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!

Editorial Choices…

As always I’m working on a couple of my own writing projects. At the same time my wife and I have been working on some editing projects to help a couple of other writers. This has all gotten me thinking about the choices I can make and actions I can take as an editor…

You can’t dictate everything…

You can’t. Ultimately the individual piece is the author’s piece. You can help shape that piece. You can help refine that piece. You can help the author make it better. But, what you can’t do, is take it away from the author completely (obviously we’re not talking about the whole copy right/rights to the characters can of worms (we can talk about that another day but not right now…)).

In a lot of ways being an editor is to be an assistant. In a lot of ways being an editor is like being a teacher. You are guiding and supporting an author in the process of creating a work. You can put in a lot of work, and you should be rewarded for it. But the person who had the idea and did the writing needs her/his own reward as well (it was his or her baby!).

In this side of things you can advise, but you can’t dictate. You are helping the writer to create and improve a piece of writing that ultimately belongs to its author. If you try to take it away then you’re going to have issues (we’re back to that copy right thing again…).

There are choices you can make.

If your author comes seeking advice, or asks for your input, you can certainly give both.

If your author asks “should I do ‘A’ or ‘B’?” It’s kind of your job as an editor to give the best answer you can.

You can choose what advice to give. You can choose how to give it (actually it’s often a good idea to discuss and even negotiate what kind of advice your giving and how BEFORE you start working together).

You can choose to say “one or both of us need to think on this some more”, or even “Let’s bring someone else in on this”.  There are good reasons for making these choices actually. Some things need more thought and planning. Sometimes you really do need to hand things off to, or enlist the aid of, someone else.

What’s an example of that last one? Here are a few…

My author client wants support in telling a good story. I can do that!

My author wants advice on how to present statistics in a piece. I can do that (I’ve tutored doctoral students in stats and written scientific papers…)

My author wants advice on how best to portray a bisexual Latina living on the U.S. Mexico border. Umm… Let me call in a friend from back when I was at San Diego State. In this case it’s not that I’m unwilling, it’s just that I happen to know someone with a much better skill set for that particular need.

An author (I won’t call this one mine…) contacts me to work on a piece entitled “ALL WHITE MEN ARE RACISIT SEXIST HOMOPHOBIC BIGOTS AND SHOULD BE SHOT OFF INTO THE SUN!!!!!!!”. This time I’m actually going to decline to work on the piece. I can sense right off the bat that there will be some problems in working on this one and I’m not the right person to work with this author (if nothing else the fact that the presented title is in all caps is a bit of a red flag…).

There are choices you can and should make…

Even though I come from the school that says “don’t take the piece from the author”, there are choices you can and should make.

You can, and should, make choices about who you work with. If you can see that the author in question is going to be a headache (or from the author side if you can see the editor is going to be a headache); then why would you choose to work with that person. If there’s not a compelling reason, then you might want to seek another partnership. And money alone isn’t compelling enough (for me at least!)

You can make choices about how you work with the person. One of the concepts we learn about in the seven habits of highly effective people is the idea of the win-win scenario. It might be a good idea to find ways to make your author/editor interactions win-win (from either position why are you going into this if you’re expecting to lose?).

And then there are some bigger ‘special case’ decisions…

So far most of what I’ve said has had to do with helping an author with a piece; you’re part of a team working to create something and make it the best that it can be. But, there is another hat that editors occasionally wear; being an editor you occasionally also serve in the role of publisher.

As an editor (and chief editor at that!) I try not to take my authors projects away from them. I’m not going to demand that they change the main character from a male to a female and species reassign the sidekick to be a bottle nosed dolphin. But at the same time if I’m going to be the one to publish the work, that does give me more of a say. The author can choose to write what he or she wants, but just because somebody wrote it doesn’t mean I have to publish it!

The difference is that when one steps from the role of editor to the roll of publisher one is transitioning from helping someone else to tell her/his story to actually using one’s own resources to put that story out to the world. Now that we’re talking about publishing I’m in a place where it is my name and reputation on the line as well.

What you write says something about you. What I publish says something about me.

(That’s why “ALL WHITE MEN ARE RACISIT SEXIST HOMOPHOBIC BIGOTS AND SHOULD BE SHOT OFF INTO THE SUN!!!!!!!” ain’t getting published at my company. It’s a message I don’t agree with and I’m not going to be forced to put my name on it. But, if the author feels like going somewhere else to publish it and that person/group chooses to publish it, then the fall out is their problem…)

I’m not for taking away anyone’s free speech (that would negatively impact my business), but at the same time I don’t have to give up my free speech by allowing people to use my company to say things that I can’t ethically agree with.

Summing it all up…

So there it is dear reader… Editors shouldn’t try to take away a writer’s work, or mutilate it in ways the author doesn’t agree with. But, at the same time, it is kind of the editor’s job to do his or her level best to help the projects he/she chooses to pick up become truly excellent.

Editors and writers can and should choose partners/coworkers that they can actually work with in an amicable way. And both need to work together to make the piece really good.

No matter what else happens, no one in the relationship: writer, editor, or publisher really has the right to force someone else to say something she/he/whatever else doesn’t agree with.

So that’s it for this one dear reader. Choose people to work with who will actually help the work to go forward, and don’t try to bully folks just because you don’t agree. And of course…

See you next post!

Google docs voice input: useful but quirky

Recently my wife and I were talking with a friend who teaches in the area of special needs students and special education in mainstream classrooms. During that discussion I discovered Google docs has a voice to text feature. So naturally I had to try it. And while I can’t say I’m throwing away my keyboard for a microphone there are times that this feature could be worthwhile.

Why I like it

There are times, like doing video scripts, that I want to write things that sound more like someone speaking naturally. In these cases it is easier to say it than to type it. For some reason when I type or write long hand I get into a mode that is more rhetorical and “printed word/texty” than I want. When I talk into a mic it’s easier to avoid that.

Also, there are times when I want my hands free while I’m writing (like when I’m trying to write up a craft project and need my hands free to do making stuff). Google docs voice feature is a free tool that helps with this.

Actually when I tested it the voice to text feature worked surprisingly well. It was able to have a fairly good level of accuracy in translating what I was saying. It was actually able to translate phrases like four in one chainmail without stress.

Of course the feature did have quirks and it wasn’t entirely a solution to my problems.

What I’m not happy with

The core engine driving the feature seems to be the same one that converts phone calls to texts for google voice. If you have ever seen the ‘creative’ resolutions that happen with that google feature you can imagine what happens if you cough, mumble, or pause mid word. You may also run into problems with more unusual idioms, phrases or words.

You will definitely need to do your editing because the software also occasionally swaps words for other words. In my test case the voice to text feature kept using the word ‘cloths’ for the word ‘close’…

The system is also light on punctuation and formatting options so you may need to put those in later. I was able to get a period by saying the word period, or a comma by saying the word comma. But if I said the word semicolon I got the word semicolon and not a punctuation mark.

Similarly you get a new line by saying “new line” unfortunately if you want a blank line between paragraphs you have to add it in later or say “new line”… wait… and then say “new line” again. This does tend to slow things down a bit. So you may be better off just accepting the fact that you will have to do your formatting later.

I found myself wondering what would happen if I wanted the word ‘period’ instead of a punctuation mark. I experimented and my results were mixed. If I talked about a woman’s period I got the word period. If I said “periods” the software would write “periods”. But if I talked about a trial period, or the colonial period, or said that the program “was the best software period” I got a punctuation mark.

 

And… Things kind of went downhill from there…

After finding the program’s selectivity about the word period I found myself wondering what would happen with other words.

Naturally the first place my mind went was the old F-bomb…

When you use that particular word you get f***.

You will also end up with c*** and a variety of other similar items when you use words that might be offensive to women. But oddly enough the word ass is apparently ok.

At this point I was feeling a bit wierd swearing at my computer, but hey if you’re going to go you might as well go all the way…

Oddly enough while Google docs voice tool seems to want to “bleep you out” if you say something insulting about women; it seems to be just fine with racial epiphytes against blacks, Jews, Italians and others.

At this point I was both surprised and offended and decided to stop.

Summing up

There are times that the voice to text feature is really useful. And I will use it in those cases; however, the feature does not have a full range of punctuation and text formatting features (and you know how much I love those parentheses…). This part makes it even more important to take the time to reread and edit the things you write using this feature.

And of course watch out for those wrong word situations…

I also find it odd that the software actively filters things that might be insulting to women, but seems to be fine with users insulting blacks and Jews (as long as they’re male of course…).

It’s also a good idea to remember that Google docs are stored online and may be more easily observed or pirated than things you keep resident to your machine.

In the final analysis I would say that if you think the idea of talk to text could be worthwhile for you, then give the Google docs voice tool a try. But realize that it does have its quirks and will increase your editing load. You may want to move on and try other speech to text software but the google docs voice to text feature is a starting point.

I would also love an explanation of what they will and will not censor (it’s a free tool so they can make their own choices… I just find the choices that have been made interesting).

That’s it for this one. See you next week

Definition and Continuity

Note: this blog is about writing and publishing. Today’s topic easily applies to words and subjects that can be considered ‘hot buttons’ on the political stage I am not taking any political position here; therefore, any political, moral or ethical offence you find in this post is something you brought with you and not my doing.

My wife is currently serving on the assessment committee at our local university. She and the committee have put considerable effort into defining the words goal and objective for the purpose of assessment at our university. Early last week the committee finally reached agreement and were ready to go forward with applying their definitions; which they would have if someone had not opened the university handbook and discovered that the handbook committee finally agreed on the opposite set of definitions…

This problem is considerably wider than one university in the Pacific North West. Words like gender, ethnicity, moral, and (possibly worst of all) “fairness” seem to change meaning on a daily basis. Even our fiction is not safe. Movie, TV and print series seem to shift on their meanings of what a given power or ability is or can do. Even character backgrounds get changed to fit what a writer wants a given character to do and say.

I’m not just calling this a problem, it is one. Having different meanings for words and different understandings of concepts is a frequent source of misunderstandings, disagreements, and good old fashioned arguments. It is true that people occasionally have different understandings of things. It is true that occasionally you need to change a definition or use a different understanding because the situation has changed. However, neither of those truths forgives sloppiness in meaning or malicious attempts to shift meaning or unfairly profit from a misunderstanding.

Start with definition

We as readers and writers need to understand the words and concepts we use. It is alright and even appropriate that our understanding develops over time. But, we do need to put in the effort to understand the words and concepts we use.

On some of my nonfiction projects my understanding of a term’s meaning shifts significantly in the process of researching and writing. If this happens before the project is published part of the editing process is that I need to go back through the piece and make sure my meaning is consistent, or at least document how and why my understanding changed. If my understanding has changed since a piece was released and I write something new on the same subject I might need to explain why I changed my view and/or definition.

In either case after a writer has found his or her definition or meaning it is usually a good idea to communicate that definition to the reader. In non-fiction it could be as simple as writing the following…Definition: (N) the meaning of a word or concept. In a fiction situation you might build a whole story around a character learning what something means, or you might just want to have good old Captain Exposition drop a one liner about it.

I know that it can be fun to be mysterious about things. And there are ways to go about that (a subject for a later post (or maybe the comments…)). But, if you’re trying to be mysterious and come off as not knowing what you’re talking about, or if you come off as just being slipshod in you thinking, that doesn’t achieve the affect you want. It also makes you look incompetent. Possibly worse, if you don’t have or use a solid definition your reader may feel manipulated. That twist ending that comes out of the blue, the one that your reader can’t go back and find any clues for… Yeah… Um… People don’t like those. People don’t like to feel manipulated. Even if they came to your writing to be manipulated, people are offended by obvious manipulation. Using good definitions is one way of avoiding that.

Continuity

Continuity is the second part of the struggle for meaning. Continuity means that you are using the same meaning or set of facts consistently. It’s not fair to have a character go through all of your first book talking about growing up in Paris France and traveling on her French passport, and then turn around in the second book and say no, she grew up in Paris Idaho because in this book things work better for her to be a citizen of the USA. And, even if you manage to get away with that one, you will annoy somebody when in the third book she turns out to be a he and tells the reader that he has lived his entire life at Paris Island South Carolina (btw you then also have to explain why the person lived his/her/it’s entire life on a Marine Corps base… Just don’t do it!)

If you have a character that likes to tell stories about being from other places that could be ok. But, if you’re just changing the characters background to fit what you as a writer want her to do at the moment, that is a problem.

The ‘retcon’ or retroactive continuity does exist in writing, but to most of the people I’ve talked to it isn’t a good thing. Retcons tend to read as “I’ve written myself into a corner”; “I think the last guy wrote this wrong”; or “to heck with the fan boys this is want to have happen”.

Just like your definitions, sometimes your continuity does need to change. If you’re relaunching a character or series why not do a little updating and refurbishing? But be honest about it. If you are theoretically working in the same world/universe/timeline you’ve just created a lot of other problems for yourself. There are things that you will need to explain and fans that you will annoy. You might want to stop and think about whether it is really a good idea to retcon, or maybe tell your new story with a new character.

Yes, it does take a lot of work to keep your definitions, characters and story lines straight. Yes it can be hard work to create and introduce new characters. At the same time, how easy is it to retcon the retcon of the retcon that you retconned before that other retcon and still keep everything believable for the person that liked your story in episode one?

That’s it or this one dear reader, see you next week.