Talk to Text: A Writing Lesson

My mind whirls at a pace my fingers simply can’t keep up with, so getting my thoughts down on pen and paper or on the computer can be difficult at times. Then an idea came to me: what if I tried talk to text? Speaking is one of my better skills, so why not? Nowadays most computers and cell phones offer some version of this (Dragon, Voice Recorder apps, etc.), making it easier to get our thoughts, ideas, and writing topics more organized. Or so I believed.

As I recorded this thought string, I found myself at a loss for words, except for the ums and ahs, of course. (It doesn’t help that I was walking down a busy street, running an errand, while I did this. Not recommended.) Ironically, I don’t normally use ums, ahs, or other filler words during a recording or live radio broadcast because they’re annoying and make me sound less intelligent. I’m not at a loss for words – most of the time – but trying this talk to text, for some reason, has me stumbling and mumbling.

It’s also good practice for enunciation and how you come across in an interview, which can make or break book sales. (Note to self: do I really sound that nasal? Ugh.)

It’s a good experiment to record your book or article ideas; then you can go back and listen to the quality of your words and better understand your thought process. We speak and write differently and using the talk to text will help flush out the filler words as well as provide a template for the writing process that is unique to each of us. Even if you’re writing from a narrative point of view, it’s important to watch for and listen to word flow in the story.

Go ahead, give it a try. Hope you have better luck than I did!

 

 

Every Life Has a Story…

One of the ongoing contentious issues where I live is how to deal with the considerable number of homeless citizens. Our city has estimated that there are several thousand folks, at any given time, in this difficult and frightening situation. I frequently pass snacks from my car window to a homeless vet or other individual and have even purposely sought out hungry homeless (that’s redundant) people  in my area to pass along a leftover sandwich or drink. I often consider trying to talk to one of them, to find out what happened.

Police, politicians, and the community express a wide variety of opinions on how to handle this devastating situation (they’re not, actually, they just spend time arguing about resolutions that never materialize). The constant harassment by police, who then dispose of the camping equipment, blankets, and other personal items, is a sore spot for the community and especially the homeless. While many of these less fortunate people have addiction and/or mental health issues, it’s not the same story for each person. It was because of this controversy that this occurred to me: Every life has a story and every story has a life.

As writers, whether fiction or nonfiction, for journalism or some other purpose, it is our duty to share the stories that bind us together as a race (humanity), a community (your area), and as predecessors to a new generation of writers/storytellers. We are responsible for being honest in our characterizations,  even with the creation and convincing representation of fictitious characters.

Go forth and listen to what people have to say. Get their stories. Then tell those stories in a way that moves people (emotionally, to take action, etc.). Don’t be afraid to tell the tough stories about misunderstood people (real or imagined). Use these stories to color your fiction work, whether they be shades of gray or bright pastels,  and paint each life/story as important because it is.

A friend once told me each person that crosses your path knows something you don’t.

What have you learned today that can be a part of a story?

 

Walter Mitty and Me

It’s Memorial Weekend and am actually off today…so a bit of relaxing and writing is in order. I watched a movie while eating lunch, instead of sitting in my kitchen staring out the window. I watched the remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” with Ben Stiller. Cute movie. And a reminder of something I’ve written about before – a life on the road – or at least some adventures peppered with some bad decisions.

What caught my eye was at the end of the movie where Walter is re-writing his resume, since he’s lost his job at LIFE magazine. Instead of the usual humdrum skills checklist and god-awful BORING summary (Professional with a strong work ethic and multiple years of interaction with people in various work settings…yes, this is mine…), he listed his adventures (jet boarding down some road in Iceland, jumped from helicopter into the sea, etc.). It got me to thinking..if we are to get out of that conformist corporate box of a day-to-day J-O-B and move into our lives, how would a resume like that go over? 

As a writer, I often dream (like Walter Mitty) of writing and traveling and earning enough to live on. Competition is stiff in most fields these days, so thinking out-of-the-box is essential to succeed, especially as a writer. I’ve got that looping tape in my head of my mother telling me to “just get a job.” It’s been there for over forty years and I’ve yet to figure out how to erase it. The movie reminded me that when we’re busy living our lives we don’t have time for daydreaming, because we’re actually living our dreams. So I’m going to re-think how I present myself to the world, because I have had some great adventures (including some based on bad decisions) and I need to give myself more credit for them.

As a writer, I know I’ll never be a New York Times bestselling novelist. I’m okay with knowing that I’m a mediocre writer – what’s so wrong with average anyway? I may have a smaller audience but they’re an audience nonetheless. The fact that there are folks (like you) out there, listening and hopefully gleaning something from my work, is what’s important to me now. I no longer strive to reach or grab the brass ring. I have dreamed for years of becoming a writer, only to finally admit that I AM a writer – with or without the audience or brass ring.

Lesson: Dream your dreams. Take a chance every now and then to live one out, just to see where it takes you. Then you can write all about it.

Bad Choices = Good Stories

This week’s blog was inspired by a t-shirt worn by a man who strolled by me the other day. It read: Bad Choices Make Good Stories. I laughed to myself as I fondly remembered some instances where that was most certainly true in my life. Like the time I “hijacked” a limo with a friend…that one always gets a good laugh and a “I can’t believe you weren’t arrested!” response. We were young (and very drunk) and, many of you would agree, almost obligated to make bad decisions at that age (the ripe ol’ age of 23). Or the time the police paddy wagon showed up at our overly-raucous beach house party, headlights beaming on the idiot standing in the driveway with a bottle of Stoli’s in her hand (yep, that was me; and no, I wasn’t arrested that time, either, cuz I ran like a jackrabbit).

Artists paint/draw from painful experiences, as do poets and writers in general. We draw upon those bad choices and negative experiences that life throws our way. In other words, as writers/artists, when we’re given lemons, we make lemonade. The badder the choice, it seems, the saucier the story (probably why I made so many; keeps the stories interesting). Those bad choices add color to our lives, not to mention bragging rights with the grandkids and anyone else who’ll listen.

My point is this: don’t be afraid to make bad choices. They make life more interesting, create the tall tales of adventure and hi-jinks, and carry us into old age with a certain wisdom and appreciation – which can only be gained by making those bad choices – preferably in our youth. (Although I admit I still like a little naughty in my life. At my age, it keeps the blood circulating!)

Learn From Your Book Reviews

Hi all, I’ve been out of touch the past couple weeks – no excuse, really, just no desire to sit and write another blog on writing. I mean, how many topics can there actually be? Yet here I am, with another blog…

So I’m going to cheat a little and let Sandra Beckwith, owner of Build Book Buzz, share some neat tidbits on how we can all learn from negative or not-all-that-nice reviews of our work. I’ve been lucky so far; all my reviews are 5-star – then again, I only have THREE of them for my fiction novel. I’ve asked people to say something nice when they finish reading the book, but they do seem to forget or get distracted elsewhere. 

I’ve never written a negative review; if I can’t say something constructive, why bother? Then again, perhaps some positive critiquing is necessary from time to time, as we often can’t see the weak spots in our work as easily as the reader. So don’t take it personally. Use it to your advantage, as an opportunity learn where you may have missed something – with characters, dialog, or scenes/chapters – and go back to the original work with fresh eyes.

Why Authors Shouldn’t Obsess Over One-Star Reviews

Authors, prepare yourself for the inevitable one-star review. In the publishing industry, one-star reviews are practically a rite of passage.

And no one is immune. Whether you’ve got 10 best-sellers to your credit or it’s your first book, you can expect at least a single one-star review.

There are the one-star Amazon reviews that make you roll your eyes.

“If possible, I’d give this pile of garbage zero stars.”

“Not really of much use for me. Seems like just a lot of useless information to fill up a book.”

“The best part of this book is the cover photo.”

https://buildbookbuzz.com/one-star-reviews/

Feng Shui Your Writing

I don’t how many of you are familiar with the principles of Feng Shui (fung-shway), but I have found it to be an eye-opening experience in how positive energy flow can affect every aspect of your life – including your writing. One of my favorite feng shui sites is www.fengshuiforreallife.com, by Carol Olmstead. I have followed her newsletter for years and have gained much insight into the practical everyday use of energy flow. As a writer, it’s important to set the tone of one’s working space; how well you organize and arrange your home office (or wherever you write) is vital to the writing process and outcome. By making a few adjustments (some more so than others, depending on your needs), you may get to experience the shifts in energy flow that can occur relatively quickly (I’m talking within a week).

Here are some suggestions from one of Carol’s articles on how to arrange your desk/office for greater success:

If you work from home, the first Feng Shui consideration is which room or area of your home to use. If at all possible, avoid locating your office in the kitchen, where it could symbolically interfere your health, or in the bedroom, which could interfere with your love and relationships. 

Here are five quick fixes you can make in your workspace to give your office a Feng Shui makeover. 
Problem #1: Your desk is in the wrong location.
Quick Fix: The most auspicious location for a desk is positioned diagonally across from the door. The worst place is with your back to the door. When you sit with your back to the entrance of a room you can’t see what’s going on behind you, making you vulnerable to being “caught off guard” by your competitors, clients, or colleagues.

Things literally and figuratively go on “behind your back.” If you can’t relocate your desk, hang a mirror in front of you or place a reflective object on your desk so you can see behind you.

Problem #2: Your desk is the wrong size.
Quick Fix: A desk that is too small for the work to be done makes you feel that your ambitions and aspirations are restricted. On the other hand, a desk that is too large makes you feel that you are not up to the challenge of the work. Choose the appropriate size work surface for the job you have to do. And make sure you have enough room to spread out, create, and expand in your career.

Problem #3: There are sharp corners pointed at you.
Quick Fix: In Feng Shui, the edges of walls pointing at you are called “poison arrows.” These sharp edges send harsh energy toward you, making you feel uncomfortable, threatened, or insecure. The best way to cure or fix this problem is to place something between you and the sharp edge to block its negative energy. Good things to use include furniture, a healthy plant, soft fabric draped over the edge of the wall, or molding. 

Problem #4: You are surrounded by overhead fluorescent lights.
Quick Fix: Fluorescent lights represent the Metal Element that can be too hard and cutting when it comes at you from overhead. Plus this kind of lighting can cause headaches, eyestrain, and a whole lot of stress. Whenever you can, turn off overhead fluorescent lights and take advantage of natural daylight, or use desk and floor lamps. If you can’t turn off overhead fluorescents, try to have them replaced with full spectrum light bulbs. These simulate daylight and make you feel more comfortable.

Problem #5: Your office is cluttered.
Quick Fix: In Feng Shui, clutter represents postponed decisions and the inability to move forward. When you have so many files and piles of papers that can’t even see your desktop, it’s hard to concentrate on your work. Clear as much as you can off your desk, then use colorful folders and wicker baskets to contain the rest of your paperwork. Here is one way to jump start your office clutter clearing — Set a timer for 10 minutes, take a large plastic bag, and thrown 27 thing into the bag – things you don’t use, don’t want, and don’t need in your office. You’ll be amazed as how much more space you have opened up in your office to allow new opportunities for success to reach you.

Resource: http://fengshuiforreallife.com/Detailed/222.html

 

Grammar, It Ain’t That Hard, Right?

Is grammar dead? Read any number of internet articles, including those written by journalists and professional writers, and you just might think so. In a previous article, I criticized the overuse of the word thing. It is supplemented far too often as a noun where a more respectable and appropriate noun would do. Grammar clarifies both our writing and our thinking. They are forever joined together; the more clear and precise our thinking, the more clear and precise our writing. Hence, a better story or article is the result of that positive relationship. The lazier our thinking is, logic dictates, then the more muddled our writing is. As writers, we want to inform and/or entertain our readers, so doesn’t it make sense to keep our words as precise and concise as possible?

I was (un)fortunate enough to have been sent to a private Catholic grammar school for eight (long) years. I have vivid memories of nuns with their rulers and clackers, kept at the ready for any expression of unacceptable behavior, including mistakes in grammar when called upon to read (yes, out loud) or conjugate (yes, out loud). The following is an excerpt from a funny and informative grammar book, Who’s (…Oops!) Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway? by C. Edward Good. The scene is eerily familiar to me (my comments are in parentheses):

“Up front, under the watchful eye of Miss Hamrick – our no-nonsense English teacher – Billy Wombie tries to diagram a sentence on the chalkboard. Momentarily uncertain where to put the prepositional phrase, he regains his composure and finishes with a flourish, smirking at Damron, the troublemaker in back taking aim with spit was in cafeteria straw.

Miss Hamrick spots him. “Up front with you, Damron. On your feet. In front of the class.” (I have similar embarrassing memories.)

“All right, Damron. Now perhaps you can help the class with verb conjugation.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Damron dutifully responds.

“Good. Now conjugate the verb to ride in the third person.” (How many of you have done this or can do this now?)

Third person?” Damron groans. He knows what will come. (I’m groaning, too, I’ve been here.)

“Third person. That’s right, Damron. No go ahead.”

“He rides, he rode, he will ride…”

“Damron, be fair. Include all third persons.” (Still following?)

“He/she rides…”

“No, Damron. Don’t forget to include it.” (Sheesh. You getting this?)

Beads of sweat forming on his troubled brow, Damron begins, “He/she/it rides, he/she/it rode….”

The class erupts, delighting in Damron’s pronunciational discomfort.

“He/she/it rides, he/she/it rode, he/she/it will ride, he/she/it has ridden, he/she/it had ridden, he/she/it will have ridden.” (I still don’t know how to use all but the first three; better read more of the book.)

“Very good, Damron. Now the progressive tenses.” (Huh? Don’t remember those…)

“He/she/it is riding, he/she/it was riding, he/she/it will be riding, he/she/it has been riding, he/she/it had been riding, he/she/it will have been riding.” (I give up.)

Grammar, a forgotten relic of the past? Nowadays, schools aren’t offering it in their English classes. Why not? As you can see above, it’s vital to understand the tenses and which one to use. I, for one, will be reading more of this delightful book so I can be more like Miss Hamrick. Sheesh.

 

good grammar

 

 

Research: The Monster Over My Shoulder

I finally got some writing “juice” this past week and worked on a fiction novel that’s been sitting untouched on my computer for some time. While adding pages to the second chapter, I realized that certain pieces of information were beyond my grasp until I did some research on the subject at hand. Then I stopped writing.

Research – it’s a lurking monster for me, since I tend to procrastinate until the end of the book to begin the necessary research, filling in the many [bracketed words/phrases/ideas] peppered throughout the story. It’s where pertinent pieces of information need to be inserted – like details on the type of plane used in an aerial shooting, embezzling schemes and how they work (or fall apart), or researching the appropriate lingo used to describe a fire scene. The brackets are notes to myself to go back and finish that thought, get more information on that process, or add a character description. I complete an idea or part of the story best I can, add some brackets where more information/detail is needed, and move on. Most of the time.

Granted, the Internet makes research much easier and more accessible, on most topics. There are, however, still some areas of expertise best shared by experts in that field (for example, the type of plane used in an aerial shooting scene, how it flies, the gears, size of the engine, etc.). This is where I get lazy and it’s probably why some parts of my fiction works could use a little “lift” from more detailed descriptions.

How do you approach research? Do you research as you write? Do you begin your research before you start the story? Do you hire an intern? (Nice to be able to afford that option!) Let us know!

Part of it is I have a bad habit of convincing myself that the experts won’t talk to me, because my work hasn’t made it to the NY Times Bestseller List. I have to get out of my own way and learn to approach the research with as much gusto as I do the rest of the story.

After all, the devil is in the details, eh?

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Yogi Berra

Inspiration in the New Year: Simplicity

Now that the holidays are (finally) over, we writers can get back to work (or at least I can, since I seem to have taken too long a holiday from it). As a result of busily working two jobs for the last several months, my writing outside of this blog has all but disappeared and I madly desire to get back on track. My imagination craves an outlet for the myriad scenarios running amok in my mind. But first I need to whittle it all down to a doable list of projects.

That new nutrition book, for example; you know, the one with the first few chapters already completed? Probably going to make its way to the Recycle Bin on my laptop; it was one of the works I referenced in Lay Your Past to Rest. I’ve decided there are already some excellent books out on that very topic, so why try to compete with them? They’re written by successful colleagues with more than twenty-five years of practice under each of their belts (I have less than twelve). What could I possibly say that they haven’t? What would you do?

I’m even re-vamping my workshop. I decided a fresh approach is needed to draw more people in for the all-day class. What’s my inspiration? Boredom, mostly, with the “same-old, same-old”. Time to breathe new life into a stagnant one. Throw out the old, bring in the new, right?

Has your writing become a bit stale as of late? With a whole new year upon us, perhaps it’s time to take a writing inventory to decide what’s still working and what’s not. I like writing nonfiction, but I realized I prefer fiction – more freedom of expression, which to me, is far better (and more fun).

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” ~ Confucius

Where to find inspiration for our writing this new year? With a new presidency almost upon us, I feel we will not be lacking for parody material…it’s as if the situation demands it. There’s a lot going on out there in our big world. How can we be heard? How can we stand out? As always, we must create in a way that is best for each of us, not in a way that someone else thinks is right. Which is why I’m cutting back on following various groups on LinkedIn (and other sites) – it’s information overload. In this new year I wish to simplify my life a bit more. Avoiding frivolous junk news will surely increase the amount (and quality) of work I produce, simply because there will be less interference from trivial events that have no bearing on my life.

Perhaps in this new year we writers can decide to live more simply to create more fully. With less interruptions, we can better focus on what’s important: telling our stories.

“Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room. It’s almost a form of meditation- an investigation of my own life. It has nothing to do with – I’ve got to get another play.” ~ Neil Simon

Paint a Picture: Our Words As Our Brushes

As writers, we are artists whose canvass is the mind of the reader; our brushes are the words we use to create the story. Some paint a broad picture while others paint a smaller, more narrow picture. I prefer to read stories with some (but not too much) well-placed descriptives (adjectives and other modifiers), as they lead me through a maze of landscapes, cityscapes, and textures I knew not of, with characters carved as from real life.

Has writing fiction nowadays changed the way we paint our broad brushes? The evolution of language has certainly modified our written expression to a great extent, especially in the last two centuries. What if someone wrote in the frenetic way Van Gogh painted?  What if someone wrote as Pablo Picasso painted during his Cubist period, or his Blue period, or during his early years when his work was more realistic? An interesting thought to ponder, comparing their art to ours.

One shining example of just-the-right-amount of descriptive words (in my opinion, anyway) is the book The Long Knives are Crying, by Joseph Marshall III. As a result of his writing savvy and storytelling prowess, he paints a broad but exceptionally detailed picture of life on the Plains in the late 18th century, during a time of war and strife between Lakota and the U.S. government. Throughout the whole book, I was carried along by his choice of descriptive words. I swear I can find my way across that part of the country based solely on his knack for painting a picture of the landscape down to the tiniest detail:

“High above the frozen river, the Lakota sentry hidden inside a tangle of deadfall gazed intently at the horse and rider below him on a wide plateau. His expression changed little as he noted that the buckskin horse was following the game trail along the north bank of the meandering ribbon of snow-covered ice, moving in a westerly direction.”

The following is a portion of a bad example of descriptive writing I found online; it’s too long and wordy for this blog, so I’ll share only a portion:

“Chocolate. Three different types and three different distinct flavors, each of which  has its own unique benefits. Because, you know, chocolate is sooooo healthy. It has no sugar in it whatsoever, and has tons of vitamins and minerals (she wrote sarcastically) Chocolate may not have health benefits, but its unique and rich flavor has been influencing human actions since the time of the Aztecs,  who used cocoa beans. Historians estimate that chocolate has been consumed for OVER 2000 years!!! That means that chocolate has been around since the fall of the Egyptian empire. When most people think chocolate, they think of a yummy delicious substance that can be eaten, but what about a substance that people can drink? Not hot chocolate, but actual normal chocolate that you can drink?” (source: https://sites.google.com/a/g.coppellisd.com/expository-writing–carrie-erin-katie-aparna-stephanie/descriptive/bad-examples)

I love to learn how to better include descriptive words in my own writing by reading other shining examples. With the explosion of self-publishing sites, many more writers are taking a turn at telling their stories. But are they of good quality? Do they dare to take us for that imaginative ride so many crave from good fiction? I dare say, with the Digital Age upon us, I am concerned that our ability to express ourselves with language will continue to devolve, as our dependence on computers that think for us grows. Bad grammar abounds and I find myself craving the classics, for the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Robert Luis Stevenson. They were writers that painted with their words as beautifully as any Picasso or Van Gogh painting.

 

The Christmas Card List

I’ve had this poem on my laptop(s) for years. I can’t remember where I found it or even who wrote it, but it’s my favorite  way to tell family and friends what they mean to me. My apology to the author for not properly crediting him/her. If anyone knows who wrote this, please let me know. In the meantime, feel free to share this with your family and friends. I like to print it out on slips of paper and tuck it into Xmas cards. This year I simply emailed it to everyone to ensure timely receipt. (I love to send cards as they’re more personal, but the past several months have been a difficult time for me and I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anyone.)

the-christmas-card-list

Merry Wishes for a Bright and Loving Holiday Season

mistletoe

Lay Your Past to Rest

I’m a Tarot fan and I check my reading daily. Today I got the Judgment card. With Fire as its ruling element, Judgement is about rebirth and resurrection, and laying the past to rest. It got me thinking, as cards like this usually do. Along with the usual emotional basement of hidden/repressed childhood experiences I’ve yet to resolve, I find myself pondering the mystery of my unfinished works: a sequel novel (to Rescue on White Thunder), a coffee table blend of family tree/cookbook, a separate adventure novel, another nutrition book, and some miscellaneous works. Should I finish them or move on? There seem to be many starts but few completions. I desire to finish them but I don’t. Do you have the same experience? What would you do in this situation?

I particularly liked this part of the reading:

“There is no way to leave the past behind. Each step wears down the shoe just a bit, and so shapes the next step you take, and the next and the next. Your past is always under your feet. You cannot hide from it, run from it, or rid yourself of it. But you can call it up, and come to terms with it. Are you willing to do that?”

So each book I write shapes the next book I write? I suppose I could apply it that way. I’ve ignored my writing for some time now; working two jobs leaves little time or energy for tapping the imagination or doing the nonfiction research. But this message is more about making the conscious decision, and having the courage, to let go of whatever is not working. And that includes any unfinished writing. Perhaps unfinished work is meant to be an exercise, a way to stretch my mind and sharpen my writing skills. Perhaps it’s a way to find my voice, a way to come to terms with who I am as a writer and storyteller. Am I willing to let go? Only time will tell.

In the end, it will be best to lay some of it to rest, and focus on what is most likely to flourish (and allow me to grow as a writer). I wish the same for you.

Happy Holidays

 mistletoe

 

 

A Story of Obstacles and Desires

Some time ago I saw a cartoon of a dog straining at its leash, barking ferociously at a cat, as if to say, “Just lemme at ’em.” The cat wasn’t too shabby – actually looked mean – and was at least as big as the dog. All of a sudden in the middle of a ferocious bark, the leash snapped so the dog was free to go after the cat. He looked astonished. Scared to death. He quickly grabbed the leash, ran back and tied a triple knot. Then, he could again safely strain at the leash and bark his fiery, “Just lemme at ’em.”

Every story of an obstacle has a shadow story of desire. The obstacle contains yet conceals the desire. What you seek is camouflaged in what you fear.

The secret hiding in the open is that an obstacle is the unconscious mnemonic of desire – it reminds you of what you want, but makes it safe to want if you’re afraid.

When viewing a scene in a film you don’t want to see, you cover your face with your hands as if to say, “No, I don’t want to look.” But then the desire creeps in and you peek through your fingers at what you’re drawn to see. The obstacle makes looking acceptable.

Sometimes we need an obstacle to free a desire. When the obstacle is unpacked, the forbidden desire also emerges. When Pandora’s box was opened, all of the evils were released into the world. Remember the last thing to emerge? It was hope.

Pay attention to the obstacles that you construct, especially to your vocabulary of impediments. Worry simply holds onto things, as a form of storage.

When you find yourself focusing on an obstacle (“I can’t find time to exercise”, “I can’t put away any savings”), reflect on the underlying desire. When you’re ready to consider that you create the obstacle, you’re also ready to consider the possibility of not creating it.

Imagine what it would be like to not create your obstacles.

Dr. David Krueger, M.D. is Dean of Curriculum at Coach Training Alliance, CEO of MentorPath, and author of The Secret Language of Money (McGraw Hill), a Business Bestseller translated into 10 languages.