For some reason I can add sidebars, but not new posts. Please check back later. I have been working on a variety of things including switching my blog soon from this one, which was set up with my now-defunct West Wisconsin Telcom account. I hope to have my new blog through Gmail up soon. I will provide a link and announcement when I've got everything straight. 7/2/11

Friday, June 29, 2007

What worked; what didn’t

What’s working for me right now is my art collage-making. Pictured are some of the collages I created this week—in an altered book, my journal, an Artist Trading Card, and a collage to send my cousin and her husband. Clicking on the picture enlarges it so you want to see the details. As far as creative expressions and hobbies go, this is fairly inexpensive and easy to do. Other things that worked are that I made progress on identifying agents and polishing my novel for submission, having open space in my daily schedule for last-minute things like car repairs and an emergency trip to the eye doctor for Carl (broken blood vessel), and lunch with my favorite editor Barb ( ).

Interesting week—often it takes some effort to come up with a “what worked” while the list of “what didn’t” flows freely and plentifully. This week, I could add many more items for what worked, and yet I am stumped to think of one single “didn’t.” Can't ask for a better week than that!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

When you must write according to the rules

Think of rules and guidelines as your map to getting published.

Writers of all kinds—creative, technical, copy, business, etc—can find themselves having to write to a specific set of rules. When there is a rule, follow it. Not following rules can result in your carefully crafted piece of writing being summarily tossed out. For most of my professional life, I have written to the rules as a technical writer, proposal writer, and journalist. I have discovered this background is a valuable asset to me as I venture into the world of fiction. Fiction does have rules: they are called “submission guidelines.” These rules are as necessary to this type of writing as procurement specifications are to government proposals. Rules help reviewers, whether editors or bureaucrats, weed out the unacceptable from the acceptable. Bleak House Publishing is blunt on its web site. It tells writers “To guarantee a response, please follow our submission guidelines. Deviations may result in materials being thrown away before they're even read. You don't want that. Neither do we.” (See )

You may think writing to the rules only applies to book submissions but not to less formal situations. For example, you want to submit a short story to a contest. The rules/submission guidelines state the story must be no more than 30 pages, double-spaced, with a maximum of 3,000 words. Your brilliant story is 30 pages single-spaced and is over 6,000 words. You try to edit it, but each word is too perfect to be cut. “Oh well,” you shrug. “They will still love it.” You submit it anyway, trusting that your marvelous writing and exciting plot will carry you through.


Probably, no one will even read it. The person in the mailroom who opens it may compare it to the rule/submission guideline check list. The first item on it is “Is the entry double-spaced?” Yes. No. The person checks No, and your entry is automatically returned (or thrown out, if you had also disregarded the rule about including an SASE). This is not unreasonable. There may be hundreds of people submitting stories for this contest and eliminating those who don't think rules apply to them is one way to make the task of judging the entries more manageable. Take the time to follow the rules when you have to write to them. Don’t risk having your work go unread.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Recently read: Tim Dorsey’s The Big Bamboo

If you are not familiar with Tim Dorsey’s wild and crazy Florida series that whirls around Serge A. Storms and his sidekick, Coleman the druggie, then you have a treat ahead of you. Great summer reading. When I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference this February, so many of the agents used the term “quirky” when describing the books they preferred to handle. “Quirky” is the best word to describe Dorsey’s books. The Big Bamboo is his eighth (or so) in the series, and it’s good to read them in order to get full appreciation of his characters. Serge, a guilt-less killer who is fixated on preserving Florida’s heritage, grows on you—how can you want an amoral murderer to win each time? But you do. In this escapade, Serge’s father leaves a legacy, Serge temporarily leaves Florida, and the good killers win and the bad killers lose. If you enjoy Carl Hiaasen and Lawrence Shames, you’ll enjoy Dorsey (and if you don’t, you won’t).

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Serendipity sales

Still Life with Chair, by Lindsey May
At the San Francisco Writers Conference, I participated in a marketing workshop by the public relations consultant and expert, Elias Southard ( ). One of the key points she made was that marketing opportunities—moments when you can complete that “sale” can happen unexpectedly. Southard’s advice? Be prepared.

Last Thursday, I was involved in just such a serendipitous moment, although as the buyer rather than the seller. A small town near where I live has a summer-long event where every Thursday evening local artists of all kinds, from writers to musicians, from painters to goldsmiths, are guests of local downtown businesses. My father and I stopped at the downtown pharmacy to pick up some vitamins. Seated near the register was a new graduate of the UW-Stout art department named Lindsey May. Several of her paintings caught my eye. One in particular, an elegant still life of a chair, really pleased me. So I decided to buy it. May was surprised and delighted. In fact, it had never occurred to her that she might actually sell something at the art event. She had no business cards, no brochures, and hadn’t even signed her paintings. A number of other people stopped by, including a retired art teacher. Everyone, from the pharmacy staff to my father, jumped in with valuable advice to her on calculating what she should charge for her painting to how much the sales tax should be. Everyone went home happy—I got a beautiful painting for a very reasonable price, she made a surprise sale, and everyone was delighted.

Now, I suspect, May will be better prepared for the next sale, and I hope she has many more. A good reminder that we might by chance meet someone unexpectedly who will turn out to be in the market for our painting, our book or our idea. Let's be ready for it.

Friday, June 22, 2007

What didn’t work: a follow-up to 6/8/07

Earlier, I wrote about my technique of what worked/what didn’t work. A number of you have responded to me via email that you were intrigued with this, and intend to try it out. It has become a habit with me over the years, including checking back with myself on how I did on my “didn’t works.” Two weeks ago I noted that I all I did that week was blog, thus letting everything else slide. This didn't work. Since then, I have succeeded in expanding my weekly focus to ensure I work on many projects rather than just one—this worked. I had said, though, that I would try scheduling. Nope, that didn’t work.

Sometimes you just have to step back and look at things from another vantage point. I am word-focused. “To-do” lists are lovely to me—nice, tidy strings of words. I love ‘em! But I’ve noticed that sometimes the list becomes an end in and of itself. This week I have been inspired to try a new angle—pictures. I am creating art collages that each represents an item on my summer “to-do” list. I will create collages, for example, for my marketing plan, my freelance ezine plan, and my novel. I’m not sure how this will work (or if it will work), but I’m having a blast so far. When I learn how to scan, save, and post the collages, I’ll share some—unless they are just too embarrassing. I am, after all, a wordsmith rather than an artist. But Grandma Moses started painting in her 70s, so I have 20 years to learn . . .

For more information on art collages and art journaling, visit .
For supplies, visit

Cultivate happiness

There have been a lot of studies over the past few years that conclude happiness can be learned, and that a happy, optimistic person (are you ready for this?) has a happier life. As a happy, optimistic person myself, I have noticed that many of the conclusions of the various studies are validated by my own life. My first response to a situation is a positive one, and I have cultivated this habit for years. For example, I was working as a consultant for a managed health care firm in the late 1990s. One of the other consultants and I were in a meeting where the firm’s Vice President said, “I’ll leave the production of the federal proposal entirely to Christie and Erica.” After the meeting, Christie was furious. “We have no support from top management here,” she said to our boss, who promptly asked me for my impression. “The Vice President has such confidence in us,” I replied. “That she is leaving the project to us to manage.” Who was right in their interpretation—me or Christie? And who cares? My interpretation was empowering, optimistic, and we wrote a winning proposal. If we’d succumbed to Christie’s view, both the process and outcome could have been miserable.

Another way I live my life in a happy state is that I learned from my parents to be nice to people. Richard Layard, a British economist, looked at the relationship of happiness to wealth, and concluded that “in rich societies [like the U.S. and the U.K.], what really affects happiness is the quality of personal relationships. Always at the top comes the quality of family life or other close personal relationships . . . and then comes relationships with friends and strangers in the street” (Setting Happiness as a National Goal,” The Futurist, July-August 2007). We have control over our relationships—over whether we are kind to our editor, over whether we are nice to our spouse/other, and over whether we treat the waitstaff as if they were our friends or as if they were robots not worthy of our smile. Marty Nemko, a columnist for Kiplinger’s, suggested that his readers be nice to others. Nemko wrote, “Thousands of scientists spend their entire lives in search of a cure for cancer to no avail. Thousands of social and government agencies try to make a dent in society's ills with little to show for their efforts. But simply being kind to as many people as possible guarantees that you will at least slightly improve the lives of everyone you meet ( ). I will add that you will also be a happier person yourself.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why be a blogger or a bloggee?

The word "network" can refer to a human network, media (as in TV network), technology (like the Internet), math, science, biology, and other (transportation, for example). I like to think that blogs represent the best of all types of networks, connecting humans through technology and media to knowlege and other places just not possible a hundred years ago, when your neighborhood buddies served as the only network you knew.

My dedication to visiting blogs began several years ago. I learn of blogs through following the trails of assorted referrals, links, and searches. According to the blog search engine Technorati at , there were 71 million blogs as of May 2007 (that would be 71 million and 1 as of June 4 when I started mine). I am, in my face-to-face life, an avid networker, who keeps in touch with people, who introduces people, and who can always find a resource for a question or a problem. Blogging, I’ve decided, is the ultimate in networking.

As I wander through the blogosphere, I began noticing what made me return to a blog. I would revisit blogs if I liked the writing style, sense of humor, graphics, links, and/or content. It was a very personal mix. For example, one of the first blogs I discovered was through searching for a book online. I learned of an author of French style books—Anne Barone ( So I searched for her name, found her web site, found her blog, and I visit it several times a week for her take on politics (she is a liberal, educated well-traveled middle aged woman who lives in a small Texas town, I tend to agree with her views), diet, the French people and culture, American eating habits, and her many links to interesting articles in a variety of national and international publications. From her site, I spread out to an international community of Francophiles ( ) where I learned of a couple of blogs over the years that have since become daily additions ( and ). Through the Artella Daily Muse online newspaper ( ), just today I learned of this nifty site at I have signed up, and will, I’m sure, find all sorts of interesting and useful (not always the same thing) information and ideas. I also turn up new authors as well from my blog visits. Recent finds include E.M. Delafield and Manuel Vazquez Montalban. I regularly visit blogs of agents, writers, publishers, public relations professionals, artists—this is just as important to me as a writer as reading the Wall Street Journal is to an investment broker. I hope that for many of you, you’ll return because you like my writing, share a similar sense of humor, find useful information, new books to read, get inspired, and decide this small part of the blog community is a place you like to visit.

A small sample du jour of my blog favorites:
Away with words—a writer’s thoughts and insights at
A small publisher—devoted to books at
Insight into a literary agent’s pet peeves at (note this site closed as an official blog in May, but it remains available as a good reference tool for writers)
An artist who works in art collages—my new passion, at
Start your day off right at

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

You are marketing yourself whether you know it or not

In May, I participated in the commencement ceremony at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, receiving my Master’s of Science in Career & Technical Education. By chance, I was seated in the front row. As I watched the Bachelor’s candidates traipse past me on the way to the stage to receive their degrees, I noticed how many of them were wearing sneakers and even rubber flipflops. Some of the men had bare calves showing between too-short gowns and their sneakers—I assumed they were wearing shorts rather than actually being flashers in gowns rather than raincoats. These people were entering their next stage of life as college-educated adults and had no idea that their first action as a graduate screamed, “I’m a kid and totally clueless as to how I should act in the realm of adults.” They were marketing themselves whether they knew it or not. Conversely, the young men and women who were appropriately shod for a formal ceremony were presenting themselves as adults ready for professional careers. Whether we market ourselves actively as writers by putting "writer" on our business cards, by joining associations, or by any other marketing actions—or whether we just huddle over our computers and hope the world finds us—we are marketing ourselves as either successful (or soon to be) writers or we are marketing ourselves as clueless kids.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Let us start a literacy epidemic among adults and children

Across the country, educators note the importance of reading and writing. Businesses plead for more articulate and literate workers. However, in many American homes, the only reading material is the week’s copy of TV Guide. Literacy and language skills are closely tied, and both lay the foundation for many other skills that human beings need. An article in the March 2007 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, the professional journal for education, noted that, "the negative ramifications of low literacy skills are pervasive and well documented--poor self-esteem, low motivation, behavioral difficulties, academic underachievement, and, ultimately, reduced occupational and economic status." (Sloat, Beswick, Williams, "Using Early Literacy Monitoring to Prevent Reading Failure).

By the age of six, most children have developed language perception and have ability to use words, including a vocabulary of approximately 5,000 words. They are ready to acquire another new skill: reading. Educators can only do so much—a family in which reading is considered one of life’s joys will produce articulate, literate workers. A family that doesn't read will not.

I am a highly skilled reader, able to read rapidly and with great comprehension. I had switched from juvenile books to adult books by the fifth grade. My husband, Carl, is also highly skilled. We both read a lot as children beginning at an early age, and continued to read a lot as adults. We each average about 3-6 books a week for pleasure, not counting all the business reading we each must do. We both were avid comic book readers as we started school. Comic books, with their combination of pictures and words (and depictions of sound effects like BAM and SPLAT) associate the word and the meaning and use a narrative format. My mother was passionate about crediting comic books in the development of my reading skills—she was an opponent of phonetics. The pictures contribute to the child’s understanding and enable the word (the symbol) to be quickly associated with the picture (the meaning). In addition, by telling a story, the child would forever associate reading with fun. And this association of fun with reading, with the discovery of new words, and high levels of comprehension, has been an invaluable part of my life and Carl’s life.

I would be willing to bet that all of you visiting my site are highly literate yourselves, are from families that read, and have children who are articulate and literate. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I volunteered with the Madison Literacy Council to help adults become literate. It is a much needed and appreciated way to spend your time. States and counties have local and regional resources for literacy. One of the national sites that can help you find a way to help is the National Center for Family Literacy at

Friday, June 15, 2007

Recently read: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

This magnificent biography-memoir is a must for everyone who loved (or even just remembers her fondly) Julia Child, or who loves France, French cooking, cooking in general, or post-WWII Europe. Alex is the grandnephew of Julia’s beloved husband, Paul. Alex spent hours with Julia, faithfully recording her memories, sorting with her through her private photographs, most of which were taken by Paul. After her death, he carried on the task to see her words and pictures published.

The book encompasses the years she and Paul lived in France from 1948 till 1954, while Paul ran the Visual Presentation Department for the US Information Service (a sort of public relations/art curator/photographer position). The reader gets an intimate look at their life in the cold Paris apartment, their excursions into the countryside with friends in the Buick they nicknamed the Blue Flash, and Julia’s wide-eyed absorption of her first glimpse of a new culture. Julia describes her first meal in France as they drove from the port at Le Havre to Paris. They stopped in a restaurant in Rouen, where Julia was shocked at the idea of ordering wine at lunch (she quickly adapted to the situation) and let Paul and the waiter decide on the food. Her love affair began before even the first bite had been taken. She told Alex, “Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life” (Chapter 1). The book takes us through her struggles to make the perfect sauces, choose the best chickens, and master the slicing of vegetables at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school. We can enjoy the photos peppered throughout the pages and only wish we could taste the meals. Don’t read this hungry. This is not only a keeper—it’s a re-reader extraordinaire!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Looking back at being a college freshman

Our niece, Sammy (shown in the photo with her father Bill, Carl’s brother) graduated this May from Laurel High School in Laurel, Montana. She’ll be a freshman this fall at the University of Montana—Billings campus. Who can watch a new “hatch” and not wax nostalgic over one’s own year when being a grownup was new and the future spread out ahead like a blank page? The contrast between now and then, while dramatic, doesn’t necessarily mean one was “better” and one was “worse.” Take a look at how students used to research, and how they (and anyone else, for that matter) can research now. When I was Sammy’s age and entering my freshman year at the University of Illinois (1970), I loved rooting around in the splendid card catalog room at the U of I’s world class library, handing my check-out slip to the library helper, who would disappear into the acres of wire bookcases “back in the stacks.” There was a pleasant smell that can be found in old libraries: compounded of a little dustiness, a lingering odor of institutional cleaning fluids, and hundreds of other particles I cannot identify. After a while, the helper would reappear, and I would receive the book. A year ago, I was back in Urbana and stopped by the library. The card catalog room, with its high domed ceiling and murals, now—instead of yards of tall, wooden card catalog cabinets—has tables with computers. The librarians and library helpers were still there, though, as was that memorable scent of books. The U of I library has more than 24 million items, of which 10 million are books, and is the largest academic library in the U.S. I still love doing research. I am no longer required to physically go to a location, and what might have taken an hour now takes a second, and instead of one source of information, I may find tens of thousands. My little office, however, just doesn’t have that magic smell that needs years and years of accumulated knowledge and effort and above all, millions and millions of paper-filled, bound books. I do love being able to work in my jammies, though.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Writers should also be marketing experts

Clio, one of the nine muses from Greek mythology, represents poetry and history. She's usually shown holding a scroll or book. She must have had a good marketing agent to still be known so long after the end of the civilization that created her.

One of the many aspects of writing that the February 2007 San Francisco Writers Conference ( ) focused on was marketing. In today’s publishing world, whether on line or on paper, authors are expected to be far more active in the marketing end of the business than back in the golden years of editors, when Max Perkins of the publishing firm Charles Scribner’s Sons coaxed and coddled and edited and marketed such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Ernest Hemingway. Often writers (myself leading the pack) resist marketing, seeing it as pushy or embarrassing or not something we should stoop to doing. Isn’t that what an editor or agent is for? The answer from the established writers, publishers, editors, and agents gathered in San Francisco was NO. Because marketing is such an important part of being a successful writer (which I define as, “being a writer other people read and being paid for it”), I plan on regularly pounding on a marketing soapbox with tips as I trip over them, links to sites and people who can help, and anything else I think will help not only myself, but others. For example, each week I receive a number of free marketing newsletters that help me to stay pumped up about marketing and that offer a number of good suggestions. Profitable Marketing Insight, published by Profitable Sales and Marketing, Inc. ( ) is one such newsletter. It provides excellent information on marketing in general, as well as for small businesses. Until we become Hemingways and Whartons, we writers can definitely be considered small businesses. The company’s president, Elizabeth K. Fischer, is also a writer, and her success as both a business owner and author are testaments to her marketing insights.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Recently read: Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

I just read my first Neil Gaiman book—Anansi Boys. His web site describes him as “one of the top writers in comics, [he] also writes books for readers of all ages. He is listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of the top ten living post-modern writers, and is a prolific creator of works of prose, poetry, film, journalism, comics, song lyrics, and drama” ( ). Since I don’t read comics, fantasy, Sci Fi or juvenile books, Gaiman, despite his ties to my neck of the woods, was not an author I had read. That has now changed and I could add a whole string of superlatives to his web site and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Gaiman is a masterly writer. Period. His hilarious blend of the supernatural, the mundane, and his clever plotting make Anansi Boys a delightful and thoughtful read for anyone.

The book is the coming-of-age story of Fat Charlie Nancy, who discovers after his father dies that 1) his father was a god, and 2) he has a brother who got all the god-genes from their dad, leaving Fat Charlie with all the goofy-genes. His brother (named Spider) moves in not only to Fat Charlie’s bleak London flat, but also moves in on his finance. As the book soars from Florida to England to a Caribbean island to the caves at the beginning of the world, we can empathize with Fat Charlie, as well as with all the children everywhere who were ever embarrassed by their dads, and all the people who fear singing in crowded dining rooms. The girl is lost, the Florida neighbor ladies light black candles, Fat Charlie’s boss should not be a role model, the animals turn nasty, and Dad-the-god returns briefly to hand over the green hat to Fat Charlie. A book doesn’t get more fun than this.

Friday, June 8, 2007

What works and what doesn't: Keeping yourself on track

For more than 15 years, I have kept myself on track for my goals by using a simple review technique I call “what worked, what didn’t.” Give it a try this week. The rules are simple:
  • Start out by looking at what worked
  • Give yourself credit even for small things
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself about what didn’t work, but be honest and look at how you could make the same situation work next time
  • Try to look at all categories of your life and goals, such as mental, spiritual, physical, and social

What worked this week

This week, as I look back, things that worked this week include:

What didn't work this week

What didn’t work for me this week was letting so many of my other projects slide as I blithely focused on my blog and my altered pages art collages. I didn't do any marketing or polishing of my novel, The Pine Tap Bar and Bait Shoppe. Nor did I do any work on freelance writing. This coming week I will try scheduling blocks of time for each of my goals and projects. For some people, scheduling works well, although I'm afraid I'm not disciplined enough to keep to a timeframe.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Protect yourself from spammers and scammers

In February of this year, I was having breakfast with a group of writers at the San Francisco Writers Conference. The talk segued from our usual angst about getting agents to the nifty new toys and tools now available for writers. One of the women had a thin, lightweight word processor about the size of a notebook. She told us how wonderful it was to be able to write anywhere, and then go home and just plug it into her computer and download her work. Everyone at the table was awed until I asked if she had any firewall or encryption on her system. I would have been just as enthused as everyone else had been except that just the week before I had interviewed several police officers who were members of the Menomonie Police Department’s Computer Analysis & Response Team. Each one stressed to me how easy it is for criminals to use the Internet to access personal information. If your PDA (or, in the case of the writer at breakfast—nifty new word processor) is able to synchronize (communicate) with your home computer, a thief with computer knowledge can also use your PDA/nifty tool to access all the records on your home computer. “They can obtain information on your computer unless it is encrypted for security,” Officer Jim Jasicki said. Encryption, or making information unreadable without the code, is one of the ways to make communications devices and computers safer from criminals. Like his counterparts in other law enforcement jurisdictions throughout the country, Investigator Dave Pellett of the Menomonie Police Department is concerned about the rising number of financial crimes reported. In most cases, financial crimes, which include identify theft, involve obtaining and using private information to access money. “We don’t have control over the security at our credit card companies, but we can use caution whenever we are doing online financial transactions,” noted Investigator Pellett. “Also, if you are at an Internet cafĂ© or on campus, be cautious about conducting business on wireless networks. Someone may be intercepting your transaction.” As writers, we may focus on our words, but we must also take some reasonable precautions to ensure someone else isn’t focusing on our numbers—like our bank accounts. For additional information on how to safeguard your words and numbers, contact your local police department’s cyber crime squad, or check on your state’s official web site for information. You can also check the web site established by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center. This web site, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), provides information on a variety of computer and Internet crimes and their prevention, as well as being a way for people to report potential crimes. The IC3 web site is located at For information about the 2008 San Francisco Writers Conference, visit the web site at

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Multiculturalism and communication

I have always believed that diversity is an important part of life. For individuals, groups, cultures, and nations to survive, each one must learn to communicate in a culturally effective manner, and must appreciate the differences inherent in a multicultural society. Multicultural communication is not just speaking the same language, although that does help. The text-to-speech translation devices being developed may ultimately help with multilingual issues, but multicultural communication is not just language-based. Culture is more than language, ethnicity and religion. It is a fundamental way of looking at the world.

As a communications instructor at a technical college in the upper Midwest, almost all of my students are from northern European backgrounds. Although I emphasize cultural competency in my classes, I have not taken the concepts beyond lectures and exercises. For example, one of the assignments I give my students in the oral/interpersonal communication class is to write down at least one stereotype that they have, and for the next two weeks interact with persons they think fit the stereotype, and report to the class what they learned. They usually report on things like “My stereotype was that all UW-Stout students are snobby, but I talked to some where I work and we went out and had a good time and they weren’t snobby at all.”

One semester, during the stereotype exercise and discussion, two of the students made homophobic remarks, and another student quickly responded from the opposite viewpoint. I just as quickly shushed up the argument. I didn’t want controversy in my classroom. Now, I believe I am part of the problem if two people who hate homosexuals (or blacks, or Muslims, or any other group—minority or majority) take my class and leave with the same views as when the semester started. Hate crimes are up in my part of the world. Last year, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that hate crimes appear to be increasing, with almost 30 percent committed by young people under the age of 20. Both of my homophobic students were 19. While I don’t want to foster a brawl, I think I should have let the discussion continue that day. Anna Deavere Smith, an African American playwright noted, “Language is a combat between individuals, a combat with the self. Language betrays us. It doesn't always do what we want it to do. I love that disarray. It's where we're human.” ( )
This attitude toward controversial communication is one that I personally, as well as other educators and writers, could do well to foster.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Writing is a problem-solving activity

Writing is an interactive, flexible flow between “outer” matters (the reason for writing, also referred to as the task environment) and “inner” mechanisms (short-term, working and long-term memory). The flow facilitates all aspects of the writing process, from identifying the audience to proofreading the final document. This flow applies to any writing situation, from grocery lists to newspaper articles to Ph.D. dissertations to Pulitzer-prize winning poems. Writing is, in fact, a problem-solving activity.

First, the reason for the writing (assignment/problem to be solved) is initiated. This begins the flow back and forth from the outside task and inner memory to ultimately produce the final result. To illustrate, look at how the flow works to create a grocery list:
  • "Oops, out of milk. What else are we out of?" The reason is initiated and the problem is identified. "Where’s that notepad? Okay, milk . . . dog food . . . bottle of Shiraz, oh, better make that two bottles ..." The audience—the family unit—is identified, information is exchanged between memory and outer matters to determine what is needed to solve the problem. The final result—a grocery list—is produced. Note the photo of the family unit.

This same process is used regardless of the complexity of the task environment. Another example:

  • "Hi, this is your editor. We need an article for the business section on that new gourmet pet food shop. Can you get it to me by Wednesday?" The reason is initiated. The task environment shifts through short-term memory to working memory and long-term memory as you remember facts from a previous interview with another doggie gourmet store, as well as data on pet nutrition learned from the vet. The writing flows back and forth between the task environment and memory as information is collected and retrieved to produce results in the form of interview notes, first draft, second draft, final draft, and published copy.

The working memory component and long-term memory are constantly pitching in to help with prior knowledge, automated writing skills, etc. Memory helps with:

  • Planning by generating organizational methods and setting goals (outline, write phone number and address of Doggie Delites, be sure camera batteries are charged, deadline of Wednesday means interim goals for interview, research and drafts).
  • Translating into word forms so you can write (creating a word document from scribbled interview notes, remembering to save the draft, keying additional information, etc.)
  • Reviewing by using skills stored in your memory for reading and editing the document (does it make sense? Does the first paragraph have a good “hook”? Is "gustatory" spelled correctly?)

Your brain helps you create the article by exchanging information and dredging up learned skills from your short-term, working and long-term memory. After the result is complete (in other words, the problem is solved), the working memory moves the information into long-term storage, and you are ready for the next assignment/problem to solve.

Recently read: Robert Wilson, The Blind Man of Seville

A gruesome murder of a wealthy businessman sets off the mental disintegration of Inspector Jefe (Chief Inspector) Javier Falcon, of Seville’s homicide unit. This psychological novel carries the Jefe and the reader back and forth in time between the present and the past. The book takes us with the Foreign Legion in the 1930s and early 1940s to fight in Spain’s Civil War and then to Russia. We also find ourselves flitting between the palaces of the rich and the hidden streets of the poor in Tangier in the 1950s.

The present-day murder affects Falcon, forcing him to face his own fears (which he is not very brave about) as he tracks the murderer (which he is very brave about). Reluctantly, Falcon struggles to confront his own past, particularly the relationship he discovers between his dead father—a world-famous artist who is not so famous in his other role of mercenary—and the dead man.

The vividness of the worlds of the Legion, the jet-set’s art crowd, bullfighters, the shadowy underworld of smugglers and hashish smokers, and modern politics and police in Spain are brilliantly depicted. The reader can see, hear, and smell the details. This is not a typical mystery novel, although the suspense is masterfully brought out page by page. Falcon, through the horrifying revelations of his father’s journal, learns the truth: both about himself, his family, and the murder. Well worth reading.

Stack of bedtime reading

I love to read. I believe you can't be a good writer if you're not a lover of other people's books. Watch for books reviews as I wend my way through the stack currently on my bedside table:
  • Neal Gaiman, Anansi Boys
  • Victoria Houston, Dead Madonna
  • Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
  • Tim Dorsey, The Big Bamboo
  • Victoria Moran, Younger by the Day
  • Ian Pears, The Last Judgement
  • Philip Kerr, Berlin Noir
  • Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme, My Life in France
  • Elisa Southard, Break Through the Noise: 9 Tools to Propel your Marketing Message
  • Sara Rath, Star Lake Saloon and Housekeeping Cottages
  • Lee Child, The Hard Way
  • Robert Wilson, The Company of Strangers
  • J. Robert Janes, Sandman