Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The 10 problems that will make me giveup reading a book

Poorly written stories make for a blurry book, lacking color
Lately, due to my lighter teaching schedule, I have been reading a book a week, minimum. (Last year, a book every two months was my average.) Usually I will read a book to the end, waiting for it to redeem itself if it is less than engaging. "Maybe the writer needed more practice and the end will show improvement," I tell myself.

Often even a book that starts off rough will, over time, gain its feet. The adage the act of writing improves writing and every writer gets better as they continue to produce often applies. But some problems will bother me so much that I will have to remind myself that redemption might yet flower if I keep reading. But I have given up on a few books.

These are the top ten which will, if enough appear, convince me to give up on a book.

  1. Unnecessary sex - though it isn't presented this way, it will have the effect of a quickie with a prostitute. I can ignore it once. But if it repeats, I will probably drop reading the book.
  2. Unnecessary swearing - and even worse, if the swearing is the same word and everybody who swears in the book uses it and only that one word.  I recently read a really great book that had this one flaw. It was as if the characters kept saying "um" or "like" every few words. Made me cringe every time, but it did not make me stop reading because it was an excellent story and thankfully, the swearing was not a constant, just consistently repetitive and frequently unnecessary.
  3. Introductions that tell how bad things are now without providing any real imagery, characterization or depth of story. Sort of a "by the way, first you have to know this." Now you can read my story.
  4. Too many characters with different color eyes and hair or stripes or accents, and that's all I get to tell them apart. Everyone sounds the same.
  5. One woman and every guy wants her or vice versa. And I don't even like the character, so how am I going to be convinced every Tom, Dick and Harry will?
  6. The story plods along, I realize I have been reading for half the book and nothing has happened, and I still don't know the characters well enough to want to continue the journey with them.
  7. The characters are really tense, but there was nothing to make them tense. Everybody is grumping along or sparks are flying every time they touch, but nothing led up to it.
  8. Really poor punctuation and sentence structure. I can deal with an occasional missing word, an unnecessary fragment, etc. A good story is a good story. And many a time I and others will trip over our words while we tell about something interesting. We don't lose our listeners and the writer won't lose this reader for an occasional writing issue. The story is everything. But really bad grammar and punctuation skills can kill even the best story.
  9. I put the book down (voluntarily) to go have lunch or chat with a friend and I can't remember what I was reading. That is a really bad sign. I am about twenty pages into a book right now and have put it down twice. Both times I had to think a bit about what was happening before I opened it up to read more. Nothing is happening yet that is keeping my interest which is funny as the White House has just blown up, people are fleeing and a crazy man is on the loose. No real tension. The main characters are just walking away from the burning building.
  10. Using known characters and relying on the reader's knowledge of them to carry the characterization. That is not the way to create memorable characters the reader is going to care about.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

When the mess of writing clutters the table, there is always a solution

The bowl.
My husband and I used to tandem bicycle race. We traveled about quite a bit because tandem racing has never been a sport that takes place often nor was it held at numerous sites in close vicinity to each other.

We had a compact car, a Datson 210. My husband was a serious fanatic about keeping his bikes clean (still is), and a tandem (bicycle built for two people) is no small package. We had two choices: mount it on top of the car or mount it behind the car. Neither option ends up with a clean bike at the destination.

My husband had a better idea. Thus the incredible disappearing tandem carrier was invented. It amounted to the removal of both wheels and the turning of the handlebars completely around so they hung over the frame. Then the car's rear seats were laid down and the frame laid on top the ridiculously tight flat space encroached on by the rear wheel wells.

Various bags, riding accouterments, and the bike wheels were wedged into place. A blanket was laid over it and then further soft items placed over that.  Riding buddies would remind us each time we arrived at a race site that we forgot to pack the bike.  Riders who didn't know us would look strangely at us as my husband would nod and say, "We might as well unpack anyway and stay awhile." Then our friends would gather for the great reveal. We could get that bike back together in about 59 seconds.

Now there is a glazed clay bowl on the center of my kitchen table. It's squatty, round, about twenty inches in diameter with a variegation of colors: vibrant reds, pulsing oranges, mossy greens, and lots of browns.  Several years ago I was visiting my mother and she offered me the bowl.  She didn't want it any more, and I was afraid to say no about taking it, worried she would take it as a condemnation of her decorative style. But then again she didn't want it any more and what did that say? But I did take it. It sat beneath the open island in my kitchen and became the catch all for plastic bags from the grocery store until we could recycle them. A rather ignominious use for it.

Then we bought a table. A really beautiful inlaid wood dining room table. All my writing stuff: index cards, computer, chargers, resource books, pens, ear phones, pictures, mouse pad and the list goes on, just could not be moved from the old butcher block table to this lovely piece of furniture. Yet I still needed to work there.

I moved everything to a basket in another room. I would retrieve my computer from a shelf when I wanted to use it and then put it back. Every night the same schlepping back and forth. When I needed a pen, my phone charger, phone, e-reader, my ever present index cards, highlighter, calculator, whiteout, soft screen cloth, I would have to trudge to the basket in the other room. And then take it back when I was done. The table looked wonderfully neat, but I was finding the whole carting process annoying. Things began to get left behind on the table for later schlepping. A poor solution.

There were numerous options:
  • Move myself to my neglected desk in the back room.
  • use my lap desk on the spare bed
  • use the couch in the living room and clutter the end table with my things.
  • throw a table cloth on the table and stack everything back where it was within easy reach like before. Seriously, not a chance.
I walked by the island and bent down to scoop up a snarl of loose dog hair and saw that bowl. Hmm.

The plastic bags all fit quite nicely into one bag, squished free of air and tied up. I set them back under the island and carried the bowl to the table.

You know, that bowl can hide a two-inch thick, trade-size writing journal, and all my other creative odds and ends. It looks nice and is the right height to make it difficult to look straight inside it when you eat, but not so tall that you can't reach in and find something by feel when you need it.

It will not hide a tandem bicycle. But then it doesn't need to.

How do you hide your writerly stuff?


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

20 Ways Writers are Active Learners

Just let me learn
Writers learn all the time. We want not just our facts as close to accurate as possible, poetic license not withstanding, but we are always looking for inspiration. So we cannot help but be active learners. And we do it like this.
  1. We go looking for what kind of pine trees are located near Devil's Lake in Oregon and get all caught up in the fertilization process of the Ponderosa Pine. Okay, not necessarily "we," that was me.
  2. But many of us want to learn how to make a book trailer and end up chatting with several authors who have done this and several others who have not but want to and a few that feel they could use one but know they will never do it because it just looks like too much work. Somewhere in the process, we feel inspired to begin mapping out the trailer we were contemplating and then check on the software recommended by the experienced writers, and...we learn something.
  3. We are inspired. We look for things to inspire us.  We want to learn because learning inspires us.
  4. When we drive to the grocery store (usually out of guilt because while we have been writing all day, someone else in the family has been cleaning house, mowing the lawn, or doing the laundry), we see people, I mean really see them. For example, we might look at the mother with the three little girls, two which look like they may be fraternal twins, but we're not sure and we don't want to ask, but they sure look the same size. We consider that maybe they're cousins or playmates and that could explain why they are the same size. Or maybe they really are twins, or the older same size girl is just smaller because she takes after the mother's side of the family while the actual younger one takes after the father..... Now we get to thinking about our own family and when we get home, instead of writing, we get on and look up our family roots or call Grandma and ask about the first friend she remembers having and whether they were the same size or not. No matter what, we spend our days learning.
  5. Did you know that cartographers put in fake towns on their maps so they can catch plagiarizing map makers? And did you know that Rand McNally was accused of plagiarizing someone else's map and the company (Rand McNally) was able to prove they hadn't plagiarized because people began going to that fake town and ultimately put in a few businesses and built a couple houses and called the place by the fake name that the map said was there. I learned this when I was looking for inspiration and watched a TED talks given by John Green about how nerds learn everything online. I dare you to go there and learn something.
  6. We writers are dependent upon our computers for a variety of purposes that support or directly involve our writing, so to combat the various ways a computer can mess with us, we find ourselves in need of learning it's many secrets, i.e., how to save on at least three different back up systems or how to extricate a disk from a drive refusing to pop out the side of our laptop upon command or find out if we should start crying because our screen has gone completely black except for the little white arrowed cursor that we can still move. I learned a lot dealing with that unexpected computer moment.
  7. This does not even take into consideration how often we are reading books about writers, written by writers for writers to improve writing or even books for writers but not by writers (a definite paradox in that one).
  8. And what about when we watch those around us surreptitiously? We are paying attention not because we are nosy, but because we wish to catch the nuances of verbal vs physical communication between people who like each other, between people who don't like each other, between a person who likes the other who does not like him/her. We are not being nosy, we are learning the trade.
  9. We look at how other authors organize their blogs, advertise their books, tweet, google+, etc., because we want to learn their secrets.
  10. We read the posts that Mark Coker writes because they are about writing and the market and how we are doing as a subgroup. And we hope to learn something vital from his examination of our accumulated activities. We do this on purpose.
  11. We give ourselves limits on how long we can research. And then we break the rule we created to avoid using valuable time we could use for writing because learning about the new colossal Stonehenge believed to be not more than three miles from the currently famous and provably present Stonehenge is just too interesting and we might, maybe, someday use that information, sort of.
  12. You know when the company decides to replace the thingamajig you've been using very well the last three years and you have to figure out how you are going to accomplish the same things using this new thingamajig? This happens. Routinely. This year it was change all the students' laptop computers to Google Chromes. Now I could have pulled out my hair, ran round my room in circles cursing administration for yet again not asking me how this would affect putting out a school paper. But I didn't because I might find it useful knowing all the ins and outs of this particular thingamajig. Took a principal, a technology director and me about two hours to put all the fingers in the dike before all my newsprint dripped off the pages of the yet to be published first issue. But we did it. Now my students are experts and sending documents compatible with our layout program is old hat. Nobody is crying in the corner. We all learned something. 
  13. Have you noticed how often the things we do routinely teach us something new almost every time? I teach literature, and of course, I have favorite pieces I have my students look at each year. Even after reading "Of Studies" by Bacon numerous times, I still gain from the examination. This year it was the list of intake: taste, chew, swallow, digest. The depth at which we take in information equals the depth at which it influences and changes us. Read widely and deeply. 
  14. Are you one of those people who read labels? I don't mean when you go shopping, but that too is good. I mean whatever is sitting in front of you that has words gets read. I do that and it never fails to boot me off into interesting thoughts and ideas. Yeah, reading Mrs. Dash seasonings can make me creative. Who'd of thunk?
  15. Art work. Art work is amazing, inspiring and it makes me want to tell the story that continued of after the image was capture. I learn about these new characters and sometimes they stay with me long enough to become masters of their own stories. Other times they come in as bit parts for stories current in the works and sometimes, strangely enough, they offer a new viewpoint that changes the direction of something I'm writing. Without that trade of ideas, I wouldn't have realized some off point in my idea, some not so ringing true interaction. We learn even from our imaginative selves.
It is likely you noticed there are not actually 20 ways of learning for writers written here. The reason my post-reading friend is I expect you to come up with a few to add to my list. Surely by now you have thought of your own active learning adventure that you would like to share.