"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Several years ago people were talking about the "butterfly effect"--the idea that a single butterfly in South America might flutter its wings and put into motion a series of events that would ultimately change the world. It has become a truism, so obvious that we now often forget to look back at the small events from long ago that changed our own lives.
I was reminded of such a butterfly moment today. April 12, 2018, was the 179th birthday of a little boy named James McCaskey. James was born on a hardscrabble farm in southwest Pennsylvania, the first child of John and Jane McCaskey, Scotch-Irish immigrants to America. The family grew to include six more children, the youngest of whom was Joseph McCaskey, my maternal grandfather. James and his siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse, where they learned a few fundamental skills such as reading and writing, but James, at least, never mastered the art of spelling.
In August 1861, he left the farm to enlist in the Union Army, and, with his neighbors in the 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, set out to invade coastal South Carolina. During his first real battle, just ten months later, at a little earthwork in the middle of a swamp on James Island, he died. A mortar shell blew off both his legs and he quickly bled to death. His remains were shoveled into a mass grave with the bodies of almost 500 others right there in front of the earthworks, where they remain to this day. The only things he left behind were six badly spelled letters to his family and the still tear-stained letter from his commander, telling of his death.
Those letters passed from his parents to my grandparents, and from them into the hands of their youngest daughter, my mother, who tossed them into an old trunk in the attic, where they remained until I found them about 1977.
The letters formed the basis of my first Civil War book, A Scratch with the Rebels, which tells the story of James's regiment and the Battle of Secessionville that took his life. Beyond All Price is the story of the amateur nurse who accompanied the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment to South Carolina. The Road to Frogmore expands the story to tell of the meeting of the Union Army and the slaves abandoned by their Confederate owners. Damned Yankee is a historical novel based on the real family who owned the house where the 100th Pennsylvania made their headquarters. And Yankee Reconstructed carries the story further into the era of Reconstruction.The books are at the top of this page.
Who could have known on that April morning in 1839 that the life of that squalling newborn baby would spawn an outpouring of over half a million words that readers would still be enjoying in 2018? Or that another baby born almost exactly 100 years later into a future generation of the same family would grow up to become a writer fascinated by the stories of South Carolina in the Civil War?
People often ask how long it takes to write a novel. Perhaps my answer should be, "Sometimes it takes 179 years."
Things that made me grumpy yesterday morning:
A newspaper advice column told the story of a
woman complaining that her children will not ALLOW her to put Grandma in a
nursing home, even though the old woman suffers from advanced dementia and
needs 24-hour-a-day nursing care. And how old are these children? She doesn’t
say, but she does say that Grandma came to live with the family when the
children were just babies, so they have never known life without her in the
home. And how long ago was that? Seven years ago, she says. So the children are
. . . what? Eight or nine, at the most.
What’s worse, the columnist seems to side with the children and suggests
that the parents promise to take the children to visit Grandma every few days.
Whatever happened to a family structure in which parents made the rules and
children obeyed them?
A request for old people who can still read
cursive to volunteer to transcribe historical documents for the sake of people
who can only read printing. I asked why it wouldn’t be better to teach everyone
to read cursive and got no agreement. Yes, I’m old. And I can still remember my
graduate school days when I was reading 12-century hand lettering
that pre-dated cursive. It was difficult to do, but If I wanted to know what
the document said, I had to learn to read it. Is this shrinkage of intellectual
curiosity the measure of what computers have done to the human brain?
Maybe so, because my next discovery this morning
was a posting from a PhD-holding woman whom I have always respected. She had
just played one of those Facebook games that promises to analyze your
personality if you will just give the application the right to use all your
personal information as well as all of your friends’ information. You know the
games—the ones like Cambridge Analytica all over the news right now because they have leaked that
information to anyone willing to pay for it. Has this woman missed every news
source for the last month?
Several other Facebook posts this morning
announced that the posters were no longer going to use Facebook for anything
important. However, they claimed to still need comments about the weather, cat
cartoons, personal comments on their current maladies, birthday wishes, and
tasty recipes. Not believing everything Facebook says is a first step in
reclaiming one’s privacy (or sanity), I suppose. But what makes people assume
that weather reports, cat pictures, and recipes are among the necessities of
Yesterday, I went out to my mailbox and
encountered a gentleman walking his dog. That happens most every day around
here, but this little yappy creature was particularly annoying and on a very
long leash. He soon had my feet tangled. I held onto the mailbox post for
balance and asked the gentleman to rein in his dog so that I could walk away. I
think I smiled—maybe even chuckled a bit as Yappy danced around me on two paws.
But his owner reacted with eye-narrowed anger, telling me that if I couldn’t
walk without tripping, I shouldn’t be allowed out of my house. Whatever
happened to civility?
A friend sent me some “Old Age” jokes this
morning, and I chose my favorite: it said something like: There was a time when
my brain would step in and warn me that it might not be a good idea to say what
I was thinking. But now, it says “What the hell? Let’s see what happens!” That’s definitely my
(Note for a Monday morning: Sun is out. Flowers did not freeze. Had raspberries for breakfast. All is well again.)
In last week’s blog, I introduced you to a new editing
program—ProWritingAid. Now, as promised, here’s how the correction process
worked for me.
When I tested ProWriting Aid, I started with Style. The style
problems included readability issues, glue words, passive verbs, hidden verbs (I had to
look that one up!), long subordinate clauses, adverbs used outside of dialogue,
sentences with repeated beginnings (like words all ending in -ing), and
examples of telling rather than showing. The program underlined each instance,
explained why it was wrong, and usually offered suggestions for improvement.
The program identifies 73 style problems in my 2300-word chapter, each one of
which I corrected before moving on.
But that was only the beginning. There were nineteen other
categories. Each type of problem must be treated separately. Now, not all of
them had as many errors as my style section did. I even received a perfect
score of 100 on the section devoted to clichés. But the whole process—doing the
summary, running each of the twenty sections, and then running the summary
again to see if the scores improved (THEY DID!) took close to five hours. And
that was for just one chapter. By the time the book is finished, there will be
close to 50 chapters. That’s 250 hours—or 31 workdays of 8 hours a day.
Is ProWritingAid worth that much time? I don’t have enough
information yet to answer that question.
If my editing speed does not increase, and if every chapter has as many
errors as the first one did, my answer may be negative. However, if, as the ads
promise, using the program also trains me to be a better writer, then the
answer is yes. I noticed this morning
that, as I wrote, I stopped myself several times to reword a sentence and eliminate
a passive, to remove extra spaces, and to vary the length and beginnings of
sentences. So it has already alerted me to pay more attention to my bad writing
In general, if I compare this program to Grammarly, this one
covers more problems and offers more training. In Grammarly, the writer sees
all the errors at once, and the explanations bounce around from one topic to
another. With this one, the same topic repeats until only a complete blockhead
could miss the point. ProWritingAid also covers some issues that Grammarly
The best example has to do with the “sticky sentences” and
“glue words” I mentioned in the last post.
Once in a while Grammarly will point to an unnecessary word, but
ProWritingAid performs major surgery on long sentences.
Here’s a sticky sentence:
“Once in a great while, something or someone you’ve never
noticed before comes along and has the effect of catching every bit of your
attention.” [26 words]
And the fix:
“Sometimes a new idea catches your attention. [7 words]
Glue words add no information and slow readers down. They
make a sentence sticky because the reader takes a long time to find the end.
Particularly, glue words may come in expressions like “once
in a great while,” “has the effect of,” “every bit of.” My own worst glue words, I have discovered, are “all of,” as
in “I ate all of my dinner” instead of “I ate my dinner.” “I did all of my writing in bed” instead of
saying “I wrote it in bed.”
(I must pause here to point out that NaNoWriMo participants
may not want to eliminate sticky sentences. If a writer is only interested in
word counts, sticky sentences are great. If the same writer is more interested
in ideas, those extra words get in the way. My solution: Write sticky and then
cut with vicious abandon.)
For now, if you need to choose between Grammarly and
ProWritingAid, I suggest you try both
free versions and see which one you like best.
And about that terminally boring title: ProWritingAid. It's clear, descriptive, and serious, as all grammar police tend to be. But in my own mind from now on, I intend to call it "STICKY WICKETS."
This past week, I took a break from working on “Henrietta’s
Legacy” to get a head start on blog posts for the coming month. It’s called
juggling, I think. I’m committed to
doing another NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) Camp in April. I’ve set
a goal of 30,000 words in 30 days. That’s low for NaNoWriMo veterans, but it’s
a goal I’m sure I can reach. It’s entirely possible to write 1000 words a day,
every day, so long as I do not let myself get distracted by other activities,
like doing the laundry or grocery buying, or planting tomatoes, or keeping a
blog up to date. One way I can keep my work focused is to have a backlog of
blog posts ready, so once again I’ve been exploring and evaluating new writing
Today, I have new editing software that promises not just to
correct one’s existing manuscript but also to make the user a better writer from
now on. Sounds good, right? I bought it, downloaded the program, and ran it on
the first completed chapter of the new book.
The program offered a whole set of grades, and most of mine were not
passing. Imagine: this old English teacher, with thirteen published books,
FAILED the grammar section. Horrors! I’m really bad at this! At first, I was
angry; then I started to realize that the program has its own definition of
grammar, which includes typos, extra spaces between words, spelling variations,
and missing punctuation. I’m still not very good, but I can attribute at least
some of my mistakes to fat fingers and blind typing rather than pure ignorance.
But first things first. The program is called ProWriting
Aid. That’s what it is, of course, although the title is not very catchy or
memorable. This is a serious program, written by experts, and their advice does
not come cheap. But then, no editing software will cost you as much as an
editor would. A free version exists, but it has several limitations. It can
only handle 500 words at a time. If you have a manuscript with 100,000 words in
it, you’re going to spend a whole lot of time chopping it into 200 pieces and
then loading them, one at a time, into the free version. I opted for a one-year
license at $50.00 that does not limit my file size. This version works from
within several different writing programs, like Microsoft (both Windows and MAC) and Scrivener. I tried
it with Scrivener and found that it works extremely well—much more smoothly
than Grammarly, which requires a certain amount of cutting and pasting even in
its most expensive form.
Next, I considered the topics covered. The first shot at
analyzing a chapter is called the “Summary.” This includes scores in four key
areas, along with the document statistics (number of words, etc.), and a quick
analysis of the main problem. Mine said
my “glue index” was too high, and I had entirely too many sticky sentences.
Now, I had no idea what that meant, but I would eventually find the
explanations. But first, I had to make my way through an analysis of my
vocabulary, sentence length, readability, dialog tags, pacing, transitions, clichés,
consistency, diction, grammar, spelling, and style. Each heading gave me scores, numbers of
corrections needed, and a comparison to all other users of the program. For
example, my readability level was a 73, which, it turned out, corresponded to
the average sixth-grade reading level. It also said my readability score was
better than 78% of all other users.
By the time I finished reading the whole summary, I was
convinced that I needed to make major improvements. But where were all these
problems and mistakes? So far, I had just seen final scores. To locate
individual errors, read the explanations, and make corrections, I needed to run
the program again, and again, and again because the program covers just one
issue at a time.
Next time, I’ll tell you how the correction process worked
Last week, Smashwords challenged Amazon's hold on the audiobook market. This is an informational posting. The Second Mouse is not recommending or discouraging anything. The plan is too new for a real evaluation of how the process will work. However, if you have considered getting into the audiobook market, you need to know that this option is available to you. Here's what Smashwords has to say about the new program:
"Smashwords entered the audiobook market via a partnership with Findaway Voices. Over 100,000 Smashwords authors and publishers now have convenient access to audiobook production and distribution services. The agreement gives authors and publishers greater control over audiobook pricing, rights, and distribution, and all without exclusivity or lockups. Effective immediately, you'll notice audiobook creation options integrated into multiple stages of the Smashwords publishing workflow. The new feature is visible in the Smashwords Dashboard, and also accessible at https://smashwords.com/audiobook
"Start Your Audiobook Production Today. With a single click, you can instantly deliver your ebook and metadata into the Findaway Voices platform, at which point you’ll choose a password for your Findaway Voices account and begin the audio production process. Your first step is selecting a professional narrator. You'll answer a short questionnaire at Findaway Voices about your audiobook’s desired emotional tone; the accent, dialect or gender preference for your narrator; the voice style; the heat level of the book; and information about the book’s main characters.
"The Findaway Voices casting team will then use this information to recommend a curated list of six to ten professional voice actors for your consideration. Recommendations will include audio samples and hourly rates for each narrator. From this list, you can request audition samples where narrators submit sample readings of your book. There is no cost or obligation during the audition process.
"Production begins after you select your narrator and sign off on the production contract. You will pay production fees directly to Findaway Voices. To assist your budgeting, here are some rough guidelines: Fees are based on the number of hours and minutes of the finished production. Each hour of recorded content comprises roughly 9,000 words, which means a 26,000-word novella might run about three hours and a 100,000-word book would run about 11 hours. Narrators typically charge between $150 and $400 per finished hour.
Global Audiobook Distribution: When production completes, you'll control all rights to the audiobook. You'll also have the option to distribute your audiobook to Findaway Voices’ global network of over 20 sales outlets including Apple iTunes, Audible, Scribd, OverDrive and Google Play. Findaway Voices will pay you directly."