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!

A Writer’s Instinct…

I was working on another post for today dear reader. I stopped in the middle… Why did I do that? To be honest, I could see I wasn’t creating the quality of post I wanted to. I couldn’t do it in the time I had.

The way the week has gone I haven’t been able to put in the amount of work the post really needs (at the moment I’m wondering if I don’t want to do a shorter post and also offer a  class…). I could see and feel that the post would not be as good as it should have been, and that, even if I had everything ready, to do it properly the post would be much longer than the 750-1000 words I had in mind.

There are times I see and feel things like this when I write. There are times working on a manuscript I think “this isn’t right…” or “I have no idea where I’m going with this”. Sometimes I’m reading over a manuscript I think “Boy, I really ‘yada yada’ed on that part!”

I’ve learned over time I need to pay attention to those feelings.

A whole brain activity…

Writing is a whole brain activity. As a fiction writer I’m drawing on my imagination, I’m pulling stuff out of memory and my subconscious (and according to my friends I’m pulling things out of a few bodily orifices).

Even in non-fiction, it’s more than the brain’s ‘language centers’ and ‘motor control’ that are involved. Your memory is going. Your internal editor is running. If you’re an active writer, you will work on all circuits (and if you’re a serious writer, you may find a part of your mind writing even when you’re supposed to be doing something else).

Because writing is more than just flailing at a keyboard, really getting into your writing can be both rewarding and exhausting. For myself, those days where I’m pulling 3,000+ new words, editing what I did the previous day, and trying to pay attention to an overall story can be downright exhausting. But those are really good days, in the back of my mind I’m living my story. Even when I’m doing non-fiction, on those days I’m “right in there” with things I’m interested in and care about.

Because we can, and do, become focused and “right in there” with the things we’re working on, our conscious mind can really develop tunnel vision. Sometimes when this happens other parts of our mind seem to know something needs to be said differently, that something is missing, or any number of things. It’s sort of like back at grad-school, those of us with offices in the basement navigated around each other even when our minds weren’t on where we were going. When we’re writing, those parts of our minds occasionally get our attention. And we need to pay attention to them.

It’s not something that happens right away…

We didn’t start out with a writer’s instincts. Where do they come from? Reading, writing and reading about writing.

Writer’s instincts are something we learn as we are learning our craft. You pick up some when you’re reading; you see what other writers have done. You apply what you’ve learned while you’re writing; your own work is your practical laboratory. If you’re doing it right, your reading about writing helps you refine your understanding and strengthen your weaknesses. And then it all repeats…

Your instincts about what you’re writing develop just like your vocabulary and your ability to write (both in phraseology and in number of words…). Instincts are simultaneously something that seem to be ‘just there’ and something that results from ‘getting your hands dirty’ with the work.

It can take a while for them to show up, but those instinctive warnings and feelings can really help you in your writing. It’s worth taking the time to develop them. Developing them sometimes means ‘crashing into the walls’ and making mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process. You will not become a writer of any level of merit without it. You will have to learn to take criticism, but that’s part of the process.

Fear of criticism is both something that prevents us from showing our stuff, and thus prevents us from developing, and a useful instinct to develop. I will not let my fear of criticism stop me from saying what I want to say, but I like to know when I will be criticized, and for what, so I can decide if it’s worth it.

Writer’s instincts are something internal to us. Just like our brains, our instincts are unique and develop as we do. I can’t tell you all about your instincts (and you might not entirely ‘get it’ if I try to totally explain mine…). But I can tell you this dear reader, as writers we all have them, and develop them. We also need to learn to pay attention and use them. Sometimes it’s our instincts that help us do the good and creative writing when no one and nothing else can.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Learn to recognize your writer’s instincts. Take them out to dinner and have an honest discussion about why that part of your story feels ‘weird’, ‘not right’, or ‘unfinished’; find out why you’re uncomfortable writing that post. And then figure out how to fix it! And… I’ll see you next

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!

Lessons learned from editing and commentary

Yep, I’ve been quiet on the blog for a little longer that I intended, but things have been busy…

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been working hard on helping a client get his doctoral dissertation into shape for his defense and for eventual publication. It’s been hard enough going that I even slowed down on some of my other writing and editing projects to give that one more attention.

I’ve also recently reconnected with the cartoon series Galaxy Rangers, something that I loved when it originally aired, but hadn’t seen for a while.

I have learned something about my own writing, and the writing of others, in both of these processes.

One of the reasons that we as writers should share with others, and one of the reasons we should actively partake in the genres we work in, is that we learn things as we are seeing and reading the work of others. In working on my client’s stuff I recognized that he occasionally has the same issues I do with making nonfiction stuff too wordy and ‘hemming and hawing’ at parts he’s uncomfortable with. Recognizing these behaviors in his writing makes me more conscious and aware of the same problems in my own work. Helping him figure out his issues helps me work on my own.

The same thing happened with Galaxy Rangers… I realized one of the flaws in my old favorite series was that they kind of rushed things and expanded the universe, and the cast, too quickly. It’s ok to have ideas for a vast universe, but if you’re spitting them out there before you can finish figuring them out that can lead to problems. And, even if you have them completely figured out you might want to pace things so that your reader/viewer has time to learn and get invested.

Now, that’s not to say that you need to move at a snail’s pace! In both cases it is about reader expectations. Whether you are doing fiction or non-fiction you need to work on pacing that works for your reader and you want to develop a voice that is confident where your reader wants/needs confidence, and is speculative when the time is right for speculation.

I can do these things dear reader. You can do these things dear reader! One of the best tools we have to develop these talents and figure out how to meet the challenges in our own writing is to help other people edit there stuff, and to analyze the work that other writers and directors have done and learn from their achievements and mistakes.

Writing isn’t usually done in a vacuum. Successful writing isn’t generally just done for the author her/himself. Because our writing is intended to reach and communicate with other people it helps us to look at the writing and communicating others do. It helps if we really analyze that writing and communication and learn what it has to teach us.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Get out there and read, write, learn, and live… And I’ll see you next post!

New projects

I’ve said we’re going to do and talk about some new stuff here and we talked about one last week. This week we’ve got another one that I hadn’t quite expected to be announcing.

Within the last week or so we have taken on a couple of new editing projects. On my side of the office I am helping a man true up, polish up and clarify his doctoral dissertation. On the other side of the office Dr. Kidder (my wife not my dad…) is working with a woman who wants to publish some quilting patterns.

Um Farangian you nut… I think you have that backwards…

Nope, I don’t… the guy with ‘just’ a masters is working on the dissertation because that project is more my skill set as a writer/editor for the word stuff. The craft project is getting the Dr. Kidder treatment because that one needs more of an instructional design touch.

The funny part is FMP is helping on the editing for these projects but we’re not the ones publishing them.

So why are we doing it?

Well dear reader, it’s because we like to encourage good ideas and truth no matter what the source. Sometimes it is more important to help good ideas to get out there; to help propagate knowledge; than it is to be the one inventing or discovering that knowledge. My wife and I get to do a lot of the inventing and discovering part and this is a chance to help others do the same. That’s part of what we’re about here.

The schedule is pretty full for the moment dear reader, but if you have something you want help with send me an email and if we can’t help out we might just know someone who can!

That’s it for this one dear reader.

Keep learning.

Keep writing.

And, I’ll see you next week.

Keyboards and pruning shears

Some people might not see how yard work ties in with the writing process, but it does. It’s not just in some strange scene or subgenre, and it’s not because I’m more or less always thinking about writing.

Step one planning and prep.

Sometimes you get really really lucky and a plant or story grows where you want it to without you having to do anything. But, in a lot of those case the ‘volunteer’ plant or story happens a side effect of what you or some other living creature has already done.

It happens but it’s not something that can be counted on to happen as often as we might like.

Usually we have to do some planning, to decide what we want to plant (or write) and how we want to go about it, both step wise and organization wise. This can include sketches, story boards, outlines, or whatever other planning tools you see fit. What matters is you figure out what you want to put where and have a plan that makes it possible.

It is also a good idea to do some fertilization. In the yard that means getting needed nutrients into the ground. In writing it means doing some reading and research. In either case it means you’re making sure your seed (story or plant) has what it needs to grow.

Sometimes you get lucky and a cool plant or story ‘just happens’. Most of the time you have to put in the initial work before the ‘magic’ really happens.

Step two growth

Hopefully our prework has gone well and our little seed starts to take off. The job at this point has a lot to do with making sure our seedling continues to have what it needs. In this first phase of growth (that’s a first draft for your fiction and nonfiction writing) a lot of what we are doing is trying to get the seedling to grow big and strong enough that we can start shaping it the way we want it, shaping it so that it can grow into what we want and start producing for us.

Usually we don’t’ want to do too much tinkering at this point, but the time is coming!

Step three training and pruning

And then the day comes that our first draft is finished. Our seedling story or plant is ready to start the process of being shaped and managed into what it needs to be in order to achieve the maximal, most beautiful and productive, success.

There is a lot going on at this point. We need to be filling holes caused by pesky gophers or plot points we missed; adding more fertilizer, protective chemicals, and other needed things (researching that one arcane point that’s suddenly important); and, possibly most scary, pruning.

Pruning isn’t a whole lot of fun. My roses have thorns that just love to stick me when I’m trimming. It hurts just as bad to accept that I need to trim out that bit of text or side character that I really like.

The truth is, if the bit doesn’t belong there or is going to cause problems it is best to cut it. Pruning helps get rid of sick, dying or otherwise problematic material that hinders the growth and productivity of our plants and our stories.

But, we don’t want to just trim willy-nilly. We need to put real thought into what to cut and what to keep. We don’t want to kill the best growth to get at one wonky stick…

Often when you’re working on the roses you need to get near and far views before you cut. This applies in writing as well: there comes a point where you need distance. Often in writing this distance comes from someone on the outside, someone who isn’t the writer (or even the main editor), someone who can read the thing and give you feedback to help you know if you are achieving the effect you want.

A bountiful harvest

Hopefully the plants and stories we nurture will reward us for our labors. They may do this with beauty, fruits and veggies, prestige, or even good old cash money. If this is what we want (and you know it is…) we have to put in work before the seed hits the soil or the pen hits the paper. And then we have to continue the process right up to the moment of harvest (and even do the finish work after…).

We can do this, but it takes time and effort. With plants and pages we need to develop our skills: our ‘eye’ to see; our understanding of techniques and subject matter; our ability to do the work; and all the things that are needed for success. Developing these things is what separates the winners from the losers at the state fair and the best seller list.

We can do this dear reader. It takes effort. It takes study and thought. But, we can do this.

Now get out there and do! (and I’ll 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

The importance of time

One of the things that drives my wife crazy about my writing is time. Not that I spend time doing it (she gets that part…”). Sometimes it’s not even really about how much time I spend writing. Instead she gets frustrated with how regimented and monitored that time can be. I can honestly tell you how many pages I can typically write in an hour. I know how many pages I can transcribe in an hour. I can estimate how many hours it will take me to write a given thing and when it will be most efficient for me to put those hours in. I’ve spent a few years doing this and I’ve figured this stuff out. And sometimes my idea of what I need to do just doesn’t work for my wife…

The thing is, my wife has things that she wants to do too (and other people and things in the lives of us writers usually have the same kind of needs). And sometimes the amount of time, and the actual moment in time when things need to happen, conflicts with what we as writers want and need to do. And this really does lead to problems.

While there are those that will try to pass off a ‘system’ for writing as ‘the right system’ for everyone; I for one don’t really buy into any of it. In my estimation you have to learn the best way and time for you to write by your own experience and adjust for your own situation. A professional writer with no kids and a full time mom with three kids don’t have the same situation (and they may have wildly different writing styles, subject matter, and/or genres as well…). And don’t even get me started about my friend the funeral director (who is basically on call 24/7).

I won’t try to give you ‘the’ system dear reader; however, I will pass on a couple of things I have learned.

You have to actually put time into it…

Not a whole lot to say on this one. You have to actually devote time to writing if you want to write. If you don’t there will always be something in the way. You have to choose to write and make time to do so.

You have to learn about you…

You need to know a lot to figure out what kind of time you need to write, and how to use that time. Some of that knowledge can be found in books, blogs (like mine…), and other sources. But, some of that knowledge can only come from you, and you can only obtain it by experimentation. You can only obtain that kind of knowledge by actually trying different writing times and keeping track of how you spend your writing time. It really is a ‘learn for yourself’ situation, and in some ways it has to be. No two writers are alike, and neither are their situations.

You have to be reasonable with others in your life…

As much as we may want to climb into our hole in the ground, office, booth at our favorite restaurant, or whatever, and just write the world away; husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, etc. all do need some of our attention and time. None of us live in a vacuum and there are people to see, bills to pay, and things to do. Even (especially…) if we don’t want to, we need to be aware that we will spend time outside of our writing.

Some of that time can be handled and dealt with through planning (get out your calendar and plan a time to pay that light bill…).

Some of that time happens unexpectedly, and you really do need to put down your writing and deal with something else (if my wife is crying I might just want to find out why… If my desk is on fire who cares if I’m almost done with chapter four?).

Some of that time… Well sometimes you have to make a decision. Do you really want to go to that concert, play that golf game, or go see those in-laws? (It could happen…) If you do, then you have to figure out how to make that happen and still have time to write. Or you choose not to do one or the other, and suffer the consequences…

You have to communicate (and sometimes teach)…

I know this one isn’t always fun, but for the 100% of us in real life; sooner or later you need to talk to someone about writing and the time you need to write (note: I don’t mean “explain to” but actually have a conversation with). Often the person you’re needing to talk to is someone important in your life. These conversations can be challenging, some people have little experience in the writing world. Sometimes the people you’re talking with work differently than you do. Sometimes the people you’re talking to really haven’t thought about what you’re trying to do. In any case you need to communicate with them to help them understand, and to understand their side at least a little bit as well.

Communicating about writing isn’t always easy, but doing it is easier than not doing it. Communicating effectively can save a lot of ‘hurt feelers’ in the long run.

Time is an important part of writing dear reader. You need to learn about it: how to use it and how to communicate about it. If you don’t, then you’re headed for problems (if you do anything at all…)

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week…

Chaos… Panic… Scented pine cones??? It must be the holidays!