Monthly Archives: November 2012

Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure

I wish to assure my readers that excellence is the goal here at ericjohbaker.website. internet. With every post, I strive to ensure that each word is chosen with the utmost care and concern for your entertainment experience. That’s why I have chosen to insure his blog for twelve bucks.

monster at desk

Here we are again, saving lives on WordPress.

Though I have as many writing-related pet peeves as the next blogger, I’m not so uptight that I’ll suck the life out of a document just to make it grammatically correct. A story or essay has to have rhythm and flow, and if it takes a misplaced comma to keep that intact, the grammar Nazis can bite me.

However, it’s a good idea to know what words mean before you stick them in a sentence. In my editing endeavors, I frequently see confusion about the differences between assure, ensure, and insure. If anyone I’ve edited is reading this, I’m convinced it wasn’t your fault that your original document contained these errors. Indeed, I saw a Schreibendouche (a small, furry demon that messes with people’s writing) hiding under your desk the other day. You’re right; I probably should have said something.

But, on the one, crazy chance in a million that you don’t really know the difference…

AssureTo make someone feel better about something, though you’re probably lying to them for some reason.

Example: “I assure you, your honor, that my client has no idea how those seven dead hookers ended up in the back of his pickup truck. They definitely were not there when he went in to buy cigarettes. How do we know the police didn’t plant them to frame my client? I understand this particular Wawa cannot produce the surveillance video that would exonerate him?”

gremlinEnsureTo make certain that something happens, even though it probably won’t because the people you are counting on to do it are a bunch of unreliable jerks.

Example: “I’m going to use an extra layer of plywood to ensure that this homemade submarine is one-hundred-percent leak proof!”

InsureTo give an insurance company money so, in the event that valuable item you possess suffers damage or destruction, they can tell you that you are not covered because of an obscure technicality.

Example: “My husband and I decided to insure his life for five million dollars. By tragic chance, he fell face-first onto an axe only a week later and was killed. Of course, I am devastated, though the money gives me and Fabio, my platonic South American male friend, a little piece. I mean peace.”

Leave a comment. No manifestos, but long-winded dissertations are fine.


Writing: Art, Craft, or Entertainment?

Now, come on. It’s an Aston Martin. That’s art.

I’m going to offer a broad definition of art, and then dismantle it: Art is the manipulation of sound, image, words, or objects for the purpose of human expression.

In this context, even the non-functional elements of automobile design, such as the contours of a sports car, are art, while the purely functional parts – hoses and sparkplugs, for example – are not. A chimpanzee throwing paint at a canvas is not art, it is play, because (so far as we know) expression through object manipulation is beyond the scope of a chimpanzee’s understanding or intent.

But what about human intent? My definition starts to break down when we examine art from a perspective of intent.

Companies hire graphic artists to design packaging. The artist who designs a box of Lucky Charms intends for the result to be eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing to shoppers. She manipulates colors, shapes, and figures to create that box, using specialized knowledge of art techniques. But, in the end, it’s still a box of breakfast cereal. I’d say she’s a craftsperson, not an artist, at least when she’s getting a pay check from General Mills.

On the other hand, Michelangelo Buonarroti is rightfully considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, artists of all time. He painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, of course, in addition to sculpting the David and designing the dome for St. Peter’s in Rome.

Yeah, on commission.

The world would not have any of those priceless treasures if 16th century popes and wealthy merchants didn’t have all kinds of florins to burn (melt?).  Sure, they were Michelangelo’s designs (duh), but he didn’t have carte blanche when it came to subject matter. It wasn’t until the era of modern art that artists routinely manipulated objects for the sake of art itself.

That’s right, Michelangelo was merely a craftsman on par with the cereal box designers of today. If you think I actually believe that, you may skip to the comments section now and begin your irrational ranting…

If only they had some lucky stars and green clovers.

Now that we have those weirdoes out of the way, I admit that I said what I said about Mr. Buonarotti to make a point. It’s hard to define art unless it’s your art and you are doing the defining.

So do you view your writing as art, craft, or entertainment? I suspect most of us would view taking a freelance assignment or writing in a corporate setting to be craft, since we aren’t choosing the subject matter and must conform to strict word counts and style guidelines determined by others. There is nothing wrong with being a craftsperson.

How about fiction, poetry, essay, and personal non-fiction, though? Or blogging, for that matter?

I view what I do as entertainment. To entertain well, I must employ some degree of refined craftsmanship, so an element of craft is present. But not art. In my entire writing life, I have yet to create a piece of art.

When working on a fiction project, I love coming up with a poetic flourish or a clever construction. But as an entertainer, not as an artist. I want people who read my stories and this blog, above all else, to be entertained. That’s my intent.

I’ve never, for one moment, worked on a story that I intended to keep to myself. I’m writing to get published, so other people can laugh, be scared, cry, feel disturbed, or experience some other emotion from reading the words I’ve manipulated. Most of the time, when I get to the end of the first draft, I deem it to be garbage and discard it as a failure. Sometimes, I think it’s good, revise it, and send it out. Then, if I start getting rejections, I deem it a failure. That story simple isn’t good enough to entertain. Whether it means something personal to me is irrelevant.

So what about you? Are you an artist, a craftsperson, or an entertainer? In your answer, feel free to tell me my assessment is all wrong and come up with your own. I won’t mind. Entertainers need to have a thick skin.


Irony is not the same thing as coincidence!

No, I said ironEEE.

When did this writing mistake become so ubiquitous? Not a week goes by that I don’t witness a sports reporter, movie reviewer, or political commentator describing something coincidental or incidental as ironic.

“Rimsky-Korsakov missed most of last season with a torn ligament in his left knee but returned at the start of the playoffs. Ironically, he only played three games before injuring his other knee.”

An athlete getting two injuries is not irony; it is a matter of probability. Rimsky-Korsakov plays basketball, a sport that requires frequent jumping and turning. He was out of shape from not playing. He was favoring his left knee and working the other one too hard. His odds of injuring his right knee were, in fact, higher than ever before in this scenario. Maybe he should take up rowing instead, and get to work on destroying those rotator cuffs.

*

“Midway through the film, Bond ends up in bed with Ginny Tonic, only to discover she is a Uvulan spy seeking information about England’s top-secret invisible tuxedo prototype. Ironically, the same plot device was used in last year’s CIA thriller See-Through Assassin.”

There’s really nothing ironic about stealing an idea from another movie. What would be ironic is getting accused of stealing another story’s ideas when you wrote the first tale since Epic of Gilgamesh that actually didn’t steal something from a previous one.

*

“Senator McFlop told supporters he is opposed to half-priced Whopper day, yet, ironically, he stopped at Burger King on the way to the rally and ordered one for himself.”

Hypocrisy and irony share a few of the same letters, but little of the same meaning.

 

You can easily cut 5 calories by ditching the onions

Irony comes in several forms, but, with most modern language, we use two: Snarky irony and Cool Twist irony (hey, Oxford makes these rules, not me).

Snarky irony is when someone says the opposite of what she means. For example, I might say, “So, how was the gallbladder removal?” The ironist may reply, “Fun, I can’t wait to do it again.”

The irony being that it’s not fun to have a gallbladder removed (unless I went to the wrong hospital and missed out), and one can’t have a gallbladder removed more than once. I hope.

Snarky irony is kind of witless, and it’s so similar to facetiousness that I can’t tell them apart. In short, snarky irony is for losers and NBC sitcoms.

Cool Twist irony is what happens in Twilight Zone episodes. That does not mean all twists are ironic. “It was all a dream” is not irony (it’s a cop-out). “They were ghosts the whole time” is not irony (it’s a cliché). “The butler did it” is simply a surprise. And a good one, since it’s never the butler.

Here’s irony:

A guy sells his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal life. Then he finds out his wife cheated on him and, in a rage, murders her and her lover. He is caught in the act and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Doh!

Then there’s the great Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a henpecked banker who only wants one thing in life: to read books. But he never has time between his wife nagging him to do chores and errands and his employer dumping work on him. One day he falls asleep in the bank vault and is spared when a nuclear war wipes out civilization. When he emerges into the sunlight and finds the local library is intact, he is filled with joy. Time at last to read! He gleefully lines up piles and piles of books, takes the first one from the stack, sits down… and drops his glasses, shattering them on the ground.

That’s bloody irony. Save it for special occasions, my friends and colleagues.

“Leave the irony to Rod Serling, Mr. Sportswriter. Just tell me the score.”


A writer’s confession: I have no patience for research

Aw, man. Research looks HARD.

Are you interested in learning about other writers’ methods and madness? I am. I enjoy perusing your blogs to see what gets your fingers tapping and to find out what holds you back. One lament I come across frequently: Making excuses not to write.

It seems many writers will tackle all kinds of peripheral activities, like making character bios and outlines and backstories, in order to feel they are indeed working on their novels without actually working on their novels. Others will continuously read books and interview people and watch travel documentaries… while page one still remains a blank sheet.

When it comes to writing fiction, my hang-up is the reverse: I have no patience for research. I just want to get writing, yesterday if possible. Why pore over maps of Connecticut, read books on Victorian home-construction methods, and investigate the Wankel rotary engine when I all I have to do is sit down, open MS Word, and send my heroine on her merry way into the basement of a creaking old mansion so she can discover that mysterious trap door?

[I don’t know how the Wankel rotary engine fits into that scenario, but I’ll figure it out]

When I write an arts-and-entertainment piece somewhere, of course I will do the research to get names, events, and dates correct. And, like all of you, I enjoying learning new things. For real, I‘m all over non-fiction books like a dung beetle. I read titles on critical thinking, popular science, psychology, art, writing, film study, you name it. Hell, I probably have a book on Victorian home construction lying around my apartment somewhere. But if I have to read it, I won’t want to.

The reason my stories take place in fictional cities: I can’t get geographical details wrong when I make the place up, can I? As long as I don’t put the slaughterhouse on Gilligan Street in chapter one but change it to Skipper Avenue in chapter three, I’m good.

Inventing towns is easy, though. What about smaller spaces? I’ve never been inside a submarine, so I risk losing my reader if I refer to the cockpit or the windshield wipers. I’ll set that story on a jet instead (and be sure omit the periscope sequence).

Still an acceptable workaround, but I’m starting to limit myself when it comes to settings, both macro and micro. A bigger problem is how to place characters into these settings. I could make my main character a cop, as long as I stay away from procedural details, but then he may seem like a Law and Order reject. A nurse is ok, since my sister is an RN and I can ask her questions. But what about coroners and surgeons, two common character types in commercial fiction? I’ve seen them on TV, but so has my reader. How about an antique collector?  A dog breeder? I’ll just be making shit up.

Without research, we wouldn’t be able to point to things knowingly.

My distaste for research allows me to use the excuse that I’m writing what I know.  I set a lot of my stories in rock clubs and bars and populate them with musicians and bartenders, since I’ve lived that. Or I’ll have teenagers messing around in the woods and sneaking into places they shouldn’t, because I’ve lived that too.

However.

I really gotta start that novel soon. I’ve had this cool idea for a while, and I’d begin tonight if I could. But I can’t avoid it: This one needs heavy research. It’s high-concept sci-fi/horror that will fall apart like a Wankel rotary engine with the screws missing if I pull the science out of my butt.

You’ll be proud (or, perhaps, indifferent) to learn that I already burned through three books from my research list. Of course, if I had taken notes, I probably wouldn’t have to read them again. Damn. I knew it seemed too easy!

Worse, I’m also staring at an immediate future of digging through some pretty dry (and sometime expensive to procure) academic material. But I’ve got to get over this hump, because I am not getting any younger, and you can’t write a bestseller until you write it.

So what’s your pain as a writer? Getting started or getting started right?

See what too much studying does to a guy?


My Life is a Computer Monitor

Do you ever feel like a like a strange sort of blogosphere celebrity when you show up in someone else’s blog one day?

Blogger and writer Janna G. Noelle (whose blog, The Rules of Engagement, is quite insightful about the art and craft of writing) has been doing a series on the daily distractions that writers not named Stephenie Meyer or James Patterson have to deal with as they pursue their dreams of publication.

I had commented to her that my biggest problem is the amount of time I spend staring at a computer monitor because of my job. 40+ hours per week hunched over a keyboard can throw baking soda on one’s creativity when one’s creative outlet also requires being hunched over a keyboard.

Janna devoted a whole post to the subject (and she doesn’t half-ass her posts*), which made me feel famous for some reason. Anyway, enough of my delusions… She came up with two clever ideas to address my excessive amounts of computer face time, which are:

1. Hand write my fiction.

This is genius in its simplicity. When I was much younger, I used to hand write all my stories, and it’s nothing like looking at a monitor. I’d say it’s a different experience entirely, and whatever I write wouldn’t be the same because of it.

Unfortunately, as awesome as this idea is, it probably won’t work for me for a couple of reasons. One is that I write at a furious pace and, because I have damaged joints from 29 years of drumming, my pencil-holding claw will ache fiercely within a few minutes. This problem will reach tragic proportions when I finally write that massive blockbuster and 1000 people show up at my book signings. Is it possible to email my signature to their Kindle devices? Can I give out stickers?

The other concern with this is that I am not a plotter, which means I often write whole chapters I will never use, or I have to move big chunks of scenes around. And I frequently find-and-replace character names I had to change. You get the drift.

I still think Janna’s idea to hand write terrific. So was this one:

2. Change my settings so my home monitor does not resemble my work monitor

This option is more practical for me, though I’m a bit technologically impaired, so I’ve got to figure out how to make MS Word give me pale blue or green pages instead of white ones. I never have to do that at work, so I’ve never figured out how.

I could also try to use the TV as a monitor so it’s not so close to my face. The viewing distance is the biggest headache, I believe. One can only stand looking at something 18 inches away for so long. I feel bad for the monks who made those illuminated manuscripts back in the medieval times. Or were they friars? No, that can’t be. I learned in Canterbury Tales that friars are a bunch of buttheads.

Since Janna posted her piece, I’ve been thinking about what else I can do (and already do) to deal with the computer monitor being an unavoidable part of my livelihood and my art. For example:

A. At work, I’ve been initiating or getting involved in a lot of projects that get me away from the desk.

B. I’ve been buffering my work time and my personal writing time with music. If you scroll back a post or two, you know that I like to noodle around on the guitar and write songs. Jamming for 45 minutes can often serve to reboot my creativity, since playing guitar stimulates a different part of my brain.

C. I got a story idea. When I talked to Janna about my conundrum, I had just completed the eight-millionth draft of a 10k word novelette and felt pretty burnt out (and bummed that it is probably unpublishable). Then, the other day, three words randomly popped into my head, and I instantly knew they were going to be the first three words of my next story. I started writing it two days ago, and, as I’m sure you can all relate, once you get that fire started, nothing is putting it out until you type The End.

So thanks, Janna, for getting me thinking.

And thanks, those of you reading this, for allowing me to prattle on about myself for 700 words. I’ll try to make it more about you next time. I swear!

 

*go ahead. Somebody male a “whole-ass” joke. You know you want to.


Three things I can’t stand that everyone else loves

Bella: Republicrat or Demolican?

I’m trying to be a better person. Shed the negativity, be more tolerant, don’t yell at the lady who can’t figure out how to get her Hyundai Elantra out of the parking spot at Staples (I mean, she got in there, so why is it so hard to back out?). That kind of thing.

This week, I’ve noticed a lot of bloggers are talking positivity. It must be the post-election realization that we all got a little inflammatory at one point or another in recent months, making nasty generalizations about the Whigs or the Greens or whichever party had it all wrong in our minds. One WordPress blogger said she decided, when her preschool-age daughter asked her if Mitt Romney was a vampire, that maybe it was time to tone down the rhetoric around the dinner table.

Unless they’re Twilight fans at her house, in which case it might be a compliment.

So anyway, today I shall purge myself of negativity by getting it all out at once. I’m going to name the three things I absolutely can’t stand that everyone else seems to love. I invite you to follow suit in the comments. Think of it as Primal Blog Therapy.

Three things I can’t stand that everyone else seems to love

1.  Coffee

This also extends to iced coffee, mocha-flavored deserts, gourmet Jelly Bellies, and any other food item that has been violated by that dark-brown devil known as the coffee bean. The very smell of the stuff makes me wretch. It is beyond my comprehension why people think it tastes good. That is all I have to say about coffee.

The silver lining: I never get accused of failing to refill the coffee pot at work. You coffee people are always looking for someone to blame! You should cut down on the caffeine maybe.

2. Lemonade

The phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” does not really resonate with me. Lemonade is alleged to be refreshing, but I am always ten times thirstier after I drink it (which I rarely do, and even then it’s only to be polite). What’s in that stuff, a bag of potato chips?

Whenever I buy a crate of vitamin water or an energy drink mix or other flavored beverage that comes in a variety pack at Costco, the lemonade-flavored edition always outnumbers the others. I’m pretty sure warehouse stores bundle the top-selling flavors of a given brand in those crates. So why is lemonade so popular? Because you lot keep buying it. Put down the lemonade! It’s not refreshing.

A few months ago some kids in my complex were selling lemonade by the side of the road (actually it was Gatorade, but my story will be ruined if I tell the truth). I stopped the car, rolled down the window, and said, “Any idiot can make lemonade. You whip me up a Long Island iced tea, top shelf, and then I’ll be impressed.”

I still don’t know why their mom called the cops. I was trying to help their business get off the ground.

3. Sweet potatoes

Well, it’s that time of year again when I have to insult a family member by declining to taste the sweet potatoes. “But you like sweet things,” she’ll say. I’ll say, “Yeah, hand me a bowl of Oreos and I’ll prove you right.

Really, sweet potatoes are not a suitable alternative to cupcakes, cookies, or iced cream, so who are you trying to fool? Regular, not sweet, potatoes are just about perfect, and they aren’t nearly as mushy. I don’t like mushy. It reminds me of the gruel I was forced to eat at the orphanage.

By the way, I’ll also insult somebody this Thursday by declining the pumpkin pie, another thing I can’t stand. I didn’t make a separate entry for pumpkin pie, mostly because I don’t like it for the same reasons I don’t like sweet potatoes: It’s mushy, and regular pie (AKA “apple”) is just fine. Also because lists of three are rhythmically pleasing, while lists of four are awkward and ungainly, like a junior high school kid. I dislike lists of four so much that I thought of adding that to this list, but then I’d have four things, and sweet sweet irony is not what I’m going for here.

Whew! Consider me purged of negativity for good. If you want to get started on some positive energy yourself, how about not bagging on Twilight fans anymore? Not all of us understand the appeal of this book and film series, but it’s harmless and makes fans happy. Let them bask in the glow of Breaking Dawn Part 2 raking in $141 million dollars at the box office this weekend! Way to go, Twilight.

Disclaimer: Any impression given that I mentioned Twilight multiple times in a crass attempt to lure additional clicks is purely coincidental.

Your negativity purging begins below the image.

 

Hey, sailor. You clicked on my picture to get here, so you might as well stick around and read the whole post.


Two books on fiction writing that made me a better writer

I said WRITE AN OUTLINE

I hope we can agree on three things:

>>> You can’t learn how to write from reading books about writing. You have to write.

>>> You can, however, improve your chops by reading books about writing. Even bad ones can have at least one good idea.

>>>  You can learn a lot about fiction writing from a book that is not about fiction writing.

Throughout my endless quest to attain some undefined skill level whereby I consider myself a good writer, my eyeballs have soaked up a lot of writing books. Unfortunately, my head makes a lousy sponge, because most of what I read leaks right back out.

A few things have stuck, though, like when literary agent Ann Rittenberg advised people (via her instructional book, Your First Novel) to stick their first novel in a drawer and forget it, because it’s not any good. I had already found that out the hard way, but we’ll get into that later.

Nevertheless, I can definitively cite two titles that have been more helpful to me than any others: How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat, and Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein. Before you say, “But Baker, I don’t crime thrillers, and I certainly don’t write movie scripts,” I want you to look at item three on my list above. I don’t write those things either, but that doesn’t change the fact that these two titles influenced me. Now, if you’re done giving me a hard time, read on!

*****************************************

I’m the kind of person who learns best when people just tell me what I’m doing wrong. I don’t need to be coddled. In How toWrite Killer Fiction, Carolyn Wheat told me what I was doing wrong.

The unpublished manuscript I alluded to three paragraphs ago was a romantic suspense novel that, aside from one agent’s request for a partial, drew little interest from the literary world. So I was hoping this crime/suspense “how to” book might teach me something the other three or four crime-suspense “how to” books I’d read clearly did not.

It taught me this: I shouldn’t be writing romantic suspense. When I was working on that manuscript, pretty much everyone who knew me said, “So, is it, like, dark sci-fi/horror?”

I would say, “No, actually, it’s a romantic suspense.” Then I’d grumble to myself, why does everyone assume I’m writing horror just because all my previous stories have been horror and I’m a horror movie junkie?

It turns out they all knew what I didn’t.

More importantly, Wheat’s blunt instruction made me realize all the things I had done wrong, from inert plotting to overly dramatic dialog. If you like writing instruction that says, “Don’t do X, because only shitty writers do that,” this book is for you.

But even more important than helping to professionalize my prose, How to Write Killer Fiction turned me into a pantser (a writer who writes without an outline). Wheat does not say anyone should or should not be a pantser, but when I found out it was OK to write without a plan, and that I should trust my instincts, my storytelling ability improved instantly and dramatically. I will never write another outline (unless forced to by drunken elves or Jawas).

It didn’t hurt that her examples of famous pantsers included some of my favorite authors, such as Elmore Leonard, who never typed an awkward phrase in his life.

She also includes chapters for outliners, so don’t go into it worried that anyone is going to make you join the pantser cult. But if you feel stuck in the intermediate phase as a writer and are not sure how to reach the next level, give this book a shot. It’s in print and readily available, because your good buddy Eric would never talk up a book that you can’t get.

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Though the middle section of Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein delves into screenplay formatting, just about everything else in here can serve the fiction writer well. Epstein, like Wheat, doesn’t waste time on touchy feely. The message (adapted by me, right now, for novel writing) is: I’m not going to tell you how to write a story. I’m going to tell you how to write a story that publishers and agents won’t throw away after five seconds.

A couple of week ago here, I groused about how hard it is to get publishers interested in genre-bending stories, even short fiction. The Crafty Screenwriting response to that is, “Gee, that’s tragic. When you are ready to write something publishable, let’s talk.”

Epstein discusses developing a hook, populating your story with the right characters, incorporating essential plot elements, structure, and pacing with the stated intent of getting someone in the industry interested in what you wrote. It reads like a checklist of dos and don’ts, often framed as “Is your hero like this? Then change him, because we’ve seen that a million times.”

Crafty Screenwriting full of practical tips for fleshing out the inevitable stock characters without turning them into clichés. Many real-world examples from popular entertainment are given for each concept covered as well.

Whereas Carolyn Wheat’s book can be useful to writers of micro-flash on up, Epstein’s screenwriting instructional is probably most worthwhile to those who are about to tackle a novel and want to avoid mistakes – or who have just completed a first draft and found it rife with problems. By the way, the intent is not to turn your writing into generic pabulum; it’s how to write something commercially viable without turning it into pabulum.

Crafty Screenwriting is available at all the usual haunts, or you can break into my apartment to try and steal my copy. Fair warning: I keep a claw hammer handy.

This is the part of the blog post where I invite you to talk about your favorite writing books in the comments.