Category Archives: Writing

Characters

The finest birthday cake I’ve ever had, bar none. Thanks, Tami!

(Hereby I move a bit closer to posting purely about writing as I add a subcategory “characterization” to my category list. Ahem.)

As you may guess from the picture above, I recently turned 70. My birthday is September 3rd, but the cake was presented at a party last Saturday. That doesn’t mean anything, but I like to hit keys. A few years ago I joined Facebook. At first, I had no idea what to do with it. Now, I do the same things over and over. One of those things is to follow various French Ex-Pat pages and groups, but that doesn’t mean anything in the context of this post. The other thing that I do is keep in touch with people, some of whom I have seen very seldom, if at all, in decades. I mean my old friends from the Tiffin Columbian High School Class of ’67. I have seen some of them a few times, and a couple of years ago I attended our 50th class reunion. It was cool. Not only did I get to reacquaint myself with old friends, but we got a tour of the high school from the current principal. It’s a mid-century masterpiece of architecture, and no wonder I always liked the building. But, that doesn’t mean anything just now, either.

What does mean something is that, having re-connected with my class, I have discovered that I still like the same people, for pretty much the same reasons. I’ve never disliked anybody in my class (our school wasn’t as clique infested as some) but those I was indifferent about then, I’m indifferent about now. Which seems to me to indicate that, here it is, folks, a person’s character is reasonably consistent over their lifetime. The jokers (including me) are still jokers half a century on, the studious ones are still studious, the good old boys and girls are still good old boys and girls, and I could actually probably name every classmate and expound on how they haven’t changed much.

Well, some of them have ceased to exist. I guess that’s a pretty big change, but for the rest of us, we still are pretty much who we were at 17 and 18 years old. (We graduated on 11 June 1967, so it’s pretty much half and half.) Which further, it seems to me, points out the importance of knowing the backstory for each of your characters. I write backstory for every character that has anything significant to say. Most of the characters in any story are nameless, and say nothing, but they’re there supporting the principal cast and helping to move the story along. Them I don’t write a history for. But everyone else, even fairly minor characters, I, at least, know where they’re coming from, villains included. Because what they were at eighteen is what they are at forty, or whatever, and knowing what they did in high school (so to speak) tells a lot about what they will do on the job.

So, there’s some further advice from me for you: know thine characters’ backgrounds withal!

High school class reunions. And they say there’s no place to get new ideas any more.

COVER YOUR PRODUCTIVE TUSH!

The View from Universal Studios as it was In 2003.

Looking at that pic, I can see how camera technology has advanced in sixteen years. It’s fuzzy! But, I digress.

When I say cover your productive tush, I mean have a plan for when your hard drive crashes, your computer gets dropped into an outhouse, somebody steals your laptop, you know, all that stuff that you read about ruining writers’ projects. Because, you know, there are things you can do. And to prove it, I shall tell you what some of those things are.

First, Back Up Everything!

There are a couple of ways to do backups. I use both of them. The first, older way is simply to buy an external hard disk and  plug it into your computer. Then, no matter what OS you use, you will find a handy-dandy backup routine already built in! Wowzers! I use Windows, and I’ve had excellent luck simply letting Windows decide what to back up. But, it’s up to you, you can decide what you do or don’t want backed up. If you do these backups regularly (Windows lets you do it on a continuous basis in the background) you will always have a copy of the latest saved version of every one of your files. So, after the dog eats your work, you buy a new laptop, plug in the external drive, and recover it all.

What is a backup, you say?

A backup is just a copy of a computer file (or a lot of them.) That’s it. It’s usually possible to use the backup copy directly, without even “recovering” it, but if you do that, you’re defeating the purpose of having an extra copy. So, first thing to do to recover from a disaster is to always make backups as  you go along.

The second way to make a backup is to use “Cloud Storage.” You probably don’t know that “the cloud” is just a term techies made up to indicate that the exact location of the data isn’t necessarily known, but it’s out there. (Technically, it may not even all be in one place, but it looks like it is.) Quite a few places will give you a certain amount of “cloud storage” for free. A big novel, I’m talking a humongous work, something to make War and Peace look like a pamphlet, is still an amazingly small computer file. Many, if not all, of these free cloud storage services will automatically back up your stuff to the cloud, and, again, you can tell the service what to back up. If you subscribe to Office 365, you get a terabyte of storage included. A terabyte is enough to store most of the Library of Congress’s contents on. No kidding. You only get at the most something like 50 gigabytes (probably a lot less) for free, but it will still be more than you’ll ever need to keep your projects on. If you use Windows with OneDrive (that’s what they call their cloud storage) you just keep everything in a folder by that name on your local drive, and whatever is in there is automatically backed up when  you connect to the Internet. Since I do subscribe to Office 365, I don’t have much experience with other cloud backup schemes, but I’m told that they are similar. Use whatever service you like (Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) but use one of them and use it all the time!

Save Your Work All the Time!

Yes, I said All the Time! I use Word. (In the old days, I was a WordPerfect user, but once everything went GUI (look it up) I switched because it is simple and easy. And, Word works on Mac and PC, and is free on handheld devices, so what the heck, huh?) Word includes the ability, if you use OneDrive at least, to continuously backup your document (book, silly) as you type. By using Word and OneDrive (and I’m sure there are other ways to accomplish the same thing) I always have a backup copy of my project, no matter what happens. Worst case scenario is that I lose a few lines of text. Seriously, that’s the worst that could happen. Barring that, Word can be set up save the document you are in at intervals as short as one minute. Could you afford to lose a minute’s work? Probably. Keep your project on a cloud drive, save as often as you can, and boy, howdy, you can’t lose your precious files if you want to.

(Okay, you could delete them.)

There you go: back-up your work, either to an external hard drive or to the cloud, and save your work as often as possible. You can take a few minutes just once to set all of that up, then you’ll never have to think about it again. Until disaster strikes, when you’ll be congratulating yourself for being smart enough to have done that.

Good writing, fellow scribes!

Clarity

A Distant World that Feels Like Home. Asimov was the best.

In one of his autobiographies (there are at least two) Isaac Asimov said that when asked what he strove for in his writing, his answer was “clarity.” I remember that often as I read news stories and other ambiguous items. On July 23, 2019, The Washington Post ran a story about a person’s childhood. It quoted their grandparents’ opinion of the person, then told how their father was structurally unavailable, and their mother worked constantly. Then the paragraph said, “They raised him as their own child.” The word they being close to his dysfunctional parents, although it obviously refers back to the grandparents. Or does it? Could you make an argument that the author of the piece was actually referring to the parents, perhaps trying to make some subtle point about their parenting skills? Well, yes, you could. And that is why that paragraph is not clear. All it needs is for “They” to be replaced with “The grandparents” and all would be well, and clear.

That was in a newspaper that is, unusually, not interfered with by its owner (Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.) A paper that can, most people think, be trusted most of the time. And they let unclear writing go right on out into the world. Come on, Post, get it together, okay? But consider what you see on social media. Any social media. Is it clear? Can you spot any ambiguity in the text? And, sure, I tend to lean more toward humanism than authoritarianism, but I’m talkin’ ’bout you, Liberals and Progressives. Because, thanks to the magic of filtering, I generally only see Conservative screeds second-hand, that is, when somebody reposts them. (I do follow POTUS on Twitter.) The folks I follow make a great many assumptions, about themselves, their audience, and their opposition. Any time you’re assuming something in a text it is perforce ambiguous. And ambiguity is the perfect opposite (apposite, even) of clarity.

So, here’s an exercise you can do. Go through your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. feeds and check for the ambiguous postings. There will be a lot. Look closely at the techniques the posters use to drive home their point to the unwary. Then, as you write your stories, never, ever do those things. The way things are, that alone might guarantee you the clarity good writing always deserves and needs.

Sacré Maroon!

Street in the Altstadt, Heidelberg, Germany

I belong to a number of Facebook groups related to writing. In some of them, I see questions I haven’t asked in years, Questions so basic that DON’T THOSE PEOPLE KNOW ANYTHING? comes to mind. Then I remember myself. Sometimes I drop a bit of advice, and often when I do it is appreciated (given a like or two, at least.) Thing is, I’m still not a famous, self-sustaining writer. Hell, I’m almost seventy, and I’m still aspiring to that (keeps one young, I’m told.) Great, but that means, that, while I can give advice to raw beginners (Speak Engrish, Troop!?) I still need a lot of help myself. And I have learned a few things over time.

Number one: nobody knows how you should proceed in your career. People who tell you what to do should pay attention to their own lives, and let you figure out yours.

Two: that’s not to say that you can’t learn from others’ experiences. You can, but never try to be them. Or even like them. You are you, and that’s fantastic.

Three: you will not be an overnight success. If you are, you’ll spend the rest of your life being unsure of your actual talents. As opposed to if you work hard for years and finally break through, in which case you will spend the rest of your life being unsure of your actual talents. This is called “Imposter Syndrome.” Get used to it.

And number zero: Know the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist. (Pablo Picasso) Rule zero because it is the most important.

There, now you know everything you need to know to be a famous, self-sustaining writer. You’re welcome.

Memoirs are Made of This

Looks Like the Library at Hogwarts, Doesn’t It?

If you want to know where that picture was taken, look it up. You have all the information you need.

As a student of the French language, I know that ‘mémoire‘ is a word for ‘memory.’ (So is souvenir.) It can also mean a token, something to remind you of a place, that sort of thing. In English, memoir is a book about one’s experiences. It’s not a biography, although there can be a lot of biographical information in a memoir. With all that said, and, having bought “Memoir Writing for Dummies,” I am endeavoring to write a memoir. I don’t care if it’s ever published, though. I’m writing it because I’ve noticed that the best books are the ones where the author is totally involved in the story, in a way the reader can sense. (Not literally, we leave that to Vonnegut.) Since I aspire to write REALLY GOOD STUFF, I am using a memoir as a way to get to know who I really am. Sure, you can pay some shrink to help you, but as I write pretty good anyway, I figure this will be cheaper. (Hey, I write gooder than a lot of people, anyway.) 🙂

So far it’s almost 70 pages long. One page per year, more or less. Well, now that I put it that way, I think I have some more writing to do. Let me know if you’ve ever done a memoir, particularly if it was for self-discovery. Okay?

Ciao!

Part Deux, uh, Dos, I Mean, Two

Henderson, Nevada, December 2008

Last week I posted about ways to be true to oneself. I’m not just thrashing about on that topic. I have begun a memoir. Not necessarily for publication, but for real. So far there is one chapter, but it isn’t bad. My thought is that by crafting a memoir, I’ll get closer to whatever is my true self, and be that much more able to put that true self into whatever fiction I create. I do not think that I am the first person to make this connection.

As I wrote last time, the only successful artists of any sort are those who stay true to their own vision. I do have a vision, but I’ve only recently begun to realize what that vision is. And it isn’t entirely clear yet, not in the sense of what I can do with it at least. But it’s me, and I like it.

I hope that both of you readers enjoy following my progress along this path. 🙂

 

Sorry I’m Late

He’s in the woods, probably looking for a place to, you know.

I’m late because I had to go to Arizona to collect some rent yesterday. On the way, I started seeing double, and the faster I drove, that is, the faster my field of vision slipped past me, the worse it got. No way that’s a problem at 80 mph, is it? Something to do with sinus congestion, I believe. Swiftly may it pass.

Besides contemplating language in general, I’ve also been thinking about ways to be genuine. Successful artists of any stripe are those who are simply true to themselves whatever else happens. Which makes me think: what am I, then?

Well, I have never had what most people would call a “real” problem in my life. I had pneumonia once, M, M, and R. Hepatitis A, Pertussis, and a bunch of broken bones, all of which cause problems, but only the temporary sort that go away with care and time. If you look at that list, you’ll see that I was born before the vaccines for those diseases became available. Why anyone would want to contract one of those when one doesn’t have to is beyond me, but I digress. Those have been my problems. Well, that and the fact that mom was too cheap to let me buy the briefcase I wanted in elementary school. Or the pool table I wanted for Christmas (I told Santa he could set it up in the basement, for cat’s sake!) I wrote a song about this situation, I call it the I Ain’t Got No Troubles Blues. I sang it as part of a stand-up bit, and it worked.

I’ve always been led to believe that the best artists suffer, either for the art, or their art arises out of their suffering. Which means that a guy like me, a man of great privilege, probably can’t be a good artist of any sort. I’m more of a Nero type, maybe, but not really an artist.

Or am I?

Well, you tell me. It’s as existential as I can get, given my fortunate upbringing. I am, I must admit, fascinated as to where this line of thought will ultimately lead. Stay tuned, dear readers (you know, both of you.) We’ll find out together.

French Toast

Bordeaux is a city in Southwest France. I think there are a few wineries in the area.

In five years or so, we plan to be living in France. Exactly where isn’t decided yet, which is why we’re going to stay in Bordeaux for a week in October and explore the Atlantic coast, at least the Southern portion. The logo above is real. It has three crescent moons laid across each other. Seems the port of Bordeaux is on a curve of the river. When the French took over (not so long ago as you might imagine, they called the place Au bord de l’eau, which means “along the water,” and sort of sounds like Bordeaux when you say it out loud in French. The logo drives that crescent theme home thrice. Sometimes Bordeaux is also called the city of the moon. The more you know, huh?

The question naturally arises, could I write in French? Uh, je ne sais pas? Can I write in Englilsh? Will anybody buy what I write in English. I mean, if not, who cares if I can write in French, right? Yes, we are seriously studying French now. Spanish has been fun; I was sometimes able to eavesdrop on my students when they were speaking Spanish and thinking I didn’t understand them. But if I’m going to live in France, I want to speak the language as well, ideally, as I do English. Yes, that well. Ahem. But, here comes the real writing tie-in. Learning French spelling and syntax as well as I know English spelling and syntax (which really is rather well) can’t help but let me write even better, more clear English. When you study things like Future Perfect tense in another language, you are confronted with deciding just what the purpose of Future Perfect is to begin with. Sure we have that in English, silly. You shall have seen that directly. And now you have. (In French, that’s Vous aurez vu que.) The syntax sounds in English like, wait for it, you will have seen that. Vu is the past tense of “you see”, que is one way to say “that,” vous aurez is simply you will (or shall.) Why did I use “shall” for my English example? Because I like the way it sounds, it’s as simple as that. In fact, “will” and “shall” mean the same thing, so there!

Now, that syntax is the same front to back, but such is not always the case. But, in using that phrase, I have to think of which tense to use, and why, and then come up with not only You (pronoun,) but also will (a prediction) have (future perfect, same as plain old present tense this time,) seen (past tense of “see”,) and that (a definite article standing in for an object.) Having to suss that out in a language other than English makes it a lot easier to explain, in any language, why you use those particular word forms. ‘Cause you gotta, right? Well, yeah, you gotta.

I recommend that any writer learn a foreign language. It doesn’t have to be French. Heck, Spanish is easier and a surprising number of the words are just like French, only simpler to pronounce. Also spelled better. Or Russian, or Chinese, Norsk, Algonquin, whatever. After all, if you are a writer, you are not a student of English, even if you never use a foreign phrase for anything. You are in fact a student of language, which is a different thing altogether.

Bonne Chance!

 

English

Well, it is red, and it has a fake windmill on top.

I was in France last week. Half of the week in Brittany, half in Paris. The picture above is from Paris, as you probably already know. The place is in Montmartre, but the better part of Montmartre is on the steps of Sacre Coeur. There’s your advice on what to do in Paris for the week. We like France enough that we hope to move there. With that in mind, we’ve gotten serious about learning the language. I won’t bore you with my progress, or lack of same, or put any French here, well, not much, well, maybe a lot, because as it happens, English vocabulary is sixty percent French in origin, one way or another. Any word ending in –tion, for example, is French. Mostly the meanings are the same. Une table is exactly the same thing as a table, so in reality, once you figure out how to “turn the corner” between French and English, the meaning of words isn’t that tough to master. But, what about the other forty percent of our words? Where did they come from?

Mostly, from German. Words like thief, belief, relief, and even brief (but brief is only used in the original sense by lawyers. It means “letter,” and lawyers write letters (briefs) to the court.) And our syntax is mostly German, while our spelling is a god-awful mess. The rules they give you in school are mostly French spelling rules, which makes sense and they will work most of the time (sixty percent of the time, that is.) Trouble is, those pesky German spellings come in, and they are the ones that you “just know” if you grew up speaking English. I suspect that most of the problem areas in English come from French, but for someone learning English, I suspect that their biggest issues come from German.

See, English is sort of a bastard child of Daddy German and Mama French, and the result isn’t always pretty. But knowing about our bastard language can certainly help one to choose the right word as opposed to the okay word. For hundreds of years, the English nobility spoke French in court, so in England, French words came to be seen as  high class and tony, which is why we hear so many people say “utilize,” particularly when trying to emphasize that they are “really using it, not just using it!” Most of the time, the word “use” provides more clarity, so for a writer it’s better. For a cop or a manager, maybe clarity isn’t what they’re after, but for us writers, it’s better to use “use.” Is that useful? (Heck of it is, “use” comes from French, too, but utilize looks fancier.) This melding of linguistic cultures is why we have such a generous collection of synonyms. You can be tranquil, calm, at peace, relaxed, loose, and so on. This is probably the reason that you see the advice to cut your adverbs. After all, with all those synonyms, you probably don’t need any.

Let me know if you find this helpful. I know that I do.

AH, F***!

Fair Warning At The Top: This post uses that ‘F’ word a lot. You know, the one that’s four letters, starts with F, and rhymes with Truck? Nobody’s doing that in the post, if that helps, but the word is featured prominently. If that’s not a word you want to read, go somewhere else.

C’mon on, sing it! “It’s a Small World After All! It’s a Small World After All! It’s a Small World . . .”

Yes, that title means “Ah Fuck!” This is a post about language and how it changes. The word Fuck is an excellent example. (I could use “sucks” also, but it lacks the impact of Fuck.) In some histories of the English language (yes, there certainly are such things) the word is traced back to early Indo-European, where it was a terrible thing to say, meaning something like “go back to whatever hell you were in before you were born,” or something like that. Other sources cite more recent etymology, but still point out that the word was well beyond the line of impolite throughout most of its history. In fact, it has only been since the late 1950s that the word has gradually come into common use in English outside of military personnel and frontier towns.

It’s a fucking shame, is what.

What I mean is that, it has become more common, and you can actually say it on primetime TV so long as it’s used for emphasis, as it is in italics above. It doesn’t happen often, and conservatives always get aroused when it does, but when it does, in that manner, the FCC shrugs and goes about its business. Not so back in the 1950s. Good heavens, Lucy and Ricky had Hollywood beds. That is, matching twin beds. She got pregnant somehow, but certainly not by fucking, because that just wasn’t done in those days, except by tattooed sailors and criminals in seedy hotels and back alleys. Everybody knew that. And when you told somebody “Fuck You!” it was a damned serious thing to say. It’s maybe not the nicest thing you can say to somebody these days, but it probably won’t get you knifed or shot, or at a minimum in a fistfight. ‘Cause that’s what it did back in the fifties, my friends. Because that good old word, fuck, was a very powerful word. Now? Pffffft! Not so much, huh?

Look at those italics again. It could say terrible shame, or tremendous shame, or horrible shame, and the meaning would be the same. A really big, honking, lot of a shame, bro, and don’t you forget it. Yeah, fuck indeed! One of the most powerful words ever to enter the English language has been reduced to a weak, slap-on-the-wrist sort of word, and that’s on the powerful end. On the weak end it’s just another one of those modifiers you search your manuscript for so you can use fewer of them. Friends, I really do think that’s a fucking shame, because I like powerful words. Which fuck isn’t, anymore.

And that’s because that word, like all of English, and every language, even French, much to the dismay of their language Institute there on the Seine, changes constantly. In Spanish, during my lifetime, B and V have come to be pronounced exactly alike. They weren’t in 1967, but they are now. If you want to see change in French, just compare written to spoken French. The joke is that it’s simple, you just don’t pronounce most of the letters. But, they used to. And in English, among many other changes (anyone can check their own vocabulary to see that I’m right) (heh heh) the word Fuck has been diminished by too much everyday use. As a person who uses language to craft his products, this is the sort of thing that I have to watch out for. I try to avoid using slang, because it changes so often. Not so easy to know how to avoid having your wonderful word become useless, though. Sigh.

Well good luck, give it your best shot, and if they don’t like it, you know . . .