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.

Not politically correct, but…

Merry Christmas dear reader. Merry Christmas to all!

There are those who would tell me not to say Merry Christmas, that saying Merry Christmas is somehow offensive. Well, I’m not going to say they aren’t entitled to their own feelings, but most of the “Don’t say Merry Christmas” crowd that I’ve met either don’t understand what the phrase Merry Christmas means, or they don’t want you to have a Merry Christmas.

Yes dear reader, there are people in our world that don’t want you to have a Merry Christmas; there are people who don’t want you to have peace, joy and hope! But, to you and them I say Merry Christmas.

Christmas is a Christian holiday. I know that there are Christians among my readers. I also know that there are Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and many others… And I respect your rights to follow whatever faith you choose (if you’re at a place where you choose not to believe I respect your right to do that too…). I also expect others to respect the fact that I believe what I do. My beliefs come from a lifelong process of learning and seeking for understanding. I do not believe the things I do lightly.

Christmas is the celebration of a birth, the birth of a person who would spend his life teaching all who would listen regardless of race, gender, or social class. This person, our Savior, then capped those teachings with a personal example. He laid down his life for us and then took it up again.

To teach what you believe, even when it isn’t popular, takes courage.

To live the things you teach takes even more.

So, if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. I’m ok with that. I hope you change your mind but I’m not here to force or silence you; that’s against what I believe in. But please accept that I celebrate the life of one who “walked the walk” and “talked the talk”.  Please accept that I have considered beliefs and that when I say Merry Christmas, I am wishing you love, joy, and peace; and celebrating the life of someone who not only taught principles, but lived them.

I am also celebrating the fact that we (all of us) can practice what we preach. That we have the right and the ability to both say and do according to our beliefs and principles. That’s what Merry Christmas means to me dear reader.

And so, Merry Christmas. And, I’ll see you next post!

Audience expectations

Playing with what our audience expects can be dangerous. Sometimes you can pull it off. Sometimes it really backfires. This week we’re looking two audience expectation failures I’ve found.

Email oops…

First, early this week, I got an email from a spice monger I buy from. The first couple of lines were what you would expect, “Hey we have some great deals and a free offer!” Then, instead of telling me about the great deals and wonderful spices, the author hits me with two rambling paragraphs about the president and the Muller report before getting on with talking about the spices

I will not go into what I believe, or don’t believe, about the Muller report. This isn’t the place for it. And, an advertisement for spices wasn’t the place I expected to find it either… Mulling spice, probably. Mulberries, possibly. But Muller the ‘special council’, no.

The author was passionate about the report and presidential politics, but he was talking about them in the wrong place. At best, he got a “Huh, what?” response.

Or, he could get “this is click-bait $#$@#%@$#!!!” and the audience stops reading.

What if the author was actually successful with those paragraphs? The reader rages about presidential politics and forgets to buy spices!

We can, and do, have many interests and many things to talk about. When we are writing, or talking, we need to think about our purpose and what we’re trying to achieve in a piece.

If we’re here to sell spices, we need not talk about politics.

If we’re here to talk about politics who cares whether the Cumin is available in a quarter cup jar and the three-quarter cup bag.

And, if we’re supposed to be talking about either of those topics and somebody lurches into “why rainbow suspenders are cooler than bow ties”… Forget it! I’m out!

When you come to your audience with a topic and a subject line, you probably want to stay on topic (or at least explain why you’re changing topic and make  your topics somehow related…)

Video Voops…

Unfortunately, switching topics without a clutch isn’t the only way to offend your audience and violate their expectations.

One of the basic assumptions a good audience has is that you are a credible source. And if you mess with that belief you can get yourself in a lot of trouble.

Ok, in fiction we have the unreliable narrator, that’s a device authors can use in telling a story. It isn’t the author screwing up or failing to do research. It also isn’t the easiest technique to use in fiction. In non-fiction, it’s better to stay away completely.

The day I wrote this I watched a non-fiction video about exotic weapons and watched the narrator/writer’s credibility burn on impact. The problem: the narrator/writer put up a wacky old pistol design and proclaimed it had 20 barrels and 2 chambers. He then described the function of the mechanism, and just like his picture, his description proved he didn’t know the difference between a barrel and a chamber.

It wasn’t just a onetime mistake. He made the mistake three times in that description and then made it with multiple other museum pieces…

Ok, the gun community has debates and wierdnesses about terminology. In practice, the person on the street probably doesn’t care whether you call them clips or magazines (stay away from clipazines though…). If you really have to call a revolver a wheel gun I’ll try to be patient with you. But, when you describe things in a way that is obviously wrong, even to people outside the field, there’s a good chance you will come out looking like an idiot.

For other examples, just turn to the customer reviews at Amazon or other online sources. Somewhere, right now as you read this, somebody is posting a review calling a pipe wrench @$@#!!! because it doesn’t ‘hit down’ the screws right…

One of the basic audience expectations is that you have some basic knowledge about your subject.

In fiction, that means you know something about genre conventions and the lore of the world you’re in. (Please, please do not show up at the Star Trek convention and talk about the time R2-D2 piloted the Serenity straight into a black hole while Captain Reynolds watched from the Bridge of the Galactica…)

In non-fiction (and in fiction) you need to do your research. You need to have some understanding of the subject.

When you claim knowledge you don’t have, your readers will figure that out. Maybe not all of them, not right away at least, but some of them will figure it. And, readers talk to other readers, especially in the day of social media.

When your readers figure out you don’t know what you’re talking about, say goodbye to your chances to get them to do anything, and (probably) your chances of them reading something else you wrote.

There are times and ways to play with audience expectations, but going off topic unnecessarily or proving that you don’t know what you’re talking about aren’t good ones. The good ways of playing with audience expectations take skill and practice; and even then you only want to do it when there is a payoff for you and the reader.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If there’s something you’d like to say, or a way I can improve in my fulfillment of audience expectations, leave a comment. And, I’ll see you next post.

You need to say it…

Last week we talked about entry points and beginnings, about the need to understand your audience and how to bring them into your writing. This week’s topic is related: you might need to modulate how you say what you have to say, but say it.

Don’t insult your audience

Put consideration into how you say what you say. Language that’s too salty, too uppity, too complicated, or too simple will put barriers between you and your audience. You need to understand how to say what you want to say in a way that’s palatable to the reader.

There are social morays and ways of saying and doing things that need to be considered. Maybe you need to say ‘different’ instead of ‘no’. maybe you need to call before the kids go to bed (or after). Maybe you need to find an indirect way to say what you need to say. And, it’s hard to get any of that right if you don’t know your audience.

The point is, you need to understand how to say what you need to say; that doesn’t mean don’t say it.

Say what you have to say

Something I’ve noticed, something I can show empirically, is that when you (appropriately) come out and say what you intend to say, you get a better response.

Choking, shying away, or writing/speaking in half measures is something your audience can detect. And, when they detect it they will A) draw conclusions about you and what you want, B) recognize you are uncomfortable or lacking confidence, or C) both of the above.

No matter which way it goes, when your audience recognizes this kind of behavior, your position just got weaker; you made it harder for yourself to say what you intend to and get the response you want.

The idea of vaccinations is that you give the recipient a weakened version of something so they can build up a resistance to it. If you’re half stepping in what you say/write you’re doing the same thing to your own words and goals.

If you want to write, or just talk to folks, you need to have the courage to say what you intend, and the knowledge and wisdom to know how to say it. Sometimes you can just lay it out there, and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you may need to build a case. Sometimes you may need to apply a little patient progress and prepare your reader for what you will say. But, you need to say it.

Say it. If you don’t, it’s your own fault.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, but figure out how to do so in the right way for your audience. And, I’ll see you next post.

Beginnings and entry points

When I started Johnson Farm (my first published novel) I started with events found in the second half of the story as it reads today. Most my first ideas are in the story’s ending.

My entry point into Unintended Consequences (hopefully my second published novel) was, I thought, in the middle of the book. It turns out my entry point is actually the beginning of the second book in a trilogy.

A similar thing happened yesterday in a real life conversation, I had to help someone ‘catch up’ to where I was in a conversation so I could make my point.

As writers, this is something that happens all the time; the point where we enter a story is seldom correct entry point, the correct beginning, for the reader. And, the same thing happens in many real-life situations.

A customer may walk in wanting to buy a car, but that doesn’t mean she/he is ready to buy the car you want to sell.

You may need to explain to a doctor what symptoms are bothering you before he/she can find a correct course of treatment.

The students in your class probably need a review of previous studies and a transition into how that stuff relates to the current topic before they’re ready to move on to that capstone project about new material.

Understand who you’re talking to…

It’s said in writing classes all the time, “you need to understand your audience.” Well, here’s a practical example. If you want to persuade, or even entertain, you need to understand where your audience is coming from, and then set up the entry point into your story/lesson/sales pitch or whatever else you want to say or write.

If you’re telling a fantasy story, or a science fiction story, or a horror story or… You need to give your reader some idea of what the rules are before you dump things on them. (Not everything at once, but give them a starting point!)

In any story, fiction or non-fiction, you need to give your reader some orientation to where they are or what’s going on; even if that orientation is “Hey! You have no idea where you are or what’s going on!”

Sure, there can be a twist later. Sure, you can turn the tables on someone in a debate. But if you don’t give the reader/watcher/hearer some grounding, you’re not turning the tables or creating a satisfying twist. Without that grounding you’re cheating, or convincing the reader/watcher/hearer you don’t understand what the @!%”$#@$@$!!!! you’re talking about.

And that’s a sure way to make people unhappy. And unhappy people don’t buy books, do stuff you want them to, learn stuff, or share things with their friends.

But, how do I know where the beginning is?

Well, you might not when you start out. Once you have an idea you need to think about who you’re talking/writing to and figure out what the right beginning point is based on your idea and your audience. That might take effort. It might just mean learning about your audience and your idea.

Remember, texts and tweets are about the only place a first draft is acceptable, and even those first drafts can be iffy. It’s a good idea to think before you hit that send button or return key.

Get a little meta. Think about what your purpose is and who you’re talking to, not just your content.

In the last few years I’ve talked to several people about the subject of diabetes. One of the best started with, “So, what do you know about diabetes?’ The single worst started with hand puppets.

The presenter who asked “What do you know?” was coming in at the last minute and was doing an impromptu presentation. The one with hand puppets knew for at least a week that she was doing a continuing education class for a group of mental health and social work folks (most of whom had master’s degrees!).

It doesn’t matter how much time you have to prepare if you don’t think about your audience. If you don’t think about them and start at the wrong place, you will struggle.

It’s the nature of life dear reader. We love our own ideas. We understand our own views and positions better than those of others (If we don’t understand our own, it actively hinders us in understanding other people’s…). But, we can’t just assume that the person we’re talking to is at the same place. We have to find the right beginning for the person we’re trying to communicate with.

Otherwise, there’s a really good chance he/she will be too confused and annoyed to go with us through the whole story, much less to do something more.

Knowing where to begin is a success skill. It creates a foundation on which we build.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Find your beginnings, help others understand what you have to say. And, I’ll see you next post…

Not as good as an editor, but…

Even the best writer can’t go it entirely alone for editing. The best thing, the most helpful option, is people reading your stuff. The human eye and mind are the best tools for finding things you need to fix, and options and opportunities you missed. But, sometimes no one’s available, or sometimes you want to cleanup and edit before you show your stuff to anyone (I don’t even like to send texts without reading them twice…).

It’s still a good idea to find help…

You really need the help…

Some will try to rely on their own skills and resources. But, to be honest, I’ve met people that can’t get a 144 character ‘tweet’ right on their own. I’ve known good and intelligent people who find a 20 page paper challenging. And, if 20 pages (about 5000 words in double-spaced school writing or 10,000 in single spaced ‘legalese’) is challenging, how hard is it to work your way through a 50,000+ word novel?

At some point you go blind to the annoying little errors (grammar and spelling).

Somewhere else in the text you get wrapped up in the meaning of your thought, and miss those nasty little word substitutions (affect/effect, there/their/they’re, patients/patience…).

Somewhere along the line you miss the fact you ‘yada yadaed’ certain details and explanations that are clear in your mind, but the reader will want spelled out more.

It’s ok… At some point any writer’s brain gets a little overwhelmed with his/her own stuff. You have big ideas. You have passion. You are too busy looking at the forest in its entirety to see that particular tree.

What you need is help to see that stuff…

But, like we’ve already said, sometimes you don’t have the resources available (time, money, favors, people) to have someone read it over, or you really want to go over it and clear up some of those embarrassing little derps before you show it to anyone…

So, we bring in other resources.

Editing software

I’ve already talked about the voice input option in Google Docs, and some oddities of using it. And, I would wager that most of us reading/writing/thinking about this have met the basic tools in Word; Word’s clones; and other popular writing software, apps, and browsers. What we’re talking about here is something bigger and deeper.

After running into problems, and not wanting to let those derps slip through the cracks again, I checked out more heavy duty grammar and style software.

The two that rose to the top of my list were Grammarly and ProWritingAid. In both cases I tested the free version before deciding to spend money on something. Grammarly worked ok… But I wasn’t willing to go farther with it. ProWritingAid worked better for me, and I’ve got a lifetime paid subscription now (before I wrote this… this is not a paid add…).

For the users, fans, and makers of Grammarly, there are still times I recommend it; I think it is probably good for folks that are general purpose/basic writers. But, when I ran the same piece of text through both apps, ProWritingAid better matched my style. And, Grammarly has more of a tendency to be overly fixated, and over regularizes language structures in ways I don’t like (Grammarly’s way of handling commas was annoying, but your mileage may vary…).

In either case, the software helps fix the little stuff, the derps and glitches in style and grammar that are so easy to overlook while you’re focused on the big ideas. It spares you and your readers time and headaches looking for the nasty little typos and allows you to work on story and content.

ProWritingAid and editing a post…

As promised in Words Mean Stuff, here is me editing a post with the help of ProWritingAid. For the record, I use the MS Word add on version.

ribon

But, there is a web browser option too.

I do a couple ‘read and edits’ to get the ideas in place and get the ‘human eye’ stuff largely in line. Then, I turn to the software.

First, I usually get an overall report…

report1

This gives me an overall Idea where things are gives me an idea on where I am with style, grammar, etc. I also like the fact that ProWritingAid gives me an idea of the reading level for the piece.

reading ease

If I’m writing from the POV of a little kid, I like that number to be lower. If I’m writing from the point of view of a professional lawyer who teaches Shakespeare on the side… Well, in that case those numbers might get higher…

Then I go into the style and grammar tools to fix some of the biffs.

style 1

This gives me a list of stuff the software has problems with and suggests fixes. Usually there are some I agree with and follow, and others I don’t. This is one challenge of software versus a real person, the software can’t tell when I misspelled or misused a word on purpose. It will always mark those things as wrong. But, you don’t have to follow what the software tells you. The software will bring up issues; this allows you to leave the ones you make on purpose and helps you fix the ones that really are mistakes.

But, even here the software isn’t as good as a real person. Sometimes fixing a real mistake with just a mouse click creates a new mistake. Omitting a word instead of changing a tense may change the of the sentence. Or just be wrong… You still have to do some reading and thinking for yourself. Otherwise, you’re in the same boat you are with good old spell check and auto-correct… (And we all now how that goes…)

There’s more to say on ProWritingAid (I haven’t even used all the features yet), but this isn’t a full product review (that one’s still coming…). The point for today is: grammar and style software helps you fix the little things, so you can stay focused on the big things, and not look like a dork while you’re doing it.

If Grammarly works great for you, then keep using it. If ProWritingAid serves you better (like me…), then use it. If you find something else you prefer, use that.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Check out some software, and or comment on what you like to use. And, I’ll see you next post!

Who are you talking to?

One side effect of being called as Young Men’s President is that I get to spend a lot more time dealing with young adults. Which is kind of a good thing since I’m working on a young adult novel… it has also gotten me thinking about audience, audience expectations, and telling your audiences apart.

When you get down to it as a Young Men’s President I have at least five audiences I might be speaking to depending on the situation:

  1. The bishop and other leaders
  2. The parents of the boys
  3. The older boys, a 16+ year old dating and driving crowd
  4. A middle group of boys, who have responsibilities and are branching out, but aren’t old enough to drive
  5. A 13 and younger group who are often new to the young men’s program and rarely even get to go to church dances yet

In practice it’s even more complex than that. Some boys are called to be youth leaders and fall into the boy and leader groups. Some adult leaders are also parents. One of those adult leaders is also my wife. And there are things like the special needs some boys happen to have…

So, I have to ask… Who am I talking to?

It’s important to know

Sometimes you get lucky. I know adults who like YA novels.  But, make sure you’re talking to the right audience even when you’re lucky. Not all adults or young adults want a fantasy novel. Some might want a mystery (or both).

Those adults who like YA novels might want more out of a history book that a 9th grader would…

Talking to my parents and 16-year-olds in the same terms might work, but assuming an only child who just turned 12 and the 47-year-old, middle child, father of five have the same experiences will probably get me in trouble.

Figuring out who your audience is helps you know how to get their attention. It helps you figure out what examples to use and how to phrase that call to action.

The initial writing of this post happened at a local restaurant. To one side of me there was a counter culture family and on the other side I found an elderly conservative couple. The conversations at both tables were about the same kinds of things, but they’re using different words. Even though they had some of the same values, they use different words to describe them.

But there were also values that differed.

And those differences can create flash points. There are reasons the woman with the “refugees welcome” tee-shirt might not be happy to see that Immigration officer walking in the door…

And the older gentleman at the next table might greet him as a fellow military vet…

Understanding who you’re talking to, and acting on that information, can make or break an interaction. Understanding your audience and speaking/writing/acting appropriately can determine whether you sell books, get ‘likes’, or end up with spittle in your burger…

If you’re really good, you can bring separate groups together.

If you don’t pay attention, you can create a dumpster fire

So… How do you know what to say?

To quote one of my favorite fictional investigators… “The best way to know about women is to know them.” The same applies to just about any audience dear reader.

With my boys and their parents and leaders it means watching how they interact with each other and interacting with them myself. It means listening to what they say and how they say (or don’t say) it.

It means getting to know their interests, values, and concerns, and how they talk about those things. It might mean checking out a little social media. It might mean doing a little reading (gasp!).

Getting to know your audience might just mean getting out of your shell (gasp again), but if you want people to read your book (or blog or whatever…), buy what you’re selling, get your order right at the burger hut, or get a tip when you’re working at the burger hut understanding your audience: who they are, how they communicate, and what they want, is vital to success.

Sometimes getting to know your audience it hard. It takes effort to get to know people who aren’t like you.

Sometimes getting to know your audience is easy. If you happen to be a widget collector and are writing an article or blog post for widget collectors, you have a leg up already. But you still have to learn your audience and make sure you’re reaching them…

That’s it for this one dear reader. Dinner is done and the teens are texting.

Good luck understanding your audience, and I’ll 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.

Reading and writing

Well, I had planned to do a software thing this week… But, as it happens the new technology is kind of being a pain in the rear. So… We’ll talk about some old technology instead.

Woven in-between the other things on my schedule I am almost finished reading Steven King’s On Writing. For any of you who haven’t met the book it is a bit of a memoir, but a lot more of a how to write well book than a “when I was five we moved to…” sort of book. It is definitely worth a read.

One of the things Steven talks about is the relationship between reading and writing. I actually agree with him very much, to paraphrase his words “If you’re not reading you shouldn’t be writing either.”

We read for a lot of reason:

  1. We read to gain information
  2. We read for entertainment
  3. We read for inspiration
  4. We read to find good examples
  5. We read to find bad examples and to learn from other’s mistakes
  6. We… Well, you can run the list out as long as you like. The point is that there are a lot of reasons to read

Reading and writing are two different sides of an exchange of ideas. If you are going to do the writing side well, then you have to understand what the project looks like from the reading side including format, language use, punctuation, voice, etc. The way you learn about what things look like from the reading side is to read.

Reading shapes writing

It does. You pick up bits and pieces while reading that will show up in your writing (or will be kept out of your writing because you learned to avoid the mistakes…). But that doesn’t mean that your writing has to echo someone else’s too closely (that would be plagiarism…). No, reading shaping writing works best (and most ethically) as a process in which you pick up bits and pieces here and there and “try them on” in the process of finding your own voice and your own story.

I might pick up an arcane detail here, a formatting style there. I think I picked up my preference for using a polyphonic structure in large stories from George R.R. Martin, but some of my thoughts on how magic works are heavily influenced my David Eddings.

It’s a process that works over time. The stuff you read will influence how you write, but you really do need to draw in the bits you like and work on your own style (a while back I looked at some of my earlier stuff (like my first finished book length manuscript) and immediately decided I have to rewrite it before I put it out (can you say Tolkien much… And, that’s not even counting the fact that I hadn’t really figured out how to write female characters yet…)).

Don’t limit your reading

Don’t. I know you might want to write in a given genre, and you need to read a lot in that genre if you’re going to learn and write it well. But, it will help if you read outside your genre too. You might even want to jump the tracks and read some nonfiction (or read some fiction if you’re a nonfiction writer).

Reading outside of your area of specialization helps bring in fresh and interesting ideas. It can help sweep out the cliché’s and help you write things differently.

When I’m in my ‘normal’ work mode I usually have two or three books going at the same time. Usually I’m reading a novel or memoir (something where story is king), a nonfiction book about a subject I’m interested in or researching (coins, guns, history, psychology, geology (pretty much any of the ‘ologies’ really), or anything else I want or need to know more about, and one ‘worky icky’ book, one that is about writing, publishing, or marketing (you know the books that you don’t necessarily want to read but you need to in order to succeed in your craft).

One of the reasons I cycle between books is that I know the limits of my attention span, and I know how fast I can read. If I read too much of the same thing for too long my efficiency drops and it takes me longer to finish a book. Reading and rotating actually helps me pay attention and read more books in a given amount of time (your mileage may vary).  One of the keys is to make the books different. Reading three of the same kind of book at the same time would be more confusing than reading in three separate areas at the same time.

Putting it on the page

I’m a writer and an editor. I think a lot of the people who read this blog are writers, editors, and other sorts of folks involved in putting words on the screen or page. When we are reading, at least one of the things we are doing is learning about the writing process. We need to ask ourselves some questions about the stuff we’re reading and actually use our answers in the stuff we’re writing and editing.

Is that arcane fact interesting for some reason? How can you use it in your own work?

Is that opening effective? Is the writer conveying his/her meaning well? Is that an aspect you can borrow?

If the scene you just read sucks, then why does it suck? Are you guilty of the same mistake?

When we analyze the stuff we read, and then apply that analysis to our own writing, we develop our writing style and we are on the way to making ourselves better writers (you know, the ones who can write better, sell more, and actually make a dollar doing this stuff…).

It is important to put stuff into the system by reading and experiencing the world around us. And, if we want to be writers, we need to take that stuff we’ve put into the system and put it out in our own way, in our own words, and in our own works.

If you want to be a writer you’ve got to write. If you want to learn how to write better, you need to examine the written word, and that means reading.

There’s lots of other things to do (experiencing life and people is important too), but reading is a key to being a good writer (even a great one). And, of course, writing is kind of what the job is; it’s taking the knowledge and tools that we’ve gathered and using them in a satisfying and effective way. And that’s kind of what this is all about.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If you’re looking for something to read between this post and the next one, give On Writing a try, or take a look at a couple of posts here and at my other blog Words Mean Stuff (last week we actually talked about meaning, and next week we’re talking context). 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!