Archive for January, 2013


Passion, Not Venom

I have my favorites. Books, sports teams, music, movies, video games, food, and so on. Things I feel passionate enough about to recommend to others, to defend against attacks, and to explain the reasons why I like them so much when compared to other things.

One thing I’ve never felt compelled to do is to state my opinion with such vehemence that I leave no room for the possibility of people feeling differently than I do about (insert title/team/food etc here). I’ve never felt compelled to attack people for their likes and dislikes. I’ve never felt the need to ridicule them for liking something that I think it’s odd for a person like them (whoever they may be) to like. There are things I love and am passionate about, but not so passionate that I feel the need to try to convert people to thinking the same way as me about them. It’s okay for people to like other things. It’s more than okay, it’s a simple fact of life. Billions of people sharing the same thought about the same thing? Just not going to happen.

That ideal is so simple and such a given to me that I simply do not understand the venom some people choose to spew over the things they dislike. Whether it be directed at the creators of such things or the people who enjoy them.

Truth be told, I’m a pretty easy mark when it comes to entertainment. I can find some kind of value in pretty much anything. Some people might call that low standards, but personally I think it’s just a highly developed ability to seek and find the silver linings, and appreciate a work for its positives rather than condemning it for the negatives. I can’t think about a topic like this without thinking of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. A polarizing work if there ever was one.

I like the books. Are they literary masterpieces? No. But I never expected them to be. There are two aspects of the series though, that I feel deserve recognition and admiration. One, Stephanie Meyer really keyed in on her target audience with the story. It’s possible for everyone to find enjoyment in everything, but this book was definitely aimed at the teen girl audience, and I felt that the writing and the story reflected that. She’s clearly no Shakespeare, but how well does Shakespeare really go over in most high school English classes? The voice, the style, the writing all hit the right notes for the intended audience. It may not hit the standards you want/expect for yourself, but there are ways to express that without out right attacks or condemning her for her success.

The second thing I found exceptional about the series is Meyer’s courage to take such an iconic figure like a vampire and change it into something so different. Believe me, I prefer my vampires more monstrous and less sparkly, but for someone to even conceive of that idea and put it into practice is something that takes a unique mind and strong spine. In a realm where truly original ideas are pretty tough to come by, that one ranks up there as one of the more original in a very long time. Whether I think it was the “right” choice or not, when there really is no right or wrong to begin with, I can still admire the originality and how she made it work for her.

Just like I can laugh at the low-brow comedy of Adam Sandler, find enjoyment in the music of Nickelback, and greatly appreciate the superb technical aspects of Citizen Kane (even while thinking that the movie itself is one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen). Even when I don’t like something, even when the appeal makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever (The Jersey Shore for example) I’ve never once wondered how something gets popular. I know exactly how things like that get popular. I already said it earlier. There are BILLIONS of people on this planet. That’s billions with a b. Just a bit under 7 billion people actually. Do you know what 1 percent of 7 billion is? 70 million. That means if just one percent of the world shares a similar mindset and likes something, 70 MILLION people like it. Getting one percent of anything isn’t all that difficult, so ultimately nothing surprises me when it comes to what people find enjoyment in.

I’m not arrogant or foolish enough to think that everyone is going to think like me. Nor do I care enough to expend energy trying to convince people to do so. I have more than enough going on in my life to consume my energy, that’s not an area I choose to spend my time worrying about. Simply stating my opinion and allowing them the space and courtesy to make up their own mind is enough. After all, if one person doesn’t agree, there are still 6,999,999,999 more people to go.

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As I narrow down my choices for what areas I want to study when I go back to school and try to decide what exactly my degree will be, I’m taken back to my high school days when the plan was to major in English. I got the same looks that everyone gets when they bring that one up. The look that says, “Ehhh… ok, I guess, it’s better than Philosophy.”

I never got around to school immediately after high school, and then I bounced back and forth several times between doing something English/Writing related and Culinary school since writing and cooking are two passions of mine. I’ve since realized that cooking will always be a hobby-esque passion and that I would not do well trying to make it a career. I have no idea if I’ll do well trying to make writing a career, but I’m still compelled to try anyway. That compulsion was what clued me in to my decision ultimately.

So, as I sat here pondering, I made myself think of 9 things I could do with a degree in English. No… not career-wise. With the ACTUAL physical degree itself. Because once people see all that you can do with that degree, their looks of “Why English?” will turn into “OMG ENGLISH!!! Woooo!”

9. Two words… party hat.

8. With a Bachelor of Arts degree and some creative cut outs from magazines and newspapers, you can transform it into a “Bad-Ass of Arts” degree in English. You…a certified bad-ass.

7. You are now allowed to travel to England because you can prove you speak the language.

6. You now have a flashy name tag to stick to your chest for your next round of speed dating.

5. Rather than filling out job applications, just submit copies of the degree. Write ‘Boo-yah!’ at the top, knowing how impressed everyone is going to be by your accomplishment. Wait for the offers to roll in.

4. Fold it into one of those fortune-telling devices  you made back in the third grade. Pick the color Blue, then the number 6. Find out that you’re going to marry a booger. Wonder what you’ll name the kids.

3. Use the back to write a list of demands for your trailer for when the best-seller you’re going to write gets turned into the next Hollywood block buster.

2. Procure some high tech lab equipment from the nearest pharmaceutical company or government research facility and following Nicholas Cage’s example, see if you can find an invisible treasure map on the back of your degree.

1. Now that you have a nice piece of paper you can use for a demo piece, you can finally fill out that application to the University of Origami that you’ve been dying to go to your entire life and get a REAL education.

Remember these next time your parents/brother/sister/neighbor/cashier/buddy from down the street/stranger from up the street/somewhat acquaintance from across the street gives you crap for your choice in educational endeavors. You’re going to be just fine!

 

reviewpyramid I’ll start this review by saying that ‘pyramid’ just refers to the format I’ve decided to use for this, and all future book reviews on my blog. I’ll be dividing into three parts, represented by the levels of the pyramid seen here. The foundation will discuss what I perceive to be the core of the book, the most important part(s). The body is the stuff that’s important but not quite as important as the foundation, and the tip will be all the nit-picking for stuff that may or may not have added something a little extra to the book, but wouldn’t necessarily have been missed had they been left out.

Each section will have a rating: Strong, Adequate, or Weak. The terms are fairly self explanatory but if you’re the kind of person who likes a star system, you can think of Strong as 3 stars out of 3, Adequate as 2 out of 3, and Weak as 1.

One last word before diving in the review: I don’t enjoy slamming people’s work, so I generally don’t spend time giving attention to things I don’t enjoy. As a result, the majority of reviews on here are probably going to be on the positive side. It’s not that I’m an easy mark and just love everything I read, it’s just that I don’t want to talk much about the stuff I don’t love. Every now and then if I manage to find some silver lining I deem worthy of sharing, or on the rare occasion I think something is so bad that I feel it’s my civic duty to warn the general public, I’ll share it via my reviews. A basic rule of thumb though is that if I’m featuring it on my blog, I’d recommend you to read it. Ok, with all that out of the way, on with the show.

Title: The Writer’s Little Helper
Author: James V. Smith Jr.
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books

The Foundation – STRONG

The core strength of this book is far and away its formatting and how the information is presented. This is a reference book meant to be taken off the shelf again and again as your reach different stages in the writing process and is set up in a way that allows you to find what you’re looking for quickly and easily. Everything is classified as either a Tool (a tip or trick you can use, often accompanied by a physical chart or something of that nature you’re meant to photocopy and physically use while writing), a Checklist (there are A LOT of checklists in this book, all of them designed to help you stay on point so  you don’t miss something along the way), or a Q&A (a collection of FAQs of writing advice). It makes everything really easy to follow and find when you’re looking for that one specific bit of information.

It also makes the information easy to digest. I can’t recall any specific tip or section lasting for more than 4 pages, most of them lasting for just two, and always on facing pages so you don’t have to spend time flipping through. This kind of design is to help you stay writing, which is critical for success. 

I also have to mention the content itself, because without strong content, it doesn’t really matter how it’s formatted. The advice in this book is top notch, easy to understand, and gets you excited to try it in your own writing. The side of each page has a colored tab that clearly tells you what aspect of writing is being discussed. Character, point of view, editing, getting your book published, and pacing are just a few of the myriad of topics covered. It isn’t a book that’s going to take you down to the depths of one specific area, it’s a water-bug that skims across the entire lake.

The Body – STRONG

Supporting the content is the author’s voice. Mr. Smith manages to deliver technical/text-book like advice in an easy, entertaining manner. I often found myself laughing out loud at parts, which doesn’t happen all that often in writing how-to books. One of my favorite parts was his guaranteed advice on how-to write a best-seller. “Copy your favorite best-selling author’s novel word-for-word. By hand. Longhand that is.” This kind of tongue in cheek humor ran throughout the book and I found it highly amusing. I also found it quite amazing when he turned his humor into sound advice. He was serious about copying that best-seller word for word. You’ll have to check the book out to find out why (and no, he’s not part of a dark cult of writers who secretly advocate plagiarism…at least I don’t think he is). Overall, it made it an entertaining read, and gave it a kind of ‘page-turning’ appeal usually found in good stories.

The Tip – STRONG

This book didn’t have all that many nits to pick for me. It’s obvious that the author and publisher had a clear idea of what they wanted this book to be, and they took all the steps necessary to hit that goal. Outside of the content and how it was structured though, this is just a pretty book to look at. I admit that I have a bit of ADOS (Attention Deficit OOOH Shiny!) and it doesn’t take much to make me happy in artistic terms. This book had a lot of color and I love color. Bright colors make me happy, and The Writer’s Little Helper had them in abundance, without being too garish or looking like a clown threw up on the pages. The design and overall look of the pages drew me in and kept my attention, and you really can’t ask for more from a design than that.

I’ve read dozens of books of writing advice and this one will forever rank as one of my favorites. The only slight caveat I have to offer is that this book touts itself as one that can help any writer from the seasoned professional to the beginning writer. While I do agree that the advice contained within can help absolutely anyway, it still FEELS like a book that’s geared towards the beginner. But, everyone can do with a refresher of the basics, or a fresh take on the things they already know, so this book would be a valuable asset for any writer to have on their shelves.

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Buy the Book: Amazon, B&N, Writer’s Digest Store

Follow the Author on Twitter: @aVeteranWriter

Follow Writer’s Digest on Twitter: @WritersDigest

Follow me on Twitter: @thewritepursuit

Married to the Pen

This post is not about me advocating human-office supply marriage rights, even though I did see this sexy stapler the other day… No, having just celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary (to a human, just for the record), I’ve been thinking about the parallels between a committed relationship with your significant other and the committed relationship between you and your writing.

The craft is demanding… time, energy, resources… all of them being drained until you question your own sanity and start talking to your collection of cat posters, wondering just why you couldn’t have been a Sherpa, guiding foolish climbers to their mountainous tombs. Same with being married. Erm… sort of. Love you pookie!

Since it’s my fifth anniversary, I picked out a top five list, and present them to you, in no particular order.

 

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Both are WORK with a capital W-O-R-K

 

It takes incredible discipline to sit in your chair day in and day out, especially when things aren’t working well and you’d rather be anywhere else in the world. But you make yourself sit there because you know that the end result is going to be worth it. Or at least that’s what you hope will happen. Same with marriage. It takes an enormous effort to communicate with one another consistently and openly. You’re doing so in the hopes that you’ve chosen the right person to live the rest of your life with. There are days where you don’t want to put in the work, where you feel like you’d rather be any other place in the world, but those are the days when you really need to buckle down and try harder, because any one can get through the easy times. Anyone can make it when everything is going well. You only succeed when you can persevere and you can only persevere by putting in the work. In your writing, in your relationship, in anything you do.

 

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Outsiders just don’t get the idea…

 

Being a writer is a little bit like being in a club. So’s being married. I’m not trying to sound elitist here, I’m just referring to a lack of experience when dealing with certain situations. There are certain things that a fellow writer will understand that someone who doesn’t write won’t. For married people, the ‘non-writers’ are their single friends. A fellow writer wouldn’t question you for digging through a trashcan for a scrap of paper to jot down a brilliant idea that came to you when your supply of paper was out. They’d understand that need to commit the idea to paper immediately or risk losing it forever. A good friend would immediately hand over some of their paper, or perhaps offer their arm and a Sharpie. The best you could hope for from a non-writer is an odd look and them pointing out which napkins have spaghetti sauce on them. For married people, other married people tend to understand things like getting home at a decent hour, last minute runs to the grocery store for tampons, and things of that nature. Non-wrtiters/singles look at the effort that goes into these relationships and they just don’t get it, because they haven’t been there. That’s okay though, we like them anyway.

 

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The sexiness of forbidden fruit…

 

Temptations are everywhere. People give in to those temptations too, sometimes with alarming frequency. In marriage, there’s a reason that the term ‘7 year itch’ is able to exist. Obviously it varies from person to person, but I’d be willing to bet it’s a pretty vast majority of married people that have experienced the temptation to either stray, or just give up on their relationship. The longer the couple is together, the higher that likelihood. It’s a natural emotion really. We live in a world of infinite choices and it’s easy to start thinking about the choices you didn’t make and get to wondering what might have been. Thinking about them is okay, obsessing about them is not. Neither is letting them get in the way of the good thing you’ve got going already. Believe it or not (and this is one of those things that other writers will have no problem believing), doing the dishes is a temptation. The laundry is a temptation. Mildew is tempting. Don’t get me started on the kitchen junk drawer needing reorganized. Ohhhh the kitchen junk drawer… I need a cigarette. These are all temptations because they all look better than writing when you’re in the middle of a block. They all look better when your focus and attention NEED to be on that relationship. If you’re not strong enough, you stray. Fortunately, writing isn’t there waiting to key your car and give a tell-all interview to all the supermarket tabloids your grandma reads. Or maybe that’s not so fortunate, it might keep me at the computer instead of in the junk drawer.

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Don’t you just love hearing about everything you do wrong?

 

If you’ve got a good relationship you try really hard to be accepting of who the other person is, without wanting to change them. Sometimes though, things slip through. Little things, meant innocently enough, that when added up over a long period of time, can really grate on a person’s nerves. Five years of marriage and I know my wife and I have these kinds of things with one another. Can’t wait to see what we come up with in the next twenty. For example, I’ve learned to be particularly careful when it comes to comments about her driving. Never meant maliciously, but if stated while she’s in the wrong mood, not the smartest move to make. Lesson learned: If there is ANY doubt about her mood, keep the trap shut. But even if you know the signs and how to avoid most of the pitfalls, if you’re married long enough, and you do something wrong, you’re going to hear about it. Repeatedly. For writers, we don’t call those people spouses, we call them editors. Or even readers. Sure, they may mean well and want to help you improve, but let’s be honest here. It’s still grating and a touch hurtful to have those flaws pointed out, especially when we can’t see them ourselves. Even the most well intentioned critiques can cause panic, retreat, and self-loathing. That’s to say nothing of the venom spewed by Internet trolls on comment boards. We’ll call those our ex… or mother-in-law (no offense intended to any of the nice exes or mothers in law out there).

 

January 15, 2008

January 15, 2008

This is why I do what I do…

 

Why do you write? Why stay with the same person for years and years? It’s constant work, an incredible string of ups and downs, sometimes moving at such a fast pace that you have no clue which way is up or when the ride is going to stop. Why? Because of the high it gives you. As an individual, absolutely NOTHING compares to how I feel when a story is clicking. When everything is coming out of my mind and onto the paper (or screen) exactly how I envision it. Whether that stuff is any good or not isn’t the point. It’s WORKING for me and that’s all that counts. There are no true words to exactly capture that feeling. That feeling is why I write. I’ve felt it before and like the most helpless of addicts, I have to feel it again… and again… and again. Writing can be such a personal act, it was difficult to imagine getting a similar feeling outside of a solitary environment. When I look at my wife and everything is clicking, it’s that same euphoria though. Knowing I have someone who loves, supports, cherishes, and honors me, with all my faults, foibles, and the occasional stapler fetish… it doesn’t get better than that.

 

So how do you think being married is like being a writer? Anyone else have an unhealthy obsession with office supplies? I’m officially declaring this a judgment free zone. Peace, love, and ink my friends.

After taking a look at Kay Honeyman’s (kayhoneyman.com) guest post on Chuck Sambuchino’s (Guide To Literary Agents) blog about how to deal with critiques (something every writer needs to know), my mind started working on just what makes a helpful critique.

If you haven’t developed a thick enough skin, receiving critiques can be the most damaging part of the writing process. It’s up to you as a writer to develop that skin because not everyone is going to love everything you write. Reviewers have a responsibility as well though. Taking a bit of care with your delivery can be just enough to save a writer from hurling themselves onto the tip of their favorite fountain pen.

Many of these ideas blend together and could probably be condensed down into a smaller number than six, but I thought that each one was important and merited its own focus.

Be respectful – There is no need to attack the writer for what they’ve written. Even if it’s the most abominable thing you’ve ever read and you never want to read another word written by that author again, telling people they should be ashamed, or kill themselves for ever having written such tripe is completely unnecessary, and unwarranted. This rule goes double if it’s someone you actually know and who has trusted you to provide feedback. There are ways to deliver the bad news without calling a person’s sanity into question. Find them.

Limit Yourself to What The Author Asks For – If you’re being asked to provide feedback, and the author specifically asks you to comment on a particular area… be it theme, pacing, character names, that scene with the purple alien who only eats guacamole, then do your best to keep your comments confined to those areas. For every author the writing process is different, and if they’re asking about a specific area, then that’s where their focus is at that moment in time. Some don’t go searching for typos until the very end, so telling them of the 2,003 spelling errors in the first three chapters is not going to be helpful. By offering feedback on what they ask about it will help them get to those other areas faster. If you’re the kind of reader a writer comes to repeatedly for advice on their work (congratulations, you’re a trusted associate!) it’s okay to make notes on other areas you see that need improving, but hang on to those for later. If an author doesn’t specify, it’s helpful to ask if there’s anything specific they want you to look at. Failing that, keep your comments broad and don’t zero in on one area too much. Point out one or two larger problems, then move on with a comment like “I did notice a few other things like that and would be happy to go over them with you later if you want me to.”

Be Honest – This can be tough if you’re close to the writer, and also ties heavily into being respectful. If you don’t like something, then by all means tell them directly. Every reader has their own preferences and an author needs to know what doesn’t work for a certain type of reader. If they have multiple readers (and every writer SHOULD have MULTIPLE readers) then they’ll be able to take the feedback and evaluate if it’s a problem with the overall writing or just a problem for a small subsection of readers, in which case changes may or may not be needed. Lying because you’re afraid of hurting a friend, or because you want to get laid by the hot, successful, soon to be globally known writer… it’s understandable, but completely not helpful. It also leads right into the next point.

Be Specific – One of my favorite writing quotes of all time is: “I would rather be damned precisely, then praised generically.” Who said it? Me. I stand by this statement even when a review makes me want to curl up into a ball and ride a boat down my river of tears into oncoming traffic. Comments like “That was great!” and “Loved it!” DO NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER WRITER. They feel good for sure, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to tell someone to never say such things to me, but when I give a work in progress to someone and I’m looking to improve it, those kinds of things are not what I need to here. If you loved it, tell them what you loved, in great detail if at all possible. You loved the characters? What about them? Their actions? Their words? The fact that all of them shared the same name as you for some unknown reason? That’s the stuff a writer needs to know. What’s working and what’s not. If something struck you as off and you can’t put into words what it is… TRY. This is where you call upon your high school essay writing skills: If you say something, back it up with facts. Details, details, details.

Be Thoughtful – What I mean by thoughtful, aside from the thought put into the other areas mentioned here, is to try to remember that nothing is completely good, and nothing is completely bad. When giving feedback, find the silver linings, and find the nits to pick. Even if I absolutely love a piece as is, I feel obligated to point out SOMETHING that could have been better in my eyes. Even if it’s something as trivial as not liking the font chosen. Something as ludicrous as that reminds a smart writer not to fall too much in love with their own work. They may not do anything about the nits you’re picking, and depending on what they are, they probably shouldn’t do anything with them, but it’s a kind of protection against themselves. The reason to find the silver lining in a work is a bit more obvious, and a lot more kind. Silver linings are what keep writers going when the rejection slips pile up. They’re the “Person Who Tries Hardest” trophies when you’re working towards the giant 1st place one. In essence, it’s motivation. Motivation is lifeblood to a writer, and a review with no silver lining is unnecessarily crushing out that spirit. I try to pay attention to how I format my critiques to other writers. I often start with the biggest problem (I’m a ‘what’s the bad news first?’ type), then go into the biggest success. Then I pick the nits, and I wrap up with the silver linings. May not be right for everyone, but no one I’ve reviewed has jumped off a cliff or come at me with a shotgun… yet. Which goes right into my final thought…

Be Prepared for a Fight – No matter how respectful, honest, specific, and good at following directions you are; it doesn’t matter if your silver linings are pure sterling coming out of cotton candy clouds with rainbow pooping unicorns flying above them, at some point a writer is bound to take offense at something you said about their work. That’s their baby. Privately, they might think that Junior is one stroke short of a masterpiece, but heaven help the person outside the family who points that out. This is the danger of critiquing and why all the bad habits of reluctant reviewers were formed in the first place. As a writer, I’m sorry to say that this behavior isn’t going away. It’s up to you, dear reviewer, to take the high road. Defend yourself and your comments, which we will privately admit are spot on (in about 30 years and 2,000 rewrites), but please do not attack back. We plea temporary insanity and throw ourselves upon your mercy, because you, trusted and valued friend, are the only one still willing to read what we wrote… and we appreciate you more than even a genius wordsmith like ourselves, can say.

So there you go… if you can hit those six points, you’re well on your way to being immortalized in the Acknowledgments page of an International Best-Seller. Or, being forced into a lifetime of reading every single piece of crap we come up with. Either way it’s a win, right?……………. Right?

So what’s the least helpful review/critique you’ve ever gotten? Let me know in the comments… or feel free to test my resolve regarding my own critiquing philosophy. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good cry.

Round 8,292,417.9

Ok, so perhaps it’s not that many rounds, but it feels like it, so that’s the number my brain came up with and the one I’m rolling with. The number of course representing the number of times I’ve sworn to myself I’m going to buckle down with my writing and then didn’t follow through.

I’m doing it again though, glutton for punishment that I am. Didn’t realize it’s coming up on TWO years since I made my last real “commitment”. On one side it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, and on the other, the last 2 years of my life feel like they’ve taken decades to get through. I have to try again, because giving up means giving in, and that just isn’t an option that ends well for me.

It’s not a resolution… it’s not even a goal… it just is. I’m going to write more this year. I’m going to try to cobble together some semblance of consistency with my efforts. Which should be really easy to do since pretty much any effort is going to be more consistent than previous efforts.

I’m going to figure out what I want from this life, and then I’m going to get it. Right now, what I really want is to be able to look back when December 2013 rolls around and NOT be able to say “This was the worst year of my life”, because that was the phrase that was on my tongue at the end of 2010, 2011, AND 2012.

Looking back now (at least at 2010 and 2011), it’s become easier to see that those years weren’t as bad as I originally perceived. That it was just one or two big events that skewed my perception of the entire year, masking the good stuff that happened the rest of the year.  And I have to believe the same will happen for last year at some point as well. But it’ll be nice to not have to wait for hindsight for those realizations to enter my mind. I’m hoping for fewer hard hits this year, but even if they continue to come, I’m going to keep my perspective, and keep pushing forward in a POSITIVE frame of mind. Easier said than done, but saying it out loud (or at least typing it out so I can read it) is the first step towards achievement.

So we begin…again… and again… and again… as many times as necessary