Monday, October 28, 2019

Finding the Good in Bad Grammar

I am sure you've experienced something similar to this. You and some friends get together, say to go bowling. You get a few strikes, pick up a couple of spares, and close the game with a solid 148 - far better than usual. You are happy, and say, "It always a nice night when I bowl good."

At this point, a friend butts in with, "You didn't bowl good, you bowled well."

"Huh?"

"The proper way to say it is that you bowled well." This uptight friend continues, "A bowler is good. Bowling goes well."

"Whatever," you say, reminding yourself to no longer invite that friend for nights out.

Now, that obnoxious friend - who, in your head, might look a lot like me - is technically correct. He knows the grammar rules and the different situations for using good and well, and probably has good intentions in offering the correction. And as most people know, nobody likes that guy when he does that. They quietly hate him. He is the friend known as "The Grammar Nazi," and a buzzkill. Is this hypocrisy?

Maybe. The most important part, however, is that this is an opportunity for the writer in us to learn a few things. If we know the good/well distinction, or when to use "you and I" versus "you and me," that's just great. We can learn not by spreading the good word of grammar to the uncaring, but by listening to how often people violate these rules in conversation and nobody cares.

In the real world, people do not always speak with clean, eloquent, rounded structure. People use double-negatives, they split infinitives and leave participles dangling. Even when using proper English, there is a lot of room for error. After than, well, there's slang. Dialect. Euphemisms. Awkward phrases. At the end of the day, it seems like there are more ways to screw up a conversation than get it right.

That's where the lesson comes in. Consider all the great ways where bad grammar makes a conversation natural. People will say, "When I bowl good, you and me make a nice team," and everyone understands it. The Grammar Nazi friend might be very uncomfortable, but that's his problem.

While this is a guide for dialogue, it also applies to narrative voice - first-person in particular. A narrator who uses sinful, improper terms such as, "supposably," or "I could care less," connects with the reader due to their imperfection.

As a writer, let a few slip-ups offer some flexibility to the voice. Let the conversation be the kind you would hear at the bowling alley. Preferably, on one of those nights when that grammar friend was not invited.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Miscommunication and Dyscommunication

During a recent writing workshop, we had an interesting discussion about the difference in conversational English over the years - centuries, actually. Some commonplace words back then have fallen out of use, some did not even exist back then, and certain historical events created sayings that now define the language. The gap between, say, 19th- and the 21st-century conversation is pretty noticeable, but our language has evolved in many ways, and not recognizing them can make writing pretty hard to read. In the worst cases, it can actually send the wrong message.

One way that words have changed is through social media. In our rapid-fire online environment, it seems that words can transform as fast as the spread of one viral meme. It used to be that a catch-phrase would need to catch on when lightning struck from a commercial during the Super Bowl. Now, lightning strikes everywhere; the pages of Facebook transmitting new phrases and sayings that load context into simple phrases. Plenty of people hear, "One does not simply..." or "What if I told you..." and their mind goes to a meme reference. The reader now thinks something other than what the writer intended - miscommunication.

I always have to tip my hat to another form of writing that can be a problem - jargon. We know it when we hear it, but often we don't know it when we use it. The main definition of jargon is a terminology unique to a particular subject, but when the reader is not able to gather the meaning through context, jargon falls to the alternate definition, "Language that is incomprehensible or unintelligible."

Without getting partisan, let's just think about the current political environment. People staunchly within the camp of their preferred party circulate words that are standard English but carry a very loaded meaning to people within that camp. The words liberal and conservative have very simple meanings in our language, but along the partisan spectrum they can be toxic words said with a snarl and a cocked eyebrow, or with chest-puffing pride. As writers, we don't need to pour our own politics into our characters if we don't want to. However, we at least have to recognize that certain words can redirect our readers if we are not careful. If we want to put a political voice into our writing, then we can garnish our writing with all the political jargon we wish. If that's not our desire, well, maybe saying "a conservative approach" is better written as "a reserved approach," or "a liberal use" becomes "a generous use."

Now for the subject of dyscommunication. In case you did not know, the word, "dyscommunication" is not a recognized word in our language. However, it transmits a meaning in that its structure communicates a message through the simple prefix of "dys," as in, "dysfunctional." This word doesn't talk about when we fail to communicate a message, but when we communicates a different, or perhaps opposing message. This can be a question of context, of framing a sentence just so, and putting the inflection in just the right or wrong place.

We've all heard the story of the husband and wife preparing to go out for the evening, and the wife asks, "Does this dress make me look fat?"

The guy answers, "That dress doesn't make you look fat."

A simple story. However, it would help the writer to add some context to prevent the wrong message from being picked up by the reader. He could get up, approach her, say the line while admiring her. The message is reinforced, assuming that's what he meant. But what if he meant, "That dress doesn't make you look fat" (implication: you look fat with or without it) or "That dress doesn't make you look fat" (implication: you look like you are hiding your fat.) Adding a little emphasis or context prevent dyscommunication.

Next stop: using poor language use to effect.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Writing - Panic and Focus

A friend of mind had a job where she regularly helped people get through panic attacks. When the person would start boiling over, she would go through a routine proven to cool down people at their worst. She would get the person to look at her, then in a kind, patient voice, she would ask the person to name five things they could see. Then name four things they could hear, then three things they could feel, then two things they could smell, and finally one thing they could taste. By the end of this, the panic attack had dissipated and the person was calm. There is something for writers to learn here, other than how to control a panic attack.

First and foremost, this is about focus. During a panic attack, sensory input is overwhelming. Every sense wrestles for dominance, every sight and sound taking on a presence of its own. In writing, this is when the author tries to explain everything in one big flurry of words: a character's wardrobe and hairstyle, their car, their personality, where they live - you get the point. Readers will lose track of all these little details flying around, and few things actually stick. Chaotic explanations and descriptions are the literary version of a panic attack, and the best remedy is similar.

The most important part of remedying a panic attack is focus - cutting off the massive sensory input and turning attention to a limited number of obvious points. Our sense of sight is an obvious approach, so turning the mind toward a few items limits the flood of chaos. In writing, we don't need to describe every stitch of clothing if we can offer one visual cue that creates the whole image - a department head's business suit and tie as clean and crisp as the company he works for, or everything a person wears looking like its made out of hemp. One description, one focus, and our writing is less chaotic.

The next part of control is the narrowing element. Each step in bringing down a panic attack is narrowing that focus; five items becomes four, then three, and so on. When we first write about something, we can offer a broader description, but each time it returns, we narrow that focus toward the crucial elements. As we continue to discuss the department head in the paragraph above, we focus on the starched edges of his hard collar or the retentively tight Windsor knot of his tie. Those define the person, and even the mention of that cue describes the entire person. And, if a later scene points out a wrinkle in that suit or a crease in that shirt, well, it sets off alarms with the reader. That one mention, with proper focus, dominates an entire scene.

There is also another note about focus that the panic-attack example might not reveal so obviously. As we go through the sensory roll call, we go from the very obvious world of sight and sound to the more intimate, internal world of subjectivity and perception. In short, the focus goes from external to internal. As the world becomes more intimate, the writer brings the reader into the world, beyond the red, green, and blue and into the senses that trigger emotions and memories. At this point, the reader is translating the words directly into how they understand the world. They are bonding in a way that engages them with the writing. For the writer - mission accomplished.

I know plenty of people who write amazing descriptions. Most of the time, two people will walk away from those pieces with a different idea of what they just read, but they will have the same emotional experience. This is good writing. This control of the reader's perception through focused description is an amazing thing, just like seeing someone bring a panic attack under control, and the end result is often an amazing sense of connection afterward.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Writing When You Don't Want to Write

Life can be brutal. Disappointment can come at any time, rejection awaits us around every corner, and tragedy can intrude with the simplicity of a text. Even when we step around those big pitfalls, plenty of little things await us: an unexpected expense, a headache or upset stomach, a friend letting you down. All of these can sap the energy from us, leaving our charge meter deep in the red. At times like this, how can we possibly sit down, get ourselves into that writer mindset, and create something?

Maybe we shouldn't. Sometimes we get hit by too much, and the best place is underneath a pile of blankets. Oddly, the first step of writing when we don't want to write is acknowledging this is an option. Sometimes it is easier to tell ourselves, "I don't have to write. I should, but I don't have to." When the world is hanging awkwardly from our shoulders, and our battery charge is in the single digits, it actually helps to think of something not as mandatory, but as optional. That way, when we choose to do that thing, we control the situation rather than let it control us. We still feel depleted, but the weight on our back is not compounded by another burden.

The next parts are actually planned long in advance. When we decide that despite our depleted feeling we will write something, looking at that blank page can be just as daunting as our decision to write in the first place. This is where our process practice comes into place. I have mentioned too many times that we need our writing place - that place where we always write, where everything is familiar and in place, where all our needs as a writer are met. When we are barely functioning, falling into this place and these habits has a magical effect. We no longer expend energy becoming a writer in our head - all of those rituals and habits relieve us of the effort. Our mind responds to those things like a dog hearing the dinner bell. It's not a magical cure, but it is a deep, cleansing breath that puts us into that place in our head where we can write. We don't have to write, but we should, and now it's becoming easier.

Another important part of this is the promise. This might sound a little hokey, but give it a try because there's nothing to lose. As we sit in our writing place, ready to create, make a promise to yourself that your only goal is to write. You are not obliged to create the outline for The Great American Novel, you don't have to create a brilliant character sketch or the perfect haiku. Your only agreement with that promise is to write. To create. To make something; anything. When it's done, you don't need to keep it. Delete the file, burn the paper, store it in a desk drawer with all the other things you promised to create when you weren't feeling like creating. Living up to your own process is a nice feeling, and it gives a certain sense of satisfaction if nothing else.

If possible, the one last thing to do is tap into what has drained you. It doesn't have to be a event-by-event recap of everything that brought you down. It can be a character feeling the same way; a poem about exhaustion, or a playful sketch about the life of a battery charger as it saves iPhone after iPhone, all while its wire casing frays at the connector, as they are so prone to do. This is the oldest bit of advice about writing what you know, and when you tap into it, the exhaustion can be a little more manageable.

As you all have likely guessed, I had a terrible day just before writing this. A painful letdown, an emotional betrayal, all the high drama one might expect that brings a person to a low point. Of course, it all occurred shortly before my allotted time for putting together my post. The blankets were warm, I was tired, my cats were already showing me the proper way to sleep - everything in place for me to hide from the world.

Instead, I wrote this. Now I have a little more energy, and I can face the day.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Good Critique Technique

I've talked a lot about editing lately, and received a few questions about just how to be an editor. In particular, some people have questioned how they can be a good editor if they are not very good at writing in the first place. This is a very important discussion, so I thought it'd be worth exploring a little. In particular, I want to offer the difference between being an editor, being a writer, and being a critic - a good critic.

We all have that image in our heads of an editor - that intense, critical look in their eyes. An anxious, almost desperate urge to leap in and mark up our beautiful copy. And, of course, that annoying aura of someone who knows all the rules and focuses on everything wrong with whatever is in front of them. That's the stereotypical editor, and all writers frame that person as the villain. To be honest, if our editor is that kind of person, maybe they are just a villain.

Each writer needs a special kind of editor to address their particular needs. The kind of editor someone needs for a manuscript is often different than what people need in a workshop, so before we decide what kind of editor we can or can't be, we need to decide what our writing audience needs. Some need editors, others need critics, and some just need help. Addressing that last need is the most important in a workshop, and it doesn't take an old-school, hard-core editor to fill that role.

In workshops, people are trying to become writers, so the most important part is helping them write what they want to say. Anyone reviewing the work of a person trying to figure out how to tell a story should be the editor from the 30,000-foot view - someone who looks at the big picture: Is the story clearly written? Is the structure solid, or can it be improved? Are there distractions? What is the conclusion? If the spelling, punctuation, and grammar are horrible, the high-level edit might note to run a spell-check, but that's not the point right now. It's all about structure, flow, and storytelling. People who want to become writers don't need to know the proper application of the subjunctive or how to spell occurrence; they need to get things together and communicate ideas.

As a writer starts developing the craft, the best editor will be someone who can be a critic. (Note: "Critic" can be a good thing if it is constructive.) In this case, the critical editor will come down from the 30,000-foot view, zooming in much closer, approaching works while considering things like structuring paragraphs or style techniques. Any critique from this level will be full of comments and questions, pointing out where techniques work, where they don't, and ideas about getting it back on track. The critical editor should offer recommendations for any problem they highlight, and promote the writer's personal growth. These are the most important editors for the writers in a workshop who want to shift their writing game into high gear.

Conversely, the least-helpful editors in a workshop are the deep, intense, close-view critics who spend their time parsing every comma and semicolon, picking every nit they can find. These editors are mandatory for anyone who wants to create a polished copy ready for publication or contest submission. However, this intensity is not a good fit in a workshop, or at least not when that style of editing is the top priority. It took me a while to put away that style of editing at workshops and focus on style, structure, and helping writers grow.

Yes, I still mark spelling errors and fix punctuation at workshops. However, the part I focus on now, and what everyone can participate in, comes from talking about the broader picture, and what we notice not as editors, but as readers. You don't need to be a great writer to have an opinion as a reader. Your opinion in that regard is what will make you an important contributor to any writing workshop.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Editing and Workshops

I've made no secret on this blog that I am involved in several writing workshops. I am the facilitator for one at my local library, and I am a member of several others throughout the area. This takes up about eight nights a month for me, plus odd little events on the side, which is not a huge commitment in the larger perspective. However, I frequently get asked the same question: "Why do you need to go to so many workshops? Do you have that much writing to work on, or do you just need that much help?"

Fair questions, but they miss the real point. First, the most important part of a writing workshop is to put one's self into a community of writers at various stages of developing their process. Surrounding yourself with people on the same journey builds a natural momentum - it is like a peloton in cycling, where cyclists group together along the road and, in turn, reduce drag, save energy, and make the long ride a little easier.

To actually address their questions, I take them on in a very matter-of-fact way. The first part, "Why so many?" gets the peloton response. The second part is far more important, so I approach it piece-by-piece. Firstly, I do not write so much that I need eight nights a month to review all that I have created - I should be so prolific. Workshops are not strictly to review our own work. That's an important function, but not the only one, which leads to the second part about needing that much help.

Do I need that much help? Yes. Yes I do. Every writer always needs help, and from several directions. However, a workshop provides a special kind of help - it provides other examples of writing, and writers trying to turn thoughts into stories. This is a special kind of help, because it gives us the opportunity to be an editor and a writer at the same time.

At many workshops, someone will present a piece, read it aloud, and the members offer critiques through either formal review, comments, written markups, or some combination of methods. This allows us to focus on editing from the larger perspective. Maybe the writer wants us to fix the punctuation, maybe they are looking for tips on structure. We become a consumer of the information and an analyst of its little pieces. In doing that, we benefit from dissecting and exploring writing, which helps as I discussed in a previous post, "Learning From Editing."

However, workshops often have times where a writer contributes a piece and explains what they are trying to accomplish and the struggles they have in achieving that. At this point, the peloton forms and everyone helps improve the piece. We do this by being editors and writers, by thinking how we would approach the challenge, how we would write this, and how their writing fares in accomplishing this. We explain our process as a writer, and offer ideas to the person. It becomes a brainstorming session, but everyone benefits from the exercise.

So do I recommend workshops? Yes I do. Why? Because as writers, we benefit on several levels from working with other people riding along our path, and we are reminded that we are never alone in developing our process.


Monday, October 7, 2019

My Old-Fashioned Personal Editor

The past few posts have been about the editing process - both understanding what you can learn from your mistakes, and the importance of editing other people's works. Both of these contribute to your skills as a writer, but there is another facet to this that I wanted to give special attention to. Past posts have discussed the importance of developing habits around being a writer - writing on a regular schedule, having a space where you are just a writer, and so on. This time, I will talk about the importance of having an editor who knows your style and you can trust implicitly.

Don't think that having a personal editor is some fancy thing only done by professional writers - it is very simple and incredibly beneficial. More importantly, everyone has access to this resource if they are so inclined. It just requires dedication to taking the steps necessary to have that person who can edit your work.

My editor is from the old school of writing. He is cranky and stubborn, very detail-oriented, and insists on editing printed copy - none of that edit-on-the-screen technique. He puts on a pair of Ben-Franklin-style reading glasses, sits in the corner with a red pen, drinks his scotch and goes through the copy to devastating effect. This is not my style - when I write, I have my laptop out, my gin and tonic nearby, maybe some music on in the background, and I am in a very relaxed mindset. That's my writing place. It's the exact opposite of my editor.

Getting along with my editor isn't really necessary. His job and place in the world is to edit. Find corrections and mark them. Look for problems with continuity, plot movement, etc. I create, he corrects. It's a very workmanlike relationship. It works well, since he knows my style and knows that sometimes when I use repetition, it is deliberately for effect. He will also tell me when that effect does not work. Our years of collaboration have brought us to a comfortable understanding of what works and what doesn't.

In case you haven't figured it out, my personal editor... is me. At least for my smaller pieces, I do most of my own editing. The point of this discussion is to highlight what I do to edit my work. The most important thing I do is I stop being a writer. I put things aside that bring out my creativity, and I get into my analytical mode. Gin changes to scotch, laptop changes to printed copy, and so forth. I sit in my editing nook and put the red pen to work.

Does this sound like a technicality? Not really. Just as being a writer means creating habits and patterns that help you create, editing is the same thing. The patterns are different, but if they are consistent, they develop into their own mindset. More importantly, different patterns help you detach from one role and take on the other one. (Ask my co-workers about the Ben Franklin reading glasses. My favorite pair dates back to the 19th century and when I edited copy, there they were on the bridge of my nose.)

The other reason this helps our process is because when we write and create, we bond ourselves to those words. That creative mindset can read the copy and think about all the characters, mood, etc., but at that point, the mind no longer sees words and punctuation; it is just reviewing ideas. An editor has to forgo all of the passion and love poured into the words and focus on details. A writer might see a beautiful description of a sun set. The editor has to find the split infinitives and point out that it is not spelled "sun set."

As you develop your process, think about the different roles you play. Define them, own them, and make them unique to your character. And if you don't like scotch, I understand. Gin will do.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Learning From Editing

My last post dealt with the joys of learning from our mistakes (or at least the joy I get from them). We are walking, talking, error machines who can't help but make all kinds of mistakes. Yet, as we improve, we still benefit from recognizing our imperfections, and how we can still be a little better. Our writing will get better, and yet unless it is perfect, we will forever add to its style and beauty through learning from our mistakes.

Now we are going to discuss something far more educational than our mistakes - other people's mistakes. It may sound a little cruel to enjoy other people's mistakes, but hear me out. I offer that there is a lot to gain from what other people do, and it's not just learning from their errors; it's learning from their process.

Author Barbara Gregorich, whose Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel is a must-read for aspiring writers, said that editing the writing of other people benefited her more than editing her own work ever did. The big gain was that when we read our own work, we are just going over the same path, mowing the same lawn over and over. However, when we explore someone else's work, it isn't just sifting through a bunch of words we typed up. We are on a different path, mowing a different lawn, learning an entirely new terrain and all its details.

When I read a book, I enjoy it in the same way anyone else would. However, the writer in me is thinking about techniques, style, and how a particular turn of a phrase worked so well. Sometimes I will go through a short story then ask myself why a particular character stuck to me even though it was just a thousand words long? I will read it again, picking it apart for some technique that author used. Did they describe their characters with adjectives or with actions? Did the dialogue get to the point? Were the descriptions interactive, so the character became a part of everything around them? At this point, I am no longer reading. I am analyzing, dissecting. My inner writer has taken the wheel, and wants to become better by solving this riddle.

The same thing happens when we edit other people's writing, but even more so. Now the writer in us isn't wondering how a particular style worked, but asking ourselves if it worked. It's no longer an analytical process, it's a critical process. Does this character stick with me? Do those descriptions work? Are those linguistic devices paying off or do they bore me? And, of course, if they don't work, can they be salvaged? With our own works, we never get to explore these issues in the editing process. With the writing of others, it is our job to do a forensic overhaul on everything. In doing this, we learn.

Needless to say, I get a few people every week who inform me that I had a spelling error or grammatical slip-up in a past post (my editor is far from perfect). When I get these messages, I go in, correct the copy, and nobody is the wiser. However, I make a little mental note that those people are reading my work as more than just a consumer of words, but also a critical eye. Are they analyzing how I turn a phrase or lay out the structure? I don't know. However, they are looking closely. They are reading at a deeper level.

Hopefully, this means they are becoming a better writer in the process.