Early morning walk in Sedona

Sedona dawn clouds arizonaI started the walk before dawn, collecting clouds as I went. Wispy ones darted in and out of the red rock formations; others nestled in puddles after midnight rains. The pine needles had felted into heavy mats that softened the ground beneath my feet. They created soft nests for windfalls of storm-blown pine cones.

prickly pear cactusThe prickly pear cactus were loaded with buds of gray-green fruit that would swell to magenta chalices in the fall, luring families of javelina to gorge on the ripe fruit. I might walk down the road then and see scatterings of red seedy scat.

The Pyracantha were loaded with caper-sized green berries that would turn red later in the year, a bonanza for urbanized deer who would jump five-foot fences to gorge on the orange-red berries.

In the pre-dawn hush, the birds weren’t feeding, just quietly murmuring in the trees like a group of dorm buddies waiting for breakfast. The flies would wait until full sun, but the mosquitoes were active.  A red welt swelled on my wrist and I picked up the pace.

As the sun burned the morning air gold, a male cardinal swooped from a shaggy-bark juniper, its feathers a carmine red. In the scrub oak, a nearby rival acted serenely unimpressed.

Overhead, a phainopepla’s black-and-white wingtips flashed semaphore signals as it landed, bending the top needle-branch of a pinion pine.

 

The dog walkers hadn’t arrived yet, but one skinny marathon runner adjusted a knee brace and jogged painfully down the hill. I waved to early morning construction crews who were setting up for the day’s work. A scruffy bicyclist wearing a military green scrub cap, old T-shirt and cargo pants puffed heavily as he made the hill top. He gave me a grin of co-conspirators, out in these early hours.

sedona cat on wall

 

I shared the morning with the animals.  A calico cat jumped from a stone wall for a scritch behind one ear.  A gray Kaibab squirrel gleaned sunflower seeds from the feeder almost too high above its reach.  A cottontail rabbit elongated its hops into leaps as I grew closer.

 

I didn’t have to own anything to be a part of that glorious morning, and yet I felt immensely wealthy.

The whole world spread before me, free for the taking, when I slowed down and paid attention to the gifts the day offered.

12 Easy Ways to Become a Skillful Proofreader

proofreadingWe have become a nation of skimmers.

We buzz through emails: delete, delete, save, delete.

We flip through social media: scroll, like, heart, share.

What does that do to proofreader skills? It’s a train wreck waiting to happen. Three minutes after your eBook goes live on Kindle you spot the first typo in the “Look Inside” feature. Ten minutes later you’ve gotten a one-star review: “Doesn’t this Bozo have a copy editor?”

To which your response may be, “Yes, but she’s out to lunch with Oprah’s chef and Jillian Michaels, the personal trainer.”

Welcome to the real world of self-editing.

But there are some ways you can train yourself to be a better proofreader.

First, recognize that we all make typing mistakes. There is a reason why the backspace, according to Microsoft, is the third most used key on the keyboard.

We make mistakes for a multitude of reasons: First, remember that in the course of writing several drafts of a full-length novel, you may put hundreds of thousands of words on the page. Some of these will be the wrong words.

Then there are brain-finger coordination problems: If you type-when-tired or worse, type-without-a-break, you’ll find “stutters” such as duplicate letters or duplicate words appearing.

And consider the mechanical issues such as sticky keys and cursors with a mind of their own, inserting your cut-and-paste in the middle of the wrong paragraph.

So when it comes to proofreading your work, don’t be insulted if there are a lot of errors. Accept that you’ll need to put out some effort to catch typos.

STRATEGIES THAT WORK

Luckily I’m a mystery writer, so I’ve got a lot of experience developing strategies to help me solve this particular “crime.”

Let me share a few strategies that I use.

1. Look for patterns of frequent typing errors

In order to change bad typing habits before they kick in, keep a small notebook at hand, and note when you backspace to correct an error. Look for patterns of errors: the kinds you are prone to make.

Or, turn off spell check for several pages, then recheck spelling with it on. What errors do you find? Those are the ones to be watchful for as you revise your drafts.

2. Trick your brain

One reason why mistakes jump out of a manuscript to a reader is that they are looking at them for the first time. Whereas to you, those sentences are old friends. You’ve seen them dozens of times!

So change what you are looking at. Use a different font, use double spacing of lines rather than single space. Transfer the manuscript to your Kindle reader and read it there. Print out a hard copy and proof it that way. It will be much easier on your eyes!

Try changing the music you’re listening to. I have one playlist for rough drafts, another for revisions, yet a third (a slow, Baroque one) for proofreading.

Change locations: if you always write at your desk with a favorite cup of tea, do your proofreading in a quiet library reading room.

3. Spell check is not always your friend

Let me give you two examples: first, the hyphen in a compound adjective such as “ten-cent price” may not be caught by spell check, as “ten” and “cent” are perfectly good words, correctly spelled.

Second, watch out for flagged duplicates such as “the the.” It’s nice that Word catches these for you, but if you really meant to type “in the,” deleting the first “the” without adding the “in” introduces an entirely new error.

4. Be aware of your reading speed

Surfing the internet? Warp speed! We typically spend about 59 seconds deciding whether a site is worthwhile, before making the decision to stay or leave.

Proofreading on the other hand is agonizingly slow. We aren’t worried about seeing the forest for the trees, we are down to the twigs on the branches. We are searching for the bug on the twig, the eyelash on the bug.

One way to slow down is to read backwards. Start at the end of your manuscript and read forward, one sentence at a time. I keep a favorite blue plastic ruler, just for this purpose. You’ll be surprised what you’ll catch.

5. Keep your keyboard clean

If you have pets, break out the vacuum occasionally to siphon the cat hair, dog slobber, and mouse lint out of your computer. Cleaner keyboards will cut down on sticky keys and stutters.

6. Watch your posture

I like to compose sitting in my easy chair with said cat under my elbow and my laptop at a rakish tilt. Guess what that does to wrist-on-pressure-pad inadvertent cursor jumps. I pay for my comfort when it comes to error counts!

7. Do macro-corrections

The key here is to look for mistakes, not the right words. For example, do a find-and-replace for double spaces after sentences, for quotation marks before a period or before a comma. Double commas or double periods are not uncommon when your revision takes out a word or switches the order of phrases within a sentence. The Word find-and-replace can spot these quickly for you.

If a character has the name Sandy, the first time you spell it “Sandi” mark the mistaken spelling down to do a quick find-and-replace on the mistaken spelling when you edit your manuscript.

8. Little words can be tricky

It’s not that we don’t know how to speak English. We do! The problem arises in multiple drafts when we change tense and don’t add that final “d,” or change nouns and miss transforming the “a” to an “an” or vice-versa.

Be especially vigilant for prepositions: they are so tiny that the brain sometimes skips right over them. For example, keep an eagle eye out for missing prepositions such as  “to,” “of,’” or “in.”

Spell check can’t catch those missing words—that’s your job!

9. Set the timer

You do have a timer, right? Either Pomodoro on your computer or a hand model set way across the room so you have to get up to shut the darn thing off to give yourself a break when you are proofreading.

And once up, walk outside for five minutes, climb a flight of stairs, breathe deeply, or do a few toe-touches. The brain needs oxygen to focus.

While you are breaking, give your eyes a mini-rest as well. Focus into the distance, close them for a few moments, or dab in some eye drops.

10. Pay attention to headings and subheadings

Words look different when they are in all caps. A friend of mine got her book all the way to the proof stage at Amazon before she caught a spelling error on the book spine!

11. Use the text-to-speech feature of Word

You can find this feature by going to the help menu of Word for specific directions. I keep it handy on my tool bar where I can select about a page of the manuscript, click the icon, and this wonderful, calm, nonjudgmental male voice (I’ve christened mine “Bruce”) reads through my writing, word by word as I follow along, pen in hand.

12. Build in a reward

Proofreading is hard work. When you are done for the day, pamper yourself. Try a hot bath, a finger massage on your wrists, or soft music with a cold cloth over your eyes.

You’re darn well worth it, and your readers will thank you, too!

PS—Using the above techniques, when I proofread this post I spotted an extra word that didn’t belong, a missing Oxford comma, and six phrases that I wanted to change. Bruce caught a missing end-of-word “n” that I could have sworn I typed. 🙂

 

 

 

Book Review: Brad Meltzer’s The Escape Artist

The Escape ArtistThe Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I usually read mysteries, given my artistic preference as an author, but this thriller intrigued me. It has all the thriller elements: the White House, a secret society, lots of action.

But this book has more. What about a protagonist who is an undertaker? Jim “Zig” Zigarowski has a special mission: he reconstructs the service men and women killed in action so that their loved ones can have some ease in their grief.

No only that. He evaluates people he meets with one simple criteria: do they have HEART?

He reconnects with Nola Brown, currently the Army’s artist-in-residence and a childhood friend of his daughter. She was killed in a tragic airplane crash, or was she?

And what about that secret society filled with magicians, that keeps popping up at the most unlikely times?

What I like about this thriller is not the non-stop action, although there’s lots of that. What makes the book worth a read is the true relationship that builds between these two lonely people.

Good enjoyment. Well written.

 

The waters of the Verde Valley

Clear Creek Verde Valley Arizona

Clear Creek at flood stage

Although Arizona has a desert climate, much of the Verde Valley is a riparian zone with creeks such as Oak, Sycamore, Clear, Wet and Dry Beaver Creeks and even a river, The Verde.

Blood in Tavasci Marsh

 

 

The Verde Valley has also marshes. I used Tavasci Marsh as the setting of my second mystery, Blood in Tavasci Marsh.

It has lakes and ponds. Montezuma’s Well became the location of Fire in Broken Water.

 

 

Water is valued in Arizona, and especially in the Verde Valley because it is so precious and life giving. But it can come in floods and sheets of downpour that tax the ability of the red, sandy soil to absorb it.

On a walk in the aftermath of a particularly heavy rainstorm, the damp clung to my shoulders. Chain saws cut down swathes of broken limbs and the city street sweepers made the roads passable—at least until that afternoon when the storms were predicted to roll in again.

The neighbors were out kibitzing about the storm damage. “I like the rain, but not so much,” said one. Another groused, “You ought to see my backyard—it’s a mess!” “It just whooshed down, all at once!” said a third.

A friend of mine likes to do his own bit terraforming with this gift from nature. Each morning after a good storm he is out with his pickup truck “harvesting” the red dirt drying in rippled patches across the hillside roads. In this way he both keeps the roads passable for others and is gradually building up his hillside in terraced plots bathed in sunset colors of ochre and terra cotta.

I once knew a man who lived on the edge of Wet Beaver Creek near Rimrock. He came into a bit of money and decided to improve a property at the edge of the creek. For weeks the ‘dozers plowed and shifted and mounded the soil just so, building a fine peninsula in the creek for his house to rest upon.

It was lovely little cottage, really, with wonderful sweeping 360 degree views. But it was an unusually wet season that year, and each storm undercut the newly formed bank a little more. Finally one day the mother of all storms hit, with two inches of rain in less than an hour.

The last I saw of that house, it was sailing merrily down a flood-swollen torrent of red muddy water. He never did rebuild, and the last I heard, the land was up for auction to another unsuspecting tourist wanting a piece of red rock country.

Bell Rock Sedona ArizonaThose same sunset colors of pink and red and orange give depth and movement to the rock formations in rainy weather. After a storm, the Bell Rock sandstone formation is transformed by the water. The rock turns ominously dark, soaking up the moisture. When the storm is over, the rock releases the moisture in a cascade of short-term waterfalls that reflect the turquoise blue of the rain-washed skies overhead.

The trees also look cleaner after a storm, more green. A texture of pine cones and gray-green juniper berries drop after the rains to form windrows on the road surface. They skitter under the tires of passing cars and make walking uncertain at best.

Rocks wash down on the road, softball-sized pieces of rock that roll across the roads in crests of storm-driven water.

The drive up Oak Creek, from Pump House Wash to the canyon rim can be particularly treacherous as boulders as big as washing machines are undercut by the rains, and drop suddenly down on the road. They create sudden roadblocks to unwary drivers, cracking windshields and crushing fenders.

In red rock country, weather warrants our close attention. It is a shift of energy, a reminder of our human helplessness in the face of chaos. We can try to stand up against it, but water has its own way.