Writing Life: Lions and Tigers and Titles… Oh My!

picture of untitled bookIf you’re anything like me, you start writing because a character (or an interesting situation) comes to visit your brain. And you write and write and write and begin to bring the story to life. You start to get excited about your wonderful writing so you share bits and pieces of the project with your friends and/or fellow writers. And then, inevitably the question arises:

“So … what’s the title?” 

And you pause for a never-ending moment before answering with glassy eyes and a trembling smile, “Uh … no title yet!”

You say this even if it is titled because you only have a working title. And no one in their right mind wants to share a working title because that would jinx the project. Or maybe it’s because the WT is embarrassing or silly or unimaginative or anything but the perfect title you know your masterpiece deserves.

Nah, definitely the jinx.

Speaking from experience, I can say this traumatic title trouble also happens with poems, flash pieces, works of nonfiction both long and short, essays, research papers, academic works … and yes, even blog posts.

So what’s a writer to do? 

I wish I could give you a one-sentence magic answer … but I have yet to master that mystical power. What I can do is give you a list of some pretty nifty websites that have helped me tackle title trouble in the past.

Here they are in no particular order:

    • From indiebooklauncher.com comes the post, How to Pick a Title For Your Book (doesn’t get more obvious than that). What I like about this post is that it presents a number of options to brainstorm – I particularly like the suggestion to look for snatches of dialogue.
    • I love this post from Scott Berkun entitled The Truth About Choosing Book Titles because he hits on what matters and what doesn’t, which helps when whittling down that endless brainstorm list of possible titles – I especially like #10!
    • The helpful Tucker Max over at Scribe Writing (formerly Book in a Box) has provided this detailed guide aptly named How to Write the Perfect Book Title. It covers everything from titular research to social media to your own gut – very helpful and full of jumping-off points for your title adventures.
    • Don’t forget the value of old-fashioned brain picking – friends, family, even strangers in the supermarket might have the perfect title on the tips of their tongues. My husband was instrumental in helping me figure out the title to a nonfiction piece I recently wrote for a workshop, and the first thing everyone commented on was the amazing title!
    • Still stumped? Check out these random title generators from TaraSparlingWrites. I’m happy to see that if I were to ever write Chic Lit, the title could be Where Smiles Might Tell — mysterious and strange, just like me!

If all else fails, keep in mind that if you decide to publish your baby via a publishing house, the editor and marketing peeps may make the decision for you! So sit back, relax, and keep writing. The title will appear, one way or the other. At least that’s what I keep telling myself!

Do you have tips for tackling titles? I’d love to read them, so share away in the comments section!

Writing Life: Using Your (Real-Life) Antagonist

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dealing with an unhappy person.  This person is angry at someone else, and I got caught in the crossfire.

I’m collateral damage.

Everyone who is “in” on the situation has reassured me that I’m not at fault. I’m simply an unlucky casualty in this person’s emotional (and, truth be told, childish) war.

I’ve told myself again and again to shake it off. Move on. Forget about it. It’s not me, it’s her.

But here’s the thing…

villainIt hurts when someone attacks you, even when you know they aren’t in their right mind.

Remember Dolores Claiborne?

Because this happened at an organization and just in my personal life, I’ve had to spend hours and hours discussing what should be done, how we handle her in her “fragile state” without making her fly (even further) off the handle.

A friend gave my favorite suggestion: have her committed.

He was voted down.

Even though part of me feels sorry for her, it doesn’t feel fair. I’ve had to endure unpleasant emails and verbal exchanges from her that were downright mean.

At this point, nothing I say will change anything. She has lumped me in with her bad guys because I happened to walk in the room at the wrong time.

In her eyes, I’m fair game.

She has become my real-life antagonist.

After a few (okay, many) deep breaths, I decided to take the high road, turn the other cheek, and dive headfirst into the role of the strong and unflinching heroine.

I’m not at all dramatic. how-to-deal-with-psychopaths

Even though I knew this was the best approach, a part of me wanted to fight back, to reach into my own bag of nasty, and give her a taste of her own medicine.

I didn’t.

I remained the sane, calm person at the crazy lady tea party.

But I didn’t totally let it go. I’m human after all, and I decided to get my own unique version of revenge.

Do you know want to know what I did?

I wrote her into a short story.

I cast her as the antagonist. I exaggerated her features and made her grotesque – the kind of ugly that makes babies (and grown men) cry.

I made sure she received her just deserts (a terrible, gut-wrenching poison that made her bleed from every orifice while simultaneously experiencing diarrhea and severe vomiting – it was awful).

torture in hellI made her hair fall out and her skin boil. I made her pancreas explode.

I made sure my paper antagonist suffered far more than I would ever wish on my real-life antagonist.

In short, I sent her to Hell.

Some might consider this petty.

But I wrote in the safety and privacy of my own home. I didn’t say anything I’d regret to the actual person. I haven’t shown it to anyone else. And it helped me behave better in person than I ever could have otherwise.

In fact, those involved are still wowed by how nobly I have been handling the situation.

(They don’t know me like you do, dear reader).

I did feel a (very) small twinge of guilt at my nasty writing streak, but I got over it quickly when I realized how ridiculous my short story is and how it will never make it off the hard drive.

I got over it because after writing the story, I feel better.

It’s true. By writing out all of my anger and frustration, I’m able to truly forgive and move on.

Plus there’s a bonus

Now have lots of raw material I might use in the future.

So really, I should thank my real-life antagonist.

But I won’t.

Have you ever written about a real-life antagonist? How did it go? I’d love to hear stories from you!

It Takes a Village: Call for Help with Creative Writing Resources

help

I’ve started compiling a list of creative writing resources, and I’d love your help in making it grow. You can see the list I’ve started by clicking here or looking at the page-to-date I’ve copied below.

It’s not hard to see I’ve got a long way to go!

If you have a favorite creative writing resource, let me know by contacting me or commenting on this post!


Creative Writing Resources

Hey creative writer! Looking for resources to help you squeeze the most from your creativity? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

Here are some of the top resources I’ve found to help you start (and stick with!) writing. Be sure to check back frequently as the list is growing every week!

Resources from Kaecey

Other Resources

  • Writer’s Digest University: Choose from hundreds of asynchronous, online writing workshops on a variety of topics!
  • The Creative Penn: Tons of advice and help on writing, publishing, and marketing your work — plus help on adopting an “author’s mindset.” Be sure to check out the podcast — super inspiring and helpful!
  • Save the Cat tools: If you haven’t read the book, read it. Then navigate to this site to download helpful tools!

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Writing Life: Fueling the (Creative) Fires

When your work involves being creative, it can be hard to come up with new ideas day after day, hour after hour. To maintain a creative life, you need to feed your creativity.

fire-buring-public-domainBut sometimes, no matter how hard we try to keep it fed, it starts to run low and we get stuck. That’s when we need a little help to keep that creative fire burning. I use three million and ten different tricks to help myself out of stuck-in-the-mud situations.

Okay, that might not be the exact number.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve. In fact, I stuff them into every pocket, hat, bag, and sometimes even undergarment that I own! The one I’m about to share may seem strange at first. You might wonder how the results will possibly work with your particular project.

That’s okay.

Let it sit and simmer for a while. Go ahead and keep it on the back burner because I promise that at some point when you’re stuck (which happens to the best of us) it’ll be ready and waiting for you to turn up the heat.

What’s my little trick?

journal-public-domainIt’s called “On This Day…” and its inception came from my experiences teaching writing to young people. After hearing numerous complaints that all sounded a lot like “I don’t have anything to write about!,” I made it a habit to start each session with a journal entry.

Like most of us, young people (almost always) benefit from a prompt to help focus their wide-ranging thoughts. After bumping into the website on one of my random yet eventually useful link-clicking adventures, I began using “On This Day” prompts.

The best part? There’s little planning involved.

I simply navigate to the site, find an event that happened on this day in history, and tell students to use it to begin writing creatively in their journals. Sometimes I offer a list of events and let them choose one, depending on the age range and characteristics of the group. 

Since I love writing, I enjoy joining in during journal time as much as possible. I’ve found that sometimes a historical event fills in a blank spot in a story, essay , and yes, even freelance projects on which I’ve found myself stuck.

This is because it’s not the event itself that works, but rather the idea it sparks, that makes it such a useful technique.

public-domain-women-and-historyWhere do you look?

There are several choices, but I like History.com‘s This Day in History. I still end up surfing around sometimes because the information varies. Here is a brief and incomplete list of possible sources to investigate:

Once you have the list, how does it work?

I think it’s easiest to explain by way of example. So here’s an example from last month. The tenth of October, to be exact, as that is the most recent day I used this exercise.

Many things porgy-and-besshappened on 10/10 throughout human history. I like to look at a long list of possible events because usually something strikes me and my brain is off and running. On this day, the event that jumped off the page is that on October 10, 1935, Porgy and Bess, “the first great American opera,” premiered on Broadway.

Whoa.

I love this opera. I used to sing songs from this opera in the middle-school concert choir. How did I forget that that was the day it premiered?

Okay, I probably never actually knew what day it premiered, but nonetheless… reading about it triggered a host of thoughts and creative avenues for me. Which is amazing because, on the surface, it’s not at all related to my current writing project.

As I followed the thoughts, I brainstormed.

Many don’t get used. In fact, most don’t get used. But I didn’t worry about that. I simply wrote down – without judgment or (too much) thought – everything that cames to mind for 5-10 minutes.

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote for that day:

  • In middle school, I learned “Summertime” (song from P&B) for concert choir – I then got really into the opera and insisted on seeing it in person; led to a trip to the city where we got lost and mayhem ensued. What if MC (main character) does similar… gets into some show, goes to the city, gets lost… what happens when she’s lost? 
  • What if MC wants to play Bess in a local production but she isn’t black? Or maybe it’s not P&B but some other show and she doesn’t fit the director’s ideal “look” for the part… What happens? How does she react? Does she do anything to get the part? How do others react? 
  • What if MC is trying to write an American opera and uses P&B as the basis/inspiration – what could this be about? What is relevant today from P&B? What has changed? How can I change the opera to be new? How does impact MC’s life? 

You get the idea.

Don’t worry about it. Try it!

I think everyone can benefit from trying this technique at least once. It may not find its way into your story or art the first time, but the brainstorming process that results from looking at “On This Day” forces your brain into creative mode. And in creative mode is always a good place be.

Did you try it? Let me know how it went by commenting on this post!

Do you have your own trick? I’d love to read about it in the comments so I can tuck it in my sleeve and pull it out the next time I’m stuck! 

Poetry Workshop Wonders: List-Definition Poems & Defining Home

This afternoon, I had the privilege of spending time in one of my favorite places with my favorite people: a community creativity workshop.  This October and November, I’m leading my last Lunch Hour Language Artists Workshop Series as Cupertino Poet Laureate.

Perhaps it’s because the end of my term is drawing near, or perhaps it’s because the group of attendees at these workshops never fail to inspire and humble me, but I find myself looking more and more forward to each session.

46R4BWGDYUI6NJK7YYP2B6SSAQThe theme for LHLA 3 is “Poetry of Place.” In the first session, we wrote about our childhood homes. Today the focus was on finding and defining home, and I introduced the concept of List-Definition Poetry — a form I made up that combines the list poem and the definition poem.

I structured the workshop so participants would consider the juxtaposition of “Home Then,” and “Home Now.” I like to join in during writing time whenever possible, and I was amazed by how my brainstorming around “Home Now” centered on the people I’ve met and worked with during my time as CPL and how much I’ll miss hosting these community events.

I feel truly blessed to have had my life touched by so many amazing people and their moving poetry. I can’t wait to see where the poem I started today leads as I continue to work on it over the next few months.

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At the start of our writing period, the group and I brainstormed words and phrases related to the concept of “Home, Then and Now” to generate ideas for our own List-Definition poems. If you weren’t able to join us, you can use the same concept as a poetry prompt!

I thought it would be interesting to turn our brainstorming lists into a poem using every word and phrase generated.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Then and Now

Then we were fearless
running in clean air
with the outside cats
through mustard yellow fields
playing with the neighbors
on rope swings in fruit trees.

Then we were joyful and safe
in our backyard adventures
our trust in friends expansive
jumping from diving boards
into swimming pools.

Then we were playful
trudging through white snow
splashing into cedar hot tubs,
seldom lonely and only
sometimes confused.

Now we are isolated
amidst the tall green spires
in a sea of dusty earthquakes,
suffocating in politics
and exhausting chaos.

Now our expensive empty nests
feel claustrophobic and tiny,
leaving us alone but safe
in our book-filled havens.

Now, as then, we find love and gratitude
hidden in Sunday dinners and boba tea,
waiting between cracks on the sidewalks
and countless cars parked on freeways.

Then and now we are Cupertino.
                                                            © 2019 Kaecey McCormick

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS!

via CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS!

SUBMIT YOUR WORK!

If you live or work in the South Bay or Peninsula area, consider submitting your creative writing for inclusion in this community anthology! This is a chance for the many varied and beautiful voices of our community to come together. I would love to include pieces in other languages with English translation.

If the work you submit was inspired by a CPL event or program, let me know!

EVERYONE is welcome to submit — kids, teens, adults, new writers, and established!!

Check out the flyer below and email with questions!
Deadline is 9/30.
No more than 10 poems or pages of short prose pieces.
Previously published is fine (include the relevant information).

Email your work to poetlaureate@cupertino.org

Freelance: Writing Content for Specific Reading Levels

writing for different reading levelsChances are, if you write content you’ve been asked to write for a specific reading level. And if you haven’t, you probably will. It’s important for freelancers to be able to match the style and tone their clients desire while meeting target reading levels. Read on to discover some tips and useful tools to help you achieve specific reading levels with your writing.

First things first – what do clients mean by reading level?

While there are other scoring systems out there, most of the time clients are referring to the Flesch-Kincaid, or FK, grade level score (which I’ll call the “FK score” to keep things simple). FK score is based on a variety of factors such as number of words, sentence length, complexity of words, and so on. These variables are entered into a formula, and the result is a grade-level score. The FK grade level ties to American school grade levels, and the FK score was initially designed to help educators and parents quickly choose appropriate, grade-level reading material for students. It has since been adopted for use in other areas to ensure content is accessible and audience appropriate.

write at 8th grade reading level for mainstream contentClients might also be referring to a Flesch score, which refers to reading ease. This score ranges from zero to 100 with higher scores indicating “easier” reading. The score is generally matched with a grade level. For example, a Flesch score of 30 or lower indicates college-level (or above) reading ease while a score of 100 indicates 5th grade or below.

According to research, content produced for the mainstream, consumer market should be written at about the 8th-grade reading level (FK score 8, Flesch reading ease 65). While it’s not especially difficult to write generally at this level, writing for different types of clients at this grade level can be challenging.

Why?

Consider the following:

writing at specific reading level for tech companiesLet’s say a tech company has hired you to write a short post about their product. They want to be sure the key concept – the product uses artificial intelligence to continuously learn from user behavior to boost clickthrough rates – is included.

Simple enough, you think.  

Then they add that they want you to write it at an 8th-grade reading level.

Still not too difficult, you think. Until you realize their keywords, “artificial intelligence” and “clickthrough rates,” are considered “hard to understand.” This means they’ll likely bump up the FK score by at least two grade levels.

There’s more.

Removing certain words affects the meaning of the product, something they won’t want you to do. For example, “continuously learns” from user behavior is different than “learns” from user behavior. The first implies the machine is always evaluating and making changes while with the second, it’s not clear. It could learn once a day, once a week, or once a month.

Where does that leave you?

To understand how to tackle the project, let’s evaluate the same sentence written and rewritten to try to achieve the 8th-grade target. writing and rewriting for specific grade level

Attempt 1: Powered by artificial intelligence, our product continuously learns from user behavior to significantly improve clickthrough rates. (FK score = 18.7)

Evaluation: I know, I know — 18.7. More than ten grade levels higher than our target for what seems like a fairly basic sentence. Here’s what’s triggering the master’s-level results – complexity in structure and language. The sentence is tagged as “long” and the descriptive clause is considered complex. In addition, our keywords are tagged as difficult to understand as is the word “significantly.”

Let’s try again, focusing only on structure…

Attempt 2: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it continuously learns from user behavior to significantly improve clickthrough rates. (FK score = 14.1)

Evaluation: By writing the first sentence as two sentences – in other words, dumping the descriptive clause – we were able to reduce the reading level by four grades. Not bad! But we’re still way above our grade 8 target.

Let’s keep revising focusing on language…

Attempt 3: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? Greatly improved clickthrough rates. (FK = 9.2)

Evaluation: Now we’re getting somewhere. And we’ve achieved it by ditching the two words that were causing a bump of five grade levels – “continuously” and “significantly.” We’ve used easier-to-understand synonyms for both of our challenge words. But we’re still not at the target grade level.

Let’s try one more time, thinking about an even better synonym…

Attempt 4: Artificial intelligence powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? A big improvement in clickthrough rates. (FK score = 8.4)

Evaluation: We’re in the zone! Using “big improvement” instead of “greatly improved” is what made the difference, here. And we avoided an adverb – bonus points!

Key Takeaways from the Rewrites

pay close attention to writing and reading level man with magnifying glassWriting for a mainstream, commercial audience when you’re writing B2B content or B2C content about complex topics isn’t always easy. It means paying attention close attention to sentence structure and word choice. Think: shorter sentences, simpler words.

It’s easy to carried away with lowering the reading level. But remember you shouldn’t sacrifice integral terms that influence meaning or keywords to reach the target level. In our example, we can’t get rid of “artificial intelligence” and “clickthrough rates.” The result is a slightly inflated FK score. You might find your client’s product names to be marked as “hard to understand.” Or specific keywords might lead to a boosted FK score.

Instead of a myopic focus on reading level, do you best while sticking to your client’s more pressing needs. If there’s an issue with a keyword or specific words they want included, let your client know. For example, I recently explained to a client that while the general content I produced was at the target grade level, their product names alone generated a two to three grade-level bump. They were okay with this result because the product names were an important aspect of the piece.

Keep in mind that you will rarely evaluate content on a sentence-by-sentence level. You big picture is more important for reading level writing than small picturewant to consider readability of the entire piece. Looking at the big picture has a significant effect on FK score. For example, in our above scenario we might look at an entire paragraph instead of the lone sentence. Since we’d explain “artificial intelligence” earlier in the content, we’d likely write “AI” everywhere else. Let’s look at how this changes our score.

Attempt 5: Artificial intelligence (AI) is a powerful tool. And AI powers our product. This mean it’s always learning from user behavior. The result? A big improvement in clickthrough rates. (FK = 6.8)

We’re now well into the target range, which will help us out with more complex words down the line. Hurray!

Why did our score change so much?

To understand this, you need to think about math (just a little, I promise!). The longer the overall content, the more words and sentences are being entered into the magic reading-level formula. Imagine if you had to shoot basketballs to get ranked from zero (terrible) to 100 (best player ever). If you only have one attempt to make the shot, it’s less likely you’ll score well. If you have 1000 attempts, you have more chances to improve your rank. And it gets better and better the more attempts you get.

Think of your word count as those attempts. Focus on achieving the target reading level overall for your word count. While sentence checks are helpful, don’t stress too much if you can’t avoid some complexity. Keep in mind the average for the entire piece or key sections.  

How do I check the reading level of my content?

tools for writing at specific reading levelsThere are a variety of ways to evaluate reading level. The most basic is to use the tool you (most likely) already have: Microsoft Word. MS Word offers an FK score through its “Review” tab. You’ll get the FK score, the Flesch reading ease core, and it will tell you the percentage of passive sentences. Not bad for quick checks. Just be sure to select the right settings to turn on these features.  

There are also free online tools you can use to get a little more information. For example, this readability test tool evaluates entered text for several readability scores, including FK score and Flesch reading ease. It gives you a narrative summary in addition to numeric values for six reading indices and six text statistics (e.g., number of words, number of complex words, etc.).

But free tools don’t give you specific feedback, such as which words rank as “hard to understand” or which sentences might be too long. If you’re trying to write at a specific level but struggling to meet your goal, you’ll want to see where your weak points are. In that case, think about paying for a more informative tool. Most of these tools are not expensive, and for professional writers the insights are worth the fees.

To help me, I use readable.io. And no, I’m not an affiliate. I’m sharing to help, not earn. At readablepro from readable.io is a great tool for working on writing at specific reading levelsfour dollars a month, readable.io is an affordable tool that gives lots of information to help shift your readability score. I found after using it just a few times, I started changing my writing to meet different targets faster. Readable.io provides you with both an overall score from A to F as well as a variety of specific reading-level scores. Pretty cool.

Even cooler?

It gives feedback on areas and words that trigger higher reading levels. And it evaluates for tone (e.g., formal vs. conversational), sentiment, text quality (e.g., number of cliches used), a variety of text statistics and facts (e.g., longest sentence, reading time, speaking time). You can even request evaluations for things like keyword density and gender analysis!

The Bottom Line

Writing at lower reading levels isn’t easy. In fact, it can be harder than writing at higher reading levels. It takes attention and practice to reach specific targets while maintaining the style your client demands. If your client hasn’t specified a reading level? It’s still useful to periodically see how your writing scores. Remember: your target should be FK 8 for a general audience. Knowing your trigger points makes it easier to adjust as needed. Good luck!

And just for fun – the paragraph above received an FK score of 6.9 and a Flesch reading ease score of 62.5. 

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