Software vs writer… You have to choose

Spell checkers, grammar checkers and other software tools can be helpful, but they don’t replace the human mind. Eventually you will come to a point where you disagree with your computer; sometimes your computer won’t even agree with itself.

Last week I almost got a 100% score from my ProWritingAid, except for one comma. If I included it, the grammar editor said I was wrong. But, if I removed it the style editor said I was wrong. So, I had to make my own decision (I went with the comma because it fit what I wanted to say).

My wife brought me another example. While writing an email she used the phrase “I want to talk with you,” which her computer flagged and wanted to ‘correct’ to “I want to talk to you.”

With and to are different words with different meanings. When you talk with someone you’re having a conversation. When you talk to someone, that could be a monologue, a lecture, or some other “talking at you” situation. And, those can be two very different things.

Ultimately editing software is useful, but it can’t replace your human writer/editor skills. I recommend finding editing software you like, but I also recommend learning for yourself. English (or whatever your primary writing language is) classes help you understand the rules of the language you’re working in. Foreign language classes can also help you understand those rules…

Literature classes (and just reading on your own) can help you understand how language is used. It’ll also help you see when and how to break those language rules…

Software can tell you what is ‘normally’ correct, or ‘usually’ correct, by the parameters it’s given. But, software doesn’t understand what you’re writing. It doesn’t understand your purpose and meaning. So, while the software helps with the day-to-day grunt-work editing. It can’t make the decisions you do about intent, purpose, and artistry.

Ultimately it’s helpful to use the software, but you have to make your own decisions. You are the writer, and while the software advises it is you who have the final say on what you write.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Choose your words well, and I’ll see you next post.

You need to say it…

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

Don’t insult your audience

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

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

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

Say what you have to say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Be willing to be wrong

From the moment we are born (and some will argue even before that…) we are always learning, adjusting, and adapting….

Well, we are doing those things as long as we don’t mess it up for ourselves.

How do we do that? We’re human, we tend to invent new ways as we go. But, there are some pretty standard options. One of the most common is being afraid of being wrong.

Nobody likes to be wrong

It’s a general fact dear reader. We don’t usually like to be wrong.

Occasionally we are pleasantly surprised and something turns out better than we hoped, but for the most part being wrong isn’t fun.

It’s a matter of perception and perspective. We are generally invested in being right. We have put time and energy into learning, thinking, and believing a certain way. And being wrong means a loss.

We have put in the time and energy to learn, think and do and it turns out we didn’t get what we wanted. We were wrong.

And sometimes it’s more than just a little effort at stake. There can be cherished beliefs, love, money and possibly lifestyle at stake. And naturally we don’t want to lose any of it.

In fact, our opposition to the possibility of being wrong often increases with the perceived stakes. That’s why we’re darned tenacious when we think being wrong means loosing something important.

The more important things seem the more we will fight to be right. And that’s good… If we’re right.

Unfortunately we aren’t always right. Sometimes we’ve goofed and now we’re fighting to cling to an idea or belief that is wrong. We just can’t succeed that way.

But sometimes you have to be wrong to be right…

If we perceive being wrong as a loss we fight tooth and nail to avoid it, or at least to avoid accepting it.

But, sometimes we need to recognize that we were wrong so that we can change things and accept something better.

Sometimes dear reader, we are wrong and we are going to remain wrong until we do something to correct the situation.

Correcting the situation may mean a number of things: unlearning, relearning, accepting, adapting, or even (and people hate this one…) repenting.

No, I’m not going all religious on you here dear reader. The word repent has religious meaning, but it also has practical meaning. In a practical sense repentance means rethinking and behaving differently than you have in the past. In practice it means you stop being wrong and start being right.

Repentance is sometimes an unpleasant process. Being wrong is sometimes an unpleasant condition, but if we are willing to accept that we were wrong in the past and that we can choose to act and correct the situation; then we can take the necessary steps to be right in the present and in the future.

If we are not afraid to be wrong we can actually take the steps necessary to move from being wrong to being right.

It’s not easy, but it’s important

As I’ve said, a lot of the problem is actually perception. If we are afraid of being wrong we will fight against it.

If we see ourselves as striving to become better, and learning to be right, then the moment of wrongness and our  correction to overcome being wrong are just another step in achieving and becoming greater than we have been.

In practice any time we actually want to do something or be something greater than we are we have to accept the possibility of having been wrong. Then, if we focus less on having been wrong and more on becoming right, we can move forward and achieve.

If we recognize that we were wrong we can ultimately become right.

It is a question of perception and understanding dear reader. And for any of us out here in life there are many ways and times that we might be wrong. But for all of us it is necessary that we be willing to recognize when we are wrong and overcome our wrongness. It is then that we can succeed in our desires.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Until next time…

Be willing to learn and become right, even if it means being wrong for a little while…

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.

Doing and observing

Back when I was an undergrad we had a guest speaker in my novel writing class. One of the first things he did was ask us “what are you doing here?” His thought was that if we wanted to be writers we should be out living life. I’ve thought about that over the years, and I think it’s not just living life, but rather learning life that we need to be doing.

Sure, there are lots of things that writers can learn in a classroom: Grammar, spelling, formatting, etc. It’s all important stuff, but there really are other things you need to learn. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction you need to get away from your writing desk, and actually into life.

Doing and observing

If you’re going to write convincingly about anything you need some experience. If you’re going to write a decent western you might want to at least hold a six shooter. And maybe even fire one! If you’re going to write about building a boat it might be helpful to actually build a boat.

But, what about the things you can’t do?

Right now I’m working on a novel where one of the two central characters is a 14 year old girl. Short of having a sex change and going back in time, how do I pull that off?

This is where observing comes in. Watch what people around you do. Maybe even talk to them about what they’re doing and why. Yes, this can be difficult. Even the physicists have learned that you can change behavior by measuring it. So, the trick is to learn how to observe without affecting behavior any more than you have to (and without crossing moral, ethical and legal lines hopefully…).

Even if you’re observing you have to live.

It’s true. Even if you’re observing you have to live. To write based on observation requires the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. It requires the ability to empathize.

Fortunately there are a lot of shared commonalities between people. Discovering and experiencing these commonalities is part of what allows us to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins” as we write.

I might never have been a 14 year old girl, but that doesn’t make my character Jamie a complete alien. We both want to be loved, desired, and appreciated. We both have people we value and experiences that are good, bad, embarrassing, or exhilarating.

As a writer you need to develop a breadth of experience that allows you to understand the things you observe and learn. This is part of what allows you to get into the minds of readers and characters, and to communicate what needs to be communicated.

So, dear reader, I’m not going to ask what you’re doing here, there is lots of ‘writer stuff’ to learn. But, I do encourage you to get ‘out there’ as well; because, there is a lot of life stuff to be learned in being a writer too.

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

Until then:

  • Choose life
  • Avoid death
  • Discover something unexpected

Lessons from ‘the great American eclipse’

Yep, on Monday of the week I’m coming back to the blogosphere we had an eclipse, a total eclipse of the sun that ran the entire length of the country. I happen to live in an area where the eclipse was 98.9% from my door step and full totality was only about 45 minutes north…

Naturally our area braced for the event and some of the ‘knowledgeable ones’ predicted lots of things, some of which happened and some of which didn’t. Here are a couple of things we learned and some thoughts going forward.

A once in a life time experience:

Everyone and I mean everyone was saying that a total eclipse (not just a continent spanning one but any total eclipse) was a once in a life time experience. And, it is… If you just sit in one spot and you don’t live long enough!

I’ve been through at least two total solar eclipses, several partials (they were total eclipses for somebody!), and more lunar eclipses than I can remember. But, I’ve moved around just a little bit…

Lesson: opportunities do happen, but you need to figure out where they are and what you are willing to do to get them. If you sit and do nothing they don’t come around very often.

Bracing for the horde:

Government officials, media types and professional prognosticators warned us to be ready for 100,000, then 500,000, then 1,000,000 people to who were supposed to be descending on our area. Gas was sure to run out. The phone lines and internet connections would be overloaded. The state transit department was going to have to make I15 a one way street to deal with all the traffic. Stores and restaurants would be swamped and run out of food and supplies. I believe there were even warnings about witches, zombies and ninjas (Wiccan ninja zombies?).

Well, in the end there were difficulties. After the eclipse a forty five minute trip away from the zone of totality became a four hour trip (on the one side of the I15… Traffic in the opposite direction (toward the zone of totality) was just fine…). Several hotels and gas stations artificially raised prices. And… Several stores and restaurants ended up ordering too many supplies, and didn’t sell them all.

The main problem was a problem of hype over thought. Yes, there were lots of people who came up for the eclipse. A lot of them came from relatively nearby and made a day trip of it (or tried to at least…). A lot of them brought food and water with them. The ones that weren’t making a day trip of it filtered in a day or two ahead. It was only when everyone tried to leave at the same time that there were big traffic problems. Some store shelves got barren, but new shipments were getting in on a daily basis and to my knowledge nobody starved.

If you were looking for roving gangs, there weren’t any. Roving gangs don’t’ usually travel long distances for astronomical events. If you were looking for zombies, apocalyptic horsemen, or other such oddities, there weren’t any of those either (that I’m aware of…). If you’re still looking for them I’ve got some nice fiction books in production that you might like…

Generally if you thought ahead and made reasonable preparations you were fine. If you didn’t prepare ahead of time, or it you went straight to the worst case scenario, then things were less satisfactory (but still not a total disaster in most cases!).

Lesson: Be prepared, but make reasonable preparations. A one day event like the eclipse isn’t the same thing as WW3. Yes, people are going to go see something like the eclipse, but it’s unlikely that the whole state of California is going to take a day or three off work and end up on your doorstep.

People are people and that includes both locals and tourists…

One of the problems that did come up was relatively normal people conflicts.

Several national news reports claimed that the locals weren’t friendly. Several local news reports included pictures of tourists driving their vehicles and setting up camp in local farmers fields, the ones the farmers were growing crops in…

Sorry folks… I know ‘farmer John’ may be “just a farmer”, but if you drive through his field and set up camp on top of the crops you are damaging his lively hood. You are also cutting down your own food supplies. Tourists you need to use some sense.

On the other hand… Locals, please have the courtesy to wait until the tourists actually do something offensive before you get all offended. And remember, they’re new here… Some of them have never have gotten out of the city before… Maybe put up a few signs to mark the active wheat and ‘tater fields?

Again this is one of those things that’s kind of predictable… When you get large groups of people together somebody’s going to be less than intelligent. The goal is for you to be intelligent and do what you can to prevent problems in the first place.

Trust me folks, when it comes to my home I’m as territorial as anyone. I’ve also been the one who’s traveling. I know what it’s like to not understand what’s around me. It is much better to do some thinking, planning and considering about what’s around you than it is to go immediately to harsh words and blaming the other person. (By the way… To the ones who were offended when the farmer decided to call the sheriff: be grateful… I know folks who were stocking up on ammo along with the food and toilet paper! Think first!)

Summing up

The name of this blog is Words Mean Stuff. I named it that because words do mean something; they are symbols for ideas. The biggest lesson from this week’s events is to have and use ideas, good ideas. A lot of problems can be avoided and a lot of truly majestic moments can be witnessed (or even participated in!) if you just gather some good data and think first.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week I’m going to talk a little about what I’m doing with the blogs. And then after that… Well, that’s next week’s post isn’t it. See you next post dear reader.