Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tightening up Your Writing

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As a writer, I am pretty comfortable admitting what my strengths and weaknesses are.  I'll start with the positive:  Humor writing is my passion and when I'm in the "zone"; I can write essays, short-stories, human interest articles and even witty dialogue--sometimes effortlessly--because I'm comfortable writing in this genre.  I'm also very detailed oriented, which is something I rely on when I'm interviewing people for the magazine articles I write each month.  Third, I think my imagination is pretty darn colorful, so it's rare that I can't come up with an idea when I need to craft something interesting or even time sensitive.

Now for my weaknesses. I can be just as honest.  I overestimate how much I can complete before deadline; don't know all my grammar rules as well as I should; and finally--I'm much too wordy and often struggle with keeping my thoughts and my sentences as concise as they could be.  

One of my favorite ways to improve my writing is to find helpful articles and then save the thoughts that really hit home with me and that I find helpful.  Since tightening up my writing is always something I strive to improve, I just reviewed my article files and came across ten of my favorite tips that I gleaned from other writers over the years.  I hope you find them helpful as well:
1. Cut long sentences in two
I'm not talking about run-on sentences. Many long sentences are grammatically correct, but long sentences often contain several ideas, so they can easily lose the reader's focus because they don't provide a break, leading readers to get stuck or lose interest, and the reader might get bored and go watch TV instead.
See what I mean? If you spot a comma-heavy sentence, try to give each idea its own sentence.
2. Ax the adverbs (a.k.a. -ly words)
Adverbs weaken your copy, because these excess words are not adequately descriptive. Rather than saying the girl runs quickly, say she sprints. Instead of describing the cat as walking slowly, say he creeps or tiptoes. The screen door didn't shut noisily; it banged shut.
Find a more powerful verb to replace the weak verb + weak -ly adverb combo.
3. Replace negative with positive
Instead of saying what something isn't, say what it is. "You don't want to make these mistakes in your writing," could be better stated as, "You want to avoid these mistakes in your writing." It's more straightforward.
If you find negative statements in your writing that contain don't, shouldn't, can't, or another such word, find a way to rewrite them without the "not." That probably means you'll have to find a more powerful verb.
4. Replace stuffy words with simple ones
Some people think jargon makes their writing sound smart, but you know better. Good writing does not confuse readers. If they have to grab a dictionary to finish a sentence, your writing has room for improvement.
To get your point across, use familiar words. The English language has thousands of words. You can certainly find a shorter or more common word in your thesaurus than a jargony one.
5. Nix "that"
In about 5 percent of your sentences (total guess from the grammar police), "that" makes your idea easier to understand. In the other 95 percent, get rid of it. "I decided that journalism was a good career for me," reads better as, "I decided journalism was a good career for me."
6. Replace "thing" with a better word
Usually when we write "thing" or "things," it's because we were too lazy to think of a better word. In everyday life, we may ask for "that thing over there," but in your writing, calling anything a "thing" does not help your reader. Try to replace all "thing" or "things" with a more descriptive word.
7. Try really hard to spot instances of "very" and "really"
This is a difficult one to remember. I almost never get it right, until I go back through my copy, and the word jumps out at me, and then I change the sentence to, "This is a difficult one to remember." Because really, how much is that "very" helping you get your point across?
It doesn't make the task sound more difficult. Same thing with "really." It's not a "really" difficult tip to remember. It's simply a difficult tip to remember. Got it?
8.  Avoid "currently"
"Currently" is virtually always redundant. Don't write: "Tom Jones is currently a communications director." If Tom Jones is anything, he's that at that moment; you don't need "currently" to clarify. Just get rid of it.
9.  Eliminate "there is" or "there are" at the beginning of sentences
This is often a symptom of lazy writing. There are lots of better, more interesting ways to start sentences. Oops. See how easy it is to make this mistake? Instead of starting a sentence with "there is," try turning the phrase around to include a verb or start with you.
For example, replace the sentence above with, "Start your sentences in a more interesting way." If your copy includes a lot of phrases that begin with "there is" or "there are," put some time into rewriting them.
10. Steer clear of the -ing trap
"We were starting to …" or, "She was skiing toward …" Whenever you see an "-ing" in your copy, think twice about whether you need it—because you probably don't.
Instead, get rid of "were" or "was," then eliminate that "-ing" and replace it with past tense: "We started to …" or "She skied toward …" Pruning excessive "-ings" makes your writing clearer and easier to read.
How do you tighten up your writing?  If you have any other tips that can be added to this list, please comment and share!


Monday, October 20, 2014

Staring at the Ceiling

 
 
 
From Kate's Writing Crate…
 
I take comfort in knowing I am not the only person in the world alone in a room leaning back in a desk chair looking up at a ceiling then leaning forward to hunch over a keyboard. These writers' sit ups are part of the job description. (I just wish they burned more calories.)
          Such a seemingly uninspired thing to do, stare at a ceiling, but my office chair is built to tilt making it easy to do.
I see the brush strokes in the white paint. There is a rougher texture to the ceiling as opposed to the semi-gloss white on the walls of my office barely visible above my bookcases and between the paintings hung on them. The lightning blue molding between the two white spaces breaks up the color monotony.
          I see the expansive white ceiling with my eyes, but my mind uses it as a blank canvas. Nothing to see here and yet…there is everything to see. Ideas pop into my head. Or were they there all along and I just noticed them pop against the bland, white background?
          Or is the white ceiling an opaque mirror reflecting ideas equally opaque? Like a double negative, does the double opaqueness cancel itself out so ideas can be seen clearly?
          I love this idea.
          No wonder people have their heads examined. Minds are endlessly fascinating.
Writers know this or we wouldn't spend so much time alone, staring at ceilings, examining our own thoughts and ideas.
 
Further thoughts on staring…
 
          In a required college Psych 101 course, I remember the professor told us about a study where, one at a time, kittens were put into a tiny, empty room with plain white painted walls that was attached to a tiny, empty room with white wallpaper with faint vertical lines on it. The vast majority of kittens choose to stay in the room with the lines. The professor noted minds need stimulation however faint.
          I wonder which room writers would choose? Would it make a difference?
Since both ceilings were plain white, it might not matter to me. Though I think I would choose the line-less room as each writing project begins with a blank page. I already have lines in my head waiting to be written down.
However, I also stare at the lines on my notebook pages and 'word lines' on my computer documents for a living so I might choose the other room if the lines were a more writer-friendly horizontal. I'd have to stare at them to be sure.
         
How much writing time do you spend staring at the ceiling or walls for that matter?
 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Writing Quotes 4

 
 
From Kate's Writing Crate…
 
Here are some quotes that inspire me:
 
 
The work of art which I do not make, none other will ever make it.
                                                        --Simone Weil
 
 
The very nature of creation is not a performing glory on the outside; it's a painful, difficult search within.
                                                                --Louise Nevelson
 
 
To participate requires self-discipline and trust and courage, because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself: "How alive am I willing to be?"
                                                                --Anne Lamott
 
 
…the writer writes for himself, out of his own need…
                        --Madeleine L'Engle
 
 
To write, you can never be alone enough.
                                --Kafka
 
 
What quotes inspire you?
 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Inspiring "Author" Blogs


Happy Thursday Evening!

Last night at this time, I was sitting amongst a group of about 200 writing and reading enthusiasts--99% women!  (But to be fair, the five men in the audience were definitely noticed and very much appreciated!)

So--where was I? It was with great pleasure that I attended the 6th Annual "Evening With Authors"--presented by Rhode Island's own Book Lover Extraordinaire and Radio Talk Show Host Robin Kall Hominoff--which benefits Breast Cancer Awareness Month as well as keeps an excited reader-junkie audience on the edge of their seats!

As a side note--my "Writer's Crate" blogging partner, Kate Phillips, was my partner in crime last evening, and I truly believe it was one of the best "Literary Adventures" we have yet to attend.

Let me explain. I've been privileged to be writing for Kate for over 12 years now! We have experienced many "literary" adventures together during this time--a combination of both professional and personal delightful adventures. Kate is one of those editors that takes writing to a whole new level! She makes my published writing shine like the North Star and the many facets of writing that I've gleaned from her editorial finesse has taken my writing to grand, new heights!

Not every blog or post will resonate with each of us, but if you're connected with writers you love, something will surely grab your attention if you read them on a regular basis!

Today's post is all about inspired beginnings! The three authors we heard from last night were beyond amazing and entertaining! I would like to share their websites and blogs with you.  

Dani Shapiro   --  Moments of Being

John Searles   Help For The Haunted

Susan Jane Gilman   A View From Abroad 

I'm not advocating that you'll become these three authors biggest fans, but I do encourage that you explore new writers so that you can broaden your own horizons through even one or two of their messages and lessons.

Do you have a favorite writing blog that makes you tick?  Please share your thoughts with us!


Monday, October 6, 2014

Remember This

 
 
From Kate's Writing Crate…
 
          If you can't think of anything to write, remember something.
Here's a memory from my only trip to Ireland, home of my mother's side of the family.
 
My friend April, who had stayed with extended family enjoying home-cooked meals during her first visit to Ireland, wanted to eat dinners only at finer restaurants this trip. Her rules: breakfast at the B&B; lunches at pubs and diners; and no American chain restaurants ever!
One evening, we dined at a first-rate restaurant where a tall and dour maître 'd studied everyone—staff and diners alike—as he silently oversaw this thirty-table establishment in Dublin from behind a mahogany podium twenty feet from the entrance.
After we were seated, our waiter, who dropped his pen while writing down our drink orders, didn't bring them to us. The waiter who did took our dinner orders then bumped into a nearby empty table as he turned around. A waitress then brought us our appetizers, but she tripped and grabbed the bannister while going back down the three steps to the main floor level.
All glared at by the maître 'd, we never saw any of them again.
We looked at the other diners surreptitiously. It was such an elegant and tiny restaurant with only eight tables occupied so disappearing wait staff couldn't help but be noticed. However, no one seemed fazed by these banishments.
Both writers, April and I began imagining what happened to them: lashed to hot ovens; tossed into the freezer; thrown into the River Liffey; or reassigned to the pub next door. Our laughter about these scenarios caught the maître 'd's attention as our salads arrived via yet another waiter. Abashed, we settled down.
 This waiter walked away without mishap so we hoped he would return. Unfortunately, I'd ordered a plain salad, but received one with dressing. I wasn't about to complain; however, he came rushing back with the correct salad.
We weren't surprised when a fifth server arrived with dinner. We hoped she would survive unscathed, but she mixed up our side dishes. We tried to switch them unobtrusively while eating our entrees. When the maître 'd noticed, I jerked my arm back and knocked my fork into my lap splashing neon-yellow saffron sauce onto my white dress swirled with shades of gray.
April and I both froze. Would I disappear now, too?
I looked up apprehensively at the maître 'd as I picked up my fork, but he turned away. It hadn't hit the floor with a clatter. No other diners had noticed so my clumsiness was overlooked—except my dress was ruined. Punishment enough, I supposed.
I don't remember dessert, only that the newest waiter reappeared with our bill.
The maître 'd watched our every step as we left. I know because he was reflected in one of the large, spotlessly clean windows on either side of the front door as we walked out into the dark never to return. We're still wondering if the wait staff ever did.
 
Try writing about a memory and see where it leads.
 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Redesigning My Writer's Crate

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

This past weekend was devoted to an entire fall housecleaning mission--one that started at sundown Friday evening and went well into the wee hours of Monday morn!  When one of these intense decluttering, deep cleaning fetishes strike it completely consumes me, and the only way for me to survive it is to simply get into the zone and just go with it.

Although I usually have a bit of help around the house throughout the week from my 6 children that still live at home, when I'm in the midst of a full-fledged cleaning rampage like this, they know it's best to steer clear and let me have at it without any interruptions.  And because they fear for what I might ask them to do (scrubbing the fireplace tiles is not high on anyone's list in this family!) it's usually never a problem to get the house to myself for a couple of days.

As I whirred about my seemingly endless list of tasks (happily so, I might add, because believe it or not, these deep cleanings are therapeutic for me) I stopped and took a good, hard look at my sacred space that we here at this blog refer to as our "Writing Crate".

Our mission on the homepage of The Writer's Crate blog states "Live a writer’s life. Take yourself seriously. Set up a Writer’s Crate—a nook, a corner, or a room dedicated to writing filled with items that inspire you—then sit there and write every day."   We launched our blog in September of 2012--two years later, I still enjoy reading our mission on a weekly basis because it reminds me of how important it is to feed my muse and write as often as possible especially when my busy life tries to get in the way of that.

Even when I don't have the amount of time I'd like to sneak away and spill my gazillion ideas onto paper, I usually have a few minutes (make that seconds) to sit quietly in my very own corner of the world, my writer's crate, and just daydream a little bit (usually about the novels I'm going to write as soon as the last dish is cleaned or the last load of laundry is folded and put away).

It's this special sanctuary that I find comfort, inspiration, passion, and usually direction where my writing life is concerned.  But like other rooms in my home, I tend to get bored if the layout, color scheme, and overall design remain the same for too long. So as I tore about doing all that cleaning and reorganizing last weekend, I realized that my writer's crate needed a bit of freshening up.

Because I am working full-time now, my mind is even more busy than I ever thought possible, so I've really been focusing on simplifying as much in my life as I can.  With that theme in mind, I realized that my writer's crate had gotten a bit cluttered and wasn't as orderly or inspiring as it was when I first created it a couple of years ago so I decided it was definitely time to make some changes.
My First Writer's Crate

It didn't take much to redesign my precious, new writing haven.  I traded my writing armoir (my daughter scored it for her new mini art-studio) which was loaded with books, journals, sticky notes, quotes, and ongoing project lists to a smaller, simpler desk that I painted in a pale turquoise.  I keep a simple vase on it (because I love it, plain and simple) as well as a reading lamp and that's it!  I have enough room for my laptop or one of my journals and the two drawers hold my favorite pens and writing books.  
My Fresh, Simple Writer's Crate Makeover

Everything else has been placed back on my favorite bookshelves or in my little office that I use for bookkeeping and other household tasks. When I need something during a writing session, I make sure I have it available, but now that I've been writing in my new nook, I'm finding I have everything I need, just a clean and quiet space to let my thoughts flow without the dozens of distractions I used to have all around me.

It's only been a short period of time that I've been working from my revamped writer's crate, but the change in scenery and the set up of this new space has already shifted my attitude and production immensely. Not only did my entire house get a thorough cleaning and makeover, but my passion to write did as well, and once again I get excited to find those very important snippets of time to sneak off and do what I love most--get creative in my beloved and newly refreshed writer's crate.

Have you taken an inventory of your writing space lately?  If you could create the perfect writer's retreat, where in your home (or elsewhere) would it be?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Reads for Writers: Gail Caldwell Provides a Masterclass

 
From Kate's Writing Crate…
 
As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.
          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don't generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.
 
This is a companion piece to last week's masterclass post about writer and author Caroline Knapp.
                
Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, written by Caroline Knapp's best friend Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell, tells their story—one I never expected to know and now can't forget.
Right from the start, readers know that Caroline died. What they don't know is how she lived as a writer and became best friends with Gail. "Everything really started with the dogs." (page 15)
As both were writers living alone, recovering alcoholics, and serious dog owners, they had a lot in common including dedication to a sport—rowing for Caroline and swimming for Gail. They tutored each other in the finer points of these activities even planning on entering a double (two-person/one boat) race.
"Because we both possessed that single trait that makes a lifelong rower—endurance—we declared that we would row the Head together in our seventies, when the field had thinned sufficiently to give us a fighting chance." (page 104)
The friends had strict writing schedules followed by daily phone calls and long walks with their dogs, Lucille and Clementine. The title of this book comes from Caroline telling Gail, 'Let's take the long way home' when driving back from their walks so they could continue to talk about writing, life, the dogs, and everything else of interest to them.
"Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived…We had a lot of dreams, some of them silly, all part of the private code shared by people who plan to be around for the luxuries of time." (page 13)
For years, they rented a summer vacation house that allowed dogs together with other writing friends and Caroline's boyfriend, Morelli, a photographer, who captured many moments of fun and friendship. Photos treasured, but, sadly, some lost over time.
In the winter of 2002, Caroline, a smoker, began to cough. She was treated for pneumonia, tested for tuberculosis, and then, in April, diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain and liver.
"…Caroline [was] crying as I wrapped my arms around her, after they brought her back up to her room, when the first thing she said to me was "Are you mad at me?" It was the voice of early terror, a primal response to bad news, and to this day I don't know whether she meant because we had fought about the smoking or because she knew she was going to leave." (page 128)
Morelli became Caroline's husband in an early May wedding planned by their friends. Gail guided ring-bearer Lucille up the aisle.
Despite the joy of the wedding, the reality of Caroline's illness couldn't be denied. "Accepting a death sentence is like falling down a flight of stairs in slow motion. You take it one bruise at a time—a blow, a landing, another short descent." (page 144)
"That great heart—of course it took her a long time to die…Caroline lived for eighteen days from the night she had the [brain] bleed. Morelli had all but moved into her hospital room, bringing Lucille with him." (pages 143-144)
Caroline died on June 2, 2002 leaving everyone to deal with a new wave of grief.
"My life had made so much sense alongside hers: For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was in the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone." (page 3)
Heartache caused by death is not easy to live through, much less write about, but Gail manages to do both gracefully. Framed by a friendship we would all like to have and the grief felt from diagnosis to dying—only a seven-week journey for Caroline and her friends and family—it's all the more devastating.
"The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course," notes Gail. (page 150) "Death is a divorce nobody asked for; to live through it is to find a way to disengage from what you thought you couldn't stand to lose." (page 153)
Let's Take the Long Way Home was published eight years after Caroline's death. Through most of it, readers are right there as things happened, but at the end Gail looks back through time to share: "I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder creatures. Sometimes I think that the pain is what yields the solution. Grief and memory create their own narrative…We tell the story to get them back…(page 182)
I only wish Lucille's entire story was also included as Clementine's was. Caroline had asked Gail and Morelli to promise to walk the dogs together once a week forever. (page 130)
Did they?
I'd like to think so for the dogs' sakes at least, but it might have proven too painful for the bereaved best friend and husband or too private to share.
What Gail Caldwell did share in this book is a gift to all of Caroline Knapp's fans and those who have lost best friends—as well as provided a masterclass for writers.