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Category Archives: Writing

How to Shut Your Brain Down

Brain-freeze! Ever get it?

Not the headache you get from eating ice cream too quickly, but the point at which your brain is so overloaded with to-dos and important thoughts regarding work, school, hobbies, community events, etc., that it freezes mid-thought and refuses to grind on.

*also see “brain fart,” a different but related term–although not one my parents never considered “appropriate,” hah!

Multitasking can only go so far. Even if you’re somebody like me, who regularly has the TV going and two computer screens on with four programs running, your brain eventually decides it’s had enough.

My own solution?

Treat my mind just like a computer. When I’m tossing and turning in bed and can’t get the rapid-fire thoughts streaking across my consciousness to still, I imagine that my mind is a computer screen with far too many programs open. Then I imagine a mouse clicking the little red “X” of each open window until they’re all shut down (in the case of needing sleep) or leaving only one open (the one I actually need to focus on at the moment).

It’s a surprisingly effective visual game that helps me focus in a moment of crisis, which is usually a work deadline or the realization that if I don’t fall sleep soon, the arrival of morning will be untenable.

What are your tips and tricks for finding calm and focus–whether needed or simply desired? Feel free to share in the comments. Or am I the only one out there whose brain flies at the speed of light whether I want it to or not? 🙂

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Posted by on September 22, 2013 in Writing

 

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The Jelly Shoes Club

Time to divert from all things grammatical (my previous posts) with another blast from my past — a very short (i.e. blog-length) story.

——

It was the second week of second grade. I made my way out onto the playground, eager to find new friends among my classmates.  Most were still open to new acquaintances, although some cliques had already become well established. The playground was large and spacious, and at first I just wandered, watching idly from a distance while gauging the available activities and the people involved in them, looking for a safe place to plug in.

Heat from the sun poured down onto my head and shoulders, and the great oak trees on the far side of the playground held the promise of cool — or at least cooler — shade. As I made my way there, I noticed a gaggle of girls giggling amongst themselves as they milled amongst the massive roots exposed by erosion. This particular group was not normally the safest to approach, and my decision to do so was perhaps somewhat naively based on the fact that I recognized a few of my friends standing within it. As I silently arrived on the fringe and attempted to listen in on whatever was so terribly funny, a scrawny little girl with red pigtails looked up at me sharply.

“This is the jelly-shoes-only club!” she quipped, and the group paused with a collective gasp.  I looked down at my brand-new, still-shiny tennis shoes that my mother had so proudly bought me, and I frowned. But then I remembered another pair of shiny new shoes sitting in my closet that I had simply happened not to wear that day.

“I wore jelly-shoes yesterday,” I said, thinking how I was exactly the same person as I had been the day before. “Y’all are dumb.”

Another collective gasp followed me as I walked away. Some — but not many — came with me. We formed the who-cares-what-shoes-you-wear club.

Even jelly-shoes were allowed.

—–

Do you have a childhood memory around acceptance/rejection? What was the strongest part of the memory that really made it stand out to you? Was it how you were feeling at the time, something you saw, someone who influenced you? For me, it was the realization that who I was didn’t change when my shoes did.  What was it for you?

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2013 in Writing

 

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Lay, lie, and lies — a grammatical minefield

I just read an online article that attempted to explain the difference between “lay” vs “lie.”  It actually confused me more, and I had to visit grammar girl’s blog just to double-check myself:

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/lay-versus-lie.aspx

Grammar girl has a good explanation, but I decided to provide my own helpful hint, just for fun and to show what a nerd I am.

“lay” vs “lie.”

Whenever I don’t know which to use, I recite the following.

“I lay me down” = “I lie down”

Hopefully, you’re familiar with the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” If not, Google it. J It’s a good mnemonic device for the above purpose.

Short and sweet explanation: “lay” has to have an object, in this case “me.”  I can’t “lay down” (at least not while using the word properly), because I need to say what I’m laying down (myself, a book, etc.). Neither can I “lie me” down, because lie doesn’t need an object.  See how silly it sounds?

This only applies to present tense, however, so have the following triplets memorized. (They represent present / past / past participle, but you don’t need to know that yet).

Lay / laid / laid

Lie / lay / lain

Don’t try to over-think it, just learn the pattern of the three that go together. These should be easy for anyone who’s had to memorize conjugation charts while studying a foreign language.

When you’re confused, first use the mnemonic to decide which one is correct. Once you’ve done that, match that word to whichever triplet has it at the beginning. Once you’ve got the triplet firmly in mind, then consider your tense. For present tense, use the first of the triplet, for past tense, use the second, and for past perfect, use the third.

Examples:

Lay:  Today, I lay the book down.  Yesterday, I laid it down.  Every night, I have laid it down.

Lie: Today I lie down [because I’m tired].  Yesterday, I lay down [because my head hurt].  Every night, I have lain in bed with insomnia.

And if anybody ever tells you any different, well…that’s just a lie.

Was this helpful?  Do you have your own tips and tricks?  Feel free to share!

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2013 in Writing

 

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PAST TENSE VS PRESENT TENSE IN WRITING – AN EXPERIMENT

In the previous post, I presented four basic grammatical constructions used in present- and past-tense narration.

As you’ll see below, however, it’s not all that easy to write in what looks to be a consistent tense when the narration references something that happened in the past.

I took the following bit of past narrative (it intentionally includes references to the ‘past past’) and tried it. Notice the bit of thought dialogue at the end muddles the tense question even further.

PAST

Terenik had been shocked when Gaelan had first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger was always ready, so leaving hadn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he had to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worried for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She had grown so attached, especially to Gaelan. But then, he mused, it’s probably best that we left.

PRESENT “Equivalent” (ie attempt to convert to present)

Terenik has been shocked when Gaelan has first awakened him in the healer’s tent, but a rovinger is always ready, so leaving hasn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan does to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, it’s probably best that we left.

Hopefully you can see that a simple exchange simply doesn’t work. It confuses what actually happened when. This is especially true when considering the past perfect vs the present perfect.  For example:

“Terenik had been shocked” vs “Terenik has been shocked.”

The first implies something that happened once and is finished, whereas the second implies something that potentially has happened more than once, eg “he has been shocked each time that…” and that it may happen again.

It had once been my hope that writing in present tense would alleviate the need to use past perfect, but the reality is that it only makes things more complex, not less — especially when attempting to convert prose originally written in past.

In doing so, one must consider each verb individually for original meaning and connotation. Notice in the follow example that much of it remains unchanged:

PRESENT with adjustments

Terenik had been shocked when Gaelan had first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger is always ready, so leaving hadn’t taken him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, perhaps it’s a good thing that we left.

So you see that, although simple past and past progressive forms change to simple present and present progressive forms, respectively, the majority of past perfect and past perfect progressive may have to stay the same in order to preserve the original meaning. Present perfect and present perfect progressive should only be used when appropriate for the connotation, which was true in the sentence, “she has grown so attached,” because it refers to something that may continue to happen, especially if they were to have stayed with her, for instance.

Not to belabor the point, but another possibility is do as in the above example, but in addition, to exchange past perfect/progressive for simple past.

Terenik was shocked when Gaelan first awakened him in the healer’s tent.  But a rovinger is always ready, so leaving didn’t take him long despite his injury.  Still, he has to wonder what Gaelan did to upset the Commander into sending them away in the middle of the night.  He also worries for the Cataline and how she might react to find them gone.  She has grown so attached, especially to Gaelan.  But then, he muses, perhaps it’s a good thing that we left.

But even in this example, some of the original subtlety of meaning is lost.  Can you also see how, considering either of the last two versions, it would not be immediately clear what tense was being used for the primary narration? Present tense doesn’t even occur until the second sentence, followed quickly by another past perfect (or simple past) construction. An agent or editor reading it might assume that the author doesn’t know what tense they’re writing in, or else has poor editing skills, and chuck it onto the reject pile. Therein lies at least one of the dangers of writing in present tense.

Have you ever tried to edit a piece from one tense to another? How did you go about doing so? Was it easy or difficult? Feel free to comment.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Writing

 

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The Dreaded “had had” Construction

I have heard that some agents/editors will immediately reject a manuscript either written in present tense (due to their personal preferences) or with inconsistent use of tense (based on the assumption of poor editing).

The latter (inconsistency of tense) may be attributable to the fact that, when writing in past tense, you are fairly restricted to four basic past tense forms. But when writing in the present tense, you have eight — the four basic present tense forms plus the original four past tense forms — because narrating in present tense does not remove the need to reference something that happened in the past. This leaves you with a lot of grammatical forms to mix and match, but it can potentially lead to confusion regarding what tense is being used for the primary narration.

When narrating in past tense, you have the following options:

(The majority of the narration will be in these two forms.)

1) Simple past: “He had a good time.”

2) Past progressive: “He was having a good time.”

Then you have your references to the “past within the past,” aka the dreaded “had had” construction.

3) Past perfect: “He had had a good time.”

4) Past perfect progressive: “He had been having a good time.”

Narration uses the last two forms when talking about the story’s past, ie something that happened in the story prior to the point in time currently being narrated.

Please note that this is different than going into a full-on flashback. For a true flashback, the reader travels with the narrator back to that moment, and the tense can either be kept the same as the regular narration (requiring a very clear delineation of when the flashback starts and ends) or else changed (eg primary narration in past tense, flashback in present tense, or vice versa) for effect, in order to emphasize the change. This is very different than a reference to the past, which I like to call a “thought-back.”

When using present tense narration, you have the following four options in addition to the four already listed above:

(These are now the primary forms being used by the narrator.)

1) Simple present: He has a good time.

2) Present progressive: He is having a good time.

So then one might assume that the following forms are now being used to refer to the “past of the present,” ie anything that happened prior to the present point in time being narrated.

3) Present perfect: He has had a good time.

4) Present perfect progressive: He has been having a good time.

One might also assume that converting a piece written in past tense to make it present tense is a simple matter of exchanging all past forms to their present equivalent.

In my next blog, I will take a short paragraph from my current WIP and demonstrate why the above assumption is inaccurate, why some agents/editors might assume the author is being inconsistent with tense when they really aren’t, and suggest some solutions for how to edit a piece currently written in past tense into a true present tense form.

For more information on use of different tenses, “Grammar Girl’s” blog was particularly helpful. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/present-tense-novel.aspx

Did you learn anything helpful from this post? As always, feel free to comment.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in Writing

 

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The Tense Problem of Present Tense

A lively debate currently rages in the fiction-writing world, pitting past-tense narrative against present-tense.  Assuming that a (presumably older) writer is interested in learning more about writing in present tense, one quandary they face is that, while present tense has exploded onto the fiction scene and would tend to suggest that the writing world is moving toward it as the desired contemporary mode, the majority of reading materials available are in past tense.

I think this important to note because we learn to speak the language we hear growing up; composers tend to write in the genre they predominantly listen to; writers write based on the works they have read.

The point being that learning another language as an adult requires some effort and—as a good teacher will tell you—immersion.  So how then are we, as writers who have predominantly been exposed to past tense fiction, supposed to suddenly pull off present tense that is readable and engaging?

I believe this may be part of the difficulty with those readers, including myself, who have picked up a book in first person present tense only to feel a little repulsed by it. Although I enjoyed the storyline of the book in question, I continue to have mixed feelings about it even now, over a year later.

The first time I heard an oboe played (by a high-schooler), I hated it. It sounded terrible—the kind of music where you stop up your ears in misery.  Later, I heard an oboe played by a professional, and suddenly I loved it.  The point being that those who hate present tense may not truly dislike the tense itself but rather the imperfect manner of its application, primarily by writers like me who have never been immersed in it.

With that in mind, I recently decided to give present tense another chance and purposefully picked up a book I knew to be written in it.  What a difference!  It was well-crafted, and I easily connected with the main character within the first couple of sentences—the same amount that it had taken to repulse me from the other book.

So to those writers like me who have difficulty with consistent application—go forth and read (present tense)! A basic internet search will pull up several available lists.

To those who have had difficulty with accepting this new-fangled thing—go forth and give it a second chance.  You may be surprised.

What about you — are you a writer or a reader who can relate?  Do you love/hate/don’t care about what tense a book is written it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Writing

 

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Writing Experiment – Show, Don’t Tell

My last post reveals a pleasant childhood memory written in a style that I hope communicates what happened and the humor of the situation.  As I’ve wandered through the blogs, forums, and websites of other writers, however, I’ve come to realize that it tells far more than it shows.

So, as an experiment, I decided to post a revision and see which one the readers prefer, and why.  Feel free to cast your vote in the comments below.

Summer Folly — revisited

I observed before me a thing of beauty—a massive piece of Styrofoam. Its beauty came not from its substance, but its potential. It perched there on the rocky shore of the lake, ready to jump into my arms, begging to be transformed.

“We could build a boat!” my cousin interjected

“That’s what I was gonna say!” I snapped, deflated.

“Well, then, let’s do it!” He pushed a mop of brown hair from his eyes and grinned. “I saw some wood behind the house.  Think you can find a hammer and some nails?”

My mood slowly lightened as various scrounged-up supplies materialized on a nearby dock, but the final pile of wood screamed “not enough!”

“Let’s draw it out first,” I suggested, feeling the tug of potential disappointment, afraid that the dream might slip between the cracks of the weathered dock and float away.

The chicken-scratch blueprint would not have passed code, but who cared?  A few hours, two sore thumbs, and several splinters later, a great feeling of pride and satisfaction swelled up inside.

“It’s ready,” I whispered almost reverently.

My fingers curled around the splinter-filled edge of our boat/raft/thing-that-might-float.  My cousin’s counting pulsed in my ear, and my heart prepared to soar as my muscles prepared to heft.  “One, two, three!”

But my beautiful Styrofoam would not move.

My sinking heart was buoyed only by my absolute incredulity.

“How did it get so heavy?”

It mocked me—the roundish white block that had just so recently flirted with my imagination now tossed those possibilities back in my face like so much rubbish washed up on the shore.

Sweat dripped down my face, and I licked my salty lips. “Let’s try again.”

My muscles screamed in protest and my cousin grunted with effort, and still the petulant raft pouted.  What did I do wrong? All my hopes and dreams for that day lay in that stupid piece of Styrofoam surround by a pile of pieced-together boards, and it wouldn’t work!

I sat and jammed my sweaty chin into my fist, glaring as if I could change it by sheer will-power. A stray nail sneaked its way into my hand, and I twirled it between my fingers until its presence suddenly jumped into my awareness.  My eyes darted between the nail and the wood, and realization washed over me as I fell backwards in uncontrollable laughter.

“Look at the nail!” I gasped, but the nail withheld its insight until I placed it directly beside the wood.  After an initial moment of hesitance, the nail—half an inch longer than the width of the wood—finally shared its secret with him, too.  We had nailed the raft to the dock!

—————–

Do you think that “show, don’t tell” could or should apply to other areas of life? Why or why not?

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2013 in Writing

 

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