Thursday, May 31, 2012

Writers "On Gratitude"

I am reading a book called "on gratitude" by Todd Aaron Jensen. It is a collection of interviews with celebrities of various types - actors, writers, musicians, athletes - about things in their lives they are grateful for. I thought some of the quotes were worth passing on. Most of these are from writers, but many of the actors, comedians and musicians also have something to say about creativity, perseverance and inspiration.

"When I write something, if I'm enjoying the story, I'm happy with it. I'm not so unique. If I like it, other people probably will, too. You can't tell a great story if you're writing for 'them'; You don't know 'them'. You can only know yourself, so be true to that." - Stan Lee

"Creativity doesn't bless the idle. You have to work. Work and the creativity will come...if it feels like it. If it doesn't, well, at least there's work." -Alton Brown

"I'm in love with writing. It's never been work. That is a real blessing." - Ray Bradbury

"I'm grateful for anything that reminds me of what's possible in this life. Books can do that." - Jonathan Safran Foer

"The glory of being a writer is as fundamental as having something to write with and something to write on. I adore that simplicity." - Neil Gaiman

"I'm a poet. I'm always in love. I write better when I am in love." - Nikki Giovanni

"In an age where so many people believe that language means nothing to what a book means or achieves, it really matters to my readers what the writing is like. They love the metaphor, the simile, the imagery and I'm so grateful to have this beautiful language at my disposal." - Dean Koontz

"You learn how to tell stories by hearing them." - Elmore Leonard

"My first book got twenty-four rejection letters. There were only twenty publishers at the time, which means some people wrote me twice to make sure I got the point. I still believe to this day that if it had been a home run right off the bat, I would never have appreciated anything else I have today. I'm grateful it took some time for me to find success." - Brad Meltzer

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Positive Aspects of Self-publishing E-books

     Everyone has an opinion on the traditional vs. self-published debate, but I think there needs to be a specific distinction between "traditional" self-publishing of print books and e-publishing. Self-publishing print books requires the author to pay for the printing, store the books and carry them around to venues where they can sell them. E-publishing requires none of that.
      As far as I can see, there is no longer any benefit at all to traditional publishing. Most of the money you earn goes to the agent and publisher, while you have to do all your own promotion. In many cases that involves the same effort as those who self-publish in regard to setting up readings and signings and literally hand-selling your books out of a box.
     Additionally, it takes months or even years for your book to be available to readers. You have to negotiate with editors about revisions and often you don't get to choose the title or cover of your book
     Self-publishing e-books is easy, fast - and FREE. You have total control over content, edits and presentation. You get to keep most of the money you earn. You still have to do your own marketing promotion, but all writers, however their books are published, have to do that to be successful. And if people want a print copy of your book, e-books can also be made available in print form.
    What used to be the only drawback to self-publishing e-books was that people thought all such books were poor quality. Very few people still feel that way, especially with many bestselling writers switching to e-publishing and strongly promoting e-publishing in general.
    If your book is good, it can become a phenomenal success, be offered in print form, make tons of money and be on the bestseller lists - all without the trouble involved with securing a traditional publishing contract. In my opinion there are only positive aspects of self-publishing e-books.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Critique Sources

At a recent LWC meeting, member Mary Ann Weakley mentioned that she was going to speak to a local book club about her memoir and they were going to read her book and review it. This led to a brief discussion about how good it would be to get feedback from non-critique group members.
     Most writers have a few much-appreciated "first readers", who read their finished works or parts of their work-in-progress and offer valuable feedback. These readers are often close friends or family, people who can be counted on to give honest, helpful opinions and suggestions.
    Fellow writers and critique group members offer the same assistance, but from the view of being writers. Most have some expertise in various aspects of writing and this makes their input very different from comments given by first readers. 
    Editors, whose opinions are highly regarded, have to look at everything from a marketing standpoint. No matter how much they love - or hate - a book or story, their perspective will always be colored by how saleable it is and how large an audience it would draw.
   A group of random readers such as book club members would be different from other writers, first readers and editors. They may not have the knowledge about writing and grammar that critique groups do. They don't know the writer or the writer's work the way first readers do. They don't have the industry inside information that editors have. Not having all this can  make them in some ways more useful.
     What book club readers do have is a love of books. Not necessarily books like yours, but like most readers, they probably love stories of all kinds. Some of them may not have knowledge about style or use of language, but they recognize it and appreciate it when it's done well.
     Editors and fellow writers do see the whole picture, but they focus on details and what works and what doesn't.  Many random readers won't necessarily dissect your book or story and specify which elements could or should be done better. But they will know what they liked or didn't like, and may even be able to express why - from the perspective of a reader, and only that of a reader.
    What makes readers like this most valuable is that they are your target audience. You want as many people to read your book as possible. Whatever type your book is, you want to attract both fans of that genre and as many other readers as you can. Therefore, knowing how your book is received by the general reading population can be very helpful.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stretching Creative Muscles

At the most recent creative writing meeting of the LWC we had a mini-lesson on the meanings of and differences between analogy, metaphor and simile. Then we did an exercise to practice using these writing tools.
     It seems there is an effective four-step process to creating and using analogies in various forms. Who knew?
    At first I wondered if creating good analogies and solid metaphors was worth the effort of having learn a four-step process and practice working with it. If analogy is not something that comes naturally for you in your writing, why force it?
     I appreciate a good analogy as much as I do good description, even though I my descriptive writing skills are poor (as are my skills with metaphors). Of course, analogy is a form of description; in my mind, an elevated form. And though I struggle with sensory description in my writing (and in my posts on Elmore Leonard's writing advice I supported the idea that it wasn't necessary to have description to produce good writing), I am always in favor of working to improve any and all writing skills.
     As with my experience in writing poetry - that I don't and have no wish to write - creative exercises with various forms and aspects of poetry can positively affect how you use words and language in whatever kind of writing you do. I noticed this same effect in learning about and working with analogy.
   The exercises we did in our creative writing meeting was fun as well as enlightening. Learning new writing skills and techniques, even ones you may think you have no use for or any desire to use, is  a good thing.
     Stepping outside your usual milieu and working with types of  writing that are new and unfamiliar may bring new perspective to your work. Expanding your knowledge can help you find unexpected ways to enhance all your writing.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

More Writing Lessons From Horses

I went to a horse show this past weekend. My mare and I had two excellent schooling (practice) sessions the week before the show and then the day of the show we - not just her and not just me, but both of us, individually and together - were awful. I won't go into details; that's sometimes just the way it happens. We still won two of our classes and placed second in the others, which is also sometimes just the way it happens.
     My outlook toward showing has nothing to do with winning or how my horse and I placed in the class. I judge how we did according to our own current level of performance and not compared to any other competitors or to what the judge thought.
    In spite of being awarded the Reserve Champion ribbon for our class division, I was very disappointed. For me it is much more disheartening to perform badly and win than to perform well and lose. I always feel better knowing we did our best, even if we don't get any ribbons or don't perform nearly as well as those we competed against.
    Frequently, my horse and I do very well. Sometimes the judge agrees and we get ribbons, sometimes not. But I'm always pleased when I know we did well, whatever the judge's opinion. I feel this is a very practical and positive way to look at riding progress, so I try to apply this attitude to writing.
     It's easy to do this if you don't submit your work. You write something great, you know/recognize that it's great, your writing group/mentors believe it's great. Then when a/the/any publication you submit it to says, "This is great! But we don't want it.", you begin to doubt the greatness.
     This is where we need to remember that our writing can be great, but still be outclassed or not be what the editor wants to see, or even just be something the editor doesn't like for some reason. Editors, like show judges, are human and their opinions are subjective.
     No matter what readers may think or how it compares to what other writers produce, we should know when our work is as good as we can write. Likewise, we should know when our writing is not as good as we are capable of writing (as I knew both my and my horse's showing over the weekend was way under par). And as always- even if we are producing our best work - we should strive to improve.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Avoid Description"

This is the conclusion of my ideas about the advice on writing in an article in the NYT.

     Two of Elmore Leonard's bits of writing advice in the aforementioned article concern description. One is: "Avoid detailed descriptions of characters." I am terrible with description and am often told by others that I need to add more to my stories. The reason I don't is that in reality, I don't notice physical details very much (possibly unusual for a writer), and I don't like to read them.
     At the beginning of Mr. Leonard's NYT article, there's a quote from John Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday", in which a character states, "I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."
     That is exactly how I feel. In fact, I can't be told what characters look like. Whatever the author's description is, my mind creates its own picture of characters. If a person is described as "small and fair", my brain may conjure a picture of a tall brunette. This often leads to confusion when the book refers to the character's blond hair and I think, "Who? What? She has dark hair", because that is the image in my mind when I picture that character.
      I understand that most people are probably not like me and prefer to have characters described. But I also think that readers are a pretty imaginative group and if no details are offered, they can and will very easily fill in an image for themselves. Sometimes certain traits are pertinent to the character  and must be noted. If they are scarred or freakishly tall or alarmingly thin, such things can be relative to the plot.
     The second bit of Leonard's advice is, "Don't go into great detail describing places and things." Everything I've said and think about physical character description applies to this as well. If it's important to the story I'm writing, I will say where the stairs or the door are in a room, but not mention the color of the carpet or the art work displayed unless the choice of decor adds a certain dimension to the character.
      Like all writing advice and instruction, these things fall under what I said in my post, "Conflicting Writing Advice". As a writer, what works for others may or may not work for you. Try new things often and discover new insights.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Never Use An Adverb To Modify Said"

This is a continuation of my ideas about the advice in a NYT column linked in my post about writing advice from Elmore Leonard.
     Again, I must admonish Mr. Leonard for the use of the word "Never", as I feel there may be instances, however infrequent, where such adverb modifications may and should be used.
     One of my favorite characters by one of my favorite writers is the wizard Harry in Jim Butcher's Dresden Series. I don't know how it gets past proof readers or editors, but many times throughout several of these books, the dialogue tag for when Harry speaks is, "He said quietly." This usually is appropriate to the action and doesn't necessarily disrupt the story, but as a reader I do notice it. 
     While we are told that if we write well our characters feelings and even personalities can and should be shown through their actions and words, sometimes a writer has to clarify how a character says something. If we read, "'Everyone dies eventually,' he said.", we might naturally think the character is realistic and accepting of this fact of life.
     However, to convey something different about the character's thoughts and outlook, sometimes clarification of how they say something is necessary. "'Everyone dies eventually,' she said cheerfully." depicts an entirely different attitude and/or personality. "'Everyone dies eventually,' she said wearily." might be more an illustration of a character's feelings at a given moment or their reaction to a situation than a mindset; but again, how a character acts or speaks in certain circumstances helps show who they are.
     I feel that truly great writers can find, choose and create dialogue where the character's specific words would convey the feelings behind them, but for those of us who are still striving to reach that level, sometimes using an adverb to modify "said" is not only advisable, but necessary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Thoughts On Advice From Elmore Leonard

My post from last week by that name linked to an article about writing advice in the NYT by Elmore Leonard. I thought it was great and offered good information. But, of course, I have to add my opinions.
     One piece of advice was, "Never use an adverb other than 'said' to carry dialogue". (Do I have to point out the adage, "Never Say Never?") Leonard is referring to some writers propensity for using words like 'snarled', 'exclaimed', or 'pontificated' when tagging dialogue. Leonard's is good advice in most cases, but what do you do in a situation where your character has to speak quietly and you just use "said" instead of "whispered"? Don't you then have to follow with a sentence explaining why the words were not overheard? For example: "He kept his voice low, so no one else would hear." Just saying 'whispered', which is a form of speaking, seems more efficient.
     What about "asked"? A writer friend of mine quotes the somewhat recent advice to writers to always use "said" as a dialogue tag rather than "asked", even when the dialogue is a question. The logic is that if the dialogue has a question mark, the reader knows what the character said was a query and so writing "asked" is redundant.
     I don't feel dialogue in fiction or often in reality is that clear. Haven't you ever had a conversation where someone says something and you are not sure if it is a question or a statement? In one of my recent short stories the two main characters had this issue, so I am a fan of using "asked" when a bit of dialogue is a question.  I have done some checking and discovered that many (well-known) authors embrace the new method of using only "said" for all dialogue and some still use "asked" for some dialogue. The general consensus is that as long as you are consistent (which I am afraid I am often not), either is considered acceptable.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Creative Writing

LWC (World's greatest writing group) has three kinds of meetings: one for critiquing and one for creative writing and one, less frequently, for education. The prompt for creative writing sometimes focuses on an aspect of writing some of us need or want to explore/practice/experiment with.
      Sometimes I go to the creative writing meetings thinking I'm too tired to participate actively, I'm just going to enjoy what my fellow writers come up with. This relates closely to the subject I wrote about recently here: Making yourself write even when you are not inspired or motivated and don't think you can produce anything worthwhile.
      At our last creative writing session, we were prompted to write from the perspective  of an inanimate object. Several ideas, very specific - a bloody ax that didn't know how it got bloody, etc, - were offered, but we were welcome to choose anything we liked. I chose a writer's keyboard. And in spite of being certain I couldn't write anything creative or even cohesive, I surprised myself by writing something that was worth sharing. The real surprise to me was that my writing was as good as it was with a limited time and no revision. My first drafts generally don't come together very well.
      Another recent blog post that this makes me think of is the one about writing humor. The gist was that I don't think my writing is funny, but other people do and I sometimes don't understand that. This is a perfect example. When I read this brief piece at our meeting, I thought it turned out well and was kinda entertaining, but I had to keep pausing as I read because people were nearly falling out of their chairs laughing.
    As an experiment, I mentioned this to several non-writing friends and family and emailed them the piece. They all wrote back that their laughter disturbed their co-workers. I've read it a few more times, and still think it's only mildly amusing, but I'm going to share it here and you can judge for yourself.

It's Not My Fault

     How can it be my fault? My keys don't move; have never moved since the typewriter was invented. I don't know why they put the letters in that order or who designed where to put the symbols, but that shift key idea - whoever came up with that was pretty clever. Unlike you who forgets how to use it.
      Why are you swearing at me and the computer? I don't spell things wrong and capitalize entire words by accident - you do that. And why do you get so aggravated with spellcheck? Do you know how much harder your job would be without it?
       I know the letters are worn of the L key and also the E. Whose fault is that? Not mine - yours again. What difference does it make? A writer is supposed to know how to type. If you do it correctly you don't need to see the letters to know what the keys are.
      Ouch! That is H. Still H. No matter how hard you jab the key, it will continue to be H. If you want J, press the J key, moron.
     Yes, I noticed the space key is sticking. Sorry, I drooled coffee on it. Oh, wait, that wasn't me. It was you - again. Weeks ago, in fact, but you didn't bother to clean it up then or since. So I have a sticky space bar. Can I tell you how uncomfortable that is?
      (Sigh) You and I could be such a team, creating great literature, but you don't appreciate my part in all this. You seem to think I hinder your writing instead of helping. Well, how about this? Try doing it without me.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sharing Good Information

It's kind of embarrassing that I forgot to write my blog this weekend, which I know is when I have to do it or it won't get posted on the days it is scheduled. I have lots of "reasons", but I don't believe in excuses for missing deadlines. I will give myself a break because becoming a grandmother - even when I've had close to a year to get used to the idea - is a bigger shock than I expected.
      Because part of my blogging mission is to share useful, encouraging information, I think that offering links to other writers' websites that I appreciate is a valid posting option. I particularly like the following one because it encourages some things that I do in my own writing, that are not always thought of as positive.