Friday, September 28, 2007

Rules of Engagement - Blogging Style

It’s come to my attention that a number of bloggers out there have been looking for hard and fast rules on running a successful blog. They dispute whether or not such a thing might exist, not a successful blog but the fact that there might in fact be rules of engagement... Well, there are. Here’s a short list to get you going:

Claim Expertise: To run a successful blog you have to be an expert – never mind the fact that you’re not qualified to pick bellybutton lint from your own navel – just lie. Here in cyber space you are who you say you are – nobody really checks those pesky credentials. Pick any old profession and just say it’s who you are – it’s gotta be more interesting than the truth, right?

Show Some Personality: Hell, it doesn’t even have to be your own. To get return visitors, they need to be amused by what you have to say and who you are (not really, just who they think you are) Put up some great pictures of yourself... okay, what if you’re neither pretty or palatable? No biggie – see that picture up on my blog? Yeah, that’s some lady whose picture was on the memory of the last cell phone I boosted – (psst – regular blog readers, please disregard, come back tomorrow and believe me some more)

Just the Facts, Mam: People read blogs to learn stuff, right? So post a lot of interesting facts on your topic of choice... If you’ve claimed expertise on something you don’t understand, even better, then you can just make stuff up... Oh, and those pesky commentors who call you out when you’re lying, just delete them, they’ll go away eventually.

Pay Some Visits: There are quick and easy ways to market your blog for free – just hit every blog you see with a comment – save some more time and don’t bother to read the blog, just leave your link with something pithy to get them interested, like “Will Blog For Food”... or, oh, “Naked Blogging” – that one works pretty good.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger: For those of you ready to beat me with swizzle sticks, blame the evil, wordvixen for putting me up to this post... her little writing assignment was to give the worst blog advice you could think of, or something like that...

For my part, I’m passing this challenge on to Shelly Bryant, FF&F, Ello, and Mary Witzl

Good luck, and drop me a link when you guys have posted yours!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book Review - Interred with their Bones

Jennifer Lee Carrell’s new novel Interred with their Bones is masterfully done. How’s that for an intro? Can you guess that I really enjoyed the book?

Kate Stanley is a former academic who trades in her Harvard career for a chance to direct Shakespeare at the famed Globe Theatre of London. Our story opens with the arrival of Kate’s former academic mentor, Roz, and a mysterious gift which leads our heroine down the shaky paths of history and across the world only steps ahead of a killer... or is she steps behind?

For the Shakespeare lover, this novel is amply seasoned with the bard’s greatest works. To Ms. Carrell’s credit, she’s followed the true path of Shakespeare; making the novel accessible to both the highly literate Shakespeare aficionados and those who are not so well versed in his work. You don’t need a Master’s Degree to understand her reference or enjoy the fast moving plot.

The very best compliment I may be able to offer here is that the work employs both creative play and a true reverence for history. While building a remarkably believable work of fiction, enough of the true history of Shakespeare and his literary peers are present to lead this novel to become synonymous with the very real intellectual arguments of Shakespeare’s life and works. The fiction she builds around reality fits seamlessly together, creating a thought provoking parallel to what the orthodox scholars hold true. There is enough reference to hold our attention and the work of fiction makes for a great springboard to serious research, for those who are so inclined. But even for those who are uninterested in this little side debate of literature, the suspense and lifelike characters provide ample enjoyment.

Ms. Carrell’s writing style is fluid and descriptive. In periods of intense action, her prose holds the reader back with intricate illustration, offering a sort of tease to heighten the suspense. Occasionally a reader is tempted to skim such description to get to the meat, but not so here. In skipping any of the carefully chosen words, you may miss a golden nugget of information which will aid in piecing together the puzzle of this novel.

This is a fantastic story for both the mainstream reader and the high brow literary consumer. Just like Shakespeare, the work was wrought for the enjoyment of all rather than the few.

If you’re interested in posting book reviews like this on your blog, please visit Mother Talk for more information.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lightning or Lightning Bugs?

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” -- Mark Twain

Mark Twain said it best, doesn’t he usually? While the budding author often finds words falling unbidden and beautifully at first stroke, it takes editing, more editing and pounding of the head off unassuming objects to clean up that first stroke of genius. But then, there are those scenes which simply will not conform to the vision in your head.

Have you done this? Have you ever had the most gorgeous scenario flowing through your brain only to sit down at the keyboard and release complete and utter drivel? I have. I hate that. And this phrase of Twain’s encompasses it so completely. I know what the mood is, the setting, the character’s disposition, but try as I might the words fall short. The more I try to describe the scene accurately, the more it loses the luster of first inception...

With my own writing, I find the problem is often one of overwriting. Too much petty detail where one or two strong, evocative words would have accomplished the feat much more accurately and given the reader something more to ponder, or sink their teeth into. This all was brought to mind very vividly last week, when Nathan Bransford held a first line challenge which captivated a large portion of the online writing community.

I noticed a number of writers who simply could not keep their entries to one line. In a few instances, I think the second lines made the prose more effective. For the most part, though, whole paragraphs weren’t necessary for this particular writing contest. As I read through them, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the authors were suffering from the same lack of confidence which I find myself constantly fighting in my own writing.

Hello. My name is Merry, and I’m a spoon feeder.

I’ve learned enough about my process, my writing, and where I’d like my writing to evolve to know the reason that I spoon feed. It’s not because I underestimate the reader – though I think over explanation can come across as a lack of respect for the reader’s intelligence. Whenever I am over explaining in my writing, it’s a sure sign that I’m underestimating my own ability to accurately depict the story. Spoon feeding, for me, has little to do with anything but my own need to relay all of the information that I know, so I won’t be leaving my reader in the dark. In reality, I know the subtlety of the story is what makes it fun, it’s what makes it possible for the readers to experience the story and own my characters. And that, for me, is the point of good writing.

So back to Mr. Twain’s eloquent quote – a string of mediocre descriptions can never deliver what the perfect words can do. This phrase is going next to my monitor, right underneath my handwritten admonishment, “No Spoon Feeding”... I look at it often, I’m not sure it’s helping, but I’m still trying.

How about you? What’s your greatest writing challenge at this stage? Which ones have you gotten past, and what have you become great at?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Book Review - February Flowers

February Flowers is Fan Wu’s first novel, which makes it an even bigger triumph. If writers truly grow better with experience, I expect amazing things from this one. Normally, I don’t look into the author’s life very much while reading their work, but the fact that English is Ms. Wu’s second language really astounded me. Then again, it may be that the flavor of her native Chinese is the very thing that makes this work so enchanting. To find out more about her writing, you can visit her website at FanWuWrites Now, on with the review.

February Flowers is, in essence, a coming of age story. But there is so much more here than that simple explanation could encompass. The story centers on two girls in the same college in China and their friendship during a time when a strict, traditional environment is just opening up to a new and more modern mindset, especially for young women. The story is told through the eyes of Ming, the sedate bookworm who basks in the music of her violin and daydreams while Yan is outgoing and carefree, embracing her own sensuality without seeming to pay heed to any of society’s rigid sensibilities.

Perhaps Yan sums up their friendship best when she says, “I live inside and you live outside. Or the other way around. We can never live on the same side.” But the truth here seems to lie deep within the subtleties of the story; underneath the difference in disposition and background the two seem to share some commonalities of the heart.

Fan Wu’s writing style is delicate, bringing to mind the beautiful flowers which dot the balconies of Ming’s building. The phrasing and pace seem simple and forthright, yet there’s a poetry to the prose which can’t help but transport the reader into Ming’s world. I found the novel even more delightful than I expected at first glance and I’m more than a little happy that I chose to review it. For those who love Chinese culture, or simply enjoy a resonating voice in their reading fare, I highly recommend this one.

To write reviews like this one, visit Mother Talk for more information.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Where for art thou, Shakespeare?

Okay, I’m about to get off on a rant about the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’... You’d look at the topic here and think it otherwise, but essentially, I think a great deal of humanities disagreements boil down to economic bigotry, so why should this surprise me?

I ran across an article online about a set of scholars questioning the true identity of Shakespeare. Fun topic, thought I, let’s take a gander. I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, as uncommon as that is among most of my generation – I love seeing the plays performed live and I looked forward to covering them in class from my first introduction to Romeo and Juliet in Eighth grade. I still remember it, the teacher was bright enough to have us read both Romeo and Juliet and Westside Story to compare and contrast the two. We watched the latter to keep us interested, and I was hooked. I couldn’t even tell you how many I’ve read or adaptations I’ve seen, but I can recall being one of the only students not to groan at the thought of doing a paper on anything the great bard had wrought.

So there’s a little background for you – add to that the fact that I’m about to start reading Interred With Their Bones, which looks to be along the lines of The DaVinci Code for Shakespeare fans. I thought a post about the topic would lend to a nice little tie in to the book review that will appear on my blog later this month. Sounds nice and simple right?

Doubt about Will is the site where these scholars have put together a nifty little declaration on why they don’t believe the man credited with Shakespeare’s work could possibly be the true author. The point, I gather, is that the material and historical evidence should be openly discussed, rather than the current orthodox teaching that questioning his legitimacy is neither relevant nor called for...

I’m a fan of open thought. I’m a large fan of questioning. Tip my hat to anyone who uses their mind to reach further than what’s set out before them. Really, that’s not the problem. And they do offer a large selection of quotes by men they claim did not believe Shakespeare to be the true author. I’ll say the same thing here that I ventured to all of the claims that DaVinci really did believe the Magdalene theories – even the most brilliant men alive are not infallible. If they did believe this theory, it doesn’t necessitate that they were correct.

So how did I get started on the whole ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ bit? A large portion of the evidence that leads this society to believe the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon could not be our beloved Shakespeare depends on the fact that he was born of the lower class. Most of these assertions pertain to the fact that these scholars believe a man born where he was, who was not by any record University educated, could not possibly write these works. They point heavily to knowledge contained in the plays about life in the noble class and higher learning which would not be available to a man born into this writer’s circumstances.

They point to the fact that this man’s parents were not literate by any records they can find. Personally, I have a problem believing records of such a thing would still exist from this time period. They also point to the fact that both of his daughters were illiterate, as there are two documents found in which they signed their names with an ‘x’ – which begs me to question how the society knows who the signature belonged to, but I’ll digress. Note, for those of you keeping score, it was very uncommon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for women to be literate, possibly women of the elite, nobility, but Shakespeare was not of that class and neither were his daughters. I have to put in here, because it annoyed me that in their whole ‘logical, in search of truth and knowledge’ declaration they never thought to include the other side of the debate – which begs me to wonder whether this is more about overeducated cynicism than truth seeking. Is this, perhaps, a flexing of the intellectual biceps? Is this a show that they are more intelligent than the orthodox scholars who currently set curriculum and those who have come before? In the heat to show their educational superiority, perhaps they missed a few things common to humanity.

The biggest supposition here is that even if the man was a genius, he could not have written so accurately about a class of which he did not belong without leaving significant evidence of his life. That’s it in a nutshell, if Shakespeare didn’t leave breadcrumbs for the pseudo-intellectual elitists of the twenty first century to follow, he must not exist.

Snarf. I don’t actually mean to be this snippy but I find the whole premise to be terribly pompous. Could the Shakspere from Stratford really be the wrong Shakespeare? Certainly. Is it worth looking into? Yep. But if the only solid reasons for forming this formidable record of ‘proofs’ that it is logical to question is that these bunch of overeducated twits find it impossible to believe that an author might accurately capture lives that are foreign to their own, perhaps they should spend less time drafting declarations and more time in a fiction writing class.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Case for Writing from the Heart

Today’s Chicago Tribune held an interesting article about a fellow blogger – imagine that! Dawn Meehan is a mother of six and the proud author of Because I Said So. According to the article, Ms. Meehan started her blog two years ago after her mother gave her a list of ideas for making extra money – one of them being blogging. It started innocently enough, posting fun and humorous stories to go along with items she was selling on eBay and flourished into a well loved blog which shows the humor in a profession that largely gets overlooked; motherhood.

Today Ms. Meehan is being sought by numerous literary agents in hopes of a book and a major network wants her to pen a series based on her posts. How’s that for an amazing turn in career? All of this from a woman who had a natural talent for writing and was looking for a little extra income to help raise her family but, what I noticed more than anything in this story is that the blog itself is fun and humorous and it was that voice and love of subject matter that captured an audience’s attention.

Over my two years dabbling with blogs and meeting people online I’ve run into quite a few useful ideas on how to build a writing career. Often the goal is less lofty than the one I’d envisioned when I set about learning the craft of writing. For a while there I got caught up on the idea of making a full time income freelancing, and I did make a good deal of headway; going from nothing to $1,000.00 a month in a matter of weeks really. When I stopped actively pursuing clients it was largely because I hated the writing. Yes, you can find clients online. Yes, you can build clips and go from there... but I hated the SEO articles and copy that was largely spam. I hated the fact that there was more emphasis on keywords than content and I hated the fact that many clients expected to pay a pittance for my time and talent.... More than that, though, it bothered me that so many of these clients were assigning articles and e-books that are surely marketed as reliable expert sources to people whose credentials for the information are no where near reliable.

In my time freelancing I both wrote and edited a number of things that I had no previous expertise in and I was never given any research or information on those things. I would do the research myself and, while I feel that my abilities to write accurately on most subjects is far above par, I had a problem with the fact that I was handing over this copy to someone who would market it as expert advice on medical conditions – after all, I had no control over whether or not it was checked by a doctor or even if it was edited well.

I know a number of freelance writers who make a bulk of their living from this work and are very happy with it – and I think that’s wonderful for them. For me, though, that kind of writing became a drudgery that was worse than working at some counter or office might be. My down time wasn’t spent working on my fiction because the freelancing took the urgency from my writing. And seeing a story like that of Dawn Meehan reinforces my reasoning for retiring from the web content race.... while I can make a living from freelancing anonymously, I’ll never meet with the success I aspire to by my words. There is a need to pay the bills, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll take the delayed payment because I would rather give my best shot to the fiction than short change myself by making the one thing I love to do best become a chore.

Do I think this path of writing what I love will lead to the physical success of Ms. Meehan? I’m not counting on it, though I think it’s fantastic for her. But success for me isn’t nearly so hard to reach – a novel I’m proud of that really speaks to the reader and a career writing what I love, even if it means a real job to pay the bills while I do it... For me, success isn’t in the paycheck (though I wouldn’t turn one down). Success can’t be measured by my bank balance... and, frankly, the kind of writing that pays today wouldn’t make me well paid because I’m just not that kind of a writer.

There are a lot of writers that make a good living off of fast writing and multiple articles who can tell you that they’ll finish ungodly amounts in word count a day. I can’t do it, my writing suffers under those conditions and it makes me unhappy.

How about you guys? Do you write from the heart or strictly for a check? Do you like what you do or has it become just a job? Did the dream of being a writer equal the reality of writing? No judgment here – there’s room for every type of writer and my hat’s off to anyone whose found their niche in the writing world when it makes them happy.