Topic: Writing

Back to Basics

CB028871I decided that the best way to get back into the mind set of writing was to … well, write, of course … but not just any writing.

So many things have been turned upside down these last few weeks. First, finding someplace to live, then packing a house full of stuff, weeding out about a third of my library (sniffle), and then moving and settling into our new home …

It’s no wonder that my mind can’t focus.

Of course, I let the marketing/promotion side of things slide in the last couple of weeks leading up to the move. (Why drum up more work just in time for me not to be able to find my computer, much less someplace quiet to write?) So, at the moment, I don’t have any paying clients. That’s good and bad. Bad because I could really use a paying client or three right now to offset moving costs, but good because it’s giving me the breathing space to find my writer’s footing again.

The best place for that?

Going back to the beginning.

As much as I love writing marketing pieces, doing copywriting, webpages, and other elements of the copywriting business, the first thing I ever wanted to write was a BOOK. When I was about eight, I wrote and laboriously typed a story scandalously plagarized from Julie Andrews’ “The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.” (Luckily, I never tried to sell the book since the plot was remarkably similar, though much, much shorter.) But I did have it “privately” published … which is to say, my Dad brought it to work and photocopied it for me, folded it in half and stapled it together with the construction paper cover I drew for it.

And yes, I still have it.

In terms of more serious writing, though, my first love was fiction. Not poetry, not short stories, but full-blown novels.

So, the other day, I found my first few footsteps back toward “real” writing by working on my ongoing novel. I only got a couple pages written, but still … sitting at my computer, typing words into meaningful sentences. Writing progress is being made. Mental space for writing is being staked out.

I’ll give my brain a couple days to revel in the fiction, but then the vacation’s over and it’s back to work. I’m just grateful to finally see a path in the woods.

How to Get Back to Writing

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I have a problem.

We moved two weeks ago.

That might not seem insurmountable to you, but this is the first time (not counting dorm rooms in college) that I’ve moved in 34 years, and I think my system is still in shock.

I knew, of course, that the first week or so would be, well, impossible for me to concentrate on writing anything (not to mention finding the computer). Tweets, sure. 140 characters I could manage. I found the energy to blog about the actual move (18 and a half hours!) over at my other blog.

But … writing? Real writing?

I haven’t been able to summon the energy.

Not the physical energy, so much, as the mental energy. The emotional wherewithal to plumb words to throw at the keyboard.

These last two weeks, I’ve been, well, nesting. It’s the only way I can describe it. I’ve been unpacking and arranging things; organizing; setting up. I’ve been spending time in the kitchen, cooking up rich-smelling delicacies like homemade tomato sauce, vegetable soup, and cakes. I’ve even been sitting at my spinning wheel, twirling lengths of wool roving into bobbins of yarn–being more productive there than I have been in months.

But anything remotely work-like? Productive in a commercial way? I can’t quite summon up the energy.

This is a real problem. (Not least of which because that 18-hour move cost well more than the original estimate so money is, if possible, even tighter.)

So, folks, give me some advice. What do I need to do to get my groove back? How do I find the mental focus to do marketing and promote myself and my business when all I really want to do is curl up with my dog and a good book (and some homemade goodies) until things start feeling normal again?

Can a Game be a Story?

j0399835My father is a puzzle to me. He watches sports for entertainment, for example, and when I protest that I prefer watching something with a story, he tells me “It’s all about stories.” He believes (I’m guessing) the strategies and the occasional player biography means that watching the events of a game unfold makes it a story.

This logic of his makes no sense to me.

Saying that a football game is a story is like saying a rainbow is a poem. It can inspire one, certainly, it can become one, but it is not one while it is happening.

The story is what happens later, when you’re TELLING what happened. The event itself is no more a story than the list of to-do items in your schedule is a journal. (Although I’ll grant that the instant replays can qualify as anecdotes–little, mini-stories.)

A story isn’t a story until you define it by the explanation of what happened and why.

Think about history. You can look at it and figure out how the pieces fit together to make the Battle of Gettysburg or the discovery of penicillin possible at just that moment in time. While it’s happening, you might get that little frisson up your spine of “We’re making history, here” but what you’re doing is participating in the events that become history.

When you tell it to other people, it becomes history–before that, it’s just current events. A sporting event in progress is just a game. You don’t know the story of the game until it’s over.

Mind you, I’m not saying there aren’t any similarities.

When you watch a sporting event, you do have many of the features that make for a good story–you know who the main protagonists are, and are usually rooting for one of them. You have the rush of adrenalin at knowing something is going to happen, but not knowing how it’s going to play out. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the people in charge are trying to plot for every possibility. Presumably you’re interested in the outcome, or you wouldn’t be watching at all. And, of course, you want to know how it turns out.

But it’s still not a story. It becomes a story later that day when you tell a friend, “I saw the best game today! Our guys were down 5-to-2 and it didn’t look like they could possibly win, but then…”

See, Dad? Even the most exciting event–the birth of a child, a marriage proposal, a successful defense of your country, the final game in the World Series–is just an event.

It doesn’t become a story until you tell it.

Lost Your Train of Thought?

You know how it is when you have the perfect word on your tongue but you can’t. quite. get. it. out?

It happens to me when I’m writing all the time.
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So, what do I do?

Trusty Thesaurus:
Well, there’s the thesaurus, of course. They can be handy if you can think of similar words, if not the right one. “Not angry, not mad, not upset … just … irritated.”

Sounds like…
Try to sound it out. Have you done this? The word is right there, where you can practically taste it, so … you do. “Does, doesn’t, doormat, doorbell, … dormitory!”

Spelling Bee
Spell it out. You know it starts with an S or an S sound … what comes next? A? E? Some other vowel? Maybe a consonant, like a P or a T?

Substitutions Allowed
Settle on a similar word and hope to come back to it. When you’re writing (or even more when you’re speaking) you can’t wait forever for the right word to come along. At some point you really need to move on or you’re not going to simply lose the word you need, but your entire train of thought is going to pull out of the station and leave you stranded with nothing more than a dime in your pocket and drained batteries in your cell phone.

Walk Away
The most extreme option, but … you can simply drop the entire thing. If your mind’s blanking on a word because you’re really too tired to be working, or you’ve been working for hours, the best thing you can do is leave. Yes, in mid-sentence. Maybe you’ll want to scribble a brief, faulty sentence so you can find the thread you were weaving when you come back, but at times like these, sometimes your best choice is just to stop altogether and trust that your brain’s neurons will be firing better when you come back.

How about you? What do you do when you can’t quite nail down the word that you want?

Writing Makes Everything Possible

So, Joanna wants to know how writing makes things possible?

Well, duh, Joanna.  What DOESN”T it make possible? (grin)

Writing makes everything possible.

For example:

    Writing down instructions on how to build things.
    Writing down instructions how to do things.
    Writing down lessons for children so they can learn.
    Writing down ideas for children so they can think.
    Writing down the hard lessons for adults.
    Writing down advice to make those lessons easier.
    Writing down wisdom from generation to generation.
    Writing down stories to inform.
    Writing down stories to entertain.
    Writing down stories to escape.
    Writing down history so it won’t be forgotten.
    Writing down possibilities so they can be met.
    Writing down dreams so we have something to aim for.
    Writing down anything we can imagine so we forget our limitations.
    Writing down our hopes so that we don’t let our disappointments tie us down.
    Writing down our wishes so that we know exactly what we are trying to accomplish.

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Writing–just the mere act of putting words on paper–shapes the possibilities of our lives. Things we’ve learned. Things we want to share. Things we want to pass on to other people and other generations. Ideas. Philosophies. Poems. Emotions. Stories. Drama. Comedy. History.

If there was no language, we’d barely be able to communicate at all–certainly not the grand, huge, bigger-than-life things that make exploring life at all worthwhile.

But, if there were no writing, how would we share these Ideas between generations? Would the world still know that Galileo proved the Earth circled the sun? Would we still know about Socrates? Plato? Aristotle? Would Americans remember the ideals the founding fathers fought for in 1776? Would the Magna Carta be as bold an example of democracy? Would we even have democracy in any form? Would there be art? Would there be any point to anything other than mere survival? Would we have gone to the moon? Explored the world’s oceans? Been able to build a ship in the first place?

Writing–the mere act of putting words on paper–makes everything possible.

Amen and Hallelujah.

You Can Lead a Dog to a Story…

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You may think that, as the writer, when you tell a story or write an article, you are leading your readers exactly where you want them to go. But is that really true?

Have you ever watched a dog out for a walk?

The person walks along in a straight line, glancing around a bit, but not deviating from the path. If there’s another person, they’ll be having a conversation, but very little attention is paid to the actual walk.

The dog, on the other hand, is busy. Sniffing around, veering off the sidewalk, looking for squirrels, and generally immersed in the Walk Experience. He doesn’t care that it’s almost the same walk as it was yesterday. The smells are still there for the sniffing. The sun is just as warm on his fur. He is out of the house and doing something fun, where anything can happen.

What does this have to do with writing?

Too often as writers, we get so wrapped up in trudging along the same old path, talking amongst ourselves, that we take for granted the wealth of possibilities around us. We come, we write, we get the job done, and then we move on.

But, to our readers, it’s all new. The stories and articles we write are filled with potential, like that moment in a movie theater when the lights dim and you are facing two hours of possible greatness. A reader opening a book, or clicking to a blog post, is ready and open to being entertained, or informed. Their eyes are open to possibilities.

It doesn’t matter if your mystery’s villain is predictable, or that your inspirational posts (cough) are trite. (Well, okay, it matters a little, but still.) You don’t expect to finish the latest John Grisham book feeling blown away with its originality. You’re reading John Grisham because he brings familiar things to his writing–his style, his vocabulary, his characters. The situations may be new, but the stories are familiar.

Just like walking around the block.

Your job as the writer? In this regard, it’s twofold.

First, provide the story. Just like your dog can’t enjoy his seemingly boring, every-day walk around the block on his own, you have to WRITE the story/post/article/essay for your readers to have someplace to go.

Second, let your readers bring themselves to the story. You might feel like the last thing the world needs is another romance novel, or how-to blog post, but every one offers the reader something they can’t get anywhere else–a chance to interact with you and your writing. For example, a scene you thought mundane might resonate because your reader had done something similar. Maybe a bit of throw-away dialogue might exactly mimic the fight they just had.

And, if your mundane writing efforts can resonate that way?

Think what your best work can do.

Talk about happily wagging tails.

Really, It’s a Puzzle

CB039684It’s puzzling.

One of my responsibilities at my day job is writing and designing the company newsletter. Since newsletters, even the best of them, can be boring, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to put something in each issue that clients would want to look at. A reason to open the pdf that shows up in their mailboxes.

So I added a monthly puzzle.

The type of puzzle varies from issue to issue. I’ve done basic word-finds, as well as crossword puzzles and sudokus, but also double acrostics and labyrinth puzzles. Anything I can think of.

I was working on this issue’s puzzle the other day–a labyrinth puzzle. The player is faced with a grid and a list of words, and must put the words in the correct places on each line so that, a path of shaded squares leading from the center will spell out a sentence, a clue to the key of the puzzle.

As the puzzle’s creator, I know exactly what that key is. I know what the clue needs to be to solve it, and all I need to do is lay out the grid and pick the random words accordingly.

Really, it’s a lot like plotting a story.

In fact, I think the reason I’ve enjoyed doing these puzzles all these years is because I like knowing the answers. I like having the inside knowledge as to how everything works together. You can layout a crossword-puzzle grid like a Scrabble board and then, when it’s full of interlocking words, you come up with the clues … but unlike everyone else, you know exactly what the finished puzzle is going to look like. Or you plot in all the words for a word find and then throw in random letters (or, better, almost-words to through the puzzle-seekers off). Interested in Sudoku? Fill in a completely blank grid and then subtract numbers to the minimum needed for solutions.

Puzzle-creating is backward-engineering.

You start with the solution and work backwards to what will be the beginning point for everybody else.

The tricky part is that you have to be careful. If your clues are too obscure, nobody will be able to solve the problem. If there are too many complex steps, the players will be scared off. If it’s too hard, they won’t play at all.

Similarly, when you’re writing, you know exactly where you’re going, and you need to take your readers along, step by step.

If you throw too much at them at the beginning–too many facts, too many characters, too many twisting, winding paths embedded with clues–they’re going to get lost or give up. You need to make the early clues easy, to draw them in, get them hooked. If you need a Phd to solve a crossword puzzle, the puzzle’s creator has failed. (Unless the puzzle was designed strictly for, say, a specific university department and is meant to be highly detailed, but you know what I mean.)

Plots, like puzzles, need to hold together under scrutiny. All the pieces need to interlock correctly so that the finished piece can stand on its own, even if a reader has missed a clue. You can make them as multi-layered and complex as you like as long as you never, ever, ever forget that you have to make the ultimate solution accessible to a reader who doesn’t know all the ins and outs of the story like you do.

You are the mastermind, the puzzle master, but if you make your puzzle impossible for everyone else, you’ve failed. If your plots are too outrageously complex, or if you make a crucial step too obscure, you’ve failed. Your object, as the creator, is to be standing at the finish line, at the center of the maze, ready to congratulate your readers as they arrive.

In other words, writing is exactly like creating a puzzle.

See? Maybe this whole plotting business isn’t as puzzling as you thought!

What do you think?

Wanted: Literary Agent of My Dreams

42-15646853Wanted: A Literary Agent Who Will Love My Book as Much as I Do.

I’ve tried those online dating services, like Writers Market.com, but still haven’t found The One yet. You know, the Literary Agent that will read my entire manuscript and be so enchanted that she or he will go to any lengths to put it in the hands of just the right book publisher.

Sure, there are dating services that promise to help match me up with just the right Agent, but that process is so sterile, so cookie-cutter. It can work, of course, and I’m not knocking it–you have to do what works for you–but my experience has been disappointing. The search criteria meant to help pinpoint just the perfect agent seems less than helpful. Too many of the suggested agents aren’t accepting new clients, or only clients that have been recommended (an option that WM doesn’t seem to have a filter for).

And then, the bullet-list feel of some of the entries, that just list a series of genres, without saying what the agent actually likes. What’s with that? If you’ve got a science fiction novel and they say they like sci-fi, that’s great, but how do you know what kind of sci-fi they like? I entirely understand a person (and Literary Agents ARE people) having a variety of interests, but bullet-lists just don’t cut it for me.

No, the mix-and-match online services just don’t seem to be working for me. I want to find the Literary Agent of my dreams naturally, you know? Bump into her at a coffee shop, get introduced by a mutual friend. Maybe we could both be reaching for the same book at a bookstore, and our eyes will meet, and she’ll say, “That’s one of my authors, you know.” And then I’ll say, “But, I LOVE her. She’s such a strong influence on my own novel.” “You have a novel?” she’ll ask, eyes kindling with interest …

Too romantic, you say? No such thing, say I! A relationship between Author and Agent should be so much more than a contract for mutual benefit. It should be more meaningful. Just because it should be profitable for all parties concerned doesn’t mean that there should not be fun, affection, and passion as well.

I’m not looking for just any Literary Agent. No, I’m looking for one who will read my book and fall in love with it, like I did. I’m not saying I want him or her to be blind to its faults (I’m sure there are some), but if she can’t see the wonderful points, why should either of us bother? I don’t want some fly-by-night business relationship, I want the kind of long-term partnership I’ve heard other authors dream of. And yes, I mean Partnership. Equal give and take, support, mutual esteem, respect, and … did I mention the fun and passion?

Because, let’s not forget, I’m looking for someone to help guide the interests of my baby, my 124,000-word collection of inspiration, wonder, hard work, and perspiration. I don’t want just anybody taking care of it. I need The One. Someone who will be as committed to its care, feeding, and welfare as I am … and who will be as delighted as I to see it grow and prosper.

Is that really too much to ask?

Where the Action Is

Do you prefer stories where the bulk of the action, the stuff that drives the story, is external to your main characters? Or do you prefer internal engines?

Engines make a good metaphor, here.

CB035862Imagine your story is a boat. You need to get it from point A to point B, but there are options as to which way the story can go.

External Drive

Your story could be an action-packed thriller where your boat is buffeted by storms, swamped with waves, attacked by sharks, all before the navigation system fails and the mast breaks.

At this point, your characters are so busy trying to deal with the repercussions of events, they don’t have time to sit and think philosophical musings on the purpose of life, or what they had for lunch, or even question which decision to take. They have to act, and act now!

These kinds of stories can range from the action-adventure style where things like breaking masts and shark attacks literally happen in the stories. Characters are held at gunpoint, flooded by hurricanes, have their homes invaded by armies.

The action can be more subtle, though. Your story doesn’t have to be what we think of as “action-packed” to be driven by events.

Your characters may be dealing with a fatal illness. A series of small events like flat tires and having the ATM machine swallow their bank card could add up to a bad day. Your character could be George Bailey, trying to get out of Bedford Falls but always dragged back by the struggling Savings and Loan.

These stories–the ones driven by events–are the kind I think of as being externally driven. Your story is the boat carrying the cast, crew, and purpose, but all they do is react to events. They may have a destination planned, they may get along or not get along, they may be calm and purposeful … but ultimately, whether they arrive or not is dependent on external forces and how they deal with them.

Internal Motors

Or, perhaps, your characters know that the ocean breezes are determined to steer them off course, and instead set out in a high-powered, strong-engined cruiser that doesn’t need to turn aside for anything. Sharks? Ha! We laugh at the puny sharks following in our wake.

DTR043Stories like these are driven by the characters. By their interaction, their purpose. Things may happen around them, but they don’t change the characters’ direction.

Your character may steadily go to work day in, day out, timely as clockwork, but the entire action of the book comes from the vivid imagination churning away inside his head. Your story might describe what appears to be a perfectly ordinary weekend of chores and family get-togethers, but the years-long bitter struggle between the main character and her domineering mother is what the story is all about. They might sit calmly together, sipping coffee, and all the action is in their heads, and in the way they pointedly do NOT talk to each other.

Stream-of-consciousness books are excellent at this sort of thing. Heck, some of them don’t have a discernable plot at all. Plot? What plot? We’re all about emotion and character interaction. Deep feelings, and subtle glances. Our characters sit and chat about the meaning of life rather than ever getting up and going bowling.

Stories that are purely driven by internal engines often look boring on the surface–the water is one, constant flow of waves sparkling in the sun, and while the ship sails onward, it looks the same on page 427 as it did on page 3. All the action is happening down in the engine room, in the galley, under the calm, hypnotic surface.

Or, They Can Be Both

Truthfully, I think the best books are the ones that are prepared for both. They set out into the literary ocean prepared with sails, back-up engines, lots of provisions, and keep their eyes peeled for circumstances and adventure.

CB008907I get bored with books and movies that are all about physically reacting to Events. I always want to know what the characters are THINKING after they’ve diffused the bombs or saved the baby from the fire, but there’s never time. There’s always one more crisis. The heros there barely have time to say, “Thanks, partner,” after she tackles the maniac with the gun instants before he was ready to shoot. And that “Thanks, partner” is about as deep as it gets.

The books that are ALL about feelings and emotions, on the other hand, frustrate me in other ways. They’re the fictional equivalent of watching paint dry. In fact, there are stories that follow a painter through his day of stirring paint, applying primer, eating lunch between coats–all while he muses about his ex-wife’s having run off with his best friend, and wondering whether they’re going to paint their new bedroom, and if they might accidentally trip and drown in it, and at least he still has his dog waiting at home. (Yawn.)

No. Upon reflection, I like stories that do both these things.

Stories that set the characters on course with a good stock of provisions. That is, a back-story, a purpose, a set of friends and foes, and enough skills to get to wherever they’re going. And then things happen. The author throws in a phone call about a daughter’s car accident. The protagonist learns his ex is getting married, or his house catches fire. Someone plots to kill the President and only he sees the way to save him–but how can he do that and make it to his son’s wedding, too?

These are the stories that are interesting. Where events happen, and characters react, but they also ponder the repercussions of their acts. They think about how they’re going to explain themselves to their spouses, they have the awkward conversations, their knees shake after the President is safe.

Ultimately, the best stories are the ones that not only have action, but which have the emotional committment to make them meaningful. Why do you think action-adventure movies almost always have a cute child to be saved in the nick of time?

Word Tailoring

I have a confession to make.

I am BAD at being succinct. Short. To the point. Direct. No wasted syllables.

j0439391 See? I couldn’t even say that without extras!

Now, is this a terrible flaw? No, not really. We have a running joke in my family that my father has to strain to tie two or more sentences together when he writes, whereas Mom and I can blather on and on (and on). Melissa had a challenge once to write a 100-word sentence and I just sailed right past the goal without having to catch my breath.

(Hmm. Now that I think of it, this might be one of the reasons I talk so quickly.)

For me, first drafts of anything are always filled with lots of extra words. Adverbs, for example. I find I use “really” to excess. I’ll have run on sentences, digressions, and add ons. Like this. All sorts of verbal blatherings splashed all over the page, vomited up from the dark spaces in my head as I dredge up ways to talk about whatever I’m writing about.

It’s like the geyser of a new-found oil well–very exciting to have, but kind of messy until you get it under control.

In terms of creativity, work flow, and spontaneous, natural writing, this is good news. If one of the rules of writing is to write the way you speak, I’m doing just fine, and everybody knows getting the first draft on the page is the hardest part.

The problem is that a First Draft is Not Good Writing. (Please note the capitals denoting “important life rule.”)

Have you ever gotten a new suit or a dress that needed tailoring? The basics are all there–the fine fabric, the basic shape, the general idea of the garment. But. It’s not quite right. The sleeves are a little long. It’s too broad in the shoulders, or it needs to be taken in at the waist. Hemming is almost always necessary.

Without these adjustments, you’ve got something that’s sort of okay. You can buy a garment off the rack at the local department store and have something you can wear, but to get something that fits and flatters perfectly, you need to tweak it, adjust it, tighten up the loose spots, get rid of the excess bits, change the length. With these adjustments, you’ve got something fantastic.

Same thing with first drafts. You need to cut out the extra wordss, move things around, tighten the focus.

In other words, strive for being succinct. No wasted words. No unexpected detours. Be short, direct, and to the point.

You know, like me.

Shoot for the Moon

201px-Apollo_11_insigniaIt’s one thing to talk about goals and plans, but there’s a difference between discussing something fairly straight-forward that you plan to do, and talking about The Dream.

You can talk about how you’re going to write a 400-word article, or how you hope, by the end of the year, to have an article published in a magazine, or will have finished your novel. Having plans with reasonable goals is good.

But sometimes, you have to shoot the moon. You have have to reach for the stars. You have to go for the gold. You have to pick the cliche of choice and just … go for it.

Dream the big dream.

We’ve had wise and brilliant people telling us for centuries that we are only limited by our own imaginations. External circumstances can affect us, sure, but we only truly fail when we accept that we have failed.

Or when we haven’t challenged ourselves at all.

So, today, on the 40th anniversary of Mankind walking on the moon, stop to think … what big dreams do you have?

Are you thinking about writing an article? Why not dream about it being published by Time, People, or Smithsonian?

Are you thinking about writing a book? Why not dream about it being on the NYT Bestseller list?

Are you thinking about starting your own business? Then dream about it being so wildly successful that you’ve just bought two homes and are turning clients away.

As President Kennedy said in his speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

This is a time of challenges for all of us, but ultimately, our only limits are the ones we allow ourselves to be limited by.

earth_riseThere is no dream too big to be dreamed.

There are no wishes too big to wish.

We may not be able to accomplish everything we hope for–world peace, prosperity for everyone, an end to disease and suffering–but they are worth fighting for. Dreaming the Big Dream is what makes us human. It makes us visionary. It makes us limitless.

On this day, on this anniversary of the day that mankind actually walked on the moon–something inconceivable for most of our history–take a moment to ask yourself: If I could do anything at all, what would I do?

And then? Ask yourself what you need to do to make that happen … and do it!

Reach for the stars.

How Not to Get Hired as a Writer

CB040400 Last time, we talked about the ways you could preserve your anonymity by keeping your precious novel untouched and unpublished, but what if you don’t write novels? What if you write other things, like articles, press releases, and other types of non-fiction? How can you make sure that they stay unpublished?

Silence is Golden

This one’s simple–If you don’t tell anybody that you write, nobody’s going to ask you to write for them. If you don’t want to be pestered by paying clients and publishers, eager to have your words gracing their promotional materials, simply don’t tell them you could–you know, like a doctor keeping his profession to himself at a cocktail party if he doesn’t want to be asked for free advice.

Declare Yourself

(But do it very, very quietly)

Maybe you have announced that you’re a writer. You like the sound of it, you enjoy the idea of it, you like bragging about it, but you just don’t want to have to do any, well, work. So, this is ideal. By avoiding doing any promotion or any advertising, by not sending out queries, samples, resumes, and business cards, you can enjoy the idea of writing without ever having to prove that you can.

(While you’re at it, feel free to call yourself a designer, too. Or a photographer. Musician. Magician. Whatever you like. So long as you’re never called on to prove that you can, feel free to claim any skills you might want. What harm can it do?)

Lose Friends and Alienate People

If you appreciate the “loner” aspect of writing, you’re going to enjoy this avoidance tactic. If you make yourself as unpleasant to work with as possible, it won’t be long before even those few, hardy souls who offered you a writing gig will be running, screaming, in the other direction, swearing never, never again. Be rude. Be nasty. And if you get the chance in person, blow smoke in people’s faces. Soon, nobody will want to come within 50 feet of you or your cellphone and you will be left in blissful peace.

Don’t Follow Through

What if you have prospects who simply cannot be discouraged by generally obnoxious behavior? The next step is to be thoroughly unprofessional as well as obnoxious. Don’t return phone calls or emails. Never follow-up on a lead. Make promises and then neglect to keep them. If you can manage to add in long trip where you are completely inaccessible, or a houseful of teenagers who are constantly on your phone and computer, you get bonus points for originality.

Be a Bad Writer

This may be too obvious even to list, but if you are truly a bad writer, chances are you will easily avoid the hassle that comes with being successful and sought-after. If you’ve been coerced into agreeing to write something, then hand in truly shoddy, sub-standard work–writing that is not only bad, but is patently nowhere near the word count you promised. Misspellings and bad grammar are particularly useful, here, especially if you use the kind that would easily have been caught by the most basic of spell-check programs.

See? It’s just as easy to be unpublished and unhired in the non-fiction world as in the fiction world. All you need to do is follow these few, simple rules and you will have all the time to troll the internet and play video games that you want. It’s not like anybody is going to pay you to do anything else, right?

How NOT to Get Your Novel Published

Internet securityI’m practically an expert on this subject because, even though I’ve had a completed manuscript since the late 90s, I remain an unpublished novelist.

I know, it’s an impressive feat, right? I bet you are just dying to know all my tricks so that you, too, can be an Undiscovered Novelist!

Don’t Finish Your Manuscript

    This, of course, is the first and easiest way to remain Undiscovered. If you don’t write it, nobody can read it, and your anonymity will remain intact.

Write a Terrible Novel.

    This is the second-easiest method. If you’ve written a long, droning, boring, pointless, ungrammatical mess of typescript, the chances are good that nobody, but nobody, is going to pay you for the privilege of publishing it.

Really, though, those tips are for amateurs. Anybody can claim to be a novelist and then not carry through by writing an actual, well, novel.

The real challenge for being an Undiscovered Novelist is to actually HAVE a completed manuscript, one that is good, interesting, and entertaining, one that has real character development and depth, and a multi-layered plot that all ties together. A masterpiece, that is, or at least something that is good.

To have all that and still remain unpublished is tricky. It takes a master of evasion. An expert at avoidance. That’s where my distinct talents come into play. Because, naturally, my completed novel is wonderful. Every time I pull it out of mothballs, it makes me laugh, smile, cry, and tingle all the way to my fingertips, it’s so darned entertaining. But, you know, that’s my little secret, which brings me to tip number 1.

Keep it a Secret

    Obviously, the most guaranteed way to remain Undiscovered is simply to never tell anyone that you wrote a novel. You can keep it, tied in a ribbon, tucked under your pillow until the day you die, and nobody will ever know. Then, when your heirs, stifling sobs of grief, come to clean out your house, they will find it and, sitting on the edge of your bed, find themselves entranced and wondering, “Why did he never tell us?” At which point you can become the posthumous John Updike and your heirs can all go on Oprah to talk about what an unappreciated genius you were.

Expect Too Much

    Or, maybe you’d actually like to be published. You think your manuscript is the bee’s knees and that it should be published … but you expect the world to come to you. Maybe you casually mention it to a publishing acquaintance, expecting them to kneel and beg for the privilege of seeing your manuscript. Or, perhaps you send out one or two query letters, fully expecting to be the instant object of a bidding war. At this stage of the publishing process, an unfettered ego is definitely going to help you remain Undiscovered for a long, long time.

Be Lazy

    You may have heard that you need to send out query letters to literary agents, manuscripts to publishers, phone calls, emails, follow-ups … The surest way to ensure that you never get anything published is to neglect these. Send out a couple queries, and then, exhausted from your labors, rest up for the next several months. After all, you’ve heard that people in the publishing industry are perpetually busy (bless their hearts), so it’s really just polite to give them plenty of time to respond, right? And why send out another batch of queries until you’re really, really sure that the first set is dead? It’s best to give it several months, maybe a year, just to be safe.

Don’t Follow Up

    Okay, you sent out several queries, but you haven’t heard anything. (Yay!) Naturally, since you know how busy everybody is, you wouldn’t want to nag them, so … that’s it. You just leave well enough alone.

Give Up

    This is the easiest way to remain Unpublished and Undiscovered. You’ve sent out a slew of queries, samples, even full manuscripts, and you even went to the trouble to follow them up to make sure they had arrived and were being read (that very minute, no doubt), but you still haven’t been inundated by offers. That makes this easy! You simply give up at this point. You tried, right? So, you just … stop.

I should warn you that this last option can come at some cost to your ego. If you do, in fact, know that your manuscript is dripping with pearls of wisdom and contains some of the finest verbiage since John Grisham or Shakespeare first put pen to paper, it may be hard to believe that nobody is knocking down your door, trying to get to it. Why wouldn’t they? At some point, you may start questioning whether it’s the fault of your prose. (Nah, couldn’t be.) Or … maybe it’s your fault for giving them a clear run to your door? You didn’t make sure enough of them knew the book existed? You didn’t tell the right people?

Hmm. See, at this point, when you KNOW your novel is brilliant but it remains unpublished, you’re left with two choices.

  1. Assume that it’s your fault for not trying hard enough, or
  2. Accept that it’s Just Not Meant To Be and start polishing your “I Did It!” button because, congratulations! You are still Undiscovered and Unpublished!

And, really, isn’t that what you wanted?

(Your turn, folks. What tips did I miss?)

Putting Together the Pieces

051109_0008
Do you know what my favorite part of writing fiction is?

Putting the pieces together.

See, the best fiction … heck, the best writing … starts with a single germ of an idea. Something that sparks. Something that sets off a chain reaction.

If you’re lucky, that one thing is GOOD. It’s beautiful and holds together and deserves to be part of something bigger. But one good idea isn’t enough to make a story.

051109_0007
You need to start putting it together with other pieces. Pieces that compliment it. Pieces that help make that little idea GROW.

These include things like:

Three-dimensional characters. It’s characters that make a story interesting–if you don’t care about the people, who cares how brilliant the idea of what’s happening to them is? I’m a lot more likely to keep reading a less-than-stellar book if I care what happens to the characters, than to find out if the earth is going to explode.

Plot points that are interesting, creative, and believable (at least a little bit). You can be writing romance, mysteries, thrillers, or science-fiction, it doesn’t matter. What happens in your book has to make sense within the boundaries of your book. If your characters have superpowers, that’s fine, but make sure the rules are consistent. Your romantic leads can have a “cute” meeting, but don’t stretch my gullibility too far.

051109_0001
Because, little by little, as you add pieces and thoughts, your idea can grow into something bigger. Something you couldn’t have seen coming.

The best books, the ones I personally love the most, combine characters that I love (or at least, who evoke an emotional response, even if it’s hate) and that I’m interested in, and to whom interesting things happen. The more multi-layered and seamlessly woven a plot is, the more I like it, but it has to WORK.

All the pieces–the plot, the characters, the scope of the story–they all have to fit just right, like a jigsaw puzzle to be perfect. (Let’s not forget good writing, too, huh? Fascinating characters and an elaborate, perfect plot still won’t keep my interest if the actual writing is terrible.)

051109_0006

Because, when it all fits? When everything holds together, it’s like magic. One loose thread, one bad connection, and the entire thing can fall apart.

The act of finding and creating all those pieces, though? I love that part.

Is What You Write More Important than How You Write it?

Write the Way You Talk

RF4536233You have heard this “rule,” haven’t you? It’s all the rage these days. Internet gurus tell their initiates that all they need to do to gain thousands of readers or sell gazillions of widgets is to simply Write the Way You Talk. They insist that a dependence on grammar rules is not as important as simply saying what you need to say, without getting bogged down by pesky grammatical details.

This is a topic that actually gets discussed in my house. When my father gets some kind of marketing piece that sounds convincing and interesting, he doesn’t let a few mis-spellings or grammatical no-nos get in his way. After all, you don’t need to have been an English major in college to know good business, right? A go-get-’em entrepreneur isn’t going to let concern over the placement of an apostrophe slow him down when there’s money to be made and people to sell. His feeling is that a person’s verbal skills do not necessarily reflect their intelligence (true) or their competence (um…).

But What about the First Impression?

My mother and I, on the other hand, feel that sloppiness in the sales materials implies sloppiness in the product–or in the salesperson. That, if you can’t be bothered to proof-read the copy that’s supposed to convince people to buy your product, how can we be sure that the product is any better?

All in all, it brings up an interesting dichotomy.

Now, I’m the first one to admit that I may be more of a stickler than other readers (cough). But then, I like things neat, tidy, and organized. Piles of papers have to have their corners aligned. Crooked pictures drive me batty. I like things to be correct, accepting no substitutions.

Do You Have to be Correct to be Good?

I know, of course, that people and their writing are imperfect. I also fully embrace the fact that “good” writing is not necessarily the same as “correct” writing (especially in a sales pitch). Finding one typo in an email emphatically does not make me assume that the writer is an incompetent, lazy slob who dozed through English class in 7th grade. It just makes me assume the writer is human–which is preferable than one that is, say, a computer, or inhumanly perfect (because that would just be annoying, really). A breezy letter with a folksy tone wouldn’t sound right in itself without contractions and a certain amount of casual grammar usage.

But when there are multiple errors, and the apostrophe for “don’t” is after the “D”, I really start wondering about who is writing this thing. How smart can they actually be if they cannot spell “your” correctly?

Have you ever gone to look at a house and been greeted by a whiff of cinnamon, or baking bread, and thought “Wow, this is fabulous. So welcoming! They obviously know what they’re doing.”

First Impressions Do Matter

It all goes back to that First Impression business. A person in a suit is going to be taken more seriously than a person in a clown costume. (Crazy, right?) A house with a tidy yard is going to look more appealing than one that looks like a junk yard. A shiny, polished, immaculate car is going to inspire more interest than one that looks like it just came out of a war zone.

You don’t have to be perfect. But it never hurts to look like you know what you’re doing. And if you can’t string four sentences together without egregious abuses to the laws of grammar, you’re not going to inspire my confidence.

Social Media 101

Hey, look at that … I have a guest post over at SocMedia101.com.

This site, if you don’t know, comes from the brilliant minds of Julie Roads and Ron Miller and is devoted to helping people (especially new people) navigate the waters of the social media river.

voicefront-300x231Confused about Twitter? Wondering about Facebook? How about LinkedIn? (I know I’m still trying to figure that one out.) Well, this is the place to go for answers.

Not only that, they’ve got a brand-new, free eBook out called Finding Your Voice in a Crowded World. I helped proof-read it for them, so I was one of the first people to read it, and can vouch for its helpfulness.

Go! What are you still sitting around here for? (grin)

Internal Entertainment

Another thing I’ve been thinking about, about writing:

It’s internally created entertainment.

Now, of course, there can be a difference between the fun kinds of creative writing and the obligatory kinds of drier, business-types of writing. But still, I find that dredging words up out of my subconscious can be remarkably satisfying all on its own.

The tricky part–for me, at least–is how easily my internal entertainment can be over-ridden by external entertainment.

In fact, it’s quite appalling, how easily I’m distracted sometimes.

I can’t do creative, fictional, write-a-story writing with the television on. Or with any kind of vocal music in the room. Or in the next room. My brain too eagerly latches onto words, and if I’m listening to or focusing on someone else’s words (like, say, lyrics), I can’t hear the words whispering in my head.

twoIf I’m thinking about other stories, I can’t generate my own. Lately I’ve been more or less obsessing on Chuck, my favorite television show. It’s “on the bubble,” as they say, and it’s ramping up to its season finale in two weeks, and until I see how they end this season and I find out whether NBC is going to renew it, I’m having a hard time thinking about anything else without having a scene from the latest episode pop into my head, or one of the songs (from its great music selections) drift into my ear. I’m kind of obsessed, because the story they’re telling has gotten even more multi-layered and intriguing, my brain just can’t let it go.

But, see? That’s the thing–I’m letting external sources of information derail my concentration on the internal.

I’ll start working on something–a marketing piece, a blog post, a list of instructions–and then I’ll get mentally distracted, hijacked, by my own brain deciding to think about something else. The book I was reading at breakfast. The song that came up on my MP3 player as I got to the office. The tv show I watched last night.

It almost doesn’t matter–the problem is that it’s a story, or words, that someone else wrote that is keeping me from focusing on my own.

So, what’s a writer to do?

My most drastic solution–and one which I find almost impossible to actually do–is to put a moratorium on all external forms of entertainment. That is, no television, no reading, no movies, no music.

That’s pretty much impossible, of course. (And, no, I am NOT skipping the last three episodes of Chuck, I don’t care how much writing I should be doing.) And, really, having a musical ear-worm playing in my head isn’t necessarily THAT distracting. What I truly find distracts me the most is a good story, so it’s eliminating those that helps the most. I have managed to give up reading fiction for brief periods of time. (And, if you knew the kind of reading habit I have, you would realize how hard that is for me.)

By eliminating the distraction of the story someone else is telling, I find it easier to hear the words in my own head.

Otherwise I spend so much time analyzing plot devices, story twists, unexpected developments, foreshadowing, and all the other hints and games that writers like to play, that I can’t think of my own. I can’t focus on how to get my own characters from plot point A to plot point B if I’m thinking about the way Chuck found his Dad and discovered why he had left his family 10 years ago. I can’t lay out my own step-by-step campaign if I’m mentally charting all the steps that the Chuck writers put down over the last season to get to where they are now.

It’s only by reducing the external clamor for my attention that I can truly focus on the words hiding deep in my head.

This is a fault of my own, of course. I used to have a longer attention span than I do now. That’s something I have to work on. (It’s the “shiny object” syndrome coupled with the fact that so many media these days focus on “short and snappy”. Soundbites. 140-character posts. 30 second ads. We’re not trained to think about any one thing for more than 10 minutes at a time. But that’s another story.)

The point is that my biggest distraction when I’m trying to write is not actually external distractions like my dog barking, or the television. It’s my own brain, sabotaging me by THINKING about those things later on that causes me trouble.

There are times when I truly miss my attention-span.

Anyway–how do YOU eliminate the external distractions when you’re trying to write?

(Oh, and incidentally, if you don’t watch Chuck, you should! Here are my reasons why. And the online buzz has gotten really loud lately. The show airs on NBC on Monday at 8:00–just about the hardest time slot–and is great fun. And, well, I AM trying to get as many people to watch as possible, before they’ve made their official decision as to whether to renew it or not, so … time is of the essence!)

Right to Write Right

j0387299I’ve seen a couple posts floating around the internet lately discussing whether the ability to write well is necessary, or even desirable, for someone who wants to write a blog.

It should be obvious that I’m going to come down on the “Yes, it’s necessary” side of the fence. After all, my entire blog started with the intent of encouraging correct writing behavior.

That said, however, I completely understand that there are plenty of people who don’t have a complete grasp of grammar who can still write entertainingly and informatively. There are plenty of blog-writers who play fast and loose with the rules of grammar that they know, just because they don’t feel it’s necessary. (God knows there are grammatical rules that I choose to ignore from time to time.)

There’s a difference between Technically Correct writing and Good writing.

You can program a decent computer to construct correct sentences. You can also program a computer to double-check your own spelling and grammar, but we all know how that goes. You turn on your Grammar Check and you start getting all sorts of complaints about perfectly valid usage, either because you’re writing by more casual rules, or because the computer has forgotten that starting a sentence with “and” is no longer forbidden (if it ever truly was).

Lots of good writers ignore the grammatical rules that irk them. It’s part of the fun. It’s a huge part of the creativity. If you constantly adhere to all the old-fogey kinds of rules, your writing is going to read like a boring text book, and who wants that?

So, in that regard, I’m fine reading blogs by people who end sentences with prepositions, use em-dashes too often, and occasionally mix up the proper usage of who and whom.

But. They have to make it worth my while.

If you can write an entertaining, funny, informative, enjoyable, worth-my-visit blog, I’m not going to quibble over your grammar. I’m not going to be a stick-in-the-mud over occasional typos. I won’t leave snide comments pointing out that you said “between you and I” when it should have been “between you and me.” I’ll accept those as minor, personal quirks, as if you were a friend whose shoelaces are constantly untied, or whose hair is always a mess. I’m not about to toss out a perfectly good friend because their attire isn’t perfect, or their house is a mess.

You can’t be too superficial–especially if it means tossing away something that’s solid gold.

Here’s the other secret, though.

I still want you to TRY.

Quibbling over minor errata is fruitless, especially if it can risk an otherwise fun and rewarding relationship (even a cyber one). But if your writing is so bad that you come across as if you don’t care? Like you ignore the rules because they’re beneath you, beyond you, above you, or just plain unimportant to you … I’m not interested. That’s the kind of friend who is so self-involved that I’m supposed to be honored that they’re talking to me at all. The kind who wears either outrageous, clashing clothing to draw attention or who hasn’t bothered to bathe in days. You know, because it’s all about them.

These are not the kind of people with whom I care to spend my time.

Ultimately, of the several hundred blogs that I read, the vast majority of them are written by literate people who can construct full sentences, usually avoid profanity, and generally type without resorting to constant emoticons and cutesy abbreviations. They are intelligent people who are funny, interesting, and wise, and are just the kind that I’d choose to spend my time with if, you know, they lived anywhere near me (grin).

My main criteria as to whether somebody needs to write “well” in order for me to read their blog?

I’m not worried about the building blocks. I’m more interested in what you’ve made with them.

If your writing is technically shaky but still entertaining–we’re good to go. I can’t say fairer than that, right?

(Yes, mixed metaphors galore, but hey. I never said I was perfect, either.)

What do you think about this? Is good writing necessary to your blog-reading experience?

Pet Names

I was just writing a response on a message board, and found myself typing, “In theory, the publisher can…

Not a shocking phrase, really, except that I used “in theory.” This is a verbal tic that I’m told I use a lot.

I think the reason is that it’s a round-about way of making suggestions without being bossy or strident–just a way of putting the idea out there without being pushy. (“You know, in theory, if you open the lid first, it’s easier to get the peanut butter out.” Or, “In theory, you could just call and ask…“)

But REALLY, it’s a Pet Phrase.

CB040720You know the kind I mean. The word or expression that slips out of your mouth every third sentence. “You know,” can be one.” Or constantly using “Dude.” I know that I throw the word “really” into far too many of my own sentences. I can’t quite help myself. It’s a pet.

Like any pet, Pet Phrases are comfortable, familiar, soothing–like scratching your dog’s ears when you’re stressed, or the way your hand automatically reaches for fur when you’re trying to concentrate. Pet phrases can help ease things along, provide comfortable places to end the sentence, like ending a day on the couch with your pet stretched out across your lap. “It’s been a long time since I started this article, you know.” The very fact that your pet is there when you need it makes it nice to have around. Friendly.

Or Lazy. The dangerous thing about having Pet Phrases isn’t that you use them; it’s that you get so comfortable with them that you not only use them too much, but that you’re not using anything else.You become so complacent with how your pet phrase sums everything up  (“yadda yadda yadda”), you stop trying, stop actually working at your writing.

You’re no longer just ending your day on the couch, you’re there all the time.

It’s true that pets like routine. They need regular attention to keep them happy and healthy, to keep them from becoming spoiled monsters. There’s nothing actually wrong with having and using a Pet Phrase (as long as it’s not an objectional one, of course).

What you have to beware is your Pet Phrase becoming the kind of spoiled monster that wreaks havoc when you try to leave it alone in the house, or that makes your guests uncomfortable when they visit.

If I were using “in theory” in every paragraph of this article, it would become obnoxious. It would be drawing attention to itself so that you were paying more attention to IT than you were to what I was trying to say, like a spoiled cat jumping in your lap (even though you’re allergic) with your host not even trying to shoo the cat away.

A well-mannered Pet Phrase can help move things along, and (in theory), makes the visit pleasant for everyone. But an intrusive, ill-mannered, Pet Phrase that’s in your face constantly is just going to make life miserable … and a miserable reader or client is NOT going to come back for more abuse from your Pet Phrase, no matter how cute it is.

Do you want to spend all your time apologizing for your Pet Phrase’s misbehaving?

Of course you don’t! So, get training for your badly behaved Pet Phrases now!

Sit, In Theory, Sit! Good phrase!

Anticipation

In honor of the fourth annual Bloggers’ (Silent) Poetry Reading (which I participated in last year, as well as in 2006, 2007, 2008 over at my knitting blog), this year you get a Very Special Treat.

A poem that I wrote.

This is a rare, rare thing. I like poetry in small doses, but usually don’t feel compelled to write it myself. The only time I do is usually during times of emotion stress–times when prose just isn’t expressive enough. And of those few that I’ve written, there are really only two that I’m proud enough to let anyone see.

Anyway, here’s one of them:


WAITING

By Deb Boyken

Anticipation tingles up my arms,
Dancing with light feet across my skin.

Anticipation plays up my spine,
Producing trills and thrills of a shudder arpeggio.

Anticipation shoots across my face, tiny stars
Burning my features into a taut mask of warmth.

Anticipation spurs my heartbeat,
Trying to hasten the minutes ticking slowly by.

Anticipation runs down my legs,
Racing muscles against tortoise time, crumpling my knees.

Anticipation races through my fingers,
Making them slip and stumble in their regular tasks.

Anticipation clenches my stomach,
Twisting fingers through my gut, pulling me forward.

Anticipation beats in my head,
Booming the rhythm: “not yet, not yet, not . . . ”

Anticipation stirs me, wakes me, numbs me, taunts me, frets me, mocks me.

My friend. My foe.

This morning’s constant companion.

An endless “soon” to live through, and then . . . !

Let the Yeast Do the Work

061508_0039 Writing is like bread baking.

No, really! Let me explain.

You start with the basics.

  • Yeast: The initial idea. The spark that’s going to make your writing grow into a loaf of bread. (Well, you know what I mean.)
  • Flour: This is the substance, the main argument. Really, without the flour, what’s the point of baking? Or writing?
  • Water: Flour may be the building blocks, the structure, but without the water, it’s going to fall apart. This helps tie it together, blend together
  • Salt: The extra zing that makes it come alive, that adds savor to keep it interesting.

Once You’ve Mixed Your Ingredients, You Need to Work It

061508_0022 Just mixing flour, water, salt, and yeast in a bowl is not going to automatically give you bread. You need to turn it out on the counter and knead it. Work with it, play with it. Stretch it, push it, tug it. The original ingredients just give you the potential. You’re the one who has to put it all together. It’s YOUR effort that builds the structure. Flour and water don’t automatically generate gluten–to get the right crumb, the right texture, it’s up to you.

You Need to Let it Rest

After you’ve worked and prodded your writing for a while, you both need to take a break. This gives a chance for the structure to strengthen and the flavors to meld. You’ll end up with something if you bake it right away, but if you want the real flavor and texture of good bread … you need to let it sit.

Likewise, with your writing, there’s a certain point where you need to walk away. After you’ve got your first draft on paper, and certainly before you hit “Publish” or send it to a client. This is your chance to check not only for typos and grammatical errors, but for flaws in the overall structure. How can you make it better? Is your argument faulty? Are you missing a key point? Taking a break is important … at least, if you want this to be as good as it needs to be.

Give it its Final Shape, and Then Let it Rest Again

120708_0102Yep. After you’ve walked away, come back and reworded your draft … do the same thing again. Walk away. At this point, it should be perfect and ready to go, but this is your last chance to get a fresh look.

Bake it Hot and Fast

A hot oven, some steam … Does this sound like the publication pressure cooker? You have to do it. It’s not officially writing until it comes out the other end. Whether that just means posting your new blog entry or sending the job off to a client, it’s not done until it’s DONE.

It’s true, there can be some problems at this stage. Your perfect dough can get scorched by a cranky client, it could be dropped on the floor by a careless one. They might decide that, instead of bread, they now want cinnamon rolls, and can you do that?

The Reward is Hot, Crispy Goodness

061508_0043This is the best part. After all the work, all the waiting, all the careful additions … at the end, if everything went well, you have a feast for the senses.

How satisfying is that?

Pulse Warmers

012209_0006 Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the most difference.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was sitting in my office, shivering in the draft coming from the door. I was wearing warm pants, wool socks, and a handknit sweater (made by yours truly) … but I was still cold. The frigid air outside was giving the heating system a run for its money.

So, I added a lace shawl and a pair of pulse warmers to the mix. Pulse warmers, or wristlets, are basically knitted tubes that fit over your wrists. Some are longer than others. Some are fingerless gloves, covering most of the arm from elbow to fingertips. But mine are short–about 3″ wide–and look almost like bracelets.

But, poof, in about 5 minutes, I felt warm. That little extra bit of lace around my neck, and a snug warmth over my wrists, and I wasn’t cold any longer.

The theory is that keeping your pulse points warm will trick your body into thinking all of it is warm. Something about your system then thinks that the extremities are warm, or that it encourages blood flow. I don’t entirely understand the science about it.

I just know that this simple thing can help me feel warm when it’s cold.

This, in turn, made me think about writing … the little things that can help the process along, even though they seem so small as to be inconsequential.

  • A sharp pencil point or a well-inked, non-blotting pen that fits comfortably in your hand.
  • A computer with a responsive keyboard. A monitor that is without glare and of sufficient size.
  • A comfortable chair that’s supportive without being so relaxing that you fall asleep.
  • A desk that’s just the right height.
  • A room or office with just the right amount of light, just the right temperature, just the right amount of background noise.

Keeping the pulse points warm is like providing a warm and cozy place for your Muse to ease the writing along its way.

What pulse warmers work for you?

Dumped On

IMG_0741 copy So … you had your schedule all worked out. Your plans laid, your priorities clear …

And then you get dumped on. Just like a snow storm came barrelling along to disrupt your well laid plans.

The roads are bad, slippery, messy, treacherous.

Suddenly, what was going smoothly and according to plan is skewing all over the place, skidding entirely out of control. You’re going in directions you hadn’t expected and have no control over it.

There’s shoveling. Lots of shoveling. Time-consuming shoveling!

Sometimes the only thing you can do when you get buried under mountains of paper, email, questions, research, and so on is to grab a shovel and start digging.

Take a snow day, and stay home where it’s warm and cozy.

IMG_0744 copy2When you’re hit with a blizzard of work, it’s tempting to just curl up and nest until the whole thing is over. Make some cocoa, and snuggle up on the couch with a blanket. Because, sometimes, an enforced rest isn’t a bad idea. If you’ve been working extra hard, having a reason to slow down doesn’t always hurt.

Or, you can just dive in and play in it.

Sometimes, the rush you get from jumping in and just immersing yourself in your project is more satisfying than giving up. Just accept that you’ve got snow (lots, and lots of snow) and don’t let it stop you. Let it inspire you.

Remember what it’s like to be a kid in the snow.

Now, you can’t compare a pile of work with the glee of a child who gets an unexpected day off from school. But … you love what you do, right? And you love the feeling of success when you’re so, so popular that you’re caught in a blizzard of work, right? So … have fun with the snow!

What do YOU do on a snowy day?

If a Writer Writes in a Forest…

So–there are lots of reasons to write. We’ve discussed this–there’s the whole, making-a-living thing. There’s the helping-yourself-think thing. There’s the I-have-no-choice thing. Right. We get that.

j0262322.jpgBut then there are writers who write because they want to, they’re driven, they’re inspired.

So inspired, perhaps, that they try to write an entire novel in a month. (Sound familiar, anyone?)

Here’s my question for you, about your writing … and I don’t mean the kind that puts dinner on the table, but the more optional kind. The blog posts. The journal next to your bed. Poetry you scribble in your darkest hours. The kind of writing that you do mostly for YOU.

Does it matter to you if anyone reads it? 

Much of this kind of “I wrote it for ME” writing is not meant for public consumption of any kind. It’s written as a release, a venting system for the writer. Or it’s a way of experimenting with new styles or techniques. Brain-storming to come up with ideas or work out a problem. All of which is helpful, but NOT what you want the world-at large reading.

But, what about the things you write that you’d like other people to read? A blog post that only gets 5 hits rather than the 50,000 you think it deserves? The deeply-felt letter to a friend that doesn’t get a response?  Does it dilute your sense of accomplishment and well-being if something perfect that you’ve written does not get read by anyone else? Or is it satisfying just knowing you’ve written it?

In other words–If a Writer Writes in the Forest and No-one Reads It, Does it Count?

Okay, everyone … discuss!

MM: Got Subject?

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You’ve seen the milk ads, right? “Got Milk?

Have you noticed that there’s no “subject” to that sentence?

Two words– a verb “Got” and a noun which is the object of the sentence, “Milk”–but neither of which is the subject of the sentence.

That, of course is “You.” As in, “Have you got milk?”

The very simple explanation for this is that the subject is understood, even though it’s not directly stated.

If somebody shouts “Run!” you can more or less assume that they’re talking to anybody in earshot, rather than taking the time to say “You in the yellow necktie, run!” It doesn’t make the sentence any less clear, really. It gets its point across.

If you are struggling with three bags of groceries and a kind person asks, “Need help?” you needn’t criticize him for his bad grammar–in reality, it’s just as good as his manners. The “You” is understood.

Of course, you can’t do this for every sentence that has “You” as the subject.

That last sentence, for example, would make no sense if I left out the “you.”

“Can’t do this for every sentence” simply doesn’t make sense. Who can’t? The cat? People under the age of 21? North Dakotans?

As rules of thumb go, never leave off the actual Subject of your sentence unless it’s quite clear who and what the sentence is about. But if the time and circumstances allow?

Go for it!

(Anything obvious I missed? Leave a comment and let’s talk!)

(And, in case you missed it, the last three sentences were all object lessons, just for you.)

Train of Thought to Nowhere

 

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Are you waiting for a train of thought that isn’t coming?

There you are, sitting at the station, waiting. And waiting.

And waiting.

But no train ever seems to come.

You’re not sure why, exactly. All the tracks are there, you’re ready and waiting … but there’s nowhere to go.

Maybe it’s not the train station’s fault?

Maybe it’s your fault for not going where the trains are.

Um, you know the old expression about being “all dressed up with nowhere to go?”

If you’re content to sit at a station that isn’t in service, how can you expect to get any service?

You have to go and FIND the service.

You can sit there as long as you like, but it’s not going to bring the train to you.

(This inspirational message is brought to you by Business Block, the sister company of Writer’s Block, whose motto is “You can’t build it if we don’t come.”)

MM: Important Bulletin!

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Bullet lists are all the rage these days, so let’s give a very quick overview about correct usage, shall we?

  • Each bullet should begin a new idea, or a new item
  • Unless every bullet is a complete sentence, you do not need periods at the end of each item
  • If at all possible, the bullets should be “parallel.”
  • That is, the grammatical structure should match:
    • Orange ball (Adjective noun)
    • Yellow sun (Adjective noun)
    • Blue sky (Adjective noun)
  •  Not random, unparallel construction:
    • Clear sky (Adjective noun)
    • Happily running (Adverb verb)
    • He laughs (Noun verb)

What obvious things did I miss? Thoughts? Questions? (I’m kind of tired, so really, anything is possible.)

Who’s Driving this Thing, Anyway?

Here’s a question for you:

What drives a writer to write?
More specifically, what drives you to write?

Let’s think ….

  • Inspiration. You just have to write. You have this burning need to express yourself in words, to put it all on paper, and you feel unfulfilled if you don’t spend some of your time with your pen or your keyboard. Writing is your life.
  • Money. Not to be mercenary about it, but you write for the money. You might be a novelist, a blogger, a copywriter, or a technical writer, but basically, you’re writing to put food on the table–it’s simply be a job. (Or a career, but that distinction is for another time.)
  • Order. Sometimes, putting things down on paper (or, on screen on the computer, of course), helps you make sense of the world. It helps you organize your thoughts, spell out a goal, identify the steps to that goal. Writing helps you get all your ducks in a row.
  • Thinking. Not to be confused with putting things in order, but just … getting ideas out of your head and safely contained on paper. Just the act of a free form flow of ideas, stream of consciousness, just letting words spill out as you try to summon up something creative or to nail down something complex helps you clarify and explore the possibilities.
  • Fun. Because you think playing with words is fun. Putting uncommon combinations together, playing with the sense of sounds as the words whoosh through your head. Finding new descriptions, analogies, metaphors and even, God help us, new puns … just because it’s mind-stretching, vocabulary-busting, good-time-having fun thing to do.

Then, there’s my favorite.

Because you CAN. There is so much bad writing out there. Websites. Books. Magazine articles. Emails. Ads. Flyers. Signs. Blog posts. Forum messages. So many of them are, well, bad. Poorly conceived. Grammatically shaky (at best). You might restrain yourself from mentally editing the–they’re not worth your time–but you do mentally congratulate yourself for knowing that you can do better.

I don’t mean in the armchair-quarterback kind of way, where you put down a practically illiterate book and think, “I can do better.” No, I mean where you actually DO better. Where you actually WRITE, instead of just talking about it.

Because you can’t be a writer if you don’t write.

So–did I miss any reasons? What other reasons are there to write?

MM: Claustrophobic?

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Does the thought of talking about sentence clauses make your eye twitch? Well, let’s see if we can’t make this a little simpler for you.

We have talked about basic sentence structure over the last two weeks, and how all a sentence really needs is a subject and a predicate–either simple ones, or compound ones..

This is quite simple, really, but does help explain why clauses can seem confusing … because that’s what a clause is, too. Any group of words with a subject and a predicate.

Um, right. So, if a simple sentence and a clause have the same definition, why isn’t a clause a sentence?

The quick answer is because we don’t talk in simple sentences. At least, not past the age of three. If you look at the nearest book, you’re not going to see many (if any) sentences that are made up of a simple subject/predicate combination. Most of them will be just a little more complex than that. Words combine to become clauses; clauses (can) combine to become sentences.

There are two types of clauses: main and subordinate.

A Main Clause can stand on its own. Put a period at the end of it, and you have a complete sentence, no confusion.

  • My dog is really tired.
  • We took lots of great pictures.
  • We have lots of storage space.

A Subordinate Clause, however, depends on the main clause to make sense.

  • My dog is really tired and I am, too.
  • We took lots of great pictures, then the battery died.
  • We have lots of storage space, but it’s filled with books.

In each of these examples, the first clause is a complete thought–it works on its own, or with a subordinate–but there’s no confusion either way. That’s why it’s the Main clause.

For the Subordinate clause, though, even though there is a subject and a verb, it’s incomplete without the clarification of the main clause. The “I am, too” in the first example works just fine–you know that my dog is tired and that I am too (possibly from a busy weekend for both of us), but without knowing what I had to say about my dog, you would have no way of what “I am, too” meant.

Similarly, “the battery died,” could mean almost anything. The battery in a clock? Radio? MP3 player? Computer? Pace-maker? But with the main clause mentioning taking pictures, you can narrow down the options to, say, the batteries in a camera, or maybe a flash or a light. And if I walk up to you, tap you on the shoulder and say, “It’s filled with books,” you’re going to be a little confused, aren’t you? It’s okay, you can admit it, because there’s no way you could know what was filled with books. A desk? A bookcase? A closet? A box? All of the above? (In my house, yes, all of them, and more.)

That’s the beauty of Main and Subordinate clauses. They work together, but one of them always takes the lead, becomes more important. As long as the leader is there, everything works smoothly, but without the leader to point the way, the subordinates are just random bits and pieces without anything to give them clarity or a sense of purpose.

MM: Compounding Interest

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Last week we talked about Subjects and Predicates–the very basis of sentence structure.

Today, let’s talk about Compound Subjects and Predicates.

Basically, if there are two or more subjects to the sentence, you have a Compound Subject:

  • Running laps, doing push-ups, and eating well are all good for your health.
  • Boykin Spaniels and American Water Spaniels are similar dog breeds.
  • Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are known as the Three Rs.

If there are two or more predicates, you have a Compound Predicate:

  • Exercise is good for the heart and helpful for weight control.
  • Dog breeds can be very different and still have similar characteristics.
  • Education is best when it is varied and wide-ranging.

Naturally, you can combine these to have compound subject and predicates in the same sentence! (Oooh! Advanced sentence-assembly. Please be sure to have your protective helmet in place to make sure your brain doesn’t explode.)

  • Jogging and dieting have done wonders for my waistline and improved my cholesterol counts.
  • Boykin Spaniels and American Water Spaniels may be similiar, but for me there’s no comparison.
  • Reading and writing are fundamental to a good education and vital for communication.