Tuesday Tips on (What a Surprise!) Writing

So I grabbed a stack of writer magazines to have on hand while I was waiting around last week (after what I’m calling “The Great Mom Fall of ’11”). And I happened to pick up two Writer’s Digests, both with the list of 101 Best Websites. One issue was from 2010, the other 2009.

I recognized most of these websites; they’re still around and going strong. Many of these best websites I’ve already discussed and passed along. And then I saw an unfamiliar one about contests and thought, I’ll just check this one out: Creative Writing Contests.

If you’ve clicked on it, you may have had the same second thought as I had. Hmmmm…the last post was in April. What happened? Had a cataclysmic earthquake swallowed up the admin? Did a truck barrel through his office where he posted daily updates? Had zombies busted through the door and eaten him? Well, you know, the usual horrors that happen to us went through my mind.

Or maybe his wife just had a baby. The point is, maybe you should let a trusted someone know how to post on your blog in case zombies eat you.

Perhaps my imagination went a little wild because I’d been over at this writing prompt generator. There’s something about a dancing pencil that I can’t resist. So I checked out a few of the prompts. If you’re having trouble with whatever you’re working on, try writing something completely different. Just for fun. Just to get some creative juices flowing. You’ll come back to your purposeful writing refreshed and ready to go.

Finally, I saw this reference site for IPL (internet public library), where all kinds of frequently asked questions are answered. And if your FAQ is not there, you can ask a librarian and off he/she will go to get your answer! Isn’t that exciting? Haven’t you always wondered what was on Carl Jung’s tombstone?

Maybe that’s just me. Still, research goes hand in hand with writing, whether you’re penning historical fiction or just a short essay. Check your facts, and check them quickly starting with a reliable resource like ipl2.

I might ask them a question I’ve been wondering about for a long time: If the zombies eat everyone (or turn everyone else into a zombie), how long will the zombies go on? I mean, really. How long can a zombie survive if a zombie’s already dead? It’s a real brain buster. (Ugh. Sorry about that.)

A Tuesday Tip on A Phrase Pet Peeve(Or Maybe It’s Just me)

I came across a line today that went something like this:

“Each of us has, as a person, vast potential.”

Ack. Why do writers (and speakers) feel the need to qualify that “us”? As if as a person, we have tons of potential, but maybe, as a cat ( to use a for instance), things might be different.

Admit it. You’ve heard that phrase “as a person” used all the time and maybe you never thought about it. But when I hear “as a person,” and the Beneficent Mr. Hall is around, I turn to him and say, “The poor extraterrestrials are feeling left out now.”

“As a person.” It’s one of those phrases that’s unnecessary. So please, just keep it simple: “Each of us has vast potential.” I guarantee we’ll know you’re talking about humans.

(Unless you’re writing sci-fi. And then it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Each of us has, as one-eyed purple people eaters, vast potential.”)

Tuesday Tips on Column and Essay Writing

This past weekend, I attended the Harriette Austin Writers Conference in Athens, Georgia in order to give my brain a good kick in the creative writing seat of the pants (Um, I kinda mixed body parts/metaphors there…you can see why I needed a refresher course or two). So I attended a session called, “So You Want to be A Columnist” presented by Mr. Wally Eberhard, Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Georgia.

Now, here’s a funny side note. I strongly suspect that the Beneficent Mr. Hall may have taken a class from this fine professor during his stint in the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism. When I asked if he (the Beneficent Mr. Hall, that is) remembered this gentleman, he said, “Uhhh. The name sounds familiar.” Mr. Hall probably heard his introduction, right before he (the Beneficent Mr. Hall, that is) fell asleep.

I, however, listened very carefully to Wally Eberhard. Because even though I’ve been writing columns and essays for a long time, I think it’s easy to get in a bit of a rut, and forget the essentials. So here’s a few timely reminders when writing columns (or essays):

1. Engage the reader early! (Don’t take up valuable words, beating around the bush. Most columns are around 600 words)

2. Tell a story, when possible. (Make sure you have that beginning, middle and ending component)

3. Know the MARKET you’re writing for. (This is easy if you’re writing a Chicken Soup for the Soul essay on a specific topic, but not so easy if you’re writing for magazines or newspapers. Do your research before you write!)

4. Read other columnists and essays. (How often do you read really fine essays? Be honest, now. Yes, I thought so. Which is why I’m including a special link for you.)

We know how important it is to read in order to be a better writer. And yet, we often skip that reading when it comes to essays. Wally suggested this link where you can find 15 of the best columns ever written. Of course, you might want to nose around the rest of Columnists.com; it’s full of great information and interesting reads.

So, I’ve got some reading to do. Because I’ve also got some writing to do.

Tuesday Tip: Do-It-Yourself Research is Safer

Today’s tip is a source I found while cleaning out all those emails last week, and it reminded me of a funny story, with me playing the role of the “naive and somewhat idiotic writer.”

So, I was writing a personal essay. Now, you wouldn’t think a writer would need research for a personal essay, and generally speaking, when I write about events that happen to me personally, I pretty much know the ins and outs involved. BUT, this was a case where a large, retail chain store was involved (K-Mart, if you must know) and it occurred to me in the midst of this splendiferous essay that perhaps this store is regional rather than national.

Honestly, the store wasn’t really integral to the story, except for the teensy little fact that the store was the setting of the event and the store name was in the title of said essay. So I said to myself, “Self, you’d best look up K-Mart and make sure they’re all over the place so people reading this essay in Montana or Michigan or wherever will know what you’re talking about.”

First, I went to the website. Because even though this was back in the dark ages of my writing career, we still had the Great and Powerful Internet. And just for the record, K-Mart has a lovely website. But they do not have a big, giant map of the US of A with little dots where the stores are located. They have a “write in your state and we’ll show you the K-Marts near you” thingie. I ask you, people: who has time to look up every state?

So I called the information number on the website (it was a 1-800 number). Then I asked the nice gentleman, “Are there K-Marts all over the country?” And he said, “What state are you looking for a K-Mart in?” (Which is terribly poor grammar, but I did not feel as if I should correct him, as the call was long-distance.)

So I said, “I just need to know if there are K-Marts all over the United States.”

A long pause followed. Then the not-so-nice gentleman asked, “Why do you need that information, m’am?”

“I’m writing a story,”I said (which was technically not true, but I thought it sounded better than personal essay) “and I just need to know if there are K-Marts in all 50 states and possibly in Canada.”

Another pause, followed by, “Perhaps you could talk to a supervisor, m’am. I’m not allowed to divulge that sort of information.”

Wherein it suddenly occurred to me that this gentleman thought I was up to something of a nefarious nature. What is the world coming to, when a person can’t ask an innocent question about the location of stores throughout the US of A (and possibly Canada)?

“Never mind!” I squeaked, and hung up the phone tout de suite!

The point being, if you want information about subjects that might cause folks to ask for their supervisor, you’d best look it up yourself.

Which reminds me of today’s tip! Here is a wonderful link for would-be mystery writers called “Blood at the Source.”

Tuesday Tip Revisited or Oooooh, Those Hackers Hack Me Off

So, another friend had her email hacked and ended up asking all her contacts for help getting home from London.

But those shenanigans didn’t particularly hack me off. I’ve seen the “Stuck in London” ploy before. I was not, however, sure that my friend had. So I skipped over to Facebook to send her a little note and lo! There she was on Facebook!

How delightfully convenient. “Hey,” I chatted, “I’ll bet you’ve been getting tons of emails about your ‘unexpected’ London trip.” I added a smiley face, even.

“Am really stuck,” she chatted back. (No frowny face or anything.)

“Really?” I asked. ‘Cause I’d just seen her the day before. That’s some nervy hacker, I thought, chatting away on Facebook, trying to catch any friends who might be socially networking.

Granted, I was annoyed, but still not majorly hacked off. I mean, it takes A LOT to hack me off. And then I saw my friend that evening.

Naturally, we spoke of the email and London and the Facebook chatting, too. What’s the (wide web) world coming to? Apparently, what it’s coming to is hackers getting into email accounts and social networks and CHANGING PASSWORDS.

That’s right. My friend couldn’t get back into her own email since the hacker had changed her password. And what can be done to prevent this hijacking? Turns out, absolutely nothing.

That’s what really hacked me off.

P.S. You might want to make sure that your Facebook and email are not tied into each other. It won’t keep your email safe, but at least your friends won’t be chatting with despicable hackers.