I never thought I would love Weird Al Yankovic, well, at all, but right now? I think he’s wonderful! If you haven’t seen/heard this yet, you absolutely must.
No, seriously. You must hear this!
I never thought I would love Weird Al Yankovic, well, at all, but right now? I think he’s wonderful! If you haven’t seen/heard this yet, you absolutely must.
No, seriously. You must hear this!
So, say you’ve been writing for years. You’ve pretty much mastered the niceties of punctuation, you know your grammar and can parse a sentence with the best of them. Your vocabulary would blow away the SAT people, and you read, read, read just like all the writing books recommend.
Yet, you still can’t get people to read your work.
Queries get returned with “not interested, go away” stamped on their envelopes. Articles come back with “Are you kidding?” Your book has been out on submission for so long, you think it’s run away and is sitting in some dive somewhere, stale beer soaking its pages, lost and adrift.
When you read your work, however, you see nothing wrong. You chuckle at the jokes. You nod in admiration at a well-turned phrase. You’ve hammered away at the prose until it’s lean and fit and ready to make its way in the world.
Yet, here it sits, figuratively slumped in front of the TV, wasting its prime on reality shows and eating potato chips.
So, what’s the problem?
Is it that your writing isn’t as good as you thought?
Or is it that you’ve been lazy and haven’t been encouraging it to get off the couch and go out the door?
Yeah, my guess is it’s the second option. If you’ve worked hard at your writing and it’s as good as you can make it … WHY would you let it sit around instead of going out to conquer the world?
I was watching Downton Abbey the other night, and there’s a scene where the Dowager Countess, played by the wonderful Maggie Smith, is trying to work her wiles on a bureaucrat via telephone, and at one point looks at the receiver and says something* like, “Is this a a communication device or a torture device?”
This is a perfect line in the show, because the Dowager Countess has already expressed her distrust of new things, shielding her eyes from the imagined rays of electricity emitting from the chandelier in season one. But it also made me think of how communication has changed in my own memory.
Without wanting to sound ancient, mumbling “In my day, things were different” in a querelous voice, still … things have changed. When I was born, the Beatles were still together, and I’ve always been rather pleased that my first summer here on earth is known as the Summer of Love. (I mean, how flattering!) We had color television and polyester clothing. Telephones, but the long distance charges were a killer. If you wanted to contact someone, you had basically three choices: see them in person, call them on the phone, or write them a letter.
Fast forward several decades, and oh, have things changed–with a speed that would leave the Dowager Countess reeling. Now, there might be telephones in every room in the house … or there might be none at all, because people choose to use the one in their pocket instead. Everybody has a cell phone, and long-distance charges might as well be non-existant, but that doesn’t matter because you can always get around them by using Skype to video chat with your friends, a la Jane Jetson.
Everybody has email and text messages available with a flick of the finger. You can ask questions of your social network and get answers, virtual hugs, moral support within seconds of a plea for help. You can watch television being broadcast half a world away and then discuss it with friends scattered around the globe, all while sitting in your footie-pajamas on your couch. All the world’s information is available with a quick query to Google.
It’s EASY to keep in touch, make contact, make friends.
But … is it necessarily better?
How many times have you posted something on a forum and had it misunderstood because your audience didn’t know your wry sense of humor? Is a quick text message exchange of “R U feeling better?” “Yes, lots” really as satisfying as a friend stopping by when you’re sick, or sending flowers to brighten your day?
The old-school methods of communication took EFFORT. You had to devote the time to picking up the phone and then standing there for the entire conversation because the cord kept you within 6 feet of the wall the whole time. Handwritten letters involved nice stationery, a pen, and legible handwriting. (Remember that?) Getting together for drinks or coffee might not be an enormous amount of effort, but it does show you’re committed to the conversation.
So many of our modern, convenient, effortless methods, on the other hand, are almost too easy, too diffuse. Why write to one person when you can post a blog entry for dozens to read at once? Why ask one friend for advice, when you can ask hundreds of your Twitter followers with just 140 characters? We no longer connect with each other on a one-to-one basis. It’s all multiples. We tell ALL our friends that we’ve had a bad day. We ask ALL our friends for advice.
The very essence of communication is being diluted.
People have always had group, interpersonal activities. Politicians have always given speeches. Friends have always hosted parties. Groups have gotten together to sew a quilt or raise a barn since time began. Well, okay, maybe not exactly sewing quilts, but you know what I mean–groups gathering to do tasks too big for one person, and throwing in some socializing for good measure. As Elizabeth said to Mr. Darcy, “No one can get acquainted on a dance floor.”
But group activities aren’t really about communication so much as socializing.
I just wonder if, by having so much of our socializing–especially the virtual kinds of forums, emails, text messages, and so on–combined with the communication needs of sharing ideas, asking for advice, spreading news … I wonder if we’ve lost something.
Sometimes when things are too easy, you take them for granted.
But when they’re so easy, you forget that, sometimes, easier isn’t the same as better. (Is a frozen dinner out of the microwave better than a home-cooked meal?
Have you seen it? I’ve been looking all over for it.
For whatever reason, I seem have lost all my motivation to write. I put it down before the holidays because I was so busy with other things and now I can’t remember where I left it.
It was a modest little Mojo–more the warm, cozy, satisfying kind than one of those bright, jangly ones that you have to mind all the time. It didn’t squeal, “Look at me” every time I tried to turn my attention to something else. It just snuggled up and made me feel good inside when I played with it.
So far as I know, there aren’t any lost-and-found shelters for forlorn Writing Mojos. I suppose it’s possible that it went looking for some other writer to feed it and love it and spend time with it. Maybe the 2-year old next door has suddenly blossomed into a prolific scribbler to the delight and wonder of her parents. That would be lovely for her, and all, but I confess that I want it back.
I blame myself. I neglected the poor thing. I admit it. I let circumstances get in the way of my daily writing. My knitting blog broke (I have yet to figure out how to fix it), so my first outlet of writing suddenly wasn’t available. My freelance assignments dried up so I felt funny posting here, because it felt somehow hypocritical to write about writing when I wasn’t actually writing. My day job, which already blocks all sorts of file-sharing websites, suddenly made it impossible for me to plug in a thumb-drive so I couldn’t carry my novel back and forth to work on in spare moments. (Because oddly enough, spare moments at my day job have always been some of my most productive fiction-writing time.)
I let myself be gagged. I allowed my favorite writing outlets to be shut down or made difficult to access because I didn’t fight hard enough to keep them or to find alternatives. I thought about restarting a regular journal, like I kept years ago, but there are some serious penmanship deficiencies to deal with there, and trying to write with a pen sounds even more difficult than it used to.
It’s true what they say. You really do have to WRITE. It’s like any other muscle–if you don’t use it, you lose it. I’ve been struggling to get mine back. I think about writing all the time. I think about freelancing jobs I could be chasing. I think about my unpublished novel and think about sending it out again to agents (or about trying the self-publishing route). I think a lot about my poor, broken personal blog that I truly miss but have no idea how to fix.
But when it comes down to it, thinking is not the same as writing. In fact, it’s often the antithesis of writing because, the more you over-think things, the more you block the route between your head and a piece of paper.
Which brings me to the sad realization that the only way I’m going to get my writing mojo back is to COAX it back. I need to make it feel welcome. I need to make it feel safe and loved–and the only way to do that is to let it know that I’ll use it.
The only way to get it back is to act like I’ve already got it.
But, really, if one of you has seen it and can point it home, I’d appreciate it.
Has writing gotten harder?
In those halcyon days when you were younger (last month, maybe?), it all seemed so easy. You sat down with your computer or your notebook, positioned the cursor or the pen at the ready and … words flowed. You didn’t have to work at them, you didn’t have to struggle to get them out, they just ran out of your fingers and onto the page in a steady stream. If anything, it was hard to keep up!
So, what happened?
Have you been reading too many “This is How You Write” blogs? Maybe you’ve been so diligent at reminding yourself of the rules, the dos and don’ts that you’re afraid to commit anything to paper because it might not be good enough.
But, “good enough” for who?
Don’t ever forget that first drafts are supposed to be crappy. It’s getting the words out of your head that’s important. The minute you clench up and worry about whether you need a comma before the ‘and,’ you’re just asking for trouble.
Maybe you’re afraid of what will happen AFTER you’ve written. The minute you finish your novel, you’re going to need to send it out, right? Who wants to deal with all that rejection? Whereas, if the writing’s not done, you’re under no obligation to do anything with it at all. You wouldn’t send a child out on its own, would you? No, so you can’t send out writing that’s not ready … it wouldn’t be right!
Perhaps you’ve got too many ideas in your head. You can’t decide which to work on, and so the words all bottleneck in your head and can’t make it down your arm to your fingers. In which case, pick one–whichever idea is jumping up and down and wavings its hand like Horschack used to on Welcome Back, Kotter. THAT’s the idea you want to work on. Any idea with that much energy deserves some attention.
Or maybe you’ve got the opposite problem–no ideas at all. Your brain is an empty wilderness, like one of those 1960s performance art exhibits of a completely white room with a battered shoe in the center of the floor. So, you know what you do? You write about the shoe. Describe its scratched and cracking leather, the limpness of its laces as they dangle on the floor. The way the tongue is lolling to the side, like a dog’s on a hot day. Imagine what kind of life that shoe has led to be in such a state.
And that pesky, tempting internet with its social networking sites, multitude of blogs, and websites galore tempting you and leading you astray?
…Um, I’m still looking for the answer to that one!
The point is to WRITE.
I’ve gotten distracted by the three million other things I have to do each day, along with temptations like lounging with a good book or summer television, or just the sheer bliss of sitting on the couch with my dog and my knitting. Because, of course, one of the “advantages” of making my living with a day job is that while I might be tired when I get home at the end of the day, it affords me the luxury of not having to write–and therefore making goofing off far too easy. If I were depending on my writing to pay rent and food, I’d have more incentive for diligent behavior.
But all the while I’m sitting there happily curled up with a good book (written by someone else and therefore stress-free), my conscience is nagging me.
“You can’t be a writer if you don’t write.”
Do you know the trick to getting a good photo of yourself? You don’t just smile with your lips, you smile with your eyes. If your eyes don’t have that certain warmth, that indefinable twinkle, your smile is going to look fake, as if it had been plastered on. So what you do is, as the photographer is aiming the camera, you think of something that makes you want to laugh. Or you remember what it feels like to want to chuckle–your eyelids crinkle, your lips twitch with a smile, and your cheeks lift ever so slightly. Most important, everything about your face warms, lightens, brightens.
The best part is that you can fake this. If someone is pointing a camera at you in one of those forced moments where you have to stand next to someone else and smile for posterity–trick yourself into believing you’re happy to be there. Think about making your eyes look warm, happy, friendly and there you go … suddenly YOU look warm, happy and friendly. It’s all in the eyes. And in the convincing yourself that at that moment, you’re happy.
When I was a kid, this was easy. Nothing easier! I pretended things constantly, all day long. I didn’t just ride my bike–I was actually riding a beautiful stallion with a flowing mane and smooth gait. (Side-saddle, naturally, like a princess. I got remarkably good at riding my bike side-saddle, pedalling with only my left foot, using the toe to help pull the pedals upward.) I had imaginary friends keep me company in boring classes. They’d even walk up to the teacher’s desk during tests and peek at the answers for me. I didn’t just go for walks, I went on adventures like Frodo Baggins.
I was very seldom just my own, mundane self when I was a kid. Everything had more savor when I brought my imagination along. It was a life-saver during boring things like grocery shopping with Mom or stupid assemblies at school. And if I pretended I had magic powers to help me clean my room? It made the cleaning that much more fun.
I finally decided that I was going to need to take extreme measures. I was going to have to take definitive, mature action and force myself to write.
I was going to have to Pretend.
What, I asked myself, would a “real” writer be doing? Would she be coming home from work and goofing off? Or would her computer be pulling her toward it constantly, like a planet pulling its satellites? During her boring day at the office, would she be browsing the internet looking for distraction? Or would she be taking every possible minute of spare time to surreptitiously type away at her article?
I decided that I was going to Pretend, just like when I was a kid, but this time I was going to pretend that I was a dedicated, driven, diligent writer. How could I let myself be distracted if a Real Writer wouldn’t? She wouldn’t have time to goof around, so why should I?
In other words, I was going to make-believe I was everything I already want to be … just, without the publishing credits I don’t have yet.
The amazing thing? It worked. It turns out that, unlike a child pretending to play piano and just generating dissonant noise, it’s hard to pretend to type without actually producing, well, words. And producing words is what writing is, isn’t it? The more that I pretended to be this successful writer who just happened to have an inconvenient day job, the more I found myself wanting to write. Like a kid playing Detective who stumbles across a real mystery (one of my favorite kinds of books when I was younger), I found myself stumbling across interesting phrases, intriguing ideas. The characters in my novel sat up, yawning, and suddenly started calling out ideas about what they wanted to do next. My non-fiction became more engrossing and invigorating.
The best part? This little trick works for all sorts of thing. If you fake something convincingly enough, you might just find yourself doing it for real.
Oh, and while I was at it? I pretended that my Real Writer had great handwriting and perfect posture, too. I mean, why not? You never know.
Okay, folks, I’ve got something different for you today. Not only is it an interview, but … the author interviewed herself! Our mutual friend, Sara J. Henry, asked me if I’d be willing to host Jodi Compton to help her promote her new book, “Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot.” I said yes, of course! Except … since I haven’t read the book, that made it tricky to come up with good interview questions. No problem, they said. She’ll ask the questions herself!
So, without further ado, let’s give a big Punctuality Rules welcome to Jodi Compton!
Q. Who are you? Where is Deb?
A. My name is Jodi Compton. Deb and I have a friend in common, Sara J. Henry, the author of ‘Learning to Swim.’ Sara brokered this deal in which I’d do a guest post for Punctuality Rules. I’m the author of four crime novels, the latest of which, Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot, came out on July 19.
Q. So which have you written about, a cop or a P.I.?
A. Neither. My protagonist is in her early 20s, a failed West Point cadet, and is drawn into troubles not of her making. In Hailey’s War, she protected a 19-year-old girl from a mobster, nearly dying at the hands of one of his men when she was tortured for information.
Q. Good times! So what happens next?
A. Well, Hailey goes back to Los Angeles and falls into a role as the lieutenant of a rising Latina gangster, Serena “Warchild” Delgadillo, who played a significant role in the first book. The fun — lawless and amoral though it is — comes to an abrupt halt when suddenly it’s all over the news that Hailey killed two people in San Francisco. It’s definitely her they’re describing, but she hasn’t been anywhere near northern California. So she and Warchild head north to get to the bottom of things.
Q. If I know crime fiction, there’s a fine-looking guy as well, right?
A. Two. Hailey has a long-unrequited attraction with her cousin CJ, who is tall and lanky and sexy and unfailing decent to women, but unavailable to her because of the American taboo about relationships between first cousins. That’s why Joel Kelleher appears on the scene. Hailey’s initially attracted to him because he superficially resembles CJ, but he develops into a full-fledged character in his own right. He’s a cop, too, which is problematic, since Hailey and Warchild are working the other side of that particular street.
The physical similarity between Joel and CJ plays a small but important role in the third Hailey Cain book that I’m revising right now: Hailey calls Joel by the wrong name at an intimate moment, and that effectually ends the evening. In the following days, Hailey has to ask herself: Is this man real to me, or just a kind of methadone for my CJ addiction? Do I have the right to ask him for a second chance? Do I want to?
Q. Wait — you just said you’re working on the third Hailey Cain book, but earlier you called yourself the author of four crime novels. The math doesn’t add up.
A. Okay, yes: the first two were about a Minneapolis missing-persons detective, Sarah Pribek. Those were 37th Hour and Sympathy Between Humans. They’re a little more traditional than the Hailey stories, meaning that they’re police procedurals. A lot of people ask me if I’m going to write about Sarah again. The unsatisfying answer is, I really don’t know.
Q. Hailey is very Angeleno. Is that where you’re from?
A. No, I grew up east of San Francisco. And Hailey grew up east of Vandenberg Air Force Base, more than an hour north of L.A. If you look at a map of California, and see the westernmost “heel” of the state, that’s about where she’s from. The choice of L.A. as Hailey’s chosen, adult “hometown” grew out of an unrequited crush I have on L.A. It’s such a big, warm, freewheeling, pan-cultural place and, I think, unfairly maligned by outsiders. I go down there as often as I can. Whether I’ll ever live there, well, I’m really not sure.
Q. That’s the second time you’ve said “I really don’t know” or “I’m really not sure.” Would you describe yourself as more wishy or washy?
A. What’s the difference again?
Q. Uh, it’s, uh … Well, that’s all the time we have! I hope readers have really enjoyed this. Thanks, Deb and Sara, for this opportunity.
You might not know, but I have a site where I review knitting books. So, imagine my surprise when I got this co-written email the other day.
As a “LYS owner” we are thrilled to read your messages about upcoming books and your reviews. It helps us to stock our shop. However, we STRONGLY OBJECT to your policy of linking to Amazon. Until Amazon starts supporting the small merchants instead of taking our local business, we will be forced to unsubscribe from your blog. We hope you understand.
Now, it’s a polite enough email, I suppose. Not profane. Not obscene. Not outright rude. Except…
Now, KnittingScholar.com is a labor of love and, except for getting some review copies, entirely unpaid. The only income stream the site has is the Amazon.com affiliate links that help defray the cost of the webhosting, and I tell people right up front. “Please, if you’re thinking of buying any of these books, please consider using the links here at Knitting Scholar–I’ll get a couple dollars from Amazon.com to go toward the cost of this site. My grateful thanks go with every order!”
Now, I can understand people who have independent bookstores wanting to shake their firsts at the internet behemoth for taking business away from them. I understand that there are people out there who object to Amazon.com on principle because it is so big, it’s so corporate, it’s taking over the universe, et cetera, et cetera. But this is a yarn shop, we’re talking about. One that presumably sells knitting books along with their yarn and needles, yes, but books wouldn’t be their primary income-maker.
Protesting that I am using links to Amazon because it takes away their business seems, well, absurd. It’s not like I’m the only place their customers would hear about these books. In fact, in this day and age, heading to an online store is almost a reflex, if only to hear what other people think about books you’re interested in. It’s not like people aren’t going to think of Amazon.com without my help.
Most people who go to yarn shops want to look at the yarn. They may definitely browse through books while they’re there, and of course they might buy some, but you can buy most of those books at bookstores, too. You can check them out of the library. You can borrow them from friends. Did these two email-writing shop owners send a protest to their local Barnes & Noble, too, for selling books that people could be buying in their shop? Or protest to the local library for letting people see them for free?
I hate the common excuse that “business is business,” because it’s too often used to excuse heartless strategies, but still … everyone has a right to earn a living. The line in their email that truly gets me, though, is “Until Amazon starts supporting the small merchants instead of taking our local business…”
Um, Amazon is in business to make money, just like you. I don’t think they’re deliberately trying to put small shops out of business (thought I agree they’re not helping). But why should any big store “start supporting” you? To think they owe you anything is absurd. These ladies might as well be complaining because A.C. Moore sells yarn and is taking their customers. I’ve even seen yarn at Walmart and at Target, and I’m quite sure those shops aren’t worrying about the little yarn shop down the street. And I’d bet these ladies haven’t written to them to complain–or to other local yarn shops for taking their customers, either.
Here’s the other thing: They say in their email that they are “thrilled” to see my lists and reviews and that they “use them to stock their shop.”
Couldn’t I argue that they are profiting from my hard work? And taking “business” away from ME?
You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to take advantage of my time and effort, that’s great. It’s exactly why I run the site, but you can’t then turn around and complain that I make a few dollars a month off of it. (Maybe I should be complaining that they’re not buying their store inventory using my Amazon links?)
Ultimately, they’re forgetting the most important thing.
Selling knitting books means selling yarn. Sometimes knitters will buy the yarn first and then look for the pattern to match, but they just as often start with a pattern that they need to go find the perfect yarn for. That pattern could come from anywhere–a book, a magazine, a designer’s blog, a website. But putting inspiration in the hands of knitters is just going to sell more yarn. I understand that they’d rather people bought the books from them, but ultimately, that’s not the point.
The modern world is requiring all of us to rethink things, but freedom of speech should not be one of them. I would never insist people buy books only using links from my site. I would never tell them that they must buy from Amazon. I would never discourage them from buying them in person from a bookstore or a friendly yarn shop.
What I AM doing, though, is trying to spread the word as far as I can. I tell people about the books to catch their attention and whet their appetites, and then I send them to (1) someplace where they can buy it, and (2) someplace they can read other people’s opinions before making a decision. I’m not providing restrictions. I’m providing options–and making sure people know about books they might not have heard of.
At the end of the day, people can and should make their own decisions about where they buy things. Buying local is good for the environment. Buying from a big-box store is good for the wallet. Buying in person is good for browsing. Buying online is good for convenience … you know all the arguments as well as I do.
The point is to let people make up their own minds. Heaven knows I’m not pressuring anybody to use my Amazon links–I’m just grateful when they do.
And if these shop owners feel they have to unsubscribe to my blog feed out of protest for my using links to their “competition?” That’s their choice, too. But trying to limit the dissemination of information, or to direct it in only the direction they want it to go? Especially on a website that they admit they’ve found useful but are not remotely connected with? It rather smacks of small-mindedness, narrow-vision, and censorship, don’t you think?
Am I crazy, that this email bugged me so much? What do you think?
I was reading an interview in Time with David McCullough (the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, if the name doesn’t ring a bell), and this question caught my attention:
Q: We don’t write letters on paper anymore. How will this affect the study of history?
The loss of people writing–writing a composition, a letter or a report–is not just the loss for the record. It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren’t [writing]. And that’s a handicap. People [I research] were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.
Calisthenics for the brain. Isn’t that a fantastic image?
Because it’s true. Just like my body feels sluggish if I don’t at least get out for a walk with the dog every day, so does my brain on days it doesn’t do much.
Granted, every brain deserves a lazy Sunday curled up with a book or settled on the couch watching sports or a cheesy movie. But … you can’t forget that it’s a muscle that needs to be used, too.
Lots of people realize this already. They do crossword puzzles or play sudoku online. They read everything they can get their hands on, or watch documentaries about obscure subjects on television. They take classes at the community college and visit museums, and learn about new technology on the internet.
I mean, not everybody turns into a couch potato watching reality-tv after dinner every night, right?
But, I love McCullough’s point about the importance of working things out on paper, and how it can lead to ideas you might not have had otherwise.
There’s something to be said for the simple hand-brain coordination of moving a pen across a page. Think of all the notes you took in classes at school when the teacher’s lecture went in one ear, down past the shoulder and out the hand onto the notebook without ever pausing in the brain. And then, haven’t you ever had the experience of doodling, jotting down random, crazy, silly thoughts and then looked at your page and realized you’d just solved a problem, or done something brilliant without consciously thinking about it?
As much as I love typing on a keyboard these days–if only because it’s legible which you can’t exactly say about my handwriting–it’s still a different kind of “writing” than the kind you do with a pen. No matter how good a touch-typist you are. You can’t doodle in a word-processing program, after all.
Mind-mapping is all the rage these days, too–putting all your thoughts and ideas about a project in one place in a seemingly random order so that you can line things up and visually SEE those connections. Everybody’s brain works differently. Some of us are visual thinkers who need visual aids to understand things. Some learn best by hearing, some by reading … but ultimately it comes back to getting the ideas on our heads down on paper.
Whether that paper is made from tree pulp or pixels on a computer screen doesn’t matter, not really. It might matter to historians down the ages who are using Windows 2703-B on their brain-embedded computers and can’t access our lame attempts at digital “permanence” any more, but we can’t be concerned with them. For the moment, what matters is that we not only THINK but that we take our responsibility to record it in some fashion seriously.
Because our brains deserve the workout. Calisthenics for the brain. And the best part? Unlike heading to the gym for an hour of sweat and calorie-burning, at the end of an hour of writing–of drawing connections and getting words and thoughts on paper–you’ve got something solid to show for it.
Now, go and exercise that brain of yours. Write something!
(And, as an interesting side note, I saw this post linked on Twitter today–about the differences between writing by hand or writing by keyboard, which I thought particularly interesting as I mulled over this blog post of my own.)
What do YOU think?
Today, we’re going to talk about ways to help them.
Okay … I’m tapped out. What suggestions do YOU have for people who don’t like to write, but have to?
Using Grammar and Good Manners to Save Civilization, One Punctuation Mark at a Time.