Saturday, June 9, 2012

Graduates and poets to come

It's grad season and I seem to be caught up in more of the celebrations than usual this year. It's always a bit of a challenge to wish a young person a lifetime of challenges, joys and triumphs, but then I came across this:

Poets to Come by Walt Whitman

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

I think that works.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vocabularies (How big is yours?)

Came across a news story today that made me kind of sad. So let me start here instead:

According to the obviously-well-informed comedian John Branyan, Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words. And, according to his sources, the average American currently has a vocabulary of  3,000 words. (You can see where he says this a little later on. 'Cause I'm not making it up!)

That's a big difference.

To look at early American school primers, those little tykes had to tackle some pretty hefty material. Catechisms introduced a whole new slew of words to children. And the history lessons of the time meant that worlds unfolded in - what seems to us - verbose and instructive repetition. But it also meant they knew more words.

And so today, after several centuries of diminishing vocabularies, came this news report:

Apparently, a list of words used by Homeland Security to monitor potential threats was released today and this list has been published to suggest maybe you don't want to use them because ... well, I won't retell the story. 

I looked through the list and must confess that terms like "mara salvatrucha" don't show up much in my word choices. (In fact, I'm going to have to look up what it means.) But "phishing", "cancelled" and "sick" are relatively well used. (And "smart"? Please. Every time I write I bio - ha!) 

So here's my worry. Americans are losing track of their vocabularies. Yes, new words slip in all the time but it seems like they are falling off the back end at a disproportionate rate. And we want to suggest a group of words that they DON'T use?  

So in the interests of putting a little "oomph" back in your word choices, here's the verbose and hysterically funny version of John Branyan's "Three Little Pigs."  

Now go eat a dictionary. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Building your goals (and building ON your goals)

Working in any field of creative endeavor, particularly if you take them on as a profession, will eventually mean finding a balance between the creative efforts and the practical realities. After all, as Seth Godin says "Real artists ship." (He may not have been the first to say it, but he's the one that caught my attention with it.) I've sometimes said that I'd like my career to reach a point where I can spend the day in my studio and people just crawl to the door and pay me for whatever I bother to slide out underneath it. And the response is usually - "Ha!" And rightly so.

But until I find an undiscriminating patron of my arts, what I've done instead (and I hope you've done too) is set myself a series of goals. Reasons?

1. I accomplish more with a deadline.
2. I want some way to measure success.
3. I want to track improvement or growth (or find out if there's even any to track).

I suspect I have a stronger latent nerd streak than some artistic types but it feels good to me to check things off a list or to know I've accomplished something in a certain time frame.

When I began doing this, I started very small. Why set yourself a goal you can't reach? I was a mom of young kiddos, and felt lucky on the days I found time to brush my teeth more than once. So in wanting to work my way back to writing on a regular basis, I didn't even know if I could find time, period.

So my goal was to try to write for 15 minutes, 5 days a week.

I got a desk calendar and every day that I managed to write for at least 15 minutes, I made a note of that on the calendar. Small potatoes. Eat-em-whole-new-red-potatoes small.

I once heard said, "Battle plans are excellent up until the first shot is fired!"

There were some blank weeks to begin but as the days and weeks went by (and the kiddos grew), more and more days had a writing note on them. Then the time chunks got bigger each time. And by the time I reached the end of the year, I had a visual reminder of the increase I had accomplished in my writing time. I'd even venture to say I saw an increase in the writing quality because the longer segments gave me time to revisit and review work I'd written earlier with a fresh eye and an eagerness to polish them. And the practice of regular writing provided a polish of its own to the first drafts I was putting together.

From those writing times, I also realized that I had a collection of work ready to submit. And with that began a straggle of cheques. Articles sold, royalties paid ... so I set a new goal. I put a dollar amount - I think it was $50 a week - on my writing, and I gave myself 5 years to start turning a profit.

And I realized I was in business. (Tax records, business expenses - more nerd stuff to learn.)

From there, it's been a rinse-and-repeat process. At the end of every year, I've seen growth in both time spent writing and income. I wouldn't say I've hit the behind-the-studio-door ideal yet but my goals have become increasingly more ambitious. And so far, it's been working. Where I am is not necessarily where I envisioned being but it's eminently satisfying nonetheless. New opportunities mean revising the battle plan occasionally, but it's been a process that is consistently moving me forward in this business of writing.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

NOW I'm almost finished ...

I posted last July that I was finally getting near the end of a mural project that I'd been working for quite some time. Well, let's just say that it turned out not to be the case. After taking some time (with the complete support of the mural group) to write my first stage play, then help several young ladies with their wedding gowns (have I mentioned I used to be a bridal seamstress?) and other sorts of time sappers, I can now say that the painting part of the mural work is DONE!

There's a sign to complete, a wall puzzle to complete and install and possibly one wall to seal. But in effect, the mural work is finished so here's some befores and afters - just to give you a taste :).


Before:After (summer toppers):

After (winter look):
Before: After:
And more afters:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writer feed (a collection from Twitter)

I don't spend a lot of time on Twitter.

There - I've confessed it. I don't have the app so I only see what goes through when I got to the website. How archaic is that? I suspect I fear the information overload would make my hair curl even tighter and then combing it would be more of a chore and who wants that kind of torture every day?

But in the times I take to cruise through my feed I consistently find writing advice, regrets, information and encouragement. It's a good shot in the arm most days.

So here's a collection of some of my favorites from my last visit:

Revise. Revise. Rinse. Repeat. @joypreble

When I write, I write quickly so that fear can't catch up with me. @jonacuff

It takes a heap of sense to write good nonsense. (Mark Twain) @thequotemaster

Writing – a duet of ego and bad self esteem. @annelamott

Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you. @heatherbrewer

Monday, January 23, 2012

Advice for newbies

I visited a local radio newstalk station early this morning to talk about children's books. Obviously, it's a subject near and dear to my heart, and the hosts were a delight to talk to. I actually enjoy radio, although it's always a surprise to remember that you don't know who might be eavesdropping on the conversation :).

Perhaps naturally, the question came up: "What advice would you offer to someone that wants to write for children?" The way I answer this question has probably changed over the years, but today, this is a short glimpse into what I think writers need to keep in mind when writing for children.

1. Hang out with children.

Children are fun. Children are funny. And children say some the most thought-provoking, imagination-firing, laugh-out-loud, heart-squeezing things sometimes. So go find your audience! Find out what they are reading, what they like about it, don't like about it, things they care about, things they hate - and then take it home and stir it into the pot of your own experiences, passions and irks and see what starts bubbling to the top. It may be something amazing! It may be something that totally stinks! But either way you'll have something very unique.

2. Hone your craft.

Writing for children is one of the most exacting and challenging genres you could ever want to jump into. Partly because of brevity (every word has to count); partly because it can get kind of crowded (a lot of people take the approach "Write a children's story? How hard can that be?"); and partly because publishers are having to be more selective about the number of books they publish, the type of story they can accommodate and the size of the piles they have resources to dig through when facing a landslide of submissions.

But it's also one of the most exciting areas of writing to participate in. So practice, practice, practice. Learn the details of manuscript formatting, picture book construction, page layouts, blurbs and jacket copy (even if you aren't the artist). And learn about the tips and tricks of language, not so you can shoehorn them in at every turn but so that you have all the tools you need at your disposal when it's time to tell your story.

3. Know the business.

Writing for children, just like any other genre, is a business. So be a professional. You really have no excuses not to be - the list of resources available is endless! Get in and get grubby among the details of submission and contract terms and rights and finances and tax exemptions and small business claims. You don't have to be an expert in any of these areas but you have to at least become familiar with the terms. Think about school visits, or social media platforms, or e-books. Know your own strengths and then use them. And always, always put your best work forward.

Even if you don't write for children, I think this advice holds true (substitute "Trekkies", "sports fans", etc for children depending on your area of interest). You need to have a grasp of who your audience actually is, you need to present the best possible writing you can offer, and you need to know the business. And tip #4?

Even on the radio, you might want to think about a little lipstick.

So there it is. Now let's get to work!