Monday, January 30, 2012

Copywriting: Writing puts on a business suit

When people unfamiliar with business jargon ask what I do for a living and I reply that I'm a copywriter, I get some quizzical looks. Some smile politely and change the subject. Others think I'm saying "copyrighter" and start asking questions about fair use and intellectual property laws.

To clear up the confusion, this post is a brief introduction to the copywriting field, for those who are curious. If nothing else, I hope it will show that the hair-pulling struggle over finding precisely the right idea, sentence structure, word, or comma placement can take place in an office cubicle as easily as in the creative writer's studio.

Part of the confusion, I think, lies in the term copy, which brings to mind imitation, duplication, and even dishonesty or fakery (as in "Don't copy from your neighbor's test" or "The precious emerald turned out to be a worthless copy.") These connotations are not exactly self-esteem-building for a person who makes her living writing copy!

So I turned to my trusty Webster's to find these more pertinent definitions for copy: "Matter to be set, especially for printing" and "Text, especially of an advertisement." That's more like it! That's the type of copy that concerns a copywriter. It's also the root word of "copyeditor," that poor harried soul responsible for correcting typographical errors in typeset copy before it hits the printing press and gets distributed to the masses.

If you've ever read a magazine ad, the back of a cereal box, the jacket of a book, a description in a catalog, or a fundraising appeal from a charitable organization, you've seen copywriting at work. If you watch the series Mad Men (set in a New York advertising agency) or are old enough to remember the character Darrin Stevens on Bewitched, you've seen copywriters in action: people tasked with putting persuasive words together to sell or promote something. If the phrases "Just do it," "Where's the beef," "It's the real thing," and "Because I'm worth it" bring certain brands to mind, then some copywriter has done his or her job.

From the field of advertising and branding, the term "copywriting" has expanded to cover many different aspects of business writing, from websites and newsletters to telemarketer scripts to speeches given by the CEO. In short, "copywriter" means "business writer," although it can also apply to nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, and much more.

How does copywriting differ from so-called "creative" writing? (I would argue that good copywriting is creative, too!) Here are just a few ways:

*Copywriting is persuasive, with the goal of inspiring readers to take some sort of action: to buy a product or service, give a donation, support a cause, change their point of view on an issue, etc. Copywriting is not done merely to entertain or elicit an emotion, although good copywriting will do both.

*Copywriting is a business service for business professionals. There are deadlines to meet and clients to please, and the copywriter's desire for creative expression takes a distant backseat to the business goals of the client. Copywriters on deadline cannot wait for the muse to inspire them in order to start producing.

*The copywriter remains anonymous. There are no bylines, author bios, or public accolades. Copywriting is judged by two criteria: (1) did it accomplish what it was supposed to (that is, were readers persuaded to take an action) and (2) above all, is the client happy? If you want to become famous as a writer, copywriting is probably not the way to do it. However, it can be very satisfying and rewarding, which is why I enjoy doing it.

In future posts I'll address copywriting in more detail, answering questions such as "Who hires copywriters?" and "What's a copywriter's typical day like?" Feel free to ask questions in the comments section and I'll try to address them. For now, just know that if you have a knack for writing strong, clear, persuasive copy, and if writing for commercial purposes interests you, and if it wouldn't bother you to be away from the public eye, then you may have a bright future as a copywriter.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dinosaurs & Dictionaries


I adore words. I think most writers do. We thrill to the sound of a new one and instinctively store it away for use at a later date, like a dog with a bone. Long ago I promised myself I would always look up words I didn’t recognize. I’ve pretty much adhered to that dictum ever since. For many years that meant keeping a dictionary nearby; and later, as my writing ambition grew, I added a thesaurus. But with the advances in technology during the past decade, my word-finding tools have evolved, sadly turning my treasured reference books into dusty relics of a bygone era - dinosaurs in a digital world.

My favorite: a 1951 edition of Webster's Unabridged New Twentieth Century Dictionary lies open at all times; tempting me to browse through its 3000 illustrated, fact-filled pages. A friend's mother gave it to me when she decided her children were "done looking up words." It has been truly loved. It is covered with children's penciled scribbles, ink pen artwork on the front, a few multiplication figures, the signature of one of her sons, and even a cigarette burn. I consider it priceless.

The earliest piece of technology that began the displacement of my reference books came when I purchased my first computer and discovered the thesaurus attached to my word processing program. What ease! What joy! What fun! Then the Internet exploded into the universe and I began to research words (definition, spelling, usage, etc.) through online resources like Merriam-Webster Online and Oxford Dictionaries Online and literally hundreds of other sources. OMG!

What is truly amazing is the number of viewers who visit these Internet sites. According to Merriam-Webster, America’s leading provider of language information for over 150 years, they now reach 40 million viewers each month through their free online websites. Who even knew 40 million people look for a word every month? I certainly don’t picture that many people grabbing a tattered old dictionary off the shelf and searching for a word. Maybe this technology is a good thing for more than just writers looking for that perfect word…

And speaking of that perfect word, I guarantee you’ll find that and more during a visit to the Merriam-Webster website. In addition to America’s finest dictionary and thesaurus, you’ll find a Spanish-English Dictionary, a Medical Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica. You’ll find a Test Your Vocabulary Quiz (I got 3700 points. You?); and entertaining Word Games like Jumble Crosswords, Deep Sea Word Search, Fowl Words, Eat Your Words, Jumble Jong, Word Sodoku, and even one called Writer’s Block.

You’ll find word activities for kids, a link for a Word-of-the-Day application, and a section called New Words & Slang. Some recent entries:

  • Facebooker: a person who uses the social networking site Facebook
  • Miles per plug (MPP): a measure used to quantify number of miles that an electric plug-in motor vehicle can travel without using gas
  • Thrifting: the practice of spending money carefully
  • Brolation: a friendship between two men
There's no way you would ever find all that in your reference books, no matter how many you had. The world has changed.

The M-W website is the perfect place to hunt for unusual words like canoodle, brontophobia, katzenjammer, flibbertigibbet and whiffle; or ubiquitous – one of the most searched for words on their website. I went into literary overload seeing so many new words. And I'm not the only one. The superfluity of unrecognized words in this post actually caused my spellchecker to run out of of red ink! (Just kidding.) Oh, and where and when can I use logorrhea: an excessive flow of words? That’s so much classier than saying someone has “diarrhea of the mouth.” Wait, logorrhea and diarrhea rhyme – maybe I can use them in a poem! Hmmm...I better settle down.

A shelf of prehistoric treasures.
More of my literary dinosaurs flanked by the owl bookends
given me by my siblings upon my college graduation.

Anyway, hope you'll take a minute and stop by the M-W website. I know you won’t be disappointed. Instead of spending countless hours scouring reference books like we did in “the old days,” you’ll uncover a mind-boggling world of words (like those below) with just a few clicks of your mouse; and a good writer can always use another word.

In the meantime, hang onto those old reference books. Who knows, like the dinosaurs, they might turn into black gold someday. Another thing to keep in mind: where will you look up a word if the Internet goes down? I know mine aren't going to the local tar pit any time soon.

10 Charming Words for Nasty People

  • Ruffian
  • Scalawag
  • Knave
  • Rapscallion
  • Reprobate
  • Cad
  • Scapegrace
  • Hooligan
  • Scamp
  • Wretch

Words You May Hardly Believe: Top 10 Words with Bizarre Meanings

  1. Whiffle: to produce a whistling or puffing sound; wind gust
  2. Spanghew: to throw violently into the air (especially a frog)
  3. Axinomancy: devining guilt or innocence by balancing an ax on a pole
  4. Breeches Part: a female playing a male part in a play
  5. Poltophagy: chewing food until it becomes porridge
  6. Lipogram: a writing without a certain letter (like no "r" or "o")
  7. Crowkeeper: person who is in charge of the crows
  8. Gyascutus: imaginary beast who walked on hillsides and was thus lop-sided (thought to be a near relative of the whang-doodle and snipe)
  9. Hapax Legomenon: a word occurring only once in a document or collection of writing (something said only once)
  10. Mytacism: excessive or wrong use of the letter “m”
Our Greatest Hits: People’s Top 10 Favorite Words

  1. Defenestration: to throw a person or thing out of a window
  2. Flibbertigibbet: a silly flighty person
  3. Kerfuffle: disturbance, fuss
  4. Persnickety: fussy about small details; fastidious
  5. Callipygian: having shapely buttocks
  6. Serendipity: luck that takes the form of finding something not looked for
  7. Mellifluous: having a smooth rich flow
  8. Discombobulated: upset, confused
  9. Palimpsest: writing material used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased; layers apparent beneath the surface
  10. Sesquipedalian: long; characterized by the use of long words

Words for Uncommon Things That Scare:

Top 10 Unusual Phobias

  1. Haphephobia: fear of being touched
  2. Doraphobia: dread of touching the skin or fur of an animal
  3. Eremophobia: dread of being alone
  4. Ergophobia: a fear of or aversion to work
  5. Hypnophobia: the morbid fear of sleep
  6. Brontophobia: an abnormal fear of thunder
  7. Kakorrhaphiophobia: an abnormal fear of failure
  8. Ophidiophobia: an abnormal fear of snakes
  9. Taphephobia: fear of being buried alive
  10. Phobophobia: an excessive fear of acquiring a phobia

Words for Ideas Worth Thinking About

  1. Zeitgeist: the spirit of the time; the general moral, intellectual, and cultural climate of an era
  2. Spirit de l’escalier: witty remark thought of too late, on the way home; the clever comment you wish you had delivered.
  3. Schadenfreude: enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others
  4. Apophasis: the raising of an issue by claiming not to mention it. I’m not going to mention…
  5. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: the logical mistake that one thing caused another just because it happened first.
  6. Sisyphean: requiring continual and often ineffective effort
  7. Dockdolager: something that ends or settles a matter; a decisive blow or answer.
  8. Zeugma: the use of a word to modify or govern two or more words usually applying it to each in a different sense. She lost her ticket and her temper.
  9. Beckmesser: a critic or teacher of music characterized by timid and excessive reliance on rules
  10. Katzenjammer: distress, depression or confusion; a discordant clamor.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Joy of Prosody: The Trochee

The following is the third installment on The Joy of Prosody by local poet and WNI blog contributor, Liz Mastin.

But before we get to Liz's post, we would like to offer our congratulations to her on being nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize for her poem, Fulsome Color. The poem is an eckphrastic poem, which means a writing taken from the observance of a picture or painting. Her poem is based on Van Gogh's bedroom painting, pictured below and was nominated by Quill and Parchment Magazine. The Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize by Pushcart Press that honors the best "poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot" published in the small presses over the previous year. Magazine and small book press editors are invited to nominate up to 6 works they have featured.


Fulsome Color
Van Gogh's Bedroom
by Liz Mastin

May I show you this, my room, in oil relief,
Where thalophymine walls surround and hedge,
A brown field leading around my oaken bed:
A sanctuary devoid of gloom and grief.

Note: only blocks of color may be seen.
I shun all hidden depths wherein I find,
Souls like mine embark on sad decline.
From falsities I set my spirit free.

Acceptable; the elemental things.
I paint in the way a soul can feel some trust,
Leave-off with policy and money-lust:
Those corrupting, dark-cast shadows. Give me wings.

To you I offer this, a pure endeavor:
My fettle room in flat and fulsome color

The Joy of Prosody: The Trochee
Happy poetic New Year! As famous poet William Hazlitt said “All that is worth remembering in life is the poetry of it.” While I’m sorry to leave iambic pentameter just yet as it could be an entire study in itself, I will move on to the other meters and feet. There is so much more one could learn about iambic pentameter, remembering it consists of five (unstressed/ stressed syllabic) feet, and that it exists as the dominant form in epic poems and dramas from the past; those vast bodies of works including all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Keat’s “Hyperion” and more. Our hearts beat iambically influencing the meter of our everyday speech. Also, interestingly, two thirds of English poetry from the past are written in iambic pentameter.

Excluding the sonnets, which are short and in stanzaic form, most of the poems from the past are very long, some are even book-length. When the Industrial Revolution arrived in the 19th century, a group of poets, in reaction to the impersonal nature of the time, began writing shorter lyrical poems. These poets longed for an earlier time; the simpler, more romantic days. These were the Romantic poets and Romanticism began to hold sway. The poems became songlike and of a personal nature. This time also marked the advent of free verse.

While iambic pentameter form was still used, it was more likely to be found in shorter poems and in sonnets as well as some set forms such the sestina. The poems of the Romantic Age were written in a variety of meters and feet, or, as in the case of free verse, without concern for either.

The Trochee is the name given to the foot that does the opposite job of the iambic foot. While the iambic foot is a two syllable rising foot soft/ hard, the trochee is a two slyllable falling foot : hard/ soft. According to Wikipedia “It is a foot used in formal poetry consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Trochee comes from the Greek trokhos, wheel, and khoros, dance; both conveying the “rolling” rhythm of this metrical foot.”

The trochee is often used as a substituted foot in iambic pentameter lines, often replacing the first iambic foot. I’ll go into “substituted feet” later on.

I used the heart beat as an example for the sound of the iambic foot; the iambic foot sounding like “lub dub.” For clarity, most books on meter usually say “da dum.” The trochee is the exact opposite of the iamb. It has two syllables per foot just like an iamb, but as said before, instead of rising from soft to hard, it falls from hard to soft, or dum da: /- .

An example of a trochaic metered poem might be Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, which is written almost entirely in trochees. There are other kinds of feet throughout the poem, but the dominant foot is the trochee, thus it qualifies as a trochaic poem.

This trochaic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, happens to be written in tetrameter (four foot beat).
Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odours of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows.

1. /- 2. /- 3. /- 4. /-

Several other examples of the trochaic poems would be Shakespeare’s:
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Many children’s poems are written in trochaic meter:
Peter, peter pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

Liz Mastin Bio
Liz Mastin is a poet who lives in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho during the summer and Bullhead City, Arizona in winter. She thrives on the study of the great poets, their biographies, the schools of poetry to which they adhered, and the poetic conventions of the times in which they lived.

While she enjoys free verse as well as metrical poetry, her main interest lies in prosody. She notices that most of the enduring poems are those we can remember and recite. Liz enjoys poetry forms such as the sonnet, the sestina, the couplet, blank verse, simple quatrains, etc. and she hopes to see modern poets regain interest in studied metrical poetry.

Liz is currently putting together her first collection of poems which should be completed this winter. The poems are a mixture of metrical and free verse poems.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Writers Get Up! and Celebrate the New Year


And I mean it, get up! The editors of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) sent a dire warning to their 47 million readers in their January 2012 issue. “Sitting is the New Smoking” proclaimed a front page headline. The article, “Sitting: Hazardous to Your Health” by Elizabeth Pope was startling. The implication of her facts and figures to those of us who spend so many hours sitting while we write is ominous – and here all I’ve been worrying about was my weight – who knew?


(info-graphics from MedicalBillingandCoding.Org)
Women who reported sitting more than six hours a day outside of work had a 34 percent higher risk of death than those who sat fewer than three hours daily. This was true even for women who exercised regularly. - AARP Article

It appears that our bodies, designed for a long day of hunting and gathering, begin to break down while sitting for prolonged periods of time. In addition to the lack of exercise for those of us who spend too many hours sitting while striving to write the next bestseller, our body reveals its unhappiness with diabolic internal manifestations. Prolonged sitting appears to have powerful metabolic consequences, disrupting processes that break down fats and sugars in the blood.


Several months ago, I purchased a Fitbit, a small (and expensive – but it was my birthday present to myself :) tracker which displays my real-time activity stats so I know how active I am each day. It shows me how many steps I take, my level of activity, how many stairs (or hills) I climb each day, how many calories I’ve burned and even how much time I spend sleeping. The stats are automatically transferred to my computer whenever I sit close to it while wearing the FitBit.

On days I spent a lot of time sitting at my desk and writing, I discovered the artery-clogging fact that I was only chalking up 1500 to 2000 steps per day. With under-5000 steps per day being considered sedentary, I realized I was just one level away from a couch potato. Being a full-time writer, I sometimes sit at my desk for hours - writing, researching, and yes, even playing Mahjongg now and then. When the ink is flowing, I only stop to eat and I only quit when my eyes go blurry. Hmmm…maybe not the best of plans, it seems.

The Fitbit inspired me to do more. It increased my motivation to hit 8000 or even the recommended 10,000 steps per day, which is the standard for being considered active. What I didn’t realize until I read this article is that, while being active is vital, we must also break up the length of time we sit at regular intervals.

We try to compensate by going to the gym for 30 minutes and we think that's enough...it's not. The body's not made that way. We need to start thinking in terms of how we can restructure our life to reintroduce small movements throughout every day. - Joan Vernikos, former NASA scientist and author of "Sitting Kills"

So dear fellow writers, I want you to stay healthy. As always, the New Year is a good time to make that commitment. So, get up! Move around every half hour or so, or maybe find a way to stand while you work, which is what many in the workplace are advocating these days. If, like me, you lose track of time when writing, you might set an alarm to go off every half hour. I situated one just far enough away from me that I have to get up to turn it off. I was irritated at first, but realized just yesterday that I am no longer picturing myself tossing it off the back deck and letting the turkeys peck it to death every time it goes off. I just get up and move around for a few minutes. I hope you’ll join me.

Best wishes for a healthy and happy New Year to you all! And do the write thing – every half hour or so, get up and move around a little.


Read the full AARP article.

For some scary info-graphics check out this news about sitting from the folks at MedicalBillingandCoding.org.

I’m not here to endorse anything, but you can check out a Fitbit online. It’s just one of many trackers available these days.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chilly Outdoors? Get Fired Up about Writing!

There are a few great, learning-opportunity events for writers coming soon to the North Idaho area.
  • In early March, Cheryl Kline, Executive Editor at Arthur E. Levine Books, will be holding a novel intensive master class on plot.
  • In mid-March, the Inland Northwest Christian Writers group will hold their second annual Inland Northwest Christian Writers Conference, with keynote speaker Tracie Petersen, award-winning and bestselling author of over 80 books. Note: Last day for Early Bird Registration is February 4!
  • In April the Get Lit! 2012 Festival begins, bringing a week-long festival of writing-related events.
Check out details and links for these events below.

________________________________________

Novel Intensive:
MASTER CLASS On PLOT
Cheryl Klein
Executive Editor, Arthur A. Levine Books


Cheryl B. Klein has worked as an editor of children's and young adult books for more than a decade. She served as the continuity editor for the American editions of the last two Harry Potter novels, and books that she edited have won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, the Batchelder Award for translation, and a New York Times Best Illustrated Book citation, among other honors.

A story is what happens in a book; plot gives that story structure.  In this INTENSIVE master class with editor and writer Cheryl Klein, we’ll examine the care and feeding of a plot, including a number of techniques authors employ to control pacing, tension, character development, and reader reaction.  We’ll also look at the DNA of action and emotional development in a novel, and the uses of subplots. You’ll learn methods for analyzing your own plot to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and tips for completing a thoughtful and effective revision.

Saturday, March 3, 2012
9:30am-4:30pm
Laundau Room
  Lincoln Center
  1316 North Lincoln Street
  Spokane, WA

Sponsored by the
Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators:
Inland Northwest Region
To Register visit the SCBWI website.

________________________________________


INLAND NORTHWEST CHRISTIAN WRITERS CONFERENCE

INWCW 2nd Annual Conference
March 16 & 17, 2012
New Life Assembly of God Church
Spokane Valley, WA 

The Inland Northwest Christian Writers organization will hold their second annual conference in March, 2012. Keynote speaker will be Tracie Peterson, award-winning, bestselling author of over 80 books.The conference will include a variety of workshops to choose from and other activities to inspire writers of all levels.




Reserve your spot today with editors, agents and critiquers while
there are still appointments available.

EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION ENDS FEBRUARY 4!

________________________________________




April 10 – 15, 2012
Spokane, Washington

Sponsored by Eastern Washington University, the 2012 Get Lit! Festival focuses on writers who “Capture the World.” While the festival continues to celebrate the role of writers from multiple genres, crime fiction will be spotlighted at the 2012 festival. Mark your calendar for the 14th annual festival and workshops.

The Get Lit! Festival is weeklong celebration of reading and writing offers events for literature lovers of all ages, including:

•    readings and lectures
•    interviews
•    workshops
•    panel discussions
•    poetry slams for children, teens, and college students
•    writing contests
•    book signings
•    visits by festival authors to local K-12 schools and colleges

For more information about events, check out the Get Lit! website.

________________________________________


For additional writing-related events such as author book signings and readings in the area, take a look at the Events page of this blog.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Writing Life: A Fork in the Road

Emily Dickinson

I found myself thinking about Emily Dickinson recently after running across some poems in a notebook I had written years ago when I took my very first writing class. Even though I was only interested in writing narrative nonfiction, that first class required students to write poetry, a short story, and an essay. I silently balked at having to write poems, but I read some of Dickinson’s poetry during that class and was struck by how her sparse, simple poems evoked so much emotion.

I still have Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems on my bookshelf, which describes Dickinson (1830-1886), who lived in New England, as a recluse who wrote a body of verse unmatched in its vision. Although only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime, the later discovery of her “letter to the world”, which contained more than 1700 poems, established her reputation as one of the greatest poets of the English language.

The Dickinson “Homestead”

I never forgot two of her poems I read during that class. Even though I didn't know them by heart, I always remembered the gist of the beginning lines of the poems. Dickinson seldom gave titles to her work, but one poem was about death which began, “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” and the other was about a snake which began, “A narrow fellow in the grass.” So, I looked them up and read them again. Here is one of them:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
 

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
 

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,
 

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.


The image below shows a page from Dickinson’s original work. It’s difficult to read, but you can see that the right-hand page is the beginning of the poem shown above. I thought it was wonderful to see her handwriting and to imagine her sitting alone, diligently writing poem after poem in that huge Amherst, Massachusetts, home so long ago.


Thinking of Emily Dickinson brings to mind how easily our writing life can take a turn when we least expect it. Although I didn’t have an interest in poetry when I signed up for that first class, I took the class anyway because it was the only evening writing class available at the time. So, reluctantly, I began writing and studying poetry.

The poetry quickly drew me in. I began to understand the power of words and language in poetry, and how even the most sparse poem can impact the reader. It soon became a joy to work for hours on a little poem and finally get it exactly the way I wanted it. It was mentally freeing to transfer what I truly felt in my head into that little cluster of words. I liked the way it allowed me to finally get my thoughts about bits and pieces of my life that had been in my head forever, onto paper.

I fell in love with writing poetry and when I finished the class, rather than turning back to the nonfiction writing project I intended to work on, I kept writing and studying poets and poetry for the next few years. Eventually, three of my poems won first place in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest, for which I received the Zola Award for Poetry and a cash prize. I mention this only to highlight the fact that, as writers, we never know when a fork in the road of our writing life might present itself, or where it might lead us.

Even if we are doubtful at first, it can expand the horizon of how we see and employ our writing. It can lead us into a completely new world of learning and discovery. 


"Hope" is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
 

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
 

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea,
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.


          Emily Dickinson


(The images above, as well as detailed biographical and historical information about Dickinson and her work can be found at: http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Storytelling: Let Me Count the Ways


As writers, when we hear the word “storytelling” we often think about the craft of telling stories through our writing—our books, essays, articles, poetry. We think about structure: beginnings, middles, ends, plot, pacing, characters, etc. But while traveling on Southwest Airlines this past fall I read an article in the airline’s Spirit magazine titled, The Art of Storytelling. In addition to storytelling through writing, the article highlighted other ways stories are told.

It reminded me that we have told the events of life for centuries and, whether real or fictionalized, have done so through methods that ranged from ancient drawings to today’s multi-media technology.

Here are a few of the ways we tell our stories:

Paintings and Photography:

The Norman Rockwell painting at the beginning of this post tells a story of the discoveries of childhood. Photos, such as historical and family photos capture moments and stories of our lives that are passed on to new generations. Photography also tells the story of the world around us.



Movies:

Since the early 1900s movies have been telling us stories. Once only viewed on movie screens or televisions, movies are now viewed on computers, electronic tablets and mobile phones. Here is a short film titled, “Splitscreen: A Love Story” shot entirely on a mobile phone. The movie won the Nokia Shorts 2011 competition.


Social Media:

With today’s proliferation of social media, people are telling their stories through texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social internet sites—24/7, all over the world. Social media has served to share, at lightning speed, stories of revolutions and natural disasters, and has opened channels of communication between people of different counties like has never been possible. Families keep in touch with photos and postings on Facebook pages; they Tweet messages to their friends; and they talk face-to-face through Facetime on their iphones. Today, it is easier than ever to communicate and share our stories.


Through Comics, Song Lyrics, and Flow Charts:

Most song lyrics tell a story of some kind—a story of regret, love, or war, for example. Comic strips and flow charts can also tell a story.



Through Book Covers:

A book cover can tell a story even with a simple design.


Through Oral Storytelling and Folklore:

We have all been told stories by family and friends, which we in turn pass along to other family and friends. These stories can stay with us throughout our lifetimes, and can influence how we live and who we become.


Prior to reading the Spirit magazine article, I hadn’t thought of some of these ways as storytelling per se. But the stories of our lives and our dreams can seep through even our most casual conversations. And if you define storytelling as the telling of real or fictitious life events, whatever the form, then we are all storytellers.  And whether we write fiction or nonfiction, these bits and pieces of life communicated can seed and fuel our writing.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.
Robert McAfee Brown

Friday, January 13, 2012

Birds of a Feather Flock Together



Two photographs, taken seconds apart, reveal birds in flight and birds still thinking about getting airborne. Whenever I marvel at a flock of Canada geese, I ponder how their decisions get made. Living side by side with them for most of my life, I can attest to the fact that there often seems to be some dispute. Yet, they seem to gain some understanding of their place in the grand scheme of things; they know the collective benefits of flying together.


Years ago, when trying to convince friends to read my manuscript and give me direction, a dear friend advised that I look outside my existing circle and get a group of fellow writers to weigh in. She pointed out that leaving this up to friends was both unwise and unfair. Being that I was new to the area at the time, and short on both friends and colleagues, her words represented a challenge, but nevertheless, I took the well meaning sentiment very much to heart. As it is extremely difficult for me to ask for help, from friend and foe alike, I wondered what resources I had available to me.


Happily, my search for birds of a feather yielded great results. Life long friendships ensued, blurring the line again, but such is life. Encountering writers at various stages of the journey, has been incredibly rewarding. I have had to at times, wonder about my great, good fortune.


This will explain why I love Twitter, the Idaho Writer's League and the six pack blogette group known as Writing North Idaho. The life of a scribe is quite solitary by nature and can often be a lonely profession, and for many of us, very comfortably so. Therefore, getting out from time to time, is paramount. At every stage of the journey, we must find the courage to tell people what we do. Questions related to achievement invariably follow, and clumsy answers ensue, making us feel awkward, but when we find that common ground, it can be downright exhilarating.

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. "

John Muir.




Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Watershed Moment




Having recently read a book written by Stephen King, entitled, "11/22/63," a work of fiction depicting a watershed moment in our lives, it lead me to thinking about the topic. There are events that change everything; they are not always personal, but more along the lines of incidents which alter the shape of a nation and will interfere with the way a country views itself from that moment forward. We try to make sense of events beyond our control, in any way we can, and sometimes, our interpretation of those events will change over time.

These moments spark some of the greatest novels ever written. Watershed moments are those in which thousands of stories begin, or, in some cases, signify the beginning of the end. We are transformed by such events and distinct actions are put in motion.

In fiction, we have to have moments of great crisis for the protagonist, but they are often of a more personal nature. However, an author can use a watershed moment in history to launch an entire family into a completely different course of events than it would have been on otherwise.

The figurative definition comes from the literal meaning of a point, or division in a river, or stream where the river is split into two distinct paths that will not intersect again.

Here is one idea of the top ten watershed moments in history:

10.The October Revolution: The second phase of the Russian revolution put the Bolsheviks in power.

9.The invention of the Watt steam engine. Thus began the great leap for industrialization.
8. The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Because of this shocking act, Austria/Hungary declared war on Serbia which obliged France and Russia to mobilize.
7. Black Plague: two thirds of China's population were wiped out as well as two thirds of Europe's.
6. Storming the Bastille: King Louis XVI asked, “Is this a revolt?” The answer: “No sire, its a revolution.”
5. Vaccine For Small Pox: a devastating disease was eradicated.
4.The Invention of the Printing Press; in 1436 Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the printing of books.
3.Publication or the 95 Theses: Martin Luther, in 1517, creates an alternative to path open to Christians.
2. Berlin Conference: Otto Von Bismark, carves up Africa.
1. Birth of Jesus of Nazareth

It is curious to note the juxtaposition of the good with the bad in this compilation of earth shattering events. Too often, it is a "shot heard round the world," that sends events into play, but what precedes such an action, must not be ignored. Tensions build on many fronts; this is the stuff of great stories because watershed moments cause great change. As much as we would like to go back to the way things were before, we find we cannot. We must adapt, adjust, and rethink everything. Therein lies a novel.

    "History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside. " John F. Kennedy




Monday, January 9, 2012

The Barn


I am going to write about barbed wire.

This unlikely topic sprung from a New Year's Day conversation I enjoyed with an old friend. As she is a gifted photographer, we spoke of a recent picture she had just taken. In a car with her parents, she asked her father to stop so she could capture the beauty of an aging barn, set against the bucolic and rolling hills of the Palouse. This set off an argument over where the shot should be taken. Her parents thought they should position the car so as to avoid getting the barbed wire fence in the foreground.

“No, no, no!” I said. “You were right. The barbed wire would add, not detract from the picture. It would set a distinct tone, provide prospective and add contrast. ”

Because my friend is an adult and a strong person who has learned to stand her ground, she made sure all objections were over ruled, got her way, and took the picture.

As I listened, I thought about classic foregrounds. If a picture tells a story, then a story paints a picture and all techniques, commonly used, and oft taught, must be employed.

In college, I took as many art history courses as I possibly could. How I loved the dark rooms, the slides, and the layering of the centuries and the years of innovation. Being a hands on mom, while at home with children, and having been blessed with two artistic types in my care, I spent many years putting their art supplies on the counter before I turned in for the night. If they were to get up before us, they could begin their day in artistic endeavors, and leave me free to get a few more minutes of precious sleep.

We went to art galleries constantly, and when traveling, saw everything. We remember fondly the time our son was depicted in the Sacramento Bee, at a summer art class for Impressionism. He was eight at the time, and we still have the painting he made. We signed him up for a class after that, taking place one day a week. This had to fit in with Kung Fu, soccer, school activities and lots of time for play, but on the day of that class, Wednesday, he would hop around in the morning singing that it was his favorite day of the week. It went from there. On a trip to Philadelphia, we planned to spend the better part of the day at one of the greatest museums in the country. I remember well what happened up on the third floor. As we came out of the elevator, and he saw a painting that knocked him sideways, he sank down to his knees. I came up and asked, “ are you okay?”

“Its a Van Gogh!”

Years later on a trip to Paris, at the D'Orsay, after seeing masterpiece after masterpiece, I suddenly and without any warning, burst into tears in front of Van Gogh's Starry Night. I went to look for my son to tell him that I had been overcome.

I found him madly sketching Van Gogh's self portrait. “Look at his eyes!”he said.

My son went on to major in studio art at Gonzaga and when I saw his senior thesis up on the gallery wall, it was one of those moments one remembers as being at the pinnacle.

The relationship between art and writing goes hand and hand. When I created the plot line of my novel in progress, and put a visual picture up on the wall, it changed what I often refer to as the oil slick of ideas and began to form a cohesive whole. I pass by it every day when I enter my study. As I complete a chapter, I add a sticky note and cover the main points. It is a visual representation of my upward climb. It reminds me that I am getting there.

Apart from the mechanics of telling a story, I do always, try to paint pictures with words. I also remember that Vincent Van Gogh received no recognition in his life time, but now, tops the charts in terms of monetary worth for his art. Yet, like my friend, he stuck to his belief in his own authenticity.

"Feelings of authenticity are heightened by a lack of a philosophy that allows failure to be a part of life. If you're leading a full life, you're going to fail some every day."

Thomas Moore



Friday, January 6, 2012

Stephen King Advice to Writer's - Read !


When asked why she writes,   the great writer, Flannery O’ Conner ,  who told of small town life in the South  answered, “Because I am good at it.”   A Flannery fan points out, “  O’Conner’s writing , her books are filled with humor, even when her meaning is serious. It shows the mix of a traditional world with a modern world. It also shows a battle of ideas expressed in the simple, country talk that O’Conner knew so well.”

When Yale Literary Magazine Interviewed Susan Orlean  (The Orchid) they posed the question, Do you consider what you write to be literature ?  Her answer, “The best description of what I do would be literary  non-fiction. Is it journalism ? Yeah, I guess. It’s a funny genre. It’s not a new form or style— people as far back as Alexis d Tocqueville used it. But there’s a new appetite for it. People want to know about the real world, and through a voice that’s more eloquent and creative than the news. There’s a vitality to non-fiction.”                                                                   

Stephen King, the acclaimed  author  of several best selling novels  i.e.  The Stand, Cujo, Christine,  and  his  current 11/22/63   tells aspiring writers  “If you don’t have  the time to read,  you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.”                                           


                                                      

Besides being prolific and renowned American authors, you might wonder  why I lump these three together.  It is because what they write is genuine, from the heart.  Telling of a time and place beyond ourselves.  Something eternal  we can relate too .

I agree with King when he says to writers, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.”   In my view reading is vital to becoming a  better writer. That’s why I  include reading every day, like writing every day  on my  list of activities for the New Year.

 My top 12 reading  list for 2012

· 11/22/63   (Stephen King)
· Rin Tin Tin  (Susan Orlean)
· Wise Blood  (Flannery O’Connor)
· Catherine the Great (Raymond K. Massie)
· Killing Lincoln  ( Bill O’Reilly)
· Justice Forbidden (Anna Parker Goodwin)
· Then Again  (Diane Keaton)
· Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
· The Apostles ( Pope Benedict XVI)
· Ghost Light (Joseph O’Connor)
· Ben Hur (Lew Wallace)
· Death Comes to Pemperly  (P.D. James)

For those of us who find pleasure in the written word , I think we can agree, reading and writing 
go together like ham and eggs, toast and jam, love and marriage. And like Stephen King tells us, if we don't have the time to read, we don't have the time to write.  Simple as that. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Part 2 - New Year's Resolutions, Writing ( & Basketball)


January, 4  2012.  Day  four of the new year, and success in keeping my New Year’s resolution on track by writing every day and  following the 3D’s : Determination, Discipline and Desire  ( Okay, so it’s only four days,  and 361  days to go !)

I don’t know about you, but every  January first  I make  a list of New Year’s resolutions to achieve some goal, or eliminate some bad habit from my life. Each year the same thing happens—about three months into the year I fall off the wagon  (so to speak) and lose sight of whatever my resolution may have been.  But not this year. No, this year I’m committed to  my craft— the practice of writing, and pledge to write something every day—an essay, poem, a letter,  or perhaps  just a few sentences in my journal.
 
* William Faulkner at  his typewriter
                                                    
I look to acclaimed authors to seek their wisdom about  writing.  For many of them ,   to become a writer,  hopefully a better writer is by the practice of writing:

· You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.  Doris Lessing
· The writer’s duty is to keep on writing. William Styron
· You must write every single day of your life. Ray Bradbury
· Writing every day and disciplined editing.  Stephen King
· I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.  Henry David Thoreau

Recognizing the importance of   practice draws my thoughts  back to the days of my youth when not only writing was important to me, but also playing basketball.  It was my passion. I loved playing basketball  at St. Rose of Lima, and strived hard to make first string.  While I  was shorter than other girls on the team— our  coach, Liz Miller (affectionately)  took to calling me ‘Little One’ - I was fast and had quick reflexes. Liz was an excellent coach, and  wonderful role model  who early on believed in the 3 D’s  and passed that on to her young wards. 




It was playing basketball  for Liz  that I first learned about determination, discipline and desire— that through practice I could improve my game. Everyday after school we practiced lay-ups, making free throws, pivoting  to the right, pivoting to the left,  the forward pass, and dribbling the ball down the court—the same drills over and over until we became the  best we could be.   I might add, during  those days we weren’t wearing high tech basketball shoes, but  dollar ninety-nine PF Flyers  and  bad uniforms.

I’m 61 years old, and no longer play basketball (although if I could, I would ) .  My passion now is to become a better writer.  To write stories and poems to lift another’s heart and tell of happy days.   I know I must  practice , like Liz called me to do  on the basketball court  , only now with words of description, character and plot.   And writing every day.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Writer's Write - A New Year's Resolution




The new year is here,  and  with it comes  new hopes and dreams.  For many of us , the first day of January marks  a time of   making  a list  of resolutions to improve, change or grow in some particular fashion—to persevere and remain steadfast in reaching our goal of losing weight,   toning muscles, laughing more,  loving better— and  for us writers, our  list  might include,  write that  novel, memoir or  magazine article .

Fred White in his book, The Daily Writer says, For writers, New Year’s resolutions are motivational prods that actually can work, if you set up  a means of fulfilling the resolution along with the resolutions itself.

The point  White goes on to make is : For this new year, resolve not only to succeed at writing, but to write every day. To make this resolution stick, get into the routine—make writing a habit. This means carving out a set time for writing and adhering to it.

In browsing the internet this morning I came across several blogs and articles about  resolutions for writers, while they vary in outline : Overcome writer’s block, keep a journal, submit work, join a writer’s group, read more, write a novel— all had one resolution in common—to write every day.
Wendy Stetina, a sales and marketing professional with over 30 years experience in the printing and publishing industry and  currently Director of Author Services for Outskirts Press   says,  Real writers don’t just talk about writing. They actually do it. If you want to get closer to achieving your dreams and improve your writing make an effort to write something every day.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it ?  But what about the hundred and one other things that require our time and effort ?  You know, things like cooking, cleaning house, grocery shopping.   White suggests this—to ensure that you write every day, set aside a realistic chunk of time relative to the demands on your workday. Approach your writing as you do eating: as something you must do.  He also advises the writer to decide ahead of time what kind of writing you’re going to do (work on an outline for a novel, profile a character, describe a setting, and so forth) and do it.

In  her essay,  A Memoir Writer’s  New Year’s  Resolutions, I think Sara Etgen-Baker sums it up best :  I’ll remember the 3D’s—Determination, Discipline, Desire. 

As a writer,    the 3D’s  top my New Year's resolution list and  will be a helpful  reminder  throughout 2012  for me to  be more determined  to write every day, have the discipline to write, and flame my desire to write by the actual doing of it. 

Happy New Year, Writers !  Hoping 2012  will be your  year of stories written, poems published and memoirs shared.  Perhaps one of you may even write a book about New Year's Resolutions !