Ah, Summer…

August 28th, 2012 by emilysather

… a time to kick back, relax, and take some time away from a busy schedule for fun activities. Right?

Well, that may be summer’s reputation, but when I’ve talked with friends and family it doesn’t seem that many people have found that to be the case in practice. Oh, it’s not that they haven’t had fun – and there have certainly been plenty of fun activities – but in many cases summer actually seems to prove even crazier, and sometimes more stressful, than the cooler months.

That’s certainly been the case for me this year. There have been a lot of fun things (including several trips), fun things that were also a lot of work (such as getting a new puppy, and working on art commissions), and it’s also been one of the busiest summers for editing work that I’ve ever had. Lots to be thankful for!

In between it all, I’ve been working on a fair amount of writing. Among other things, I finished up an ebook and got it edited, and entered the Fantastic Books International Short Story Competition.

I also wrote an article for Molly Green Magazine (from Econobusters), about the other business that my sister and I run, Gilded Gears Jewelry. In addition to talking about how we got started, I shared some advice (geared particularly toward kids and teens) on starting home businesses. The article will be appearing in their September issue, which should come out around the 1st, and there’ll be a drawing for this necklace on their site at the same time:

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So if you like jewelry (or know someone who does), you might want to check it out!

And just as exciting – this last week the St. Cloud Times ran an article on my sister and me. The interview was primarily regarding Gilded Gears, but we talked some about our other businesses as well – and yes, NAIWE got a mention. You can read the full article here. There are a few factual errors that some who know us might catch (for instance, the picture that ran with the article was credited to our mother rather than my sister, and the magazine article was written by me rather than our sister), but it was a great opportunity.

So it’s been a good summer. But where others are sighing about summer being over “already,” I must admit that I’m looking forward to fall. The steadier schedule will be a nice break from all the excitement!

Spring Cleaning

April 6th, 2012 by emilysather

In my preferred version of spring cleaning, I’ve been going through some of my old links to resources lately, trying to decide if there’s a better way to organize them and keep track of things that I wanted to use later. In among the broken links and things I meant to read but haven’t gotten to, I’ve been rediscovering some old favorites. I thought I’d share a few of them here.

Always good for a smile: Allie Brosh’s funny take on grammar on the internet in this post, specifically as it relates to the “alot” situation.

On a more serious note, Pat Holt has some very good reminders and tips in this blog post on ten common problems that writers tend to miss in their own work.

And lastly, because it’s always fun and interesting to see a child’s perspective on familiar stories – but mostly as an excuse to post a video of a particularly adorable little girl – here is a three-year-old explaining the plot of Star Wars.

I’ll probably end up sharing more as I keep going through my lists, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy these!

Little Things DO Matter

March 30th, 2012 by emilysather

Indeed. Just remember: when it comes to excellence, sometimes the little things can matter just as much as the big ones.

Breaking Through the Barriers

March 24th, 2012 by emilysather

Ah, writer’s block. It seems to be a recurring problem for all writers, regardless of whether they’re professionals who make their living at the craft, hobbyists who dabble for their own enjoyment, or somewhere in between.

Unfortunately, I’ve never yet heard of anyone who’s discovered a magical cure that will effectively break through the block no matter what. What works – and what doesn’t – varies, depending on the writer and the situation.

That said, I thought I would share a few of the things I tend to find most useful, in hopes that it may help others as well.

1. Establish a routine.

This doesn’t have to mean sitting down at a certain time to write every day, although that can help.  I’ve found that it’s more important for me to set up cues to start telling my brain and body that it’s time start writing.

Sometimes, for me, it’s just a matter of moving my laptop from one room to another, to help me switch tracks from “other work” to “writing time.” If it’s a more difficult project, or I’m having a particularly hard time getting started, I’ll add other things: I get myself a fresh drink (whether it’s a cup of tea, a glass of water, or a can of soda). I put on some music – I’ve found certain CDs that I particularly like, which are the right balance between not putting me to sleep yet not so interesting that it distracts me. If I’m having a particularly hard time focusing, it can help to get up and exercise for 15 minutes or so.

2. Goals and artificial deadlines.

I’ve found that I really do tend to work well with deadlines, especially ones that are rapidly approaching. With a long-term project, it can help to break it into small, short-term self-imposed deadlines.

When I’m struggling with writing, though, it can be difficult to find a reasonable balance for goals and deadlines. Too often, I wind up either aiming unrealistically high – thus setting myself up for further discouragement when I fail to accomplish it – or so low that it’s not going to feel like any real accomplishment when I get there.

Sometimes, setting a goal of writing a certain number of words – pushing through to get something down, even if I hate it – is helpful.

More often, though, when writing is really a struggle, I think it can be helpful to set time goals: writing for half an hour, an hour, two hours, whatever you have time and energy for. The important thing isn’t the word count, or progress made, but the discipline. So long as you spent that time being focused and working at it, regardless of whether you dislike what you’ve written, regardless of whether it looks like a discouragingly small amount, you haven’t failed at your goal for that day. Eventually, as I keep to that pattern of just being there and working on it, the flow of words tends to come back and it’s no longer a matter of just putting in time.

3. Choose an assignment.

There are times when my difficulty with writing seems to come from discouragement in writing for a nebulous audience “out there” and feeling I’ve lost track of what may be interesting or helpful to them.

When that happens, especially with fiction writing, I often find it helpful to think small and pick up a project that I can finish in a short amount of time. I’ll ask my friends if they have a short story they’d like me to write. A lot of my writer friends, particularly, have more ideas than they do time – or have ideas they like, but just can’t see ever writing themselves. I also visit “story request” or “story prompt” sites, where people post ideas for stories they’d like to see written, and see if I can find something that catches my interest.

If I write a story geared toward a narrow, specific audience, and they like it, it can help re-energize and encourage me to go on with my other projects. And sometimes what begins as something to entertain or help just one person can develop into something much bigger.

For instance, a while back an acquaintance asked me to explain a particular digital art technique. As I started putting together information for her, I realized that I had a lot more to say on the subject than I’d originally thought. I’m now in the process of expanding that informal tutorial into a full e-book.

4. Write about writer’s block!

Hey, if you’re going to suffer through it, you might as well get some good material out of it, right?

 

What about you? What are some things you’ve done to break through writer’s block?

Human Error, or Disrespect?

March 16th, 2012 by emilysather

I was amused to come across this mock-CAPTCHA image:

(After a bit of searching, I believe that it may have originated from a site called “Defective Yeti”, though it’s been making the rounds for a bit.)

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that requiring a test like that before letting anyone on the internet is a good idea, but even while I laughed I couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment behind the suggestion. Some things are not just “hard grammar stuff,” but basic facts that everyone should know.

Oddly enough, one of the words I seem to see misspelled most often is “yeah.” It’s a word that most people use frequently in everyday discussion, and it’s not very long or difficult to spell. Really, I would have thought that it would’ve been harder not to learn how to spell it correctly. And yet, the number of times I see it spelled any other conceivable way is amazing. Yea, yeh, yah, ya…

In some cases, of course, it’s just a simple typo. For other people, it’s consistent enough that the person clearly doesn’t actually know that it’s incorrect. Rarely, it’s a deliberate attempt to portray a dialect in written form. But in some cases, it’s something else entirely.

A thread I was involved in recently on a forum was briefly sidetracked by a discussion of grammar and spelling issues. In the course of it, I pointed out to someone that “yea” was not a spelling variation of “yeah” but actually a different word. (As a side note, I do not make a habit of making myself obnoxious by pointing out others’ typos and spelling errors when they haven’t asked me to do so. The comment was appropriate under the circumstances.) His response? He said that he knew that – he was just too lazy to type the whole word.

When I see something like that, I don’t think that it’s a sign of stupidity, or lack of education. (Not that I look down on people that way when it is an honest mistake, either!) I think that it shows a basic lack of respect for the people that you’re talking to. This person was willing to take the time to comment on someone else’s “misspelling” (which was, in fact, a perfectly acceptable spelling variation), yet in that same post couldn’t be bothered to type one extra letter in order to complete a word.

The occasional typo is not a big deal. It happens to all of us from time to time, and under most circumstances the majority of people are unlikely to give it a second thought, if they even notice. But people can tell the difference between the occasional slip-up from a generally intelligent, thoughtful person and a pervasive attitude of apathy or disrespect toward the people with whom you’re communicating.

You may think that a bit of sloppy spelling or the failure to skim through casual correspondence before sending it doesn’t matter. But the truth is, if you make a habit out of it when it “doesn’t matter,” that habit is going to stick. It’s going to come out sometime when it does matter, and it may make a bigger difference than you think.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to be a grammar expert, or compose rigid, formal letters no matter what the context, or keep reference books beside them to consult every time they so much as type up a forum post. What I am saying is that your basic attention to detail and respect for others – or lack thereof – will make a difference in how you are perceived. If you want to be taken seriously and respected in turn, keeping an eye on the little things is a good place to start in earning it.

Exclamation Marks

March 9th, 2012 by emilysather

Since I’m currently making a push to (try to) finish up a couple of the books I’m writing, I thought that this week I’d put up a short section from one of them.

The book itself is geared mainly toward beginning fiction writers, but many of the general ideas are applicable in other areas of wring as well. I’ve certainly seen the potentially damaging effects of mistimed exclamation marks in nonfiction nearly as often as in fiction.

 

Exclamation Marks

Figuring out the proper use of exclamation marks can be challenging. It has little to do with grammar, and much to do with the tone of the sentence – and thus more to do with an author’s individual style and choice than with hard and fast rules. However, it is still very possible to misuse them, and when it happens it can greatly detract from the impact of your writing.

Exclamation marks are very useful in showing excitement, anger, indignation, humor—it’s an intense punctuation mark that can completely change the feel of a sentence. But along with that very fact can come a trap for writers to fall into.

Far too often, I’ve seen sentences that could have had a wonderful emotional impact made to sound instead cheap and melodramatic by an exclamation mark inserted where it shouldn’t have been. It looks as if the writer, doubting the ability of their words to convey the right impression, has used an exclamation mark in order to make sure the readers know that this is a dramatic or surprising moment. There are times and places where the exclamation mark is needed or useful for that purpose, but it can be very frustrating when an author becomes dependent on it in order to convey the emotion of a scene—all the more so when the words alone were doing a fine job, without the additional “help.” I have seen perfectly interesting stories ruined by exclamation mark abuse.

Please, don’t overuse the exclamation mark! See, I don’t dislike the things – I use them often myself. But in the narrative of a story, they should generally be used very, very sparingly. Overusing them can actually dilute their effect, leaving you with nothing to convey the kind of big impact you want when you come to the moment where you really do need one. That, or they can give the impression that the writer is either very hyper or trying to heighten the emotional effect of their story by sheer energy—as if, if they seem excited enough, the reader will be, too.

It’s like the “big,” intense words: if you use a word like “agony” to describe what a character who has a sliver in his finger is feeling (unless it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, or to demonstrate just how little he’s used to pain), what do you have left to use if he breaks his arm? If you use an exclamation mark for every exciting moment, it’s not going to stand out when you come to a moment of real climax.

And, even in a very dramatic moment, understatement can most often pack far more of a punch than the excitement of an exclamation mark. Respect your readers; let them figure out for themselves that this is exciting, or dramatic, or important.

Now naturally, dialogue and characters’ internal thoughts are a different matter. There, it’s much more often appropriate, and even necessary, to add an exclamation mark to show the tone and emotion. More often than not when a character speaks there’s some kind of emotion involved, and frequently an exclamation mark is the only, or the best, way to convey what those emotions are.

That said … there are writers who can’t seem to end a single sentence of dialogue without an exclamation mark (and keep in mind, this is even when they’re writing characters who are notoriously calm, level-headed, and generally quiet). Again, don’t overdo it. Keep in mind the personality of the characters you’re writing. Even among the most highly strung and talkative, few are the characters who live in that kind of espresso-fueled non-stop excitement, be it anger, fear, joy, indignation… Eventually they’re going to crash, and when they do it isn’t going to be pretty.

Keep in mind the situation, as well.

For instance, normally if someone were to say something like, “He just stood up, said goodnight, and walked away,” it would not be worthy of an exclamation mark. People do that every day, and other people don’t get too excited about it. On the other hand, taking circumstances into consideration, it’s entirely possible that the character speaking would have good reason to be upset about it. Or maybe even overjoyed. And, if the person who just said goodnight and walked away happened to be someone supposedly confined to a wheelchair, who had refused to speak to anyone for years, that would quite probably be something to exclaim over. Or maybe not—depending on the personality of the speaker, and their level of shock.

So, moderation in all things, keep in mind who’s talking (or thinking, of course), think through the circumstances, and consider carefully before you use an exclamation mark. If it helps, think of it as if you’re only allowed a limited number of exclamation marks, which have to last you your entire life—save some in reserve for important occasions.

One additional note, which most writers won’t need, but those who do, need to be aware of as early as possible. When you do use them, only one exclamation mark is needed at a time. Adding more only looks unpolished and unprofessional, it doesn’t multiply or enhance the effect a single exclamation mark will give you.

Exclamation marks are wonderful things, and I wouldn’t want to frighten people away from using them. But as with anything else, there can be too much of a good thing, and it’s all the more likely to happen with something as attention-grabbing and potent as an exclamation mark.

You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

March 2nd, 2012 by emilysather

I mentioned the issue of declining vocabulary a couple of weeks ago. There’s another, related, problem that I’ve seen quite a lot: thesaurus abuse.

It tends to be pretty obvious when you come across a writer who is relying too heavily on a thesaurus for more interesting ways to express what they want to say.

Often, they’ll use words that might technically fit the definition of what they’re trying to say, but that actually have very different nuances or connotations from the word they should have used. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of a writer having chosen poorly. Other times it appears to result from a mistaken belief that those words will sound more impressive.

Now, I’m all for using the dictionary and thesaurus to help expand your vocabulary! The trouble is, if you’re not careful to become familiar with words in context as well, they can at times be very misleading. And if you choose the wrong word for your subject, the results can vary from mildly confusing to outright hilarious.

Take, for example, an advertisement for a jazz concert that was going to take place in my city. I won’t post the whole thing, but I found this section particularly interesting:

In case it’s a little hard to make out, the text reads: “The effect upon the audience is devastating.”

While that might be appropriate for a sad, dramatic movie… I’m not sure it’s a great way to attract audiences to a – supposedly – exciting, fun night of music.

The words we choose need to fit the subject – not just in their definition, but in tone and degree. Otherwise we fall into either using words that don’t quite fit, and thus sound silly, or… we write ourselves into a corner, using so many dramatic words that we become like the boy who cried wolf and have nothing left to express ourselves when we really need to say something important.

Loving and Caring for Books

February 25th, 2012 by emilysather

It’s no secret that I love books. And although I happily take advantage of the convenience that e-books can lend, in my mind they’re still no substitute for a real, hard copy book.

Our house has plenty of walls filled with books. My mother likes to say that the last time she mentioned that I should sort through and clear some out because we were running out of space, I looked at her like she’d suggested that I give away my firstborn child. The difference being, of course, that I don’t yet have a firstborn child, while many of these books have been with me for years. As I see it, the answer to running out of space is “build more shelves,” not “get rid of books.”

So yes, I’m very attached to my books.

Beyond that, I was also taught from the time I was little that books should be properly cared for. Books shouldn’t get stepped on, spilled on, or bent. I admit, in an “emergency” I occasionally used unusual temporary bookmarks (up to and including the occasional shoe), but rather than through carelessness, it was because I couldn’t bear to damage pages, even through dog-earing to save my place.

Yes,  accidents happen – especially when you’re carrying the book around everywhere you go. But it pains me whenever a once-new book acquires a damaged cover or wrinkled pages.

I do wonder, though, if maintaining pristine condition is really the best expression of love for a book. Some of my most-loved books are now held together only by cautious handling and duct tape, simply because of the sheer number of times they’ve been read.

And although I certainly have no trouble taking a highlighter and “red pen of doom” to a manuscript I’m editing, it goes against all my instincts to write in a book I’ve purchased, even if only to mark my favorite passages. But I’ve realized that I do love to come across others’ notes and underlined sections in the used books that I buy or check out of the library.

It’s an odd contradiction that I’ve only recently noticed, and I think it may be about time for me to relax some of my ideas about the “proper” treatment of books. If nothing else, maybe I can make someone who comes along after me stop and pay a little more attention to some of the parts I love best.

What about you? How do you care for the books you love? Do you think that appreciation is best expressed by carefully preserving it in good condition, or do you prefer the idea of making a book your own, and see the stains and wrinkles and marks that come with it as only giving the book more character? Does it depend on the type of book?

Grabbing Attention… the Right Way.

February 17th, 2012 by emilysather

The other day, my father came across a news article that he just had to bring to my attention. Not because of the contents of the article itself… but because of the headline:

Columbian Priests Hired Hitmen to Kill Themselves

Now, reading that, the logical assumption might be that the hitmen had been hired to kill … well, themselves. Which, admittedly, would be an interesting way of combating violent crime, but I can hardly picture very many hitmen considering it worth the money.

If you read the article, of course, you’ll see that the reality was rather different: it was the priests who decided to commit suicide-by-hitmen.

It reminded me, in a way, of something I saw while driving past a video rental store some time ago. They had placed this sign in the window:

As you can see, there were no other signs nearby, nothing to clarify their meaning. Since I was in the car and only had a cell phone camera I wasn’t able to get a good closeup at the time, but with a bit of searching I found a picture (from another store in the same chain) that shows the smaller words more clearly:

Free Kids at Hollywood Video

Yep. That’s it. The fine print simply says “See store for details” – twice. Are there free kids’ movies? Free movie rentals to children? Are they running some other sort of children’s program for which they don’t charge? That’s a whole lot of “detail” left out, leaving the passersby with only the information that … they are apparently giving away children at these stores. And here I was under the impression that that might be just a little bit, well, illegal, to say the least. One has to wonder whether this particular promotional is in any way responsible for the fact that the store went out of business shortly thereafter.

In both these cases, the initial goal was achieved, in a way: the words did grab attention. The problem is, they did so in a way that was very misleading.

There are lots of ways that that can happen in writing. Sometimes we’re just not thinking things through, or stopping to consider how our words will come across to others. (Either through laziness, or simply because we know what we meant, and it doesn’t occur to us that that might not be what our words actually said.) Other times the misleading element is intentional, designed to startle readers into paying closer attention.

Now, that latter approach can be effective, especially when paired with a humorous approach to a subject. Sometimes it can be just the thing to make a title stand out to potential readers and arouse their curiosity.

It does, however, require a bit of caution in your approach. An unexpected title or first line may catch a reader’s attention, but you still need to keep it. If you fail in that task, the reader will be disappointed – and may even resent the bait-and-switch approach, feeling that you’ve tricked them into thinking this was going to be more interesting than it really was.

Whatever the subject or tone, it’s important to pay attention, and consider your reader’s perspective as well as your own intent.  Take time to re-read what you’ve written, and ask yourself: Am I actually saying what I think I’m saying?

Vocabulary

February 10th, 2012 by emilysather

The comedian isn’t one whose work I was previously familiar with, but I must say this retelling of The Three Little Pigs is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. (Link will take you to a Youtube video – I would’ve embedded it directly, but it doesn’t seem to work here.) A thought-provoking, as well as entertaining, look at the breadth of vocabulary commonly seen in older books, as opposed to what most people are familiar with today.

The question of which words to use is one that all authors give some thought to, to one degree or another (or should, at any rate!).

No, of course we don’t want to send readers to the dictionary with every other word we use. But I think we could all agree that writers should work to develop their vocabularies, and that a love of words is a definite asset to anyone in the craft, and can enrich our writing considerably.

English is a rich language, and it’s a shame to see the number of words we can assume the average reader will be familiar with dwindling.