry and fiction.)

I’m far from the best in any of these fields, and still happily learning, but ego is gone from the transaction: And that’s where the need to define can actually hamper. Nowadays, I love every new thing I learn, whether that be technique, trick, fact, factoid or earth-shattering revelation.

It’s all about communication. It’s all about being alive and connecting with others.

It’s all about the joy.

What keeps you writing? Why do you love it? How do you connect?

I’d love to know.

Making Money Writing when you have Health Challenges

Rainbow ladyWriting is an online job it is possible to do really well when you have health challenges or any sort of chronic disability. You don’t need the ability to run five miles before breakfast: You just need a computer, some sort of affinity for writing and a specialty you like to write about.

Here are my five keys tips to becoming an online copywriter or ghostwriter and quickly making money or even making a living at it, as I have been doing since 2008.

1. Start “light” but not small

Give yourself extra lead time. Realize that if your health is unstable or a particular challenge slows you down, you will need to schedule yourself accordingly.

Resist the urge to push yourself or take on more projects. Allow for bad days, treatment days, recovery days or trips to the emergency department. Don’t take on too much, and keep your workload light till you can accurately gauge your perfect work balance. (You’ll find it!)

2. Specialize in what you do well

This doesn’t just mean “become a fashion copywriting specialist if your thing is fashion”: It also means “learn what you don’t do well—and drop the stuff that stresses you out or loses you income”.

For example, I no longer write blog posts for clients, because (tracking my time—including research and editing time) I discovered I usually lost money on writing blog posts. Nowadays, I specialize in eBooks and training courses.

3. Charge a competitive rate

Don’t let your health challenges erode self-respect. You are working for a living. You are doing everything you can do to provide great copy for your client—on time. Just deliver what you promise and say “thank you very much” for the payment.

4. Reduce stress

If you are living with any sort of chronic disability, you already have enough stress. Simplify your life. Remove anything that adds to stress, because stress can aggravate your condition.

That means removing clutter, people who stress you, self-inflicted responsibilities or anything that isn’t necessary to your successful functioning or happiness. This is one time it’s crucial to be “selfish” (and it’s not selfish at all!)

5. Get yourself out there

People may have already told you that you have to run a blog, create a Facebook Page, get Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, post via Instagram et cetera, et cetera. (It exhausts me just writing that sentence!)

While this may or may not be true, there is a MUCH easier way to network and connect with peers and potential clients and get yourself “out there”. Join an active, passionate online writers group or forum dedicated to the specialty you write about. Your specialty forum will keep you in touch with your clients’ audiences (and breaking news for your niche): Your writers group will keep you in touch with writing peers and potential clients, agents, and publishers.

If you write helpful posts and share helpful tips and resources, they’ll soon get to know you—and you’ll be building your reputation, socializing, making connections and having a lot of fun and “down time”, all at once.

Better yet, join a writers group or forum with a job board—like WriterHelpWanted. You’ll be surprised how effortlessly you pick up your first paying clients (plus lots of advice and training on dealing with same!)

WriterHelpWanted services and resources

Know your Tropes: Avoid Clichés

trope plus cliche
Screen writers are hyper-aware of tropes: Fiction writers (especially new ones) not so much.

  • Tropes are common scenarios that happen in TV or in the movies (and occasionally in real life)
  • Clichés… are phrases. Simple as that.

Clichés are fatal in writing: Not only because they are so overused that they lack (or even defuse) emotional meaning, but because they make Google’s search engines flag your content as plagiaristic.

Tropes don’t have to be fatal in fiction. In fact, if you understand your trope, you can really have fun with it (as Peter Jackson does with almost all of his “The Hobbit” characters).

Still foggy about the difference between a trope and a cliché? Let’s look at examples of both:

1. Cliché examples

“All is fair in love and war” [phrase]
“Fall head over heels” [phrase]
“And they all lived happily ever after” [phrase]

2. Trope examples

Nice to the waitress—we’ve all seen this little character-setting device, where the hero calls the waitress by name or smiles as he tips her. This in turn tips us off that underneath, he has a heart of gold—even if he is initially mean and grim to others in the movie. Conversely, just look how most of the Game of Thrones aristocracy treat people they deem lesser than them. You won’t find any of the houses being kind to the lesser folk! (And that includes how they treat their relatives too.) [scenario]

Celibate Hero—where the hero (or heroine) chooses (usually for noble reasons, like “the world will end if I do” never to have sex.

This often leads to another common trope, Unresolved Sexual Tension—a frequent problem between mortals and immortals. (Just look at poor Buffy and Angel in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.)

There is often a curse attached to the mortal-immortal-type scenario: For example, Angel can never sleep with someone he truly loves (i.e. Buffy) because then he will become pure Evil. [scenario]

Know your tropes—and use them wisely. Look for ways you can give them original twists.

As for clichés? Avoid them like the plague! Run for the hills! (Oops, just used TWO clichés! There goes the Google Duplicate Content Alarm!)

To learn more about tropes, check out TVTropes.org. And if you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it!

Writers Groups: To Join or Not to Join?

WritersJoining a writer’s group—or not joining one—is usually a decision made out of personal preference. Reclusive or introverted people say things like: “I don’t do well in group situations”, and outgoing writers love to join writer’s groups.

But regardless of your personality type, becoming a member of a writer’s group can help you grow and mature as a writer faster than one hundred years locked in a tower with nothing but your pen and paper—or laptop.

 

If you can stomach them, writer’s groups contribute to writer growth in real, visceral ways:

  • Networking with other writers
  • Gaining visibility in the writing community
  • Gaining access to writing job leads
  • Finding out about resources you didn’t even know were out there
  • Being able to ask for (and get) informed feedback
  • Brainstorming and bouncing around ideas, headlines, premises
  • Being able to ask writing questions and receive an objective roundtable of helpful answers
  • Having all the rough edges smoothed off your story ideas and prose

I could go on, but you get the general idea. There is nothing like being out there in the real world, where group members help you learn in two seconds what you didn’t learn during ten years holed up in the attic.

The Drawbacks of Writer’s Groups

But group environments are not everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re an introvert or a recluse, you’ve probably found yourself in this scenario:

  • You attend your first Writer’s Group meeting. You are enthusiastic about it, but when it’s time for the next meeting, you just aren’t in the mood. In fact, you procrastinate about going to meetings and miss more than you attend.

Eventually, you give up. You try to go back to the group five years later, and are surprised they no longer exist…

  • You find in-person interaction tiring and overwhelming. And the first time someone say something critical, you’re done.

Enter Facebook writer’s groups. The advantage of online writer’s groups are huge for introverts, recluses (and people with disabilities, who find transportation to real-world meetings a big issue).

  • You can access the conversation any time of night or day
  • You can access the conversation for five minutes or forty
  • You can focus only on relevant posts or advice
  • You get a chance to share your experience, skills or tips—without having to wait for a break in the conversation, or suffer the experience of people talking over top of you
  • You can pick up an incredible wealth and variety of knowledge and experience from others
  • You can come or go as you please without ever feeling guilty for “procrastinating”
  • Online groups keep you in contact with other writers (a.k.a. “people”)
  • An active online group is energizing and inspiring
  • You often learn more about writing and publishing in a week than you would in ten years

I recently found such an online writers group: WriterHelpWanted. The irony is that the Facebook Group community is actually not the primary focus of this group: Connecting writers with paid writing jobs is the focus—and not only does Writer’s Help Wanted have a kickass, constantly-updated job board, it has training modules you can access to learn how to be a better writer.

It’s run by Alice Seba, acclaimed copywriter and marketer (a legend in the industry) and Ron Douglas, who has hit the New York Times best seller list many times over. Group leadership is passionate, committed and involved—this is not one of those Facebook Groups where the group admins disappear after the first few weeks. There is real interaction, and Alice in particular is always sharing resources and tips.

snippet

I’m a former magazine editor and newspaper general manager. I make a full-time living, ghostwriting, and in my spare time, I write fiction—and in just a couple of weeks, I easily learned invaluable tips from people in this Facebook Group (not just the admins) that I hadn’t come across before. The group is passionate and active, with a healthy dose of humor and zero ego. I love it. It’s the best writing group I’ve ever joined. And it will fast-track your writing skills, visibility, connections and marketability, whether or not you write fiction or non-fiction.

Right now, you can help yourself to “34 Ways to Profit from Your Writing” for free, so check out this sample resource from WriterHelpWanted.

34 Ways to Profit from Your Writing

What’s Your Writing Meme?

Memes for writers. (Hey, you can’t take yourself too seriously–even if you do take your writing seriously.)

I find that a picture cut out and stuck to my bulletin board is helpful for inspiring me on those rare days when I need a kick in the writing pants. This is my current reminder to achieve my 1,000 words of personal writing per day (on top of my 6,000 copywriting/ghostwriting for clients).

What would your personal writing meme say (or how would you rewrite the bottom caption of this one?) Please share it with me on my Copywriter’s Corner Facebook Page.

medium squiggle

cat writer meme

 

Scottish Rain

I wrote this spontaneously as a response to a call to participate in a fifteen-minute writing exercise suggested by author, Judy Reeves, on the Transformational Writer blog. It was a fun exercise and I plan to do it again, every day or so, even though the results, to me, seem stiff and self-conscious. (This is where being a copywriter is a disadvantage, because you tend to edit-as-you-go even before your fingers hit the keyboard.) 

If you’re a writer, visit the blog and try the exercise! (I bet it’s also a great way to get past Writer’s Block…)

 

After the rain-copyright 2014 Marya Miller

Glasgow rain is gentle, invigorating. Splashing in puddles wearing wellington boots. Gabardine macs. I had a green gabardine mac (a raincoat, you say in Canada).

I left her there, splashing in the rain, thinking of the mist on the moors as the drizzle swept in. I was stolen away, not by fairies, but by my parents, sailing down the Clyde on the Empress of Canada, watching the gorse bushes blazing on the hillsides above Gourock where Teresa and I used to lie and watch the boats.

That damn piper on the dock, playing “will ye no come back again” and breaking everybody’s hearts. We knew it was the end of the world, but as soon as Scotland had drifted back into the mist of time, we raced around the boat, exploring. It was an adventure, and we were in the moment.

I was twelve; Teresa eleven. The boat was massive, like a lumbering old duchess—an empress, maybe? No, empresses are too nervous, too weighed down by the cares of state. An elderly duchess who breeds dogs, sets her steely jaws and gets up every day to plow her way through her duty/routine.

The dining room was luxurious. I don’t really remember it, but in my imagination, chandeliers sparkle. I do remember lots of light, pristine white table cloths and perfectly-laid-out dinner services. Long, tiered tables groaning with food.

In Glasgow, the barrow man parked his little hand-barrow on Preston Street, once a week. Oranges, apples, pears, grapes and bananas. That’s what Teresa and I thought fruit was, when we were very little: Oranges, apples and bananas. (Pears and grapes were exotic, and did not appear very often.) And whenever we drew a landscape, there were always mountains, topped with purple for the heather. We thought everywhere in the world had mountains covered in heather.

An orange was a big treat in post-war Glasgow. Now here we were, on the Empress of Canada, looking at tables groaning with pineapple, grapes, melon, grapefruit—grapefruit in Glasgow happened to us once year, a careful half-each on New Year’s morning, cut into segments within its rind and sprinkled with sugar; eaten with mum’s best silver spoons.

My big brother, Stephen, bought a pomegranate once, on a trip down to the Barrows—a flea market in downtown Glasgow. He cut it open in front of us with his penknife, and we marvelled at the tiny, glistening seeds. But when we tried them, they disappointed—sour, pithy and hard to eat. But I still love pomegranates. On principle. (I never buy them.) Say the word “pomegranate”, and a shiver of happiness and excitement washes over me.

There was no rain on that trip, the exodus from our lives to my parents’ promised land. Blue clear skies. Endless ocean. I think we had one grey afternoon and slightly rough night.

My sister got seasick. My father had told us if we ate, we wouldn’t get seasick. I was terrified of vomiting—my brother had collapsed, vomited and died of a brain aneurysm five years before—so I ate religiously on the ship (and gained weight).

My sister did not eat. She became hideously seasick, that rough night.

I left the cabin and found a movie theater on the ship—even now I call it “movie theater” but back then I found the cinema.

I watched my first grown-up movie all alone—my first color movie ever. Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in “Arabesque”. Exciting. Intrigue and romance. Gentle humor and horrific villains.

When Teresa was better, the next day, we followed a red-haired boy in his teens around the boat, giggling as he tried to flirt with a teenage girl. He must have wanted to murder us. He was going to Nova Scotia, and we got off the ship at Montreal, so we never saw him again.

Mum forced Teresa to enter a children’s fancy dress contest, our last night on the ship. She hated every moment of it—she did not like being conspicuous. Mum wrapped her in a bedsheet and made a funnel-crown out of cardboard, and she went as the Empress of Canada.

Teresa won. She didn’t care about that, but she did like the doll they gave her. She clung to it for days after we landed.

October the sixth. A dazzling Sunday Autumn morning. We cruised down the St. Lawrence river flanked with maples from my mother’s travel books blazing red, crimson, plum, flame, orange and rich, deep gold. White church spires poked rudely up from the leaves and bells pealed from almost every spire. We couldn’t stop marveling at the beauty.

Someone told us it was Quebec.

Since then, nothing has lived up to that first picture-postcard glimpse of Canada (though Algonquin Park, Muskoka and Lake Superior occasionally come close).

My parents are dead now. Teresa joined the navy and became a sailor and a commercial diver.

I miss the Scottish rain.

The Inadvertent Plagiarist

angry teacherIf you are a copywriter or ghostwriter in the internet marketing industry, you know what the culture can unfortunately sometimes be like. Many do-it-yourself copywriters under the pressure of deadlines research only two or three sources and rewrite chunks of someone else’s work to pass off as original.

This is not only unprofessional and lazy, it is just plain wrong.

For one thing, you’re not only skating perilously close to stealing, you’re not only putting your own reputation on the line, you are putting your client’s reputation on the line. (And you’re almost certainly not speaking with your client’s unique voice!)

But what do you do when you have covered a topic so many times you find yourself repeating hauntingly familiar phrases? What do you do to avoid stale writing? What do you do to avoid plagiarizing yourself?

Run your work through a plagiarism checker before sending it off: That’s what.

The Hidden Benefits–and Hazards–of Plagiarism Checkers

Online plagiarism checkers are simple: You upload a file or copy-paste in a section of text, hit the button, and wait for the results. Within seconds, you are alerted to any sections that can already be found on the net (someone else’s work… or your own previous work!)

There are many free plagiarism checkers on the net, but do be sure to use one that guarantees copyright security.

Some are also exclusively geared for checking a scholarly work, such as a thesis. One such is Ithenticate, which allows users to upload text files of up to 25,000 words. (If you want to check your finished eBook text for plagiarism, using a plagiarism checker that allows you to upload large files is the way to go: It can get very time consuming, uploading a book page by page!)

PlagScan is equally impressive: And not only because they have a nifty logo. They are equally geared towards both business and academic users, their scanning is fast, and you can easily generate useful reports.

Nifty

Paid plagiarism checkers work similarly to stock photo sites, where you purchase credits. If you absolutely must use a free one, or you just want to quickly check a particular phrase, I have found Plagiarism Checker.com to be easy and reliable. (The downside? You can only check up to 32 words of text at a time.)

Plagiarism checkers are also bloody good at catching all your bad writing habits and whacking you over the head with them: It’s like having your own built-in English teacher—the old-fashioned sort we used to have in Scotland, patrolling the aisles with rulers or pointers at the ready, She Says Fondly. (Ah, memory lane!)

For example, when I am thundering along on a first-draft roll, my bad habits include using the verb “get” a lot when there are much better and more dynamic or appropriate ones I could be using, as well as over-using pet phrases. Like “a lot”.

I also seem to be particularly fond of certain clichés.

And yes. I did run this article through a plagiarism checker first.