There is no answer. No right answer anyway.
I think lots of people are out and about Googling away and reading blogs and, a lot of the time, they’re looking for an answer. The answer. The right way to do something.
While the internet and all the experts it contains can give you lots of answers – it cannot offer you THE answer that’s right for you - at least not with regards to things like writing and philosophy and generally running your life (and not parenting; especially not parenting). I totally give you that the internet may be able to give you the definitive answer about how to get a red wine stain out of your white tablecloth – or then again, maybe not because some people swear by a name brand you buy in a store while others recommend you mix two parts baking soda with some vinegar and add eye of newt and the spit of an ailing bullfrog.
At any rate, in my writing world I’m often conscious of the “rules”, the “rights and wrongs”, the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”. Here are some examples:
Example A: Resume clients will often tell me they’ve heard a resume should only EVER (on pain of death) be one page. Or, someone else has been told, also on pain of death, it can only ever be two pages. Or, someone has heard keeping it short is so old school and you should always make it at least five pages just to show you’re non-conformist. So what’s the answer? The answer – or at least how I work – is I write the resume as best I can and see how long it is. It almost always ends up being two or three pages which, I believe, is quite reasonable. However, I always tell my clients, if the job posting asks for a one-page resume, you’d better cut your resume down to one page and if it wants 10, you’d better do some padding. There is no one right answer. I tell my clients the only people they should be suspicious of are those who tell them there is only one answer.
Example B: In dealings I had recently with another writer, I was told I “should” have an online portfolio. Now, since I already know I should be making my yogourt from scratch and I should iron my t-shirts and I should drink less Diet Coke, the idea of having to find time to create an online portfolio was kind of freaking me out. And then I thought harder about it and realized because this particular writer is very much an online creature with social media being the main focus of their work, yes, certainly that writer definitely should have an online portfolio. Me? I’m not so sure. I’m certainly not convinced enough to take the time needed from revising my manuscript to build said portfolio. Maybe when my kids are in university and I am a successfully published author and, in theory, I have more time. But by then I probably won’t need to promote myself anyway right?
Example C: Writing in general. I break rules all the time. I just did with my “writing in general” sentence. That’s not a sentence is it? Word definitely doesn’t like me when I use sentence fragments and spell things with Canadian spelling and write long, fun, rambly run-on sentences. The rules! The rules! screams Word in red and green, with its little lines of code all wrung up from the confusion and tangle of dealing with rulebreakers like me. But if we all followed the rules exactly, all of our writing would sound quite, well, similar. Some would probably be better for it and some much worse and - I bet you anything - no two people would agree on which was better and which worse. Because reading, like writing is subjective.
Now, don’t get me wrong, even though I love my sons and think they are brilliant writers, when they write Mother’s Day cards telling me they love their mother because “elle don mwah des clashions” (aka “elle donne moi des collations”, aka “she gives me snacks”), I do realize they still need to learn a few writing rules. I believe firmly in learning the basics, walking before you run, learning the rules before you break them (Mary Kole has a great post on this).
I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, there are rules which have developed for good reasons. But this world – the writing world, the world of relationships, the world of etiquette and so on – this big world we live in is full of shades of grey so I think you should seek out resources, gather advice, weigh it seriously and then follow your heart. Because maybe the critique partner who tells you she dislikes your run-on sentences just simply doesn’t understand them. Maybe her critique partner is always warning her about her fragments.
I’m not saying ignore advice – especially not if the same advice comes from many different corners – but I am saying, in the end, it’s up to you how you write.
Then again, having said that, it’s up to other people whether you get published but that’s another discussion for another day…Filed under From Tudor, Inspiration, Language & Usage, On Life, Organizing our Writing Lives, The Writer's Path, Tips on technique | Comment (0)
I know I said I might make this week’s post about alliteration but then I realized in last week’s glosa post I talked about stanzas without exploring what they actually are.
Most of us prose writers probably know stanzas as the paragraphs – or maybe even the scenes or chapters – of the poetry world. I’d actually be interested on the feedback of any poets out there as to what stanzas mean to you; are they paragrahpy or chaptery or does it depend on the poem?
At any rate, according to M.H. Abrams’ A Glossary of Literary Terms (of which there should be a dusty copy on the bookshelf of every English Lit major), stanza is the Italian for “stopping place”.
Mr. Abrams goes on to say many interesting things about stanzas but, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to stick to the different types of stanza. Here we go:
1) First you’ve got your couplet - two rhyming lines equal in length. Easy right? However there can also be octosyllabic couplets (lines of eight syllables) and iambic pentameter lines that rhyme in pairs are decasyllabic or heroic couplets (ten syllables). Abrams points to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” as a good example of the use of octosyllabic couplets.
2) Tercets, or triplets have – surprise, surprise – three lines, usually with one rhyme. The lines can be the same, or differing, lengths. A type of (very difficult, if you ask me) tercet is terza rima in which tercets are joined one to the following using a pattern such as aba, bcb, cdc, etc.
3) Now for the quatrain (four-line stanza, of course) which, apparently, is the most common. When written in rhyming iambic pentameter, this type of stanza is called an heroic quatrain.
4) Stanzas of other lengths include a seven-line iambic pentameter stanza called rime royal, the eight-lined ottava rima and the longer, and more complicated, spenserian stanza which is nine lines long with the first eight in iambic pentameter and the ninth in iambic hexameter.
This is by no means a complete list of types of stanzas, however, I’m exhausted just thinking about all these different types. I have a particular admiration for poets who devote themselves to not only writing creatively and beautifully but to following all these rules…
I don’t think there’s any escaping Iambic Pentameter as next week’s post do you?Filed under From Tudor, Language & Usage, Poetry, Tips on technique | Comment (0)
While today’s post is about my trip to the UK, it was inspired by American country singer Lee Ann Womack’s Nashville hit, “I Hope You Dance“. I know; a strange combination…
It was the day we were flying home and we had to get up and leave early to run the gauntlet of the beginning of the rush hour leaving Cardiff and the tail end of the rush hour entering London (not to mention the middle of the Bristol rush hour which tends to back up the intersection of the M4 and M5 which we had to drive through).
We drove along the M4 towards London and Heathrow – a route that’s now becoming as familiar to me as the road between Ottawa and Montreal – and when we got back into the car after a stop at Membury Services, “I Hope You Dance” was on Radio 2.
And I started thinking.
I was tired and after an unusually sunny week the weather had reverted to British grey with a mist just thick enough to require windshield wipers and I was feeling out of my element. Not at home. Unsettled.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the big things. Not the driving on the wrong (sorry, other) side of the road. Not the pound coins so heavy they pulled the stitching out of my pockets. Not a week spent reading words with an unusual combination of consonants strung together and very few vowels (“Dewch i ddarganfod treftadaeth lofaol gyfoethog…” translates as “Discover Wales’ rich mining heritage…”)
No, it was things like the constant, crazy busyness of everywhere, all the time and the unusual bluntness of warning signs (instead of “Please pick up after your dog” I read “Did you know dog faeces can cause blindness?”) and the celebrity culture, not of William and Kate, but of Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams and Barry Manilow (my husband’s convinced the UK keeps that man going).
It was just all so different from what I’m used to and I had been different for the time I spent living in it. I could feel it but was powerless to change it. I felt stiffer, less spontaneous and not at all funny. I searched for things to say in conversation and didn’t offer quick comments. I was not myself.
Which brings us back to “I Hope You Dance” and these lines:
“And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance”
Listening to them I thought at home I would dance but here I’d probably sit it out.
Which is a very long way of saying, from my perspective, the importance of place and home is immense. It’s crucial to me. There are a select few places on this earth I feel truly at home and there are some places which make me instantly miserable. All other places in between have a sort of in-between effect on me. They change my personality slightly, they make me act and talk differently. They alter other people’s perceptions of me.
Good writing can impart a great sense of place and make you feel at home somewhere you’ve never been. Lucy Maud Montgomery made me love PEI before I ever visited there. As a teenager Farley Mowat made me believe a remote cabin with no electricity was the best place on earth. And how many of us feel we would love, love, love to have lived in Jane Austen’s world? That is until we remind ourselves what it was really and truly like for women not fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of Mr. Darcy…
It’s funny, too, how your feelings shift as your perspective moves. I’m not normally a big fan of our national air carrier but I have to tell you when I stepped off the gate at Heathrow and onto the Air Canada plane and the flight attendant welcomed me with “Bienvenue a bord” I said “merci” with all my heart and felt more at home in my second language than I had felt in my first all week long.
Now I’m off to download “I Hope You Dance” from iTunes!Filed under From Tudor, Inspiration, Language & Usage, On Life | Comment (0)
As a former quilter, I’ve always regretted the fact that a stack of paper, regardless of how well-crafted the story printed upon it may be, doesn’t leap up and present itself as a thing of beauty. You can’t really hang it on a wall to brighten up a room, or present it as a wedding present, or put it on the windowsill at your office along with your framed photos.
So that’s why I love this wordle site, into which you can cut and paste your text (a poem you love, or a manifesto you’ve laboured over, whatever strikes your fancy) and the site generates a word cloud created from the words used most often in your piece.
The result is quite beautiful, and you can play with the font, colour and layout if you’d like to tinker with variations. Or, you can push a ‘randomize’ button to get a whole new look. It’s rather addictive. As today is Ash Wednesday, I’ve used an essay I wrote on the Lenten season to create the word cloud above.
Images can be printed or PDF’ed, and the site owner invites you to create t-shirts, greeting cards, book covers and more from your collaborative work of art.
It’s lovely to have our black-and-white words turned into a visual art, providing us writers with something we CAN put up on the wall as an inspiring momento of our literary labours.Filed under From Peggy, Inspiration, Language & Usage, Sites We Like | Comment (0)
Even though our comments are still pretty measly (except for you Lynn – I feel we need to come up with some kind of award honouring your steady and topical comments), I have been led to believe that more than a few people are now reading our blog on a regular-ish basis (including my bored friend Alexandra). I’ve even been hired after people have read the blog – YAY for blog-driven work!
Anyway, I’m guessing if you’ve been reading for a while, by now you must have some sort of opinion formulated of me and probably one of Peggy too. You probably feel you know what to expect from us. Which is why I’ll be interested to know whether it comes as a surprise to find out that I just LOVE a good rant.
Oh, I do. It’s one of the most cathartic things I can imagine – just writing whatever I want and not pausing to let breath or good sense intrude – just laying the words on the page / screen.
However, I do realize the potential downside of this pasttime of mine. My husband has told me more than once I’m no fun to have heated discussions with because, word-wise, I just wither away the other person’s point of view (aka, his) with my ability to get on a roll and rant.
Thank goodness I learned a long time ago that there are e-mails that should be “sent” and those that should be sent only to draft. Let me tell you my drafts folder is pretty spicy! Let’s hope I never have a malfunction which spontaneously sends out all my drafts – I think we’d have to relocate in the middle of the night using stolen passports.
I also, more generally, sometimes feel guilty about my lust for using strong words emphatically. Sometimes (and here I’m mostly thinking of School Council meetings…), I feel like a word bully. Like I can beat other people down with my words and it’s really not fair or seemly and I should just back off and tone it down. I can write a rant in minutes but to write an appropriate, balanced message to my my son’s teacher explaining a sensitive issue and seeking a reasonable solution takes me forever. I’m far less confident when I’m conscious of being polite – not sure what that says about me – probably nothing good.
At any rate, what made me think of this is a ranting-ish letter I wrote to our city councillor this week about a controversial (understatement of the year) property development. I went into the zone for four minutes, came up with this and pressed send. The interesting thing about this one is how many people (including an ex-pat neighbour from Australia!) have contacted me to say “thank you” and “I felt this way too” and “you go girl”.
So, I guess the power of words cuts both ways. It’s just that if you like throwing around strong ones like I do you have to be careful when and where you do it.
Now I’m off to delete the contents of my drafts folder…you know, just in case!Filed under From Tudor, Language & Usage, On Life | Comment (1)
As I said in my last post, there are concrete things I hope to accomplish from entering contests and one of them is to exercise my ability to write short, succinct pieces and to self-edit (mercilessly, if necessary).
The contests I’ve entered this year have had word counts ranging from 150 words (no, I didn’t miss a zero there) to a relatively generous 2,500 words. With a background in journalism, this is nothing new for me. In fact, having 2,500 words to play with is pretty much unheard of in the world of newspaper / magazine writing unless you happen to land a coveted long feature assignment, which are few and far between.
However, lately I’ve switched my focus from magazine and newspaper work to (banging-my-head-against-the-wall) in the hope of getting published in the fiction world. Partly because I no longer have anyone giving me any kind of restrictions and partly because novels are my particular area of interest, I’ve been spoiled by having all the space / word count in the world to tell my story.
Which - don’t get me wrong - is nice, however there’s something to be said for remembering how to use words economically and effectively. Especially from a reader’s point of view…
This is where contests come in for me. I’m not horrible at writing to a specified word count. That is to say, I don’t set out to write a 1,000-word piece and do a word count at my perceived halfway point to find it’s already 3,000 words. No, I tend to be able to write a first draft that comes in within 10 or 20 per cent of the alloted word count.
The thing is, when I say “within”, what I really mean is “over”. I never, I mean ever, write something 800 words for a 1,000-word contest. It just has not happened to me. Which means I have to cut. Sometimes I have to cut what seems like an impossible amount.
But I do it. I always do it. Because, as painful as the process might be, it’s less painful than spending hours writing a piece and then giving up on it because it’s 200 words too long.
And, it’s good for me and for my writing. At least in my opinion it is. Cutting – being forced to cut – gives me the incentive I need to get rid of my little oh-s0-clever bits. The things I feel incredibly pleased with myself for adding in. The self-indulgent flourishes where I think “ooh, that’s funny” or “how good am I?” The things, were I to have unlimited space, I’d never be able to force myself to let go of but, to be painfully honest, once taken out of my contest entry leave no gaping hole. No missing meaning. Nothing anyone would ever wonder about.
Meaning, of course, they probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
So, another benefit of contests – lots of practice cutting, slashing, editing and removing.
Thoughts on cutting? Self-editing? Contests? Do share…there are no word count restrictions in the comments!Filed under Contests, Markets & Events, From Tudor, Language & Usage, Uncategorized | Comment (1)
I like the subject Peggy’s been pursuing lately of overkill. It’s a great question – how much is too much?
And now for my great and oh-so-wise assessment…there is no answer. Sorry. Like so many things in writing there’ s no “yes” or “no”. No black and white. One person’s “too much” is another’s “not enough”.
I, personally, often have trouble reading books or watching movies that have been really well-reviewed, hyped and much-loved by many people (I hesitate to put names / titles here just because they are so well-loved). To me, many of these stories do a little too much “hitting over the head with a hammer” for my liking. I sometimes feel offended that the writers feel the need to not only show me something, but also tell me, then take me by the hand and lead me over to it. It’s how you might train a puppy but it doesn’t work for me.
However, that’s just my taste. I suspect sometimes I’m guilty of the opposite in my own writing. Not wanting to hit anyone over the head with my own hammer I might not foreshadow enough. Might not put in a scene which, to me (because after all I’m living with these characters every minute of every day), seems too obvious but which readers might really hunger for.
So, this question of how much – and how often – to tell something is personal but obviously there is a general range that works, otherwise we wouldn’t have breakout stories. I guess I would say, just make sure you think about it. Asking yourself “does this need more” or “have I already done this to death?” is a great first step to achieving the right balance.
And, finally, I have another (in my opinion) great example of less being more in terms of language use. This is one most of you will know:
Jerry: Hello? Hello.
I’m lookin’ for my wife.
If this is where it has to happen, then this is where it has to happen.
I’m not letting you get rid of me. How about that?
This used to be my specialty. You know, I was good in a living room. They’d send me in there, and I’d do it alone. And now I just…
But tonight, our little project, our company had a very big night – a very, very big night.
But it wasn’t complete, wasn’t nearly close to being in the same vicinity as complete, because I couldn’t share it with you. I couldn’t hear your voice or laugh about it with you. I miss my – I miss my wife.
We live in a cynical world, a cynical world, and we work in a business of tough competitors.
I love you. You – complete me.
And I just had…
Dorothy: Shut up. Just shut up.
You had me at hello.
You had me at hello.
Not only is Dorothy right that he had her at hell0 (I think he had most of the audience at hello) but also, isn’t it interesting that, out of that whole long speech, all most of us remember is “You complete me”? ‘Nuff said…
(By the way, for anyone who slept through 1996 – can you believe it was 15 years ago? – the speech is from Jerry Maguire)
Filed under From Tudor, Language & Usage, Quotations, Tips on technique | Comment (1)
Having finished Augusten Burroughs’ somewhat gritty Running With Scissors memoir, I am seeking to restore some mental equilibrium by taking up Defining the World by Henry Hitchings. It’s an account of the making of Samuel Johnson’s opus dictionary; the first of the English language and a magnificent literary achievement in its own right.
I am looking forward to learning more about this infamous lexicographer, but in the meantime I have already been cheered by this first-chapter revelation:
“Although a tirelessly productive author, Johnson considered himself disgracefully lazy – believing that only Presto, a dog belonging to his friend Hester Thrale, might truly be thought lazier. His diaries are full of self-recrimination: assurances that he will work harder, along with detailed schedules to ensure that he will do so.”
Hands up if you see yourself in this statement! It’s reassuring to hear that self-flagellation was alive in well in Johnson’s day as well as ours. I love the ‘detailed schedules’ comment – the saving grace/nemesis of many a frustrated artist!
Reading about the history of the dictionary reminded me that a month or so ago I officially ‘adopted’ certain endangered words in order that they not be archived by the folks responsible for maintaining the Oxford English Dictionary.
To my great shame, I have forgotten to feed and water said words for many weeks. The idea is that people use the words in their everyday life so as to bring them back into general usage. So, this snollygoster (a shrewd, unprincipled person) better leave her nidifice (nest) and get cracking, or she’ll risk theomany (the fury of God) for sure!
If you’d like to do your part to further Samuel Johnson’s work as a celebrator of the English language, adopt your own words from the (very engaging) Save the Words site. As you’ll see, it’s like visiting puppies in the pound – you have to be pretty firm in your resolve, or you’ll end up wanting to bring them all home with you!Filed under From Peggy, Language & Usage, On Books, Sites We Like | Comment (0)
Last week at this time I referred to a line in Great Expectations that reminded me of the wise writing adage “one plus one equals a half.”
This week my reading gave me another gift: an example of exactly what William Stein meant by the expression.
For years I’ve seen Augusten Burroughs books on the shelf and paid them little heed. But having heard many good things about them, I bought his memoir Dry at a library book sale. I loved the story and the exquisite details he used to tell it. So I ran out and found his first memoir, Running with Scissors.
It’s also an amazing read, but not quite as polished as Dry (though it feels cheeky to say so, given it was on the New York Times bestseller list for four consecutive years).
I didn’t approach it as a critical reader, but as someone happy to be carried away by the narrative. All the same, a paragraph on page six leapt out at me – the aforementioned “1+1= 1/2″ example.
“My mother is from Cairo, Georgia,” he writes. “This makes everything she says sound like it went through a curling iron.” Isn’t that a wonderful image? It immediately made my toes tingle.
But then he continues: “Other people sound flat to my ear; their words just hang in the air. But when my mother says something, the ends curl.”
To me, this over-exposition deflated the power of his initial statement. We get it already! I wanted to shout into the book.
You want to leave your readers with the tingly toes, not the exasperated sigh. “Leave them wanting more” doesn’t just apply to show biz, but the world between the covers as well.Filed under From Peggy, Language & Usage, Memoir, On Books, Tips on technique | Comment (0)
Here’s the last exercise I’ve dreamed up for our January weather theme.
This time I’d like you to think of a way the weather might change somebody’s life. Or not change it (or change it by not changing it, if you see what I mean by that…).
Change is really the essence of any story. Setting, situations, characters (both their actions and perspectives) – all these things change to move a story forward. Sometimes it’s something small about the setting (a gentle April rain shower) that starts a major chain reaction of change in a story. Sometimes the event is huge (a destructive record-breaking storm) and the story is about characters trying not to change in the face of it.
At any rate, put this idea of weather-driven change in the back of your mind, let it percolate for a while and see what you get from it.
As a further incentive, why not keep your story short and use it to enter this competition? When I say short, I mean it though; 150 words or less. There’s no fee for entering and being concise is always great practice so I say go for it.
Happy writing and, if you enter the ultra-short story competition, happy editing too!Filed under Contests, Markets & Events, From Tudor, Language & Usage, The Writer's Path, Writing Exercises | Comment (0)