writing advice

Book Review: “Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind”

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Pros: If you’re struggling with creating a organized routine for writing, and you haven’t heard these ideas before, there are a couple of good thoughts here.

Cons: The book is about as informational as a collection of motivational posters, full of corporate speak (talking about talking instead of imparting facts), and four page essays which only loosely support a single idea. Could have been reduced to a bullet list of ideas – which the book does include, at the end of each chapter – and would have been just as helpful but a lot faster to read.

I make it a point to only review books that I’m recommending, and in this case, I really am recommending it, but only to a small group of people. If you’re having a hard time balancing your writing, your dayjob, your family commitments, and the pressure to be brilliant at all of it, and you haven’t already read a bunch of these books – or you’re the sort of person who needs a lot of outside reinforcement to make changes in your life – this book might be what you need. The highlights:

  • Get plenty of sleep. If you can’t decide whether to go to bed or keep working, go to bed. Start going to bed a half hour earlier than you think you need to – if you need the sleep, you’ve got the time, and if you don’t, you’ll naturally wake up earlier and you can use that time for getting things done instead.
  • Get something done for yourself before replying to emails in the morning.
  • Make a master to do list that you don’t see every minute of the day, and instead write your daily to do list on a post it note. Nothing bigger than that – if you can’t fit it on a post it, you probably can’t get it done in one day. If you do all of those things, you can always make another list partway through the day, so don’t worry that you’re limiting yourself. You’re really freeing yourself to focus on just the things you really need to do first.
  • There will always be negative distractions. It’s impossible to get rid of them all (though certainly, if you can cut down on some of them without losing anything good, you should do that) but what you can and should do is bring in positive distractions to balance out the bad. Hold on to the bright, loving, happy, sexy, funny, relaxing, refreshing, and inspiring things/people in your life, and schedule little blocks of time to enjoy them. You’ll go back to your writing with more focus and more enthusiasm for your work.

The full review: (more…)

Writing Advice: Shop at ALDI

Where I live, we have several options for buying food. In addition to the local grocery store chain, there’s a fancy yuppie market, a “whole foods” -style store that sells a lot of vegan/veggie foods, a farmer’s market (a couple of days of week through the summer), an Aldi, Walmart, an Asian market… even the Target has a grocery section. Usually, I do one or two big shopping trips to Aldi a month, and that covers everything except for what I get at the Asian market (lumpia wrappers, pancit noodles, etc), and a a trip to the chain store to get the few items I can’t get otherwise (or I’ll get them if I have to go to Target that month).

The last few weeks I’ve been so busy that instead of taking the time to shop at Aldi*, I’ve been picking up just what I need most, at the chain store. It’s much more expensive, and though it’s quick, it’s a time spent on lot of little trips. Plus, instead of having a fridge full of food to choose from, I end up stressed and annoyed that I don’t have choices; I don’t eat as healthily, and it’s tempting to get fast food or order delivery instead of yet another trip to the store to get dinner…

Some Notes on Editing a 10-Year Old Writer

A few weeks I mentioned on Twitter that a child in my son’s fourth-grade class wanted me to read his novel. He had a first chapter, he knew what his story was about, and he wanted to know if – based on that – it was publishable. (Sound familiar?)

Since then he’s emailed me the chapter, and he and I had a meeting about where he was, and what he should do next. I can’t excerpt the story for you, but I can share some of what I told him:

  • It’s not ready to be published now, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it isn’t done yet. Just like homework and sports and games have a lot of steps, writing has a lot of steps, too. Chapter 1 is just the beginning.
  • You can’t* publish something until after it’s been edited, and you can’t edit until it’s been written, so the fact that you’ve written something – anything – is a good first step.
  • In your story, you have a lot of things that you’re making up. You have a world that doesn’t exist, you have a main character flying through space (you’ve never been to space), and your character is 15 years old… so he’s going through experiences that you haven’t had yet. Your reader needs to have something real in the story to hold on to. Like when a story has a cat-like alien in it – even though it looks green and scaly, it acts just like a cat would, so you can identify with the animal and the creature who owns him if you’ve ever had a cat. The reader has to be able to find what’s familiar to them, and that’s going to be something that you know so well you can describe it clearly. It’s okay to have a made-up world, or a made-up person, but you should have at least one part of the story be based on what’s real in your life.**
  • Now that you’ve written the first draft of your story, go through and re-read it as if everything were questions. Then, answer those questions. For example, if you say he’s wearing a space suit, what does that look like? If he ate breakfast, what did he eat? How did he cook it? What color is his hair, the walls of his ship, his toothbrush? If you know the answers to those questions, you don’t have to put all of the information into your story, but you can choose to give us a few more details that will help us see the scene in our heads.
  • When you go through to re-write it, read your story out loud. If the words the character says don’t feel right when you say then, change it to something that sounds like what the character should say. If you write a really long sentence and have to stop to take a breath, consider stopping it at that point and making two sentences, or at least adding a comma. If you have two different things going on in the same paragraph, or someone else starts speaking, that should be a new paragraph. At the same time, if you have one thought broken up into two different paragraphs, and neither one is more than a few sentences long, make it all one paragraph and see how that reads.
  • The best thing that you can do to become a better writer is to read as much as possible. Check out books from the library! Read other books that have characters the same age as yours, or that are set in space, or Steampunk books. Read every night if you can, even a few pages. Read so that you know what you like, and what you don’t.
  • Keep writing! Anything you write, you can make better, except a blank page.
  • And, lastly, thank you for letting me read your work.

Anything else I should have told him?

Oh, and my favorite part of the meeting – he never asked if he was a writer. He didn’t say he was an “aspiring” writer. His friends, who wanted to know what his story was about and how long it was and if things blew up, never asked if I thought he was a writer. As soon as he had written, he was a writer, and he knew that in the black-and-white way in which kids know things.

The truth is that the only time you’re an aspiring writer is if you’ve thought about writing but haven’t actually done it yet. After that you can aspire to be a better writer, to be published, to sell a certain number of copies or be picked up by a certain publishing house or agent, but you’re past aspiring to be an author. Write, or don’t, those are your two choices. And please, stop calling yourself “an aspiring writer”.

Even a 10-year old knows better than that.

* Yes, I said “can’t publish”. I’m aware that many people interpret that as “shouldn’t publish, unless you’re certain it’s brilliant, in which case, go ahead”. I’d like to start the kid off on the right path by encouraging him to edit his work before he considers it finished.

** He decided to make the main character 10 years old, so that he could put a “real” person into his “fake” setting, and keep all of the Steampunk/space aspects he was having fun with.

Good Example, Bad Example: Firefly, Language choices, and Admitting I Was Wrong

Last week I wrote a guest post for BookLifeNow where I talked about being aware of your language choices when writing stories set in the future. It’s a first step kind of post, covering a few different points, and encouraging writers to think more about the topic. One of the issues I brought up was writing a multi-cultural future:

 It’s terribly easy to slap on a few “exotic”** words and think you’re creating accessible multi-cultural characters but if you don’t know what the words mean or how language evolves over time, it sounds slapped on. It shows very quickly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mixing languages gives you a more honest feel, but that means you’ll either have phrases your readers don’t understand or you have to find a way to explain everything in context.

I gave two examples of this – Firefly, the popular but short-lived scifi television show, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 American reboot of Gojira (the Japanese-language production of the classic rubber suit monster movie). In one, the characters used two languages mixed together in the dialogue, and the other used the original Japanese footage cut together with scenes of a white guy, speaking English, asking “What did he say?” It was my way to help people visualize the difference between having “phrases your readers don’t understand”, or having to “find a way to explain everything in context”.

In that sense, I felt, it worked. But one of the readers rightly argued that Firefly was problematic in its portrayal of Asians (and, I agreed, its treatment of women). What “worked” as an example for my blog post didn’t work for the reader, who said:

I, the viewer, was very confused because I kept trying to parse the Mandarin they were speaking. Their diction was, on the whole, terrible. So, no, for me, I did not know what the inserted language meant. (And what’s so wrong with subtitles? If we had subtitles, we could have had a more realistic portrayal of the integration of English and Mandarin rather than the derogatory portrayal of Mandarin as being “that language you swear with.”) …. to me, the way it used Mandarin is symptomatic of those problems, not separate from them.

In that sense, no, Firefly doesn’t work at all. I meant it in a different way than it was taken, but there are times when intention doesn’t matter as much as what actually got said, and this is one of them. My motivation for writing the post was to get people thinking about their language choices, particularly as it pertains to race, and this is all part of that conversation. It’s a conversation we should be having, not just about a show that was cancelled a decade ago, but about how we write fiction now. A few places to start:

Mike Le asks some important questions in Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite (there’s video of Le asking that question at Comic Con and Whedon’s response here).

You can download and read Jennie Fong’s paper “Stuck in a Blender: Genre and Racial Hybridity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly“, which suggests that:

Instead of a completely blended East-West culture, Firefly only persisted in detaching Asian cultural signifiers from their cultural significance. By blurring distinctions among the different Asian ethnicities and borrowing from Asian cultures without acknowledging the population, Firefly fell into the trap of cultural appropriation rather than cultural blending.

and that this actually influenced the network’s decision to cancel the show.

Thea Lim points out Whedon’s tendency to put Asian characters in the background in her essay for Racialicious.

And someone put together a brilliant Firefly recast showing the characters portrayed by Asian actors (found on tumblr). Very fine actors on that list.

Look, it’s easy to get defensive when our words get taken in a different way than we’d like, but do you want to be right, or do you want to be better? I’m going to keep working on my writing, and the way I talk about writing, which means getting a few things right and acknowledging when I don’t. Hopefully you’ll all stick around, and we can work on these issues together.