Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Where'd you go to high school?"

The high school question is popular in St. Louis because it reveals quite a bit of information. You can tell a lot about a person when you learn where he or she went to high school. High schools reveal information about geographical location, income level and religion. It’s so popular that I read that said St. Louisan and John Burroughs-alum John Hamm (star of Mad Men) slipped the question into a SNL skit when he hosted the show!

So, where’d YOU go to high school? What does that tell us about you?

Write a list of three-five things your high school says about you. You can also add the year if you like.

OK, here's my list:

Ft. Zumwalt class of 1977 (How cool was it to go to high school in the 70s? Very!)

1) Rural (at the time, more cows than people)

2)  Public school, no religious affiliation, (although the population was predominantly Catholic, my family wasn’t)

3)  Mostly blue collar working class (although my father had an MBA from Washington University)

4) Majority of graduates didn’t go to college (I did, although I recognized many types of intelligence among my friends who didn’t, and most of them make more money than I do!)

So you can see that I wasn’t quite typical. Many kids feel like outsiders, a common theme in coming-of-age stories, but I never did. I had wonderful friends and a great place to grow up that felt safe. So if I were a character, what would I be like? Why?

You can use this question to strengthen your writing. Think about that question next time you are creating a character, or writing about a real person. What was he or she like in high school, and what did that school say about the people who went there?

Write Soon,


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nonverbal communication

We are always communicating, as are the people we write about. Much of the information we receive comes from nonverbal communication, so writers should use it to help readers identify with and understand who their characters/subjects are.

Nonverbal communication is the ability to send and receive messages without using words. This can include facial expressions, body language, artifacts and paralanguage, which includes the WAY we say something. Paying attention to nonverbal communication can give insight to your readers, and strengthen your writing.

Every gesture, facial expression, detail of clothing and jewelry can bring a character or subject to life. These details can help define our characters or subjects, explain what makes them tick and let us know what’s important to them.

What artifacts does your character or subject have around him or her? What’s on the kitchen counter? Is mail stacked up? Are the canned goods in the pantry alphabetized? What about the car? Is it messy, or does it look like it just rolled off the dealer’s lot? Does she fumble in her purse for her keys? Are clothes neatly pressed, or rumpled? Does he look like John Hamm from Mad Men, or Peter Falk as Columbo?

Writers can set a scene with nonverbal cues. Does the main character silently roll up to the mansion in a silver Mercedes? Or does the missing muffler announce his presence half a mile away? Does the three-carat diamond reflect the light across the room, or does the plain gold band need a good polishing?

How do your characters talk? Does someone shriek, or are words spoken softly and gently? Imagine a doctor using these tones. What would each of these types of paralanguage imply? Did someone whisper your name? Speak with an accent or a lisp? Each of these attributes gives us information.

Some nonverbal cues match the messages they accompany. Smiling while talking about a spouse, or frowning while trying to figure out computer problems are examples of nonverbal and verbal messages matching each other. Other nonverbal cues don’t match the verbal message. When they don’t, we receive mixed messages, and we are more likely to believe the nonverbal cue.

“I’m fine,” she said, between sobs.

Do you really think she’s fine because she says she is fine? Or do you believe the nonverbal cue – sobbing. Blushing would be another example of a nonverbal cue that gives true insight into emotions.

So, the next time you write about someone, think about nonverbal communication to help bring him or her to life.

Talk to you soon,


Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Make Every Word Count," by Gary Provost Book Review, Continued

Part 4 of 4

To go where no one has gone before

In a new twist to understanding writing, the author takes a bold step into the unknown and tries to describe how the reader needs to feel when reading your words. He recognizes the immense responsibility of writing and putting you in the reader’s shoes.

Provost compares the process to casting a spell. Said spell must be durable enough to hold the attention of readers regardless of when it is cast or upon whom. Those black lines of print on white paper may be read by someone who is so unlike the writer that in any other situation the two would probably be at each other’s throats. Therein lies the challenge. Words must transcend time and distance and culture and learned hatred and gender and even death, i.e., that of the writer, naturally. For the most part, the reader is usually alive.

When a successful spell is cast then the reader does not remember to do the dishes or water the lawn or if he or she is married. The reader enters a world the writer created, but proceeds to alter it to fit his or her own experience and needs. It’s a world only the two of you share in your brains, but neither will know or be able to understand the other’s. It’s a connection that can never be seen or felt by an outsider, but it is strong and as powerful as any great work of art. The spell opens a door to a place no one else can go. It is the writer’s job to make that place come alive for the reader.

Words typed on a page can create magic. Suddenly a voice is present as the words are read, as are images and people. When you think about characters in literature who have moved you, it’s difficult to realize that they were never anything other than words on a page. Between you and author, you come up with an image that fit, and it stuck. Fantasy is such a short distance from reality that the two of them may overlap. That explains why television actors often are confused for the characters they play.

It’s a writer’s job to create that magic and hold the reader under the spell for as long as it takes to finish the work. This is the place where style and words work together to capture the reader. If not, then you have lost your reader forever.

Successful writers must learn how to take their readers on a journey. It’s a journey that can’t keep starting and stopping like a cross-town bus. Readers will get off at the first stop and never get back on. Take them instead on a long leisurely drive to the country. Build their interest slowly but surely in the place you are headed. You can always go back to the city later, but first take them to a place they want to discover with you. How will you know where to go? Ask yourself if you want to go there as well.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trouble with posting comments

I interrupt the four-part book review of “Make Every Word Count” by Gary Provost to bring you the following message.

I’ve heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. I guess it’s true, because I’ve had a computer problem that has been slowly driving me crazy.

I’ve recently had difficulty posting comments on blogs, and would do the same thing over and over and hope it would finally “take.” For instance, I would write a comment, try to post it, and would be “sent” to the log in. I would log in, then it would take me back to the post and have me type in a word in a font that only a human could recognize. When I typed in the word, it would take me back to the log in, which I would do again, then send me back to the word in a weird font. I would try several times, thinking I was doing something wrong.

My computer-savvy husband, Randy, told me that when I log in to Blogspot by entering my email address and password, I need to uncheck the box underneath that says “Stay signed in.” I did that, and I was able to post comments on my blog and the blogs of others immediately! Thank you, honey.

I hope this helps anyone else who is having trouble with posting comments.

Talk to you soon,


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Book Review "Make Every Word Count" Continued

“Make Every Word Count” By Gary Provost Book Review, Continued (Part 3 of 4)

Find your own voice, be your own person and listen to your heart

While Provost describes example after example of good writing styles, descriptive writing, scenes, settings, tone and dialogue interspersed with lots of useful hints, one of the most telling passages came in chapter three under the heading “If the Writer is Seen at Work, then the Writing Won’t Work.” Here he takes a step back from the writing process to explain that if the writer works too hard, then he or she may leave too many fingerprints that clouds the meaning and ruins the effect. In other words, don’t try too hard.

The second most important piece of advice (second only because it’s been said many times, many ways) is to find your voice. This usually only happens when a writer begins to relax and enjoy the writing process. The problem is, a lot of writing is strained and complicated and just has too many big words. These problems occur when a writer thinks no one will find him or her the authority necessary to write about migratory birds, or art, or whatever.

Your reader is not an idiot

Readers can usually tell when a thesaurus was consulted, or if you are in “impress the reader” mode. These two situations are recognizable by large, unfamiliar words, and series of long, unfamiliar words. Don’t do it. Don’t get in the way of telling your story. That’s why movies don’t show the cast and crew behind the scenes. Oh sure, sometimes writers/actors will address the camera directly, (can you say postmodernism?) but these must be handled with care. If a writer isn’t sure how to proceed, then it isn’t wise to attempt this type of interpretation.

When a writer starts doubting, then the effort to impress begins. It’s like a white lie that grows all out of proportion because you were ashamed to admit that you didn’t graduate from college, or insanity runs in your family or you are about four years behind on student loan payments.

So instead of admitting you are human you make up this whole story about testifying against an unsavory character and are in the witness protection program. Well, of course no one is supposed to know, so please keep it between us, and the next thing you know your neighbors want to know what you saw and how you came to be here and what is it “really” like being in hiding. You get whispered comments from people in line at the grocery telling you “Your secret is safe with me.”

Well now the whole darn thing is so complicated and the only outcome is for it to explode in your face. The only other option is to move out of town, which isn’t a bad idea because people will just naturally think your cover was blown and you had to leave. Then later they can tell each other they were glad you left because they didn’t really want someone in the witness protection program living next door anyway.

This is how writing works, too. Instead of just admitting you know nothing about migratory birds, as do many readers, you start to fake it with the Conservation Department agent who will start using conservation jargon. When he asks if you are familiar with these types of birds, you don’t want to look stupid so you lie, which is really stupid. So he is talking in language you don’t understand, wasting both his time and yours. What a way to spend the day.

This can lead to a case of the writing working against the writer. No one wins and then your editor thinks the story doesn’t make sense. It’s best to stay true to yourself and your readers. Remember, they have no expectations. If you try to fake them out in the first paragraph, they will stop reading for reasons they may not truly understand, but they will stop reading nonetheless.

To be continued …

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review "Make Every Word Count" Continued

Part 2 of 4

I don’t know anything about writing, but I know what I like

Provost believes every word has a job to do, and it’s up to the writer to find out what that job is, even though it may change from story to story. He wants the writer to think about what he or she is doing and why. By close examination some learning is bound to take place along the way. His book focuses on the words of working writers to exemplify successful writing. His definition of successful writing means only that someone sold a piece and it was published, which is probably a goal of anyone reading the book.

Although he does a great job of explaining the workings of good sentence structure and choosing words wisely, he also digs a little further into the way words work and their interaction with our brains. I haven’t read anything like this before in any of the “why writing works or doesn’t series,” and found his perception insightful.

He mentions only in passing, unfortunately, the difficulty in understanding and interpreting the way the brain perceives letters and words on a page. This also may explain some of the mystery behind successful writing and why there are no certain formulas for success. Psycholinguistics is the science of studying this phenomenon we call language, and apparently there are still quite a few large gaps in the research as to why and how we learn to read, talk and recognize the written word.

I wish he had devoted more time and space to this subject, but alas, he decided to go the route of practicality. And although this is the case, for now we will have to leave it at knowing there are scientists working around the clock to further our knowledge in studying the way our eyes send messages to our brain. Some day we may understand why we recognize and enjoy great phrases like “It was a dark and stormy night.”

It can be useful just to know that psycholinguistics exists because it can explain why our latest novel or story hasn’t sold. No one will quite know what you are talking about, and although I don’t usually advocate trying to deceive (see my example of the witness protection program later in this review) sometimes it just sounds better than “Oh, my publisher just isn’t as trend-conscious as I am.” Yeah, right.

Actually, a psycholinguist sounds like one of those crazy people standing on the corner downtown shouting random words viciously at anyone who will listen. Although we may not know why or how, we can learn which words to use by practice. Maybe that is what our friends on street corners are doing.

Provost referred to this as the job words do, and he likes to consider them as his employees. They all have jobs to do and can vary by looks and meanings. Each word should be chosen with care to ensure it’s pulling its own weight. Deadbeats should be dismissed so the others don’t have to try harder to work around them.

Form and content naturally work together to create a symphony of words that are (preferably) perfect together. There are no rules to follow regarding which style goes with which words, so experimenting is necessary. When it is right, you and your readers will know. The hidden talents of the words will rise to the top when everything comes together. Because once you release them by publishing them, they have to work hard to keep their meanings intact. Readers won’t know what you meant if they can’t understand what you are saying.

To be continued …