Monday, January 30, 2006

Where Have All The (Good) Writers Gone? -
Or More On Writing Contests

I remember reading this at the beginning of the year and putting a note for a later post. I only just now came across the note (which only proves that my sound organization methods work...).

The article, from Poets & Writers, is about disappointing writing contests. Disappointing for the organizers that is. In fact, so disappointing that sometimes they cannot find a winner. The article, Press Offers Refund, and Then Some says:
Much to the chagrin of writers everywhere, there is no longer anything particularly shocking about a literary contest that fails to yield a winner. When W.S. Merwin announced that he couldn't find a worthy manuscript to win the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1997, many writers--including some of the nearly six hundred who entered the contest--could barely contain their outrage. Since then, however, the winnerless contest has become a fairly common occurrence.

As opposed to most of the contests that "failed to yield a winner" and didn't refund the contest fee, Winnow Press (while still not finding a winner) did not only refund the entry fees, but also "postage costs, and returning all of the manuscripts that were entered in the contest, along with a complimentary poetry chapbook or fiction book published by the press."

Two things are at the heart of the matter as I see it from the article:

The first, the issue of contest entry fee refund. I've already mentioned in a previous post about writing contests that I don't particularly like contests and don't enter contests with an entry fee. It is my choice of course. But for those who choose otherwise, I urge to pay attention to the terms of the contest. Is the fee non-refundable? What are the copyright terms? Is it worth it? Keep in mind that not all contest organizers are like Winnow Press.

The second thing, and perhaps the bigger issue, is the fact that so many contests are winnerless. That is, the quality of the submissions, the mss is poor. This is something that is hard to hear. Could it be that in this internet age where any person who ever dreamt of being a writer now tries his/her luck? Could it be that the editors, the judges' expectations are unreasonable - a ms. that requires hardly any editing?

To contrast that, I will quote a local writer, Mark Leslie. In his blog about an anthology -North of Infinity - he's currently editing he says the following:
However, this is the first time I can ever remember going through an open submission reading phase and not receiving a single submission that wasn't good in some way. There wasn't a single story sent in to me that wasn't a good piece of writing, or a good story, or an idea that I found fascinating.

That, in and of itself, made the reading of unsolicited submissions extremely satisfying.

So perhaps not all is lost...

Categories: , ,

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Empathy, Religion and Politics

Don't yell at me before you even read the post.
And hey, I can talk religion if I want to, it's my blog!


First, let me start by saying that Slate, in their article Tear Up the Road Map, quoted me and my article Hamas Victory - What Does It Mean? that was posted in my "political" blog.

Why am I telling you this? First, for the obvious tooting horns reason. Second, because I'm about to direct you back to Slate and I just wanted to say that I prepared this post before I knew about Slate's quote.

Unity Chain
Uploaded on August 6, 2005
by olivander
Anyone not aware, Slate has a Meaning of Life TV, and this morning I listened to a fabulous interview with Huston Smith, who used to be a professor of philosophy and religious studies at MIT and Berkley respectively (among many other credentials). The interview is about 7:30 minutes long.

For those too lazy to listen, I summarized the main points - Robert Wright asks, Huston Smith answers:

Q: In today's integrated world and globalization, are there any adjustments religions need to make?
A: In theory religions need to adopt a policy of 'live and let live,' working their own destiny.
In practice, however, I'm not optimist because of human nature. All religions point to a human flaw - putting ourselves and our interests above those of others. When it comes to institutions, groups of people, it's the group's interest that matters above those of others.

Q: Has one religion been more tolerant than others?
A: Historically, it was Buddhism, but today even Buddhism isn't that tolerant.

Q: Isn't it ironic that while religions are supposed to help us transcend beyond our own perspectives, the religions themselves can't get over it?
A: The main virtue religions preach is empathy. But we can't really feel what others feel (such as hunger of a starving man). This is the challenge of life - we can never achieve it completely, but we can incrementally work at it.

Q: In this global world, can religions make accommodations for each other? Doctrinal?
A: No. These are bleak times. Religions have been seized by politicians and politicians have no conscience; they will seize anything to help themselves.
Much of what religions are blamed for, the politicians should be because they use religion for their own end.

I just wanted to share...

Categories: ,

Friday, January 27, 2006

Novel Covers?

So I went shopping the other day. Grocery shopping. I desperately needed some dish washwer detergent and some milk but as always, while there, I got a few more things. You know, the red bell peppers were on sale and the Asian pears looked real pretty too. So I was going around the store when somewhere around the freezer, I noticed what I was listening to.

Let me give you some background about our No Frills supermarket. They put the best music on. You can find me often sing along while I'm shopping and, I kid you not, but it even happened once or twice that I enjoyed a dance in one of the quiet aisles.

Okay, the point - the point is the song I was listening to. Love Song was playing, but to my surprise it was a cover. I had no idea someone did a cover to Love Song (by The Cure), and as soon as I got home I checked it out. Turns out 311 made the cover in 2004. Okay, so I'm a bit behind on my music news due to... well.. no excuses really. Other than age perhaps?

My point?
My point is that I rarely like covers as much as the originals.
There are some covers I don't mind that much like Johnny Cash's cover to Nine Inch Nails' Hurt, or even this one - 311's cover of Love Song.
But there are some, like Alanis Morissette's awful cover of Seal's Crazy that drive me up the wall.

Yeah, so?
So it just occurred to me - what if someone made a cover for a novel?
Yes, I know that novelization, novels based on screenplays, exists, and vice versa too. But have you ever seen or heard of a novel based on a novel? Not an expansion, not a fanfic, not a next installment, but the same book written differently?
I haven't encountered any and the whole concept sounds weird.

Why, then, songs and movies are being remade constantly?

Oh, well, just a thought...

To The Cure -
Whenever I'm alone with you
You make me feel like I am young again
Thanks ;)

Listen and/or watch the video of Love Song
Love Song Lyrics

Categories: , , ,

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Writing Descriptions or Descriptive Writing

Usually, when people discuss descriptive language they refer to one of two types: One is the kind of description that is intertwined between dialogue to help in conveying emotions and actions. The other is description that is independent of the dialogue and helps in making the setting more vivid. (I tried to follow my friend Vivian's advice in writing this).

I think that most of us don't have a "problem" with the first type of descriptive writing. We do it almost automatically. Robert J. Sawyer gives excellent examples of this on his web site - On Writing: description. Here's one:
It was almost midnight when McTaggart made the decision.
    "I think," he said, "that we should go closer."
    The others stared at him.
    "Maybe fifteen miles away."
    Nobody said a word.
    "Force their hand."
Even though the other characters do nothing, their inaction communicates their nervousness, their failing resolve, their fear that their leader has gone over the edge. Try it without the description:

    "I think that we should go closer. Maybe fifteen miles away. Force their hand."
Nothing. No tension. No suspense. Description isn't padding — it's the heart and soul of good writing.

Rob (who incidentally started his own blog) has more examples, go read.

As for the other type of description, that's the tricky one, at least for me. I'm never one to follow techniques, so I'm just going to take some of principals that apply to descriptive essays and try to adjust them to fiction writing:

As in all writing, in order to write good a description we must know what we're describing.

  • First, the details - that means we, writers, depend on observing, memorizing and later recollecting the moments/scenes/people/views we wish to describe.

    To help in the memorizing process, we can think of our senses, draw on them for help: what did we see, hear, smell, taste and feel (physically and emotionally)? What did we think?

    Of course, not everything we describe is facts or memories. Many times we describe things from our imagination. The details should be as specific.

  • Second - the impression, the feeling we wish to convey with the description. Say, we want to describe a park. In describing the park, we can show the park as a pleasant place or an unpleasant place.

    In the first instance we might describe how enjoyable it is to walk the little paths under the canopy of trees (that give the walker shelter from the sun) while hearing children laughter from the playground.

    In the second instance, we might describe how scary it is to quickly walk the littered paths that lie among the big ominous trees (that seem to be closing in on the walker) while eyeing the homeless that is sprawled on a bench.

  • Last - editing: Are there enough details? Are the words specific enough, correct (thesaurus)?

  • If we do this right and choose the right details along with the right verbs, adverbs and adjectives, the reader will be able to walk in the park with the protagonist, visualizing it through our details.

    Many of us bloggers actually write descriptive essays daily. Easywriter hasn't been very active lately but her posts are fictional descriptive prose gems. Go through her archives to see what I mean.

    I think that just writing this post already helped me in understanding the importance of descriptive language and how to do it better. Any more advice, comments on the matter?

    Categories: , ,

    Tuesday, January 24, 2006

    Be a Part of Something - Another Kind of Writing Market

    I've just found out about an art exhibition the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) will have in July 2006. It's called In Your Face and it will feature works, or more accurately, portraits, from and of the community:
    Get creative – draw it, paint it or write it.
    Opening July 1, In Your Face is an exhibition of portraits collected from the general public to celebrate the individuality and diversity of Canada. Submissions are now being accepted for the exhibition and the Gallery will be entering the completed project for consideration by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest collection of portraits ever assembled.

    This isn't to get paid or get a byline. It's for the opportunity to be a part of something. I think it's a cool idea.

    More info, but not much more can be found here: In Your Face

    Categories: ,

    Sunday, January 22, 2006

    On Book Blurbs

    We all want them. These little book blurbs that say such nice things about us and our books. We all want them.


    But would you want a book blurb from, say, Osama Bin Laden???
    I'd bet on... NO!
    It might increase your sales rank though...
    Still no?
    And what if you didn't ask for it?
    Well, here's what happened to William Blum (from Writer's Blog - Osama bin Laden Does a Book Blurb):

    ... in his recent videotape, terrorist Osama bin Laden endorsed William Blum's Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower. Before the plug, the book ranked 209,000 on, but after the mention, the book sales soared to #30 as of today.

    The book actually reached #18 but slumped to #23.

    Original article can be found at Reuters: US author's sales jump after Osama mentions book

    Writer's Blog concludes:

    What is this -- the beginning of Osama bin Laden's book club? [...] What's next -- a chick lit pick from Al-Zawahri?

    Categories: ,

    Saturday, January 21, 2006

    Mission Control Center - Houston, Texas

    I think that without a doubt I had the best time (tied with rock climbing) when I visited NASA. I mean, I stood face to face with an actual Mercury capsule and the actual Gemini V. How much more can anyone ask for???

    So you wanted pics, but I have too many. I'll choose two:

    What goes in, which in this case includes mac and cheese, spinach dip, strawberries and coffee with cream:

    Must Come out:

    Incidentally, I've been over at Carter's blog yesterday and turns out that I'm Wesley Crusher. Fitting, I'd say, yet still very embarrassing and I refuse to put his pic up!

    From the quiz - Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?:

    Wesley Crusher
    A brilliant learner with a knack for almost everything, you choose to spend your efforts in the pursuit of travels that extend your own potential.
    Maybe I am sick of following rules and regulations!

    Wesley is a character in the Star Trek universe. STARTREK.COM has a character biography.

    Categories: , , ,

    Thursday, January 19, 2006

    Web, Internet Writing

    I knew I wouldn't have much time to post after ten days away so I asked my good friend Vivian, who writes web content, to clue us in on internet or web writing. I hope you find this useful whether you intend to submit articles to ezines or simply want to know how to improve your own sites. Here's what Viv has to say:

    Writing for the Internet

    by Vivian C.

    Writing for the internet is in some ways very similar to print writing and nothing like it in others for the mere reason that reading on a screen is nothing like reading print.

    According to studies:
    • Nearly 80% of web readers scan the text
    • Screen reading is at least 25% slower than reading print
    • Less is more, that is readers understand more when you write less
    • Optimum reading line length - 10-12 words
    So while the similarities are:
      Planning, logical structuring, a narrative voice, point of view, knowing your audience and tailoring your writing style accordingly
    The main difference remains:
      Internet writing caters to readers who scan
    This means that web writers have very little time to capture their audience before they go back to the search engine to check out the next site on the list. In these few seconds, it is the responsibility of the writer to help the scanning process.

    Capturing readers' eyes

    How do you capture the readers' eyes and attention? How do you help the scanning process? Here are ten pointers to help write a web friendly article.

    1. Use headlines, sub-headers and captions
      Headlines and sub-headers are the first to be scanned so use catchy, punchy and poignant headers (remember the subheader tags H2 and H3 were created for a reason). And since studies have shown that readers focus on the text more than the graphics, write good captions.
    2. Use lists, bullet points and indents
      Indents can identify subpoints easily while lists and bullet points are scanner friendly. Lists and bullets also help in emphasizing key concepts. Use the numbered or ordered list when relevant (the OL tag).
      Write effective bullet points:
      Bullets aren't sentences, they're the key idea. Be consistent in the use of caps and tenses.
    3. Use short sentences, short paragraphs and line breaks
      One idea per paragraph is the motto of most web writers. Break down your ideas into topics and subtopics that can fit into short paragraphs (3-4 sentences).
    4. Length
      Because of slower screen reading, an article on the web should be 40%-50% shorter than a print article. Delete all unnecessary words and allow topic expansions with the use of links into secondary level pages (multilevel writing).
    5. Start at the end
      Always give the most important facts and information first - at the beginning of the article, the subtopic or the paragraph.
    6. Sound genuine and authoritative
      Don't be afraid to be you and to sound authoritative, it is the only way to gain the readers' trust. However, be accurate and credible - the only way to maintain that trust.
    7. Links
      A link, while providing additional information and resources, can also take the readers away from your site and they may never come back. Choose wisely.
    8. Visual design and imagination
      Try to imagine how your text would look on the screen.
      Use pictures, tables and charts to help with concepts and explain, show data.
      Bold text, or color it to emphasize ideas inside a sentence.
    9. Tone and style
      The common advice is to use transition words, shorter words and active voice whenever possible as well as a less formal tone. I disagree with that last bit and prefer to adjust the tone (and some times the style) to the market in question. Writing a personal blog post is different from writing a financial article for a financial ezine. Use your judgment.
    10. Edit, edit, edit and update frequently
      When writing for the web, most times you don't have an editor or a second pair of eyes, therefore you must be your own. It is important that your site/article is consistent. Well-written, grammatically correct, fresh content is crucial to gaining and maintaining the readers as are frequent updates.

    And most important - good content attracts good traffic.

    Categories: , , , ,

    Tuesday, January 17, 2006

    Rock Climbing

    I got home last night but was too tired to even turn my computer on, believe it or not.

    Well... I went rock climbing for the first time ever and I got the proof right here:

    On the way up:

    Reaching the top:

    The way down:

    This was the best fun I had in a while!

    Categories: ,

    Friday, January 06, 2006

    Will be back January 17th

    Okay, so I'm going away tomorrow.
    I'm actually flying into Texas and will end up at some point at NASA's Space Center in Houston. How exciting is that???

    I won't be able to post at all the next ten days.


    But, when I come back I promise we'll continue to tackle organization in writing (as I desperately need more of it), and perhaps even, following so many who have remarked in the Writing Dialogue post their dislike for descriptive language, both reading and writing it, we'll discuss that too.
    I mean, didn't someone really smart once said that it's all relative? So doesn't it depend on how good the descriptions are? Fine descriptive language can be exhilarating both to read and to write. But we'll talk about it when I come back.

    Categories: , ,

    Thursday, January 05, 2006

    Writing Dialogue

    When I was a child I used to love to read the dialogue parts so much that I would sometimes even skip over the narrative parts, especially if they were too descriptive. Today, I like reading all parts but I still have a soft spot for a good dialogue.

    For the beginners among us, here are three rules I learnt early on:
    1. Quotation marks is the most common device to denote dialogue.
    2. The quotation marks go outside punctuation marks ex: "Don't do that," she said.
    3. Start a new paragraph when changing speakers.

    Now for the fun stuff - what is a good dialogue and how can a writer use dialogue?

    Well, in my opinion as a reader, I first like the dialogue to sound natural. I don't mind if the dialogue uses specific language or grammar that is unique to the world the characters are in, but contrived or forced dialogue just doesn't work. The dialogue needs to feel as if it was actually spoken by the characters.

    Second, I feel that a good writer uses dialogue to emphasize characterization. A good dialogue can make or break a character and I just love it when a character can almost be identified by the way s/he speaks.

    Third, so often I see it - dialogue used to show, not tell. Dialogue used as a hook - starting a piece with an intriguing line of dialogue. Dialogue used to summarize an otherwise long and boring narrative. In general, good writers use dialogue as a writing device, as a plot device, not just he said, she said.

    Fourth, attribution and tags. Usually we identify the speaker very early (said John), but if there are only two I feel it is okay to sometimes omit the attribution. As for tags, I don't particularly like them much. They should be used sparingly and most often 'said' is quite enough. The occasional 'he whispered', 'she shrieked', 'he exclaimed' is fine, but not often.

    What else???
    Yes, humour - the only way I manage to put a little bit of humour in my writing is when I write dialogue. It's easiest for those of us who are not very talented in that department but would still like a little comic relief every now and then.

    Another big thing to remember is that dialogue isn't the same as conversation. In dialogue (as opposed to real life conversation) we usually do without the routine stuff of 'hey, how are ya?' and too many ummms and ers.

    And a little quote from Robert J. Sawyer article Speaking of Dialogue (go read):
    Finally, much real dialog goes unfinished. When someone is interrupted or cut off abruptly, end the dialog with an em-dash (which you type in manuscript as two hyphens); when he or she trails off without completing the thought, end the dialog with ellipsis points (three periods). Real dialog also tends to be peppered with asides: "We went to Toronto -- boy, I hate that city -- and found . . ."

    Feel free to add things I missed or supply your own opinion on the dialogue writing techniques above.

    Categories: , ,

    Monday, January 02, 2006

    Several New Posts

    I want to start 2006 with a focus on writing, so I prepared a few posts ahead of time:

    My first writing post in 2006: Writing as An Art Form

    My first science post in 2006: Most Important Research of 2005 - Uncovering the Mystery of the Missing Teaspoons

    My first guest post from hubby dearest, Elliot: When I Lay Dying

    Last, in case your new year's resolution was to lose weight, beware that a new study found that Gluttony is good for you: "The fatter you are, the less likely you are to get depressed and commit suicide" ... "Scientists in Bristol have discovered that fat people are more cheerful than their thin peers."

    Categories: , , ,

    Sunday, January 01, 2006

    Writing as An Art Form

    I was thinking a lot about what my first writing post should be in the new year. I wanted something good. Well, of course.

    Then I came across this great article in Salon about The joy of sex writing. I don't write erotica but I don't shy away from sex scenes either, so naturally I was curious. The article is great. It reviews two books of the 'best of 2005' erotica short stories. But other than reviewing erotica, the article also makes many statements about writing:
    Of the 47 pieces between the two [collections...] only a few are concerned with presenting sex as a human experience from which pleasure and happiness can bloom. The rest are a compendium of what could be called anti-erotica...
    This turns out to be a wise approach, given an unfortunate irony that the best sex, like the happiest families, has a tendency to come off as dull and saccharine on the page. Why? In part, I suspect, it has to do with the nature of writing and reading: They are the least instinctual of activities and therefore less than ideal for expressing our most basic instincts.
    And the paragraph that I liked best:

    Other, more visceral, art forms, come closer [to sex]. Photography, painting, cinema, hip-hop: These are mediums that, in the right hands, manage to be both carnal and clever without coming off as pat. Writing, though, is inherently cerebral, introspective, neurotic, more professorial than prurient. After all, part of what makes "Lolita" so scandalous after 50 years in print is that it remains a great piece of writing that, to the discomfort of many a blushing intellectual, is genuinely arousing. Generally speaking, writing is not about indulging in one's desires so much as questioning them, over and over, until the onset of vertigo. And so the very hang-ups and insecurities that can ruin a good romp between the sheets are, paradoxically, the very ones that make for excellent writing.

    Most of what is said in the above quoted paragraphs applies to all writing, not just erotica. I cannot recall reading a (good) book where everything was happy and fun. I don't think I can write only about joy. In writing we do explore our insecurities, give freedom to our fears, and rely on our idiosyncrasies to create believable characters. We question our own morals and delve into areas of our psyche we probably shouldn't. That's what writing is all about, that's how writing becomes art.

    Categories: ,

    Most Important Research of 2005 - Uncovering the Mystery of the Missing Teaspoons

    As my first science post of the year I thought it would only be fitting if I discussed one of the most important scientific researches of 2005 - 'Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?'

    It is of no secret that teaspoons tend to mysteriously disappear, especially in offices and public places.

    In this week's BMJ, researchers at the Burnet Institute in Australia attempt to measure the phenomenon of teaspoon loss and its effect on office life.

    They purchased and discreetly numbered 70 stainless steel teaspoons (54 of standard quality and 16 of higher quality). The teaspoons were placed in tearooms around the institute and were counted weekly over five months.

    After five months, staff were told about the research project and asked to complete a brief anonymous questionnaire about their attitudes towards and knowledge of teaspoons and teaspoon theft.

    During the study, 56 (80%) of the 70 teaspoons disappeared.
    One possible explanation for the phenomenon is resistentialism (the theory that inanimate objects have a natural aversion to humans), they write. This is demonstrated by the fact that people have little or no control over teaspoon migration.
    Finally, but I mean, finally someone has taken the matter seriously. Of course, the mystery is too deep to uncover with one study and the scientists recommend this research to become a priority.

    I salute them.


    New Year, New Template

    What do you think?