Gotta love ambiguity.  I was reading one of my genealogy blogs this morning, and there was a ‘news’ segment that gave links to other articles.  The title of one was:  “Digital Panopticon: London convicts database project”.

My first reaction was, ‘Why?  What did they do wrong?’  The problem arose from the word ‘convicts’.  There is a noun and a verb form of that word, with different meanings.  In this instance, the article is referring to ‘London convicts’ (noun), aka criminals.  But my reading the word in its verb form suggested that Digital Panopticon had been found guilty of some wrongdoing and were to be punished.

Words are beautiful things, but they can also be tricky.  In this case, the headline didn’t make sense to me (I couldn’t think of what a digitization project might be guilty of), so I reconsidered and realized my misinterpretation.  But that isn’t always the case with readers.  Often they merely take the words at face value, with whatever meaning they initially perceive.  Only if someone challenges them on it do they give the matter more thought.

That can make a difference in our writing.  We want our readers to understand what we are saying (and what we mean to say), and so we have to choose our words carefully.  That is one of the reasons writers are often counseled to have a trusted friend or beta reader go over their manuscript.  New eyes may see things that were missed because we knew what we meant.

While there may be times when you as the writer, or a character in your story, wants to obfuscate words or meanings, most of the time that isn’t so.  Clearly clarity is needed.



In the past twenty years or so, it has become common for some group or another to want an apology for how their ancestors were treated by someone else’s ancestors.  We should apologize to Native Americans because of what our ancestors did to them in coming to America, or apologize to descendants of slaves for their ancestors having been enslaved in the first place, or Germany apologize to the world for Nazis and Hitler and World War II.

The trouble is, what does that accomplish?  It doesn’t change history one iota.  More important is how we conduct ourselves now.  Maybe my ancestors had slaves, or maybe they didn’t.  Maybe if they did they mistreated them, or maybe they didn’t.  Nothing I say or do will change that, but I can decide how I will act toward others, be they black, Native American or anything else.

If I’m going to apologize, it should be for what I did wrong, and could therefore have prevented if I made different choices.  Otherwise, my apology has little meaning or effect.  And I shouldn’t be wantonly doing things, thinking that an after-the-fact apology makes it “all better”, as so many public figures and celebrities do.  It’s like those people who say “pardon my French” after they swear, but make no effort not to swear in the first place.  The apology is simply meant to absolve them of the wrongdoing and allow them to go on their merry way.

We can do better, and should.  I can do better, and will.

Something Weird to Consider

On the radio this morning they mentioned that Aug. 21 was the anniversary of Hawaii’s statehood.

I suddenly realized that both Alaska and Hawaii became states during my lifetime.  Wow.  You just always think of states as having been around forever.

‘Forever’ just got a whole lot shorter.

Say What?

I worked with someone once who did not have strong English/vocabulary skills.  Our boss would dictate memos about his client meetings, and she or I would transcribe the tape.  (Yes, ‘in the old days’ people dictated stuff onto tapes that got transcribed.  Imagine that.)  The problem was, our boss had an excellent vocabulary and used it when he spoke, but she couldn’t always recognize the word he was using.  When she heard a word unfamiliar to her, she would take her best guess at how it was spelled and let the computer ‘suggest’ possibilities.  But the computer was limited – it had no way of knowing the context or what word was wanted, so it just offered anything spelled similarly.  She would choose one at random, assuming it was correct.

When she would type up tapes for him, I always proofread them before they got filed, to hopefully correct any errors.  She would get so mad at me for laughing, but truly some of the word substitutions were hilarious.  Could you not laugh at “historical performance” being transformed into “hysterical performance”?

People are fond of relying on their computers to catch mistakes of spelling and grammar, and over the years the machines have become better at the job.  Even so, they don’t know what you mean to say, only what you seem to be saying.  Then they give you a ‘best guess’.  As the writer, it is your job to know you are using the correct words.  If you have any doubt whatsoever, look it up.  Does the definition given match what you meant?  If it doesn’t, then possibly you have a word that sounds or is spelled similarly, but not the word you mean.

Try variations of spellings until you find the one that matches.

You can also look at synonyms to sometimes find alternative words that more closely describe what you intend.  Just be careful, since not all synonyms are created equal.  They are ‘similar’ in meaning, but not necessarily identical.  You may need to check the meaning of the synonym before you use it, to be sure it expresses what you want.

Good luck, and may your next hysterical drama…er, historical drama be a bestseller.

Write What You Know, or Knew, or Find Out

You may have heard the writing advice ‘write what you know’, and you may have heard arguments for and against that idea.  But, perhaps, we need to look at the advice with a more inclusive eye.

Most writers are at least 18 years old before they fully start ‘working’ at writing.  They may have dabbled with it before then, but as they grew to adulthood, they began to realize that it was something that was a part of them, and that they wanted to be an active part of their lives.  That being the case, they have had 18 years (or more) of experiences in their lives.  Of course, not all are remembered, but many are.

This doesn’t mean just the experiences they personally had, but also the ones they witnessed.  Why is this important?  Those experiences can provide fodder for the writer’s story.  Some experiences can be plucked from our history ‘as is’ and presented as belonging to a character.  Some will require tweaking to make them fit into our story scenario.  Either way, they can provide nuance to a character, and make them a little more real.  This doesn’t mean write about yourself or pretend the character is you.  The character just happens to have an experience that you’ve had, making it easier to describe how the events play out and what the character feels before, during and after it happens.

Many people have been in a romantic relationship, and many have broken up with someone – or been broken up with by another person.  That helps give the writer perspective on the deep feelings and thoughts a person has at a time like that.  It wasn’t the same for every single couple who broke up, so it shouldn’t be the same every single time you write it in a story.

Similarly, we can get ideas for creative events to include in stories.  A writer can always use activities in their stories that every other writer also uses, but why?  If none of us are living exactly the same life as the billions of other people on this planet, then why should our characters?

Are you really into video games, but you also are an avid gardener?  Use that.  It can give your character more depth.

Did you once have a mouse die in the wall of your home, and the smell drove you nuts for over a week until the problem could be found and resolved?  Use that.

As a child, did you or your brother or sister decide to cut your own hair, to less than spectacular results?  How did the adults/your parents react?

Did you see someone fall asleep in class and witness the embarrassment when the teacher awoke them?

Did you try to fly home for Thanksgiving one year, but end up spending the entire holiday stuck in the airport without ever making it home?  Did you go on a long-planned trip to Disney World only to be sick the entire time and unable to enjoy it?  Did your weekend of planned sun and fun at the beach involve gray skies, high surf and a steady rain?

Don’t know much about 6-year-old kids?  Look around you and find some to observe (not in a creepy way – we don’t want to get you arrested).  How do they talk – how well has their vocabulary developed?  How do they move – what are they physically able/unable to do at that age?  How do they think/perceive – do they ask questions when told to do something, though you think the instructions were clear?  If you’re, say, at a park, and there are parents with those kids, talk to them and ask them questions.  Most parents enjoy talking about (or venting about) their kids.  Reading about 6-year-olds online as research can be useful, but even better is to actually see examples in person.  Many times research gives you generalities about things, not the specific details you might want.

Look at your past for stories or incidents that happened to you or someone else.  Then start looking around you at other people.  Notice physical traits (hairstyle, a limp, a mole on their cheek, their build), notice what they do and how they behave, study the way they move or talk, watch the choices they make.  There are people everywhere – on the street, in stores, in the car next to us on the road, on the train, at school, at work, sitting in the doctor’s waiting area, in elevators.  If the opportunity presents itself, maybe strike up a short conversation and learn a little more about them, or what you are seeing them do (maybe a teenage girl is sitting in the doctor’s waiting area and knitting – why?).

Depending on what you write, not all of it will be of use to you as source material, but you might find unexpected nuggets of gold if you keep sifting.  Just because you aren’t sitting at your computer/desk doesn’t mean you can’t work on your writing.

Just For Today

Just for today, let’s all try not to say anything mean, cruel, thoughtless or unkind.  Then, if we survive restraining our vitriol today, we can do it again tomorrow.  And the next day, and the next day, ad infinitum.

Who’s with me on this?

How To Be Inspired When Writing

  1. Try to go to bed
  2. Be incredibly busy with other stuff that must be done
  3. Need to go to school/work right now
  4. Be driving in your car so that you are unable to write anything down
  5. Decide to write on something other than your WIP (work in progress) [to get inspiration for your WIP]
  6. Plan to spend the entire day with family or friends
  7. Be trying to ‘sleep in’ on the weekend or a day off

See?  Easy.  Whenever it’s inconvenient, inspiration comes.

Kindle Scout, fyi

Blogger Mladen Reljanović, on his Writer to Writers blog, posted an interesting article today about the Kindle Scout program.  For those of you who publish, or hope to publish, you may find it of interest:

NOTE:  I have no personal knowledge of Kindle Scout, so I can offer no encouragement or warning with regards to it, only make you aware of it if you weren’t already.

Do You Only Write About the ‘Big’ Stuff?

The world, and most movies, turn on big events.  Events that are important or painful or epic (whatever that means) or profound in some way.  But the big events are not the heart of most stories.  It is the small events taking place around the big events that connect the reader to what is happening.  If you see/read about an entire city being utterly destroyed, it has an impact on you.  But how much greater is that impact if you see/read about people fleeing for their lives, trying to get out before it happens?  How much greater is your grief when you see parents saving their children while sacrificing their own lives?  How much more touching is it to see people rise to the best in themselves and risk their lives to help total strangers, when it would be easier to flee?  Those tiny things make that big event so much more meaningful.

Now, that is an extreme example.  Not all stories have such a huge, devastating event in them.  Even so, the small tidbits surrounding your main storyline can support it.  Seeing your big, battle-hardened warrior interacting with a child strengthens your story later when you have him fall in love and decide maybe he does want kids of his own after all.  Seeing evidence of your villain doing cruel or nasty things to others in small things helps build the image of him/her as a mean person (think of our introduction to Gru in Despicable Me), so when they do something really heinous, the reader saw it coming.  And if they manage to break out of that cycle and turn down a better path, we cheer all the more loudly that they overcame habits and tendencies they’ve had for most of their lives.

I’ve mentioned before that I write fan fiction.  While I do write longer stories, I have a ‘series’ going that involves a lot of one-shots.  These are more ‘episodes in the life of’ than anything else.  But they build on the series, and add some dimension to a character or characters in the series.  In one story, it focuses on a child cutting her own hair and involves the reaction by each parent to the event, and the perspective of the child as to why she did it.  It was a small thing, but even so young, and even such an insignificant event in her life bolstered who her character was for the entire series.  Would the series have been fine without that story?  Yes, certainly.  But such a small thing allowed an exploration into the thoughts and sensibilities of three main characters, and in ways that couldn’t necessarily be done in many other ways.

Was it critical to the Harry Potter series that Dobby developed such an obsessive liking for clothes?  Not at all, but it endeared the character to us even more so that we cared more deeply what happened to him in the course of the remaining books.  If we had met him in Book 2 and then not seen him again until Book 7, with very little mention of him, we would not care nearly so much about the outcome.

Details, even seemingly small and insignificant ones, can make a difference.