Sunday, August 30, 2009

Buy Yourself a Good Grammar Book

The rules of English are tough and especially tougher for a writer. It literally comes down to "this" and "that" and "whom" or "who." What about present tense? Present perfect? Imperfect? What does it mean to say "Bob was a broker" or "Bob has been a broker" or even "Bob had been a broker"? Some people find the rules of grammar easy to understand and use. I don't. If you are like me, I encourage you to find a good grammar usage book. There are a lot of them out there. The one I have found to be most helpful is "The Wordwatcher's Guide to Good Writing and Grammar" by Morton Freeman. It's an older copy, but I still find it useful.

What should you look for in a guide like this?

- Buy the newest edition you can find. Language changes rapidly and you need to stay on top of it.
- Buy one that is easily laid out. Both books I have list the words/phrases in question alphabetically and makes it easy to find what you are looking for.
- Make sure it is easy to understand and provides good examples. I have two books I use. I can't recall the name of the other, but it is very technical and almost written for graduate level English students -- that's not me.

If you are serious about your writing, you do need to find one of these. Go to a book store and cruise the reference section. You should find one there to fit your needs.

If you're a writer, what do you use?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Keeping a Writer's Journal

I've done a bit of travelling this summer, from St Louis to the East Coast and back, and up to Chicago for a weekend. I've always been told that as a writer, I should keep a journal, but I thought that was just to write down story ideas as they came. I was wrong, partly.

I brought my writer's journal with me on my trips and a few story ideas came but it wasn't until I was out on the ocean that I realized another use for my journal -- to write down impressions (using as many senses as possible) of my experiences. Later that evening I tried to recreate what I had experienced, but I know I probably missed some important details. What a rich source of material I could have had...the North Carolina Beachfront, the seafood, the fishermen preparing their boat and all of the related sights, sounds and smells. Who knows when I might want to set a story in Calabash, NC or the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago?

I may have missed something on that trip but I'll tell you what: my writer's journal is never very far from my side.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tidbits of Cheever

For a long time I had always thought John Cheever was a fictional character created for an episode of "Seinfeld." It wasn't until I took a class in creative writing and was introduced to the likes of Ethan Canin (who counts Cheever as one of his influences) that I realized he was a real writer! I know, I feel stupid for not knowing that. Curious, I picked up a few of his stories and really fell in love with his writing. He had such a great way of capturing Middle America that I felt like he was speaking for his generation. Upon learning more, I learned that he suffered from some of the same inner struggles that I do - both personally and as a writer - so I felt compelled to pick up a copy of Blake Bailey's Cheever: A Life. While a review of the book is probably beyond the scope of this blog (but will appear on my facebook page and maybe even my myspace page), I did want to share a few tidbits from the book that struck me as relevant to the writings of an aspiring writer, especially one that wants to walk in his and Canin's footsteps (I really like the way both of them portray the struggles of everyday people).

One came after he harshly insulted JD Salinger. In his response, he said that another reason for his "irritability is the fact that I am never content with my own work." Wow, does that hit home! I'll write a story or poem and share it with others who have good things to say about it, but I always think it can be better or improved upon.

Another comment he made was about writing. He said that "after dark the book seems to unfold before my eyes like a roll of pianola music...but in the clear light of morning I have my troubles." How true! I know I should do a better job keeping a journal because most of my best writing is done when I am lying in bed or driving in the car. It just all seems to come together for me and I write part of my story right there, in my head. I try to recreate it when I can, but it just doesn't come out the same as it did when it first germinated. I have a phone and mp3 player that do voice recordings. Maybe I should take advantage of that technology. Then again, when I am done, I might replay my recording and wonder what the heck I was thinking!

Finally, in the preface to "Stories" (a collection of some of his better short stories) he contrasts the work of a painter with that of a writer saying that the early work of painters can show how the artist was influenced by others. Not so with writers, he says. Instead "A writer can be seen clumsily learning to walk, to tie his necktie, to make love, and to eat his peas of a fork." As disparaging as this sounds, it really is encouraging to know that even the great John Cheever took a while to develop his writing, that new writers, like myself, can't be expected to bang out something like "The Enormous Radio" or "The Swimmer" on their first try, that good writing habits take time to develop.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Writers and Writing

I have been reading a biography of John Cheever (Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey, 2009) and as a writer, I find it fascinating to learn about the lives of my favorite writers. I'll be posting a few more thoughts on this book but I'd like to start with one struggle I've been having as a writer.

I have really been "down on myself" for not coming up with original material; not so much writing what others have written, but taking my own life experiences and history and using that as a foundation for a story. But in reading this book, I have found that John Cheever did the same thing. Many of the characters in his stories were based loosely on people from his own life, including himself -- his mother, father, brother, wife, and friends all appear in his works.

So that is very encouraging to me as a writer. It lets me know that not only is it okay to draw on my own experiences, but that it can lead to some really good and meaningful stories.

I'd also like to comment on the fact that he, and other writers, seem to lead troubled lives. Why is this so? Is it because we read more about their lives than other, "normal" writers (and I use that term loosely) and they just stick with us more? And it's just not writers -- it's artists (VanGogh) and composers (Tchaikovsky) as well. Maybe it's just that they have more to write about, more emotional issues to connect with, or maybe the percentage of artists with issues is the same as the general population, but they are just more open and more expressive about them.

In my own writing group, we have a good mix and bag of emotional issues and struggles and it comes through in our writing - abusive parents, struggling to find one's true identity, and disastrous relationships.

I don't know the answer to this. Do you?

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Hello, and welcome to my corner of the "bloggosphere." What I hope to do with this blog is to share with you my development as a writer.

I have been writing for quite a while now -- over 20 years, actually. But most of it has been technical in nature. You see, I've been employed as a trainer / instructional designer, so most of what I write is instructional in nature. I've written on topics from the evolution of mankind (oops, humankind), how to use a variety of computer applications, customer service (specializing in dealing with irate customers), and even how to change a meter! Yep, I've written on a variety of topics from big to small. Over the years, I've received a lot of compliments on my work, mostly telling me how I can take a complex topic and make it easy to understand. It wasn't until about 9 months ago that I decided to expand my horizons a bit and start writing creatively. I signed up for a creative writing class at the local community college and I haven't looked back since. I've written a few short stories, and handful of poems, and even a non-fiction piece. I've been featured in the local paper and am trying to break through to a national publication.

What I hope to do with this blog is to document my trials and tribulations as an aspiring writer. I'll share with you my joys and triumphs as well and my failures and defeats (or "lessons learned" as I'm going to call them). I'll share my thoughts about the writing process and writers in general. I'll gripe about some of my fellow writers as well as sing their praises (although I won't mention many names).

I am not going to worry about spell checking my blog, or editing my blog entries. I do enough of that with my own writing (probably too much!). Instead, it's just going to be a brain dump of what I'm thinking at the time. Hopefully it'll make sense. Sometimes it won't and I'll just ramble. That's okay, because in ramblings there is some truth to be found, or at least I hope so!