Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9/11

It's been a few months since I posted and I apologize for that - more on what has been going on tomorrow. However, today I wanted to take a short moment to publicly remember the tragedy that happened on this day eleven years ago. I'm sure most of us remember where we were that day, what we were doing, how we felt when we first heard the news. Even today I can still recall the shock and unbelief I felt as I watched the news. At the time it was hard to believe that anyone could be so filled with hate that they would do something so terrible.

As I thought over the things I wanted to remember about this day, I recalled the moments that filled me with hope as the world mourned on 9/11. I remember how an entire world came together in solidarity and decried this act of terrorism. I remember how communities prayed and wept together, how groups all over the world held vigils and erected memorials to the fallen. I hope that one of the messages we can take away from this tragedy is that above all of our differences we are a community that can bond together and reach out to each other in compassion. It is so easy to focus on the things that separate us and to allow arguments big and small to create divisions and contention until we are so filled with anger that we no longer care how we hurt others. Perhaps today can remind us not to allow our small differences to push us apart, but instead to appreciate what we have in common and to choose to treat each other each day with compassion and respect. Maybe in this small way each of us can do our part in creating a better and more peaceful world.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day

Today in the US we celebrate the 4th of July, our Independence Day. Usually this holiday is super busy. I'm running around working (yes - I often work on the 4th) and going to parties. But today I stayed home. I still got some work done and kept myself busy, but having a slower day gave me time to think. What does my independence mean to me?

Yesterday I was walking down the street thinking about what and who I wanted to be. A microbiologist, a writer...and right there in the middle of the street it struck me that I have the extraordinary luck of being born in a place and time where I can not only dream about my future, but I can pursue it. I have the freedom and opportunity to literally become anything I want to be. How many people in the history of this world have yearned for that freedom and never had it? How many generations of men and women have struggled to build the world I now live in?

Immediately behind that thought was the realization that I have an obligation not to waste this. I owe it to myself and to everyone who has ever fought for their freedom to take full advantage of the opportunities I have. I have an obligation to preserve the legacy of those who have gone before me. If you are a writer I hope today helps you realize (no matter where you live) what a privilege it is to be able to pursue your dream. Take full advantage of it and don't let anything hold you back! Happy 4th of July you guys!!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Do you have gourmet writing?

Lately, when I badly need to procrastinate, I've been watching the Food Network. They have some great shows but my favorite is Chopped. There's something magical about the idea of food, a time limit and judges. Every time the clock starts on the last few minutes I'm thrust into this nervous, nail-biting ball of suspense. Will they finish on time? Include all of the ingredients? Get everything on the plate? Most of them make it but then comes the really hard part - the critique. The judges pick up their forks with a sort of cool nonchalance and proceed to tear apart the plate, literally and figuratively. All I can say is it's pretty intense.

On Chopped, each of the chefs is critiqued on three things: Presentation, Taste and Creativity. When all of those three ingredients come together the chef has created a gourmet masterpiece that will please even the toughest of food critics. The more I thought about it the more I realized that you could say the same thing about writing.

Presentation: This is the nuts and bolts of writing. Is the plot fully fleshed out? Do the characters grow and develop throughout the story? Is the language descriptive, active and engaging? Do you avoid telling, info dumps and other writing pitfalls? Does the writing flow well and seamlessly, hooking the reader and pulling them into the story? In writing, like in cooking, when all of the ingredients come together in a purposeful and masterful way the result is a beautiful masterpiece that just begs to be devoured.
Taste: This might be the most intangible aspect of writing, but has to do with drawing the reader in and helping them be invested in the characters. Have you ever read a book where the writing was brilliant but you just didn't care about the story? Or read a book where the writing was amateurish but you just couldn't put it down until you had read every last page? The best presentation in the world won't hook someone if the product tastes bad. Here is where you want to give interesting characters with depth who do the unexpected, have enough redeeming qualities to make you love them, and enough limitations, struggles and issues to make you root for them as they move through the story.
Creativity: Creativity is such an interesting one because it's sometimes hard to judge. The question to ask here is whether you bring something new to the table. In cooking, you might put together a salad (on old standby) but do it in a new and interesting way. The same is true of your writing. Is the writing fresh and original? Do you avoid cliched situations, characters and relationships? Do you have a fun new twist that will keep the reader guessing or surprise them?

Maybe I've just had Chopped on the mind, but I think the analogy works. All of these elements are important to great writing.So what do you think? How would you go about making your writing gourmet?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Connecting the Dots in Your Writing

Happy Wednesday Blogsphere! I spent the last several days trying to think of topics to post on and nothing specific came to mind. I just wasn't feeling inspired. I figured I could cobble something presentable together but I really wanted to have a purpose behind my post.

Luckily for me I had a chance to do a lot of editing and critiquing this week. I noticed that I kept on focusing on the same problem over and over again in the stories I was critiquing and especially in my own writing.

The issue that kept on popping up was connecting the dots between the ideas in each paragraph. Having a consistent thread throughout the writing and a good flow between paragraphs. In other words, making sure that each sentence had a purpose and that it fit well with all the writing surrounding it.

This is a kind of a hard idea to wrap your head around but it's also very important. When information is inserted without feeling like a natural part of the story it feels forced. It's important not only that every sentence and paragraph has a purpose, but also that they feel connected together so the writing is seamless. Otherwise the reader starts to feel the not-so-gentle touch of the narrator guiding the story.

I don't know about you but often I benefit from having an example. For lack of a better option, I'll use the material you just read as my example. Here are the basic concepts I address in the first four paragraphs (I separated them into four paragraphs to make the individual points easier to identify).
  • I needed to find a subject for a blog post
  • While editing I came across a problem to talk about in my blog post
  • The problem I wanted to discuss is not connecting ideas together when writing
  • This is why this problem is important to discuss
Now while this isn't a perfect example you can see how one point flows into the next. The first two points are connected by the idea that I needed to talk about something today on the blog. The last three points all deal with the thing that I wanted to discuss. The transition between them *hopefully* makes sense.

I could have used the following points instead.
  • I needed to find a subject for a blog post
  • This week I edited and critiqued a lot of writing
  • One of the things people do wrong when they write is not connecting together ideas
  • Readers don't like information dumps
Hopefully you can see how these ideas, while related, in this particular arrangement feel disconnected and disjointed. I haven't put the effort in to show the reader how one idea connects to the other. So how do we fix this?

First, edit with an eye looking for this problem and ask your critique partners to do so as well. Identify sections that don't seem to have a clear connection to the writing around them. Keep an eye out for information dumps and seemingly unnecessary exposition. Imagine the writing as a conversation between you and the reader. Would they be able to see how you made it from point A to point B?

Second, outline what you want the reader to know. This includes not only the action that is happening but also what the character is thinking, what you want the reader to know about the character through his or her actions, and what background information you want the reader to know.

Third, organize your outline and make sure that there is a connection between each successive point. Often this means giving just a little extra information to connect the different points.

Let's look at another example (I'm not being particularly imaginative with this example but it will do =). Say we have a girl who is being sacrificed to a hungry dragon terrorizing her village. Our outline of what we want the reader to know might look like this:
  • MC is strapped to a post on a rock outcropping, ready to be sacrificed to a dragon
  • She is terrified but doesn't try to escape
  • She loves her family and volunteered to be the sacrifice a younger sibling
  • The dragon has been terrorizing the village for years but will leave them alone if they offer up a human sacrifice once a year
  • She was betrothed to a boy back home
  • Her one regret is that she is going to die right when she was starting to fall in love with him
Now let's fill in the gaps so that we can clearly see the connection between ideas:
  • MC is strapped to a post on a rock outcropping, ready to be sacrificed to a dragon
  • She is terrified but doesn't try to escape because she would die to protect the people she loves
  • The dragon has been terrorizing the village for years but will leave them alone if they offer up a human sacrifice once a year
  • She thinks about the younger brother she left behind who was chosen to be the sacrifice and whose place she volunteered to take
  •  Her family will be safe from now on since only one sacrifice can be taken from each family
  • Her only regret about dying is leaving behind her betrothed who she was just starting to fall in love with
Hopefully as you read over the second version the transition feels more natural. In the second version we have a little more information about the situation that helps us understand how each point is connected. Those are all of the suggestions I have for today. What are your thoughts? Did you think the examples worked? Any suggestions on how you would (or have) fixed this problem?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Silly Monday Poem

Sorry I've been MIA - I've been taking turns having the flu, a cold, the flu again... I just keep telling myself I'm getting them out of the way now so I can enjoy the rest of the summer.

Anyway, I usually don't write anything silly but this one just sort of came to me the other day =)

There once was a boy who knew best,
who always knew just how to dress.
His smart turn of phrase
and quick-witted ways
never would cease to impress.

Then one day that lad met a girl,
whose hair had a soft auburn curl.
And he stumbled and fumbled
and badly he bumbled
for his mind was all in a whirl.

But his awkwardness did him no harm
for when offered the girl took his arm.
And they courted and married
O'er the threshold he carried
the bride that he won with his charm.