Sunday, March 28, 2010

Journal Writing for Our Own Good

How many of you keep a journal? How many of you would like to keep a journal but find it hard to begin? I have good news for you. Of all the types of writing, this should be the easiest form of expression you ever attempt. You don't have to be a great writer, perfect speller, or creative thinker to keep a personal journal. Journal writing means that you regularly write down your thoughts and experiences. If you keep a blog, you can keep a journal.

I’m not talking about diary entries here. Diaries contain a description of daily events, usually nothing more. A journal, however, is where we breathe life into those mundane lists; it is our opportunity to reflect on our lives and express emotions and understanding behind our actions and thoughts.

I have a few tips for keeping a journal that might make the experience a little easier.
  • Begin. Write down a few thoughts you experience during the day—the passage doesn’t have to be long—just get the thoughts down on paper. Don’t worry about your spelling or grammar. The most important thing is to express yourself. I know, I know, you can’t allow misspelled words and poor grammar to go unchecked. Fine, edit AFTER you pour out your soul.
  • Write a little each day. Practicing every day helps you become more observant and confident. Who knows, something you write may inspire a scene in your current work in progress or become the plot for your next novel.
  • Ignore excuses Sometimes you may feel you don’t have time to write down your personal experiences. Spencer W. Kimball once stood before the World Conference on Records and said: “By now, in my own personal history, I have managed to fill seventy-eight large volumes . . . . There have been times when I have been so tired at the end of a day that the effort could hardly be managed, but I am so grateful that I have not let slip away from me and my posterity those things which needed to be recorded.” (Ensign, Oct. 1980, p. 72.)
  • Try to write at the same time every day. When writing becomes routine, the words will flow more easily. You'll begin to feel committed to your journal. Hmm, have you heard this writing advice before?
  • Carry a notebook with you at all times. If you do this, you'll never miss an important moment.
  • Get your senses involved. Say exactly what you see, feel, hear, and so on. Be specific when you write. For example, instead of saying “tree”, say what kind of tree you’re writing about. I could have written a boring list of incidents about my move to Arizona in 1982. Instead I wrote: 
 The rich San Joaquin Valley never looked as beautiful as when we drove out of the Bay Area on   February 21, 1982. Through my windshield, I must have viewed six different shades of green that crisscrossed patterns over the land. The almond trees were abloom, emanating life, providing a white contrast in square patches alongside the highway and afar off. This display came after torrential rains pounded the Bay Area, saturating the homes and hillside residences. Mudslides had demolished anything that had stood in the way. As I marveled at the hues, textures and patterns before me, I found the scene ironic—that such beauty exists so close to devastation.
  • Observe. Take note of "who," "what," "when," "where," "how," and "why." Even the most routine events are worth observing. But don’t record things like, “I went to the store. Then I came home. Then I brushed my teeth and went to bed.” Don’t forget to write about the life changing events that occur in your life. That is what you and your children will want to go back and read.

I know, without a doubt, that writing personal and family histories bless our lives and the lives of our families. I enjoy reading the recorded memories of my past. Even my children love to find out about my successes and failures, and like to kid me about my peculiarities. They are reflections that can enlighten and teach important lessons to my posterity. So the next time you resist the urge to record your life’s events, kick yourself, and say, “This is for my own good.” You might even discover it’s worth a belly-laugh or two.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Eloquent Phrasing

Each time I read a book I really like, I break down the author’s work, write down the phrases that impress me, and try to discover what aspect of their writing draws me in. Most times my attraction is due to the author’s way of saying mundane things in unique ways. I’ve started a phrase book to inspire me on those days when I struggle to write with a fresh perspective. I read through the phrases until the itch to create something as clever pushes me to the keyboard. The process usually helps.

I recently read Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell. She has a PhD in English, and not only did her topic enthrall me, but her phrasing made my taste buds water. Below are just some of her creative uses of the English language:

I camouflaged the lie in a thin wrapping of truth.

I felt hope splinter and crack.

Sparks shimmered down like a slow rain of fiery petals.

A mundane tale of worn-out parts

Smoke scudded across the sky.

The spiraling wail of sirens

A prickle of watching eyes

My voice carving through the shadows

Lights kindled as night crept through the city in a dark tide.

The smokestack speared the night.

Smoke poured like black blood.

Ahhh!!! Divine!!!! Does anyone else get excited reading her words? Since I’m always hunting for unique turns of phrase, always desiring to add to my phrase book, please leave a comment, sharing your ideas of exceptional writing.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pleasing Our Readers

The other day, my son, the one I thought would NEVER show interest in anything I’ve written, told me how he’s read my manuscripts when I wasn’t looking. He complimented me on my skill as a writer and called me an intelligent woman. I stared at him, mouth open, eyes ogling. My child had actually read my writing and felt impressed!

Writing can seem an intimidating pursuit sometimes, and though I struggle to stay positive in the climb up the ladder, I have to remind myself, people often read my words and like them. The crazy thing about the process is that we never know who is reading our work. As we network, we pick up potential readers, and we might balk at how many people are really interested in our progress. Of course, we also push away a few who hate everything we say.

That’s okay because we’ll never be able to please everybody, all the time.

Still I obsess over spelling and punctuation; I cringe every time I go back to read my blog posts and find some infraction of the English language or a thought that misses the point. Such infringements ruin our credibility as writers, right? The same son who read my manuscripts on the sly shakes his head and tells me not to worry so much, especially when writing a blog post. He assures me bloggers misspell words all the time.

I don’t know how comforting that is. I want to at least appear as though I’ve used spell check and have edited my posts before I publish them—because according to my son, I am an intelligent woman. And I do want to present to all those who read my work the best I have to offer. After all, I am trying to build a reputation in the writing world.

Still—I'm thrilled that Hemingway choked at spelling.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Writers Are Odd

On February 27, I attended the ANWA writer’s conference, Start Write Now, and one of the more humorous speakers, J Scott Savage, commented that writers are odd. To emphasize his point, he revealed his list of oddities: writer’s talk to their characters in the shower, cry over the characters they kill themselves, write down their dreams, and have crazy egos. We all laughed over his slide presentation, illustrating the various quirks. Despite his humor, I’ve thought about his comments over the last couple of weeks, and I’ve come to the conclusion he’s more correct than not.

I came up with my own list of idiosyncrasies to prove he’s hit the mark. I’m sure if you thought about it awhile, you might come up with some weirdness yourself. Please share if you do.
  • Writers Emote - I’ve always been a drama queen. My husband (now ex-husband) used to tell me all the time, “You’re not on the stage,” when I reacted to life’s curve balls. I went around the house emoting and feigning the end of the world often. My children ogled at me, marveling at the woman banging her head on the computer keys and crying, “I’ll never get it! Never!” When I think back on my moments of drama, well, I'm sure I'd have repeated the same things over again.
  • Writers Are Superstitious - Charles Dickens placed objects on his desk in exactly the same position, always set his bed in north/south directions, and touched certain objects three times for luck. I recently learned about Feng Shui, and now I won’t write facing the south, my worst direction of all.
  • Writers Roll Play - Whether on a bus or in a grocery store line, you can find a writer acting out their characters’ lives in the strangest ways. Perhaps you’ve taken up skydiving or asked your children to tie you to a chair so you know how your character feels. On a good day, you can find me throwing punches in the air and dancing with my houseplants.
  • Writers Rather Type Than Eat - A writer is always rushing to meet deadlines or yearning for the right word to replace another one from their last writing session, thus they’d rather be typing than doing just about anything else. I’ve skipped meals often when the flow is erupting from my depths. My stomach grumbles on, and I can’t stop writing until the walls start moving behind my computer.  
Sound familiar? At all? I hear a resounding, “Yes!!!!” Because writers ARE odd. It’s the nature of the zillions of beasts that roam around inside our heads. But, hey, rather than tame the invasive creatures, I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the end of my novel.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Up With Which I Will Not Put and Other Rules

The rules of writing are sometimes meant for bending or breaking. That being said, we must first know what the rules are in order to ignore them.

I love the way Winston Churchill made this point apparent concerning the age-old rule of ending a sentence with a preposition.

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”

By following the rules we learned in elementary school, we see how ridiculous that sentence sounds. Now I ask you, is there anything wrong with ending this sentence with a preposition? Most grammarians will say it's OK to end sentences with prepositions when the preposition doesn’t create a relationship between other words. Yet violations of this rule might tick off editors and land our manuscripts in the slush pile. If we are preparing letters or manuscripts for publication, we might make a better impression by using proper grammar. I might have rewritten the sentence this way, avoiding the issue all together: I won’t put up with using a preposition at the end of a sentence. I used one less word and it gets right to the point.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never completely understood what my elementary teachers taught me about the more complicated grammar rules and can never remember the meanings of the odd titles they used to describe grammar mismanagement, like split infinitive and dangling participle. Back then, I thought the English language had to be the most complicated gibberish in the world.

It wasn’t until I started writing regularly that grammar usage started dripping, one rule at a time, into remote locations of my brain. Even so, my hands shake every time I write a blog or submit a manuscript for fear I have yet to learn another important rule and have proven my ignorance. The remedy: continue to write, continue to learn grammar.

If you choose to ignore the standard grammar rules, make sure you do it in a way that makes your purpose apparent—like in the quote mentioned above or in dialogue. But please sacrifice a misuse of the rules if, by doing so, you sacrifice clarity and a foot in the editor’s door.