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.