The Tale of Two Cats

The Sunday before Labor Day, 2005.

The world reeled in the slowly diminishing wake of the water demon, Katrina. Refugees from the monster’s wrath still huddled in motels, libraries, college dorms, and even parks in the Fort Worth, Texas area. They had nowhere else to go. They also huddled in pet stores, at least those fortunate enough to have been found by someone and shoved with wet fur into the canine-feline pipeline of safety that hurried them from New Orleans and out to new homes. They called her Mardi Gras.

The 21st Century was heralded as a golden age, a time when science and reason combined to give humanity its best era. Instead, it saw war, famine, soaring heat, and general malaise. Mass murder and genuine anarchy plagued the United States. The most civilized nation on Earth sank in the mire of superstition as fearmongering manipulators turned the face of God into the mask of hatred, anger, and fear. It was as if the 21st Century reverted into a fossil fuel powered version of the 13th. Nowhere was this as acute as in the hearts of Texans who still feared the sight of a black cat. They called her Patience.

Like so many other ladies of the night in New Orleans, she had no parents, no pedigree, and no known name. She was a mongrel, half Maine Coon and half something else. She was a torbie, a tortoiseshell-tabby, representing all the colors of all the cats, with white feet. She weighed ten pounds, all of it muscle earned from hunting and fighting. The tip of her right ear was rounded from a fight, while a notch from another marked her left ear. She hunted with a ferocity that made mountain lions look like pets, anchoring her back feet to the ground and stretching her long body out to grab her prey, then forcing it to the ground. Hunting was not sport to her. It was survival. At some point, she spent time with a Vodun. At another, time in a bordello. An older man was kind to her. A woman beat her. They called her Mardi Gras.

With a pedigree and a known birth date (April 26, 2004), she should have been a perfect little princess, the kind to sit in a woman’s lap and purr. A solid black Maine Coon with eyes like emeralds, she begged to be picked up and cuddled. Yet, something went wrong. Perhaps it was her tiny weight, only six pounds. Perhaps it was as simple as her color. She was a black cat in a part of the world that still wanted to burn witches. Someone struck her in the face, drawing her pupil deep into the iris of her right eye. Someone else kicked her and broke her hip, leaving her with a limp. Then, she became pregnant, and like so many other pregnant teenagers in Texas, she was abandoned to fend for herself. Someone thought she belonged in prison, and tossed her into an animal shelter. They called her Patience.

Whoever she was, whoever she knew, whatever kindness had been afforded her, whatever abuse, all ended when Hurricane Katrina roared into New Orleans on August 28, 2005. At least, the humans were kind enough to grab her and shove her into a crate. They dumped her in a dog pound in Lafayette as they ran from the monster of wind and water. They never returned to get her. They called her Mardi Gras.

Plague swept through the cat side of the shelter in Texas. Because she was pregnant, they moved her to the dog side. She huddled down and gave birth in a cage, surrounded by growls and barks and howls. People fell in love with her kittens. They all found homes. She found neither love nor a home. She was a black cat, and a witch’s familiar. She was evil! Visitors took her children, thumped their Bibles, and left her alone in a sea of dogs. They called her Patience.

She lay on her side in a small cage. At least, it was an air conditioned room and no one hit her. All around her lay other cages with other cats from her home town. She did not know their names. She no longer knew her own. They called her Mardi Gras.

The cages all full with refugees from some storm she heard about on television, she hunkered down in the cat carrier in a shopping basket. No one would ever see her here. She was a black cat, in a dark box, in a shopping cart, in the back side of a pet store. She was alone. At least, the dogs stopped barking. They called her Patience.

Labor day weekend, 2005. It was time to bring a cat back into our home, a year after our seventeen year old Maine Coon tom, Flint, died of old age and diabetes. A home without a cat is a silent home. Instead of buying a purebred, we decided to adopt one from a shelter. We drove to the Petsmart in North Richland Hills, a kind store that offered floor space to the Kool Kats Feline Rescue Society. That day, they took up a third of the store with cats rescued from the wrath of Katrina.

We talked to the director of the society. Trish told her that we had recently lost Flint, and mentioned that he was a black Maine Coon. The director said, “Come with me. I have someone to show you.” While Trish walked away, I wandered down the aisle of Katrina kitties. They looked so lost, so forlorn. Their whole world had been turned upside down and inside out. Then, I saw her. The tag on her cage read Mardi Gras.

The director led Trish to the wall of the store. A carrier sat in a shopping basket. Trish looked down into the carrier. At first, she saw nothing. Then, she saw two green orbs. Then, she saw her. The tag on her carrier read Patience.

I didn’t want a torbie. I liked bold markings on a cat. Yet, I couldn’t step away from this one. She looked heartbroken, laying on her side. She looked abandoned. I opened the cage and set my hand on her side. At first, she didn’t do anything. Then, she purred. Her purring grew stronger, and louder, then it felt as if she shook the whole cage. She stood up, looked at me with the saddest, yet most hopeful, eyes I’ve ever seen. Then, she nipped my wedding ring, and refused to let go. I fell in love. They called her Mardi Gras.

Trish slipped her hands around the tiny ball of fur in the back of the carrier and pulled her out. She was so little! She was so light! Trish held her to her chest. She cuddled close and purred. She closed her eyes. Then, she grabbed Trish’s arm with her paws and held on. She looked up at Trish with an expression that said, take me home? Trish fell in love. They called her Patience.

I wanted Mardi Gras. Trish wanted Patience. We could only afford one. We reversed ourselves. I held Patience while Trish stroked Mardi Gras. I admitted that Patience was the sweetest cat I’d ever held. Trish admitted that Mardi Gras was almost aggressive in her affection and needed a good home. However, we could only afford one.

“If you take one, I’ll give you the other for free,” the director said.

They called her Mardi Gras. We named her Belladonna, for the wife of the X-Man, Gambit.

They called her Patience. We named her Raven, for the Teen Titan.

The wrath of nature and the superstitions of backwards people led two homeless cats to be in the same store at the same time. On that day, two people decided to open up their empty house after suffering the loss of their friend. Four lives intertwined in a suburban shopping center. Forces outside their control led those lives to be in that store on the Sunday before Labor Day. Yet, a force within their control, and outside the control of others, empowered them. The four chose each other, using love and acceptance to reduce the anger of a storm and the fear of the superstitious to mere footnotes on the emotional scale.

Love and acceptance are tangible. They walk on silent furred feet. We named them Belladonna and Raven.

===

To see pictures of the girls, hop over to my Facebook page, and root around in my photo albums. They are the bosses. They know it, too.

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The Trouble With Tropes

Ah, tropes. Some people love them. Others hate them. They are unavoidable, really. The trick is to make them fresh, and that is the hard part, as I found out yesterday.

Let’s establish a working definition of trope, shall we? At least, for the duration of this essay. A trope is generally considered a cliche’. I disagree. A cliche’ is a cliche’; something that has been overused to the point that it is no longer a commonplace, but a grating, irritating nuisance in the hands of a lazy man who does not want to employ genuine thought and vocabulary. A trope is different. A trope is a standard element in a story. Without the trope, it isn’t the story. For example, it isn’t a fantasy story without magic. Magic must be wielded by someone, and that someone is usually a wizard or sorcerer. The wizard or sorcerer is the trope. The trope can move toward cliche’ when he falls into the Merlin / Obi-wan Kenobi / Gandalf / Dumbledore category. He stands on the threshold of becoming a stereotype. The work of the writer at that point is to move him away from that threshold and make him original.

I think the worst trope of all is the concept that tropes must be eliminated from a story. Tropes exist for a reason; they are mythical elements, and expected elements. They serve great purposes. The effort to eliminate them will be obvious. Those efforts can also knock a story right out of its genre. It isn’t fantasy without magic, science-fiction without technology, horror without a monster, romance without love, or a mystery without a corpse. Even mainstream literature has its own set of tropes that must appear, otherwise it isn’t literature. So, unleash the tropes! Then, make them your own. They are tropes, not stereotypes, not cliche’s, but tropes. A war story without a soldier? The soldier is the trope. Now, make him a three-dimensional character.

I use quite a few tropes in my Aura Lockhaven stories. I like fantasy tropes. I grew up with them. But when I use them, I turn them into light-hearted elements. It’s my way of gently poking at a genre I love. Here’s an example:

I use the hidebound trope of the farm boy who becomes a wizard. Except that’s it’s a farm girl. Well, she isn’t a farm girl, she just lives on a farm. Well, okay, she also didn’t exactly grow up on the farm. Her first ten years were spent as the spoiled daughter of a tavern owner. Oh, and she doesn’t become a wizard; she begins the story as a freshly minted wizardress. And it isn’t really a farm. Neither she nor her master are farmers; the place is overrun with blackberries and heather. Uh, where is that trope again? I pretty much stripped it of all its stereotypical elements, and ended up with more or less a nice, charming setting. The rest of the tropes I use face the same treatment.

There was this one trope, however, that I could not turn into a lighthearted fun element. I had a magic portal into another realm. It was a leftover from the old graphic novel I wrote back in 2010. As open minded as I am, I grow weary of that trope, unless it’s in the back of a standalone closet. I just couldn’t turn it into anything else but a stereotype. It worked in the graphic novel, but it refused to bend to my will in a written novel.

So, I got rid of it entirely.

The result was chaos! That one act threw the entire story into confusion. No magic portal meant no magic realm to step into. The longest story arc in the entire book just disappeared. I had characters that became unnecessary. The events that followed no longer made sense. I had a minor villain who suddenly wanted to be the major villain. The former major villain now looked more like a minor hero. I had an important situation that had to appear for the later books to work, but its setup just vanished. Even Aura’s genealogy collapsed into crumbs. Removing that trope actually unwove the fabric of the entire series. How was I going to straighten out this mess I caused by getting rid of just one trope, one scene, one paragraph?

I went back to the end of chapter nine of book one and started over. That was the earliest point in the story that did not suffer the ripple effect of eliminating the magic portal. In the process, I trimmed the story by one-third. Following the graphic novel script, the introductory story was going to be four books long (the magic portal appeared halfway through book three). Now, I can fit the introduction into two books without sacrificing the story (I hate trilogies — now those things are a cliche’). I was able to make the entire story tighter, add a ton of intrigue that wasn’t there before, and focus even more on the development of my main character. I do have some problems to work out, but the solutions will present themselves when I reach those chapters. A major delay, yes, but a welcome one.

Well, time to get off this blog and get writing. Aura Lockhaven is tapping her foot and glaring at me. I caused her some distress and she expects me to correct it.

IMPOSING LIMITATIONS UPON MAGIC

I encountered a problem with my main character, Aura Lockhaven. She was too powerful. Her magical ability seemed to have no limitations. Let’s face it. That makes a boring character! If a character cannot be defeated, much less killed, then there isn’t any real drama. There are times when a main character needs to say “I don’t know how to do that, but I do know how to run away!”

It is important to establish the strengths and limitations of any type of fictional power: magic, supernatural, fencing, martial arts, military combat, scientific knowledge, and even craftwork such as blacksmithing or mechanics. Those strengths and limitations must make sense and they must be consistent. Otherwise, not only does the story quickly become boring, but a Mary Jane character can be created. One of the best dramatic elements is when a character encounters his or her own weaknesses and limitations and tries to overcome them or bypass them. Even if they are defeated, they grow as characters. Even Superman has his weaknesses and self-imposed limitations.

We can’t get carried away with those strengths and limitations, however, or we create an equally boring story in the other direction. In fact, that can be worse.

Let’s focus on magic here. In the Aura series, I’ve tried to root the use of magic to how it is practiced in the real world, to give it a sense of gravity and realism. Yes, magic does exist in our world. How would you like it if I walked you through a quick spell? I shall do that.

Find an item near you that isn’t heavy, say a pen or coffee cup. Look at it. Pick it up. Hold it in front of your face. Congratulations, you just performed a magic spell! That’s because magic is visualizing a desired outcome, putting your will behind that desire, and taking the necessary action to make it happen. That’s all it is. You saw the pen. You desired to pick it up. Even if you were not aware of this part of the chain, you visualized yourself picking it up and holding it. You put your will behind your muscles. It happened. It ceases to be just physical action and becomes magic when the outcome is something we can’t do with our minds and hands alone, and we have to use herbs, rituals, prayer, angels, etcetera to get it done.

Magic is slow. It is very slow! No one can snap his fingers and start a fire, not that there is any need with readily available matches and lighters. When most people cast a spell, they walk away from it and let it “bake.” It can take days, months, or even years to manifest. For magic to work in my series the way it works in reality, it must be slow. There are places, however, where I can speed it up without violating the sense of reality. Then, there are places where I had best speed it up. Slow magic is fine for real life, but imagine that in a novel. A character casts a spell in chapter one. By chapter thirteen, the characters are still sitting around the fire, playing poker, and waiting for a manifestation! That is as equally boring as having a character that is too powerful.

So, for the sake of the story, especially considering that it’s an adventure, some level of instant magical results must be allowed in certain situations. For everything else, magic takes time. Both instant magic and standard (slow) magic follow a set of rules that Aura adheres to, whether she likes them or not.

I wrote all these rules down. I wrote down Aura’s personal powers; those of her own personality, and those for which she has a natural talent. I wrote down her weaknesses; those of her own incompetence, her own fears, and things she thinks are distasteful. Then, I wrote down the strengths of her order; what they do better than anyone else, and the powers granted Aura by membership in the order. I wrote down the limitations of her order; what happens when they use their strengths, what they absolutely cannot do, and what they will not do by their own vows. I also set the rules for the other magical orders. Aura is not the only magician in her world and will encounter others who have to work within their own parameters. The only powers and limitations with any flexibility are those that are personal to Aura. As her personality changes and develops, those powers can change and develop, too. The rest are ironclad. She didn’t write the rules of her order.

Now, I have a character who is human again. Now, I have a character who must think her way through a situation instead of just blasting everything around her. Now, I have a character who earned a level of power and self-knowledge through enduring what she endured to reach this point in the story. Now, I have a story!

No, I won’t tell you what Aura’s powers and limitations are. You’ll have to buy the books to find out. I will say that they make sense now, and I shall endeavor to keep them consistent.

A WRITER’S SECURITY ISSUES

I’ve been thinking about security issues. I don’t have any at the moment, other than those of any typical apartment dweller in a quiet college town, but I do like to be prepared. Security will become an issue when I have to travel and the second book hits the shelves and people know my name.

The biggest security issue is internet security. There are some good hackers out there. The last thing I want is for someone to swipe an unpublished draft of a story and leak it. Some people think that if something was written on a computer then it should be free to all. No! Theft of intellectual property is theft. Period. This is actually a very easy problem to solve. I’ll have two computers. The one I write on will not be connected to the internet. The only way to hack it will be to sit down at the keyboard. The computer I use to write email and manage my websites will have an empty hard drive. Nothing to steal. If I have to email something to an agent or magazine, the inconvenience of physically walking a flash drive to the other computer is far less than the headache of tracking down copyright violators. There are probably other things I should do, and as I learn them, I’ll implement them.

I’m not worried about personal security. Despite the plethora of hatred and violence sweeping America, so far only one or two writers have been shot at, and those appear to be motivated by religious bigotry. So, I highly doubt that some infuriated person is going to barge into a book store while I’m signing books and pull out a Walther PPK. The people who are likely to hate my books haven’t shown any signs of violence yet. They’re book burners, not murderers.

That doesn’t mean I’m leaving my front door unlocked! Believe it or not, writers have to defend their homes. Just because we’re the hermits of the artistic world doesn’t mean our caves aren’t violated from time to time. Raymond Carver’s wife hung a sign in their front yard that read “Go away. The writer is working.” Stephen King walked downstairs to find a stranger wandering around his living room. Fanboys! I write what amounts to “geek-lit,” and I know that geeks can get exuberant about fandom. A few may try to scale the fence I haven’t installed yet around the house I haven’t bought yet, just to get a good look at “himself.” Eh, I can handle that. I figure I can distract the fanboy by showing him an unpublished story, while Trish calls the police. Then, maybe, I can work things out with the DA so I won’t press charges if the fanboy gets psychiatric help. Maybe I can make a friend that way.

Some people who think writers keep a large stash of cash in a safe. We don’t! We use credit unions and plastic like most people. I won’t tolerate a predator. For them, there will be a good alarm system, with motion sensor lights, hardwired to the local police department. And a twelve gauge double barrel shotgun. That is the most intimidating home defense weapon ever made. People back down from them even when they’re empty. If someone breaks into my house, I’m going to assume he’s armed and dangerous. Most homeowners are killed when they show compassion and call out before taking a shot. If I have to use the shotgun, even with my bad aim, I won’t miss. I have a high value for human life, and the two I value the most are my wife’s and my own.

There will be more than that, though. We are designing some really geeky defense systems. I won’t go into all that they are (alligators in the moat?) because we’re still designing them, and I don’t want to blab about everything waiting for an intruder. Let’s just say they’ll be loud, surprising, geeky, and can’t be bypassed with computer chips or wire cutters.

I’d get a dog, but I have a feeling that I’d neglect the poor creature.

We haven’t figured out the issue of travel, yet. That is a problem. Writers need to travel, and they should post their signing schedules publicly. Fans want to know if they’re in town. That is good manners and good business. It’s also a flag for potential thieves. If Trish were staying home, no worries. Not only is the an accurate pistol shot, but she has berserker instincts in a fight. Believe me! If you attack either of us, go for the tall one, not the cute redhead. But she wants to travel with me, and I want her to. I didn’t marry her to leave her at home. So, the place will be empty. Yikes! Who’s going to guard the fort while we’re gone? Who’s going to feed the cats?

I guess this is why so many writers, actors, and musicians hire personal assistants. Not only do they need someone to field phone calls, answer emails, and make sure they don’t miss their appointments, but they need someone who can watch their homes while they’re on the road.

I’m not sure what to do about that yet. I’d love to sit down with George R. R. Martin, R.A. Salvatore, Mercedes Lackey, Stephen King, and others and ask what they do. It’s things like this that they don’t teach you in graduate school!

So, what do y’all think? Any suggestions? For those of you who are writers, what do you do (without giving anything away)?

I guess my next cat could be a mountain lion.

FANTASY IS A LANGUAGE

Fantasy, as in fantasy fiction, is a language.

It is not the language of mere children’s stories or mindless fluff for entertainment. It is much more than that, for fantasy is the oldest form of storytelling. Yes, fantasy entertains, but it also edifies, exhorts, encourages, and educates. Fantasy does not mean a flight of fancy, but a daring dream of desire and delight and destiny. It is the language of change.

Fantasy is the language of those who desire a better world. It is the language of those who came before us, and spoke of the world as it is, and the world as it could be. Then, it offered us the tools to change the world into that dream, whether the tools be swords, spells, amazing animals, the assistance of kind deities, or cunning of our own minds and strength of our own bodies. It is the language of courage.

Fantasy is the language of faith. The origins of today’s stories of swords and sorcerers are found in the stories of holy men and women, of priests and priestesses in Greece and India, of shamans in North America, of bards in Ireland and Wales, of minstrels in England, of wise women in Thuringia and wise men in Norway, of village magicians in Scotland, of counselors in China, and of midwives in Italy. Fantasy derives from the stories of a Persian wife desperate to keep her head for one more night, of a Greek moralist encapsulating life lessons through anthropomorphic animals, and of two brothers collecting rural folklore in Germany. It was the language of faith in ourselves, and that perhaps the deities would help us and that we had enough magic to make the impossible happen.

Fantasy is the language of dreams. It is the words heard, and the images seen, in that space between slumber and wakefulness, when everything is possible. It is that moment when we flew on a dragon, sang before a packed Madison Square Avenue, and captained a spaceship to Mars. It is that daydream we had when we were eight, the one we never should have allowed to die the slow death of practicality. It is also the language of nightmare. It is that moment when we fell off the Empire State Building, found ourselves trapped in a tree full of spiders, or walked naked into algebra class. Without it, we would never understand those dreams that left us in cold sweat. Fantasy is the language that allows us to remember our dreams and put our fears to flight.

Fantasy is the language of hope. It is that of hope that the world can be changed for the better. It is the spell cast to defeat a villain. It is the speech given by a war-weary king to an outnumbered army that rallies them to victory. It is the harangue of an ill-treated woman to her countrymen that inspires them to follow her in revolt against the Romans. It is the whisper of lovers in the night in the belief that they will always have tomorrow. It is the plans of a band of outlaws gathered together to fight tyranny and restore liberty. It is the shout of bravado of the warrior in the face of trolls and dragons. It is the language that tomorrow will be a better day, and we have the power to make it that way.

Fantasy is the language of the past. It is the words spoken by Neolithic elders to children around fires at night, those of instruction in virtue of thought and nobility of action. It is the words of just plain good stories to enthrall them. As we grew older, these words took on the forms of tavern songs, bardic missives, and mead hall yarns. Later, they took names to themselves, names such as Beowulf, Siegfried, Arthur, Finn McCool, and Robin Hood. In other lands, through other halls and temples, they took on the names of Heracles, Gilgamesh, and Aladdin. It is the language of our cultural and inherited memories, whatever that culture and inheritance may be.

Fantasy is the language of heroes and heroines. It is the language of a time when men and women were tough, strong, and resilient. It is the words of stories of men and women who stood beside each other to face danger. It is the sound of the clash of sword, axe, spear, shield, and flesh against the forces of darkness. It hails from a time when Hera, Hestia, and Demeter fought alongside Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon to overthrow the tyranny of the Titans. Its words were formed in the age of Arthur and Morgan, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Ceridwen and Cernunnos. It is the language of sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, kings and queens, tavern owners and seamstresses. It is the common language of people who are people and do not see themselves in prescribed roles or preordained occupations. It is the language of people who seize their own destinies.

Fantasy is the language of a world that was not so cowardly as to disbelieve that evil had a bodily form. Nor did they believe that good was beyond their grasp. It is the language of people who did the right thing because it was the right thing to do, and perhaps they made a tidy profit from their exploits as well. It formed the songs of virtue and morality. Yes, those songs may have been sung in taverns while drinking and in brothels while wenching, but personal vice is not the stuff of evil. Evil is found in those who wish to manipulate and control the lives of others for their own personal gain. Evil is found in those who use the forces of guilt and fear to enslave people. Fantasy is the language that allows us to interpret the words of evil men and understand the fate that will befall us if we do not act. It allows us to know what to do, and how to do it. It is the words in the hearts of men and women who believe that good will triumph over evil, and know how to deal with the monsters in their midst.

Fantasy is a language that our world desperately needs. In our time of dehumanizing technology, threats from shadows of night, and the wickedness of the artificial constructs of politics, economics, and religion, we need to believe that we can change our world. We need to believe in dreams again. We need to believe in hope again. We need to believe in the lessons of the past again. We need to believe in heroes and heroines again. Without those dreams, hope, lessons, and heroes, without that language, we are but drones to the forces that see us as existing only to give them our money and our votes.

Come! Let us ride a dragon together and believe once again in a better world. Then, we can transform what is into what should be.

FIRST NOVEL, FIRST DRAFT!

The Valley of the Mystic Moon, the first novel in my Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven series, is finished!

Okay, so it’s just the first draft. It really won’t be finished until I thoroughly revise it. I’ve already spotted places that need major work.

And I cheated. Halfway through the next to last chapter of the intended first book, I realized that the word count had crossed the 100,000 word threshold. So, I decided to end the first book earlier, and moved the last four chapters to the second book. I think it balances the first two books better that way.

You may be wondering why I was concerned about word count. When a publisher looks at a first novel from a writer, he or she likes the word count range of 80,000 to 120,000 words. Any less signals that the book isn’t developed enough. Any more signals that the writer didn’t revise enough. At 100,000 words, I knew this book would present a problem. My second drafts are always longer than my first.

That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but it’s how I write. My first drafts are always skeletons. I write dialogue first, then description and action. I only add enough narrative to hold the story together. Narrative is my weak area. It isn’t enough, though, to just say “Aura walked across town.” Readers want more. They want their emotions engaged. Oh, all right! So, the narrative grows in my second draft. At 100,000 words, I really had no room to add muscle and flesh to my book. Now, at 85,000 words, I do. My goal is that 100,000 word mark. It’s a good size.

And I have a good beginning on book two, The Witch of Stonewall, already.

Now, to let Valley sit in the drawer and bake while I write Witch. Then, in January, I’ll start revising.

 

 

READABILITY

Last night, in a moment of curiosity, I decided to learn the reading level of my novel. It was easy to do. I opened a random chapter and ran the spelling & grammar feature of the review tool in Word 2007. At the end of the tool’s run, it gave me the reading level, based on the Flesch-Kincaid Test. Before I reveal the reading level of my chapter, let me briefly explain the Flesch-Kincaid Test, at least as best as I can given that I don’t understand math. The Test is an algebraic formula to give an average based on character count per word, word count per sentence, sentence structure and complexity, and presence of passive voice. I think. It provides an average, a ball-park figure.

My chapter ranked at a 4th grade reading level.

At first, I was shocked! I was offended — with myself. I am about to earn an MA in English! Can’t I write any better than that?

Then, I performed some studies of articles and blogs online written by people who have studied the Flesch-Kincaid Test and ran it on some popular authors. I was surprised. Stephen King, John Grisham, and Jan Karon all wrote at an average of a 4th grade reading level. The lush Stephen King? No way! Ernest Hemingway ranked at a 5th grade level.

The Flesch-Kincaid Test contains a flaw. The more dialogue that is present, the lower the reading level. Dialogue often contains sentence fragments, slang, passive verbs, etc. I am dialogue heavy, to invoke an understatement. So, my actual sentence complexity may be higher.

One important point to remember, and the people who designed the Flesch-Kincaid Test stress this — the lower the reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid Test, the higher the readability.  Do you remember history books written prior to 1985? Do you remember how difficult they were to read? Rather boring, right? They were written on a high school or college level. Then came writers like Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough, both of whom wrote on a much lower reading level, but much more like novelists. They made history fun to read! History books now dominate the New York Times best-seller list. A lower reading level is not a bad thing at all, especially if you want a wider audience.

Easier words, shorter sentences, less complex paragraphs, and direct structure make for an easier-to-read book. These are important points whether the writer is writing an adventure (me) or literature (Hemingway). Most readers do not want to read Finnigan’s Wake (even James Joyce didn’t want to write it — it was a direct jab at his critics). But most readers enjoy — actually enjoy — For Whom the Bell Tolls, Goldfinger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Insomnia, the Testament, and The Other Boleyn Woman. Even Pulitzer Prize winning novels are written on a lower reading level, but higher readability level, than the prestige implies.

To compare myself to myself, I ran the same test on the preface to my thesis. It ranked at a 9th grade reading level, and personally, it’s the most boring thing I’ve ever written. Hmm. I have a feeling that I can write on the college reading level, but if I did, it would read like a treatise on thermodynamics.

I learned something. A few things, really. For openers, I learned that I can be a snob! I also learned that tests of this sort really don’t mean bo diddly squat. They are good guides, and yes, I would like to elevate my novel to the 6th grade level. Ultimately, however, I write commercial fiction — adventures — and I would much rather the reader turn the page than run for the dictionary. At the end of the book, I want the reader to say “When is the next book coming out?” not “What did he say?”

I will write this book the best that I can. If it turns out to be written on a 5th grade reading level, well that just means that 90% of the population can read it and enjoy it. More sales for me!