For the writers among us

A few thoughts and observations on that demon that haunts us ink-stained wretches:

“… writers don’t like the actual writing bit.”

“Being literate as a writer is good craft, is knowing your job, is knowing how to use your tools properly and not to damage the tools as you use them.”

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Douglas Adams, (1952 – 2001)

The above three quotes are from Douglas Adams, best known as the author of the five books of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. (I know, but that’s how he described it.) And from personal experience I can say that first quote is spot on. As well, I have written many short stories that prove the third one as well.

As for the second, that would be for the reader to determine. I like to think I write well, and use, but not abuse, the English language properly. One piece of advice I was given is “write the way you speak.” In other words, if you don’t commonly use “ten dollar words” in your daily vocabulary, don’t use them in your writing, even if you can get them half-off. You’ll sound pretentious and will probably use them wrong. My writing always uses the vocabulary and speech patterns I use in everyday communication and people have told me that when they read my stuff, they can hear my voice reading it in their minds. I consider that a compliment. The only time I vary from that is if the character requires it.

There are several other “rules” of writing that make little sense to me at least, such as “write what you know”. That may be fine if you’re writing a technical piece, but doesn’t necessarily apply if you’re writing fiction. When it comes to my fiction, many of the stories start with me asking myself “what if …?” then answering the question. How bleak would the literary world be if authors only wrote what they know? We’d have been deprived of works like J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series as well as many books that are now considered classics.

“Write what you know.” I’m a blogger – sporadically recently because there are things going on that interfere with the writing as well as Douglas Adams’s first observation – and my blogs are usually about things or events that either interest me or incense me. And given the newly elected government in Ontario, I think there’s going to be a few things that incense me. In my more honest moments, I frequently describe my blogs as “rants, raves or reasoned discussions – reader’s choice.”

One thing I read somewhere (I think it was a writer I friended on MySpace years ago) was that in order to be a writer, you must write 600 words a day. What that writer didn’t add was that it must be six hundred words you want to keep. I don’t agree with that word count. You can only write so much and if only 10 words will come that are “keepers”, then that’s ten words you don’t have to worry about later.

Many people who don’t write and don’t understand writing will often joke about the process and sometimes point to the hoary opening “It was a dark and stormy night” as an example of writing. Actually, I used that twice in one story just to see if it was possible to use it without seeming trite. Here’s what I came up with:

It was a dark and stormy night – a real nasty one – the kind I’ve come to dread ever since that night. I was sitting quietly, enjoying my beer, when I noticed the guy staring at me. I ignored him as I do anyone who is rude enough to stare. Then I sensed him coming over.

After a bit of small talk, he stopped talking and just looked at me. I looked back. “What, you want to hear about the time traveller?”

“If you wouldn’t mind telling me,” he said, signalling for refills for both of us.

I thanked him, then said, “I don’t mind telling, if you don’t mind listening. All I ask is that you don’t interrupt too much, because I don’t really like talking about it.”

He agreed and, after a sip of the beer, I started.

“It was a dark and stormy night “ I stopped as I saw him glaring at me, then I said “I know, I know – any story that starts that way has to be pure bull, right? Hear me out, then you tell me.

In the introduction to this piece I wrote “I planted my tongue firmly in my cheek and here’s the result”. I know it’s hard to tell from this short intro, but what do you think? Did I pull it off? If you like, I’ll post the entire story later this week.

Okay, let’s try to get serious for a few minutes here. Writing is, by its nature, a solitary pursuit. When you’re working on a piece, be it fiction, a blog, essay or factual, most writers don’t want anyone around to derail their train of thought. I usually have classical music playing quietly while I work. In one short story, I destroyed an entire planet with “Ride of the Valkyries” in the background. Yes, some writers say that so-and-so is their muse, their inspiration, but that doesn’t mean that muse has to be present all the time. I’m fortunate in that respect as I live alone so there are minimal interruptions.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Very true. I can’t count the times I’ve started writing something with a plan in mind only to have the characters dictate what happens through their actions. I usually just leave it since on the occasions I’ve tried to bring the story back to my vision, it didn’t work as well.  And yes, it can happen that something you’ve written will send a story off in a new direction rather than following your roadmap. I think it works this way: You write something and your mind picks up on that and asks “what if I follow that line instead?” That is what I mean by the character dictating the ensuing actions.

It seems that many good writers are also voracious readers. Not to see what the “competition” is doing, but simply for the enjoyment of the written word. No, the excuse that it cuts into writing time won’t work. Without some kind of break or diversion, your mind goes stale and your work will suffer.

And, I think I’ve done it again – started off with one idea in mind, but ended up somewhere else. I could have probably spent much less time writing this if I’d simply said “write about what interests you; write it with passion and in cohesive sentences and the readers will come.” To finish off, a quote from Robert A Heinlein (1907 – 1988), the great science-fiction writer “You must write.”

Enjoy your day and remember to hug an artist – we need love too.

Cat.

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I’d rather do it myself

I found the following in the comments on WordPress this morning. I’ve removed all references and links that could get me in trouble with WordPress (again).

Hi. I see that you don’t update your page too often. I know that writing content is time consuming and boring.
But did you know that there is a tool that allows you to create new articles using existing content (from
article directories or other pages from your niche)?

And it does it very well. The new articles are high quality and
pass the copyscape test. You should try *** tools

Let’s look at this critically. “I see that you don’t update your page too often”. If I didn’t know the message came from a bot, I’d be flattered that someone checked my page so frequently that they’d noticed.

“I know that writing content is time consuming and boring.” Sorry, but I don’t consider writing as either time consuming or boring. If you consider writing such an onerous task, you shouldn’t be doing it.

“But did you know that there is a tool that allows you to create new articles using existing content (from article directories or other pages from your niche)?” Great. So there is a tool that will write articles for me. Articles that won’t scan the way my writing scans (or doesn’t – your choice) and may not be on a topic I would even consider writing about. Or is this really saying “we have this fabulous tool that will plagiarize other articles and mould them into something new for you.”

I write about whatever stirs my interest and arouses some feeling. That’s why I may not update every day, or week. It depends upon what’s wound me up and whether I feel I can get a decent blog from it. The series “Bring him to justice” is a good example of not writing on a daily or weekly basis. This series deals with a man who didn’t tell his partners he was HIV positive – for at least a decade! As I know people he dated, I’m quite passionate about seeing him before the courts, but I only update when I have concrete information. I won’t print rumours for fear they may jeopardise the Crown’s case or possibly give his victims false hope.

Finally, what the hell is the “copyscape test”?

So, thanks for your offer, but I’d rather do it myself.

Cat.

Do it your way

Every once in a while, someone will look at some of my photos, or read something I’ve written and suggest that I should teach photography and/or writing. That presents a problem for me.

I’m sure that each of you is very good at some pastime that gives you a sense of accomplishment. But, how would you go about explaining to somebody else just how you do it? That’s the problem with my photography and writing. Oh, I could probably teach each, but the course would be twenty minutes tops. I’ll try here to explain how I do what I do.

Photography: My philosophy is simple – if something catches your attention, snap it. You may look at the image on the camera screen and not see what you expected, but wait until you get it up on the computer screen when you process it. (I do digital photography, so my comments are restricted to computer processing.) The larger image may show you something surprising that you can turn into a beautiful photo. The photo at the top of this is an example of a photo I thought was “okay” until I saw it on the monitor, then it went up in my estimation.

Take advice if offered. I’ve had some free-lance photographers give me some advice that I think is worth passing on. First, remember that a digital camera darkens an image about 30 – 40% from what you see with your eye. You’ll want to restore that brightness before anything else. This of course wouldn’t apply if you feel the darker image is more effective.

Next, a free-lancer told me to avoid weddings if at all possible because you’ll never please everyone.

Finally, if you want to be a free-lance news photographer, the best advice I was given for this was “f8 and be there”. You can’t take the shot if you aren’t at the scene and an aperture of f8 will give you a decent depth of field.

As I said, I do digital photography and process my own work. There are many photo processing programmes available. My personal preference is a Corel programme called “Paintshop”. Some people prefer Adobe’s Photoshop. I’ve used both and prefer Paintshop. If you can, try as many as you can – some places offer free trial copies – before spending your money on one.

The choice of camera is up to the user. Many of my best work was done with a Canon point and shoot, including the header photo. I currently use a Canon DSLR, but depending upon my plans for the day, I have often used the camera in my phone. The quality of phone cameras has improved greatly.

I’m torn about suggesting photography courses. Yes, I can see the benefits for some people, but when I told an artist friend it had been suggested I take one, her comment was “Why? That would only ruin you. The course would only teach you to take photos the way the instructor does.” If you feel you’d benefit from one, go for it. As my friend said, if you feel competent, save your money.

In photography the most important advice I was given was that you have to have imagination and the ability to think outside the box. Photography is as much about feeling as technique.

Writing: I’ve always written, at least back as far as Grade 5. I was fortunate in having teachers who encouraged my writing and have since received advice from others. There are many courses in creative writing available through community colleges that you can take. My ex-partner was part of a group of writers who would meet once a week and present short stories for criticism. Some members were published authors; some were taking courses and others just sat down to write. Through the members of this group (I was a casual member since they often met at our house) I learned the proper format for submitting stories, but that’s about all.

Most often, aspiring writers are told “write what you know”. That is fine if you’re writing factual articles and stories. I have a blog and frequently write opinion pieces that I laughingly refer to as “rants, raves and reasoned discussions – reader’s choice.” The main exception to that is a series of blogs under the general title “Bring him to justice”. This series concerns the attempts by the Toronto Police Service to arrest a man charged with several counts of aggravated sexual assault. This series is factual and, full disclosure here, I’m doing it because I know several people he dated.

For my fiction, it’s rather difficult to write fiction strictly sticking to “what you know”. If I’m writing fiction, the process usually starts with me asking myself “what if…?” then writing a piece to answer the question.

Perhaps the best advice the writer me was given was “write the way you speak.” If you don’t use multi-syllable words as part of your usual vocabulary, don’t use them in your writing. I sometimes paraphrase this as “if you don’t use ten dollar words all the time, don’t use them in your writing, even if you get them half-off. You’ll probably mis-use them.” Something else – spelling counts. Spell-check is great in most cases, but if you use a homophones – and yes, I had to check the definition of this – such as “hear” or “here”, spell-check won’t catch it. Proofread, then proofread again.

There. My courses on photography and writing are finished. As the title suggests “do it your way.” Class dismissed.

Remember to hug an artist – we need love too.

Cat.

Bring him to justice – one step closer

This is one of those pieces I’ve been waiting to write.

I have confirmed information that the Toronto Police Service will be travelling to Jamaica next Tuesday and returning Wednesday with George Flowers. That brings him nearer to facing justice in a Canadian court.

Once again I admit I’m torn by this. On the one side, I’m glad to see Flowers finally in a court to face his accusers. On the other is the fact that those accusers will have their carefully rebuilt lives torn apart by his legal representative. To be honest, I’m not sure the damage that will done to these people this time around is worth it. He destroyed many lives once and now the legal system gives him a chance to do it again.

If you have had sex with this man, please, please, go to your doctor and get tested for HIV.. And also go to the police for you don’t have to be positive to file a complaint.

I’ll update this as and when more information becomes available.

Cat.

Bring him to justice – Canadian justice pending

He’s coming back. According to an article in today’s Jamaica Observer, George Flowers has lost his final appeal against extradition to Canada. A representative of the Toronto Police Service will be travelling to Jamaica to escort him back to Toronto to face justice in a Canadian courtroom.

I must admit I have mixed feelings writing this. On the one side, I have some concerns for his accusers; that they will have their carefully reconstructed lives ripped apart by his lawyers in court; that the secrets they’ve been hiding for many years will be exposed. On the other side, that George Flowers will finally face the justice he so richly deserves is satisfying. Full disclosure here: I know people he dated, some of whom have tested HIV positive, so I am finding it difficult to remain neutral in this, but I will do my best.

His sexual assaults date back at least twenty years and he has played the Jamaican legal system for at least three years. Finally though, he has run out of options and the Jamaican courts have said to Canada “you can have his ass, just come and get him”.

I’ll write more when I have more details, but in the meantime I ask for your prayers for his victims.

Cat.

What you should do …

DATE: Sept 1

TITLE: What you should do …

“What you should do …” is something we’ve probably heard at various times throughout out lives. The phrase is usually followed by some suggestion that, upon examination, would be of benefit only to the speaker.

If you’re trans, you probably hear this phrase more than other people. Under the guise of offering you constructive advice, they will suggest things that won’t really be of benefit to you, but will make them feel much more comfortable. In fact, their ideas would probably have an adverse effect upon your plans for the future.

Now, I’m not saying the previous paragraph applies to everyone who utters the dreaded phrase “what you should do …” is doing so for their own benefit. If you have one friend who’s opinions you trust, if they utter those words chances are they truly do have your best interests at heart.

But for those casual acquaintances, if they say “what you should do …”, what you should do – and this is the only “what you should do …” you should to – is walk away.

One more “what you should do…” you should do is enjoy the long Labour Day weekend and remember to hug an artist – we need love (and good advice) too.

Cat.

How to be you in five easy steps

NOTE: I live in Ontario, so am speaking of my own experiences. Depending on the jurisdiction in which you live, you may have to do more travelling.

Okay, now you have your new documents showing your new name. You sit there staring at them because the government has finally acknowledged you are who you say you are. Don’t get too comfortable, for there is still a lot of work to do before you’re done.

For me here in Ontario, some of it is relatively painless. Ontario operates locations under the name “Service Ontario”, which are essentially one-stop shopping locations for dealing with provincially issued documents. There are two types – government run locations and franchises. Most transactions can be handled at franchise locations, but for modifications to health cards, you need to visit a government location as the franchises are restricted in the health information they can access. Once there, you can modify not only your health card, but driver’s licence, vehicle ownership or the Ontario identification card (if you don’t have a driver’s licence). There, one stop and all your provincial documentation has been changed to your new name.

The federal government also operates a similar service, called logically enough, “Service Canada”. Again, one stop and you can change the information on all your federally issued documents except your passport. The Social Insurance Number controls all government access, so changing that will change your tax records and, in my case, my federal pension records.

But you’re still not done. You have bank accounts and credit cards to change. In my case, that involved a simple visit to the bank where everything was done within five minutes. And something you may not have considered: if you rent, you’ll need to sign a new lease in your new name. You hope the landlord still wants you as a tenant as you prepare for this step.

What else? Well, what about your cable and cell phone? Those can be settled with a quick visit to the nearest location of your service providers, armed with your documentation. Ontario covers the cost of most drugs for seniors such as myself, so you’ll have to give your pharmacy the new information as well, as well as advise your doctor of the changes so he’ll get paid for treating you.

In the Greater Toronto/Hamilton Area, transit companies operate under an umbrella company called Metrolinx. Through Metrolinx, I have a pass (electronic ticket actually) that allows me to travel on any transit system under their control provided I have sufficient funds on the card. Naturally this has my name on it, so that must be changed as well.

These are the things I have to change, or have already changed. You may have others, such as gym memberships or gas company credit cards that will need to be attended to before you’re done.

Welcome to you new name.

Cat.