Tag Archives: writing

Little squiggles and dots

We all have strange relationships with punctuation — do you overuse exclamation marks? Do you avoid semicolons like the plague? What type of punctuation could you never live without? Tell us all about your punctuation quirks!The Daily Post

punctuation My favorite punctuation marks—favorite in the sense of having a favorite color: something you like and take pleasure from—are two symbols that I almost never get to use: the inverted question mark and exclamation point in Spanish. They’re so wonderfully practical, letting you know ASAP that you’re heading into a question or an excited declaration. Sure, question words like “who” or “how” can clue you in, but they can be misleading, What was his name? and How are you? are obviously questions, but What a disaster! or How rude! aren’t. (Luckily, English-speakers get other clues to help.) But beyond their usefulness, I like their appearance: familiar, yet unexpected. If I read Spanish more often, I’d probably get used to them and not notice them any longer, but for now they’re rare enough to still be special.

As for English, the language I do use, I don’t have a favorite-like-a-favorite-color punctuation mark. But you’ll find some of them in my writing more than others. I lean towards too many parentheses. I’ve finally learned to let them pop up naturally as I write and then thin them out while editing, because else I tie myself in knots trying to work around them. I’m trying to use the em dash more as a substitute, but I don’t think I’m fooling anyone. Hey, they say it’s a good thing to find your writing voice, and I have. It happens to be a voice with a lot of parenthetical asides. I use quite a few ellipses as well. I was happy to discover that there’s an ellipses character. Perhaps you’re thinking, You find it difficult to type three periods in a row?. No, but when a computer considers the ellipses a single character, it doesn’t break it up at the end of a line. The single-character ellipses also saves me two characters in Twitter. See? Useful.

Other than that, my punctuation uses are pretty mainstream. Oxford comma? Yes. Semicolons? A tad formal for everyday writing, but I find uses for them. Just because something is a bit stiff doesn’t make it wrong. Apostrophes? Little land mines, each and every one of them, but worth the effort. Periods? A basic staple, and probably not appreciated nearly as much as they deserve. I mostly obsess over them when writing one-sentence photo captions. Use them? Don’t use them? Yes, I think about things like this.

Any place but here

Where do you produce your best writing — at your desk, on your phone, at a noisy café? Tell us how the environment affects your creativity.The Daily Post

I wouldn’t say the environment has that much to do with the quality of my writing. My eagerness to get out of my home to write has more to do with getting myself to write at all. Writing at home is an iffy proposition. I’d love to feel comfortable writing at my desk—the convenience! the immediacy! the savings on lattes!—but often I’m not. I blame this on grad school. I associate writing at my desk with every paper I had to write for my degree, most of them spewed out the night before the deadline, written in a mixture of near-panic and overwhelming sleepiness. Now, maybe the way to erase that association would be to write lots of fun things at my desk, but getting past that initial reluctance is a bit of a challenge.

(That said, I’m writing this post at home, because sometimes a writing expedition just isn’t feasible. But if you’re reading this, I want you to know the writing conditions were less than ideal. As we approach July 4, my neighbors have decided to start the fireworks early. Reassuring myself that they’re not about to set my building on fire is distracting me. Remember: always blame others for your writing difficulties!)

Cup of tea and writer's journal

photo credit: Raheel Shahid

My preferred writing environment is a café, though I prefer my cafés to be on the quiet side. Introvert though I am, I apparently do need some level of noise around me to write. So there I am, plunked down in a corner by myself, but surrounded by other people’s conversations while music that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself pours out of the speakers. These are apparently the conditions that the Muse enjoys, because at some point, suddenly a sentence drifts through my head, another one follows it, and I abruptly lose interest in all the distractions on my computer and start writing. I don’t know why this is, although my current hypothesis is that the environment is just unfamiliar enough (conversations between strangers, music that I didn’t choose, chairs and tables that aren’t quite the right height) that it knocks me out of the known and into creativity.

Or maybe my Muse simply loves chai lattes. 😀


My (pencil) cup runneth over

I like to write. I mean this in the physical sense: I enjoy pushing and pulling a pen across paper and leaving words in my wake. It must be something about writing itself, because moving a pen around on paper could describe drawing, and yet I’ve never really felt like making pictures with a pen. Just words.

Now to write, you need something to write on and something to write with. My paper supplies are almost reasonable, if you don’t look too closely at my stationery reserves or count how many blank books I’ve got stockpiled. I assure you, I’m working to deplete both. But then, there are the pens.

[pauses, sighs]


Rest assured, about 60% of these pens were passed along to others after the picture was taken.

It’s the color. Well, it was the color, back in college when I started writing my papers in every color of pen I could buy: a different color for each idea. (Because before personal computers, writing a paper meant first writing it out by hand and then typing up the final version.) But that doesn’t matter much anymore. Over the years I’ve moved from many colors to blue and from blue to black. I’m delighted to report that I’m still capable of writing and creativity. Really, if this is a sign of maturity, it hasn’t been documented all that well.

Now it’s the feel of the pen that matters. A great pen has a near-perfect combination of width, weight, and texture. It writes without either skipping or blurping. It doesn’t magically come up with words, of course, but I figure, if I’m frequently picking it up it because it’s so pleasant to hold, there’s always a chance the Muse will consider this an invitation and drop by for a visit. The major drawback is acquiring enough pens to open my own office supply store—like my yarn stash, I suspect my pen stash will grow throughout my life. At least it doesn’t take up half a closet!

Reading women, part 1

Last fall, a Facebook friend posted a link to The Year I Stopped Reading Men, an article by Anna Szymanski on what it’s like for her to read a book written by a man after spending a year only reading books by women. It was interesting, and some of us had a lively discussion about it, but between one thing and another, it drifted off to the back of my mind until that same friend posted a link to a similar article. In The Women We Don’t See, E. Catherine Tobler writes about her realization that a best books of 2013 roundup by a (male) friend of hers includes no books by women. At which point, I really began wondering about what I myself read and how I read it.

First, I needed to see what I’d been reading. So like Tobler, I counted how many authors of both genders I’d found over the past three years (and like Tobler, I skipped the anthologies). Fiction and nonfiction, I’ve been reading more stuff by women authors than by men.


Since I haven’t been consciously taking the author’s gender into consideration when deciding what to read next, apparently I find male and female authors both simply by reading what I want to read. (I’m guessing it’s not that simple. I’ve probably got unconscious preferences a-plenty, and I’m likely to be paying a lot more attention to an author’s gender from this point forward.) I can see from the comments to Tobler’s article that several people are aghast that her friend managed to not find any books by female authors he wanted to read for two years. I’m mostly bewildered, myself. Aren’t they just there? Don’t you just glance up and see them when you’re at the bookstore, or scanning the new books section at your library, or browsing online? Don’t your online booksellers recommend a few of them to you? Enough about Tobler’s friend: how did I find 52 female authors last year, anyway?

Well, that, at least, I could look into, not that I found an obvious pattern. Several of them were authors I was already familiar with, and I was reading more of their good stuff. One of my favorite authors had a new book out last year—had to read that, of course. There were new additions to two series I’ve been reading—didn’t want to fall behind. I read several writing books last year, and many of them were written by women. I discovered a few new authors via the Kindle Daily Deal and Amazon.com’s recommendations. One book was recommended by someone whose blog I read. I read a lot in the New Age Body, Mind, and Spirit genre and I suspect that has a higher percentage of women writers in it to begin with; ditto for knitting books, which I read a few of last year as well. But I’ve read more fantasy than anything else for the past two years, and there are plenty of men who write in that genre. I still found books by women.

Tobler asks good questions: How do female authors still go so very unnoticed? How is it their books aren’t getting in front of eyes that would enjoy them? How can we make it so they do? The commenters make good points: books by women are marketed differently than those by men; they have different covers; when people make recommendations, they recommend books by men. Maybe some of those things have worked in favor of the female authors I chose to read—perhaps the different marketing was what got my attention or I found the different cover to be more to my liking than if it had been the kind of cover male authors get (whatever that would be). It’s hard to tell anyone Do what I did! when you’re not sure what that was.

When you’re deciding whether or not to read a book, do you take the author’s gender into consideration?


I know how easy it can be to see what you expect rather than what’s there, so I want to make it clear that this isn’t a post about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). My November—and okay, my October as well—would more accurately be called NaNoWriReMo: National Novel Writing Reading Month. Which is to say, I’ve spent the past two months reading books on how to write novels. I know several people who tackled NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m cheering them all on. After reading all these books, I’m also overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task: I may have had some sort of hope of organized learning when I started all this reading, but by now, it’s just an indistinguishable ocean of writing instruction sloshing around in my head.

books about writingAround 2005-2006, I had my first burst of obsession enthusiasm for reading books about how to write books. So when I went through all these books this year, I figured much of what I read would sound familiar. Really, I reasoned, how many different things can you say about writing novels? Apparently quite a lot. For instance, back then I somehow never read any book that discussed three-act structure, probably because I was mostly reading about creating characters. Many of this year’s books have thoroughly analyzed it, while others have at least mentioned it in passing. Ignoring for the moment why I don’t remember it from high school English, I’ve found the whole idea fascinating. So the authors who accuse the three-act structure of being rigid, limited, and likely to stifle any actual creativity in your novel leave me marveling at our different reactions.

Coming off of that, I’m having fun seeing how quickly I can figure out if the author of a particular writing book is a planner or a pantser. Almost no author manages to be neutral on this point. Planners beg pantsers to at least try outlining their next work. Pantsers describe outlines as stifling and advise the reader that sticking to them will ruin your writing, similar to criticisms of three-act structure. I haven’t read as many books by pantsers. I’m not sure whether that’s just my luck in what I chose to read, whether planners are simply more likely to write writing how-to books, or an indication of my own preferences (when I learned there was a book out there called Outlining Your Novel, I had a flash of the sort of anticipation usually reserved for novels by your favorite authors). But all begging and pooh-poohing aside, I’ve come out of all this convinced that you don’t choose this temperamental difference. I “tried” writing intuitively way back when, and I’m using quote marks because it wasn’t an informed choice on my part. I didn’t know you could outline fiction and while writing the scenes that came to me was exhilarating, I was stranded when I needed scenes to tie them together into a story. Meanwhile, I bet all the promises of potentially faster writing won’t make outlining palatable to a confirmed pantser.

I was surprised at how the same novels came up over and over again as examples. The Great Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. At least the authors who play in SF/F often refer to Ender’s Game. I’ve decided The Godfather is the Most Referred to Example Novel, Is it really that superlative? If there are many novels out there that would serve as good examples, then I wish authors would use more than a few of them. No, not everyone will have read every book ever cited, but I don’t think that’s crucial. I haven’t read The Godfather or The Catcher in the Rye, and yet I understood how they illustrated the points authors wanted to make. (Praise and felicitations to Larry Brooks who used The Help and The Hunger Games as examples. Not only had I read The Hunger Games semi-recently, I’d even enjoyed it.)

Eighteen writing books in (and two currently being read), and a few questions remain. I’m not sure what the consensus is on a “successful” novel: well-written or a commercial success? Along the lines of the chicken and the egg, do you come up with characters first and let them bring forth a plot, or vice versa? Or start with the theme and use it to generate characters and plot? Or maybe start with your story world…? And none of this even touches on why people write novels in the first place. At some point, this obsession enthusiasm for writing books will die down again, leaving me free to read actual novels again. I look forward to seeing how much of all I’m reading about I’ll be able to find in real-life reading.


photo credit: prettyinprint via photopin cc

The credited prompt

Okay, I’ve remembered why writing/blog prompts leave me feeling like my writing has become more artificial. It’s the bit where you quote the prompt, indicating that it is, indeed, a prompt.

My last few posts (on the other blogs) were inspired by quotes from books I’d been reading. In those posts, I included the quote and credited it. Without the credit, it would have been plagiarism. But without the quote, the quality of the posts would have suffered. See, the strength of a quoted passage is both in its meaning and the exact words used to convey that meaning. With a prompt, though, I suspect I could write an entire post without directly quoting it, and the post would be just fine. (If I wrote 300+ words on “what the color ocher means to me,” and didn’t include that sentence, I’d like to think you’d figure out what I was saying. Although you might reasonably wonder why I was bothering to say it.) So, quote the prompt, and feel like I’m posting an exercise from a composition class instead of “real” writing; don’t quote it, and wonder if I’m taking undue credit for something that isn’t quite mine.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo, NaBloPoMo, or anything else of that sort. Imagine what kind of inessential problems I could find to fret about if I was under real pressure to write something.


As National BloPosting Month gets going, collections of blog prompts are springing up on the Internet. While I’m not participating in NaBloPoMo myself (you’ll note I didn’t post anything on November 1 or 2), it has occurred to me to bookmark these little sources of inspiration and use them throughout the year—if I can just convince myself to use them.

Writing has its challenges, and coming up with things to write about is one of the best-known. So if someone has gone to the trouble of thinking up writing ideas—and is generous enough to share these ideas with others—it would be smart to take advantage of that resource. And because it’s other people who are coming up with these ideas, there’s going to be all sorts of prompts about things that I would never have come up with on my own. This is good, because they could keep me from getting too focused on my few favorite subjects, but I think that’s also part of my reluctance. They’re not the kind of thing I think of, so they’re alien. Not me, not mine. To which the logical response is probably that if I write about something, no matter how far removed from my normal subject matter, the fact that I’ve written about it makes it mine.

Using prompts feels like cheating. Never mind that blogging isn’t a sport in which a prompt would be an unfair advantage. (Apparently I need to hang a sign reading “Prompts Are Not Steroids” over my monitor.) But even though I’m the one writing the post, and I’m the one wrestling with the sentences and worrying that no one will like it, that the undeveloped seed of the post came from someone else somehow makes it feel less honest. Although I don’t have an explanation as to why snippets of words meant to generate inspiration would be more morally suspect than, say, quotes from books.

I also find blog prompts difficult to pull together thematically. This is the most general of my blogs, even if it’s been heavy on books and reading lately, but most blog prompt collections are more general still. I figure using blog prompts means that I’ll be all over the map subject-wise and I really would like to come across as less scattered than that. Not that that’s much of a personal failing as these things go.

So really, there aren’t any solid reasons not to try a few. Especially if the alternative is struggling so hard to be Completely Original and Creative that I end up never writing. Which sounds all good and resolved and reasonable in writing. Still have to convince myself internally, though!

E-books: the sf/f panel

This past weekend, I attended CONvergence 2011, one of our local science fiction/fantasy conventions, and the largest. What they say about e-readers being well-suited for travel is right: it was so much easier to load a couple of books onto the Kindle and slip it into my bag rather than haul the equivalent in print volumes along with me. Between the books I was bringing along to release for BookCrossing and the books I was bringing to have autographed and to refer to for a book discussion, my luggage was taking on the qualities of a small ship’s anchor. Paper in any quantity isn’t light.

It is probably not surprising that a science fiction/fantasy convention would have a panel on e-books. It should not be surprising that I would attend such a panel, especially as I am still caught up in the newness of the Kindle and the whole e-book phenomenon. The panelists were mostly writers who now publish their works in the e-book format, but there was also a librarian from Hennepin County Library who was getting a lot of experience helping patrons manage e-books.

I continue to be fascinated by how unsettled this whole field is. I’m sure there have been periods like this in the past (competing VCR formats come to mind, as does the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war). Perhaps these other periods were filled with energetic debate and I just missed out because I wasn’t paying attention. Or is it that the discussion of e-books vs. print editions is especially charged because print books have been a fundamental part of our culture for centuries?

It was clear that as a reader, I don’t always share the writerly perspective. Piracy? I don’t commit it myself, so I completely space that it would be of vital interest to someone trying to earn a living through works that can be so easily pirated now that they’re in a digital format. Even so, the level of concern varied from one writer to the next. Some writers in the audience were worried even about the legitimate distribution of their works. At the other extreme, one of the panelists talked about how she’d abandoned her efforts to stop piracy of her works because it took too much time away from her writing. Another difference in perspectives: the writers were basically in agreement that Google Books uses too much of their works in its previews. Really? It never seems like these previews show me enough!

After the writers on the panel had talked for a while, the discussion shifted over to the librarian. I was astonished to learn that even some of these published writers weren’t aware that e-books can be checked out from libraries. The whole controversy about HarperCollins’ 26-checkouts limit that is rocking so much of the library world may be essentially unknown outside of it (and incidentally, HCL figures that they get 35 checkouts of a hardcover book before it wears out). Impressive factoid: in July 2010, HCL had about 700 e-book titles available for checkout. Now they have over 10,000 titles. Wow. (Those of us with Kindles are still waiting to be able to access this bounty.)

Naturally, there was speculation about the future. Someone suggested that while hardcovers would continue for those who preferred print editions, e-books would replace paperback editions. (What about those books that never come out in hardcover?) One audience member stated that he thought that people who read books could be divided into two types: readers and book-lovers. He figured that the former would readily shift over to e-books while the latter would be the market for collectible print editions. I don’t think it’s quite that clear-cut. I’ve become fond of e-books, mostly for the reasons I already talked about here, but I also appreciate the tactile sensations of a physical book. Is there some economically sensible way I can have dual editions of much of my library?

There was a second panel at CONvergence on e-books, although this was a bit inadvertent, since the panel was supposed to be about the future of bookstores. Everyone ended up talking about e-books anyway, which says something about how fascinating this crowd finds them. Of course, bookstores were endangered well before e-books became an issue—just ask any independent bookseller who went out of business after the large chains became dominant. And while those large chains are really having problems now that e-books are hot, those problems began as a bricks-and-mortar vs. online stores issue. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come that no one in this panel was able to articulate a way that bookstores could survive beyond a general we like them and they’ve always been around. And is there still a Borders anywhere near you?

And you’re blogging, why?

Technically, this is my second blog. The first blog is alive and kicking, if somewhat neglected at the moment, but it’s work-related and limited in scope. But it taught me that I wanted to do a bit more with blogging; after that, the question was merely how to go about it. For a while, I figured the Facebook Notes app would suffice. I was already on Facebook, so I didn’t have to shop around for a different service. Plus, I didn’t have to worry about the world at large reading my posts, because I could set the privacy settings to keep out all but my friends. And what it lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in simplicity: type here, click there, and you’ve got a post.

But things have changed. I have a lot more friends on Facebook than when I started. Many of them aren’t close friends–some of them aren’t friends, period (acquaintances: yes, colleagues: yes, friends: no)–and I’m not comfortable sharing all my writing with them. I could change the privacy, but the more people I friend, the more complicated this gets. I also have friends who aren’t on Facebook. I can send them the Notes links, but that’s inconvenient as all get-out as well as pushy (“I insist you read my posts. Now. Here’s a link.”). Furthermore, everyone’s using the Notes app for memes nowadays–I don’t want my blog posts being mistaken for the latest meme!

There are other reasons I’m starting this blog. Recently, I was reminded of a book I’d read years ago called Wrestling with Your Angels: A Spiritual Journey to Great Writing by Janet O. Hagberg. Much of what Hagberg said wasn’t different from what you can read in any writing book, but she did have an interesting take on writing forms and genres. From that, I concluded I had a preference for “personal” writing, which included journaling and letter-writing. Wrestling with Your Angels was written long before blogging came around, but I bet blogging meets Hagberg’s definition of personal writing.

So why don’t I just journal? I am journaling, but I’ve found I like discussion too. I like how on Facebook, you can post something and slowly people you know will come together and talk about it, even if they don’t know each other. Blogging seems to be the best way at present to bring together journaling and social networking.

And so I blog. Welcome to my experiment.