Archive for the 'Writing' Category

What’s your default mode?

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Cards on the table: I’ve decided to make my default mode writing-for-publication as a means of discovery.

(Or maybe I should label that “Fair Warning!” for those of you who decide to follow me. ;)

Here’s a thing I’ve discovered about myself as a writer: Setting aside some private correspondence with friends, family, and clients, everything I write needs to be composed with an eye toward eventual publication. Even morning pages, journal entries, and the like can be reshaped into something that helps others along the way.

What I’ve been doing up until now includes lots of introspective scribbling—what I call “noodling”—that doesn’t help much. I mean, it can be useful in its way, but I find that I tend to circle around topics rather than working all the way through them. It’s an unproductive sort of navel-gazing. That’s not fruitful for me or for others. From where I sit, we need a lot of fruitful thinking captured in prose (and poetry, and scripts, and every other artistic form) that frees us from the traps of division we’ve caught ourselves in.

Writing for an audience also includes a solid dose of introspection for me, but framed in a way to connect it with others’ concerns. It takes me out of solipsism into something much more fruitful. It performs work.

The practical implications of this? More minutes per day spent writing (that number of minutes should be in the hundreds for me, every single day, yet often it’s in the tens), and more pieces published here, in other venues, and ultimately in the form of books. You should expect to see more essays, more stories, more poems, more tweets, and my first books in 2017.

Lots of people write; many people want to write; some people were meant to write. This is me staking out my turf as a member of that last category.

A mercenary appeal: If there’s something you want me to write for you, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

An artistic/political appeal: If there’s some topic you want me to pursue in my work because you think I’d do a good job with it, please let me know that, too.

Now, over to you:

  • What has your default mode been?
  • What should it be?

Beautiful free images — and an idea for what to do with them.

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

photo-1453857122308-5e78881d7acc
VERY longtime readers of this blog may remember my previous posts on where to find great free images to use for blogging etc.:

This morning I stumbled across a fabulous resource to add to these, courtesy of @tracibrowne:

The beautiful shot by Cayton Heath at the top of this post was one of the first I came across at the first site Traci lists, Unsplash.

Now for the idea of something fun you can do with these: Use a random compelling image as a writing prompt.

I’ve done this many times with the flash fiction in the “Storytime!” category of this blog. For instance, I got the idea for “Sanctum” strictly by looking at the photograph of the church at the head of that post.

I find it’s a good exercise for the creative muscles to build a narrative around what you see in the photo:

  • Who’s in the photo (or just off the frame, or hidden from view)?
  • What’s their story?
  • How did they get there?
  • What’s going to unfold in this setting?

And so on. Then you can challenge yourself to structure your story (or poem, meditation, etc.) in a way that best draws out your ideas.

Please try it and point me to the results!

Sin against the page.

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

You’ll never find your voice and express your truth if you don’t.

CTOGptUUcAAfM23.jpg-large

Usage peeve: series out of parallel.

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

I love the eclectic Quartz newsletter that hits my inbox every morning. I don’t mean to pick on Quartz, but this morning’s edition contained a prime example of a usage peeve of mine — when a series of items is rendered out of parallel grammatically:

Quartz parallel

Here’s the problem: when you read “the company suffered food safety scandals in Asia, rising competition from ‘fast casual’ restaurants in the US, and…” you EXPECT the next thing to be a noun phrase conveying something else that the company suffered. In sum, “the company suffered A, B, and C.”

Yet then you encounter the verb “saw,” which presents a different construction — one that ought to run “the company suffered A, [verbed] B, and saw C.”

Good writing chooses one construction or the other rather than mashing the two together.

The fix here is incredibly simple:

“the company suffered food safety scandals in Asia, saw rising competition from ‘fast casual’ restaurants in the US, and had half of its Russian outlets closed by the government.”

I see this issue constantly. Please join me in stamping it out.

ADDENDUM, Saturday, 24 January 2015: My lovely friend Ann Marie Gamble suggested this page on parallel form for anyone wanting more instruction and examples.

 

The beauty of mise-en-place.

Monday, January 5th, 2015

mise-en-place

Anyone who’s been following this blog for a long time may recall my affection for the creative dictum of Chef Fernand Point:

Every morning the cuisinier must start again at zero,
with nothing on the stove.

That is what real cuisine is all about.

This item from NPR complements it nicely, I think:

For A More Ordered Life, Organize Like A Chef

The piece talks about how professional chefs live by the concept of mise-en-place, which guides them to organize everything in their kitchen workstations ruthlessly. Having an ideally-ordered workspace allows chefs to do their grueling work, even at the highest level espoused by Chef Point, without becoming overwhelmed by it.

Thanks to my friend and fellow writer Glenda Burgess for pointing to the NPR piece. She and I have been talking about various ways that we can organize our own writing lives to eliminate clutter and noise and get the real work done — which is what mise-en-place is all about.

What are you doing to organize your workspace and workflow better, here at the start of this new year?

Photo by Don LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license.

Please do me this one little favor and stop misusing “I.”

Monday, May 19th, 2014

spell3

I see it all the time, and I hope I afflict you with the same Curse of Seeing:

“They gave the book to John and I.”

No no no no NO. Correctly, that sentence reads:

“They gave the book to John and me.”

Why? Because the singular first-person pronoun that you use as the object of a preposition is always “me.” Let’s make up a bunch of examples:

The clerk was very helpful: he loaded the truck for me.

Mom gave the heirloom to me.

My son went to the store with me.

The TSA agent took my passport from me.

The burst of radiation went right through me.

The Persian carpet was spread out on the floor beneath me.

Now let’s try them with compound objects:

The clerk was very helpful: he loaded the truck for Angela and me.

Mom gave the heirloom to my sister and me.

My son went to the store with my wife and me.

The TSA agent took our passports from Dad and me.

The burst of radiation went right through Bruce and me. (HULK SMASH)

The Persian carpet was spread out on the floor beneath us.

You get the idea. I threw in that last one to make a point: we have a set of personal pronouns (I, we, he, she, etc.) that are used as the SUBJECT of a phrase. That’s why we say “We went to the store” instead of “Us went to the store.” Conversely, you’d say “He gave the book to us,” not “He gave the book to we.”

But when you say “He gave the book to John and I,” you’re saying “He gave the book to we.”

So don’t do that, please.

Learnable and Unlearnable Writing Skills

There’s a bigger thought underlying this specific issue of grammar, so please bear with me while I stay up here on my soapbox for a minute.

I tend to believe that some things in writing, maybe in any art, cannot be learned, or at least they cannot be taught. No guitarist, for example, can achieve the tone of Jimmy Page by simple force of will without some sort of talent lurking inside. It’s probably less talent than we suspect is needed — you don’t have to be born with perfect pitch — but there must be at least a modicum of it. In writing, similarly, most people apparently don’t hear the music like Neruda or Woolf did.

If you’re committed to your art, you should definitely plow ahead even if you’re lacking that talent. Some diligent grinders surely achieve great heights of creation by dogged application. Mastery is its own reward. So do try to learn even the part that can’t be explained.

But as for the parts that can be explained? This gets us back to “I” and “me” — and these you MUST learn, if you wish to be regarded as competent in your chosen field. Not to learn them is to brand yourself as inferior, or an ignoramus.

Fundamentals, Not Quibbles

I’m not bitching here about matters of opinion (the Oxford comma) or of outmoded usage (insisting on the distinction between “masterful” and “masterly”) or of patois (in which “ain’t” might be perfectly acceptable). I’m talking about standard English grammar, and the persistent misuse of it that I see even among friends who earn their bread by writing.

Spelling, by contrast, is not connected to intelligence: there are brilliant people with dyslexia or dysgraphia who cannot spell at all, and there are badly brain-damaged people who essentially cannot misspell. But that is why a bad speller who is a good writer will call on the services of a friend or a professional to proofread their work. Not for every Facebook post, surely, but for anything important enough.

Yet in the matter of grammar . . . we encounter a different story. Your use of grammar reflects your understanding of how our language fits together. To write “They gave the book to John and I” is to betray that you do not understand how English personal pronouns work — which means, if you’re a writer, that you don’t know how to use your basic tools. It would be like a carpenter who doesn’t know how to use a saw.

The moral of the story is this: LEARN the parts that you can learn.

Commonplace: Lessing

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

fleuron

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now.
The conditions are always impossible.”


–Doris Lessing

Unsolicited usage note on “I’ve” versus “I have”

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Here’s a usage quirk that I see from time to time — and that always throws me off.

It’s perfectly correct to say something like “I’ve an idea about that,” just as it’s correct to say “I’ve been thinking about that.” In each case “I’ve” contracts “I have,” and in each case the grammar works.

AND YET, saying “I’ve an idea about that” typically wrong-foots the reader. In more than 99 cases out of 100, surely, “I’ve” is followed by another verb, because the “have” hiding in there is a helping verb to designate the grammatical tense — not the standalone verb indicating possession. So the reader’s common expectation for “I’ve” is a phrase like “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’ve already gone…”

Contrast this to “I’m,” in which the hidden “am” is very commonly used either as a helping verb or as the standalone to-be verb. So a phrase like “I’m learning to play chess” (helping verb) is common, but so is “I’m good at chess” (“I’m” precedes a predicate adjective) and “I’m a chess player” (“I’m” precedes a predicate nominative).

Getting back to “I’ve”: in my view, for the sake of clarity, “I have an idea about that” is far superior to “I’ve an idea about that.” And, while we’re at it, “I’ve an idea about that” sounds twee.

All of this applies to “I’d” as well.

Your thoughts?

Writing for a Living

Friday, January 17th, 2014

writing master

If you’ve been tuned in for very long, you know that I plan to make my living writing books at some point. Meanwhile, there are the pesky details of helping keep my family in groceries and health insurance and whatnot. This month, though, I’ve made a major step on my path toward being a full-time book writer: I’ve transitioned out of my W-2 job (which I liked) and into full-time freelance and contract work. It’s going great so far, and I enjoy the mix of working with several different clients and editors.

What exactly am I doing? It echoes my “What do you write?” post from last month. Here’s the modified list of what’s taking up my time, in descending order of how much attention it’s getting:

1. Content marketing

I’ll slightly adapt what I wrote in that other post: This has been my bread and butter for years, and contracting in this vein is taking up most of my time right now. Over the years, I’ve written or edited everything from Web site copy to technical papers to sales decks. For three different employers, this has meshed with running their social media outlets as well. My particular niche is enterprise B2B technology content marketing. That means I’m good at learning how to talk about a new type of technology that is sold into big businesses, then translating that into all of the content that helps sell that technology. (If you’re not familiar with this use of the term, “enterprise” here means “sold to great big companies.”)

2. Blogging

Besides writing here, I am taking paid assignments to blog on technology, business, and other topics within my range of expertise. This builds on the blogging I’ve done for past employers and as a sideline. (Here’s a recent example from the Intuit QuickBase blog: “The Cure after Diagnosing a Bad Project Manager.”)

3. Article writing for periodicals

It’s been a few years since I’ve written magazine pieces; it’s possible I’ll publish more of them this year than ever before.

4. Short fiction

My piles of draftwork are slowly taking shape into finished stories. My goal for this year is to submit 30 pieces — a mix of literary and speculative fiction — for publication. (You can see some of my fiction sketches on this very blog.)

5. Long-form nonfiction

As with short fiction, I have reams of notes and draftwork on nonfiction topics. I’d like to have a finished book proposal and an agent by the middle of 2014.

6. Novels

It may be that any novels I finish drafting this year will only ever see the inside of my filing cabinet. That’s fine by me, but I shall finish novel manuscripts this year.

In all of this, I would be happy to benefit from your well-wishes and your practical advice. If you know someone who might pay me for anything that fits under headings 1 – 4, that would be even better.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure!

Image source.

In work as in weightlifting: compound movements first.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

deadlift-determination

Serious weightlifters follow a fundamental principle: compound movements first.

A compound movement is one that exercises multiple muscle groups rather than just one. In the picture, for example, the woman is about to perform a deadlift, which works all of the muscles in the legs and hips, as well as many muscles in the trunk, back, shoulders, and arms. One easy way to tell whether a movement is compound is that there will be a range of motion for multiple joints — in this case, the knees and the hips.

The distinction is with a simple movement, which calls primarily on one muscle and requires a range of motion through just one joint. A dumbbell curl would be an example of this. Ignoring the slight effort of the muscles in the hand and the shoulder to grip and stabilize the weight, the lion’s share of the work is done by the bicep, and the only range of motion is in the elbow.

Why do you do these exercises — deadlifts, squats, dips, chinups, bench presses, etc. — first? Because they work the most muscles, they work them the heaviest, and they work them all at once. If you really want to be strong, you do the lifts that allow you to move the most weight while requiring you to use more of your muscles at the same time. Only after you’ve done those big lifts do you move on to the lighter simple movements that allow you to focus on particular muscles. That’s how you get the strongest.

What’s the analogy to work?

It’s very easy to focus on the “simple movements” of the working day: cleaning up your inbox, reading headlines, making to-do lists, knocking off the little items on your list. I fall into that pattern myself, and in fact it can be a good way to warm up for the day. But it doesn’t get the Big Work done.

Think about your working life and your career for a minute. What are your equivalents of the squat, deadlift, and bench press? Maybe it’s the work that helps you close a significant deal, or develop a new product. Probably it will relate to some complex project — your research, your health, the book you’re writing. Ponder this for a minute, and maybe jot down a few things that occur to you.

If my analogy holds, these compound movements of your working life will call on you to:

  • Use multiple big skills at once. Thus my blazing-fast use of keystrokes to file Gmail into the correct folders doesn’t count. These need to be things like “product design,” “client communication,” “prospecting,” “storytelling,” or “project management.”
  • Deliver bigger chunks of value. Filing my email promptly creates value for me, because it helps keep my life less cluttered. But it generates bigger value by . . . no, actually, it doesn’t. It’s a beneficial thing to do — like a bicep curl — but it’s not worth nearly as much as finishing a writing project, pitching an article idea to an editor, or doing the research needed to write a book.
  • Perform joined-up thinking. Think about the examples in the previous two bullet points. Each of them requires bridging various ideas. In the software world, product design involves many things — researching user needs, designing interfaces, clarifying engineering requirements, and so on. Similarly, pitching an editor on an idea requires the writer to research the publication, come up with a well-formed and relevant idea, and then adhere to written and unwritten professional protocols for how to broach the subject and follow up. You get the idea: you don’t get to coast on one set of skills, or focus only on the fun parts. You have to follow through on the totality of the project.

Does this analogy work for you? What are the best examples of compound movements in your working world? And what can you do differently to make sure you focus on them first?

Image by Amber Karnes, used under a Creative Commons license.