Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I had to admit I was a word nerd when

I had to admit I was a word nerd when I got excited about a great price on an unabridged dictionary at Barnes & Noble, one with a four inch spine. I thought, Wow that must include almost everything! Like the huge dictionary at the library on a stand because it’s too heavy to lift. Of course, I bought it.

Maybe I could have maintained my “normal person” fa├žade if I had been alone when I purchased the massive book, but my husband was with me. He already knew I had word-nerd proclivities, so he didn’t intervene; he just gave me that you’re-kidding-right look.
I remember when being called a nerd was a real insult. I wanted to be cool. Didn’t you? So interactions with other word nerds were cultish. We spoke about our little fetishes privately, like drug addicts.

Today, I’ve owned up to my inner nerd. I recently discovered, Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots. We’re talking word-nerd crack. Hardcore wordplay. There’s no going back into the closet now, no way to hold onto the image of respectable mystery or history reader. Once you’ve crossed into Jurisfiction, character exchange programs, and grammasites, the Cheshire Cat is out of the . . . okay, time to stop now.

When did you admit you’re a word nerd? Please add a comment.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Do you want to be right or readable?

The obvious answer to that question is: both. So why would I bring it up? A few years ago I taught a short course on grammar to a group of adults. I assumed the people who signed up for the course were interested in improving the quality of their writing. For some, this was true. But a few, one in particular, seemed more interested in discussing the nuances of “the rules” than in generating readable prose.

The problem student’s not-so-hidden agenda for taking the class was to be able to win arguments with her boss. She wanted to argue her rightness and someone else’s wrongness. Her questions went along the lines of “but which punctuation would you use if.” The situations she posed became absurd, and the resulting, technically-correct sentences just sucked.

At some point you need to get past merely satisfying the rules and rewrite a sentence when it’s not working. “The rules” are more relaxed in fiction than in non-fiction and business communications. We get more leeway in fiction. We are encouraged to develop a distinctive voice. And you can get away with anything in dialogue. In non-fiction grammar counts more because you must maintain credibility. A serious slip in the conventions of grammar will undercut your expertise.

Besides, in many cases these days, one person’s rule may be another’s preference.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Critique Conundrum

Critiques in a writers’ group or peer edits in a classroom suffer the same conundrum. Writers and editors may be mismatched in two ways, writing skill and goal of the critique.

Those of us who write by choice tend to think favorably of our skills. Otherwise we’d run from the task. But let’s face it; we’re not all great or even good writers. So how do we know when to listen to the advice of others? How do we know if we’re the stronger or weaker link?

Most critique remarks reflect personal preference. Sure, the rule mongers among us delight in pointing out technical details, but technical accuracy alone does not a delightful sentence make. Style counts. In a one-on-one situation, identifying the stronger writer may be nebulous. Our egos may block our objectivity. In a group a general consensus usually emerges, and you can ignore the lone jerk who hated your favorite phrase.

In a non-professional setting, negotiating the pitfalls of mismatched goals can be trickier. Do we really want to know the truth about our precious piece of prose? Or do we mostly want approval? If asked, we say we want the truth. But we might be disappointed or discount what we hear.

As editors, most of us want to be helpful, not hurtful. But what’s more helpful: “this is really good” or a line-by-line rip? Clearly, something in the middle is probably best, but where’s the line? The strong/weak dichotomy plays a role again.

I’ve seen stronger writers offer lame praise as kindness or in exasperation that the work is so unsalvageable that it’s not worth the effort to comment. And weaker writers may go for the rip, either doing their helpful best or unconsciously compensating for their shortcomings.

Identify the audience and purpose for the writing that you’re sharing. And please be honest. I’d love to hear a request along the line of, “Here’s my journal entry. I think it’s great. Please tell me you agree.” Or “I’m submitting this book for publication to XYZ. Be brutal.”

Please add a comment and share how you overcome the critique conundrum.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Identify Your Ideal Writing Environment

Although I don’t consider myself a morning person, I prefer writing in the morning, in my pajamas. I have breakfast, brush my teeth, and wash my face, but if I spend the time to shower and dress, I might get sidetracked and not get my “butt on” the chair. (I attended a conference where the speaker passed out buttons as a reminder to writers to stay seated at the computer. Amazing how easily we get distracted.) If I have to go to the office to write, I prefer to start the writing project immediately after checking emails.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few of my major distracters and a few habits that I now accept as part of my writing process. First, my work area needs to be reasonably straight, not too many things out of place. I don’t have to clean or file everything, but I do need a tidy area. And it’s best if I close Outlook.

I sometimes play music, no words just instrumentals. However, I have one or two CDs in another language that work as white noise. Since I don’t know what the words are they don’t distract me. But I can’t have a singer filling my head with “oh baby” or “moonlight” or “party tonight” or whatever when I’m stuck on a word.

I’ve learned that I’m not always procrastinating when I wait a few days to begin writing. I used to berate myself for avoiding a project. Now I realize that sometimes I need time to let ideas bubble. Clearly, there’s a line here; bubbling and blowing off are dangerously similar. Bubbling may also take the form of walking. When I’m stuck, I may need to walk to the kitchen for another cup of tea or around the office to clear my head. As long as I’m still thinking about the writing project, I’m still working.

One Angler writes a monthly fashion feature in a local magazine. She claims she does her best work when deadlines are pressing. I need time to edit. I like to leave the piece alone for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes. Another Angler shared that she likes to have her dog beside her. As long as my pets are quiet, I don’t care if they’re close or not.

Identify your ideal writing environment so you can reach your zone more quickly. When you know certain factors help while others hinder, you can control the situation and improve your chances of staying on target. Or at least have a fighting chance, until the dogs bark, the emails ping, the phone rings, the chair squeaks, and so on.

Please add a comment below and share your Ideal Writing Environment.

Angler Updates

Welcome to members of the Linked In group, Aspiring Writers. Glad to have you on board as Anglers.

Congrats! One of our published Anglers, Texasrangersfan (aka Kathleen Sullivan), co-authored a new book, Our White Boy.