Friday, January 25, 2013

Writing Update - Prescription for Revenge

If you read this blog often, you know I'm one of the worst at self-editing and not just in a small way either. I have two things working against me, my ADD and my astigmatism. Combine this with normal writer's blindness and you get a powerful typo machine. I'm lucky enough to have friends that are willing to read an unedited manuscript and help correct the inevitable typos and rough patches.

But there's more to editing than just typos. Stephen King once gave a formula for writing: Final = Draft - 10%. My friends have helped me find a few trimming spots so hopefully I'll come in on target. One of the difficult sections of the book comes in chapter 5 and 6 where my 1930's hero is confronted with the race relations of that era. It's a delicate balance. You don't want to beat the reader over the head with how bad things were in 1930s Chicago but you don't want to gloss over them either.

During World War I, many African-Americans migrated from the jobless South to major metropolitan areas such as Chicago. They filled the jobs left empty by the WWI draft. When the servicemen returned, they found blacks in there old jobs. Conflict ensued.

Red Summer, as it was called, occurred in May of 1919 as race riots broke out in a number of cities. Hundreds of home were burned in the Black Belt of Chicago as black fought white for jobs and territory. Eleven years later my story takes place.

I attempted to write about the feelings my World War I veteran protagonist would feel toward persons of color inside a predominantly black neighborhood. My friend editors did not take this section well. I decided to trim back on some of the content. To be honest, it's against my better judgement but I've done it anyway. The concern was almost universal and so I'm left with writing what I feel is right or writing for the enjoyment of others. I suppose on this round I'll write for the enjoyment of others.

On to the next conundrum.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Writer's Blindness

I learned a hard lesson when I began writing with an eye toward publishing. I have one heck of a time finding my own writing errors. You are truly lucky if you're gifted with wonderful self-editing abilities. The rest of us have real issues finding problems in our own work.

Why is smooth copy so important? Because one of your writing goals is to keep your reader in the story or article without thinking of the words you use. In effect, the words should disappear to be replaced with your concept, scene, or action. This is true regardless of whether you're writing fiction, entertainment, or opinion.

For many, a poorly formed sentence or mis-punctuated passage yanks them out of your work completely. They have to work around the error to figure out what you're trying to say. One friend called these 'hard stops.' It completely derails the reading experience.

This isn't unusual. Your brain is a crafty organ. It knows how to get out of work by skipping things it already knows. The slang term for this is "writer's blindness." You know the story so your brain starts skipping words and misses malconstructed sentences over and over again. There are various tricks to overcome this. One is simply changing the screen and font size on your word processor. Your brain sees it as new and you'll pick out a few more errors.

You write as your inner voice dictates. You read a passage and it makes complete sense to you. If the passage has a missing comma or mismatched verb, your readers may have to reread it a few times to understand what you're saying. The way it sounds in your head his not the same way it sounds in theirs if your mind is playing the skip trick.

One way to avoid this is to read your work out loud. While your coworkers or housemates may think it odd to hear you mumbling to yourself while you work, this is a very effective tool for finding awkward passages. Different parts of your brain's language centers activate when you speak. Often this is enough for you to find those bad spots.

Another trick is to find some friends willing to read your work and criticize it. Note, this isn't just any criticism; it's constructive criticism. Someone who glows over your work as the best thing they've ever read is as useless as someone who just says "it sucks" with no reason as to why.

Encourage your friends to sit down with a red pen or a word processor that tracks changes and write things like "awkward", "had to read twice to get it", "what?", and other phrases that help you, the author, find those hard stops. Also have them mark any grammar issues even if they aren't good at it. If something bothers them, it will likely bother someone else.

Lastly, I recommend finding a professional proofreader. If you find a good one, the money you spend will be well worth it to your readers. I'll have more on that subject in a future article.

Hopefully this article gave you a few tricks to make your writing more readable. If you have other tricks of the trade please leave them below in the comments section.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zack's Journey - Baseball

In our effort to find extracurricular activities for Zack, we tried tee-ball. Debbie's nephews all played and I remember having fun playing baseball in the Y league so it seemed a natural fit. There are some problems that come with baseball, however.

The Leander baseball league for kids is really competitive. Some of the older teams regularly compete in statewide competitions and win. It's a program known for producing college scholarships for baseball.

Sadly, even at the five and six year old level, some of the coaches were incredibly competitive. They played vicariously through their sons and any mistakes were met with harsh criticism. I'll have to say I was proud of the coaches on Zack's team. They didn't suffer from this but others in the league did and I found it disturbing. These over-competitive folks stressed out all the kids during a game.

Another problem with baseball is that the kids wind up standing out in the field for a long time with nothing to do but wait. This really wasn't and isn't the sort of activity Zack enjoys. He and others wound up squatting down and looking at ants or flowers or looking off in the distance at something they found interesting.

We lasted one year and were glad for the experience but, in the end, decided this wasn't the right path for Zack. I will say his coach was amazing and never gave up on Zack. He asked me to bring him back the following year but it didn't work out. Zack was his fastest runner and a good hitter. It was the field work that was problematic and Zack began suffering what can only be described as panic attacks before taking to the field much like he did with soccer.

It was later we learned that Zack had something called Sensory Integration Dysfunction. Basically it's like hearing dyslexia. It made it hard for Zack to react to coaching yells while he was in play. Once we discovered that, we began looking for other sorts of activities that would naturally limit the effects of this issues.

The good news is that we found several things that worked. Those posts will be coming shortly but first, something that came close to working: swimming.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tech Bits - Reading AOL mail in GMail

In the way of full disclosure, I've had an AOL account for almost 20 years now. I began back in the days when it was $10 a month and was dialup access only. Back in those days, you'd dial into AOL and have access to, well, AOL. It had a build in browser for going to the rest of the web but it wasn't the intranet. It was AOLs portal. It wasn't browser based either. You installed an AOL client on your PC that would be updated from time to time. It was the worlds largest internet walled garden.

Back in those days AOL was a powerhouse that actually bought Time Warner. This turned out to be a bad move for Time Warner as the cable companies made it easier and easier to purchase cheap high-speed internet access. The AOL pricing model collapsed causing Time Warner to spin off AOL in 2009 to leave the sinking ship to its own devices. AOL has since adopted the Yahoo model of being a web portal with exclusive content and email.

And here I sit with my old AOL account that I still use for family matters.

I've used GMail since the beginning and like the interface a great deal. I have several account linked to it from various smaller sites so I decided to take the plunge and have it handle my AOL email as well. The method for this is fairly simple.

Go to the Google Gear in the upper right of the screen inside GMail. Select Settings.

From the new window, select Accounts and Import.

Look for two links:

  1. In the 'Send Mail As' section click on Add another email address you own and follow the wizard.
  2. In the 'Check mail from other accounts' section, do the same for Add a POP3 mail account you own.
At this point GMail will begin importing your AOL messages. In my case, I had thousands. There is a problem, however: all the messages come in as unread. There is a solution to this but it is far from obvious.

Once your messages have arrived from AOL, to the the email search box at the center of the main GMail screen and type is:unread. This puts a filter on your email showing you only the unread items. 

Go to the check box control in the upper left of the screen and select all.

Once you do this you'll get a link above the email list that reads 'Select all conversations that match this search'. Select this and then, in the 'More' drop-down, mark all as read.

Presto, you have all your old AOL mail available in GMail.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Writing - Scrivener

Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all. 
Thomas Carlyle 

If you're serious about writing  you should get serious about your writing tools. You'll need a word processor and Microsoft Word is the big bull in the pasture. There are others, like Libre Office Write, that are as good as word with a lower cost. But all word processors try to do everything for everybody. They mail merge, fax, print labels and envelopes, and all sorts of other tasks that have nothing to do with writing a novel, screen play, or short story.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Zack's Journey - Gymnastics

A word of caution, the Zack's Journey articles will likely be out of chronological order. I've documented these experiences on other blogs but they came in a random order as I remembered to write them down.

I belive the post below occurred when Zack was 5, in 2008.

Hotel beds are meant for jumping!
Well, we’re off on another Zack sports event: Gymnastics!