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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Many writing-related books and blogs I’ve read suggest using sensory elements to make the setting richer and more realistic. The toughest one for me to convey in my writing is the sense of taste. I’ve included scenes where characters were eating, but have been stumped as to how to describe the tastes without making it seem like a deliberate writer’s ploy. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a foodie, and absolutely hate cooking, but tastes are normally not something I think about—which makes them awfully hard to write about.

Yesterday 2 of my sisters and I spent the day sorting through the remaining items in our mother’s house, deciding what was worth donating, what should be discarded, and what we would keep to use ourselves—or save as mementoes of a woman who had impacted our lives more than any other. Afterwards, we went to the Cracker Barrel restaurant where each of us had taken our mother on many occasions. The sights, the sounds, the entire setting of that restaurant brought back memories that are precious to me, but the tastes were what reminded me most of my mother. I experienced firsthand how much emotion certain tastes can trigger, and how food really can have an important role in our lives.

All 3 of us chose chicken and dumplings as our main course, with cornbread to go with it, simply because that’s what my mom always ordered at Cracker Barrel. I even ordered lemonade and country green beans (not together!) in honor of her. As we ate, we compared our meals to the ones Mom had prepared for us as children. Her dumplings were heavier, somewhat doughier, but had a similar taste. I recognized the flavor of lard on the green beans; my mom always and only used lard as a flavoring. She saved the bacon drippings in a pink can next to her stove, and used it in beans, mashed potatoes, and gravies. It wasn’t until we all left home, and my dad died, that she started using store-bought cooking oils (Crisco), and that was only because she had no one to cook bacon for.

Memories of her will always be with me even though she is not; and though I may not be any better at describing tastes in my stories, I know that dumplings and green beans will forever remind me of my childhood and my mom.

 

 

What foods or tastes carry special memories for you? Which of the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, vision) is hardest for you to include in your writing? Do you agree that including tastes or descriptions of food in a story helps convey emotions or can have special meaning, or does it seem unnecessary to you?

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My latest addiction is TheJigsawPuzzles.com. As a child I enjoyed working jigsaw puzzles with my mom and grandmother, but with an active family and 5 cats I’ve never had a safe spot to lay out the pieces of a traditional puzzle in my own home. Problem solved! With virtual puzzles, I don’t have to worry about losing pieces or keeping tiny feet from destroying hours of work. And puzzles can be a lot of work.

Putting together jigsaw puzzles may seem a wasteful use of time to some people but it has helped me get a clearer focus on my writing goals. Here are 4 analogies I’ve noted regarding jigsaw puzzles and effective writing techniques.

 

1. Working on a project I truly enjoy makes it easier to get through the difficult parts.

Whether it’s a puzzle or a story/article, if I’m not interested in the subject matter and hit a rough patch, it’s tempting to quit. External motivations such as money or praise from others may help, but the internal satisfaction I get from doing something I enjoy is often the primary factor in achieving my goals

 

2. Having a clear idea of the big picture helps tremendously.

I choose puzzles that fit my mood, and sometimes they involve lots of colors and unfamiliar subject matter. Having a picture of the completed puzzle to refer to as I work helps me organize the pieces and determine their approximate placement when I get stuck. The same holds true with my writing. I’m not a strict outliner, but knowing the basic story and key plot points or talking points helps me stay focused on the end result.

 

3. Breaking the project down into smaller components keeps it from being overwhelming and provides structure for areas that may be ill-defined.

The larger the puzzle the harder it feels, but there are ways to make things more manageable. Putting together the outside pieces first is very helpful, providing a framework and a place to start building connections as well as reducing the number of loose pieces I have to deal with. It hints at what goes in each area, so when I’m sorting through the remaining pieces I have a general idea of where they may belong.

When an idea or scene doesn’t seem to fit what I’m currently working on, setting it aside until the writing project is further along may help clarify where it should go. In the same way, formulating the beginning and end of a chapter, scene, or paragraph helps determine what is needed in the middle.

 

4. Knowing the basics of how things work and customizing the process to fit my needs increases the likelihood of achieving my goals.

Each puzzle site I’ve visited operates in a slightly different way, and it took a while to learn how to navigate them comfortably. The online site I like best lets me see a picture of the complete puzzle as I work, has a button that lets me automatically separate the edge pieces from the others, has a timer I can use to pace myself, and lets me choose how many pieces I want the puzzle to contain and the style of the cuts. By customizing a puzzle to fit my interests and abilities I don’t get overwhelmed with something I’m not capable of handling. With practice, my skills improve and I’m able to take on more complex puzzles. I’ve also learned how to upload my own pictures and turn them into custom puzzles to share with friends.

The process of becoming a successful writer requires an understanding of how the writing and publishing process works, and also requires some customization to meet our individual needs.  Each of us has different experiences and skills, so our roadmaps to success may follow different routes.  Being aware of our strengths and weaknesses can help us figure out where we need additional help to achieve our goals, and we can work on those areas first in order to maximize our chance of success. When writing, knowing where to look for help with grammar issues, being aware of the proper format for the type of writing we are doing, and understanding how to use the basic features of our word processing program will make writing projects less stressful and more professional in appearance. Understanding how agents and editors expect us to submit our work to them, and following their guidelines, will give our submissions an advantage over our less-knowledgeable competitors.

 

 

Do you enjoy working jigsaw puzzles? What is your favorite way to “waste” time? What writing resources do you recommend for people who might be struggling down the road to success?

 

 

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One type of writing that I enjoy is journaling. While it’s similar to a diary of events or thoughts, a journal typically includes introspection on what is written.

There are many reasons to keep a journal. Here are some that I think are helpful for writers:

  • Prods our creativity
  • Helps develop writing skills
  • Captures experiences we can use in stories
  • Keeps us in the habit of writing regularly

There are many benefits for non-writers, too, and for me these are even better reasons to keep a journal:

  • Allows us to see how our attitudes and thoughts have changed over time
  • Becomes a record of our lives that others may one day appreciate reading
  • Helps us sort out our feelings
  • Relieves stress by clearing out the clutter in our minds

 

A journal doesn’t have to follow rules. It can be as detailed or vague as we want it. Whether we are writing whatever comes to mind, or following a structured theme, it can help us discover more about ourselves as well as document our thoughts and experiences.

Whether your journaling is autobiographical, free-writing, focused on a particular topic, or a mixture of those things, it can be a useful and fun hobby. There are many sites that provide creative suggestions for journal topics, as well as ideas for creating personal journals.

Here are 2 sites with articles about journaling that I found helpful:

Your Life is Your Story  On starting a journal; has many helpful links.

Infed: Writing and Keeping Journals  Discusses learning from the journals we keep.

 

I haven’t kept a regular journal for a year or two, but started a new one this week as part of a study course I’m taking. Although I usually keep my entries in Word documents, I’m also going to print off the ones for this journal and keep them in a 3-ring binder. I only have a few entries so far, and the binder isn’t fancy—but I like it. It feels right for what I want to accomplish, and easy.

My journal on Revelation

Do you keep a journal? What topics do you write about? Do you use bound journals, notebooks, binders, or computer files for your journal entries? Do you have any tips, or know of helpful sites for more information on keeping a journal?

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Whether writing or speaking, the words we use convey images to our audience.  The literal, dictionary definition of a particular word is its denotation; the implied meaning or perception associated with it is its connotation.  Selecting the right words for the thoughts we want to communicate requires knowing both their literal meaning and the emotional context surrounding them.

Many words have positive, negative, or neutral connotations that add color to their literal meanings. For example, calling someone a chef will generally imply more skill and prestige than saying they are a cook, even though both words denote a person whose job is preparing food to eat. Saying a woman’s hair looks nice can have a neutral, or perhaps negative, connotation even though the word “nice” is generally considered complimentary. Seeing the name of an inner-city gang scrawled across the wall of a building might make a gang member feel pride, but the same sight might incite anger or fear in other people in the community. Factors such as age, culture, education, and life experiences will affect how a person perceives certain words. 

Using words that connote more than their literal meaning can affect the tone and mood of what we write, and adds depth to both fiction and nonfiction by stimulating the reader’s imagination and invoking an emotional response.

 

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What are some words you react to based on their connotation more than their denotation?  What type of words do you view as “neutral?”  Do you think about the meaning of the words you are using more when you are writing than when you are speaking?

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Knock ‘em Dead, the Ultimate Job Search Guide 2011 by Martin Yate, CPC, is an excellent resource book for anyone interested in applying for a job. It provides detailed information about writing resumes, networking, appropriate attire, what to expect at an interview, and how to handle a job offer. The author explains what certain types of interview questions are meant to reveal, and gives tips on how to answer them. He stresses the importance of knowing your own skills and weaknesses, and suggests how to use that knowledge to help you in your job search.

This isn’t the type of book I could read from beginning to end, though I tried. I ended up browsing the chapters, skimming through parts that didn’t seem related to my needs and reading the sections that fit my situation. The part about resumes was especially helpful to me as I hadn’t written one since employers began putting them into databases. I didn’t realize that many employers screen resumes with computer programs looking for keywords to determine whether or not the applicant might be a good fit for the job. The examples of potential interview questions, and the reasoning behind them, were very interesting. I plan to keep this book for future reference.

Although many of the topics are useful for any type of applicant, the majority of the information seems geared toward business professionals. Those looking for unskilled work would probably not find it as beneficial, but over all I would recommend this book.

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The publisher provided this book to me for review.

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I’ve frequently heard that writers are supposed to “show instead of tell,” but that isn’t always easy to do. When it comes to settings, I think it can be especially hard.

 

Setting is more than a location or time period. Among other things, it provides a frame of reference for readers, affects the tone, supports a theme, and adds to characterization. It can also detract from those aspects of a story if the setting isn’t appropriate or memorable.

Sometimes pictures speak louder than words, but unless we’re writing a picture book we must depend on words to convey our meaning. Long narratives describing the setting can be overwhelming and boring, and many people skim over those kinds of passages (me, too!). It can be more effective and interesting to integrate specific, important details of the setting into the story itself, allowing readers to imagine the big picture.

 

To illustrate my point, I’ve included a few photos from my recent vacation. With each, I’ve added a basic caption regarding the setting; underneath I’ve mentioned why the picture is memorable to me. I hope those comments will help you get a feel for the setting where each one occurred. (Plus this gives me a chance to share a few of my favorite vacation photos without violating my blog’s writing-related theme. :) )

 

Conservatory at the Bellagio hotel

Thousands of flowers blended with fountains, birds, and storybook characters in a fantastic panorama at the Bellagio hotel.

 

Bally and Paris hotels at night

The lights at night made even conservative structures like the Bally hotel appear amazing, while turning the beautiful ones into spectacles that took my breath away.  

 

Dinner on Thursday

This decorated chicken breast resting on a few pieces of asparagus was the main course in the most expensive meal I ever ate.

 

view from the plane before takeoff

I never expected to see palm trees lining the roads while mountains loomed in the distance. Nothing at all like rural Indiana.

 

 

Here’s one where the setting wasn’t important; it was the people I was with that made this one memorable.

Lisa and Carol

I don’t even remember exactly where we were, but I was so tired I couldn’t keep plodding along. Getting a picture taken with my daughter gave me a welcome break without having to whine that I was tired!

 

For more information on setting, I recommend these sites:

 

My post from 4/13/10 on the importance of setting.

Setting Is More Than Mere Time And Place    An article on setting. The site also covers many other writing-related topics.

Setting: Writing a Story With Atmosphere This article discusses setting in some depth. It also contains lots of helpful tips on writing novels.

 

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Do you focus on the setting as much as you do the plot and characterization? Is setting important in nonfiction? What details do you like to know about the setting when you’re reading a book? Have you gone anywhere interesting on vacation this year?

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When I was in high school, our English teachers encouraged us to use lots of descriptive words in our writing. Adjectives and adverbs were our friends, making us sound educated and interesting. Flowery prose was admired, and many of my favorite stories spent more time describing the scenery than the action.

Times have changed.  

The type of writing I was taught is now considered “purple prose.” That means it’s writing that calls attention to itself by being excessive or exaggerated. The writing itself becomes the focus rather than what is written.

Though the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, clichés, similes, metaphors, and alliteration is no longer in vogue, it doesn’t mean these literary devices shouldn’t ever be used. Sometimes they’re effective in clarifying what we mean, and they can add to characterization. They can be used to grab the reader’s attention or adjust the pacing of a story. In dialog, they add a sense of realism as real speech is generally full of description and clichés. The key is—don’t overdo it.

Today’s readers are less impressed with flowery writing than those of yore. Choose words that say what you mean and are appropriate for your target audience. An occasional adjective or adverb can spice up a sentence, but too much of a good thing can get old quick (like clichés). Limit your use of them to those that are essential to the image or thought you’re trying to convey.

So, how do we know which ones are essential? They’re the ones that make what we’re describing come alive for the reader, or clarify an important noun or verb. They’re the ones that, when missing, make the sentence feel incomplete or unclear.

For those of us who could use a refresher course, here are excellent references for understanding some important points of grammar.

Adjectives  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adjectives.htm 

Adverbs  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adverbs.htm  

Verbs  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/verbs.htm  

Nouns  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/nouns.htm

Another helpful site for grammar info is: Purdue OWL  http://owl.english.purdue.edu/   

 

 

   

Did your high school English teacher tell you adding lots of adjectives and adverbs made your writing more interesting? Do you use lots of them in your writing or deliberately limit them? What criteria do you use for determining whether words, phrases, or sentences are essential to what you’re writing?

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