Notebook, tomato, tape measure, diet

Why Writing Is Like Dieting

Writing and editing have been compared to cooking. Here’s another analogy (from my contrarian side).

Two approaches to diet: forbid yourself all foods high in calories, carbohydrates, and/or fat, OR eat a variety of foods (including ones you like), limiting those highest in fats and carbs.

Which one are you most likely to adopt as a way of life?

Two approaches to writing: follow all the rules and make sure you don’t use forbidden words, OR use whatever goddamn words you like, as long as they bring your story to life in the reader’s mind.

Which one will you regard with zest and enthusiasm?

Eating a variety of healthy, palate-pleasing foods from the entire range of available edibles is a better approach than restrictive regimes that label certain foods as forbidden. Of course, it helps to learn something about nutrition, and what “moderate” really means.

We writers have the entire panoply of words available to us. Words are the writer’s tools. Learning to write is learning how to use them well, all of them. Some words — cliches, maybe? — are analogous to processed foods. Flat, boring prose may be likened to vegetables boiled into a khaki-coloured mush. Well-chosen words skillfully assembled are like magical combinations of juice and crunch and richly blended flavours. A dialogue tag other than “said,” or the occasional adverb, are like touches of spice or a few hot peppers.

I’m not a fan of advice that labels certain words as weak words, crutch words, or filter words. The implication is that if you avoid those words or replace them with other, better, words, your writing will be good. But it’s not really about using some words and avoiding others. Writers must develop the ability to embody their imaginings in words that engage, delight, intrigue, or appall readers and keep them reading to the end.

If it was simply a matter of avoiding adjectives and not using “was,” writing would be a snap. It isn’t.

In writing, as in diet, it’s all about good choices and optimal combinations. Experimentation, mistakes and failures, adjustments, and fresh attempts are part of the process. Too much focus on rules can result in paralysis. Ignorance and total disregard of good writing practices can result in bloated or crippled prose.

When the writer embarks on a journey of creation, the rules should be in the luggage and the editor in the back seat. When the writer’s inspiration and intention have been given shape in the form of words, they may be unpacked and summoned to do their parts.

Image by Vidmir Raic from Pixabay

Scarlet amaryllis flower 2020

Amaryllis Unfolding

I’ve had this one amaryllis among my houseplants for years. Maybe decades. I can’t remember where I got it and have no idea what its variety name is. It’s a basic bright scarlet. No stripes or two-tone effects.

I vaguely recall it blooming long ago and trying various techniques to get it to rebloom — putting it outside for the summer, withholding water when leaves started yellowing, etc. What happened was the bulb split into three smaller bulbs. I potted them individually and grew them on. Sometimes one of them surprised me and put out a bloom stalk, but the bulbs remained small.

I must have figured out the proper treatment somewhere along the line. One bulb, which spent most of the time in an east window, got bigger and fatter. It has bloomed reliably, and this year (after a splendid growth of leaves last spring and summer) decided to form not one, but two bloom stalks. What is strange is that it never had the necessary period of dormancy first. A couple of leaves started to yellow last fall, so I reduced watering in preparation for dormancy during the winter. Instead, the plant sprouted a bud! So I resumed watering and moved it to a south window. A few weeks later, a second bud emerged. Thrills and excitement!

Here is a series of pictures from bud to bloom, January 26th to February 2nd.

Scarlet amaryllis bud opening 2020
Scarlet amaryllis bud opening 2020
Scarlet amaryllis bud unfolding 2020
Scarlet amaryllis buds about to open 2020
Scarlet amaryllis flower 2020
The first of four flowers!
Second amaryllis bud developing 2020
The second bud. Maybe only two flowers rather than four.

Advice, Advertising, and Anxiety

Blogs are full of advice for writers and self-publishers. How to start a novel. How to finish your novel. How to make your novel great. How to publish, promote, and market your novel. Etc.

No, this isn’t another rule-quibbling post. (Well, actually it is.) This one is about the advice contained in these posts. Or not contained, when the post is written by a service provider of some sort. After outlining a topic crucial to the success of writing and publishing efforts, the post proceeds to describe how that topic is addressed in a course or book. The real objective, of course, is to sell said course or book.

We writers and indie authors are a huge market for services. Editors, book doctors, writing coaches, and publicists are eager to tap into this market. That’s totally legitimate, but let’s not forget that we aren’t just a bunch of dewy-eyed airheads desperate for advice on creating and selling products (our books). We are a market, and should select paid services judiciously.

OK, most of us authors-who-blog are promoting our books (often to one another). But the relationships among authors are different from those between authors and those from whom they purchase services. We’re like a big, happy family sitting around socializing. “How’re the kids books?” “Oh, here’s a picture of the latest.” “Ooh, so cute gorgeous!” Etc. Then the doorbell rings and it’s a sales representative peddling a product. Do we invite that individual in and offer them a drink? Maybe. Do we automatically sign up for that gym membership they’re peddling? Maybe not.

I pay WordPress not to display ads on my site. I spend time and trouble to make my posts look good, so why would I want them uglified by ads for fungal nail cures or how scantily-clad women can make mega-bucks “without working”? That was the last straw. I forked over cash (well, credit) to be ad-free. And I willingly donate to the Wikimedia Foundation to keep Wikipedia and their other sites ad-free.

Ads, however upbeat, are designed to induce anxiety. Your life isn’t good enough, you’re not having enough fun, your writing won’t be its best if you don’t take my course, read my how-to book, or pay for my expert services. There’s enough anxiety in the world without adding to it by exposure to ads.

Fellow writers, how do you feel about ads? Do you create or purchase ads for your books? What do you think of the ads that come with the free blogging option?

Image from Pexels

snow, Christmas 2017, magnolia

The Midwinter Garden and Plans for Spring

I heard somewhere recently that we’ve hit the midpoint of winter. Quite appropriately, a foot of snow fell last week.

front garden, snow, Christmas 2017
front garden, snow, Christmas 2017

Full disclosure: these photos are from 2017. Somehow I didn’t get around to taking pictures of this year’s snow. But trust me, it looked just like this!

It’s all melted now, and there are hints of spring. I saw a couple of crocuses budding up today. Yellow ones; they’re always first. I heard a Bewick’s wren trying out his spring song. The Algerian iris, whose first two flowers were buried in snow, is sending up more bloom stalks.

When I lived in a place with real winter, snow came in November and didn’t melt until March. During those months, the garden didn’t exist, except as a memory and a future hope. The only garden-related things to do were read books about gardening, peruse seed and plant catalogues, make plans and lists, and dream.

In the mild climate of my present garden, winter comes and goes. Or rather, it takes different forms, from mild and wet to cold and snowy. The ground is almost always bare of snow. It’s not possible to disengage from the garden entirely, but a kind of not-caring sets in, especially when the weather is cold, wet, and/or windy.

Mild winter days are perfect for certain types of garden work, however. Pruning can and should be done while shrubs and trees are dormant. Today I finally got around to cutting down last summer’s long (20 feet/3 metres) growths of Clematis vitalba, otherwise known as “old man’s beard.” It’s another of my self-inflicted semi-weeds that’s made itself at home here. By now I can recognize its seedlings and pull them out, but there are still three vigorous specimens in different spots. I diligently cut down each summer’s growth in fall or winter, but this year I left it too late and ripe seeds have been distributed far and wide. (On the plus side, I’ve seen dark-eyed juncos eating them.)

Every year I end up growing (or trying to) a few plants from seed. This year it’s the blue camas, a prized native plant of our region, and Lomatium nudicaule (known as wild celery, bare-stem desert parsley, and several other common names). And, of course, my final attempt to grow meconopsis, the captivating and capricious Himalayan blue poppy. Their little seed pot spent a couple of weeks on top of the hot water tank and is now in the garden shed, where it should experience a variety of temperatures over the next couple of months. I’ve had success with this technique in the past. With luck, a few or maybe more than a few (!) plants will result, giving me something to fret get excited about for a season or two.

mind movie image

Reader Brain and Critic Brain

The writer’s brain has two parts — the Imaginer and the Editor. Similar to these are two different parts of the reading brain: the Listener and the Critic.

Both writing and reading are complex activities. There’s more to writing than following rules and more to reading than seeing words on a page or screen.

It may be that the only thing a piece of fiction needs to do in order to be a success is engage the Listener in the reader’s brain. Like a kid by the campfire, all it wants is a good story. Once the Listener is engaged, details that bother the Critic — lapses in grammar, spelling mistakes, or typos — don’t matter. Not even plodding prose, cardboard characters, or warmed-over plots. As long as the Listener part of the reading brain wants to know what happens next and how the story ends, the reader will keep on reading.

This may explain some of those five star rave reviews for what discerning, critical readers believe to be mediocre books.

Editors, agents, reviewers, beta readers, and critique group members must perforce read in Critic mode. People who aren’t writers and are simply looking for entertainment, amusement, or diversion read in Listener mode.

This is why many (maybe most) writers are unable to read purely for fun. Poor things, they’re stuck in Critic mode. Typos, errors, and lazy writing habits irritate them and break the reading experience. Even when reading a stellar piece of work, they end up comparing what they’re reading to their own writing, rather than allowing themselves to be swept along by the story.

This may also be why many readers don’t write reviews. If you’ve sailed through a book in Listener mode, it’s hard to marshal your thoughts about it to the point of expressing them in prose.

Most beta readers are also writers, and feel obligated to read critically. Perhaps another category (“alpha readers”) is needed — folks who read purely for entertainment but are willing to comment on their experience of a specific book.

Anything an alpha reader notes as problematic would need the writer’s urgent attention. Niggly details noted by the beta readers can be dealt with later. There’s no point in polishing your prose if no one cares where your story is going or what happens at the end.

Maybe all this applies mainly to genre fiction — stories with inciting incidents, arcs and climaxes, and chapters with cliffhanger endings. Literary fiction, with its emphasis on artful prose, symbolism, and underlying themes, is a different matter. Even so, literary writers may want to consider recruiting one or two alpha readers from among their acquaintances.

So, fellow writers, do any of you seek out alpha readers? Are you able to read uncritically, purely for enjoyment?

Garden Cleanup: Less is Better?

I’ve had this post in my drafts file since fall (aka “autumn”) but just had to write posts about other things first. Books, more books, and book cover images. After all that stuff, it’s about time for a garden-related post. So here it is.

I like the look of a tidy, tended garden. Leaves raked, edges crisp, dead stems and stalks cut down to bristly little stubs. It has that “been there, done that” look at the end of a growing season. Now it’s resting, waiting for spring, when sprouts will sprout, buds will bloom, and the gardener will bustle about dispensing magic dust and fresh compost.

I also like raking leaves, piling them up and loading them into a wheelbarrow for a short trip to the compost heap, where they’ll eventually become compost. In spring, I load compost into the wheelbarrow for a short trip back to the perennial beds where the leaves landed after falling off their trees.

Does anyone detect a wee bit of absurdity in that last paragraph? Raking up leaves, carting them several yards/metres and several months later — when they’ve decomposed — lugging them back to the very same spot.

Maybe it’s better to let them rot in place. That’s good enough for Mother Nature, after all. You don’t see her busting her butt with wheelbarrows. (But then, she has all the winds of heaven at her service.)

This past autumn, I thought I would try something different. I raked leaves off paths and pavements, but let most of them lie where they landed on beds and lawn areas. I didn’t leave as many on grass as in the perennial beds, and I made sure there were no thick, smothering leaf mats anywhere.

Dead leaves and new green shoots

The idea is that earthworms will drag those leaves underground and… do whatever they do with them. Eat them, I guess, and poop out the remains in the form of worm castings, churning up the dirt in the process.

I’ve also resisted the urge to cut down all the withered perennial stalks, even after they’ve lost their charm and just look dead. I’ve read that they provide cover and feeding opportunities for birds. Supposedly, bugs deposit eggs in the dead plant material, and whatever hatches out is appreciated by foraging birds. I certainly see them hopping around and scratching among the dead leaves, so maybe there’s something to that. (Of course, the big attractions at my place are feeders full of seeds and suet.)

Front garden perennial bed with dead stalks past its best

I’ll let this scene persist until we’re back to double-digit temperatures (in degrees C, of course), whereupon I will cut down the dead so the living may flourish.

Another plus to this approach is that it’s less work. I just hope I’m not creating a perfect environment for plant-eating larvae and fungi that will cause damage next spring and summer. I don’t think those organisms understand the concept of karma.

Fallen maple leaves and Geranium "Anne Folkard"

Three Books, Three Thoughts

I’m trying a new style of book review that may be less intimidating than the dreaded “book report” essay many readers are reluctant to write. Three thoughts about three books.

I read almost 50 books in 2019. These three were my favourites:

  1. The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head: Volume 1, The War of the Stolen Mother / Lorinda J. Taylor
  2. Eternity Began Tomorrow / Kevin Brennan
  3. Annals of the Former World / John McPhee

The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head: Volume 1, The War of the Stolen Mother / Lorinda J. Taylor

…the Champion Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head and the Remembrancer Di’fa’kro’mi set out on an epic quest to reach the sea. In the Champion’s home fortress we learn that Ki’shto’ba has a twin and that he may have been sired by the Sky-King. Later, the Companions visit a fortress that has been at war for nine years with its neighbors

Book description at Smashwords
  • The Characters. Yes, they’re termites. Giant termites living on a distant planet. Their personalities, thought processes, and emotions are similar to those of humans, which makes them relatable. But their anatomy and physiology are true to type, which is fascinating.
  • The Plot. It’s an epic quest adventure, full of unexpected hazards and tests of courage and ingenuity. Recognizing similarities to legends of the human world woven into the plot offers the reader happy surprises.
  • The Language. I’m referring to the termite language devised by the author. It’s more than a random collection of made-up words. This is a constructed language (conlang), with a structure and internal logic whose patterns are relatively easy for the reader to discern. It’s interesting in itself and enriches the fictional world and its cultures.

Eternity Began Tomorrow: a novel / Kevin Brennan

When Molly “Blazes” Bolan, a young hotshot reporter for an online news outlet, is assigned the biggest story of her career, she’s eager to run with it. Her subject, John Truthing, has built a cultish organization called “Eternity Began Tomorrow” to fight climate change, and it’s starting to snowball big time. As Blazes digs in, she’s both impressed and disturbed by Truthing, a charismatic eco-warrior with revolutionary ideas. Disturbed because his followers are mainly millennials, all hooked on a drug called Chillax and so devoted they would jump off a cliff if he asked it of them. … Blazes knows that the final story in her EBT series could destroy his movement, but she’s torn. The cause is worthy. The stakes are high. And the election of 2020 could decide the fate of life on earth.

Book description at Amazon.com
  • The Protagonist. Molly “Blazes” Bolan, journalist. She’s smart, funny, and irreverent, but vulnerable. And man, can she tell a story.
  • The Relevance. The story is happening right now. Climate change, social media, the power of charisma to change the world.
  • The Ending. You think you know where the story is going when — wham! — it takes off into unthought-of territory and punches you in the gut. And the heart.

Annals of the Former World / John McPhee

The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion years. … Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.

Book description at Amazon.com
  • The Subject. Geology and geologists. McPhee travels east to west across the US along Interstate 80 in the company of geologists, relaying their expertise to the reader in a way that opens the eye and the mind.
  • The Scope. No less than several billion years, but the focus zooms in and out to human as well as geological time, covering matters such as frontier life, academic life, the oil business, the California gold rush, how geologists think, and a minute-by-minute account of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
  • The Writing. It’s vivid, precise, lapidary. McPhee doesn’t avoid or dumb down the language of geology, but incorporates it into his narrative in a way that that both informs and delights. Writers should read this book; even if they don’t give a damn about geology they’ll learn something about writing.

Well, fellow writers — what do you think of this attempt at giving impressions of books? Did any of these mini-reviews spark your interest?
All my reviews may be found on Goodreads.

pocket watch and book

The True Price of a Book

Self-published authors often see advice about pricing their books — not too cheap, not too expensive, as though there’s a Goldilocks price for an ebook. I’ve seen 2.99 to 4.99 recommended as ebook pricing “sweet spots.”

Authors sometimes wonder how potential buyers can be so reluctant to part with the few bucks they charge for their ebooks. It’s only $2.99! You can’t buy a cup of coffee for that. What’s the problem?

I suspect the amount of currency isn’t the real problem. The problem is that paying for a book commits one to reading it. Reading takes time. And time is priceless.

The real price of a book is the reader’s time.

We all know the process a potential book buyer goes through — Hmm, nice cover. Cool title. What’s it about? Sounds kinda interesting, but… Do I really want to read this? I already have 20 books waiting… Only 2.99. Well, maybe… someday.

“Someday,” meaning never. Another sale gets away.

Free books, on the other hand, are snapped up eagerly. Because they don’t involve a financial transaction, maybe they don’t register as time commitments? Some say free books are rarely read. But what about when the “price” is your email address? Are totally free books read more or less than those exchanged for contact info? Has anyone compared the two?

Recently, I read that a potential customer needs to be alerted to a product many times before they feel a need for it, as though an inherent resistance needs to be worn down. I don’t know about that — if a book’s cover, title, and description don’t appeal to me, repeated sights of it are irritating rather than inviting.

Maybe when a potential buyer is teetering on the brink, the sight of one more promo of the book creates the “Oh all right, I’ll buy it!” moment.

Advertising is a huge business, involving clever people with backgrounds in psychology and brain science. Some indie authors may decide to pay attention to these fields, but it’s unlikely that many have the resources to make practical use of such research.

So what’s an author to do?

If the reader’s time is the real price, one answer may be to write books that go down easy — quick reads with lots of action and stripped-down prose. Fifty thousand words priced at 0.99 may be more appealing than 100K words at any price. Especially if a glance at the first few pages shows multi-syllabic words woven into long, elaborate sentences.

I should have written this post before I wrote my books.

SWCF 2019

Nevertheless, all those long books are available for FREE. Only until 11:59 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 1st, 2020. And only at the Smashwords store. Click HERE.

Image by Tentes from Pixabay

Happy Holidays!

Wishing all Pressers of the Word a splendid holiday, however celebrated!

Followed by an inspired 2020!


And another reason to celebrate…

The Smashwords End of Year Sale

December 25th 2019 through January 1st 2020

All my books are on sale, along with hundreds of others. At the Smashwords ebook store only.

collage of Herbert West Series cover images
SWCF 2019 revision reduced