Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Soundtrack of My Work

Next to writing, music is the most important non-human or non-spiritual aspect of my life. If writing is the heart of everything I do, music is my soul.

This doesn't surprise the people who know me and have endured endless tales of my singing adventures.

Music is not just background noise for me. It defines a mood or a situation. Like, for me, much as I enjoy guitar music, I can't tolerate guitars in church. I can't pay attention to the service because the music becomes too overpowering. It rattles through me, making even my teeth hurt.

So, it is no surprise that to work, I need music. I listen to classical music throughout the day, as I do tasks like marketing or interviews. It is a pleasant background. But I can't write to it.

I write to piano music usually. But even that will change. Sometimes any piano music will do. Other times I'll put on one artist, but I'll find that his music isn't working on that day, so I'll flip to another until I find the right soundtrack.

On snowy or rainy days, though, piano music is too bright, so then I turn to guitar music. It fits the mood much better. The tone is darker; it mimics the weather outside.

Vocals are never good. The last thing I need is someone else's voice in my ears.

If I'm really struggling to concentrate, I will put on headphones. It is amazing what headphones do for me. I can shut out everything else around me. I don't even really hear the music so much as it fills me and seems to flow in my bloodstream to my finger tips to get the writing going.

Do you have a soundtrack to your writing?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

More Common Mistakes

Snow is falling outside my window, flakes the size of silver dollars. These are some of the biggest flakes I've seen in a long time. Of course, it's been a long time since we've had snow like this. It snowed all day yesterday, then turned to sleet in the evening. Everything was a sheet of ice this morning. The poor dog couldn't get her footing on the back sidewalk. The weather sites said the snow was to let up by late morning. It's almost 1 pm, and the snow is coming down hard. (Since I started writing, the flakes have gotten smaller and the intensity has increased.) It would be a perfect day to sit by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and the John Irving book I've been reading. But I have deadlines, so here I am in my office.

To wake up my brain, which is a little foggy from my cold, I thought I'd continue with the common mistakes I see in the books I edit.

Overuse of the thesaurus. While word variety is good, many people appear to open the thesaurus to find similar words. Except, those similar words are often the wrong word. The other day, I came upon a writer who used gaze or glanced to substitute for glare. Glare, gazed, and glanced are similar, but they don't convey the same meaning in a sentence. Nancy Reagan was famous for gazing at her husband when he spoke. Replace gazing with glaring . . .

Overuse of the word And. It appears many new writers are afraid of short sentences, so they combine sentences. Problem is, using "and" doesn't automatically make the sentences fit together. There is nothing wrong with short sentences.

Overuse of the word That. That is a lot like then. It is needed maybe 1/10th of the amount it is used. People think they need it (in fact, a lot of people would have written "people think that they need it"). Other overused words are just, very, and really. The more you let strong verbs and nouns show the scene, the less you need those filler words.

Confusion between That and Which. Of course, sometimes you need to use that. Or you need to use which. They are similar, but not the same. If a clause is vital to the meaning of the sentence, use that without a comma. But if the clause is not vital to the meaning of the sentence, use which with a comma.

Confusion between it's and its. I see this one a lot. Here's my trick: I mentally say "it is" and if that fits, then use it's. If it doesn't, use its. It's is it is. Its is possessive.

Using apostrophes. Okay, this is the fingernails on the chalkboard for me. If it is plural, you don't use an apostrophe. People get especially confused about names. So I repeat, if it is a plural, you don't use an apostrophe. If you are talking about a family with the last name Smith, you write it Smiths. If you are talking about a dog owned by the family Smith, you write the Smiths' dog. It's not just names, however. I seem to be coming across more people using the apostrophe in every case of a plural. Dogs becomes dog's. The apostrophe is used for contractions (combing two words into one) or to show possession. Not for plurals.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Number 1 Writing Tip

You may know I do a fair share of editing, and a lot of this editing involves work by new writers. Most of the problems I come across can be solved with one handy tip, a tip I'm going to share with you.

Get a good style guide and learn to use it. (The corollary tip is read Strunk and White's Element of Style.)

I am regularly amazed at how little writers know about basic grammar and punctuation. My job is made 3 times as hard by people who either don't know to put a space after a period or comma or are too lazy to do so. (I think some people are just lazy and figure they've paid for an editor to clean up everything. Let me tell you now, we aren't that well paid.)

So, if you are considering having someone edit your book-length work before sending it off to a publisher or agent, buy a style guide, like the Chicago Manual or an AP style book. Heck, even a 10th grade grammar book will work.

Here are a few things that I come across regularly:

Writing dialogue. This seems to confuse people most. This is the American standard for dialogue: "I am happy," said John. "How happy are you?" asked Mary.
The punctuation goes inside the quote. There is no space between the quote marks and the words.

Using attributes in dialogue. Dialogue should do all the heavy lifting, showing the reader action, feelings, etc. The attribute is mostly there to let the reader know who is talking. Said and/or asked are almost always good enough. I just read a draft of a book that kept using "revved" or "rapped" for said. I find myself paying too much attention to the attributes rather than the sentence.

Commas. People like commas a little too much. Best advice on when to use them: write the sentence with no punctuation and read it out loud. See when you naturally pause or stop. That's where you put the punctuation. (Another book recommendation: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. You'll see that where a comma is placed changes the meaning of the sentence.)

Paragraphs. Please indent. I beg you to indent. And that means more than one space.

The word "then." I cannot believe how over used this word is. When it is used, it is usually because the writer gets stuck and doesn't know how to make the story go to the next thought. That's because the writer thinks the reader needs to know every tiny step and event. No, they don't.

Hm, I could keep going . . . Next time will be more common mistakes I come across.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Busy, Busy

I love being busy with work. It's a luxury a lot of writers don't have. A lot of my writer friends tend to go in peaks and valleys. I have peaks and valleyes, too, but it doesn't seem like my peaks are too high, my valleys too low.


Because I am never to busy to market. I might be too busy to update my blog or write personal emails, but I am never too busy to take a half hour, or an hour, or ten minutes out of each day to send off a letter of introduction or a letter of interest for a job.

This is an uncertain business. You feel like you have a good regular client, but changes in editors, editorial scope, advertising, budgets can bring that relationship to an end. Or the magazine folds. Or you feel the need to stretch your wings. Bottom line is what was certain last month is not certain this month, so a good freelancer prepares for that.

I am lucky to have really great clients who supply steady work, but I know that can change in the blink of an eye. It's part of my job to be prepared for that change.