Archive for March, 2009

From the throne of the procrastination king

March 30, 2009

Welcome to the throne room of the king of procrastination. (It’s a little Island country off the East coast of America.) At least that’s what my wife calls me.  I admit to periods of procrastination, but I’m hardly the king.

According to Rita Emmet, author of the book “The Procrastinator’s Handbook”, there are several reasons that people have for procrastinating.  In my case, I have narrowed it down to two. When I’m told to do multiple things at once I get confused and overwhelmed and I end up doing nothing. What does this mean?  I can’t effectively multi-task.  The other problem in my case is that I wait until just before a deadline to get things done.  Of course, I seem to do a better job when I’m down to the wire, so it may not be a true procrastination.

In today’s blog, I just want to address the problem of multi-tasking and how to overcome this. At Inness Photo, the owner is always commenting on how I can’t multi-task, and how little I get done when I try.  I’ve tried to force the situation, but it just gets worse. If I stick to one task at a time, I get it done, and usually early.

My new system is to write down the things I need to get done, and go through the list one at a time.  The important part of this system is that I write things down, but I don’t assign specific times. I call this my list of daily goals.  I may set my daily goals, but I always keep in mind the unpredictability of life, so I put down just enough to leave time for little emergencies.

This list is especially important, since I have two jobs, a wife to take care of, and I’m trying to start my writing career.  It’s also a great way to help with other types of procrastination.

Don’t forget to reward your self after each task, or if you’re ambitious enough, after you finish the list.  This serves two purposes. One is it makes you feel good about yourself.  It’s a real confidence booster.

The second purpose is it motivates you to do something faster, and in effect, end the procrastination.

Challenge:  If you don’t already keep a task list, try making one and see if it helps you get through your tasks faster.  Once you finish, don’t forget to reward yourself.

Enjoy,
Allen

Wednesday’s blog will be titled “how to get and keep customers”.   Hope to see you there.

Characteristics of the meddling mother and father

March 27, 2009

We’ve all heard horror stories about meddling mothers, who get in between a husband and wife just because they just cannot let their babies grow up.  This problem has been a key reason for numerous divorces.  In most of these cases the problem is real, but in the other cases what is thought of to be meddling is actually an offer of advice.  I know what some of you are thinking.  What are the differences, and how do these concern writers?

I will answer the second question first.  As writers, we need conflict to help propel a story forward. When you’re writing about a married couple, nothing provides an easier source of conflict than a meddling mother.  In order to make your story ring true it’s important to recognize the characteristics of a meddling mother.  I also feel it’s important to know the opposing characteristics for perspective.

Now for the second question.  A meddling mother is extremely judgmental of her child’s spouse.  They will even go so far as to try to undermine the confidence of the spouse by using insults, and using every opportunity to make them look bad.  OF course, they feel some ownership of their child and they can’t let anyone take that away.  On the other side, the non-meddling mother recognizes that their child is an individual, and can make decisions on their own.  They view the spouse as a welcome addition to the family, and not an interloper, who will drag their child away from them.

A meddling mother forces her opinion on the couple, whether they want it or not.  This is a control issue.  She has raised her child, controlling (or so she thinks) her child’s life, and when her child grows up, she can’t give up the control. The non-meddling mother waits for the chance to help.  She knows that she raised her kid right, and that if the couple needs her help they’ll ask for it.

If you’re walking toward a cliff, a meddling mother will forcefully yank you back.  She assumes you don’t have the brains enough to stop before you get to the edge.  They try to take responsibility for your actions, and won’t give you the breathing room to make mistakes so that you can learn from them.  A non-meddling mother will hold out her hand and let you make the decision to take it.  She has enough confidence in your upbringing and common sense, to realize that you will stop before the edge, but she will be ready to catch you if you start to slip.

A meddling mother comes at you from a position of insecurity and low self-esteem, and a non-meddling mother comes from a position of strength and love.  If you want to see a good fictional example, check out the movies “Monster in law”, and “Because I said so”.  These are two different types of meddling mothers, but they both go way over the line.

Challenge:  Find other types of characters that cause conflict, and write down the characteristics, and the opposing characteristics as well.

Enjoy,
Allen
Ps. This is also true of meddling fathers.

Literary misdemeanors

March 25, 2009

Before I start today’s topic, I just wanted to mention the blogger Dal Jeanis. I have a link to his blog under the blogroll, in the sidebar. On March 9th he posted a blog, regarding my blog, on too much description. He disagreed with my examples for obvious description, “the sky above him”, and “the ground below him”. His blog may disagree with mine on this point, but his blog made some valid points, and he wrote it in a very respectful manner.  He does many reviews, and after reading some, I have concluded that he is worth reading, so I’ve added him to my blogroll.

I felt it was worth mentioning his review, because it brings up a very good point.  Creative writing, as well as any art has very few actual rules that must be followed.  My blogs are not about hard rules, but about guidelines. Our interpretation of the rules and guidelines is what gives us our individual style.

I have been known to break some of my own rules based on what the situation calls for.  This is especially helpful when you write yourself into a corner.  In some cases of writer’s block, the problem has more to do with a fear of breaking the rules, than running out of ideas.

When you break the rules in writing, be consistent throughout the individual piece.  This is one area that you can lose readers. If you spend the first half of a story using contractions in the dialogue, as a natural part of someone’s speech, then the second half without any contractions, the story can get confusing.  If you keep the rules for each story consistent, readers will keep reading.

The rules that work in one story, may not work at all in another story.  Don’t be afraid to change the rules to fit the new story. This especially works when you write a new story with all new characters.  The rules you choose for characters should remain the same, when you have the same character in multiple stories.  Other than that, you should be open to rule changes.

As writers, we should leave ourselves open to change the rules if we need to.  Remember, there are no literary police waiting to take you in for bending, stretching, or breaking the rules.  What do you have to lose?

Challenge:  Look at a story you’ve been struggling to write, and see if a change in rules can free you up.

Enjoy,
Allen

The three steps of basic research

March 23, 2009

Writers at all levels, at some time, will need to do research. Some will do it all on their own, and some will hire a research assistant.  On March ninth I wrote about saving time on research, so now I will go over the steps I use to do my own research, and I always get all the answers I need.  I think the best way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to set up a situation, and lead you through the process.

Situation:  I am writing a story about a Bishop being attacked by a serial killer and defending himself using the base of his staff to the killer’s crotch.

First, you need to determine what you need to know.  I have two ways of doing this. I ask questions, and come up with theories.  While rereading my first draft, I came across the part where it said, “and he lifted the base of his bishop’s staff to catch the killer square in the crotch…”  I already knew that it wasn’t called a ‘bishop’s staff’ but it had to wait for the rewrite.  Therefore, I came up with a question that needed answering if I was to appear credible. “What is the name of the bishop’s staff?”

If you have more than one question, start with the simplest first.  By starting simple, you may find answers to some of your other questions through the first answer.  The answer to your first question will serve as the base of your research.  Each answer you find will eventually help you get the answer to the hardest question.  I found the answer to this question on line.  I typed bishop’s staff in the search bar, which came up with a site that showed where to find the names and meaning of each part of their attire.  This helped me discover that I had misnamed other parts of their clothes in the story.  It also helped me describe the top of the crosier (the bishop’s staff) relevant to the time.

Write it down.  Not only should you write the answer to your question and keep it for possible future use, but you should also write down other useful information that your research turns up.  In this case, the hat is called a mitre, and the robe is called a sakkos.   Writing this down, and putting it in a file helped me with the rest of the rewrite to keep the story accurate.

Just an additional tip for research, never trust every source you use, always backup the information with other sources.

If you continue to follow these steps until you answer all the questions you ask you will probably have the information you need to make your stories live with all your readers, even the experts.

Challenge:  Start a special file, if you haven’t already, for research information, and see how many uses you can get out of it.

Enjoy,
Allen

Writing control exercise

March 20, 2009

Today, I thought I would post a game I like to play with myself to learn how to control my writing.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and we were discussing how there are certain words in English that we use so often that we no longer hear them when they are used.  This got me thinking that if we don’t hear them, we no longer control their use.  For this reason, I came up with an exercise to practice control.

Write a paragraph using 100 words, or more.  It must be free written first, and then rewritten once.  There are only two catches. One is it must make sense, and two, “The” cannot be used anywhere.  I have posted my example below.

*  *  *

I don’t know if you know this, but I don’t like writing blogs on an empty stomach.  Every time I sit down at my computer to write, I always have some kind of snack.  I first went with popcorn, but that just made me thirsty. After that, I went with sunflower seeds, but I became allergic to them. Now I’m trying snack crackers with peanut butter. Who knows what I will have next week, after all, my mood for food changes so quickly that I don’t know what I will feel like, but I haven’t had beef jerky in a while.

* * *

Before my rewrite I found five uses of “the”, I was able to change.

Challenge:  Try this exercise and see how many times you use “the” before you rewrite your paragraph.

Enjoy,
Allen

Oh, what a tangled website we weave.

March 18, 2009

When it comes to websites, the topics are unlimited. As far as what you put into it depends on what you want your website to say. If you’re designing a business site, you would keep it more basic and focused on your business. If you are designing a game and amusement site, you have a little more freedom with add-ons.

I’m a firm believer in “Less is more”, and “Just because you can add something doesn’t mean you should”. How much should you add to your website without losing the purpose? Here are just a few tips on building an effective website that stays in focus.

Use only add-ons that stick to you site’s purpose.  If you have a site for photography, you won’t want to include a link to Yahoo Games.  It would become a distraction.

Determine your target traffic. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to sell Teletubbie sleepwear to 40-year-old bankers. If you know who is most likely to view your site, you can design it to meet their needs.

Don’t add anything you can’t understand. If you add something to your site that you don’t understand, who’s to say your viewers can. Another thing is that you may be sending the wrong message without realizing it.  If you’re going to add something to your site, make sure you know what it is first, and that it sends the right message.

If you want to add colors, try to use colors that will enhance the appearance of your site, not become distracting.  I give the same advice to customers trying to pick frames for their prints.  Try to look at your website as a frame for your business.  If the color of your frame is overpowering, it take all the attention away from your primary subject. If you base the frame on your subject, it will enhance and draw attention to your subject.

Use lettering that’s easy to read. If you try to get too fancy with the lettering, you may confuse some of your viewers. By keeping it simple, you will keep more viewers. Times new roman is a perfect example of easy to read.

Remember, the more cluttered your website is, the more viewers you will turn away. Get rid of the clutter, focus your site, and you will draw visitors to you.

Challenge: Look at your web design and see if you have something that serves no purpose, and then get rid of it. It’s not doing you any good.

Enjoy,
Allen

The ten comandments of commenting.

March 16, 2009

I have been posting videos on Youtube for over a year. I have been writing blogs since last June, and I’ve seen and written many comments. Out of all the comments I have written and seen I began to recognize a pattern, or series of rules, that the best comments, and responses to the comments, have in common. There are ten rules that good commenters seem to follow. There are five for the person leaving the comments, four for the person responding to the comment, and one for both. Here, then, are the Ten Commandments for comments and responses.

For the person leaving the comment:

1) Be honest. If you lie to either protect a person’s feelings, or hurt a person’s feelings, no one learns anything, and the person writing the comment ends up looking like a fool.

2) Be proactive. If you are going to say something, say it responsibly so that when you leave comments in the future, people will listen and take you seriously.

3) Don’t ramble. When you leave a comment, be brief and stay on subject. It becomes confusing if you’re reading a blog about the economy, and you start going off on how shoes are made of leather and not something synthetic.

4) Don’t comment on the person or their character. Keep in mind you don’t know this person, and your only problem is with what they wrote, not who they are. Don’t confuse the two; it could get you in trouble.

5) Be creative. Where appropriate, use humor.  A creative comment will stick in peoples’ minds a lot more than dictionary definitions and statistics.

For the person responding to the comment:

6) Appreciate the commenter. Positive or negative, if they are leaving comments, they are reading what you write.  Thank them for commenting.

7) Listen, don’t lash out. By listening to comments, there might be something you can learn, or use in a future blog. If all you do is lash out, you will never learn anything.

8) Don’t take comments personal. Unless they are telling you to drive your car off a cliff (it was a comment left on one of my videos) most comments are not directed at you, as a person.  Pay close attention to what a comment says, it may contain ways to strengthen your blog.

9) If you disagree with a comment, say why. Any time you write a blog, article, or book in which you state your opinion, you probably have a reason for your position. You may get comments that you disagree with. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your opinion, but do it in a tasteful manner.  Acknowledge their opinion, and explain your reasons for your belief, you may change their position, and if not, you will gain their respect.

For Both:

10) Be respectful. Whether you leave comments, or Respond to them, remember, you’re dealing with people who have feelings. No matter what, you get what you give, and if you give respect, you will get it in return.

Don’t look at comments or responses as personal attacks. Try to see them as growth opportunities.

Challenge: Look at comments left on your blogs and see where people are trying to help your blog improve and succeed.

Enjoy,
Allen

The importance of correct dialect in dialogue

March 13, 2009

I was born and raised in the Denver area.  When I was 32, I moved to Maine.  Walking into Hannaford for the first time, I had no idea where anything was, so I approached the first clerk I could find. “Excuse me, can you help me?”

“Aiyuh, glad to help.”  That threw me a little; I was used to, “Sure, what would you like?”

“Could you please tell me where the pop aisle is?”

He looked totally confused, “The what?”

“The pop aisle.”  He still looked confused, so I made it more specific, “I’m looking for the diet Pepsi.”

A light seemed to go off in his head, “Oh, you mean the SODA aisle.”

I’ve been in Maine for 10 years and I’ve come far in learning the Maine dialect.

Dialogue has a lot of power to establish more than just character, it is also  used to establish setting.  The tendency in many writers is to portray the difference in characters’ accents using a phonetic spelling, but they forget the importance of the words they use.  This fact seems to be more noticeable in writers who have never had the luxury of traveling more than 20 miles from their birthplace.

There are a couple of ways to remedy this.  One of the ways I’ve used is to listen to standup comics talk about where they grow up.  They may exaggerate on descriptions but the dialect always comes through.  This isn’t the best way, but it helps.

Another great way to learn how people talk is by reading books written by people from that area.   Using the same words they grew up with, many writers tend to write the way they speak.  This is better than standup comics, but it’s still not the best way.

The best way, if you have the money and the time, is to travel to the place you’re writing about, and take notes.  A tape recorder would be great, but most people don’t like their conversations taped.  Of course, you don’t want to be intrusive so my trick is to go to local restaurants or public areas, and tell people I’m writing an article and jotting down notes.  In nine out of ten cases they will go back to what they were doing and ignore you.

In a character driven story, dialogue is a key to establishing character, setting, and situation.  The way you handle this aspect of writing can greatly influence the way a reader will view you as a writer.  If your goal is to accurately portray an area, the use of local dialect is crucial to that portrayal.

Challenge:  Listen to the conversations around you and see if you can pick out the different words people can use for the same things.

How can I save time doing research for my novel?

March 9, 2009

You’ve finished the first draft of your novel, and started the dreaded editing phase.  As you read your own words, and make notations on questions you didn’t answer on the first draft, you realize that if you want to answer those questions, and still make them credible, you will have to do some research.

Research for fiction will range from fantasy, which doesn’t require much time in a library, (some fantasy does have research) to the truly historic novel which can require as much as a couple of years to do the necessary research.  When he was writing the book “Centennial” James Michener spent a few years at the Denver public library learning about the town of Greeley, in which Centennial was based.

This raises a very important point.  How can you save time on research while making certain your book has the right amount of information?  There are a few ways you can streamline your research, without ruining your credibility.

First, write what you know.  I know you’ve heard that before, but did you ever wonder why people always say that?  As far as research, there is nothing better than experience to cut down on time needed to get the information.  I’m currently starting a project that will involve some paranormal investigation.  I’ve just been spending the past couple of weeks watching and reading whatever I could on ghost hunting, but without experience how can I ever know what it feels like, so I’m going to do an actual investigation in June.

Second, ask the right questions.  This sounds obvious, but people go into research without a true focus and quickly get buried in the mountains of information, most of which will have nothing to do with your story, and you quickly become overwhelmed.  If you know the right question your search becomes focused and you can get only the necessary information.  Save all the other research for another book.

Another great way is to ask an expert.  Sitting in a library and looking through hundreds or thousands of pages to find that one bit of information can be tedious, and for the most part a waste of time.  If you ask an expert in the area of your query, you can get the information you need in a couple of minutes instead of a couple of months.

These are the best ways that I found to save time on research.  Remember, there are no true shortcuts to credibility. These methods are just ways to help focus your search so you’re not bogged down with so much information that your book never gets written.

Challenge:  While editing your book, and asking yourself questions, see where you can focus your search and save time on research.

Enjoy,
Allen

Are you spending more than you need for equipment?

March 6, 2009

In a previous blog, I stated that creativity is the greatest equipment you can have, and it is.  Creativity is what gives us the framework for everything we do, but you can’t build a house without a hammer.  In order for us to accomplish what our creativity gives us, we need tools.

I could have never accomplished the photograph I mentioned without a camera.  As far as cameras are concerned, advertisers will tell you that you need 10 mega pixels or higher, but you can get a great 8×10 print out of a three mega pixel. Unless you’re turning a photograph into a wall mural you don’t need anything larger than six mega pixels for posters.

In writing, for someone who just wants to keep a journal, all you need is a comfortable pen and paper.  I use a regular wire notebook.  For the more serious writers, if you already have a word processor, basic is better.  There’s no need to buy a word processor for 300 dollars, with an instruction manual that rivals “War and Peace” in size, when a 50 dollar program will do everything you need.

If you would like to save money on tools, you should ask yourself some questions to determine what you need to accomplish your projects.  While equipment searching I go through a series of questions that lead me to the right tool, at the best price.  Of course I start with, “What can’t I do without?”  Then I start brainstorming on the tools.  Sometimes I end up with a list two pages long.  Then I go through the list and remove anything I already have. That brings the list down to about two or three items.  From there I determine what features are needed, with cameras that includes versatility, maximum print size, and ease of use.  With word processors, I look for ease of use, spell check, grammar check, and word count.  The more features a word processor has, it increases in both complicated use, and price.  Then I do a little research on brands with those features. (Just a little tip.  Avoid consumer reports, they push any brand that pays more) I get the most reliable information from industry standard magazines like “Writer’s digest” and  “Popular photography”, and I go to stores that specialize in the industry.

Through these simple steps I get the tools I need at a price I can deal with.  I don’t rely on advertisers, and I don’t pay more than I need to pay.  The best part of this is I get the best quality from what I have.

Challenge:  When buying equipment, ask yourself “What tool do I need?”, “What features do I need?”, and don’t be afraid of a little research.  You will be guaranteed the best equipment, at the best price.

Enjoy,
Allen