Writing to Distraction!

Squirrel_DugIf you’re a writer you know exactly what that title means.  Working on a project usually requires research; I don’t know what I’d do without internet connection, honestly – I’m too busy to take a day and plough through the local library, and as my local library consists of 99.9% German books anyway it’s not very helpful for writing English novels.  I have an extensive library here at home, and my research section is better equipped than the public library… but I digress.  Sometimes distractions come at you from every side; I feel like those dogs in “Up”… Squirrel!

And that’s the point.  Let’s say I go to YouTube for research:  It’s a great place to find out how to do just about anything, from how to throw a keris dagger and the aerodynamic difference between the wavy and the straight blade; how to make a vase out of a plastic bottle; how to make yarn from plastic bags; how to make an emergency stove out of a coke can or a light bulb out of a PET bottle with water, and the list goes on and on and on and on.  There are also hundreds of documentaries available on YouTube, from entertainment like the Horrible Histories series, to astronomy, science, history, you name it.  But if you’re like me you are interested in all of the above; and like Pringles, it’s hard to watch just one.  When I need a change of pace I also like to watch things on YouTube like the Actor’s Studio series, or talk show interviews (and we don’t have English-language television channels, which is actually fine by me – we use our television for sports programs and DVDs – but I digress.  Again.).  And YouTube is just one resource.  I have dozens of links to glossaries, websites that specialize in various aspects of history, science, technology, historical fashions, linguistics, etymology or other areas of interest, reference and research.

An important rule in dealing with online information is to have it confirmed by legitimate sources before using it, for instance, as a basis for anything substantial in a novel or other work of literature.  That rule has led me more than once to buying a book online.  In researching for The Price of Freedom and Redemption, I was especially frustrated with online research in the area of accurate apparel:  1788 was a world of difference in England to 1790, as the French Revolution changed fashion sensibilities in England – people distanced themselves from France, and patriotic influences as well as English fashion designers and trend setters came into their own more because of the vacuum.  But most online research that I came across either had the 18th century all lumped into one style, or “1700 to 1750” and “the latter half of the 18th century” which meant “French Revolution and thereafter” nine times out of ten.  Dubious at best, that.  Not even contemporary paintings are an accurate reference, as many of the “new middlings” had their clothing, and even background houses and gardens, “augmented” (read “upgraded”) for their paintings to add elegance to their new money.  And often, when I search for “18th century” I come across sites that actually mean the 1800s (that is, the 19th century).  My definitive source of information on that topic has become “The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England.”

So in trying to find one tiny little detail for fleshing out a scene, one can spend hours surfing, reading, searching, scanning and getting distracted by something else interesting along the way.  Yesterday I spent hours trying to find online PDFs or text of any kind from actual October 1789 The Times (London) newspaper (I’d have been satisfied with any month of that year!), just to find out what topics were being written about in the newspaper at the time aside from the Revolution.  What were the gossip columns writing about?  What kind of advertisements were there?  What were things considered newsworthy in that newspaper that year?  So far, Research – zilch, Time Spent – 3+ hours.  I looked at archives.com, Google images… nothing.  If anyone knows a resource for that, please let me know!!

It can be so easy, and so enticing, to “waste” hours researching.  I try to follow two rules, and perhaps they’ll help you save time as well:

1)  Set a time limit for research.  When I need a break from the manuscript, but I don’t want to stray too far, I look at the clock and set myself one hour to find something on my research list.

2)  Make that research list; as you’re writing, keep a list somewhere (I have a e-post-it on my desktop) of things you’ll need to research, and do it all at once or in organized chunks.  It helps keep you focused on the manuscript, and makes the time you spend both on and off the actual script more efficient.

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The Debate: Online vs. Onscreen vs. Physical Reading

I came across an interesting article (click on the photo below to read it for yourself) on the Scientific American website; it compares e-reading to physical reading, and discusses the pros and cons, the questions as to whether our brains are adapting to deal with the new technological challenges, and whether or not we as a human race could risk losing certain cognitive functions by abandoning physical reading.  I found the article informative; but I also observed myself while reading and I discovered a few things:

As I write (type) this, I’m sitting in my usual writing location – in our home library surrounded by well over a thousand books.  I’ve collected antique books over the years, and have some nearly 200 years old, while I have my own latest books fresh off the press as well.  Those books, old or new, aren’t for show – they’re for reading.  I also have a Kindle, and often read books either on the Kindle or on my android Tab, or even my computer with the Kindle for PC app.  But as I read the article I found myself getting impatient, and I realized that the article, while professing to be a neutral assessment of the two mediums, had broken a few unspoken criteria for Netiquette:  When I read online my expectation is that the article is succinct (not rambling); 300-500 words is the optimal length (give or take a bit), and yet this SA article was over 3,900 words long, equivalent to 7 A4 typed pages (I copied the article to plain text for a quick check).  As a comparison, a random chapter from a novel (taken from my Kindle) was at 3,200 words (5 A4 pages).  Underlying assumptions are that a) a typical magazine or periodical article that works in a printed format should work equally as well for an online format and b) if it doesn’t it must mean that people reading online are less patient or (dare I say it?) less intelligent than our print readers.  But some of the questions (and one assumes they are rhetorical) the article raises are, “As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper?” Had they looked at any resources for tips on writing articles online, they would have seen a tip at the top of most lists regarding length.  Our brains do respond differently to online text because we have a different set of expectations or criteria.

Personally, I read a lot.  A LOT.  Both digital as well as printed formats.  I would classify myself as, for want of a proper word, “Polyliterate”: I read equally thoroughly in a book and on my Kindle / computer.  But criteria and expectations are different for online vs. onscreen, and I think the article misses that distinction.  Onscreen, I’m thorough; online, I expect the text to get to the crux of the matter within the first screen-length (and conclude by the end of the second); I have no patience for those sites that force a reader to click through several screens to get to their point(s).  Precisely because I work on the computer, my online time is more valuable; I want conciseness.  And as to reading books, like any true bibliophile I love the feel of a good book in my hands, the tactile experience of knowing just where I am in the context of the whole story; but I also love taking an entire library with me in my Kindle, getting lost in the story either way (and not the format).

Just Curious:

If any of you take the time to read the entire article below, what are your thoughts?  Or if you have given extensive thought to this issue yourself, what do you think?  What are your reading habits and expectations of physical vs. onscreen vs. online matter?

 

Image Credit:  Amazon

Image Credit: Amazon

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The 3 Levels of Editing

EditingWriting is not just about stringing words together to express a coherent thought; at that level one might say it’s primary school basics.  The deeper I delve into the written world of words, the more I recognize the shades of colour, light and moods, and the fact that when I am telling a story, I am really painting a picture.  But to get to that depth, besides the fundamental skills of telling a good story, every writer needs to be familiar with what I consider to be three basic levels of editing; there’s a wide palette for discussion, and the order below is not chronological but often simultaneous phases of editing.  Here are a few points to keep in mind:

1:  The Matrix Level

I call this the “Matrix Level” because it really is the foundation – without it, don’t even think about giving up your day job.  This level includes things like spelling, vocabulary (choosing the best word or phrase in a given situation) and punctuation.  At this level you might also include things like formatting (being consistent in usage of fonts; spacing; size and heading styles; margins; indentations; double-or single-spacing after a full stop; capitalizations; abbreviations [e.g. Mr. or Mr {that choice depends on whether or not you’re using American Standard English, or British Standard English}]; and consistent use of italics, bolds and underlines).

2:  The 3-C Level

This is what I call the 3-C level because it’s just that:  Coherency, Consistency, Conciseness.  This is the level you work on things like clear expression; showing, not telling (re-writing those scenes that tell into a scene that shows the action or the purpose of that scene); assessing what your demographic target is (teenagers, women, men, children, intellectual readers, pulp-fiction readers, genre-specific groups, etc.) and writing with them in mind as you make choices of expression and complexity.

This level includes things like pacing/timing/rhythm of the overall script; logical connections, organic changes, filling in the “holes” in the plot, the building of action or tension (again, in an organic way to the story—don’t just slap in a sex scene or a car chase because you need to pick up the pace in a dragging scene!), and keeping an eye out for things like vocabulary repetition (if it’s there, it needs to be organic, e.g. perhaps a character likes to use a phrase as a “trademark”) or filler words (actually, really, etc.).

3:  The “Cutting Room Floor” Level

This is the level where tough decisions come in; here you need to ask yourself some basic questions:  Does scene XYZ support the plot in more than one way?  [Plot, by the way, applies whether you're writing a novel, a business case plan, or a newspaper article.]  If not, can I glean the core sentiment or information that needs to be conveyed and splice it in somewhere else?  Does the purpose / goal come through or remain clear in this scene?  If not, how can I change it, trim it, or chop it?  Are paragraphs unified (i.e. one main goal / thought each)?  This process is very similar to film editing, and you can learn a lot from that process by listening to good film commentaries (the best I’ve come across are films with commentaries by Steven Spielberg – he’s a natural teacher in that respect!).

In the current novel I’m writing, a fantasy-history spanning from first century AD Scotland and Norway to modern-day Scotland, an earlier draft had too many characters; there are still enough to warrant a Cast of Characters section at the end (due to the complex structure that will be woven together in the next draft), but the general rule is to not tax the reader with more than four characters in any given scene.  So even though each character was well-developed and interesting, I had to let some heads roll.

The way I write works for me:  If I’ve written a scene that somehow doesn’t sit right with the tone/mood but I know it conveys something necessary to the construct as a whole, I will paste that scene to the end of the document and title it “Scene to Salvage: —” with a brief description.  Later I can go back to the core of that scene and salvage it, or decide that it no longer fits and delete it—it’s nonetheless served the purpose of helping me solidify the plot by hashing out certain elements.  I may really like one key sentence or idea, so I’ll cut it out and drop it in where it works well organically to the story.  I might also add that each of these levels is vital in this story as each section (Pictish; an otherworldly kingdom; Norse settlements; and modern archaeology) has its own colour palette:  Stone, rain and sea; mist, sky and whispers; leather, smoke and wood; and technology, pubs and peat mire.  Each sections’ dialogue and prose need to reflect those palettes, and that’s the secret of showing, not telling!

The more structured you work, and the more confident you become with each level, the better and faster the writing process will become.  I hope this inspires you, and spurs you on to greater writing!

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On the Art of Conversation

“Conversation is said to be a lost art… good talk presupposes leisure, both for preparation and enjoyment.  The age of leisure is dead, and the art of conversation is dying.” – Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 29, 1890

Frank Leslies Popular Monthly - 1878

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March 29, 2014 · 9:49 pm

Lost in Translation 1

I love it when signs or notices are translated by non-mother tongue English speakers;it can be anything from cute to funny, misleading or just downright embarrassing.  I especially love Asian translations!  Here are a few examples.

Lost in Translation 1 Lost in Translation 2 Lost in Translation 9 Lost in Translation 11 Lost in Translation 23

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Countdown Deal!

POF1 - Amazon Optimal PixelThis coming weekend, from Saturday 22 March, 6:00 a.m. (PST) through Sunday 23 March, 11:00 pm (PST) my first novel, “The Price of Freedom” will be available on Kindle for $3.99 instead of $6.99!  As of next week, the title will also be available in paperback!  I’m excited to finally have the paperback edition available to those of you who’ve been asking for it.  Please—pass the news on to your friends and contacts!  Share, link, and shout it from your rooftops (preferably without getting arrested)… you are my greatest asset when it comes to getting the word out, getting into the hands of people who enjoy reading, and enjoy the genre of the likes of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer!

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Science-Fiction Made Real: The Origami Microscope

Recently I looked at past technologies; today I came across a TED video that is simply mind-boggling:  An Origami microscope that is cheap, powerful (magnifications up to 2,000x), waterproof, durable, and can be made available to anyone.  It sounds like science fiction, but it’s real, today; think of the possibilities for early diagnosis for the remote people of the earth who have all too often been neglected due to a lack of funds.  Click on the image below to see a 9-minute presentation by Stanford bioengineering professor Manu Prakash, PhD.

origami-microscope

 

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