Archive for March, 2012

Little Things DO Matter

Friday, March 30th, 2012

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

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

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?

Friday, March 16th, 2012

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

Friday, March 9th, 2012

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.

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

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.