Notes from the Holidays

notes holidays christmas party
Tis the season! The next three weeks will be tough for many writers. Family, friends, and special events abound. The best first advice is just power through. Protect your writing time and put in your ass-in-chair time no matter how tired, distracted, etc. you are. But if your writing isn’t putting food on the table—or even if you are—that may not be feasible.

 

So here’s plan B. For this limited time, attend to the demands of the season—but mine it for your writing in the new year. Below I’ve listed several typical holiday scenarios and suggested some things about them that might be noteworthy. These are not exhaustive by any means. Don’t focus on length, just write enough to bring the experience back to you in detail and technicolor.
 
notes holidays family dinner
 
After every family gathering take a few minutes to make notes on the emotional tone, with special attention to tensions, unhappiness, and surprises.

 

notes holidays lots presents
After any exchange of gifts make notes on the focus of those gifts. Was there competition regarding who gave or got the most? Was cost a consideration? Did anyone express disappointment—or envy? Were presents more token or substantial? Were any gifts homemade? Did someone give the same gift as always (e.g., a special ornament)?

 

notes holidays office party
For every party make notes on the emotional tone. Did anyone seem reluctant to be there? Did anyone drink too much? Was conversation restrained? Flirtatious? Political? Personal? Did anyone misbehave? How did you feel at the party?

 

notes holidays nutcracker ballet
For any cultural event, such as theater, ballet, musical performance, or special exhibit, start with why you were there. Why were others there? Is attending this event a tradition? A chance to see and be seen? A chore? A pleasure?

 

notes holidays travel
For holiday travel, note who traveled to whom. Was the traveler affected by work or family commitments? Does this happen every year? Is the trip a joy or a pleasure? During this particular trip, what went right? What went wrong? Was weather a factor?

 

Bottom line: Be conscious of how you are experiencing the holidays and prepare to jog your memory in the new year when you need specifics to strengthen your writing. You can do this in a matter of minutes.

 

notes holidays notebook pen
So put aside the guilt, enjoy, and prepare to jump back in!

Hanukkah Has Begun!

[Photo Credit: Roy Lindman]
 
This is a holiday season in more than one way. If you are Jewish and don’t know the Christian tradition, I urge you to read about the history of the holiday, from pagan celebrations till today.
If you are not Jewish, it’s more likely that you are aware of the Christian traditions but less so of the Jewish ones. I urge you to learn more.

Stay on the lookout for local events or TV specials that will teach you more about these holiday traditions. Maybe urge your book group to read along those lines! However you celebrate, happy holidays!

Let Your Punctuation Speak for You

let punctuation speak writing
 
This is a variation on two themes: show, don’t tell and trust your reader. The point is that the reader will get your meaning without both the punctuation and the accompanying explanation.

 

Quotation marks. Once you’ve put dialogue inside quotation marks, it’s obvious that someone said it. You can skip the she said, he replied, she answered, he responded, etc. Put in an explanation only when you need to indicate how it was said AND you cannot do it with punctuation! For example, “I’m not so sure about that,” she muttered, turning her back on him. Even so, use descriptors like muttered, murmured, cooed, whispered, etc., sparingly. Let the reader get it from the context whenever possible.
 
Exclamations. “It’s Santa!” “Look out!” “I adore it!” Can your reader be in doubt about what’s happening? Your writing will be stronger if you skip such unnecessary add-ons as she exclaimed, he shouted, or (heaven forbid) she enthused. Use an exclamation point to indicate strong emotion.

 

Question marks. Here again, if you end a bit of dialogue with a question mark, you needn’t add he asked, she queried, he inquired, etc. The exception here is needing to identify a specific speaker when more than two are present. Even then, try to avoid the tag-on attribution. For example, Ellen joined the debate. “Who says so?” is stronger in communicating to the reader than “Who says so?” Ellen asked.
 
Commas. Usually commas indicate nonessential information—information which could be dropped without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. For example, “My parents, John and Linda, are coming for Christmas.” (Of course, this assumes one has only two parents!)

 

Other uses of commas include separating a series of items of equal weight to the meaning. For example, Jim packed shirts, pants, ties, underwear, shoes, and socks. Though this entire list might best be summed up as “his clothes”!

 

Dashes. Use a dash instead of a comma to give extra weight to a particular item. For example, John picked up the flowers, the candy—and the diamond solitaire. Also, use a dash to indicate that a speaker was interruptedI’m telling you— would be followed by something like the door banged open or another speaker. You needn’t say that he stopped talking when the door opened or that So-and-So interrupted him.

 

Ellipses.  If you write I’m telling you. . . you are indicating that the speaker trailed off—a whole different meaning from a dash. The use of ellipses to indicate that some material in a quoted passage has been left out is seldom relevant to a novelist, but can be very important in nonfiction.

 

And for heaven’s sake, never use double punctuation at the end of a sentence. For example, Where do you think you’re going?!  If you simply write, Where do you think you’re going! the combination of words and ! convey a question filled with strong emotion.

 

let punctuation speak
When in doubt, rewrite!

Are You a Book Addict?

book addict
The Cambridge Dictionary defines addiction as “the need or strong desire to do or to have something, or a very strong liking for something.”  By this definition, aren’t we all book addicts? So what’s wrong with that?

 

According to the Wikipedia definition, addiction is a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences. So that isn’t sounding so good.

 

But it gets worse! Dictionary.com says addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming… to an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”

 

book addict reaching shelf
To determine the state of your reading health, answer these 30 simple yes-or-no questions.
 

The VL Book Addiction Assessment Questionnaire

1) Do friends and/or family often tell you that you read too much?
2) Do you have books in every room of your house?
3) Do you read more than ten (10) hours a day?
4) Are books the biggest line-item in your budget after mortgage payment?
5) Are you looking for a bigger house because you have no more space for books where you live now?
 
6) Have you ever hung a bookshelf from the ceiling of a room which has no available floor/wall space—such as a bathroom or pantry?
7) Have you resorted to steel girders to support the weight of your books?
8) Are your pets showing signs of jealousy? For example, does your cat pee on your books? Does your dog eat your books? Does your pet lie on your book or e-reader and bite you when you try to remove him/her?

 

9) Does your spouse, partner, or roommate ever hide your book or electronic reader?
10) Has your significant other ever deleted the Kindle app from all your electronic devices?
11) Has your partner ever ripped the last 10 pages from your book and refused to return them till you have engaged in conversation for at least 30 minutes?
12) Do you travel with two suitcases, the bigger one solely for books?
 
book addict suitcase
 
13) Do you own both a Kindle and a Nook so you don’t risk missing an e-book by an author who isn’t traditionally published?
14) Do you sleep with your electronic reader?
15) Do you have four or more stacks of books on the floor beside your favorite chair?
16) Have you ever bought the same book three times?

 

17) Do you have cards for five or more libraries?
18) Would you pass on the opera, symphony, theater, museum, or Antiques Roadshow in favor of a used book sale?
19) If you’re in a doctor’s waiting room and discover you have only one book, do you experience increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, and/or tremors?
20) Have you ever pawned a family heirloom to buy a book?

 

book addict pawn shop
21) Have you ever stolen a book?
22) Do you have nightmares about being stranded on a desert island with no books?
23) Do you have more than ten water-damaged books from reading in the bathtub?
24) Did your spouse cite “book abandonment” in filing for divorce?
25) Have you ever taken a cut in pay and/or changed jobs so you would have more reading time 9:00-5:00?
26) Would you rather read than eat?
27) Have you ever been fired for reading on the job?
28) Have you ever been fined for driving while reading?
29) Have you married someone based on the size of his/her book collection?
30) Would you trade your first born child for books?
 
book addict baby

The Results

If you answered yes to one of these questions, take care. Taper off on your book buying and reading before it’s too late.

 

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, seek help immediately! Consider therapy, possibly residential rehab, to break your habit before it breaks you.
 
crazy book addict
 
One last thing: If you know any symptoms of book addiction not covered by these questions, please notify me so that the assessment instrument can be updated and improved.

James Haddon as a Metaphor for Writers

james haddon metaphor writers
 
James Haddon is a wood carver. He came to my attention as a carver of Santas in particular—which I collect. His work is graceful, and each carving has character. These are characteristics true of good writing as well.
 
But my main point today is variations on a theme.  I was incredibly impressed with the breadth of his imagination when I noticed that he had carved both of these Santas.
Having noticed his range, I started looking for his work. Now that I have several of his pieces, I’m impressed with how his approach to the concept of Santa parallels what a lot of writers do with concepts crucial to them.

 

Many writers and teachers of writing say write what you know, or write your obsessions, or write your shadow (i.e., the dark side you usually hide). So, does that mean you write the same story again and again? Yes and no. Suppose your issue is abandonment—or poverty, crisis of faith, sibling rivalry, fear of failure, sexism, parent/child relationships—whatever. This will come up in your work again and again. The skill is to make it come up in different ways!
james haddon metaphor writers (10)
James Haddon’s concept of Santa is not unilateral! He looks at it from many perspectives. Sometimes, you need to change the entire shape of your presentation. A different genre, perhaps?
james haddon metaphor writers
Sometimes, Haddon just tweaks the externals. For writers, this might mean changing the gender or ethnic heritage of the protagonist. The internal conflicts, concerns, struggles, or aspirations could remain the same but present a new perspective.
james haddon metaphor writers
One can’t really change Santa’s age, but Haddon changes size sometimes, which I say is close enough. The point here for writers is, consider presenting your passion with a much younger or much older protagonist.
 
james haddon metaphor writers
 
Sometime changing the context—putting your character into an unexpected setting—makes the message fresh.  Consider what James Haddon did with these two unusual Santas.
Last but not least, consider going back in time (or forward). These two “old world” Santas are good examples. The concept is still clear!
james haddon metaphor writers
Bottom line: Take James Haddon as inspiration and let your imagination go!