Two For One!

Aren’t you lucky? Today, you not only get a 100-word flash fiction, but, at no extra charge, you get a little writing lore as well.

Yeah, I wouldn’t do well writing for infomercials, would I?

Here’s today’s Friday Fictioneers inspirational photo:

And here’s a piece I call, “Winter Wonderland.”

I wasn’t sure if it were safe to go out yet, but the dog, cooped up for so many days, was insistent. I tried to keep him close, but dogs wander. Still, I understood. Cabin fever had grasped me, too.
The blanket of snow seemed muted beneath the still-gray sky but was so beautiful compared to the four walls where we’d hunkered down. There were no tracks except ours.
The dog bounded toward the road. I slogged after him, my cries loud in the still air, echoing off the trees.
You don’t go far from home in a nuclear winter.
Yes, I’d gone a few days without any apocalyptic writing. 😉 Now, here’s your bonus–a brief discussion about a writing tool I can’t be without.
Even after teaching English, being a journalist and an editor, and writing since I was ten, there are certain aspects of English grammar where I still falter. Lie versus Lay. Which versus That. Those are my particular downfalls. I’ll write them one way, decide they’re wrong, write them the other way, then discover I was right the first time.
Who wants to go pull the dusty, old English Grammar Reference off the shelf? Not I. I use a small tome that has been on or near my myriad writing desks for the past forty years–The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, or as it’s colloquially called “Strunk and White.”
“Make every word tell,” was Cornell English professor William Strunk, Jr.’s advice to his students, one of whom was E. B. White, ofCharlotte’s Web fame. Strunk wrote the first The Elements of Style in 1918 and made it obligatory for his students. It wasn’t until after Strunk’s death that E.B. White, writing in The New Yorker, told the world about the “forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” White was asked to edit a re-issuance of the volume to bring it into modern usage. That was about sixty years ago, and this “little book,” as White called it, is still an indispensable aid to writers from high schoolers toiling over term papers to the rest of us who hope to be considered accomplished.
My well-thumbed copy, which helped me write features and editorials as a reporter and countless government reports, is still packed away with my work “stuff,” so I had to replace it with this fairly fresh copy (below). Strunk and White pares down the sometimes vague structures of English grammar to the basics of language usage and composition.
It has almost doubled in size from the forty-three page volume White extolled in The New Yorker and now has a glossary and an index. It’s original outline remains much the same as Strunk’s version from the early part of the previous century: Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused (my personal favorite), and An Approach to Style. (I love the perfection of those section titles.)
Strunk and White is great for writers who hate grammar–notice they don’t use the word–because it has condensed the whole, arcane grammatical schema into a pocket-sized reference. You could call it “Style Basics” and be accurate, but “The Elements of Style” is just, well, stylish.
My new copy cost me ten dollars in a book store, but consider it an investment. Big box and independent book stores will order you a copy upon request. You can get a used copy from Amazon for as little as seven dollars or from free to $2.99 in the Kindle Store–though the Kindle version is the original Strunk work. Go for the Strunk and White version. If you’re a Nook person, the price and the version is the same. A used copy from Barnes and Noble can be as low as three dollars.
Considering the state of some of the indie published books I’ve been reading to review, every person who calls him- or herself a writer should own one of these and use it. Then, you won’t be disingenuous when you call yourself an author.
I have no financial interest in The Elements of Style or with its publishers. It’s just a darned good writing book.

Politics Wednesday

It was coincidence that my writing work plan sets Wednesday as politics blogging day, and the first such blog of 2012 comes the morning after the Iowa Caucuses. Coincidental but serendipitous. That throwback to the days of smoke-filled rooms, the caucus, left plenty to talk about.

First, Willard M. Romney got a win he can’t really puff his chest up about, and he appeared to be somewhat muted on the Wednesday morning gabfests. I believe that eight-vote margin is one of the smallest in election history, especially for a national office. The other bad news Romney has to take away from this is that, after essentially four years of campaigning, he won the same percentage of Iowa Caucus votes as he did in 2008. On paper, it’s a victory, but it must leave the taste of ash in Romney’s mouth.

Though he came in second, Rick Santorum is the real winner. He did in a few weeks what Romney took four years to accomplish–get twenty-five percent of the votes. A month ago, Santorum was in the low double digits, and he gained a lot of ground and even led by more than 100 votes on occasion throughout the evening. Of course, he gained that ground by appealing to the basest instincts of the white voter–by fronting that stereotype that black people don’t want to work and by doing his best imitation of Tim Tebow without bending a knee.

Ron Paul. What more can be said about him? He wants you to have the right to drink raw milk if you want. I grew up on a farm. I’ve drunk raw milk, and, Mr. Paul, you don’t want to know the crap (literally) that’s in raw milk. Paul wants to withdraw within our borders, have no foreign entanglements, and let everyone within those borders fend for themselves. He’s no fan of Lincoln because Lincoln got us into an unnecessary war. WTF? I say that a lot about Ron Paul. Yes, he’s grandfatherly. Yes, he sounds like the eccentric uncle who only comes to visit on holidays and upsets everyone, but one-fifth of the Iowa voters like his vision for America. And that’s scary.

And, can you imagine, Newt Gingrich got relegated to a somewhat distant fourth place? How dare they? How dare they ignore someone of his self-declared intellect? But you just wait. He’s not going negative. He’s just going to tell the truth. (Cheers and applause) His truth, of course, which is somewhat detached from our everyday reality. As a former federal employee, I remember Newt’s fit of pique when he and other members of Congress had to exit Air Force One from the rear stairs–he shut the government down because President Clinton wouldn’t acknowledge Gingrich’s odd notion he was the co-President, not Hillary. His suck-up to Santorum and his “watch out, I’m coming to get you” riff to Romney was pure, nasty Newt.

The Village of Texas is getting its other idiot back. How nice for them. It’s hard to believe there is actually a Texas politician who can make W look like a Rhodes Scholar, but, good old Rick, he proved there was. Perry brought nothing original to this campaign, and it serves no point to waste any more blog space on him.

I wonder how Michelle Bachmann feels this morning after all that praying for a miracle from the entity she knows makes miracles. I guess she didn’t pray hard enough because the miracle didn’t happen. She essentially came in dead last, since Huntsman, Cain, Roehmer, and “No Preference” together garnered less than one percent of the votes, and none of them campaigned in Iowa. As of this writing, she has canceled her trip to South Carolina for that upcoming primary and will hold a press conference later today. At least I won’t have to listen to her carping about being disrespected because she was a woman. The hypocrisy of someone who has done all she could to reverse or disdain the accomplishments of the women’s movement who then uses sexism as an excuse for her personal shortcomings just astounds me. I hope she’s back in Minnesota for good.

The real winner in my opinion–and others more knowledgeable than I agree–is, ultimately, President Obama. Many people think Romney is the “most electable” Republican choice when paired against the President. I think the square jaw and the whitener-enhanced smile only go so far, especially for someone whose profession was to shut down companies and move jobs overseas, for which he received tremendous remuneration. When it comes down to the person who represents my values, it’s President Obama. Mind you, I’d like to have a talk with him about a few things, but the hope and the change still do it for me.

Here’s the most telling thing. If you haven’t noticed, none of the candidates refer to the President by his title–it’s Obama or Barack Obama. Now, trust me, I had trouble uttering the words “President” and “Bush” together, but I always tried to say “The President.” (Or President Shrub when I was really pissed.) This refusal to acknowledge the President’s status is indicative of a privileged (because they’re white) section of society–they just can’t wrap their heads around the reality of someone in the White House who is not white.

What I took away from the Iowa spectacle was a post-caucus interview with a white man in his fifties. When asked why he voted for Romney, he said, “He’s the best one to beat [slight hesitation and the beginning of a sneer] Mister Obama.”

That says it all. Unfortunately.

Writing Work Schedule update:

Monday afternoon:

  • Edited the review for Linkage: The Narrows of Time Series (Volume 1) and sent interview questions to the author
  • Drafted a review of Loki and Sigyn: A Love Story
  • Morning: edited a short story called “The Drink” and sent it to an on-line critique group I’m in (got very constructive comments so far)
  • Afternoon: pulled out my 2009 NaNoWriMo manuscript and reviewed it to see if, with a few name changes, it could be a good candidate for a Kindle Publication
  • Morning: Blog on politics (see above)
  • To do for the afternoon: work on editing/revising a novel (depends on how tired and sore I am from coughing)

Set That First Draft Aside

I’ve been doing a lot of reading of indie published books lately (or, if you’re a stickler for terminology, self-published books, but terminology adapts, by the way). I have a list of eight of them I’m going to review, and, unfortunately, it’s been a mixed bag of quality. Oh, the stories have been decent; getting to the story through the morass of bad grammar and punctuation has been the hard part. Part of the problem is I’ve been both an English teacher and a magazine editor. What, to some apparently, may be unimportant details, to me are essentials of language. If those fine details–commas, word usage, grammar–aren’t present, I get distracted–and frustrated–by what I consider elementary school-level errors.

It’s too easy to attribute this to lack of education, but the authors involved–on their blogs or on social media–seem to have had a decent education. Then, it hit me, as I was helping a friend with a manuscript, these works read as if the authors had published their first drafts.

That’s the seduction of indie publishing. It is very empowering, on one level, to eliminate all those filters (agents, editors) who don’t get your fiction, who don’t see you as a money-maker, who have to take a cut of your royalties, etc. I believe publishing is evolving, but for indie publishing to get any sort of professional acknowledgement from traditionally published authors, you can’t publish your first draft.

First drafts, of course, are necessary. First drafts are the place where you finally get on the page that story that’s been rattling around in your head for a long time. It is an accomplishment in and of itself to do that–one of the reasons I like National Novel Writing Month. I can come up with something completely new at least once a year. Have I published any of the manuscripts I wrote the past four Novembers? No. They’re first drafts of what will be good works later. After proofreading and editing. When I finish a NaNoWriMo project, I set that draft aside for a good six months or more before I pick it up again. In the meantime, it’s never far from my thoughts, but I’d never, ever see the holes in the plot or the un-obvious typos if I started the edit immediately after finishing the first draft.

Whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or indie publishing, the process is to set the first draft aside for the amount of time it takes to make it fresh when you look at it again. When you publish your first draft and start seeing those five stars on Amazon (which your mother and all her friends have put there) and read the comments like, “We need more of [insert character name here]!” resist the temptation to write a sequel in a weekend and publish it raw.

Cultivate a friendship with a local high school English teacher or newspaper editor or even a friend from school you know got good grades in English. Let them proofread your work for the typos, punctuation problems, grammar, etc. You can accomplish some of this yourself by reading your work out loud–at home, preferably, unless you like people at Starbucks staring at you and wondering if they should call the cops. (In reading this post aloud, to this point I’ve found a half dozen typos, now fixed.) But nothing beats a “fresh” set of eyes.

Then–and this has been something hard for a lot of indie authors to accept–hire a developmental editor. Yes, you get a higher percentage of royalties if you self-publish without all that traditional publishing detritus, but you’ll get better reviews and more sales if a reader/reviewer can’t tell the difference between your book and a traditionally published one. That takes work. That takes commitment not just to telling a good story but presenting a good story.

I have an indie writer friend who consistently produces a good first draft–in the sense of proper punctuation, grammar, and usage–and the story is decent as well. Recently, she sent a copy of her first draft of a new novel to her editor, and now she’s in the midst of a total rewrite. You may say, “See, that’s what’s wrong with editors, and that’s why I don’t want one.” However, this writer understands the editor’s purpose–to make it better–and she’s excited about the major revision because she knows she’ll have something beyond a good, first draft. She’ll have an outstanding novel.

So, set that first draft aside for a while. Resist the temptation to publish it until it’s polished. Get a tougher skin when your proofreader/editor suggests changes (being part of a critique group helps with this). Don’t be suckered in by seeing your words in print until what you’re trying to say is in its best shape.

Be a writer, not a hack.

I set out my writerly resolutions for the new year in a recent post: So, periodically, I’ll provide an update because I know you’re just dying to know.

Writer Work Schedule Update:

  • Sunday: Started reading one book to review (which inspired this post) and finished another
  • Monday morning: Blogged on writing (see above)
  • To do Monday afternoon: Edit/Revise a review of Linkage: The Narrows of Time Series (Volume 1) by Jay J. Falconer and get it ready for submission to eFiction Magazine