thoughts

The Importance of “So What?”

My goal is for you to take away at least one new idea….

This phrase must be taught to presenters, because I’ve heard it many times in seminars and classes. I walked away from each presentation with a new idea, so I think it’s a good phrase.

The new idea doesn’t always stick around for long, though.

There’s one idea for writing that stuck around for years after my college Technical Writing instructor drilled it into me: “So what?”

You’ve chosen a topic. So what? What might your writing on that topic do for a reader?

You’ve added a sentence. So what? What does that sentence add to the sentence before it? After it? Would it matter to a reader if it didn’t exist?

You’ve used a semicolon. So what? What would happen if you used a comma instead? A period? Are you even using the semicolon correctly?

Okay, my Tech Comm instructor didn’t go into the so what’s of punctuation. I expanded on the lesson he provided. Isn’t that what every instructor desires?

My point is everything written should answer the question, “So what?” Most of the time, answering the question doesn’t involve thought. When you write a note to remind a friend to feed your cat while you’re on vacation, let’s hope you don’t need to ask yourself, “Why am I writing this?” You probably knew the answer without your conscious mind getting involved.

However, if you write a note to a coworker, a research paper for a class, an article for a magazine, or anything else and get stuck with the nagging feeling that something’s WRONG, then reach for the caged So-What to throw at your writing. Allow So-What to nibble on your words, sniff at your concepts, and claw at your intentions.

Use So-What to expose where you haven’t shown remarkable talent at predicting readers’ thoughts and feelings. Indeed, So-What is the helpful offspring of Who’s-Your-Audience. When So-What turns from your words and could-become-words to bark its question, it’s really telling you to remember what your audience wants, needs, and expects. Those are what define your audience. Acknowledge So-What’s mommy by answering its question.

If you remember this, I’ll be happy. After all, my goal is for you to take at least one new idea from this blog today.


A similar post with the same title was published in 2009.

 

IWSG: To Live the Writing Dream

Let’s play a game. Imagine. Role-play. How would you describe your future writer self, your life and what it looks and feels like if you were living the dream? Or if you are already there, what does it look and feel like? Tell the rest of us. What would you change or improve?

Imagine a better future. That’s an interesting challenge.

For me, part of the challenge is to decide whether or not to imagine I am living with all of the disabilities and marginalization of today. Politics will obviously play a part in the reality. We are not supposed to discuss political topics within IWSG, so in this post, I will simply imagine a political environment that has not significantly worsened so that where I live in this future scenario can provide my preferred social services.

My Successful Future

In my ideal future, I am living in comfortable home. Perhaps it is a 2,000-square feet house on a sizeable piece of property, enough for watching the wildlife in mature trees. No smokers live in the neighborhood, as far as I’m aware. I can walk during writing breaks around my property or down the street without worrying about attacks from dogs or humans. A bus or light rail stop is nearby for errands, because a writer needs groceries and meetups.

The city where I live contains restaurants where it’s safe for me to eat. I meet up with critique partners for coffee (or their drink of choice). Writing groups organize regular gatherings. Bookstores–and there are several–and libraries–including one where I am a frequent visitor– hold wonderful events where I can give readings, sign books, and talk to audience members.

I’m making enough money to attend a few literary conferences or conventions a year.

The cause of my perpetual back pain and fatigue was identified and treated. I have access to decent healthcare and use it as needed. What this means for my schedule is that I can write everyday at the most efficient times for creativity, such as from early morning to lunch then in the late evening, instead of squeezing in lines at the least agonizing times. Most likely, Mondays through Fridays, I start with novel scenes, tackle poetry in the transition to making lunch, and end the day with short story

Mid-afternoon is when I check social media and take care of household chores. The early evening and weekends are when I can give the most attention to my child.

My child, by the way, attends a safe public school where the teachers prioritize her (and all the students’) well-being. We do not need to spend too many hours each week on educational projects. She can play without having to compete, as she friends who we both can trust. We create together.

I write everywhere on a tablet in my home and while on trips. However, I keep a clean desk with a computer in my home library (perhaps 20% of the house space for all the bookcases).

What Am I Writing?

Novels. Short stories. Poems. A mixture of mundane fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and horror (because I appear to be incapable of avoiding it). The occasional autobiographical piece, and related essays.

Not all of what I write is published, yet enough goes out to an eager audience that I can talk with confidence about my projects.

My novels and/or short stories are nominated for awards. When I release a poetry chapbook, someone I have never met both buys it and reviews it.

Changes That Lead to This Future

In our present time, my house is about 1,200 square feet on a nice property in a relatively peaceful neighborhood. This residence is considerably safer than our previous house, which had been lacking modern air conditioning (problematic for concentrating during record-breaking heat waves), had been surrounded by cigarette smokers (troublesome for allergy management and infant care), and periodically swarmed by loose, aggressive dogs that would provide a distraction during writing breaks but not allow for any rest. There has been progress, in that I can now sit either inside or outside at home most days without fearing an attack.

Part of that safety comes from remaining reclusive, however. My current community is poor, conservative in the rural “We want to return to the 1950s!” kind of way, and unsupportive of authors. We have no public transportation, no restaurants or coffee shops that can accommodate special needs, no bookstores, one small group of mostly transplanted and cautious writers, few medical resources, and not the best shopping options. (Supplies and new clothes for public events are purchased online when the internet connection isn’t too slow.) Not mentioned above is that the literary conventions I want to reach would be either in a nearby metro area or easily accessible through that city. Where I live is several hours away from those options.

The hard truth is that for part of my dream, I will need to move, again. My happiest dreams are in the Pacific Northwest, close to where I grew up. That is on the opposite side of North America, and that will be expensive move. My spouse might not go with me.

There is no guarantee that I will be able to access healthcare before it’s too late. I will continue looking at options, but life is unpredictable. So are death and disabilities.

The struggle to reach my dream that I know how to control at this point is to write everyday. When I can’t work on novels, I try to focus on short stories. When those are overwhelming, I strive to complete poems. Anytime the physical acts of writing by hand or typing are too painful, I aim to read. With too many distractions to read a complete work, I squeeze in writing analysis in my mind.

I am a writer. That one part of my oldest dream has long been achieved.


Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

The purpose of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group is to share and encourage. Writers may express doubts and concerns in their posts without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. To see a full list of IWSG authors, click here.

Every Word a Correction

Writers, this is a tiny workshop! The only supplies you need are what you with you this very moment. At the end, you can show your participation with a comment.

Are you ready?

A picture is worth a thousand words.

You’ve likely heard this statement before.

How about the next statement?

A thousand words is worth at least a thousand pictures.

That’s today’s focus.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, several publications printed an essay titled “About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy Five Words”, by Samuel R. Delany. I came across the essay in my copy of SF: The Other Side of Realism (1971). Using what I presume to be about 5,175 words, Delany explains how the meaning of each word in a novel relates to every preceding word.

How that works is that the novel’s first word forms an image. The image may be more of an impression, vague and unseen in your subconscious, but it is there. The next word modifies the image, or at least, the emotion tied to the image.

Of course this psychological trick doesn’t only applies to novels. A single word can change any story. Each word modifies your image of the story’s contents.

Let us go through a quick example:

Stars

What if the word above were the first word of a story? Are you within the image, below it, or elsewhere? Is it doing anything, or does it wait for the next word? What would you expect next?

Below is the rest of the first sentence in my hypothetical story. To see the words, click at the end of this paragraph, then slid your mouse down to highlight each word. Please pause after each word and note how your image of “Stars” has changed, if at all.

swirled

within

my

mug.

Is the image in your head the same as when you read the first word?

Please comment below.


Revised from the original 2009 edition.

Writing as Self-Harm

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has started.  Already, the event has been educational. This post is about what I learned on the first day of November.

I must make begin by making an awkward confession. Looking through an old novel draft helped me understand the strength of my self-loathing.

Writing novels has been intensively painful for the past ten years, despite the previous years of study of the craft. The reason why appears to be in how I latch on to the most difficult stories I can conceptualize–stories that require literary techniques that only the greatest writing masters might use successfully–then tell myself the story should be easy to write.

I was a high jumper way back in high school. If you don’t know the sport, it’s basically sprinting a short distance to jump over backwards over a high bar. Before my time, high jumpers used what’s known as a barrel roll to face the bar during the jump, but people nowadays go over backwards to land on a thick crash mat. The biggest risks of botching a jump are in hitting the bar, usually when it’s too high. Training involves moving the bar an inch higher each time a skill is improved.

The bar could be higher for this jumper.

Writing can be similar to high jumping. For example, the primary skill that NaNoWriMo is meant to develop is working out a routine for quick novel draft writing.

I have won NaNoWriMo before. Pushing out 50,000 words for one project in a month was tiring and frightening at times. However, making a mess with an unusual book I intend to never share in its entirety was fun, overall. That project felt like jumping without any major disabilities over a series of low foam hurdles.

Every novel-length projects intended for publication has been like a bar on top of a wall that’s taller than my head. I’ve slammed against the wall and scrabbled at it, fallen at bad angles and refused help in recovery, all while insisting that anyone who deserves to jump could make it over. I couldn’t see until now that the skills needed for each wall are beyond what even brilliant writers start out with. Talent only gets one over the lower bars.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had much talent, anyway. Innate skill can’t be as easily measured in writing. There’s no actual bar in publishing with a measuring stick of success beside a story. Competition isn’t the same as in sports. Success is too varied; though, on a personal scale, injuries will interfere in almost any activity.

Working on novels has caused me physical harm that I won’t describe at this time. The emotional toll might’ve also cost me a paying career or two. I don’t want to go into what I’ve tried to write, because those are explanations for another time.

I will give a vague but serious warning that throwing yourself into obstacles that are not yet the challenges you’re meant to take on is dangerous. When you’re waking from nightmares with thoughts about how life would be better if you could only figure out the problems in a story, that story was a wrong choice.

Writing, supposedly, is supposed to fun, or it’s fulfilling. Hitting a wall over and over again means you’re facing the wrong direction. It means the wall needs bars as footholds for climbing.

I haven’t been building up for the climb.

What does this new understanding mean for my partially completed novels? I guess that if I were to assume that my advice is good enough that even someone with low self-esteem and weak assessment ability can follow through on it, then I need to focus on building the needed skills one by one.

The walls are for climbing, for play and for work, not for abuse.

Publication: “Better Latte” in Dark Moments

I’ve been trying to figure out deadlines in and out of writing lately, which is difficult even when the deadline isn’t for how much time loved ones or I have left in life. Too often, I hobble around in an exhausted daze, wondering who I’ve disappointed and when I should next eat.

More uplifting news: “Better Latte Than Never’s” is scheduled to appear Tuesday, September 3, in Black Hare Press’s Dark Moments. This is my first sale of microfiction as A.L. Blacklyn.

Update: “Better Latte Than Never’s” has posted. You may read the story now!


The release date was corrected.

IWSG: Favorite Genres to Write

Question of the Day:

Of all the genres you read and write, which is your favorite to write in and why?

Fantasy is the most fun. Science fiction and creative nonfiction are usually the most fulfilling.

Creative non-fiction helps me deal with my own past.

My love for writing science fiction helps me sort through my feelings about people today and our relationships with technology.

I feel that fantasy is the most fun to write because of the thousands of years of human stories that can be explored for inspiration: historical facts for historical fantasy, fairy tales and old folklore for contemporary stories, and all the ways past stories combine in in new environments for futuristic and other-world fantasies.


Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

The Insecure Writers’ Support Group aims to inspire writing and sharing. Writers are encouraged to express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who “have been through the fire” can offer advice. It’s set up to be a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.

See a full list of IWSG authors, click here.

The co-hosts for this June 5 posting of the IWSG are Diane Burton, Kim Lajevardi, Sylvia Ney, Sarah Foster, Jennifer Hawes, and Madeline Mora-Summonte. Thank you, hosts!

Blog Updates and Recommendations

Have you noticed the changes in this site’s design? I expect few readers have. Email and WordPress subscriptions won’t show the site design.

For anyone reading on the full site: What do you think?

The sliding menu in last month’s design was not keyboard friendly, which is a feature I usually check but didn’t when choosing that design. I was also struggling with features that likely matter to no one else but me but were taking up too much of my attention. The muted colors up as I type coordinate with the cover of “Grotesquery”, which brings me cheer.

Another change is that I will be boosting more blogs.

SiM Presents: Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy

Today I would like to introduce Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy by Dan Koboldt. This weekly blog series hosts experts on relevant topics to discuss elements of speculative fiction.

We debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and offer advice on getting the details right.

Posts already covers a broad range of sciences, historical topics, character types, and fantastical tropes from the past few years. The series can be a fun, educational distraction for fans of sci-fi and fantasy.

Weird Science in the News 190531

We haven’t done one of these posts yet this year. Below are several current news stories about weird science to entertain, educate, and inspire.


Researchers suggest that most of the solar system should be a protected wilderness, with one-eighth left for “mining and resource exploitation” (says Universe Today).

Air conditioner ‘in a patch’ provides portable cooling for personal use (says Nature).

Rescue ants “save the day for comrades” entangled in spider silk (says Nature).

Molecular cells in humans “‘hear’ messages with help from shape-shifting molecules” (says Nature).

Quadratic voting is “a new way of voting that makes zealotry expensive” in Colorado (says Bloomberg).

A type of popular polling indicates that up to six (6) percent of Americans claim to have experienced an alien abduction. “Space aliens are breeding with humans, university instructor says. Scientists say otherwise” (reports NBC News). This is perhaps because aliens replaced fairies (NY Times “Opinion”) as the distant Other in many Western cultures.


Weird enough for you? What else have you seen in science news of interest?

Remembering Memorial Day

Do you know the meaning of Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Both are federally recognized holidays in the United States, so many Americans get the last Monday of May and a day around November 11 off of work. Both days are meant to honor past service people.

What were we expected to think about on each day?

The short answer is that while Veterans Day (in November) primarily honors living personnel, Memorial Day honors the military personnel who died in the line of duty.

The people meant to be honored on Memorial Day aren’t the ones who can choose to march in parades or attend memorial services. That means publicly cheering the stranger wearing a U.S. Marines veteran badge might be more appropriate on another day.

Memorial Day Activities

The traditional activities on Memorial Day are decorating the grave of a service person, saying a prayer, and lowering an American flag to half-mast until noon. This can feel outdated, or unhelpful. Another option is to listen.

I’ve long thought of Monday as a time to support the veterans or civilian family members whose memories can remain raw months or years later. Those of us who have already worked through grief over a lost soldier, or who haven’t suffered any losses personally, can be receptive to stories of the military personnel who have died.

Those of you who are remembering people who were close to you should know your voice can be heard.

Remembering the Past for the Future

Speaking up and listening might be harder this year than most. Focusing on the meaning of Memorial Day can be harder when our own federal administrators don’t understand the holiday.

The current United States Commander in Chief has been talking over veterans and active duty personnel, military advisors, and military families since before his campaign. Despite opposition from senior military officials and others who care about ethics, public safety, and international relations, POTUS 45 is threatening to pardon war criminals next week. In my view, he is using a day meant for recognizing the human costs of service to boost his horrific attacks on humanity.

Please take a moment for yourselves. Enjoy an extra day off of work if you get one. But also, please, take a moment on Monday to consider the threads that weave us together.

May you have a thoughtful Memorial Day.

Beating Dead Horses

My birth father left me a leather switch. It’s the kind used for striking livestock. I think he used it on my grandfather’s ranch.

That man moved me and Dad, us alone, away from the ranch without a partner or genetic parent. When I think of the move, I hate his switch. It’s a horrible heirloom. Is that brick-red discoloration on the leather knots dried blood from a broken animal? Why give me a tool from a place I’m no longer allowed to go?

Other times, I’m only angry with our big city neighbors. Those nosy no-goods tsk at Dad when he goes out to date, which is an ordeal with enough drama on the San Antonio singles scene.

On flaring hot days are when I hold the switch tight in my fist, tensing against the useless judgement of near strangers.

I relax as the switch raises over my head. I take in the snapping force of its fall. The feeling helps to stop thinking about them all.


This story has been revised since its first appearance, in Ad Hoc Fiction Issue 169.