Self-isolating before it was cool…

Over on Words Mean Stuff today I’m talking a bit about how to keep the days from blurring together while we’re under ‘lock downs’, ‘stay at home orders’, and other schedule killing effects of the Covid -19 crisis. As writers, we have a leg up on this. If we writers want to be successful, we need to have a hand in controlling our schedules no matter what’s going on. We need to be putting the work in on our writing. And, this crisis lends itself somewhat to the more isolated parts of the writing process (unless you have spouses, kids, and pets (actually, if you have a spouse, kids and pets I’d love to hear how you deal with the more isolated parts of the writing process!)).

The crisis can be helpful by encouraging us to write, and work on writing related tasks. But we still need to mark and differentiate the days. One simple (and sometimes overlooked) way of doing this is putting in some planning and scheduling for our writing. A second (and related) method is tracking our progress.

One reason these techniques get overlooked is a desire to “just dive into the work”. Well, don’t do that! Spend at least a little time looking at what you want to do with a project. Set some parameters and goals. Define what you will do and how (and when) you intend to do it. And then keep track of the progress you have made.

By having a plan and keeping track of where you are in relation to that plan, you can replace some external schedule and time markers we’re all missing during the Covid crisis. It’s also a skill set that will help you find writing success when there isn’t a crisis keeping us in our homes. It’s a skill set that helps us to master ourselves and our lives no matter what our conditions are.

In my experience (and the experience of those I’ve talked to) one major cause of the days blurring together is the difficulty of measuring the passing of time and feeling like we’re not getting anywhere. When you create a plan for your writing and measure your progress, you create a way to measure time and build your sense of accomplishment. You might just learn something.

(For some of us the best thing we can learn from this is how to handle multiple projects (something I should really come back to in this blog…))

The writing life demands both community and self-control. And the current world situation really emphasizes the self-control end (while leaving us wishing for more of the community). We have an advantage as writers, the self-contained part of what we what we do fits well with this temporary ‘new normal’. Using and developing our planning and working skills will help us get through.

Good luck in your writing dear reader. I’ll see you next post.

Controlling the uncontrollable

“One of my characters and I have spent years trying to tell thunderstorms when and where to thunderstorm,” with that thought I realized a big piece of why it irritates me when people try to dictate (or even interfere with) when and where I write. I’ve spent years trying to control this, channel it, and now someone wants to come in and change it?

Words come at weird and inconvenient times. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, you haven’t been seriously engaged in writing for very long. I have found those “Aha!” moments popping up in the shower, while driving, during meals, and at “annoying o’clock” in the morning. And I’m not the only one. One of the best, most important, and most powerful things you can do for yourself as a writer is to make sure you have a way of remembering those thoughts and words, and recording them promptly.

If you don’t record them, you lose them; that’s just the way it works.

Another of the best, most important, and most powerful things you can do for yourself as a writer is to train yourself (and those you live and work with) to a writing schedule. It won’t protect you from those random thoughts while soaping up or trying to sleep, but having a regular writing schedule and a good place to write, that suit what your working on, makes writing much easier.

When you train yourself to a schedule, you are providing a regular time to get writing done.

When you “just wait for the mood to strike me” you never really seem to get around to writing. You definitely never get around to editing (which is usually less fun in the first place).

When you find or create a writing space for yourself, and use that place for writing, you create environmental stimuli that help your mind understand “I’m supposed to be writing now”. You might even bring in or create stimuli that help you find ideas and solutions to writer’s block and other problems, or help you get your emotions in the right place to do writing work (even editing!).

It’s about creating opportunities for the words to come. It’s about making a place for you to communicate your passions, to tell your story.

And sometimes we have to defend that time and space.

Now, I’m not giving anyone permission to go spastic on a spouse, child, or neighbor. But there comes a time where you need to calmly stand your ground and explain to someone that you are working. You are getting productive and useful things done, and those things need to happen.

You also may have to be a little flexible. If the house is burning down and your wife is having a baby, please call the fire department and take care of your wife. The universe understands and the words will come back (if they were really meant to be). Other times you may need to do things like use the bathroom or rebalance the load in your washing machine (or deal with some other nerve jangling non-sentient stimuli).

The point is to create a time and space where you usually can get some decent writing done. There will be times you don’t get much done, but if you succeed more often than not, you’re winning.

This is the same logic as my decision to average at least a thousand words a day. Ok, Monday this week I got zero words. Tuesday, I got around 1,750. Wednesday, I topped 2000! As long as you’re averaging at or above your goal, you’re doing ok. And looking at the average helps fight the idea that “Ok, that was word number 1,000. Time to turn my brain off!”

Ideas come at weird times. You need to be ready for them. You can help them come more regularly by creating a scheduled time and a familiar place in which to write.

And sometimes you will have to teach those around you that this is your writing time and space, and they need to respect that.

Well, dear reader, I suspect we should both get back to writing now. So good luck. And I’ll see you next post.

A modelers tool for writing projects

As a kid I made plastic models. At first, before I knew better, I threw away the leftover bits and pieces. That was before I learned to keep a parts box…

One of the best lessons of my years making plastic tanks, jets, and other models was that serious modelers keep a parts box, a place where they store those leftover bits and pieces. Why? Because sometimes the extra bits are useful in making other models. If you have extra parts, you can customize kits and experiment with techniques cheaply and safely. Having and using a parts box gives you options and helps you develop your skills.

The lesson of my parts box paid off for me as a college student.  When you’re doing psychology research, you need to run statistics, and big stats packages like SPSS and SAS frequently require you to do a little coding to do the big heavy-duty analyses. Some of my fellow students dreaded those big analyses. Not me… I saved my code and re-used it. For a lot of the big analyses the code is fairly similar. So, I could copy a previous use of the same test, modify it, and have the new test ready much faster than if I had tried to code it from scratch.

Over on the fiction side of the house, the concept of the parts box is still helping me.

When we edit, we sometimes struggle with those bits of writing that we love, but know we need to cut. It can be hard because you don’t want to lose those little gems, even though they don’t fit the current story.

Well, with a parts box (in this case a folder on your hard drive/cloud/flash drive) you can save those bits. And, after you’ve saved them you can use them!

Are you looking for inspiration? Need a writing prompt? Climb around in your parts box of fiction pieces you already love (or at least find interesting). Odds are that there will be something in there that works for you.

Are you stuck on a scene? Maybe the solution is already in your parts box. It’s just like back in the old days with plastic models; if I’m stuck I can ask myself “Do I have one of these already?”, and then go look.

The concept dear reader, is to create a place to store those bits that are too good to throw away, but aren’t necessarily useful right now. If you’re in this business long term (and most of us who really write are) they will be helpful eventually, and they’re easy to store (and if you can figure out a good naming and organizing scheme, they can be fairly easy to find!).

I practice what I preach dear reader (or at least I try to…), and a writer’s parts box is helpful. In my first “one and a half pass” through the novel I’m working on I’ve found over a dozen ideas that I should really explore in short stories of their own. Putting them in the “box” means I don’t forget them and I can use them to both expand my world and fill those times where I’m really having trouble finding something to write (it happens…).

It’s not an absolute “have to”, but it’s an idea I encourage you to try. And, I think I’ll go crawl through mine to see if I can find a little help for this next chapter.

If you have questions or experiences with a writer’s “parts box” I’d love to discuss them with you. And… I’ll see you next post.

Scrivener… after NANO thoughts (part two)

Last week {link} I started my after NANOWRIMO review of my experience with Scrivener. This week we’ll pick things up where we left off and start with the things I really appreciated about Scrivener during the first draft process.

Chapter titles and finding stuff (organizational help)

Last week I mentioned that the way Scrivener handles documents and folders can cause some headaches in dealing with titles and finding things. But there’s positive power in Scrivener’s.

Because of the way Scriver handles document, folders, and chapters, it becomes easier to go back and insert that piece you know really belongs between chapter 2 and chapter 3 but you didn’t come up with until you were working on chapter 9.

Because of the way Scrivener works, it is easy to move parts and pieces around. I find I’m much more willing to move things to where they should be because there is less effort involved. If I decide that Chapter 14 should really be chapter 3, I drag and drop. I don’t have to worry about changing all the chapter numbers because that will happen later during a compile (and without me having to lift a finger or click a mouse!). It is also easy to combine or split up parts of a chapter (even when you’re importing that chapter from some other program…).

One of the data views in Scrivener is note cards on a corkboard. And, it is just as easy to move your stuff around in the program as it is on a real corkboard (actually easier because it’s a drag and drop versus shifting all the cards).

Compiling and formatting (with stuff you’ve written)

As I mentioned, chapter numbers happen during the compile process (and happen mostly automatically!). There’s more to it than that. When you compile, you can compile to a standard manuscript format, just compile to print, or several other options (including an E-book format).

If you put in the time you can even create custom formats to compile to.

You need to learn what the different formats do, and maybe even tweak them for your purposes. But once you put in the effort to learn, formatting becomes fairly effortless. You don’t even have to worry about ordering those chapter numbers.

And, you can simply and easily create several versions in different formats; if you’re self-publishing you can create the print book and E-book versions at the same time. (Gee… I remember when I used to pay someone to make the E-book…)

Statistical information

Besides being a writer, I’ve got a degree in psychology and have a deep love of statistical information. Scrivener provides a variety of statistical information about your work, including things MS Word and other packages don’t…

Scriv example

As you can see you get a typical word count and character count for the whole project (the parts marked for compilation at least…). But you also get page counts both in standard manuscript and novel formats. You also get these statistics for the specific text document you’re working on within the project at the same time. That means all you have to do is open a document and get statistics on it, along with information for the project as a whole. No more “highlight the whole section you want a count on” headaches…

Seriously, the statistics options make it easier on writers who want to make their chapters relatively consistent, and give you a better feel for exactly how big your novel would be as a standard paper back. The information makes it easier to figure out where you are in some real-world aspects of your book.

Keeping it all together

I mentioned that things within a Scrivener project can be marked for compilation or not. This is powerful because you can tailor things for different packages and audiences. If I was using Scrivener for a business plan, I could do tailored sections and keep them all together in one unit while only printing the ones I want for the particular audience I’m providing the plan for. The money folks get more on the financials. The marketing guys get more details on how to sell what we’re making or writing. And I don’t have to have multiple versions of the business plan lying around and wonder which one is which.

Within a Scrivener project you can also add notes and research information, including PDF documents… That means those of us working on a well-researched book or a doctoral dissertation can include the research information we use and cite within the project. No more trying to remember which article by that one scientist is the one I quoted! There are also options to interface with research packages like Qiqqa.

Summing up the positives

Scrivener allows you real freedom in writing a draft. You can move things around and don’t have to be as focused on final formatting while you’re doing a first draft. You don’t have to stress about chapter numbers while you’re trying to focus on getting the order right. I found myself more willing write directly into my Scrivener project than I have been with MS Word manuscripts because I knew how easy it was to move things if I wanted to and I could just focus on getting the words right without having to fool with formatting questions in the first draft.

I can also fiddle with different formats without too much effort (which is more of an editing thing, but helpful in figuring out what the $%@#$@@!!! I’m doing…)

I can also include my research, notes, and reference materials in the same package as my actual text. In practice that means fewer documents and “stuff” to worry about keeping track of, which is helpful since I like to let things settle a bit between first draft and serious editing.

There is a lot of power to be found in Scrivener, and that’s just based on a first draft.

Summing up (the big one…)

If you make the jump to Scrivener, you will have some learning to do.  A lot of things look different in Scrivener as compared to MS Word and similar programs. You will have to break or change some habits and develop some new ones. But Scrivener has been created for writers working on books, screen plays and other big projects. It has powerful tools that can be helpful and worth the effort to learn about.

Those are my thoughts about Scrivener now that I’ve used it for a first draft. We’ll probably come back to Scrivener and Scrivener issues in March or April (after I’ve had some experience editing in Scrivener)

In the meantime, do you have any thoughts on Scrivener? Any questions? If so, leave a comment. And either way… I’ll see you next post!

Scrivener… after NANO thoughts (part one)

Last time I talked about Scrivener  I said I would get back to it after NANOWRIMO. So, that’s where we’re going today dear reader. Actually, we’ll be talking about Scrivener this week and next week, there’s enough to say just based on my first draft experience.

This still won’t be an entire, comprehensive review of Scrivener (I spent the last month writing a first draft not just learning a software package…), but I definitely learned some things during NANOWRIMO that have shown me a thing or two and will affect my writing process from here on out.

First… A general statement: If you make the jump to Scrivener from other programs like MS Word there will definitely some habits that need reshaping. The nature of the software is such that it works differently. But, if you’re going to work on writing a book, it’s worth the effort to make the change. Once you’ve learned to use Scrivener, some parts of the writing process become much easier. And… some specialized tricks and features available if you have both Scrivener and MS Word.

Next… The things I wasn’t fond of (but can live with…):

Formatting (While Writing):

The standard format that Scrivener works in is RTF and the screen view you see while you’re writing is basic and doesn’t reflect the layout that will exist on the printed page. This is something that takes getting used to., at this point in the game (working on the first draft and early edits) layout doesn’t matter as much for a book or story. There is enough editing and other moving around that needs to happen that you’re not seeing a finished product yet anyway.  Scrivener’s way of dealing with formatting has big payoffs later, but if you’re used to functioning in MS Word, or are a very visual person, this can be off putting.

Printing (a piece at a time):

Over the years, I’ve developed a habit of printing out the day’s written work and adding it to a physical copy of the book. Well, that gets more complicated with Scrivener. In Scrivener you need to compile before you print, so there’s another step. If you compile to print, there’s no dialog box to choose which pages to print.

Don’t get me wrong, you can tell it to print only certain sections of the writing but you have to make those selections before you compile to print. And, as a result, you don’t get the same pagination you would when printing a section of a Word document.

There are workarounds, for instance you could compile to a pdf and then print part of the pdf. But if you want to print the latest part of a work in progress on a regular basis, you might end up with a bunch of PDFs that have to be deleted or stored…

But, in the “print today’s work” method pagination can get off anyway if you insert a section between parts you’ve already written. So, you’re not giving up a lot. And, like I said, things will change between first draft and ready to publish, so the “print your daily work” method has pagination problems anyway.

Chapter titles and finding stuff

Within a scrivener project you have folders and text documents. For a fiction manuscript, when you compile the document the folder names become chapter names and the documents within the folders become chapter content. This can cause headaches when you have sub folders you forget about. You should also remember you need not type chapter titles into the documents within the folders.

Once you see how it works, it seems to work well. But, I still have to figure out headings and subheadings within a chapter (not so much for my mid-grade novel, but I’ll want them for other projects…)

Summing up the negatives

The issues I’ve mentioned are more about getting used to a different program and work flow. There are ways around them and ways to cope with them. Though it takes effort I think working in Scrivener is worth the investment.

Next week, we’ll look at what I really liked about Scrivener while working on the first draft process. If you’ve got any thoughts so far, leave a comment.  And, come back next week for part two!

Scrivener… Almost first thoughts

Early this year I rehabbed a laptop. I wanted a word processing program on it and didn’t want to pay for another MS Office license. So, I bought Scrivener, and then used my other laptop and desktop instead of the one I just fixed. Then, I learned a few things about Scrivener, and I kept using Word because I had too much to do to learn a new program.

But, in the last month I’ve wanted to work differently. Some organization features I’d heard about with Scrivener weighed on my mind. So, two weeks ago I pulled out the manual. And, I have to say I’m impressed.

What scrivener isn’t

There are some things it’s obvious Scrivener is not.

It’s not another Word/Open Office/Word Perfect style word processer. You can write in it, but it’s not a straight forward create a document word processor. And, that’s good. It’s a larger, more flexible, system that can interact with Word and several other products. It helps the writer organize and create, not just type.

Scrivener isn’t a linear tool. You could use it linearly, but it’s more of a pain than going linear with a standard word processor. If you’re just going to use Scrivener linearly you miss a lot of its power (and might as well go back to your wax tablet and stylus).

Scrivener isn’t something you can ‘just use’. You need to think about your project and how to use the program. Again, that’s ok! Actually, that fits with the principal we have around here that you should think about what you’re writing!

What Scrivener is (so far…)

I’ll be coming back to this. I can tell that already; this is just the start of the journey. Reading the manual and thinking about the way I write, I can see Scrivener has a lot of possibilities.

  • I can include all my notes and inspiration stuff in the project without having to include it in the draft.
  • I can do script stuff, book stuff, and HTML in the same program without having to worry about formatting issues.
  • I can compile (format) and print/export parts of the project in a variety of ways without having to mess with the main projects formatting (I can do E-book, print, and web formats with a few mouse clicks without having to screw up my main document).
  • I can easily create pieces, move them around and know what they are without having to read or navigate the whole thing.

Those last two really intrigue me for both blog posts and books. I can put a whole series of posts into one project and have them all in one concentrated, easy to find, spot when I’m adding to the series. I can add and quote parts with a couple of clicks. If I (and my readers) like a subject enough, I’ve got everything concentrated into one place and can move seamlessly from the blog series to writing the book.

I think scrivener will help me on new editions and rewrites of previous stuff. I can import the word files (and other types, especially RTF files) and then break them up and organize them better and a lot more easily than I could in old school word processors.

So far, having climbed through the manual and doing some initial experiments, I think there is a lot of power in Scrivener. I definitely think it’s a tool for serious writers to consider.

I’ll come back to this one after NANO (I’ll know more by then).

In the meantime, dear reader, do you have any thoughts, rants, or questions about Scrivener?

Leave a comment if you do. And, I’ll see you next post.

The 1 ½ pass pass rides again!

Well dear reader, this week I started on a dangerous task. I’m applying new techniques to old work. Recently I submitted my novel Unintended Consequences to a larger publisher. Part of my pitch was that Johnson Farm, my first novel, would be pulled, re-tuned, and updated. The idea is the entire double series will come out under one label.

Johnson farm was a first novel. It came out before I discovered the 1 ½ pass editing technique . It’s a little dated. And, I’ve learned a thing or two since I wrote it. Now, I’m re-editing and rewriting with new techniques and understanding. It will make the book better, but there are real challenges.

What challenges?

Well… I knew there would be updates for some real-world events and changes, and a few things that better tie in with Unintended Consequences and its sequel The Calm Inside the Storm.

I did not expect that I will be doing major rework on my ‘funeral’ chapter. I thought it was the most solid one in the book, and it was one of the first finished. But, I’m finding I may just have been afraid to cut into my ‘sacred cow’.

I definitely didn’t think I would rewrite the post log. When I did my initial work on Johnson Farm’s sequel Going Home the Hard Way I didn’t think the ending of Johnson Farm was a problem. I also didn’t know I would do a ‘side series’ that covered the time span in more detail.

I found those challenges reading the first 40 pages. Since then… I’m planning to split a major chapter and revise each half to better reflect themes in the book and create better tone for each piece. And, I still have the conjunction of Johnson Farm and The Calm Inside the Storm ahead of me (Monday will be fun! In a pass the caffeine and hide the sidearms kind of way…).

Next week I’ll start re-editing the old stuff while first editing the new stuff in parallel. This is where the 1 ½ pass technique will really help. It’s the point where things become really complicated.

Better techniques, better results

Johnson Farm existed before the 1 ½ pass technique entered my life. Editing the first edition would have been faster with the new technique (a lot faster…). Each pass would have taken longer, but I wouldn’t have had to do as many passes. I would have been able to work on big picture issues that crossed the whole book much sooner, because I would find them, think about them, and create better solutions all in one pass rather than taking two or three go-rounds to get them through my thick head. I could have skipped some intermediate steps that didn’t work because I could see the entire project better.

And the benefits keep rolling… Now that I will be editing the old, simple, one perspective most of the way story alongside a second text, the 1 ½ pass method helps because I need to do more meta thinking between the books and within each book. It’s hard to do that when you only work on one book at a time.

The coordination between books will make editing better and faster. It also boosts my confidence for the next step… When I resume work on Going Home the Hard Way while I’m doing the initial writing of the final book of the Unintended Consequences trilogy.

Learning new things, developing new techniques, helps us to do more, create better products, and do things we couldn’t have done before. It can be scary to open old wounds . But, sometimes coming back with new techniques helps us turn mediocre old stuff into something great.

Editing takes work and patience. Good writing takes effort and learning (not just knowledge but learning…)

It’s difficult dear reader. But, I’m doing it. And, so can you!

That’s it for this one. Good luck in your writing, and… I’ll see you next post.

Tools: organization systems…

Welcome to 2019 dear reader! One of the new things we’re doing this year is we want to use an FMP Instagram account to feature pictures related to the stuff we’re doing, and some pictures meant to provoke stories and ideas in the minds of our viewers and readers.

I’ve thought about using some of my toy collection in the pictures. But, it’s hard to do when you don’t have a schedule, and even harder when your tools (my toys) look like this…

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So… one thing I’ve been working on is organizing.

It’s a little too common to hear people saying “I don’t have time to get organized”.

If they actually took the time it would pay off.

It takes an investment of time, and often money, to get organized. But, every time I compare organized work to unorganized work, I find I can get more done when I’m organized. That initial investment pays me back fairly quickly, and well.

In fact, some of the benefits can be quantified (as I’ll show below).

In the Instagram example there are two kinds of organization we need: physical, and planning/chronological

Physical organization

It’s costing me some money (about $9.00 per container), but I’ve found a solution for organizing the bits and pieces I’ll use for the pictures.

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This method is costing money, but makes things much easier to find.

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And this technique is flexible, I can alter and expand the organization as I go.

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By taking this time now I’m making myself more willing to make the scenes and do the pictures.

And when I make the pictures, I can do them faster and easier. Because I can find the stuff I spend less time searching for the stuff.

I can even improve my pictures because I can see options I might forget otherwise.

Planning and time organization

As much as I love my bins and boxes I’ll never get around to doing the pictures if I don’t decide to do them and decide when they will be finished and posted. I also need to keep my decisions in front of me while I work.

My favorite tools for this (at the moment) is my Google calendar and task list. I can see how much time I have to get things done, and when things are due. They also help me figure out what parts to do when.

The tools help, but you have to get into the habit of using them and doing the thinking.

When you do the thinking, and then incorporate your decisions and plans into your calendar and task list, you are committing yourself to action. Committing yourself to action improves your chances of completing the task. Remembering that commitment (which your calendar/task list helps you with…) strengthens that commitment, and your probability of success.

Does it really help?

Yes, it really does. In fact, you can put numbers on it!

I finish 90+ percent of the things I put on my calendar, and maybe 50 percent of the ones I don’t

I can also get my pictures done faster, and as they say… Time is money. If having my toys organized saves me two minutes per picture, and I only do one picture per week that is a savings of 104 minutes over the course of a year (about 1.67 hours…),

If you figure 1.67 hours at the $15.00 minimum wage folks are talking about these days, that organization saves you $25.05 per year. Since I value my time above minimum wage, I save more. And, these numbers are for one picture per week. Some posts will have four or five pictures (plus pics for the blogs, etc.). When I figure in the value of my time and the multiple pictures per week, I’m definitely saving the cost of my boxes this year….

Getting and staying organized takes an investment, but doing it allows you to spend more of your time and money doing what you want and need to do in the long run. Saving that wandering and flailing around is worth it. So… I supposed I should get back to getting things organized and ready for the months (and books!) ahead.

If you have an organization technique you want to share, or a question about organization, let me know in the comments. I love responding to comments. And of course… See you next post!

Story in fiction and nonfiction

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is that nonfiction should be written so that it tells a story.

But… story is a fiction thing!

Actually “story” can be a fiction thing, but it is also a way of organizing information. In a story you have a beginning, middle, and end. In non-fiction you have an introduction, the thinky stuff in the middle, and a conclusion. The parts are similar and are used for similar purposes.

Whether you are doing fiction or non-fiction you are using words and ideas to move a person from a beginning point to an end point.

In both cases your beginning is a starting point, you need to catch the reader’s attention, acclimate him or her to the way you’re going to talk to her/him and instill enough faith in the reader that the reader will actually stick with you through the stuff in the middle to get to that endpoint.

In a fiction story that end point is a conclusion with a payoff (that pay off may be emotional, just having been entertained by a good story, or a range of other things). In non-fiction that conclusion might be a payoff (say being satisfied that you now know something), but often it is a CALL TO ACTION! In non-fiction you often want your reader to do something (buy a car, stop smoking, vote for XYZ, or…)

The stuff in the middle, the stuff that gets you from the beginning to the end, includes a lot of necessary information. The kind of information might change depending on what sort of story you’re telling, but fiction and non-fiction can share a lot here.

A how story (how to build a deck, how the Allies won in World War 2, how a couple of short, fat guys from a rural backwater saved the world by chucking a ring into a volcano…) is showing and teaching how something  happens. In this sort of story you are following logical steps from a pile of (literal or fictional) parts to a completed act or product.

A why story (Why you should vote for my candidate, why we should apply Feminist theory to the war on terror, why Jimmy the vampire chose to go vegan) explains the reasons for a thing happening. You might not follow a straight line from beginning to end on this one. You still have a starting point, but you don’t have to start with a stack of unassembled pieces. You can begin close to the end and catch the reader up to where you are. And then, with the built up momentum, move the reader to doing or believing something you want done or believed.

Fiction stories have a protagonist, that would be the ‘hero’, the person the writer is expecting the reader to follow and root for. In fiction the protagonist could be male or female, or for that matter a dog, a duck, a chicken or an anthropomorphized hunk of plastic.

Non-fiction writing generally also has a protagonist. This time we probably don’t have a hunk of talking plastic as the ‘good guy’, but we could have any of those others I just mentioned. In fact, the protagonist might be the reader. How will XYZ (if your name is Bob you can call him Bob. If your name is Juanita call her Juanita. Or whatever…) assemble that shelving unit? It isn’t going to happen by itself.

Story is a way of conveying information. It is a way of helping the reader follow what you’re saying from point A to point B. It is a way to present things so that the reader will find value in what you’re saying/writing and, hopefully, be motivated to do or feel what you, the writer, intended.

Like everything else in the craft of writing, story is something you have to learn how to use. One of the best ways to do that is to read. You will need to read in your genre to see what has gone before, but you may also benefit from reading outside of your genre as well. A good mystery story or medical drama could teach you something about how to write your trouble shooting text. A classic story of desire and obsession might tell you what you need to know to sell pizzas. On the other hand biographies and world history do drive fiction (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings… If you look for it it’s there).

We as humans love story. So, whether you write fiction or non-fiction, if you want to succeed with your readers tell them a story!

And, I’ll see you next post.

Team Oxford Comma?

I know… It would sound weird to my younger self too, but the deeper I go into writing and editing I’m gaining an appreciation for the Oxford comma.

Once, as a youngster, I learned that that comma before an ‘and’ in lists really wasn’t necessary. It was optional and something the old guys did, so I didn’t use it. That approach works just fine if you only worry about eggs, bread and milk…

But, what if you get into lists that are longer? What if you want to put things that are actually interesting into your list?

If you want to talk about red flowers, jewels that shine like the moon, the smell of mature pecan trees, and the fine sand of a South Georgia beach, then that Oxford comma actually becomes more appropriate and important.

The Oxford comma, along with commas that went to less prestigious universities (and yes even that one that just got its GED…), are used to help parse sentences and add clarity. They help break things up in such a way that you can figure out what the %^&^&%^&%#$#@$#@%$#@$@$!!!! the author is saying. No, you probably don’t need it in simple sentences and lists with single word items, but if you want to add clauses to a sentence, or use conjunctions, or use parentheticals without the parentheses, then you probably want to ‘open up a pack of comas’.

The point of the thing is clarity in your writing, and big complicated sentences call for commas. And, that means big complicated lists need that Oxford comma. It really does make things clearer; except when it doesn’t…

Sometimes, when you’re making those big complicated lists, you want to create a list of things that already have commas in them. That is when you dig out another old and misunderstood friend of mine, the semicolon.

If you are making a list of items like: military uniforms, in a range of colors and camouflage patterns; fireworks, including bottle rockets and smoke bombs; lunch bags, preferably with cartoon characters printed on them; and all the other things you need for the new school year, you really need something to help break up and simplify that list. This time even the Oxford comma can’t save you (it is well educated, but it’s not a miracle worker…). This time you need to add another punctuation mark to help organize your list.

I know. I know. There are things a lot more fun than punctuation out there, and punctuation has all these fiddly little rules… But, when you’re a writer the point is to write in ways that help your reader get the point; to write in ways that help him or her to understand what the #%#%$#^#$^#^#!!! you’re saying.

And dear reader, that’s why we do it. That is why we spend so much time sweating the details of punctuation in our writing.

And that’s why I’m finding myself on team Oxford comma. Just like any of us, I would really like to be understood.

Thanks for reading today. Keep those sentences straight. And, I’ll see you next post!