Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “grammar”

Insret Dilebarate Typo Hear

Could this be why my blog isn’t getting half a million hits per day and a movie deal?   (Don’t make me beg for comments here ….)

Loathsome Writing Advice

More and more, I’m finding that the mission of this blog has become to be the antithesis to all of those desperately earnest blogs out there spreading Pollyanna advice on How To Be A Writer.

Gawd, they make my teeth hurt.

You know the ones I mean.  The ones compiling lists of handy tips on how to spring, fully formed, into the writing world (see Botticelli’s Venus, above) and Make A Great Living.  (Bubble burst #1:  I have been doing this nearly 25 years and have yet to make a great living.  And I’m probably better at this than some people.)

I feel it’s high time that someone shat upon these pointless platitudes from a great height … or at least lobbed a nice 30 kg IBM Selectric up the sides of the heads of those perpetrating this drivel.  And I’m just the snark to do it.

Herewith my personal parade of the banal, cliched, painfully obvious, staggeringly stupid, and just plain lame writing tips I keep seeing, ad nauseum.

I’m begging you, for the love of all that is sacred, please stop telling me to:

1. Write every day, even if it’s not for publication.  Oh Christ, like I need to practise just for the sheer sake of practising.  While I’m at it, why don’t I get some of those multi-lined sheets and revisit my cursive technique?  I always liked doing j’s and q’s …

2. Write for free, in order to get “exposure” (see previous rant here).  

3. Enter writing contests.  Totally counter productive in a head-spinning number of ways.  Not only are you now writing for the privilege of submitting an entry fee, you’re never going to get paid, your material (whether it’s any good or not) will instantly become someone else’s property, and you’re just going to become totally demoralized when it disappears into a black hole and is never heard from again.  Trust me, hardly anyone in the history of time and space has ever launched a writing career based on a contest.  (And please don’t bother sending me the story of the sister-in-law of your second cousin who won a writing contest and is now J.K. Rowling. I don’t want to know.)

4. Create a business plan and calculate how much you’re worth per hour.  Sure, a great idea on paper.  Think you’re consistently going to get anything remotely near what you’re worth in this business?  If so, you have a way better publicist than I do.

5. Try using ‘bid sites’ or writing for content mills.  A great way to break in, if your plan is to establish that you will work for crumbs and never expect to be treated any better.  Seriously, 1500 words for $5?  Thank you, sir, may I have another?  Plus, honestly, the content on the content mills is such shite that you’re not exactly enhancing your resume in such company.  The bid sites are even more humiliating:  just how much more can you debase yourself than the next guy?

6. Write what you know.  Ugh.  Just shoot me.  Okay, I did begin by focusing on a niche in which I already had good contacts.  But a journo’s job is not to dispense her own wisdom… it’s to dispense the wisdom of others.  I didn’t know anything about shopping for a mid-sized tractor, but I was able to a) locate a few experts and b) ask questions, like, say, “So what’s the deal with mid-sized tractors, then?”, then c) write down their answers.  Voila.  Article.  Write what you DON”T know, and chances are you’ll ask much better questions.

7. Everyone wants to read your autobiography or journal of Deep Thoughts.  Hey, it’s even more fun if you write it in the third person, as if you were interviewing yourself.  It will simply fly off the shelves because you are just so gosh-darn interesting.

8.  Use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  Oh. My. Fucking.  Gawd.  You need to be told this?

Then there are these constructive lifestyle suggestions:

9. Get lots of sleep.  Sure, as long as deadlines aren’t an issue for you … I’m sure your editor will understand the vital importance of being well-rested.

10. Designate a space for your writing where you can work undisturbed.  I can’t even manage this, living alone with two cats.  They are all over me like hairy white on rice, and that’s to say nothing of my keyboard.  Good luck achieving it if you have a spouse and/or ankle-biters.  Unless you build your very own dungeon, and don’t mind emerging to heaven knows what kind of chaos which has occurred in your bleary-eyed absence.  The thing about working from home is, you’re not really doing anything important, are you, so you are the first victim people call when they need a couch moved or a horse subdued for the vet …

11. Eat healthy snacks.  By all means, make sure your beta-carotene, your psyllium fibre, your spirulina, and your omega-3 intakes are appropriate for the writing life.  Pretend you have unlimited leisure time and no bills to pay.

12. Go for long walks, commune with nature, find your bliss etc.  Because that’s how articles get written.  Certainly not by doing research, interviewing sources, or, um, sitting down and writing.

Let’s not forget these oh-so-helpful tips on the creative process….

13.  Read lots of stuff.  I am absolutely convinced that the bilingual text on my morning box of Cap’n Crunch has made me a better writer.  Seriously, there are people with writing ambitions who never read anything?  Plus, plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.

14.  You are a “real writer” if you believe you are.  I believe I’m the heiress to the Thomson media empire, too, but my bank balance, tragically, disagrees.  I’m sorry, but if you’ve never had anything published, you are a hobbyist scribbler.  Maybe an ambitious one, maybe just a delusional one, but your writing needs to be able to stand up to professional scrutiny before you can use the appellation.  Just sayin’.

15.  Do creative cross-training to stimulate the ‘writing  juices’.  Oh, yes.  Make greeting cards out of coloured construction paper and compose a delightful handwritten verse for the innards.  Create bombs from pipecleaners, an old deadbolt, and some glitter glue.  And while you’re at it, sell your crafty creations on Etsy — you might at least make some money that way.

And a few miscellaneous gems:

16. If you’re writing for children, use simple words.  Distressingly conspicuous, wouldn’t you say?

17. Don’t fear what you write.  Huh?  Well, I guess if what you write exposes your secret, festering desire to become a pedophilic serial killer, you might want to be a little afraid.  Or at least surrender yourself to the authorities before things get messy. Trust me, it’s better this way.

18. Come up with catchy titles.  a.k.a., You Can Never Have Too Much Alliteration.

19. I confess, I love, love, love this one:  “If you’re writing fiction, it’s a great idea to have a plot. It will coordinate your thoughts and add consistency to the text.”  (This was actually taken from one of those writing-tips blogs.)  Good Christ on a donkey, why didn’t I think of that?

20.  A writer is someone who needs to write, has to write, is consumed by the passion to write.  Two words:  sheer bollocks.

And I’m spent.

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The Unimportance of Being Earnest

The National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) has decreed that it is “Words Matter Week 2012“.

Why?  Guess we couldn’t wait for March break for the festivities to begin.

NAIWE has posted a “Blog Challenge”, the prize for which is an Amazon gift card which is more than likely not useable by non-Americans.

So why would I bother responding to the five daily blog questions in the Blog Challenge?  Well, it: a) beats coming up with a blog topic of my own; and b) could be an interesting exercise in seeing whether I can remain sincere, earnest, and non-snarky (my money’s on ‘no’).

Ready, gang?  Of course you are.  I can see you’re on the edge of your seats.  Here are the Qs:

Monday, March 5

Writers craft words into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays. What writers make your heart sing? Why?

Irving Layton‘s poetry is unabashedly randy.  You can imagine him flinging off his khakis and running naked through a park, little Irving flapping merrily in the breeze, just for the sheer helluvit, and that amazed and tickled me when I was an undergrad.  Who knew CanLit could be naughty?

Michael Ondaatje is hard wading, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, you can submerse yourself completely in his imagery.  Like swimming through the most gloriously textured jello.  You might only get through six pages in a sitting, but they will stick with you for days afterwards.

But I have to admit that I seek out cleverness in much of what I read.  That’s why the late Douglas Adams is still top of my list of ‘people living or dead I’d invite to my ultimate dinner party’.  You can read Hitchhiker’s 30 times and it will still give you the giggles … his turn of phrase was just that good, his logic just that twisted.  I mean:  “Here, put this fish in your ear.”  “What?  Ewww!”  “Oh, come on, it’s only a little one.”  

Pure genius in words of two syllables or less.

Cynthia Heimel, the American queen of snark, is another one, and a personal role-model.  When I dial the snark up to 11, I try to channel her.

Tuesday, March 6  
What word, said or unsaid, has or could change your life? How?

Okay, the editor in me immediately wants to change this to “What word, said or unsaid, has changed, or could change, your life?”

I mean, it’s supposed to be the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

But I digress.

Should I be uber-obvious and say “You won the lottery”?  Nah, I’m better than that.  (Though I really, really think it would rank up there in terms of life-changing events, and I would like to humbly encourage the universe to consider my worthiness …)

So how about “reason”, because that’s what rules my life.  Or at least I attempt to let it rule my life.  Reason, as in rejecting superstition (the preceding paragraph, ahem, notwithstanding). Reason, as in refusing to let fear rule.  Reason, as in not taking anything on faith, and not accepting faith as a virtue — at least, not the faith that demands unwavering, unquestioning acceptance of things that make no sense.  Reason, as in understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and repeatable fact.  Reason, as in question everything.  And reason, as in presenting both (or many) sides of an argument or issue in my writing, with as little bias as I can possibly muster, and letting my readership make up its own mind.  Preferably with its critical thinking skills fully engaged. This, as I see it, is what journalists are mandated to do.

I was not always reasonable.  I had to do some growing up first to understand the difference between doctrine and truth.

Wednesday, March 7
Communication breaks down when words are misused. What is the funniest or worst breakdown you’ve ever observed?

Well, there was the flyer from the local garage promising “complete insurrections” of my truck’s engine …

And one from my editor at the Canadian Sportsman, a magazine which focuses on harness racing (in which horses move at the trot or pace) and thus rarely talks about any of the other gears an equine might display.  In an article about retired racehorses going on to second careers as riding horses, said editor used the word “cantor” throughout.  I am unclear as to the religious significance of this.  (Should I out this editor as my brother?  Nah, better not.)

Thursday, March 8
What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?

If I’m a grammar Nazi, I’m mere infantry compared to my mother, who would probably not be in the least amused to be compared to the head of the Gestapo.  (Fortunately Mom doesn’t venture onto the Interwebz, having developed something of a phobia for mousing.)  Throughout my childhood, and to this day, no grammatical error ever goes unnoticed or uncorrected by her eagle ear.  She is a devotee of the English language and abhors its abuse.  In the process of this constant and unrelenting policing, she created two career journalists.  And so at some point soon (because as I say, she will not see this) … I’ll thank her for never giving me an inch, and I’ll do it in person.

Friday, March 9
If you had to eliminate one word or phrase from the English language, what would it be? Why?

I have to pick just one?

Personal pet peeves include “orientate”, “hopefully” (which is a perfectly good word, used extremely imperfectly), and “irregardless”.  That people don’t get the difference between lay and lie drives me nuts, too, though I don’t suppose you can really eliminate either one from the language …

As for phrases, “It is what it is” irritates the snot out of me.  It’s meaningless!  But the vast majority of cliches make my skin crawl, truth be told (see what I did there?).

English is a malleable magpie of a tongue.  It borrows freely from more (and less) romantic languages and scripts, and changes with the tides … you only have to read a bit of Shakespeare, or even Dickens, to see how much it has transformed in a few short centuries.  So while we can try to prevail upon it with rules and admonish those who butcher it, the reality is that it’s impossible to be too unforgiving.  What you hate today will probably be either gone, or gospel, in a decade or two.

(Did I achieve the right mix of snark and sincerity?  Do tell. And l’chaim.)

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