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Grammarian Great Schism?

One of my favorite websites to check daily is dictionary.com.  It is more than just a reference guide to find the right word, or the correct definition.  Thanks to their blog, the site is an excellent source of information for all things language.  Today, as I played around, flipping from post to post, I found that Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” (parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, and yes, it will stick in your head) has moved even dictionary.com to comment.

I’m sure all of my readers have seen the video, as it appears to be flying nonchalantly about facebook.  (I have been tagged by four different friends who have shared the video; and that’s after I shared it on my own timeline!)  It certainly seems to be having a bigger impact than the previous release intended to drum up interest in his new album, “Tacky” (parody of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, which will also, sadly, get stuck in your head).

The post that dictionary.com released illuminates a distinction between grammarians, which I didn’t know existed: prescriptive vs. descriptive.  Having read about these two schools, I find that I, like Weird Al, practice prescriptivism.  I thoroughly believe that rules and standards of language were developed for a reason, specifically to facilitate clarity and precision in communication, and that there is little need for change in the rules.  Descriptive thought tends toward allowing language to change and grow with its speakers, such as that which drives the editors of the OED.

Check out the article, and see where your loyalties lie: tradition or evolution?

 

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The Talk We Talk

I’ve recently discovered a great website for writers, which I highly recommend – The Write Life.  The articles posted apply to all kinds of writers out there – the freelancers, the bloggers, the novelist, the short story writer, and the journalist.  I recently saw a great article by a blogger called Joel Runyon about the excuses, or “lies” we tell ourselves that can keep us from writing.  They made me think, and I have to admit that I am guilty of every one.  But the good news is, I know exactly why!  [Translation: I can back up the excuse with more excuses!]

1.  “I have nothing to say.”  Okay, I get what Runyon’s saying here.  “When you’re out with people, you’re able to have a conversation,” but let’s face it, it’s easier to talk through the interplay of conversation than it is to simply put your thoughts out there in essay form.  Besides, often what we talk about with friends depends on the circumstances at the time, and is usually pretty innocuous or extremely personalized.  Of course, Runyon goes on to ask, about having an “opinion on anything”, and “domain knowledge on anything”.  Well, yes.  I, like most of the world, have an opinion on most things, but focusing too much on my own opinion leads me to thinking, really who cares?  Well, I guess anyone reading this does, so fine.   Got me there Runyon!  But domain knowledge – No, I don’t have complete domain knowledge about anything.  I know a lot about some things, but probably less than others.  I feel like I have to be accurate and informative, and that requires research.  Case in point – How often have I referenced outside sources just in these past four posts?  Then there is his question: “You don’t get excited about anything?” And for me, that’s probably the biggest problem.  I get excited about lots of things.  I have so many interests that I don’t know what to write about.

2.  “No one will listen to me.” Sure, they can’t listen to something that’s never said.  And you never know who is going to listen until you put something out there.  But it’s hard not to get discouraged when you realize your mom and dad are the only ones that ever read your posts.  That discouragement has led me to abandon other “blogging attempts”.

3.  “I’m not interesting.”  I have the benefit of being fairly self-centered, so I don’t think I’ve ever said this.  I worry more about my subject being interesting, and my being able to write about it provocatively.  Because I feel that if I can’t write about it provocatively, than I’m not a very good writer.

4. “I can’t make money writing.”  Sure this idea has popped into my head, and I do sometimes feel guilty because I’m writing instead of looking for a job.  And sure, I would love to make money writing.  Wouldn’t we all?  But that’s not why I do it.  Especially here.  This is more about exposure, than money.

5.  “I can’t compete with CNN.”  This one threw me for a loop.  I’m not a journalist, so why would I compete with CNN.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized, of course, if I write about world news, I’m competing with CNN.  And the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, MSNBC, FoxNews, and anyone else who writes about world news.  We are competing with everyone who writes what we do.  Here, I’m competing with other bloggers.  As a novelist, I’m competing with other novelists.  And when I feel comfortable enough with the format to begin writing my screenplay, I’ll be competing with other screenwriters.  This is always true.  You just have to believe that you’re good enough to be read alongside them.

I have, at one time or another, said all of these things, as I’m sure some of you have.  And I have abandoned other blogs, articles, essay contests, and open submission requests because of it.  For 10 years, I let these excuses talk me out of doing something I love to do.  But I am realizing now that I have to overcome my fears and doubts, if I truly want to accomplish my goals.  The only thing that matters, is that I can take pride in my work.

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Procrastination, or Jenn Is Distracted By Pretty White Stuff

So, it snowed today. 

For the first 23 years of my life, I lived in Eastern Tennessee.  For the last 10, I’ve been in Eastern NC.  Apparently, both areas of the country have a similar reaction to snow of any kind.  

“HOLY $#^!  It’s a blizzard!  We’re all gonna die!  Milk, bread, eggs, milk, bread, eggs – Worried about the power?! Why would I be?!  Get home, and fast!  Why is this jerk only going 45mph?!?  Doesn’t he see it’s snowing?!  Does he not know it’s turning to freezing rain in, like, an hour?!  Thank God I’ll be home before that happens.”

(Turn on CNN, and you will see this happening in my backyard.)

Nice thing about snow? – can’t go anywhere so might as well stay in, and use the time to write and read. Bad thing about snow? – It’s cold in my office and I have cable. Well, okay. I guess technically, those are the bad things about winter and having cable respectively, but the fact remains that I have gotten very little writing (or reading) done today. I did do some thinking, though. I did a lot of thinking. I thought, “It is extremely cold out here, and the snow is making the fur lining of my Candian goose down coat’s hood wet. Why am I walking to the store? Is food really that important? I could be writing right now.” And I thought, “The local news keeps telling me the same thing over and over. ‘Gridlock traffic; conditions worsening; if you don’t have to be out, stay home.’ Why am I watching this? I could be writing right now.” And I thought, “What do you mean no Jeopardy!? I waited to cook dinner, so that I could time it just perfectly to sit down and eat with Jeopardy! I could have been writing by now!” So here I am, ceasing the interminable cycle of procrastination by sucking it up, battling the cold (my desk is right in front of a large window – great for sunlight, bad for drafts), turning off the TV, radio, and the phone, and actually writing.

Let’s face it. As writers, procrastination is the biggest battle we fight, and we fight it – not just everyday – but at multiple times of everyday. Sure, any person in any job can procrastinate. But it’s different for writers. The truth is, for the most part, we don’t have deadlines. The majority of us are writing because we love it, not because we are making a great income or the boss tells us to. But that means that the motivation, the drive, and the incentive has to come from within. And on a cold day, or a tiring day, or a day that you just feel meh it’s hard to be your own boss – especially since you are making you be a mean boss. Everyone who writes – scratch that – everyone who is successful in writing, has their own way of dealing with procrastination. What works for me is self-talk, specifically telling myself what I could be writing if I weren’t sitting here watching television. It begins with a legitimate question; “If I go write, what am I going to write about?” But then, I start trying to come up with an answer, and eventually something so good comes along that I have to go write it down.

Of course, personal goals help too, especially if there is some sort of tracking system that helps you hold yourself accountable. For me, it has been a great little website, 750words.com. I assure you there is no double meaning in the domain name. You write 750 words a day, and you get points, which are really arbitrary, but become meaningful because of your reminder/congratulatory daily email which is sent to you at a time of your choosing. It really is very motivating, and I highly recommend it to any writer.

Another thing that helps me is that when I’m really in the zone and I share with my friends progress I’m making on whatever WIP I have, they start bugging me. “Is it done yet?” “How far along are you?” “Are you going to publish it?” “Have you ever thought of self-publishing?” “What about publishing an e-book?” Some days, they seem more excited about my writing than I am, but it encourages me to keep up so that I have an answer when they ask.

In the spirit of camaraderie and encouraging dialog – What do you do to fight procrastination?

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In Answer To

Lately, since I’ve been updating Facebook and Twitter with my complaints and celebrations over my query, I’ve been asked what exactly I’m working on.  The interest is, of course, wonderful, but it is sometimes hard to answer these questions.  It takes so much more explanation than some people want to get involved in, for one.  And secondly, many seem to have a hard time understanding why exactly this is necessary.  Why?  Because this is how it is done.  That’s the best explanation I’ve been able to get anyway.  Agents, and publishers for that matter, get hundreds probably thousands, of emails, letters, manuscripts, etc a day.  They have to figure out a way to filter out all the noise and get to the ones that are serious about publication.  At least that’s what I tell myself.  So they’ve created a formulaic way to do this.  If your first contact does not conform to these rules, don’t even bother.  Why is this beneficial to their cause?  Because I had to research the proper way to query an agent, and that took time.  I had to write and revise my query letter with the help of many people, all trying to do the same, and that took time.  I worked very hard to conform to their requirements, and that took patience and research.  And that tells the agent that I’m serious, that I believe in my work, and that I deserve at least a moment of his/her time.  Maybe s/he tosses my email or letter after reading it, but it was read.  It was considered, and that’s better than not.  

So, for all those who have been wondering what I’ve been working on, or just wondering what the book is about, here it is:

Twenty-two year old Liz has already proven she’s an unfit mother – after all, she didn’t even know she was pregnant.

To prove to her mother once and for all that her distinctive weight gain is just that, Liz  goes to the doctor and is shocked to learn her due date is only a month away.  Scared and angry with herself, Liz welcomes adoption as the only way to clean up her mess.  She continues to guard herself against any attachment to the baby, so that she can keep her promise to the adopting parents who really want this kid.

A week after signing the surrender papers, Liz finds herself in a psychological game of chess with her therapist. He can’t seem to believe that she could make a decision like this without an ounce of grief or regret. It was just something she did – a choice she made, like which classes to take in the fall. After denying the little life inside her for so long, she certainly had no right to it.

At first, she finds it simple to just tell him the story as it happened.  But as he continues to dig deeper, Liz’s determination to deny herself the privilege of grieving the loss of her child is tested with every session. Liz must accept that her decision is not a deserved punishment, but the boldest proof of her love for her son. 

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Two heads are better than one… and fifty!

Joining a forum to get help on my query letter was a great idea. I love the community, and have gotten so much help on my letter. It’s really coming together, and I think it’s getting tighter and tighter. It’s very reassuring to know that other people are going through the same thing I am.

But gracious! I am officially working on my ninth revision, and after the last round of feedback I got, I wonder if it will ever end. I got some excellent suggestions that ran the gamut of combining sentences and redundancy to individually commenting on each sentence with a change or a strikethrough. What I’ve taken away from this is that I am either very close to finished or months away. I’ve begun to wonder if I should just do one more revision and then start sending the letters out, if for no other reason to save my sanity.

But I do want it to be the best sell it can possibly be. And the only way I’m going to get it there is through revisions and edits and suggestions. And these people really do know what they’re talking about. Some of them have been published, most of them are struggling with the revising their own letters, and all of them are writers, so there is no doubt in my mind that this forum is essential to getting representation. On the other hand, with so many heads together there is bound to be repetition and over-analysis. And yet, I know that the letter is not ready. It feels ready, but there is definitely something lacking. What is it? Voice, “stakes”, specifics? I wish I knew. Oh, God, how I wish I knew!

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The Challenges Continue

Who said writing was easy? Well, no one I think.  Everybody I’ve talked to actually goes on about how hard it is, and how admirable it is that I’ve finished a novel.  Apparently, most people feel they could never do that.  

But I actually didn’t find the writing of my novel all that hard. It took a while, I’ll grant that, but it wasn’t difficult to put the words down. Okay, that’s not entirely true either, considering the entire story is about one of the biggest personal challenges I have ever faced. But really, it took me a total of one year to write my current manuscript, and it was pretty simple.

Now, I am trying to get an agent. Admittedly, I did not think this would be very hard. There is a process:

1) write query letter

2) find agents that would be interested in your work

3) send query letter to said agents

4) wait on edge of your seat, suffering rejection over, and over, and over, and over, and….

I was fully prepared for that. That’s the life of being a writer, or any artist for that matter. They constantly tell you that you will be rejected a thousand times before you get any interest in your work. And interest is not guaranteed success, it’s just interest.

But the query letter, a literary teaser if you will, appears to be harder to write than the story itself. For instance: I have, to date, written a total of two drafts of my manuscript. I have written a total of eight drafts of my query. That’s four times the number of drafts, for those who are counting, on the “short” letter that is meant to sell my book versus the book itself. Is that crazy? Yes!

But on the other hand, this is my advertisement. I thought of it in cinematic terms the other night, and felt validated after coming up with this reasoning. For one movie, a production company will develop as many as five different trailers to advertise it. If you look on IMDB.com for the big blockbuster movies that are coming out this summer, you will find teasers, trailers, featurettes, and promos. (For Prometheus, I found 13 related videos.) So, I suppose it’s all about advertising. Sure, you’ve written this book, but now you have to get somebody to read it. And agents are, apparently, MUCH more discriminating than the summer-blockbuster-going-public.

But, oh how I thought this would be easier. First of all, there seems to be somewhat of a discrepancy in the accepted styles of queries that are considered acceptable. There is the school of thought that says, define your entire book from beginning to end – an agent is not going to ask for more pages if s/he doesn’t know what the book is about. There is another that says, if you’ve told your entire story in your letter, why does an agent need to read your work. There is the, do-not-ask-questions school, and the questions-generate-interest school. There are those that will tell you to show,-don’t-tell, and those that will say there are too many details, it’s too wordy. And then there are those wonderful people who say, I’m so sorry to tell you this but in my opinion you should scrap the entire thing and start from scratch. It’s all opinion, of course, but for many it’s also experience (at least that’s the case in the people I’m talking to).

Good news? I’m learning, and I’m making connections with other writers, and I’m finding a lot of books that I very much want to read (so, fingers crossed, we are all successful). Most importantly, I have support from people that have been there, are there, and are striving to get there. We all suffer through multiple drafts of a letter we think is perfect at every stage. We get rejected and return to the drawing board, or in our case, writing table. We work on more novels, short stories, poems, and blogs to pass the time, and keep the creative juices flowing. And we keep working to write the letter that will return a request for a manuscript, and garner representation. Then we will be set to move on to the next step: getting a publisher! I won’t think about how hard that is going to be. I’ll let my future agent worry about that.

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