Write/edit/revise/repeat

First of all, May the Fourth be with you!

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Yes, my droid wears a top hat. He is fancy.

Second, it’s been a busy month.

I wanted to revise my MG novel-in-progress so that I could submit the revised version for a critique at the upcoming NJSCBWI conference. My beta readers had given me great feedback, I’d done some more research, and I knew a whole lot of things I needed to add. Meantime, I also had my usual daily and weekly deadlines for the various editing and writing projects that make up my day job. So I worked on those projects during the day, then revised the novel at night. All month.

This was a fairly doable thing. It was a matter of mindset, and minding the time. I’d spend mornings on one article or editing gig, break for lunch, switch gears to another project, then switch gears again at night and work on the novel. Working on one thing continuously for all that time might have gotten exasperating, but flipping to different projects kept me sharp.

I don’t think multitasking actually exists, at least the way people think of when they use the term. But I think you can finish anything if you work on it an hour (or two) at a time.

I made all my deadlines, including the submission date for SCBWI, and then I spent a day remembering what TV looks like.

And then I flipped back to the first draft of another novel-in-progress. But now I get to take my time a little more.

Invasive punctuation

I have nothing against semicolons. Or em dashes. Or parentheses or exclamation points or colons. And yet when editing, I remove them. I boot them right out of the story.

Not all of them, of course. But the thing is, it’s easy to overuse punctuation marks. Semicolons and em dashes stand out precisely because they aren’t meant to show up in every sentence. Too many of them at once and they clutter up the page, distracting the reader. (And parentheticals are supposed to convey information that’s additional to the main point that the writer is trying to convey, so it’s awkward to introduce something in parentheses and then use it in the main body of the text as though it were there all along. Yes, I’m being meta.)

Any punctuation that gets overused begins to have the same effect as someone typing in all-caps all the time; it hurts the reader’s eyes and they stop reading. For a particular punctuation mark to have an effect, it needs to be used sparingly.

So think of it as weeding a garden. Leave the good marks in place and yank out the unnecessary, incorrect, or annoying ones. The result is cleaner, more graceful, and easier to read. Your reader will thank you.

Let them read comics

A family member was waiting out the storm with us last week (two snow days, ugh) and noticed how voraciously the kids were reading comics. Before he left, the family member said to them, “Make sure you read books sometimes and not just comics.”

I said, “They can read what they want at home. Also, their grades are good and they both score well on standardized tests, so I’m not too worried.”

He conceded, “I used to read comics when I was their age.”

“I read comics now,” I said. Which ended the conversation.

Listen, I’m all in favor of book-nerdery. But I don’t like snobbery. Reading comics and graphic novels is still reading. It absolutely counts. And the kids and I have read so many good comics over the past couple of years—smart writing, beautiful illustrations, full of heart—that I can’t see why anyone would say that reading them is somehow less valuable than reading a text-only book. (Last graphic novel to make me tear up: “Ghosts” by Raina Telgemeier. Last comics to make me laugh out loud: “Ms. Marvel” and “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.” On repeated occasions.)

In fact, I might argue that teaching kids to appreciate good artwork is just as important as teaching them to appreciate good writing, and conveniently, picture books and comics have both.

When I was a kid, I read whatever I wanted, mostly because it would have been impossible for my parents to stop me. Shakespeare. World mythology. My dad’s science fiction and fantasy novels. And yes, comics. None of it hurt me. In fact, given I was a gifted student, on the honor roll, and graduated college on the Dean’s List, I’d say all of it helped me. (True story: I once used an issue of “Sandman” for a paper in my Greek mythology class. So helpful, that Neil Gaiman.)

So my kids can read what they want, too. I think it’s all to the good.

Bringing the news offline

I’d share some of the articles I’ve been writing lately, but I can’t.

Or more precisely, won’t.

Here’s the deal. One of my regular gigs is writing and editing (and setting up photos and working with reporters and helping keep things moving) at this local newspaper. You’ll note there are no articles posted on the website. There never are. The paper is print-only. And I’m glad.

Back in the ’90s, when newspapers decided they needed websites, the orders came down to put all articles on the website. For free. And I thought, “But why would anyone buy the paper if they can read the whole thing for free online?” Alas, I was a lowly copy editor and who cared what I thought.

So we put everything online. For free. Even though newspaper circulation had already been slipping downward for a while, and Generations X (that’s me), Y, Z, Z-plus and whatever else they’re going with these days didn’t have the daily newspaper habit their parents and grandparents did. Even though Craigslist and eBay came along to corner the market on classifieds. Even though advertising started to slip and the cost of newsprint went up. (This article in The Atlantic is a good summation.)

So newspapers lost money, and fired staffers to save money, and lost more money, and got thinner and thinner, with less and less news in them.

The past couple years have been good for the bigger papers, bringing a surge in digital subscriptions. But as the Pew Research Center points out, the industry overall is still suffering.

Now, I’m a book-nerd. Most of my goals for the future involve writing books and working with authors on their books. But I also love newspapers, and have ever since I joined (and later ran) my college newspaper. Newspapers, with a few exceptions, are still the best place to find good journalism. But I’ve been watching colleagues lose their jobs for some time now, and I’ve grown increasingly worried that good journalism is going to disappear with them.

So I was delighted when a colleague of mine announced he was launching his own local paper and looking for freelancers.

Every time I interview someone for an article, about the town food pantry’s plans for outreach or the changes to this year’s arts festival or the expansion of the Middlesex Greenway, they tell me how great the paper is and how glad they are to have a local paper. At the end of one recent interview—which happened to be at a church—the monsignor even blessed me, which was a first. I will definitely take my blessings where I can get them.

And none of these articles is online, because my colleague wants people to buy the paper. Not read it for free.

And frankly, I do too. I want this paper to keep going, because I think this level of local news is what’s missing from most papers now—they don’t have the staff, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the time, etc. I think this is how newspapers survive and thrive: By staying local, and by consistently charging for content. Because I don’t work for free, and neither should anyone else who writes, edits, takes photos, or does graphic design for a living.

So if you want to see what I’ve been working on lately, I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the paper. But trust me: It’s worth it.

Typos matter

I cringe at “speciality.” I groan at “reigning them in.” And when I see “traveling though the town,” I want to throw things.

I see errors like this constantly: in newspapers, in published books, on restaurant menus, on product packages, in the tickers across the screen on news channels, even on storefront signs. I can’t switch off my editor’s eye, so I get regular reminders that people don’t write or type as well as they think they do. (Or that they need to hire an editor.)

Does it matter? Of course it matters. For one thing, people might judge you by your typos. Check out this study by University of Michigan researchers that found people reacted more negatively to emails with errors in them. A good part of my job consists of emailing people about being interviewed for an article or setting up a photo for that article, or else emailing writers about possible editing work. These people don’t know me; all they have to go on is my email, and if that email contains misspellings or poor grammar, they have less reason to take me seriously.

For another, errors and unclear language can cause unnecessary confusion and even cost money. Just ask the dairy drivers in Maine who won a labor dispute case over the lack of an Oxford comma.

You can absolutely be a good writer and still commit typos, or be a terrible writer who spells and punctuates everything correctly. (I’ve dealt with both.) But if the entire point of writing is to communicate with other people, shouldn’t you want to do that as clearly and as accurately as possible—for your readers’ sake, as well as yours?

If nothing else, you’ll have my undying gratitude.

Vacation and idea generation

The family went on vacation last week to … let’s say it was warmer there, with lots of mouse ears? It was a fine time. But January is also StoryStorm, the annual story idea marathon hosted by Tara Lazar that features inspirational posts plus a few prizes (see here for details), which I’ve been participating in for several years. No worries, I thought. I’ll bring my notebook with me, along with my manuscript-in-progress. I’ll get work done on the plane. I’ll think creative thoughts while waiting on line for rides. It’ll be a productive, fabulous time.

Except not.

Turns out I’d underestimated the buildup of mental noise after a day full of lines/rides/crowds/shopping/keeping wandering kids from disappearing/shows/way too much food. At the end of the day, the only thing I was capable of was zoning out at the hotel while watching “Star vs. the Forces of Evil.”

I had no story ideas. My brain was blank for a week.

I’d forgotten the most essential element of creativity: the quiet calm space to escape into your own head for a while. If you’re running around, your mind can’t wander.

On the other hand, sometimes a break from creativity is what you need to recharge. Now that we’re back, I’m steadily catching up and about to cross the finish line.

And I did get some work done on my manuscript. So that’s a win!

STORYSTORM 2018 Registration is OPEN!

I’ve been participating in PiBoIdMo/Storystorm for several years and highly recommend it!

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)

What a glorious feeling!

It’s that time of the year again, when you will be showered with inspiration!

Story ideas are gonna rain down like cats and dogs! (And maybe some will be about cats and dogs!)

Last year I changed the name and month of my annual writing challenge, from Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) to Storystorm. Why? Answer’s here.

Any writer interested in brainstorming new story ideas in January is invited to join. Any genre, any style; student, amateur, hobbyist, aspiring author or professional.

How does STORYSTORM work? It’s simple…

  • Register here by signing your name ONCE in the comments below. Teachers participating with a class can register under the teacher’s name.
  • Registering makes you eligible for prizes.
  • Visit this blog daily (right here at taralazar.com) in January for inspirational essays by guest bloggers—professional authors, illustrators and experts in creativity.

  • Instead of visiting the blog directly, you can…

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