Thursday, August 28, 2014

What Are Writers Really Saying When They Write about Writing? (a #ThrowbackThursday Post)

This post originally appeared on my former blog, bloomthink, on February 7, 2012.

Since making a career change a few months ago, I have been blessed with more quality opportunities to write both professionally and for fun. (The phrase "dream come true" is apropos. And I love using words like apropos.)

I have also used this gift of time to treat myself to an Internet education about writing of all kinds. I cleverly refer to this fascinating endeavor as taking a Write Course. But how much can possibly be on the Internet about writing, you ask? Plenty.

I have read blogs, articles, quotes, and tweets about why writers write, how they write, how they should write, and what they write. I have read blog comments written by aspiring writers who are figuring out how to start living their dream. I have read about what writers wear while they write, what music they listen to while they write, and where they like to write. I have read about writing as a business. You name it, I have looked for it, stumbled upon it, found it, reviewed it, and tried to absorb it.

Obviously, my course is never ending. I have only seen the proverbial tip of the iceberg. But here, so far, is what I think is subtext when writers write about writing.

"I love to write. I mean, I really love to write." No one would write outside of school or work requirements if they didn't love to write. Trust me. The work of writing is too challenging, time consuming, and open to rejection to voluntarily make it your hobby let alone your livelihood. More than one writer has said so, in one way or another. I think so too.

"I want to share what is close to my heart in written form. It may or may not yet be 'on paper,' but I am working up to it." Writers see a story in almost every circumstance or event in life. Note I did not say every circumstance or event makes a good story. But the more writers write, the more they see potential for written expression just as an artist sees potential for visual expression. Or a chef sees a new culinary creation with ingredients I think just make a good omelet. And the more they write, the closer they get to revealing their heart stories. Even crime novelists, if you ask me.

"I think I am a good writer, but everything I write is subject to rejection on some level and that scares me. So I strive to do it right, to do it well, minimizing the risk of rejection." Many writers have mastered this craft; many others are working to improve their skills (like me). But like film actors, writers at all levels probably think they are only as good as their last blog post that received good traffic and comments, novel that sold beyond the publisher's expectations, or message received well by its intended audience. Writing is not for the fainthearted (or for the true perfectionist, who may never sleep again). And this leads to the last point.

"I have achieved success as a writer and I want to help other writers achieve success as well." Generosity? Really? Yes. At first, one may think all those blog posts and articles and websites are just "hey, look at me" attempts in the cyber-world so easily entered. And any writing, even this post, invites others to take a look. But I believe writers want to share and nurture other writers' gifts and work. They like to root for the team. How many conferences for aspiring mechanics or brain surgeons do you see advertised compared to conferences for aspiring writers?

I could be wrong about what I think I am reading between the lines. But now I not only love writing more than ever, I love writers more than ever. That Write Course result can only be good.

For writers, what do you most want to share with the world about writing?

Monday, August 25, 2014

An Actual Fact: 4 Ways You Can Find One (and a Fact about Mary Tyler Moore)

In the chick flick Runaway Bride, a reporter played by Richard Geer is asking someone who knows the oft-engaged character played by Julia Roberts for some information. As the woman explains a few realities to him, she says something like, “It’s a fact. An actual fact.”

Mary Tyler Moore
Maybe this scene is memorable for me because the actress makes those lines funny. Or maybe because a fact would have to be actual to be, well, actually factual, and as an editor I would question using that phrase. But it does make me think about how much writing and editing require fact checking.

Most often, when I am editing I'm checking for proper name spellings—for a person, organization, movement, brand, and so on. Or a poison in a murder mystery, which would raise some eyebrows for anyone looking at my Internet search history. Sometimes I need to check a word I never heard of, which might mean looking at an online dictionary that has words and sayings not yet (or will never be?) in mainline dictionaries. Quotes, including Scripture quotations, need to be checked as well. Authors at times quote Scripture from "memory" and don't quite get there.

And sometimes I wonder if an author’s fact is, in fact, an actual fact (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and so I look it up to make sure they're right. Usually the author is correct and I learn something new, but sometimes it is a good thing I did my job and checked.

I don't know if these are the same tips you would get in Fact Checking 101, but here are some of the tricks I suggest when using an Internet search engine like Google for your writing or editing:

  • Look for what is most likely the top reliable source. If someone or an entity has an official website, that is probably the best source for what is unique to them. For example, if you want to know the exact spelling and style for a nonprofit agency, look on their website. 
  • Use cover images when it comes to books. Authors (and their characters in novels) often quote from books. If you need to know the exact title of a book, or the exact order of the coauthors, find the cover's image on a seller's or the publisher's site and go with what you see. Even sellers and publishers sometimes get their data wrong, but cover images are rarely incorrect.
  • Take a propensity of identical answers into account. If you can find no definitive source but dozens of sources have the same information, then at least for consistency's sake consider if it’s safe to go with what appears to have become acceptable.
  •  Use the latest sources you can find. If you suspect you are dealing with an old wives' tale, look it up. Reputable sources have figured out the truth. When using news sources, compare dates for the same topic to help ensure your news is not old news. What are believed to be facts in 2013 can have been revealed as false by 2014.
I was hoping to find a clip of that "actual fact" scene in Runaway Bride, but alas, I could find only this YouTube post with Mary Tyler Moore singing “Actual Fact.” Without looking up a thing, I can tell you for a fact that she is one talented lady!

For readers, do you ever look up what you see in a book that does not seem right? Do you have an example?

For writers, what is your process for fact-checking your work? Can you share?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Who Are You Calling Elderly?: 4 Ways Writers Can Make Older Better

In more than one novel, I have discovered while editing that an author has referred to a character in his or her seventies as . . . wait for it . . . elderly.

Elderly? Elderly?  

Humph. The word senior (as in you are old enough to order from the senior menu in some restaurants) is hard enough for the baby boomer generation to swallow. And the elderly are folks who maybe achieve ninety one hundred.  

Well, okay then. So I had to suggest those authors make an adjustment. After all, they didn’t want to lose some of their senior older readers over this mistake, right? 

Many writers do a fine job when developing older characters. Sometimes older characters are even primary characters. But to further encourage authors to think twice about how they portray older folks, here are four suggestions that go beyond merely not using the word elderly.

1. Consider what can unfold when an older character lives out fresh dreams rather than wallowing in regrets from the past. What comes to mind is the image of an old man sitting in a recliner all day with no visitors because he was always such a mean so-and-so and now feels sorry about that. Can’t he make a friend with his new outlook on how one should behave and go on some kind of adventure? (A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams. ~John Barrymore)*

2. Let older characters exhibit the same personalities you imagine they had as younger people. On the other hand, unless they are Mr. Scrooge and have had night visitors, people don’t change much throughout their lifetimes. Imagining how your older characters were at twenty and how their personalities play out now could make them more real and less stereotypical. (There is no old age. There is, as there always was, just you. ~Carol Grace) 

3. Have older characters do something readers would typically only think of a younger person doing. This could add some sparkle and inspiration to your novel. Maybe an older character could jump for joy or even jump out of an airplane. If former president George H. W. Bush can skydive, so can the older guy or woman in your novel. (The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball. ~Doug Larson)
4. Give an older character his or her best present, not merely a best past. Readers can—and will want to—root for happiness, fulfillment, and significance in the lives of older characters as well as for younger ones. So give those older folks a new relationship, career, adventure—anything that slips in an element of life and hope. (Be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. ~Muriel Spark)
For readers, what have you noticed in how an older character was portrayed that bothered you?

For writers, have you ever asked an older person to critique how you have portrayed an older character?

*All quotes are from

Monday, August 18, 2014

Moonlighting, Pink Couches, What You Wrote, and Is It Same Old, Same Old?

At my house we have been dipping into some old TV series on DVDs from the library. One is Moonlighting, starring Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes, Bruce Willis as David Addison, and my favorite, Allyce Beasley as their rhyming receptionist, Agnes DiPesto. Click here for the now-iconic opening sequence with its memorable theme song.
The snappy dialogue the series is known for is still enjoyable, though the simplistic plots serve mostly as a vehicle for Maddie and David’s chaotic relationship. And the 1980s pastel d├ęcor and fashion don’t bother me—but, please, let's not ever go back there. 

What did bother me (other than how hard their detective work was without cell phones) was that in one episode I knew early on what had “really happened.” Not because I remembered the episode or because it was badly written, but because I have seen the same twist in film, TV, and books so many times. Maybe—maybe—if you ignore the complete body of work from Agatha Christie, the twist was somewhat more original thirty years ago. But today? Not so much.

Other than when enjoying classics and personal favorites that capture their hearts and imaginations over and over, film and reading enthusiasts usually appreciate something new that can catch them by surprise. How many times have you heard, "It's the same basic plot as [fill in the blank]" or "His views are like those of [fill in the blank]"? New twists (or twists on old twists), illustrations and quotes not often used, characters drawn with a unique combination of emotional layers, and dialogue that is real but fresh are appealing.

Sure, an author can successfully use the same technique, illustration, basic plot, or adjectives other writers use without being considered lazy or a copycat. As long as no copyright infringement is involved, whatever is right for a book is right for a book, and one voice can differ enough from others to stand out and make familiar, fresh. Readers can also know what's coming, especially in fiction, and still enjoy what they're reading. If that weren't true, no one would ever read favorite novels multiple times.

Sameness is still a good thing to watch out for when writing, don't you think? Because I have to confess, sameness sometimes causes me to skip ahead or, worse, just close a book and walk away, which was not what the author intended. Been there, done that is what I am thinking (which apparently people started saying a lot in the 1980s, most likely while sitting on a pink couch).

For readers, have you ever left a book unfinished because something about it was so . . . same old, same old? Like what?

For writers, do you think about whether or not you have some "same old, same old” in your work?
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