Managed Expectations

One of the things that the contributors to this blog do, as part of a larger community of writers, is to set goals for the coming week that we broadcast to each other. The things that we need to do, or aspire to do, written there and stated plainly to the others in our writing group. The following week, we not only make new goals, but we account for our progress on the old ones. It’s been a way that we can keep in touch with the goals of others, and act as encouragement for those who need it, or to celebrate in each other’s accomplishments. Sometimes we’ve cheered as someone gets a publication, and sometimes it’s been something as simple as praising someone meeting their quota of words for the week. It’s been a great way to keep in touch with what people are doing, and what people are hoping to achieve.

In another sense, it’s a way to keep each other accountable to our goals, even if the only sanction is a sense of shame at not having lived up to the standard you’ve set for yourself. There have been times where I have cheerfully and earnestly placed a goal – say something modest, like writing a few thousand words – only to fail at it, and then have to face up to writing that accounting the following week.

Sometimes I write my rationalizations – oh, what the hell, excuses. I was busy. I did this instead. I did that instead. Et cetera. Sometimes – the times when I really didn’t have an excuse – I just didn’t say anything. A flat, inflectionless statement of the coming week’s goals, as though last week’s mark had been completely forgotten.

Inevitably that leads to a sense of frustration and failure. Wracking up week after week of missed bars is not a good feeling, and there have been times when I have felt that keen frustration that comes achingly close to just calling the whole thing off, taking a hiatus, not bothering to keep up with the accounting.

This is the wrong way to go about it. If you’re at all like me – someone who has a desire to write, but has a whole lot of life in the way of it – it’s important to keep those goals, and those reckonings. But maybe they have to be shifted. Maybe this won’t be the year that the blockbuster gets written or the screenplay gets done. But maybe, if you can block off some time, hit your small achievable goals, well, that well keep the whole thing from turning into an inescapable morass of shame and failure.

For me, I have my final licensing exam for my medical boards in May. I will not have time to do much writing in these last five months – I just wont. Afterward, we’ll see. In the meantime, what goals can I achieve? How can I do enough to justify to myself that I am a writer, as opposed to some hobbyist with an unused laptop in the corner? Maybe for the next five months it will be blog posts, and small submissions to journals that carry prose and poetry in the medical humanities field. Maybe token goals – a scene a week, or a couple of hundred words. Something that won’t detract from the very real need to study for this exam, but will make me feel as though I’m still actively engaged in this equally important passion. A managed expectation, if realistic and still aimed toward the future, can still be an important one, and one that keeps you on the path forward until you can raise the bar higher once again.

Contest Time: Gini Koch!

What do we all need at the beginning of a New Year? What else, but a calendar! And what could be better than a calendar featuring the amazing artwork of Dan dos Santos as seen on Gini Koch’s sci-fi romance Alien Series covers.

Enter our latest drawing to win this 2012 calendar plus a copy of her latest book, released December 2011, Alien Proliferation.

Want more than one entry? Post a link to the Fictorians blog on your facebook page or your own blog, or tweet the details of our contest. If you do any of these things, leave the details (including your web address and twitter handle) with your comment. There’s a maximum of 4 entries per person (one for each method of entry). Leave a comment telling us in 25 words or less who your favorite book character is and why. See our examples below.

If you’re not yet familiar with the series, but would like to be, then just say so or make something up. It’s all good. Just make sure you let us know, and let me know you’d rather have the first book in the series rather than the fourth.

Entries will be accepted until 9pm PST on Friday, 30 December. We’ll announce the winner on January 6th, and send the prize the same day. Is the whole contest too spread out? A bit. But hey, it’s the holidays. Cut me some slack, here.

Oh, and those examples; here’s Gini’s comment on her favorite hunk in the series. “I go for Martini, of course, because he’s pretty much the perfect man — intelligent, handsome, caring, brave, understanding, sensitive, but willing and able to kick butt as needed. However, I also go for Chuckie. Because he’s the same, with extras on intelligent. Sure, he’s not A-C handsome, but he’s still hot for a human, and he has all the rest of Martini’s qualities, including being sensitive and caring, without being empathically talented. Chuckie is the epitome of every nerd guy who’s made good. I don’t know that Martini could exist in the real world, but I know Chuckie can and does.”

Of slightly less interest…okay, maybe of much less interest, here’s mine: I go for Chuckie, too, but Gini pretty much summed up the reasons why, so I’m going to take a slightly different direction. My second-favorite character was the poofs. Yeah, they’re cute, cuddly, etc….but they turn into vicious, uber-doberman-type, guard-bears. What could be cooler than that? I want a gray one with black spots and I’ll name her Frill.

It’s that easy. Let us know what you think; fb, blog and twitter the contest location to others; and win a calendar and a free book. You can buy Gini’s books at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Mysterious Galaxy or your local bookseller.

The Meaning of Words – Editing Tips

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.
– Robert Cormier

Writing is story telling. Writers, regardless of our discipline, need to pick not a correct word but the best possible one. In the legal profession, there’s a growing trend calling for plain writing. Courts have held that the word “solicit” is ambiguous because it has more than one meaning. “Exclusive” can mean “concurrent.” No wonder the English language is so hard. My writing must express what I mean clearly and effectively regardless of who reads it. Making my meaning clear is part of the editing process.

So how does the word “shall” end up meaning “may”? Context. When a sentence read as a whole expresses an option rather than a directive, “shall” means “may”. What does this quirk of the courts have to do with editing? Everything. Word choices matter.

When talking about writing and editing, Lisa Scottoline,, says to give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft. Do this. It’s easier to finish a story if you’re not worrying about “perfect.” Errors are fixed when you finish the first draft. Editing transforms that crappy first draft into a polished project. So how do I edit to take a diamond in the rough to a polished gem? I usually follow this line-editing procedure:

(1) Spell check

An obvious step, but people forget to do this.

(2) Search for :

a. common homonyms to ensure I used the proper word;

b. the verb “to be” in all its forms and passive voice;

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than acting. Passive voice will often use a “to be” verb. Examples:

The ball was thrown – passive voice with a “to be” verb
Pete threw the ball – active voice

c. words ending in “-ly”.

I don’t have any objection to “-ly” words, but often a stronger word can be used. “He slunk around the corner” is a stronger sentence than “he walked stealthily around the corner.”

d. pronouns to ensure who or what they refer to is clear;

Be careful with pronouns. Writing clearly means ensuring the reader knows what each pronoun refers to. When two same-gendered characters. or characters with unisex names interact, you will need to be mindful that your pronouns refer to the character you intend them to.

(3) similes.

A common writing “rule” is to avoid similes or clichés. There’s nothing wrong with a good simile. But good is the key word. Entrenched similes become clichés. “In for a penny, in for a pound” is one.

Using a cliché can help you if you turn the saying on its head. Instead of saying that “every cloud has a silver lining,” you could say, “every cloud has a lightning bolt with my name on it.” By changing the meaning of this tired expression, I’ve added interest to the writing.

(4) Read for description enhancement by word choice, and context to ensure I haven’t inadvertently changed meaning.

The sentence “Pete walked into the room” conveys a different image than “Pete stumbled into the boardroom.”

Specifics matter. The first example – Pete walked – gives the reader no additional information. The sentence paints with just a pencil.

“Pete stumbled into the boardroom,” on the other hand, triggers associations. It’s painting with oils. He stumbles and the reader wonders if Pete’s drunk, injured or been pushed. By placing Pete in a “boardroom”, I can see Pete in his a suit, and imagine the large mahogany table surrounded by a dozen black chairs and dark paneling on the walls. I can add a twist by changing the ordinary images the words convey. I can grab the reader’s attention if Pete is wearing rags when he stumbles into the boardroom. Similarly, if the room is a “board room” full of surf boards, the words convey different images. The subtle differences in meaning we can convey with the right word is why writers are always told to “show, not tell.”

(5) Grammar check.

I know it seems like a lot of work, and it is, but the finished product will be better for the effort. Once I’ve line-edited, I can strengthen the story by context editing for plot holes, character inconsistencies, tension and other craft issues.
Plain writing doesn’t mean boring. It means using each word to its maximum advantage to produce clean, clear and professional prose.

Making Time to Write During the Holiday Season

It’s that time of year again: Christmas. I have a million deadlines at work, presents to buy (and wrap) and a ham to order. I have to decide whether to risk putting up a Christmas tree or to avoid it in the interests of not giving the cat an enormous plaything with removable parts. The rainy season is about to begin so I need to get the gutters cleaned. I have to find a new dog groomer, buy printer toner, get the carpets cleaned… If you have kids, they’re probably already on holidays and you’re now a fulltime taxi driver, money distributor and all-around entertainment machine. And, somehow, we’re also trying to write. Insane? Perhaps. Achievable? Yes, but only with the right plan in place.

Step 1: Decide your priorities

Are you going to commit to writing during the Christmas season? If not, don’t feel guilty – perhaps this is a time when other things need to take priority. But either way, make a decision up front. If you’re choosing not to write right now, set a date when your normal routines will resume.

Step 2: Check the schedule

Look at your schedule and find the days or times when you can most realistically expect to get in some writing time. Block out that time in your schedule and treat it the same as any other appointment. Don’t forget about those little pockets of time which are so easy to fritter away without noticing: waiting for guests to arrive, those precious minutes in the early morning before the household awakes, time spent waiting for dinner to cook. If twenty or thirty minutes a day is all you can find, then lock that time in and protect it.

Step 3: Set goals

This is a crazy time of year so set smaller goals than usual. There’s no point aiming for 3,000 words a day if you know you will be lucky to find half an hour to yourself. Be realistic: aim for half a page, 500 words, one scene. Whatever you can reasonably achieve in the time you’ve blocked out in your schedule. Alternatively, work on small editing tasks so that you can cross individual items off your “to do” list.

Step 4: Enlist the troops

Make sure your family knows what your goals are. Add your writing time to the family calendar and then consider how your family can contribute. Can someone else put on a load of washing? Who can be appointed Chief Fixer of the Leftovers, responsible for finding all of the half-eaten stuff in the fridge and setting it out for dinner?

Step 5: Make time to relax

If you’re running around in a panic because you have three million things to do and you can’t stop going over your mental “to do” list, you can hardly expect to be able to focus on your writing. So take some time out. Write down all of those things in your head so you don’t have to remember them. Give yourself time for a long soak in the bath or to read a book or go for a massage. We’re all stressed to the hilt at this time of year so find some time for you, not just your writing.

Step 6: Don’t forget Christmas

Don’t let yourself get so caught up in trying to meet your goals that you forget what time of year it is: Christmas. This is a time for friends and family, a time to take stock and look forward, a time to be thankful for what we have.

This is my final scheduled post for this year so I wanted to wish all of our Fictorians readers a very merry Christmas. We have big plans for our little blog next year, including regular guest posts and a new regular feature dedicated to the art of storytelling. See you in 2012!