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The Invisibility of Good Writing

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The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot via Wikimedia Commons

I helped a coworker with a business letter recently, a coworker I consider to be a generally good writer.  This person, who is an articulate communicator in everyday life, still wrote a letter full of passive voice phrasing that overshadowed the main ideas.  As we worked together to polish the letter, the incident reminded me how frequently good writing is invisible.

Good writing helps ideas shine and does not draw attention to itself.  Rather than noticing the writing, the reader remembers the ideas.  If you’re not looking for good writing, you won’t notice it very frequently.  Bad writing, on the other hand, sticks out like a Raiders fan at a Cowboys game – you notice it immediately.  Messy syntax, awkward phrasing, repetition, and heavy use of the passive voice jump up and beg for the spotlight, stealing it away from the ideas meant to draw our attention.

Letting the ideas shine isn’t just about good grammar; it’s also about using syntax and diction in a way that works with your ideas.  Long sentences invite complex thoughts whereas short sentences draw your attention to one specific thing.  Let’s look at an example of each within a couple sentences of each other from the first chapter of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima.  Young protagonist Antonio tells us:

My heart sank.  When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school, a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach.  To get rid of it, I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals.

The first sentence draws your attention to the main idea – narrator Antonio is pretty upset.  The second and third sentences, both compound sentences, expand on this idea and its consequences.  Anaya helps us to focus on the ideas by using sentence structure and diction to his advantage.

Compound sentences generally emphasize the second thought.  For example, listen to the difference here:

  1. The storm raged outside, but Jenny still got to go home.
  2. Jenny still got to go home, but the storm raged outside.

Even though the ideas are the same, the first sentence ends on a much happier note (Jenny got to go home!) than the second sentence (the storm raged).  Every little bit makes a difference.  Imagine what you as a writer are hoping to emphasize, and tidy up your diction and syntax to draw attention to that idea.

What other little tweaks help your ideas shine?  How else can we revise our writing to focus attention on the story?

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2013 in Review: Top 5 Posts of the Year

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Spider Firework, Omiya, Japan via Wikimedia Commons

January is a fantastic time for reflection on the previous year.  As 2014 swirls around us in anticipation of all the lovely projects we’re creating and building, this is a great time to assess where we are.  2013 proved to be a fantastic year of growth for the Novel Conclusions blog, thanks to all of you who are visiting and reading and commenting and generally being supportive.  I love creating conversation and fostering good writing and writing-related ideas.

In honor of the conclusion of 2013, I’d like to share the 5 most popular Novel Conclusions posts of 2013, courtesy of the WordPress stats genie.  Although my semi-controversial take on TFA is an outlier, it seems that my meaty writing discussion posts have been attracting the most attention over my flightier infographic posts (though those are fun and will definitely continue to appear here now and then).  In descending order:

#5:  What Do Your Fears Say About You?
How can you use your characters’ fears to reveal more about them?

#4:  5 Things Olivia Blanchard Got Wrong: In Defense of Teach for America
In response to Olivia Blanchard’s piece in The Atlantic – a bit about my Teach for America experience, including quitting the program, and why I still think TFA makes a  difference

#3:  What’s So Great About Unreliable Narrators?
How having fantastically biased characters gives your novel some bite

#2:  What Makes Love Triangles So Compelling?
Why are so many of us fascinated by love triangles?

#1:  Inciting Incidents and Why They Rock Your Plot
How inciting incidents can be a magnificent tool for you to shape your plot and give your story staying power

It’s so much fun to find so many other writing and reading-related blogs and to part in and foster conversation about the book world.  I keep finding more new and creative sides to the book and writing world that I didn’t know before.

What was your most popular post on your blog this past year?  What do you find attracts readers to your blog?

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10 Commonly Misunderstood Words Infographic

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I’m a lover of words, but sometimes I get words wrong.  You know you do this, too.  That’s why I thought I might share this handy infographic about 10 commonly misunderstood words.  Apparently I have been misusing (or at least, misunderstanding, since I don’t write this word frequently) the word “nonplussed” for quite some time.  Who knew that it actually meant “bewildered”?

Which of these words have you scrambled up in the past?  Which words might you add to this list?  Have you even (gasp) perhaps used one of these words in a mistaken context in your NaNoWriMo manuscript?

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

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5 Things I Learned in My First Year of Blogging

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Birthday Candle by Ardfern via Wikimedia Commons

This week marks an entire year of blogging – October 23rd will be my one-year blog anniversary!  Happy Blog Birthday to Novel Conclusions!  In honor of this epically momentous occasion, I’ve decided to put together this gorgeous list of what I’ve learned about blogging.

  • I’m not alone.  There’s this whole community of writers and book bloggers and fan girls and people who just adore the English language.  Becoming a part of this super fun community encourages me to do more inside the writing arena (like participating in NaNoWriMo).  The book and writing community rocks!
  • Bonus:  Interacting with said community drives engagement on your blog.  Who woulda thought?  Catching up on what other writers and book enthusiasts are doing encourages people to drop by your blog and join the conversation.
  • Positive posts/notes/comments get the most love.  There was actually a report done about Facebook recently backing up this idea.  Outside of reports and etc., people in the blogosphere tend to be much friendlier than, say, commenters on a newspaper website or a gossip column – another reason the book and writing blogosphere is amazing.
  • It’s okay to occasionally break the cycle of your blog posts.  Your audience won’t immediately disappear.  I usually try to post about once a week.  Occasionally it will be more often, and sometimes when life is crazy, less often.  However, don’t wait too long between blog posts.  Two weeks is a little vacation.  Two months is more like starting over.
  • There’s a wealth of knowledge in the blogosphere about everything imaginable that’s related to books and writing.  Reading all the posts over at Nathan Bransford’s blog and Mary Kole’s blog would practically give you an MFA.  That’s not even mentioning other fantastic resources like Lynn Price at the Behler Blog or all the other agents and editors and authors with free, abundant, awesome writing and publishing tips. You can even interact with these people by commenting.  Craziness.

What have you all learned while blogging?  What have you done to streamline your blog?  What do you like (or dislike) that others do with their blogs?

P.S.  I also took this opportunity to discover that this blog’s sun sign is Libra, which apparently represents the element of air or intellect.  We can pretend that I planned that. 😉

P.P.S.  This shows a way cool map of indie bookstores in your area (and also confirmed my knowledge that LA is severely lacking in indie bookstores).

Grammar Pet Peeves: Annoying Writing Mistakes Infographic

Perhaps it’s a side effect of reading so voraciously when I was a child, but I’ve never had major issues with grammar.  Although my grammar isn’t perfect (no one’s is, really), grammar comes pretty naturally to me.  I’ve never had to study it to inherently understanding parallel structure or compound sentences or what have you.  I don’t strive for perfect grammar, but I do strive for excellent grammar.

As a child, I would embarrass my parents by correcting adults’ grammar (because it was something my parents corrected in my brother and me, I didn’t yet understand at 4 years old that it was rude to correct adults when they used bad grammar).  I’ve since grown out of that habit, but I still get a little nails-on-the-chalkboard feeling when people use incorrect grammar in the written word.  For your grammatical delight (or perhaps you’re trying to learn English grammar?), I’ve found a gorgeous little infographic over at bitrebels.com about the most annoying writing mistakes (and yes, it does have an unnecessary hyphen in “most-annoying,” but we’ll let that pass for now…).

Most Annoying Writing Mistakes - Learn English Grammar - Grammar Goofs - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing rules - writing tips - infographic

Most Annoying Writing Mistakes via bitrebel.com

One mistake that this infographic didn’t include was when people end a sentence with “John and I” instead of “John and me, or they say “Jane gave it to John and I” when it should be “John and me.”  Egads!  And for me, one mistake I personally am frequently making is spelling the word “happened” wrong — I never can remember whether it has one “n” or two.  Thank goodness for spell check!  Which mistakes really make you want to whip out that red pen?  Which mistakes do you have to keep catching yourself on?

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5 Everyday Ways to Spark Your Creativity

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Crayon Logs by Chris Metcalf via Wikimedia Commons

Crayon Logs by Chris Metcalf via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the muse is hanging out on our shoulder, and the words just pour onto the page.  And sometimes, the muse has taken a lunch break … or maybe a long vacation.  How do you spark creativity in those situations?

First of all, let’s define creativity.  Dictionary.com says creativity is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”  Creativity is not just limited to the arts.  It also has to do with invention and the sciences and the way you live your life every day.  Being more creative in your artistic life can help you innovate in other areas of life as well by expanding the way you think.  So how can we expand or shift the way we think?

(Disclaimer: try not to use these things to put off actually writing)

  1. Change your routine.  It doesn’t have to be something major; it could be as small as going to a different grocery store, taking a new route to work or school, or making a new recipe for dinner.
  2. Read.  If you’re writing, you probably read more than the average person already, but reading new stories almost always gives you a different perspective, at least briefly.  Read in your genre to see what others are writing about.  Read outside your comfort zone in genres you’d never write in – they will have a different feel than the genres you’re comfortable with.  Read nonfiction; I’ve found some of my best inspiration has come from nonfiction that helps me to look at the world in a different way, especially books about how the world works, like Outliers, Freakonomics, and most recently, The New Geography of Jobs (one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years).  Books on writing are always a great source, too, like Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Save the Cat, and On Writing.
  3. Do something new.  Novelty helps your brain create new neural pathways.  Go on a little adventure – take a class, go to a new restaurant, go on a trip, learn something new.
  4. Journal.  Observe what’s going on around you.  Observing things in detail and/or organizing them into an order of events makes you look at them more closely than you normally would.  Free write in your journal; this is also called stream of consciousness writing.  It acts like a warm up for your brain.  You can set a timer, maybe 5 minutes, and don’t let your pen off the paper (or your fingers off the keyboard) until the timer goes up.  This might result in a little babble, but there may be some gems in there, too.
  5. Change your associations.  Associate with people who have similar goals, who work in the same field; these type of associations foster innovation and creativity (there’s a whole section on this in The New Geography of Jobs that I mentioned above – such a great read!).  This might mean joining a writing group, going to book signings and book festivals, and going to literary events and conferences.  This might mean blogging and visiting blogs of people with similar interests and goals.  You could also read books written by writers, agents, and others in the publishing business (this includes listening to audiobooks in the car – such a great use of traffic time).

How do you spark creativity?  What have I left off this list?

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How Can I Help Debut Authors? And Why Would I Want To?

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Transparent via nataliewhipple.com

Today is a very special day.  Today is the day that debut author Natalie Whipple’s book Transparent comes out.  Transparent is about a girl with the power to become invisible whose mob boss daddy makes her do crazy stuff – and she wants to escape.

What makes Natalie Whipple so special?  Well, as of last summer, I hadn’t written much of anything that wasn’t work-related in about 7 years, since I graduated from college.  At first, I wasn’t writing because I was teaching, and teaching in a bad area is an 80-hour-a-week job.  Later, I wasn’t writing because I had gotten out of the habit.  Last summer, I ran across Natalie Whipple’s blog, and I realized how much I really missed writing.  She inspired me to write again (Side note:  I’ve been following her blog since last summer, but I don’t comment on it frequently because of how often the Captcha ate my comments in the past.  Boo Captcha).  Although my current work in progress is far from finished, it is thousands of words more than it might have been if I hadn’t been re-energized by Natalie’s blog.

How can we help debut authors like Natalie Whipple?  And why do we want to?

Spread the word.  Tell your friends, ask for it at the library, post about it on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/etc., or even blog about it.

Buy the book within the first 3 months it comes out.  This seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating: if it’s an author you really want to support, actually buy the book.  The first 3 months are when publishers are watching.  Pre-order it or buy it in the store.  And then write the review afterwards.  Remember that buying it in a brick and mortar store does more for the author than buying it online.  If you buy the book in a store, that store is more likely to stock an additional copy or two – and shelf space is at a premium.  Shelf space is free advertising for books that they don’t get elsewhere.

Why should we support these hard working authors?  We should support them because good books need a leg up.  There is only a certain amount of publicity budget available at publishing houses these days (and even less budget available for many self-published and indie authors), and mid-list authors with great books can benefit from a few extra recommendations ever so much.  Getting the word out about authors and books we love is paying it forward.  Every single mention counts.  I’ve heard John Green got to where he is because his books spread virally before he made it big.

But, you say, there are so many!  Well, just pick a couple you’re excited about and spread the word.  Here’s a few sites to encourage your imagination:

What other advice would you add about supporting debut authors and their ever-so-fabulous debut novels?  Where else have you seen debut author listings online?

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