The “Read” Not Taken

Who got Kindles, Nooks, or iPads for the holidays? It’s time to load them with e-books and apps (and I’ll be offering my latest Kindle book free in the next few days). I never thought I’d read e-books; now I’m seriously considering writing more of them. The possibilities (for my background) are numerous. One of the big features is the option to publish shorter pieces, advice, nonfiction, fiction, etc.

Several of my traditionally published books also have e-book versions; in fact, my Kids Throughout History series was among the first (of my titles) electronically published for schools and libraries in early 2000. Still, I always thought I’d prefer hard copy books, or as my sister-in-law calls them, “dead tree mode.”

I’m particular about my books. They have to be hardback or trade paperback. I’ve never been a fan of the “pocket” paperbacks. But, I did purchase several PDF style books when Amazon first started selling their “shorts.” During my graduate work, I tried a few e-books to save on textbook costs. A big mistake! I hated sitting at the computer in order to read my assignments and it was tough to use the highlight and note features; it simply wasn’t the same as curling up with a book.

Eventually I downloaded the book apps for PC and acquired several titles. It wasn’t until recently, when I explored plans for e-publishing, that I began reading more e-books.

It’s sort of like research. Are the free books worth it? How does the pricing work? I read the reviews and comments carefully to help me make decisions for pricing choices and such with my own e-published books. I even played around with my sister’s iPad and a friend’s Kindle. They’re neat! They’re heavier than I assumed but probably not much more than the books I read. And, you can “curl up” with them.

So, in all, I like e-books though I still purchase my share of “dead tree mode” books. Two things bug me though. One, strange formatting. Maybe it’s because I spent a few years as a typesetter for a weekly newspaper but I notice whether text moves back and forth between flush left and full justification, or the font changes, or for some reason a word (or letter, or page) is suddenly red or blue instead of black. It bugs me! I notice. And it interrupts the flow of the story for me. Because I was “doing research,” I read the stories despite the format “glitches.”

These could become the “reads” not taken. I don’t want people to delete my e-books or write nasty reviews that state “it wasn’t worth the price–and I got it free.” Ouch! I read many such reviews, so when I published, I worked hard to eliminate these issues and get the formatting consistent.

The second thing that bugs me is typos. I’m calling mistakes in grammar typos because I truly hope they are mere typos and not a book that should have been edited or proofread before being e-published. This thinking is easier for me than when the errors are misspellings or frequently confused words. Sometimes I’ve noticed a place where an error was caught but the correction and the error remained “you’re your car key’s are here.”

Sadly there have been a few books (thankfully they were free) that were so riddled with grammatical errors, especially misplaced modifiers, that I wonder about the credibility of the author. No wonder e-books had a bad rep at first. Some of the worst offenders have the imprint of big publishing houses, too. Absolutely unacceptable.

Yes, typos and errors slip in. We’re all human. Sometimes deadlines are simply too tight and careful proofreading is rushed. I know I have to try my hardest to make my product the best it can be. I don’t want my writing to become the “read not taken.”

Building Background

My writing students are often baffled when I ask questions about background for their stories. How did this come about? What is your character seeing at this moment? What sounds does she hear? What odors does he smell?  They want to know why it matters. It matters because the reader needs details to help connect him or her to the story. This creates reader engagement.

These writing students have vague ideas where their stories take place but the thought of “research” to build the background for their stories seems “wrong” to them. After all, they are the creators of this story—anything is possible, and everything they say “goes.”  True, but all the details need to make sense to the reader. It’s also true that fantasy and science fiction authors must make up every detail of their world while stories taking place in the present time need only mention a few details so the reader has some anchor point for painting the scene in his or her mind.  Fantasy and science fiction authors create the story setting and background by “world building.” But stories set in the here-and-now also need a little research. After all, if your character is in the woods of North Carolina and comes face-to-face with a poisonous snake, that snake had better exist in the North Carolina woods. If not, the writer’s credibility as a storyteller evaporates.

Whether I’m working on a contemporary story or one of my “other world” stories, I use sensory details to think about the setting and make decisions about the background for my stories. If I’m taking a walk and notice a particular tree, I wonder what type of trees my characters would see in a particular scene. What sounds would Kaelyne hear when she’s in training? What sounds and smells does Kaia hear at the compound, or while exploring outside? Does Kaelyne see squirrels or other small furry rodents that inhabit trees and chitter to each other? What strange species does Kaia see on her alien planet? Are they poisonous? Dangerous? How do made-up creatures (animal and insect) move? What do they eat? What are the native species of plants and animals? Are their invasive species, as we have here in Florida? What problems do they cause? (The answer to this question could lead to a subplot, especially if Kaia or the others in her compound are blamed for bringing those invasive species to the planet.)

I remind myself to look up, too. As a child I was a sky-gazer. I loved looked at the clouds and, during the evenings, at the night sky. So I think about both the day and night sky as I build the background for my stories. Clouds can alert characters—in any type of world—to weather conditions. Stars and moons in the night sky can immediately alert the reader that this is not Earth. But our stars have constellations with connected stories and legends, so what connections and legends do the stars in my other worlds have? How will this  help my characters as they work to resolve their story conflicts?

So, when a writer is creating a world for fantasy or science fiction stories, he or she has more details to sort out, but a writer with a story set in the here-and-now still has details to consider and decisions to make. The background he or she builds helps the reader engage with the characters and have a stronger story experience. Taking a moment or two to envision what the setting looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like and then weaving those details in as the characters notice them, will help make your story real no matter where or when it takes place.

Make Your Clay

Earlier this week I finally had a chance to catch up with a dear friend. We went for a walk on the beach and talked about writing. Since she has taken my writing classes in the past (that’s actually how I met her), she reminded me about something I tell my students at all levels: “make your clay and then worry about details later.”

What do I mean by this? A writer’s draft is the medium of our craft which we shape and refine during revision. The real work of writing comes during revision. As writers we need to make our clay, meaning getting the words out of our heads and onto paper where we can then work and rework those words into a finished manuscript. If we were painters, we would have brushes, paints, palette, and paper or canvas to use to create our work. If we were potters, we would begin with a lump of clay and mold, shape, and work in details.

Writers, too, need something to work with–something to shape, trim away excess, add in detail, refine and illuminate. So I encourage all my writers to finish (or nearly finish) a draft before they focus on revising. Why? It’s easier to trim away the excess and add in details, develop a character, refine a plot line, and so on, if you have your basic three-part structure in place. It’s not set in stone. Word processing programs make it (thankfully) easy to move, cut, and add (and return to a previous version if necessary). But, once the words are in black type on white paper or screen, it gives the writer something to see and work with, much like the clay used by potters and sculptors.

Having something concrete to shape takes away the tension of revision for newer writers. Viewing the draft as something that includes debris or flaws to pick out takes the pressure off of creating a “perfect” first draft. The key word is “first,” since many writers create multiple “drafts” before a polished piece is sent to an editor. Incidentally, the editor then refers to that much-revision MS as the “first draft,” since it is his or her first go-round in editing it.

An NF book is born

I learned why woodpeckers would bother drilling on glass or metal. It’s a way to mark territory–or make their presence known. This makes a lot of sense; it’s only been a few months since I heard the glass tapping and that’s about the time I noticed many more woodpeckers around here. Tapping on glass is incredibly loud (I’ve heard it coming from a neighboring building) and it reverberates. What a way to “notify” other woodpeckers in the area.

I also discovered some interesting facts. I had no idea that these birds have a long, sticky tongue they use to extract insects, spider eggs, and insect larva from the holes they drill in trees. The Northern Flicker, a type of woodpecker, actually spends much of its time on the ground collecting ants with that sticky tongue.

Woodpeckers have feet designed to allow them to walk up and down tree trunks. Unlike other birds, they have two toe claws in the front an two in the back to prevent them from tipping back or falling as they drill into trees. They use their stiff tail feathers as further support and have muscles in their necks that serve as shock absorbers as they hammer into trees and branches. There is even a sap-sucking woodpecker which drills into a tree and extracts the sap, instead of feeding on insects. This type of woodpecker actually damages, even kills, trees.

Incidently, what I thought were red-headed woodpeckers are probably either ivory-billed or pileated woodpeckers. All those I’ve seen have had a cap of red on the crown; however, this is common with most species, except the flicker. The red-headed woodpecker has a fully red head and neck. I’ve definitely seen those when I lived in Michigan, but thought they were the males while the red-capped birds where the females.

So, now I’m eager to observe the next woodpeckers as they hammer out a meal. And I’m gathering more information about these birds. Perhaps I have an article based on this “wondering.” Certainly I have the seeds (and a bit of the research done) to begin a children’s book on these interesting birds.

Brag Board

I’ve added a new category so I can brag about workshop participants who have published. Hmm. Is it pitiful that I get more excited when a student or mentee publishes than when I score another byline?

Anyway, I found a delightful package in today’s mail. Louise Hess sent me a copy of Apple Blossom Time: An Autobiography in Prose and Poetry (IN: Dog Ear Publishing, 2011). Of course, it’s personally inscribed to me from Louise and included a matching bookmark. Congratulations, Louise, and thank you! Louise participated in workshops I offer through Renaissance Academy.

What makes this volume stand out is how the author shares universal life moments through the “seasons” of life and uses the apple tree as a metaphor. Each story provides insight into the author’s life through the people she writes about and the events she shares. And then there are the poems, scattered through the volume like apple petals on a late spring breeze.

This reminded me of another (former) student who became a dear friend. I helped Linda Aubel prepare her memoir manuscript, Summertime, for self-publishing several years ago. It also used a unique approach to organize the vignettes—Broadway song titles. Linda took Guided Writing classes I taught through the Center for Lifelong Learning at Hodges University.

Another student, who is also a close friend, has good news to share but doesn’t yet have a publication date and doesn’t want me to jinx it. So for now I’ll just say, congratulations, Susan! Get me the details so I can brag!

Plugged in again!

After much prodding by friends and fellow writers, I’ve taken the plunge and relaunched my blog. It’s been quite a long time (roughly 5 years) but I’ve been getting plugged in again, so why not share with a wider audience in every electronic way?

Around five years ago I became overwhelmed with how electronically I was. Since writing requires a lot of time and energy for tasks other than placing words onto paper, I found myself struggling to keep up with the demands of all those devices. I overreacted–and unplugged. I dumped the Palm Pilot (remember those?) and the cellphone (for awhile) and left all the listservs and online groups. I focused on writing. I loved dealing just with the words. I moved from magazines to books, and then to a masters program. I began spending much more time in classrooms working with my readers (mainly elementary and middle school children). And I was in love with my life againl!

Slowly I’ve been getting sucked into all the incredible things happening in cyber land again. And I’ve been attracted to the gadgets, the time-saving electronics, the devices! With these cool things came features and sites and methods to communicate. But I’m actually enjoying it this time around. I’ve learned how to balance doing all the things I love, so I actually make time for my writing. I’m enjoying it!

I look forward to sharing my “wonderings” about the things I love (books, writing, grammar, words, coaching) and my “wanderings” as I balance everything I do for a much happier me.

It’s good to be plugged in again!