Jan 29, 2011

The Life Sentence (sentences are about life, after all)

As a writer, studying sentences should always be about opening up possibilities.  I spent over ten years teaching college English.  I've walked in the world of don't-do-this writing advice.  It doesn't take long for any real teacher to realize: telling students what not to do does not improve writing. Circling all the problems on a student essay is grading; grading is not teaching.

Consider: a woman comes to you for directions to the post office. You tell her, "How about you just start driving and, when you don't arrive at your destination, I'll tell you how many wrong turns you made and grade you.  Then next time you try to guess a better path, okay?" No!  No way in hell would we follow that kind of direction.  And yet, in our classrooms, every day, that's how kids are taught to write.

Graders receive vulnerable, beautiful, rich essays rife with metaphors and emotion and creative thought.  They respond:  frag, run-on, frag, frag, frag, cap, frag, new paragraph, frag, run-on.  When I was teaching, we called this, "being fragged." The process is upside down.

The place to start is not with fixing; the place to start is direction.  When asking for directions to the post office, you expect someone to actually tell you how to get there, right?  So why do you expect yourself to know all the intricacies of a sentence if you've never been taught?  If you've been fragged all your life, you may actually be limiting your expression to only a couple sentence structures.  Yawn. (frag)

Since you're not in my class and I'm not teaching college anymore, I'm pointing you to super-secret spellbooks for writing sentences.  Wave a "paired construction for contrast only" (also known as pattern 16a) and watch a sentence jump through hoops.  Or maybe "use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary" and you'll end up thinking, "Wow? That's legal?"

The first reference I make is to The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife and K.D. Sullivan.  The second is a quote from The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.  If I were teaching you about sentence construction, we would go through example after example and we would practice creating sentences.  You want to be a better wizard?  You learn the spells. You don't try to make a couple spells work in any situation.  If you want to be a better writer, you do the same:  you practice sentence structures so they're available when you need them.

Alongside these two beautiful spell books, I'd also have everyone read How to Write A Sentence And How To Read One by Stanley Fish.  I've only just started the book, but I'm loving it.  Fish provides the counterpoint to go along with the examples. He devotes an entire chapter to, "Why you won't find the answer in Strunk and White."  Is it odd then, for me to recommend both?  Not at all. Discussion and controversy inform us: our voice is what we make it.  In balance, we find our own path; we take a stand with the structures we choose.

Fish and I are in agreement with much.  He writes, "With each part of speech comes a list of errors you can, and probably will, make while trying to deploy it; obscurity of reference (what are these things, anyway?) is joined by fear, and the goal of being comfortable with the task of writing recedes into the distance."  What a delightful show-off he is, creating that beautifully silly, long sentence in order to communicate a simple truth: if you make people feel stupid, you're not helping them learn.

I do believe that sentence structure is important---vitally important---to every writer. I do not believe in listing errors.  Rather than spending all your time trying to fix already-constructed sentences, devote some weeks to getting directions, learning new spells, and playing.  If you develop a flexibility in your means of expression, you will choose structures that best express your vulnerable, beautiful, rich understanding of life.  You will not be changing your experience to fit the one or two sentences you know how to write.  You see?  Structure does not limit your voice; it allows you to express yourself more clearly, so your true voice---your true self---appears on the page.

Jan 22, 2011

Visual elements

I've been thinking about visual elements lately---both in photography and in writing---and a combination of the two.  I'm introducing this post with one of my thrift store pictures. I wouldn't want to own this chair, but I love the picture.  I don't know why.

My thoughts about written-visual combinations started in conversation with my good friend, @JCRosen, contemplating what it means to write a story with a strong visual impression.  My initial reaction was something akin to sensory overload:  candy shop, overwhelming special effects, smoke and lights, primary colors, flowers.  But does overwhelming sensory experience leave us with any lasting visual impression?  Better perhaps to focus on the take-away?  Ask your beta readers, "What images stay in your mind after you read this?"  Maybe start with images that connect on an emotional level, specific images just slightly off from the expected.  Experiment.

I've also been thinking about how art and words fold together.  I hosted #litchat last week and we talked briefly about book covers.  It is a fact so universally accepted that we made a cliche of it:  Don't judge a book by its cover.  It's an easy aphorism and a sentiment writers are often expected to embrace.  The content---the words---they're all that matter.  But wait.  No.  I don't think it's so simple.  In a time of ebooks, when we're looking at consistency of formatting and sameness of delivery, it's more important than ever to see the printed book as an art form. A printed book combines elements that go beyond content and we will require more quality from printed books than ever.  Now that we can get the content without the cover, we're going to expect the packaging to add something significant to our reading experience.  If the artistry of the packaging doesn't enhance and fold into the experience of the story, we won't buy the printed book.

So what do we expect of this art and photography?  Is it enough that the visual reflect the content of the story?  This week I posted a short story on my Claire Morgane site and realized that I really do expect more.  The story, "Gelatinized" is about mothers and food.  It begins with Claire attempting to dispose of a week's worth of gelatin, left there by a foster mother with her own set of issues.  It works into an evaluation of three moms who all let down their kids in some way.  When I looked for a photo to go with the story, I found a stock photo of gelatin.  It ties in with the story content.  That's good, right? Well, sort of.  Here's the thing:  I don't like looking at a picture of gelatin.  I don't care if it mirrors Claire's own revulsion.  I just couldn't stand the picture.  This morning I had to replace it.  I grabbed one of my own photos and retouched it to give it a surreal-gelatin feel.  At least that's what I tell myself I did.  I like the story so much better after replacing the picture.  Here are the two pictures:  first the gelatin and then the replacement.

Also influencing me:  I'm taking this photography course from Vivienne McMaster.  The focus is self-portraiture.  Why?  Because writing and blogging and social networking are all tied together and authors need to get more comfortable with that fact.  Most of us are not excited about seeing pictures of ourselves or hearing our recorded voices.  But you know what?  We so need to get over that.  Readers want to know we're real.  I even think they have a right to know we're real.  We're asking them to read our stories---to go inside our heads for the duration---and I'm okay with the fact that a picture contributes to that trust.

I'm less okay with turning that abstract notion into a mandate that I post pictures of myself.  No. No.  I was talking about other people!  Not me.


So I'm taking this course.  And I'm snapping lots of pictures.  And I'm even having fun.  Here are a couple photos from the first week:

So what do you think?  How are you experiencing the visual in your own creative life?

Jan 10, 2011

Developing Trust: Readers, Authors, & Publishers

When offered the chance to host #litchat this week, I jumped at the chance!  I've been dying to talk with smart, creative people about author-reader trust. The discussion possibilities have been burning holes in my little brain, waiting for an opportunity like this.

Why?  Because reader-author trust is at the heart of everything happening in publishing today.  Yeah, I really think so.

Here's a breakdown for the discussion this week.  I doubt I'll be able to get to all these questions, but we'll start with this food for thought.  Feel free to comment here and continue the discussion during the chats!

Monday, January 10, 2010 (4pm ET):  What does it mean when a reader trusts an author?

You're a reader.  Most likely you approach reading a book from a favorite author differently than you approach reading a book from a new author. Why? I submit that it's about trust.  Whether you're a parent choosing an author to provide a religious view of the world for your children or you're a reader of erotica looking for a certain spark in the books you choose--you choose an author you trust to provide the reading experience you expect.


  • What expectations do you have of the authors you read?

  • Has your trust ever been violated by an author (examples if you dare)

  • What happens to your relationship with an author if your trust is violated?

  • Have you ever picked up a book because a trusted author recommended it?

  • Do you ever stop reading new authors because you lack trust in the outcome?

  • Have you ever read anything you wish you hadn't read?  How does this influence your need for trust in other authors?

Wednesday, January 12, 2010 (4pm ET):  How does an author establish trust?

As an author, how do you establish trust with your readers?  How do you develop that relationship?  In Readers Are Everything, I suggest that getting someone to buy your book isn't about the money.  It's about the time involved in reading and it's about trust. It's even a bit like dating.  How do you get a reader to give you a chance?


  • Do blogs build trust with readers? (Is the experience different for nonfiction vs. fiction?)

  • What is your experience with posting stories, excerpts, or first chapters?  Does giving away writing build trust?

  • Can you use a first book to build trust anymore--or does trust have to be built before the first book comes out?

  • How important is it to stick to reader expectations?  Are you worried about being pigeon-holed? (Dare I mention branding as a means of building trust?)

  • What is the role of reader reviews in building trust?  How does the source of the review influence trust?

  • What is the role of sites like Goodreads in developing trust?

Friday, January 14, 2010 (4pm ET):  What is the role of publishers in the triangle of literary trust?

Ah yes, so here we are.  If it's all about building trust, what is the role of the publisher?  Do traditional publishers have any edge over indie publishing?  Let's discuss, yeah?


  • As a reader, is there any publisher you trust to deliver books you will universally enjoy?  Do you have loyalty to a publisher the same way you have loyalty to your favorite authors?  (Example:  as a reader of used books, I have a burning desire to own books from the classic Everyman's Library. Even if I don't like the author much, I enjoy the books and want to own them.  Am I alone? I'm also developing a need to own some of the classics with gorgeous new covers.  But is this about trust or art?  Or are art and trust related?)

  • How does the quality of the final physical product influence trust between reader and author?  Binding?  Cover art?  Spacing inside the book?  What about ebook formatting?  Do readers trust an author more or less based on these details?  How does this relate to the date analogy?  Does the cover need to show up at your door on time and dazzle you with outward charm before you give the contents a chance?  (And does traditional publishing have an advantage here any more, especially with ebooks?)

  • How do traditional and indie publishers compare when matchmaking new authors and readers?  Do established author blurbs from traditional publishers make a difference?  Are traditional publishers going far enough in helping authors to meet their readers (book signings, support for online presence, speaking, etc.)?  What responsibility does the author have in establishing new readers without this matchmaking service? Are indie authors more motivated to make connections with readers?  Do traditionally-published authors expect too much?

  • What is the role of traditional marketing in building reader-author trust?

  • Where do bookstores and libraries fit into this equation of reader-author trust and how do publishing choices influence their role?

I'd love to see comments here, to be developed more during the live chat.  Please join us.  As I post this, the first session is just hours away!

January 10, 12, 14, 4pm ET:    http://tweetchat.com/room/litchat

Jan 2, 2011


I don't do them.

Resolutions are for people who believe they control their lives.

I don't believe I do.

I believe the world and life and everything is a giant ocean, my ship is the size of a drop of water and I am somewhat smaller than my ship.

The time I get is now and my life?  At best?  Fragile and short.

Love.  Sing.  Laugh.  Write.  Listen.  Cry.  Smile.  Cook.  Eat.  Kiss.  Dance.  Love.

Feel it all.  Express it all.  Live each day.

Even the grandest resolution limits what I can become.

Even the smallest resolution can be dashed in a moment of unbearable circumstance.

Resolve to live now and the year will take care of itself.

Jan 1, 2011

My sister is way cool.

She knitted me this coffee cup cozy.  Also:  a warthog.

I'm so very lucky.