Saturday, May 7, 2011

Weather Flash: For a Cause

 By Steve Weddle

Dan O'Shea offered up this flash challenge recently. What I liked about the challenge is that he said he'd donate to the Red Cross five bucks for every entrant. That'll work for me.

One of the things I like about flash challenges is that they give you a good start on getting together a story. I had an idea that I wanted to work out, and this was a great opportunity to start that. I'm not done with the story, still have to work in some backstory and some layers and some tension and a couple of other ideas. But I think this works alright. And, besides, it's for a good cause.

Thanks to Dan for helping the Red Cross's relief efforts


My Aunt Velma wiped the Red Man juice from her chin, put the coffee can back on the TV tray. “You just need to get yourself down there and fix her antenna is what you need to do.”
“I will, Aunt Vee, I will. Just gotta finish this up first,” I said. 
I’d been staying with my aunt off and on for the past year, ever since I’d gotten laid off from the flooring place outside Magnolia. Price of gas these days. Wasn’t worth it anyway.
I’d finished a line of caulking on the inside of the leaky window and was cleaning it up with the edge of one of those credit cards they send you in the mail. Sign up and spend $5,000 and I’d get 5,000 points to take the family to Disney World. I don’t have a family. None that would want to go to Disney World, anyway.
So I dragged the edge of the card along the window frame, worked the caulking into the corners as best I could, then used a rag to wipe off all the excess. Heh. “Excess.” There’s a word I haven’t heard in a long damn time. I wiped the card off on the same rag, then slid the card into my pocket where I used to keep a wallet. “She say what was wrong with it?” 
“Said it was broke. I don’t need her and her niece coming up here every damned day to watch my stories with me and eat up all my food. I swear I’ve never seen a girl put away so many gizzards in one sitting.”
Her stories. As the World Turns. Guiding Light. Her stories. Her world.
When I started staying here, she’d send me out on errands in the early afternoon so I wouldn’t get in her way. Most days I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I just walked up and down the road picking up cans out of the ditches. Down to Mr. Tatum’s place and then back again was pretty close to long enough for me to stay away.  Usually managed enough cans to make it worthwhile, too.  After a while I stayed and kept my mouth shut. Little while after that, I’d say something about one of the characters. One day I said Blake Thorpe looks like Miss Angela down at the Texaco. Turns out my aunt doesn’t much care for Miss Angela. I didn’t say too much after that.
“I can see what I can do, but I’m not much of an electrician,” I said.
“Weren’t much of a plank layer before that, were you?”
“They laid me off. Wasn’t my fault the housing market went to Hell.”
She wiped a little more Red Man from her chin. “You watch your mouth, young man.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“How’s about you fix that woman’s antenna right and that’ll be your rent check for the month? Think you can manage that?”
I walked to the back of the house to the couch where my pillow and radio were and scanned for any afternoon baseball games. On a good day, sometimes I could get a Texas Rangers game. I didn’t much care for any of them, but if they were playing the New York Yankees, at least I’d have someone to root against. Sometimes it just works out better to root against something.
The weather was pretty clear, which isn’t always the best for picking up games on the radio. But after the weather we’d had, I’d take clear and quiet. Last week we had some awful storms come through. Took out a church up near Emerson and a couple of old farm houses. Flooded most of the back roads around here. And other smaller problems. Like the antenna on Miss Delsie Crawford’s place.
So I took a couple of screwdrivers, a pair of pliers, a ballpeen hammer and half a roll of duct tape, dropped them in a green pillowcase and headed down to Miss Delsie’s house.
By the time I got down to her place, I had sweat and dirt grit on the back of my neck. I knocked at her door and she let me in. She offered me a glass of water and I sat down in the living room. Thick red and brown shag carpeting matched most of the furniture and made the couch look like a big rise in the floor. I sat down and she brought me a glass of lukewarm water and I downed it in a couple of swallows. 
I started to tell her why I was there when she walked over to the television set and turned it off. I hadn’t even noticed the thing had been on. You get that way sometimes. You get something in your head that you have to do and you get focused on it so strong that you forget what you set out to do. You can get that way laying floors. You get so caught up in going one direction, then you look up and you’re caught in a corner and everything’s gone off kilter by a quarter-inch.
“Doyle, you know you don’t need an excuse to stop by, but I see you got a pillowcase full of something there.” 
I looked down at the tools and felt like I’d just dragged a mess of wet squirrels into her house. “Aunt Vee said maybe you could use some help down here on your antenna,” I said because it’s the words I’d practiced on the way down and I hadn’t had time to think of anything else.
She looked puzzled, turned her head like my Aunt Vee did whenever something really weird would happen. Like if someone would say, “Today, the part of Alan-Michael Spaulding will be played by seventeen flaming armadillos.” 
But then her niece started hollering from the back of the house somewhere. “I’m still hungry. I’m still hungry. I’m still hungry.” A chant almost, and she took that last “hungry” and let it linger out there like “hoooongreee” in some weird monster kind of rumbling.  Then she was asking why can’t they ever have anything to eat and she knows it costs money and why can’t they ever get any money. She was walking and talking and by then she’d come to the end of the hall and could see that I was sitting there with a pillowcase between my feet. I started looking anywhere else. Over to the photographs on the fireplace mantle. Over to the shelves where Miss Delsie had all her collectible dolls. Shelves that were empty now except for the doll stands and the ghosting dust around the edges.
So Miss Delsie sat there for a second until I thought of something to say. “She said your TV was acting up. Maybe you weren’t getting all the channels and could I help she said.”
Her niece’s name was Constance, but she went by Connie. And Connie said how much she liked my aunt’s cooking and how sweet she was to have them both over. 
I asked if they were having electrical problems after the storm.
Miss Delsie raised an eyebrow. “Why would you ask that?”
“Just noticed all the lights are off in the back is all,” I said.
“Oh,” she said.
“That’s environmental,” Connie said. “On account of the environment. We all have to pitch in and do our part.”
I nodded. “Yeah. We all have to do our part.”
We talked for a while longer about the weather. How hot it was going to get and how the weatherman said another big storm was coming that weekend.
Connie said she’d found a recipe in an old Southern Living she’d gotten from discard stack at the library in Magnolia. “I’m not much of a cook. But it’s for this thing called a Kentucky Hot Brown.”
“Connie,” Miss Delsie said. “Ain’t nobody got an inclination to cook for you. You can’t just go inviting yourself over and expecting people to spend all their time and money serving you.”
“People gotta eat. What’s it matter if it’s something good?”
Before Miss Delsie could fire back with anything, I stood up to go, thanked them for the drink and put the recipe in my pocket.
Then I walked back to my Aunt Vee’s to tell her I didn’t know how to fix the antenna. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Unpublished Words

By Russel D McLean

At an event I attended recently, the author admitted it had been a while since his last book. He’d been working on something he thought “might sell better than my usual books” but found that the project struggled to get into gear. He spent 18 months working on something that got binned.

Now I know some of you might consider that wasted wordage, but the truth is I had the same situation. A book I was determined to make work but that couldn’t find its voice, a book that I knew wasn’t ready for consumption.

Yeah, don’t think that being published makes this gig any easier.

It was around 18 months of frustration for me, too. It wasn’t like so-called “writers block” because the problem was not the words. It was the feel. The atmosphere. Sometimes, you read something and you feel something that’s difficult to describe. Sometimes its called voice. But whatever it is, it’s the thing that makes the book feel convincing and real on its own terms.

And, I know that what I just said sounds airy-fairy, and I hate that. Because I strive to be as practical as I can about the writing process, but the truth us that for a book to work there has to be something more than just words on the page. There has to be an extra something that supervenes over the text, that becomes more than just the right words.

Whatever that was, this book didn’t have it.

And that killed me. Because I was fighting to find it. Kicking and screaming. I edited, re-edited, edited some more. I chopped and changed characters, merged plotlines and added new ones. I looked at plot, theme, everything I could and worked on motifs and other arty things that most of the time you don’t expect people to notice.

Nothing worked.

So 18 months was…


No, I don’t believe it was. And I don’t believe this other author – the one who had a similar experience – would think his time was wasted, either.

Sure, it was a pain in the arse and you know, it would have been nice to finish a book that we could have been paid for. But being professional writers, we were likely both supporting ourselves with other projects (I made some money from shorts and articles during those months) so there was that at least.

But in terms of the non-monetary side of the gig, writing this book honed my skills. Taught me a great deal. About how my mind works, the kind of stories that fascinate me, that I want to tell. Many of these lessons, I think, helped me when I came back to write the 3rd McNee novel (and there will be a third, certainly in the UK where it’s just been contracted). There were tricks and tips I picked up that are invaluable to me now.

Because the truth is, no writing experience is wasted.

Not if we learn from it.

I learned this coming up through the publishing industry, that even the bad books I wrote eventually taught me something, even if it was just what not to do. Those million words I wrote before being published were never regretted for that reason.

And I always say to new writers that they’re going to write a lot of shite before they get published. Because that’s how you learn in this gig.

I’m beginning to wonder if I should amend that to, “you’re also going to write a lot shite after publication, too. Because the truth is, in this gig, you never really stop learning.”

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

A lot of authors hate this question.

I don't. I kind of love it. Well, maybe not THAT specific question, but I love when fans ask where an idea for a certain book came from.

Listen, I can't write without an idea of what I'm going to write about. It's really hard for me to sit and type descriptive paragraphs until I figure out what a scene is going to be about. I need to know where I'm going so I can figure out how to get there.

Which is why ideas are so important to me.

Now my ideas don't come from one place, and they usually don't come in one tightly wrapped package. They come from several places.

The idea for THE EVIL THAT MEN DO came from my mother's stories about visiting my grandmother--who had Alzheimer's. It also grew out of listening to some of the kids at my school talk. And viewing GODFATHER II.

WHEN ONE MAN DIES came from picking and choosing bits from some of my short stories. And an incident that happened to me in a bar once. But all of those ideas get smoothed into one neat tagline, eventually.

The thought process is so interesting to me, however. I love looking back and figuring out where a story came form. Why was this story so important to me? A lot of times, it takes so long to write a book, that an idea that was important when I started the book became unimportant by the end of it.

But I love dissecting that. Much more that I like writing perfect grammar (sorry, couldn't resist). :-)

So what about you, authors? Do you like the idea question? Readers, do you like knowing where ideas come from? Or does it take some of the suspense away?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Does Crime Fiction Help Criminals?

John McFetridge

Two things brought this to mind this week; first, I’m working on the pilot script for a possible new TV show about drug cops so the producer set up meetings with some drug cops, and secondly I read the book, A New Kind of Monster: the Secret Life and Chilling Crimes of Colonel Russell Williams and in both cases there seems to be the desire to keep some police procedure secret.

When meeting with the drug cops they were very open about a lot of their methods, a lot of the ways they use confidential informants, undercover operations, surveillance and various forms of wiretapping but once in a while something would come up – or really, start to come up – and one of the cops would say, “We’d prefer that didn’t go in the show.”

The explanation was usually that nothing they do is really secret, eventually it all comes out in court, but if some of the things they do haven’t been used in court yet they’d like to keep it quiet.

I guess we can have all kinds of discussions about a potential police state, the cops being agents of the government and the requirement that they be transparent in their activities and all that, but we do want them to catch the bad guys and we’re mature enough to understand that requires some leeway.

Especially when it comes to catching the really bad guys like Russell Williams.

The story generated a huge amount of press in Canada. Russell Williams was convicted of over 80 break and enters in which he stole women’s underwear and then, as any reader of crime fiction would expect, he started breaking in when women were home, then brutally assaulted two women and then brutally assaulted and killed two women. It was likely only the beginning of what would have turned into many, many more murders had he not been caught.

The crimes took place in two locations – a suburb of Ottawa where Williams lived with his wife and in the small towns close to the air force base he commanded.

The book, as the title would suggest, tells the story of Williams’ life in some pretty good detail. From childhood, through high school, university and his career in the air force. Lots of personal and career details are laid out.

But when it comes to how he was actually identified and caught the book – like the official story – is oddly short on detail.

A police profiler was consulted about the break-ins and underwear thefts in Ottawa and did say that the perpetrator was likely to escalate into more serious crimes but he's never heard from again in the book. A lot of the break-ins in the smaller town went unreported. The two assaults were reported, of course, but they were in different jurisdictions and not initially linked to each other or the murders.

Then a woman was murdered in her home in a small town near the air force base where she was stationed as a corporal and where Williams was the Colonel in charge. There were no suspects and no leads – at least none that were publicized. In fact, a couple of months later there was a newspaper article that said the police expected the investigation to be lengthy.

And then a young woman in another nearby jurisdiction went missing. From the very beginning, as the expression goes, foul play was suspected. The young woman lived on a rural road and her car, purse, phone and all her personal possessions were still in the house. The whole region went into action searching the nearby woods, putting up posters, starting Facebook pages and doing everything they could.

One lead the police had was an SUV seen about 150 yards from the young woman’s house the night she disappeared. It’s not entirely unusual for a vehicle to be parked on a rural road, but it’s unusual enough at night that people noticed it (one person who noticed it was a police officer). No one took down a licence plate number or could identify what make or model the vehicle was.

Three days later the police set up a roadblock on the rural road stopping and asking people if they saw anything suspicious the night the young woman disappeared. The police at the roadblock were also secretly measuring the wheelbase of any SUVs that stopped and they were looking for a particular tire tread.

Williams was one of the first stopped at the roadblock (which was set up only a few minutes after he left his office thirty miles away and started to drive to his house on the same rural road). According to the book the police officer who spoke to Williams knew him and knew he was the colonel in charge of Canada’s largest air force base (the jumping off point for our troops heading to Afghanistan). The wheelbase of William’ vehicle did not match the size they were looking for but a younger cop (almost every person in the book is named and even given some background information, even the cop who stopped Williams is named, but this younger cop isn’t) said that he thought the front left tire had the same track they were looking for and radioed in a request for surveillance on Williams.

Three days later, a Sunday, Williams was back at his home in Ottawa and the police phoned him and asked him to come in for a quick chat, saying they were just clearing up some final details from their roadblocks and wanted to eliminate the non-suspects. Williams agreed to go to the police station and an hour later showed up ready to talk.

What followed was a six hour interview conducted by a detective who, among his other specialized training, spent time at the FBI criminal profiling center in Quantico (the first press reports said that this detective, hundreds of miles from where he is based, just happened to be in the police station in Ottawa that Sunday). The interrogation has been called “masterful,” and “textbook,” and many cops feel it will be used in training for years to come.

And the book points out that the cop who handled the interview was one member of a much larger team. Search warrants for Williams’ two homes, two vehicles and office at the air force base had been prepared and as the interview progressed, the interrogator getting more and more information out of Williams and even getting him to offer fingerprints, DNA samples, and an imprint of his boots, the search warrants were executed. On his home computer were hundreds of files with thousands of photos from the break-ins, detailed descriptions and even videos of Williams committing the two murders.

Because of the huge amount of evidence and the confession obtained during the interrogation Williams did not go to trial and pleaded guilty to 88 charges including two counts of first degree murder. There was all the talk of saving the victims’ families the grief of a trial and saving the expense and even of saving Williams’ wife further torment.

But also, I think, the guilty plea allowed the police to keep a few more secrets.

I don’t think there’s a crime writer in the world who could write the scene in which, based on the fact that a young police officer “thought” one of the tire treads looked like one that matched a vehicle that may have been close to the home where a woman had been abducted, he could overrule an older, more experienced, higher ranking officer at the scene and set into action a huge team of police officers that would in three days have completed a detailed background profile on the suspect, connected and collected details from the previous two assaults and the previous murder (all information used by the interrogator), prepared search warrants, matched physical evidence and arrested one of the top military men in the country who had been above suspicion – and who had never in his life ever been under any kind of suspicion. The book goes to great lengths to detail just what a boring guy Williams was, how through all the military scrutiny on him before each and every promotion there was never anything to make anyone suspicious.

So how did the meeting go where someone said, “A rookie thinks one of this guy’s tires might be a match, let’s go all out on him,” and no one said, “He’s the highest ranking military officer in the province, he’s been decorated numerous times, he’s never done anything suspicious in his life, sure, get the top interrogator we have and bring in sixty cops working overtime on a Sunday.”

And no one said, “If we’re wrong that’ll be it for all our careers.”

On the second to last page of the book it says that Ontario Provincial Police at first announced that when the thirty day appeal period had passed they would be willing to entertain questions about their investigation, “But then, when the thirty days elapsed, orders came from newly minted commissioner Chris Lewis... out of deference to the victims and their families, it had been resolved there would be no more discussion of the Russell Williams case by the police.” The author then lists a few questions that will never be answered, among them, “... whether Williams was ever under police scrutiny before he was questioned at the roadblock that night (from the outset, the OPP was adamant he was not, but doubts persisted).”

But like those drug cops we’re talking to about the TV show, these cops seem to have some secrets, some things they don’t want disclosed. Maybe it’s because they feel they made some mistakes and additional crimes were committed that could have been prevented (most cops I’ve met feel guilty about not catching every single criminal even though it’s not humanly possible).

More likely I think it’s because the cops know that the criminals have learned an awful lot of the techniques and methods used through true crime books and crime fiction. It’s a tough balancing act sometimes between blind faith in authority and giving them the tools to do their jobs. There’s a huge and growing conspiracy theory industry questioning everything that’s ever happened. No official story is ever accepted at face value these days.

So, what do you think? Should the police have some secrets?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I Aint Dyin' To Offend you, I Got A Dyslexic Heart

By Jay Stringer

Hey, Grammar sucks, right? No, okay, it doesn't.

Dave posted last week a very well thought out piece about the teaching of grammar. Sandra posted her own views yesterday. It's fair to say I agree totally with Dave, but I understand where Sandra is coming from.

Dave's post was really talking about teaching. It wasn't about the professional writer. And the other thing is that neither Dave, nor myself, are saying that Grammar isn't important. We're just questioning the running order of those priorities.

My point of view is an argument I need to make in two parts. First I need to say why I hold those opinions, then I need to tell you why that qualifying statement doesn't matter.

I'm dyslexic. It's only been in the past year that I've stopped making excuses for myself, and hiding issues away. Although i've always been willing to tell people, its only recently that i've started writing about the effects, or showing the ways that i struggle. My wife might be used to filling in my forms, reading directions, and checking the labels in shops, but i'm no longer letting people "at the desk job," think that I'm stupid simply because my brain handles information in another way.

The more active i've become in talking about it, the more i'm noticing there seems to be a war on dyslexia, too. Many educational authorities still don't recognise it. Many people who are meant to be teaching these people are doing so without a basic understanding of it. There are many famous people from the past who have been identified as dyslexic, or of carrying traits that would indicate it's presence, and there are now increasingly blogs, websites and journals that seek to disprove this. I've had someone look me in the eye and offer to show me studies that prove dyslexia doesn't exist. I wonder if these same people would stand in front of a blind man and offer to show him proof that he can see. So I must warn you, it's an issue I'll be getting louder on in future.

Clearly my thoughts on this issue can't help but be coloured by my perspective. I come at issues of the written word with something of an outsiders point of view. However, that doesn't matter. That shouldn't matter. The fact that my views have been informed by this don't impact the views themselves. I'll clarify what I mean by that later on.

It goes without saying, in my opinion, that anybody working at a craft should learn the basics of that craft. The examples given previously in this discussion allude to this. Yes, we want a carpenter or a builder to know the basics before they build us a chair or a house. Yes we want a pilot to have take lessons before flying our plane.

But what are the basic issues of their craft or job? I don't care if the pilot knows the accepted order to press buttons in, as long as he knows how to get the plane up, fly it, and land it safely. He may well be fudging a few things, like everybody at every workplace ever does. He may miss out some protocol, or switch on the flux capacitor before engaging the doohickey, and I couldn't give a toss. I don't care if the carpenter knows how to use a spirit level, or how to correctly mark his angles or cut his joints. I just care that he can build a seat.

Look at us. what percentage of readers actually care what aspects go into the craft of writing? Do they look at how we judge when to describe the room, or what we think of writers block? No, they want to read a good story. And none of us wants to see how sausages are made.

My favourite band in all the world are The Replacements. When Paul was playing with Bobby Stinson, he was playing with a guitarist who couldn't explain musical theory to you, and wouldn't know to point out a scale on the fret, but let him loose and he could spit fire with that guitar. Twenty years later Paul could have his pick of expert session musicians, but can any of them tell a story?

Because that's the thing. Thats the basic fundamental. It's story. It's point. It's message. Everything that comes afterwards is the dressing and presentation.

And there are tools out there for adult writers. I have people who can help polish my stuff. We have steps we can take to present ourselves as professionally as we can, and those are steps that we absolutely have to take. The professional, semi-professional or aspiring writer has to take their work seriously. No question.

But there are deeper issues here.

You want confessions? Okay. Many of the things that have come up during this past week, issues of verbs, adverbs, nouns.....none of these mean anything to me. I'm 30 years old, and I know how to tell you a story, but i'm not going to be able to explain to you what any of those terms mean. I'm not going to be able to hold a conversation on how many words should be in a sentence, or when you should and shouldn't use quotation marks. Even at the thought of trying, i'm wondering where the nearest fire escape is.

There are people around me who know these things. My wife is a journalist. My agent is very patient and can explain to me various elements of grammar. But I think they both agree I can tell a story.

To go back to Dave's point, it is vital that we engage the kids first. Encourage them to join the topic, to give ideas, and to put those ideas down in writing. Everything else can wait. Everything else is just the rest of us forcing rules onto them.

Just this past week, on one of the message boards I'm known to check out, I saw a teenager join in a conversation. This was someone who was clearly not used to writing in this way, clearly not used to joining in a conversation and expressing thoughts in written form. And the first reply he got was asking if he was kindergarten because some of what he wrote was in text speak.

Way to engage. Way to encourage.

And you know what? I've been that kid. Sometimes I still am.

I would rather read a novel in text speak that had something to say, than a book written in perfect modern prose that failed to express a single interesting idea. And I would rather engage that kid who sits down to join in than throw a rule book at him and drive him away.

The figures in adult illiteracy are astounding. A commission in 1998 showed that 7 million adults in England alone are functionally illiterate. Google tells me that 37 million in the U.S. suffer the same way.

Now, we can't generalise as to what is affecting all of those people. We don't know their circumstances, we don't know their poverty level or their access to education. But I have worked with adults who struggle to read and write, hell, I'm one of them, and I can say we need to engage people first.

At junior school I couldn't pass a spelling or grammar test to save my life. Teachers would work on this with me. They would give me the letters all cut out and ask me to rearrange them, they would give me books that explained what a noun was, or what an adverb was. They would talk to me, and eventually tell my parents that I was lazy, or that I didn't apply myself. I spent time outside some of these classes, eventually, looking at picture books, because if I didn't fit their lesson plan then I didn't fit the lesson. Later, at high school, the other people in my class could double my scores at S.P.A.G but they couldn't touch me on comprehension. Also worth noting that at high school I was pulled to one side and offered the chance to withdraw from certain subjects by the head teacher, because I was lazy and unfocused, and they had exam scores to worry about. 20 years later, I'm the one who's on here now selling you my fiction and arguing my points.

Because I got story. I'd had story my whole life. Both my grandfather and my mother would spend hours sitting with me and telling me stories, engaging me with narrative. They would encourage me to tell them stories, and I would talk, and I began to write, and I would draw them comic books.

There are people out there in the crime community, like Allan Guthrie and Charles Ardai, who were good enough to look through early work of mine, work that didn't fit an acceptable standard of grammar or formatting, and to encourage me.

Narrative is what we pin things on. It's how our brain stores information, how it files our memory as we go along. Ideas are what make us pick up the pen, or open the laptop. Ideas are what make us run around the room as a child pretending to be an aeroplane.

We've all seen films that are technically brilliant, but where it's clear the filmmaker or the writer had nothing to say, or didn't know what they wanted to say. I'm sure we've read many many books that have perfect grammar, but not a single moment of life.

Because priorities can be off. The wrong thing can be encouraged. Format can win over content, and rules can win over imagination. I've seen it, I've lived it.

But as I said up at the top, my dyslexia isn't the point. If and when I throw it into conversations like this, then i'll get, "well, in your case..." or "of course, if there is a disability." It's a good thing to throw in to get people thinking differently, but it's also something that takes the conversation down a blind alley.

I'm not saying that kids with dyslexia should be exempt from the grammar police. I'm saying there is a problem with the grammar police. For all kids, and adults, who are looking to learn to read and write, the rulebook should be something that comes later. Get them engaged. Get them involved. Get them confident enough to express themselves. Get them to enjoy expressing themselves. Get them to the point that they care about clarity, and everything else, including the rulebook, will follow from there. We need to not make grammar into a song and dance. Not get it to the point when people -as I have done- can stare at a page panicking over whether or not the work fits the rules, or whether I'll look stupid.

On the rare occasions that crazy people come to me asking for advice on a piece of writing, or struggling to get something down, I only have one real question for them, "what are you trying to say?" Talking to Dave at the weekend recording an interview for his next release, I hit a wall in how to phrase a question and he did pretty much the same thing, "what are you trying to get to?"

That's what matters, and that is really the only rule. Elmore Leonard had ten of them, and he's a better writer than me, but I only really have one.


Get clarity. Get to what you want to say. Figure that out, and then figure out the clearest way to say it. If you do that, then chances are everything else will take care of itself.


What's the point in me coming all this way without giving a few tips to people who have the same panics as myself, people intimidated by grammar. I have a few things that I keep in mind when i'm writing, and they help me find that clarity that I crave.

1. Forget that it's writing.Think of the language as it was meant to be, verbal and flowing. Think of what you want to say, and the clearest way to say it, then right it down.

2. Any time you want to pause or take a breath, thats when to throw in some punctuation.

3. It's worth reading back through your work in reverse order, a section or paragraph at a time. If it's seems clear backwards, then chances are you've structured it well enough.


For the whovians out there, or just general podcast fans, i've take up a guest spot on the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast to talk about the new series of Doctor Who. I filled in a little of my history of the show in last weeks episode, and i'll be back in this weeks to talk about episode 6.2, Day Of the Moon. Chances are the show will already be available by the time this post goes up.

Monday, May 2, 2011

It's Not Polite To Let Your Modifiers Dangle In Public: Ruttan on Grammar

The other day, Dave blogged on grammar. I logged on, typed up a great response, and watched it disappear into cyberspace somewhere.

That's when I decided that the supreme overlord of the internet had eaten my comment to force me to blog about this topic myself so that I could set the record straight, and restore the significance of grammar to its proper place in the writing universe.

Or, at least, put a bit of a different spin on it.

Check this out.

Boy it sure is hotter than hell Fred said. "I got me toes burnt near right off in de back of dat truck" Sally Jean told me she's dang near ready to burst. "Its like the devil himself were workin the sun Ralph said. "I cant remember a time when it was hotter dan dis. Ya, and Sally Jean said you won't be wantin to tink of anytin but an ice bath and cold home brew needer.

So, you tell me. Who the hell said what?

Now, I've read drafts of stories where, line after line, paragraphs ran together. If you add in a story where the focus is on dialogue, and a writer that doesn't know the rules for punctuation, so they don't consistently use quotation marks and leave out dialogue tags... Well, it can be a nightmare. I mean... I've really had to review prolonged sections of writing like this, and I've really not had a clue who was saying what or what was going on.

And I don't know how on earth to address clarity and to just make sense of the ideas behind the writing when I don't even know who's saying what.

Which means the first thing I've got to address with a writer struggling with these issues is how to split paragraphs, and how to use punctuation when writing dialogue. If they can at least sort the text into paragraphs, then I can begin to move towards clarity.

But without at least attempting to use punctuation and structure? Please, just shoot me now. I mean, really. I've pulled my hair half out of my head trying to make sense of run-on sentences that are mashed together in run-on paragraphs that extend multiple pages, and after going cross-eyed and nearly overdosing on Tylenol, I reached a significant conclusion.

And before anyone throws names at me like Charlie Huston, just remember, even writers who break "the rules" have their own style they consistently conform to that serves as a guide.

To me, the technical aspects of writing are like one of the four wheels of a cart; without it, it's pretty damn hard to get the cart to move properly.

Creativity is another wheel. Storytelling - not writing - is another wheel. The fourth wheel? Organization and expression. By this, I mean sequencing your thoughts in a way people can follow, to maximize the impact of your story.

And as far as I'm concerned, they're all equally important. I mean, Dave's right in saying that if there's a typo, we can usually figure out what was meant. But in the example I gave above? That's not slapping a bandage on a small error; that's major surgery to repair significant damage. And I think that Dave's opinion stems primarily from the situations he's exposed to through his work and writing experience, which may be scenarios where only a handful of pages are being written for a story, report or essay.

My situation is different, and that's why I'm splitting hairs here. Because while (in my humble opinion) Dave isn't completely wrong, in certain circumstances, he's also not completely right.

The other day we were in a restaurant and the kids were working on activity sheets. One was to create a crazy story by filling in the blanks with specific types of words. My stepson, who's in grade 4, didn't know the difference between a noun and a verb. And he's typically ranging from A to B in Language Arts grades. When he told me they don't really teach that in school, I couldn't argue. I've seen the worksheets that come home, and the kids aren't being instructed in this. 25 spelling words a week, but no lessons on the difference between an adverb and a verb.

Which reminds me of the fact that my stepdaughter got her lowest grade ever in language arts this year, and the teacher cited the fact that she wasn't using a lot of varied words in her creative writing. But how can you expect her to use different nouns and verbs and modifiers if she doesn't even know what those terms refer to?

That isn't even my biggest complaint with their English language instruction. What frustrates me is that they haven't learned the difference between singular and plural. They is not gonna learn to speak proper English if they is never corrected on such things. And when mixing singular and plural is common in their speech, and that translates over to their writing, shouldn't someone be explaining to them why they've lost points for it on a creative writing assignment?

This is why, every summer, I do my own review with the kids, covering math and English, as well as science and social studies.

Now, I remember being in school, and recall taking phonics and learning grammar and punctuation rules in elementary school. I also remember taking spelling tests each week, and I remember a very long list of teachers who would deduct points from projects for incorrect spelling, grammar or use of punctuation. And not just in English class.

Perhaps that's why I learned to focus on writing clean. Perhaps it's because I'm anal. Or perhaps it's because if you maintained a 100% average in spelling, you got a spare. Those who had the spare didn't have to do all the grammar assignments for the spelling words each week.

I try to write clean. I try to write clean in everything from my emails to my blog posts. And using twitter really messes with me mentally, because I need to use text speak sometimes, and it goes against my instincts.

As an author, I am so glad I habitually try to write clean.

Like Dave, I work in education. I spent a lot of time in high school English classes. I tutor adult students taking creative writing diplomas online. I also have two stepkids in elementary school.

And the lack of emphasis placed on good grammar, spelling and punctuation - what I tend to refer to as the technical aspects of writing - is a constant headache for me.

Now, in Dave's situation at school, perhaps he's primarily working on things that are only a handful of pages long. Maybe he teaches creative writing exclusively. If so, I can understand why he'd put more focus on creativity and clarity of expression than on technical execution if he chooses to.

But I work with students who are working on manuscripts. And I feel it's irresponsible for me to strictly focus on the creative side of the process without addressing the technical issues. I also feel that it's in the student's best interests to learn these things sooner, rather than later.


Do you want someone to wait until after they've started building the frame of your house before they take a carpentry course? Probably not. Just like you probably don't want to go flying in an airplane with a pilot who hasn't taken any lessons or learned how to land.

I know from first-hand experience just how much time is spent revising a manuscript after you think you've finished writing it. I know that typing 'The End' for the first time is really just the beginning. And I know that the next part of the process is often considerably more painful than the first part. Creating is fun. Expressing yourself correctly isn't.

So, sure, toss aside grammar and punctuation and spelling. Have at er. Go to town on your manuscript and sail right through. And then discover that you haven't used proper punctuation for any of your dialogue and you have to go over 350+ pages just to fix the dialogue punctuation alone. Plus, you never did learn that rule about i before e except after c, and there are so many wavy red lines that Word told you it's taking too much memory to track all your spelling and grammatical mistakes. And what is the rule about dialogue tags?

You see, in certain circumstances, Dave's not wrong. If I was strictly teaching creative writing - I mean, real creative writing, not the diploma course I do mentor that's called that - grammar would take a back seat. But coaching people through the process of writing a manuscript? Why on earth would I wait until the last chapter to mention that they now need to fix all their spelling and grammatical mistakes, and correct the punctuation?

As it is, when you get to the end of your manuscript, you're going to have to learn how to self edit. And self editing refers to more than just spelling and grammar. It includes believability. It includes internal consistency within the manuscript. It includes sellability and marketability. I mean, back when Charles and Diana were getting divorced, it might not have been a good thing to name your protagonist Camilla and have her having an affair with a married man. Legal issues and lack of appeal for the UK reading audience might be considerations. Hell, one of the things I had to do in my own early editing was to weed out my use of the word slight in all its various forms. Everyone was slightly tired, their eyes widened slightly, blah slightly blah. I was in love with the word. Now I can't stand using that word. We all have our little quirks, and sometimes we have to have someone point them out to us to help us break the habit.

I'm glad I have a tendency to write clean, because it means that I don't have to spend countless hours fixing mistakes needlessly. It takes far less time to learn to do something right to begin with, and build a solid foundation. I constantly check as I write. Some people will tell you that's not a good thing to do, but I guarantee you that I have the cure for writers block.

You think you have writers block? Start back on page 1 and do a line edit of your manuscript, and I guaranfreakintee you that most of the time, you'll be ready to get back to writing the story before you know it. Authors typically don't find it fun to edit their own work. It's a pain in the ass. And when I'm done, I like to have the idea that I might actually be pretty close to being done with a manuscript, instead of thinking I now need to go back to page 1 and correct thousands of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, every high school student and adult student should have some foundation of training in spelling, grammar and punctuation. Of course, that's what I'd like to believe. I've learned some teachers don't really cover those things. I mean, some don't even cover how to use a dictionary.

But most people have some basic knowledge. That means that covering the basic rules should be a refresher. There should be a foundation in there somewhere to build on. And it should come easy. It's much easier to explain the rules about commas and periods than it is to get someone to grasp how to breathe life into a character, and if I can get a student refreshed in the first few assignments and they start to fix those mistakes in their own writing, that's a lot less work for them to clean up later. I get get the housekeeping done at the start, and then focus on the other things that are far more nuanced and require individualized feedback.

And if it's just old folks who say it takes less time to do it right the first time rather than needing to go back and fix it later, then I'm old.

Old and right. Now, Dave says that people who nitpick on grammar and typos are taking the easy way out. I say bullshit. Because I have over 70 students taking various diploma programs, most working on novels, who have publication as a goal. And the courses guarantee that the students will re-earn their tuition, or the students get their money back. So, ask an agent if they'd rather get material that's been corrected after I've red-penned it, or something that hasn't had the grammar and spelling addressed? Focusing solely on grammar and spelling should not be the sole focus, but it is an important part of good writing.

Maybe this is a difference. I mean, I get paid to assess the assignments. When I'm working in the high school, I get paid the same, whether I correct the grammar and spelling or not.

And I actually have worked with kids who will sit and stare at a paper and can't write anything. I have actually worked with kids who're in high school and can barely read, never mind put two sentences together. My reality is different than Dave's, so I'm willing to say maybe what he's saying is reasonable for his situation, but it really isn't appropriate for mine, and it does drive me mental when anyone wants to declare an absolute truth on this subject. There are times grammar is MORE important that creativity, and I would think that should be clear to anyone involved in writing.

As a tutor, my biggest fear is that my students will go read Dave's post, totally blow off all the technical aspects of writing, and then get a hard dose of reality. Their draft will be done, they'll no longer have a tutor, and they'll have hundreds of pages of mistakes to correct on their own. And you know what? If that happens, it's not my problem. I mean, technically, they have to do the work to clean it up. But the parental side of me, and the educator side of me, is always trying to help people avoid mistakes, rather than letting them set themselves up for failure. I've known people who loved the creation part of storytelling so much, they could write for hours, but never could figure out how to correct their manuscripts so that they were publishable, and eventually gave up on the entire process, because rejection after rejection wore them down, and learning how to fix their mistakes seemed like a Herculean task after they had stacks of manuscripts written.

I don't want my students to finish their diploma and then fall flat on their face because of something like this, that I could have helped them with along the way.

Ask a parent whether it's better to have their child do a short tidying of their room every day, or a big clean-up every week. Oh, those moments of discouragement when someone who's been putting off their chores comes face to face with the fact that nothing else is happening until their room is cleaned. And everywhere they look, there's a mess. How many times have I said that if things were put away after they were used, we'd be able to find them?

It's logic, on multiple levels. As a society we're pretty good at putting off to tomorrow what should be done today. As an educator, I feel it's irresponsible of me not to address all the critical aspects that should be taught in order to help my students succeed in expressing themselves with the written word. And I feel comfortable agreeing to disagree with Dave based on the situations I work with, because his approach wouldn't be appropriate for the goals of the students I'm working with, who want to be published, not just graded.

Oh, and by way of confession, probably every single "nitpicky" thing I point out to my students is a mistake I've made at one time or another. I'm supposed to bring them years of experience from working with authors, editors, agents and going through the process of being professionally published. If they're paying for that voice of experience, they should get it, whether I'm pointing out resources for using punctuation, tips on how to write a query letter, or anything else that's related to becoming a published writer.


And in other news!

Suspicious Circumstances sold over 400 copies in 5 weeks, and became and Amazon Top 100 Bestseller last month! The book is now available on Smashwords as well as Kindle.

Also, my short story Childhood Dreams is now available exclusively on Smashwords for free.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Not all opinions are equal

by: Joelle Charbonneau

For many of us, it is hard to read our own work and be completely objective. Sometimes we need another eye. The first time I had someone read my work it scared the crap out of me. At the time I was just proud I finished a book. I knew nothing about publishing or what it took to be published. I was just hoping the book I wrote made sense.

Hearing someone talk to me about the pros and cons of my manuscript was both hard and fabulous. No matter who you are, it is hard to hear criticism about what you have created – even when the criticism is completely constructive. Writers love their stories and its hard to hear when that story isn’t perfect. But sometimes it is that extra opinion that can really help a writer open up their mind to other possibilities in the telling of the story – possibilities that up the tension, give the characters more depth or move the pacing along.

Manuscript critiques are a funny thing. I would not have improved in my writing without being critiqued by authors that I know, respect and trust. I think that an author’s writing can greatly benefit from having another eye looking at the story. But too often that other opinion can be rejected not because it is wrong or doesn’t resonate – but because the person doing the critique didn’t chose their words carefully.

Whether you are the writer of a story or the person critiquing it you need to remember one thing. Words matter. Telling a writer that their pacing is excruciatingly slow is probably going to get the writer’s back up which will make them unreceptive to anything else you have to say. However, telling the writer that they might want to trim the backstory in the opening pages to help their pacing will probably be more favorably received.

Recently, I read a critique given to an author that made me want to scream. The person doing the critiquing used words like excruciatingly slow, {the scene was} silly at best – ridiculous at worse, nonsense, muddled, weak, etc… The critiquer was so busy being “right” that he never bothered to care whether his comments were helpful. Perhaps there were some useful, even gemlike bits in the critique. I was so busy being repelled by the language that was used that I failed to notice them – and it wasn’t even my work being discussed.

As a voice teacher, I am careful about the words I chose to explain the less than perfect things my students are doing. I avoid words like shrill, nasally, amateurish because the student will emotionally react to the negative and will have a hard time getting past the language in order to focus on how to make that moment in the music better. In writing critiques, I am even more careful because those are not usually done face to face. The writer can’t hear my tone or see my expression. In both my writing critiques and my vocal instruction I try my hardest to be tactfully honest. So, when I see critiques that are basically platforms to show how much smarter the critiquer is I want to beat the living daylights out of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I in no way think I’m perfect when it comes to critiquing. I’ve critiqued manuscripts for a lot of both published and unpublished authors. Some authors get upset when I make a suggestion or comment that something about the story is confusing. Others feel that because I’m published my opinion is actually fact. Both reactions are wrong. Mine is one opinion. If a writer doesn’t like my opinion, I am not offended. I encourage them to get another. Because guess what? All opinions are not equal. Just because something works for me doesn’t mean that it resonates for you. Just because I think I’m saying things the right way to help you doesn’t mean I am. Critiques are only useful to a writer if they do what you think is best for their writing and leave behind the crap that doesn’t.

How about you? Have you had other writers critique your work? Did you find the process useful or did it scar you for life? And what are you looking for when you ask someone for a critique of your work? Are you looking for validation that the story is good or are you really looking for honest feedback about what will make your story better?