Saturday, May 23, 2015

Conquering Our Own Mountains

Recently, conference keynote speaker, Regina Sirois, compared mountain climbing to our writing careers. The points I took away from her talk included three important aspects writers must remember:
  • we should never sit down and die because the journey to the top is difficult
  • we should never be too busy getting too the top that we forget to help others along the way
  • we should never be so jealous of others’ achievements, that we are disappointed in our own.

I’d like to embellish on the third point, if I may. Comparison can be a deadly sin in our writing efforts, especially if we use the task to depress ourselves. Maybe our friends in the business are brilliant storytellers. Maybe those same people use words to conjure up vivid imagery or draw on the readers’ emotions like no other writer. Maybe we look at ourselves as lacking those same abilities, a lesser colleague in the rise to find our place as an author.

Avoid such comparisons. A more useful path might include an evaluation of our own earlier efforts with that of our current achievements. This type of comparison clearly delineates the progress we have made. Isn’t that the only assessment that counts? Isn’t our goal as a writer to become better at our craft than we were before?

Perhaps our colleagues started at higher talent level. With a bit of determination and hard work, it’s only a matter of time before we reach those same goals. Right?

Or maybe our colleagues were in the right places at the right times. Ours is to figure out what distinctive direction and schedule to follow in our own worlds so we can arrive at the places and times better fit for our own purposes.

In our trek up Everest, we might just discover the necessity to climb a different summit, one that will take us farther and higher that we ever dreamed possible, a summit with an entirely different scope than we imagined for ourselves in the beginning. Isn’t that how genius is born?

Our goals are unique. We show graciousness and class when we are happy with our colleagues' contributions. But it is imperative we also find joy in the zeniths we have conquered. What is right for another author may be disastrous within our own realms. Just imagine our thrill when we discover the view at the top of our individual mountains is only a respite on our way to something far better.

We have a world of pinnacles to climb. Some higher, some lower than others. Be happy with whatever those pinnacles may be. Go and conquer.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Grammar Styleguides: Which is Right?

I’m a nerd when it comes to collecting grammar books. I possess many of them. I am not saying I have mastered all the rules within these manuals, but I am interested in learning the best way to use the English language in my manuscripts.

One of my favorite resources is the British Bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. On the back of her book, she humorously makes her point about how bad punctuation can affect our readers. She tells a story of a panda bear that enters a café, orders something to eat, eats the food, and draws his gun to fire two shots in the air. When the waiter asks him why he exhibits such behavior, the panda, before he leaves, throws a poorly written wildlife manual over his shoulder and tells the waiter he can read about it under Panda. The entry explains: Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

When I first read the quip on the back of Truss’s book, I had a good laugh. Bad punctuation can alter the meaning of our sentences and leave the reader scratching his head. I have dodged the fiery darts of those in the office who argue to leave the comma in, take the comma out, or put the hyphen in, leave the hyphen out. The battle became so intense that management finally put together a style manual so everyone follows the same rules.

Why do so many variations of writing guidelines exist? Style guide, after style guide vie for our attention in the editing world and confuse the most expert connoisseur among us. Surely one is right and all the rest are wrong. Journalists follow, for the most part, Associated Press rules. Different countries lean to their own sets of guidelines, while formal American writers use a combination of several other regulatory manuals.

I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that dilemma. I think the danger comes when we mix the various styles without consideration of our reasons for doing so. Should we stick to one guide and use it religiously? Should we use AP rules when we are not writing for a magazine or newspaper venue? My take on the matter: ours is not to pick and choose at random. That is where the confusion seeps in.

Whichever system becomes your mantra, shoot for clarity in your manuscripts. I would much rather convey my messages without confusion than adhere to a specific style to the end of time and never get out of the slush pile.

It’s your choice. How you use that choice just might determine how well your writing rises to the top.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Potential to Become

I am convinced if we want to become not just writers but influential writers, we must follow certain steps in our process to greatness. As in any worthy endeavor unfulfilled expectations usually means we ignored basic principles or were too lazy to carry them out. Unfortunately, no easy way exists to reach our desired goals. We have to toil, sometimes unceasingly, until we finally step into the realms we’ve stretched ourselves to attain.

I’ll admit some seem to achieve the final reward a lot faster and with less effort than in our own little world. I suppose they were born with intuitive understanding of the process or maybe even a little bit of luck. That’s okay. Those who labor diligently often appreciate the achieving far more than those who barely have to lift a pinkie.
And then there are those who, no matter how hard they try, fail to achieve the heights they want to attain. That reminds me of the story about a man who couldn’t pitch a baseball despite his urgency to achieve that feat. So every day he found himself out back where he threw baseballs against the barn, over and over again, until he learned how to pitch with some degree of talent. The same can happen for us, and it doesn’t matter at what level we begin.
The steps to receive this potential to become are the same in whatever goal we want to achieve. We might excel in one category more than in another. But the good news is we only have to remember three things and then work like mad to accomplish them, especially the first two.
Are you ready? Ingrain the list to memory:
Learn all we can – That seems logical, right? If we want to become an accomplished writer, we have to understand everything about that craft. Learn about sentence structure, grammar, tone, style— the list goes on. We may be proficient in some, not so talented in others, but that is where the next step comes into play, the step I mentioned above.
Act on what we learn – We can learn all we want, but until we practice the information we glean, those facts lay dormant inside us or perhaps fade away altogether with disuse. The one thing I have learned in my pursuit to get published is this: If I fail to send my manuscripts to readers or to agents, I never improve, and I never get published.
Yet some of us expect results, dream about the final reward, without putting in the time. I’m sorry to break the news to you, but if we ignore this step, most likely we’ll continue to dream and never receive our ultimate reward.
Those who do make the effort can’t help but fall into the last step toward distinction. After gaining knowledge and after all the hard work and practice, we suddenly discover the potential to become. We might say the seeds, talent, or whatever we call this ability, awakens inside us. Whether that capacity was present all along and just needed a little coaxing, or the powers are given us from a source far greater than our own, we finally comprehend the goal is within our grasp. It is attainable. And that potential pushes us to even greater levels than we first set for ourselves.
That’s it. Three easy steps, right?
We just have to set our minds to it. Learn all we can and then practice. Now that I’ve taught you the process, go and become the best you can be. And when you achieve far more than you expect, just remember where you learned the sage advice. There’s more where that came from. I’m in the process of practicing the steps myself.

Monday, April 21, 2014

America's Best Kept Secret

My latest novel is an archeological mystery/suspense about finding buried treasure. The story weaves science, religion, and Native American folklore together to catapult the protagonists into mayhem and toward a find promising to change the face of Christianity.

My inspiration came after attending lectures of three well-researched men:  Rod Meldrum, Wayne May, and Bruce Porter. They introduced me to the subjects of the Michigan Relics and the mound-building civilizations of North America. Imagine my surprise when I learned of hundreds of thousands of Native American mounds along with their artifacts and skeletal remains scattered throughout the United States long before the European nations invaded this country. These were the vestiges of cities larger than Rome or London, yet barely earning a footnote in the annals of America.

My elementary and high school teachers were either ignorant or knowingly mute about such subjects, thanks to the political agendas of religious and scientific institutions and the attitude of the Manifest Destiny. America’s educated have buried the evidence or destroyed the earthworks until nothing of substance is left to understand who built them or what happened to these civilizations.

The tablets and artifacts that do exist tout philosophies of Old World cultures and suggest these people arrived in this land from across the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the relics display ancient Semitic and Egyptian writing. The colonizers used copper and iron processes to craft tablets, head plates, breastplates, and swords.
Academia has deemed most of the relics fake and the mound constructions too sophisticated for the "primitive savages" who once existed across this land. It’s America’s best kept secret, and Meldrum, May, and Porter site a powerful case in their research. Hopefully, I have succeeded to relay their message adequately in my work of fiction, and those agents who review the manuscript will find it a topic worthy of consideration. I am passionate about the subject. With a little luck, my readership will find it as fascinating as I have.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reptilian Melody

I just finished a major rewrite of my latest novel. Each successive version of the piece comes closer to what I had hoped to glean when I started, yet I ask myself, “Is a writer’s job ever finished?” Eventually I just have to abandon the effort, except my imperfections, and move on to my next endeavor.

But when do I place my baby on the stranger’s doorstep and run? My writer friends tell me revision is necessary and to edit my work until it is right.  If you are like me, I pick my prose to death. I’m never quite satisfied with my sentence structure or my word choices.  Often, when I change things, I add additional mistakes without realizing my error. Years can go by before I even allow others to read the manuscript, and then a day after I send it off I’ve already changed the story. I lament, "Why didn't I wait until now?"
My problem is I don’t want others to see my imperfections. I envision my readers rolling their eyes and muttering to themselves, “What was she thinking? And she calls herself a writer!” But I can’t please everyone. It’s imperative that I rely on fresh eyes and fresh perspective to shake the kinks out of my writing. Neither do I know all things and allowing others to peruse my words can only improve my work.

All writers must become reptiles. They must don a tougher skin. Accepting criticism and acknowledging their lack is part of their craft. Unfortunately, no other way exists to achieve a higher level of accomplishment.
Still, the thought of someone’s corrections stabs me to the core. I better scour my closet for that thick skin over-suit.

Hmm… now where did I hang it last?