Keep it short?

I recently skimmed through an old copy of Writer’s Market, where a section described blogging as best when the posts are short. It occurs to me that I don’t always approach my own blog posts that way, yet as a reader, I am rather grateful when one of my WordPress buddies posts something short because I rarely have a lot of time to read blog posts.

It feels like a good goal to explore what is possible with shorter posts, and I wonder if I would post more often if I didn’t conceive of the post as a form of essay.

How short is short, I wonder? Should I stop now? (Yes, you say. Nice try, I reply.)

I wanted to add this thought that came to me. Shorter posts make me think of what happens on Twitter or Facebook, sometimes called micro-blogs. Those spaces feel to me like highways, constantly in motion with the benefits of speed as well as the dangers. This WordPress blog feels more like a pasture. Quiet, almost peaceful. There is less to see unless I take time to notice what’s around me, to be open to what the day brings.

Alternative Facts About my W-I-P

Dear Publishing Professional:

This book about aliens wearing fuzzy orange hats compares well with your favorite book, which turns out to be Little Women, and I’m going to get back to you on exactly how this is the right fit.

My protagonist is indeed grappling with a life or death decision that will keep you up at night and cause you to wonder if anything is real anymore. You will need intense therapy after you read this book. No, no, I mean it, there is no way that this book is just an entertaining story with a few subtle and not-so-subtle themes. No one wants to read that any more, do they? They want to be scarred for life by the act of reading, or so your mswishlist led me to believe and I am here for it.

My novel is exactly 75,000 words long, the perfect length, I know, and that was made possible once I added the word “very” 10,000 times. I never realized how very helpful that word could be. Because I am a creative (which turns out to be a noun now, and I am fine with that), I also added the word “so” a few thousand times too.

I would tell you my favorite books except that talking about favorite books is a bit like telling someone my favorite music, and there is nothing that sparks disdain more than finding out someone likes the wrong kind of music. Let’s leave it at this—I love to read and write, and some of what I read are books.

This book will be so easy to sell because the truth is that I don’t even need any help selling it. I am just writing this query for the fun of it. No, wait, how about this—I am doing it to give back to the publishing community out of gratitude for the many books I have loved over the years, and now that I’ve written that sentence I admit there is some truth to that.

Of course, everything I’ve written so far is completely true or at least is similar to things that have sometimes been true.

With warm regards and possibly a plate of chocolate chip cookies,

Me

20 years later

20 years ago today I was having a wonderful morning. I was working in a new job that I loved. I think it must have been my second year there, and I was getting on a roll with writing in the morning before heading in for a late shift at work. The sky was a crisp deep blue, and it was a perfect fall day in the mountains. I was in a wonderful mood. I can’t remember everything from that day, but I remember that feeling so clearly because it was such a contrast to what came next.

I can’t fully remember how I heard the news. Something about a plane hitting a building. Maybe my husband told me? I got to work, and found people gathered in rooms that had access to cable news.

I remember my first impression was a small plane had accidentally hit a building.

The news grew worse as the day progressed.

I remember crying when I heard a report that taxi drivers were pulling the seats out of their cars to make room for bodies.

I kept picturing fire fighters climbing up the stairs of the building, not knowing that it was about to fall. Thinking this was something else, something manageable. Something they would survive.

I heard stories of people jumping off to escape the certain death of the building to reach the certain death of the ground. These are choices, moments, too painful to contemplate.

And I remember regretting, again, that the Supreme Court decided Bush would be president because I knew he would not respond appropriately. He would not engage in the international detective work and financial networking that could lead us to find and bring the perpetrators to justice. He would instead pound his chest and condemn countless lives to death to merely appear to take action (and not coincidentally, make a lot of money for military-affiliated businesses).

On the other hand, I was a bit grateful not to have to hear the faux outrage of the right wing if Gore was president, knowing their tendency to be supremely confident that there was a better way that only they knew. Little did I know all the horrors they would bring us by the year 2016, and that you can’t just wait for bad faith actors to settle down. They will grind our democracy to bits if we don’t push back.

And as I reflect on the sorrow and shock we felt at so much human loss and destruction (and that we now learn never ended), I am also aware that we lost 1,642 Americans yesterday (and 8,949 people worldwide), bringing the total to 658,865 in the US and 4,616,807 reported deaths worldwide, and that with Covid19 we also don’t know how many will experience lasting harm because of it.

In the weeks after 9/11, Americans wondered how they could help, and the only thing the petty leaders of the right wing could suggest was to go shopping.

In these pandemic years, we actually can help. We can get vaccinated. We can wear masks in crowded and indoor public places. We can do our part to reduce the pain and loss that keeps passing back and forth within our very mobile society.

And perhaps we can learn the lesson from the aftermath of 9/11 that small, steady, unglamorous steps are more helpful than bold performances of power. I can hope we might avoid the pain and loss that marked our time in Iraq and Afghanistan by seeking solutions that do not resemble video games or blockbuster action movies.

And if we are lucky, we may find a way to inoculate ourselves from the snake oil medicine salesmen and internet trolls who now control the Republican Party who could never conceive why anyone would enter a burning building to try to save another’s life.

To be good at something

Over the years, my children have at times sought to identify what they were “good at,” or some “special talent,” or perhaps complained that others seemed to be at ease with tasks that were for them more challenging.

Some of my children have shown interest in art and music, for example, and this has led some well-meaning relatives to ask if I thought my kids had talent in it.

I bristle at the question (but try to mind my manners). In some analytical, statistically-driven way, it is possibly true that there are qualities that we could call talent or that there are individuals born with an affinity or proclivity for certain tasks. Even in those situations, I sense a bit of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” dilemma because individuals who are surrounded with the opportunity and encouragement to engage in a task have a good chance at improving at that task. If one has some kind of “natural tendency” to build on, so much the better, though at some point whatever was natural gets replaced by skills that are acquired through years of practice.

The point of my bristle is that I don’t think we are fated to be artists or writers or musicians or athletes or teachers or doctors or marketers or whatever. A natural affinity combined with opportunity to practice may increase the odds of one of these outcomes, sure. But too often people take the inverse to be true, concluding that they must not be “good at that,” and they will never get better at it because they did not have an immediately detectable affinity and/or plenty of opportunity. To be an artist, to be a writer, to be a musician, to be a (fill-in-the-blank) is reserved for those lucky other people, not them.

I disagree. I believe if you want to pursue any art or skill, if you work at it, you can get better. You should not close the door on something you might enjoy just because you aren’t yet “good at it.” It may take time. It may not turn out the way you imagine. But don’t give up without giving it a fair try (whatever “it” is—the arts, sports, academic subjects, specialized skills).

I should clarify that I am not giving career or financial advice here. Many wonderful artists, writers, musicians, athletes, etcetera make money in ways that have little to do with that pursued art/skill. So it may be that you will need a day job, as it is called. Or maybe not. You don’t know what the future holds. So don’t close doors on yourself just because something is hard at first.

I also don’t know that it is necessary to be the best at something to find the work rewarding or of benefit. If I am honest, I am weary of the clamor and pressure within the culture to be best, perhaps because I find that this sends the signal that if you can’t be best, don’t bother. As if only the best are the ones who matter.

I reject a scarcity mindset in determining who matters. Everyone does. Period.

Instead of the pursuit to be the best, I embrace the goal of getting better. Am I getting better at what is important to me? If so, good.

So perhaps don’t worry about finding what you are good at. Focus on finding what you want to get better at.

Ask again another time.

You asked me to tell you what I believe, and I thought I knew exactly what I would say. I believe in kindness, or some might call it empathy/compassion. Not necessarily the so-called random acts of kindness, which feel like a fad diet or a New Year’s resolution, too brief to hold meaning, too spurious to value, but rather the deepest type of kindness based on the expectation that everyone on this planet has intrinsic value and deserves to be treated with kindness. Don’t get me wrong—some individuals may deserve to be limited/constrained, or at the very least, experience a few consequences for their actions, but it should still be grounded in kindness.

But then I got tired or cranky or short-tempered, and I didn’t feel like a person who should be writing about kindness. Besides, is that what I believe or what I want to believe? Is belief something solid or something aspirational? Can belief be defended, given weight and texture, or must it always be ephemeral, something that shouldn’t be scrutinized too closely?

I’ve noticed when someone else believes something fiercely, in particular those who with strong religious beliefs and, on the other hand, absolute atheists, I move in the opposite direction. Yet, if you asked, I would have said that I’m the type to try to make sense of what someone is telling me rather than immediately opposing it. I am, perhaps, an unreliable narrator of my own life.

I realize that I don’t believe in absolute truths, but I appear to believe in heuristics, ideas that are mostly true except when they are not. Be kind to others is a heuristic because most of us can think of a time when our attempts at kindness backfired or led us to feel taken advantage of. Yet kindness is still generally a good idea. So here are a few others: Be honest with others and yourself. Celebrate the ways in which the world, life, and the people you meet are sources of wonder and joy. Reading/writing is a way of life. Democracy is a kind of life blood, as essential as air or water. Find ways to make meaning out of your life. No matter your age, keep learning, keep working, keep playing.

Now that I can call these heuristics rather than beliefs, I know I could compose an endless list. But what I believe? I feel like a magic 8 ball because you will get a different answer every time you ask, some the opposite of the last.

This post is part of a group blogging activity hosted by Bill, the blogger of A Silly Place. Here’s the link to the full collection of posts on the topic of What do you believe? https://billswritingplace.wordpress.com/2021/08/04/things-we-believe-in/#more-12108

Font of wisdom

Today I want to kvetch a bit about fonts. You see, I am super partial to serif fonts. To be honest, I love all fonts, even the ones that make me shudder at the thought of actually using them in anything someone else would have to read (I’m looking at you, Western font). But my favorites have serifs.

So a few years ago when someone I respected told me that we should only use sans serif fonts because they are easier for people with dyslexia to read, I bristled, and of course, felt a bit guilty about the bristle. I mean, I am on board with accessibility. But also I was trained years ago as a reading specialist, and there was no talk of fonts back then (plus there were questions about dyslexia as a specific diagnosis versus the more appropriate and all-encompassing phrase ‘reading disability,’ for which direct support in word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension matter more than worrying about fonts, especially once the reader has advanced past primary reading levels, which was true for the college-age audience we were discussing). I made a few doubtful sounds, and the person told me I was out of touch with the latest research, which was likely true, but I wasn’t 100% clear that my colleague’s sources were grounded in reading research, so I continue to prefer serif fonts but am open to using sans serif sometimes just in case he was right.

Fonts came to mind again recently after listening to a podcast where one of the speakers was an agent complaining about writers pitching using Courier font. She suggested that the default Arial was much better.

I had to take a few breaths because I really resent the way my Pages app tries to force me to use Arial on anything because it feels like such a lazy font to me, skipping serifs and breakfast as far as I can tell. I even created a special template called 14 point Times New Roman for when I refuse to even look at Arial. And don’t get me started on WTF is going on when I copy and paste text into a Google email?? Or make edits to the email before sending? These emails sometimes show up with strange variations in font type and size, and I feel as if I was walking around with my underwear showing if my email gets sent in that mixed font state.

While I would never send Courier to anyone (except maybe back in the day when I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine and she wanted it in Courier— she of course rejected the story, but I loved having the rejection letter signed by her), I have an affection for it because it heralds for me old school typewriter writing (though not as well as the American typewriter font, which is the one I use in my online journal :)). For me, Courier evokes writers like Stephen King sending out zillions of stories to publications that no longer exist today.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I decided to take a peek at recent research on fonts. I found some imprecise information online, including the fact that the British Dyslexia Society recommends sans serif font, but sources tell me it is unclear why they took this stance.

I then came upon an article in the International Journal of Psychology (citation below) that looked specifically at the impact of serif versus sans serif fonts when college students were asked to evaluate research articles. Now granted, this study is limited in scope, but it included some findings that resonated for me. First, their review of the literature was helpful. It showed what I (who just recently upped my eyeglasses prescription) would agree—font size affects readability and even reactions to what you read. Also, letter recognition is a base skill, acquired well before word recognition and likely less of a concern for intermediate and advanced readers.

The review of the research and this study found that sans serif fonts support faster reading speeds. On the other hand, for smaller font sizes, serifs were helpful because they cause the letters to be spaced out more, making it easier to read.

The study also yielded this result: serif fonts may have slowed the readers down a bit, but the readers found serif font texts easier to understand, and the serifs font increased the readers’ interest and appreciation for the texts.

Do I feel vindicated? A little. Should I? Probably not. It’s just one study. But it did strike me that when I pick up a book to read, it’s almost always in a serif font. When I read a book or article with a sans serif font, it often feels less professional to me. So there seems to be some kind of cultural vibe at work here, and one that may say more about my age or for the academic audience, than a strictly cognitive response.

Still, go team Times New Roman, American Typewriter, and Didot. And I still love you Helvetica Neue, Marker Felt, and Noteworthy.

Article discussed:

Kaspar, K., Wehlitz, T., von Knobelsdorff, S., Wulf, T., & von Saldern, M. A. O. (2015). A matter of font type: The effect of serifs on the evaluation of scientific abstracts. International Journal of Psychology, 50(5), 372–378.

Postscript: It may be time for me to change my blog so I use serifs again :).

The process log

I thought today I might write about a strategy that has been very beneficial for me in terms of writing, or really, almost any endeavor: the process log. It’s not that far afield from journaling, which I already find so helpful. But a process log is a bit more focused than journaling. I suppose it’s a akin to a daily log that some people keep, which is a record of what they actually accomplished during the day. If I am working on a novel, a process log is where I jot down what I’ve done that day to develop the novel.

Sometimes, I note what is working and/or what isn’t. It’s very metacognitive, I suppose, if you like that kind of word. The process log sometimes works as a self-coaching process, where I unpack what I’m doing, kvetch if needed, and consider possible changes. But my log doesn’t always have to be that elaborate, just a record of what I did, such as “revised chapter 4, brainstormed chapter 5.”

This approach gives me comfort because when I don’t keep some kind of notes (and I don’t always do so), a week later I struggle to recall what, if anything, I actually did because there is not always a direct path between time spent writing and producing a final product. I was writing, I was thinking, I was creating, but more than that I can’t say. The trees get lost in the forest, I suppose.

As I said, I don’t always remember to use a process log, but I’ve always valued it when I do. As I have a bit more time to work this summer, I have several process logs underway, one per project or goal, which, by the way, is another perk of the process log because it helps me get back up to speed when I shift between projects.

As I peek at some fellow writers’ blog posts, I definitely see elements of process logs in those posts, which is probably one of the reasons I so enjoy the blog community. It’s nice to have some company as we coach ourselves along.

Fast reads vs slow reads

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the back episodes of the very helpful and entertaining Print Run podcast. In a March 2017 episode, Laura and Erik discussed the vagueness and general inaccuracy of the category of books called “literary.” Many books that seem to fit well within a genre such as science fiction or mystery also have qualities that could be considered literary. Also, differentiating literary from other genres makes it sound as if one is better than the other.

I like the idea of rejecting literary as a category. General does feel like a better fit if a novel doesn’t fit neatly within one genre.

I’ve lately been thinking that some books are fast reads, while others are slow. I sometimes hear people describe a book that is a fast read as a “light read,” but I’m not sure that’s fair to these books. There can be richness and insight in a book I read quickly. Fast reads often, but not always, are clearly within a genre, and the expectations of the genre are partly what makes for a fast read. In a mystery, for example, I tend to expect a crime that needs to be solved, and I quickly recognize one character in a role like a detective and another as perpetrator.

But even novels that fit the mode of a traditional genre can be filled with dense language or insights, and by dense, I mean abundant and rich as opposed to hard-to-decipher. So that kind of novel would fall in my slow read category. I enjoy both kinds, for the record. Fast reads have a special allure because I get caught up into the story and race to the end, almost unaware of what is happening in the world around me as I jog after the answer to my driving goal to know what will happen next. I sometimes find myself skimming parts in my eagerness to keep going.

Slow reads, like slow food or mindful eating, ask me to slow down and savor each step. One book that comes to mind for me is Lorrie Moore’s A gate at the stairs, where I recall feeling torn between my curiosity to know what would happen to the protagonist and the discovery that almost every paragraph had a kind of inside joke or flash of irony or startling use of language.

It seems to me that some slow reads might be described as a reading experience—that is, the experience of connecting and absorbing everything as you go along.

I doubt these reflections help resolve the tension around trying to force a label on a novel, but it helps me to make sense of what brings me to a book as a reader, and what to consider when I construct a novel as a writer.

photo of path

Write a lot, write a little

I want to reflect on what helps me write a lot, or even just a little. I wrote about trying to dabble in a variety of writing activities to boost my writing practice. Which, as I said, I love doing, but I have a habit of focusing on one top priority (usually my novel) at a time—mostly because that seems to work. Yet I know I typically have the opportunity to work on more than just that one top priority.

I also benefit from stops and starts. I mean, if I get on a roll, then I stick with it until I lose steam. But otherwise, I tend to come up with a few paragraphs or pages, then something clicks and I need to switch gears.

One genre of writing that I find easy to do at any time is journaling. I have often used journaling as a way to foster my work, by journaling about what I might write, discussing questions with myself that then turn into tasks to add to my to-do list, or sometimes drafting new work.

Since I have reached a moment between larger projects, I want to see if I can broaden my reach. I’d like to write more, both in terms of quantity and genres.

So my idea is this—I will aim to journal throughout the day. Not a lot. Maybe a phrase here and there, between various commitments. And the journaling can be my springboard—I can then jump into a longer piece, or I can jot down ideas or questions to pursue later.

And if I find I can’t write anything, I could take a short walk. Not to steal Brenda Ueland’s thunder (and I think Anne Lamott mentioned this too when she recommended carrying index cards at all times), but walks really can help me write more. Of course, it helps if I get back to the writing as soon as I’m done with the walk!

Reading also helps me write more, especially if I could read a little, then write a little. Sometimes I just dig in and keep reading to finish the book, but if I do that, I often forget some of the insights or ideas that flickered in the background as I read. I think it could be very helpful if I would try a bite-sized approach to reading—read a little, then jot down any ideas or impressions as soon as I can.

I also think that this could help ease some of my anxiety as a writer, because there would be more energy and change going on. I don’t quite have to know everything I’m going to write before I write it. I just open myself up to what comes, and move on from there.

It occurs to me that this strategy will require some intentionality on my part, the commitment to turn it into a habit. That is, this strategy will totally work, but only if I actually do it. Hmm. That feels like a good epitaph for my writing goals in general—it could totally work if I actually do it. Sigh.

Still, there’s no time like the present to give it a try.

Variety and consistency are key

I’ve been more successful this year in cultivating an exercise habit. Avoiding human contact has meant I haven’t caught colds or non-headline-grabbing viruses, and so far (knock on all things wooden) I haven’t pulled a muscle or injured myself in some way that would cause me to lose all momentum. The biggest break in the routine was the week after I received the second dose of the moderna vaccine. I was wiped out on day two, and just a little lower energy and babying myself the rest of the week, trying to encourage my immune system to put on its superhero cape.

In a workout video, a trainer stated that “variety and consistency are key,” and this year I’ve definitely added more variety to my workouts, including more time and more intensity. I’ve also discovered that I do better if I take one day off each week and switch each day between high intensity and lower intensity workouts.

But this advice made me wonder if I should aim for the same in my writing. I admit that I make more progress if I identify one main project as my top priority, either for the day or for the foreseeable future. Consistency tends to help. If I work each day or every other day on a novel, for example, even if just for a half an hour, the story simmers on a back burner in my brain the rest of the time, and ideas come to me at random moments. I’ve even gotten better about writing those stray ideas down. So consistency and habits of some sort work for me. Variety, now that’s an interesting idea, even if it sounds almost antithetical to consistency. For example, compare a consistent diet of one type of food versus a diet full of variety. But I guess the distinction is that one should be consistent in making some kind of effort, or starting over after essential breaks, but also aim for some variety in the actual activity. I realize that I have also found it helpful to designate one or two days a week as “pressure-free.” That is, if I want to write, great. If I don’t, that’s cool too.

I like to dabble with various forms of creative and reflective writing. Yet I found that I am more successful if I work on whatever I’ve deemed top priority first. If I dabble first, that effort often saps most of my writing energy.

But I know that a certain playfulness helps me too, at least to enjoy life in general. I want to believe playfulness improves my writing. If nothing else, it supports my ability to keep writing.

I am on summer break from my part-time job at the local university so this is a good time for me to experiment to see if and how I can add more variety to what I write. I noted on the blog post by S.G. Browne that writing for fun can help when one hits a wall in the longer project.

So I will explore ways to add some variety while still making the top priority work, um, top priority. Stay tuned! I’ll report back later this summer on how it’s going.