Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Beg to Differ: Outlining is not a Killer

The Blog Quips & Tips for Successful Writers says in this entry that we should not outline because, briefly:

It kills creativity.
It dulls the urge to tell a story.
It makes writing a duty rather than fun.
It organizes (rather than inspires) your writing.
It leads to "dull, stale writing."

Eh. Well. Yes and no. Or perhaps just maybe. It depends, first of all, on the individual. For shorter pieces, such as blog entries, I do not sit down and write out a formal outline. I don't even jot down ideas. But I have a mental outline. What do I have to say on the subject? What points do I want to use to support my argument? It isn't fancy or detailed, but it is there, because it is a guidepost to try to keep me from going too far off the rails.

I need it because I very much have a tendency to go off the rails. So I have to have something that tells me, "Hey! Get back on topic!" An outline, for longer pieces, does that for me.

One point mentioned above is that outlining dulls the urge to tell a good story. The blogger writes, "Probably the worst aspect of outlining is that, by its nature, it emphasizes the importance of fact over story." Now, I can take that in at least two ways. What I think the blogger means is that we do not want to have our writing become dull and dry, like the history books we had in high school, because we are concentrating too much on marshaling facts than on making the prose readable. But as a historian, I have to be sure my facts are straight, that they are properly sourced, and that my argument is logical and supports my thesis. Without the plan of an outline, I cannot be sure that these criteria will be met.

Will outlining dull my prose? Not a bit of it. Because I will not allow that. The writer must not give up responsibility for the clarity and flow of her or his prose. That is our responsibility. My responsibility. One review of my first book, Booking Hawaii Five-0 said that my prose is "crisp and elegant." It did not get that way on its own. I worked at it. I polished it. I rewrote, revised, and edited until I was blue in the face. Writing very often is more work than fun; it is the nature of the beast.  So, yes, sometimes it does seem more like a duty than a lark.  That's the real world, dearie.  Cope.

I see nothing wrong with writing being organized.  I prefer to read organized prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, than disorganized nonsense.  I really do not see that organization and inspiration are mutually exclusive.  Organize first, then open yourself to that inspiration.  Frankly, I think it works easier that way. 

The blogger in question is promoting mind mapping, a technique of loose association, which she says will lead more surely to the "Aha!" moment than any outlining could possibly think of providing.  For some people, I am sure that is so.  However, I find that most of my "Aha!" moments come when I'm in the research phase, when I'm discovering the facts and making my notes and reading documents and thinking -- all the time, day or night (and staying awake longer than I need to) -- about my project in all sorts of ways.  Maybe what is happening there is that I am doing my "mind mapping" internally rather than externally.  I can accept that, embrace it, even.  So by the time I get to the outline, I have usually had a whole bunch of "Aha!" moments, and I find as well that as I am outlining and marshaling my thoughts and facts, I can check again for associations which might be new discoveries, more "Aha!" moments, and see that this all logically hangs together.

So there are those of us who can do better with outlining, who find that it does not harm our writing in the least.  As we used to say in the 1960s, do your own thing!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Help for Writers, Hurt for Writers

There is a great website maintained by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) with some assistance from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and the Romance Writers of America (RWA).  It is called Writer Beware, and it exists to provide information to budding writers about the publishing industry, agents, and those seemingly ubiquitous slime who prey on the unwary with scams. There is a particularly disturbing undercurrent going on, about which Writer Beware has posted.  There is a group out there, about which you can read in the posting (highlighted on the words "disturbing undercurrent"), which has apparently dedicated itself to attacking anyone who would perform "watchdog" services for writers by pointing out scams and schemes of which they need to beware.  I am not going to mention their name here: I do not feel like it.

On Goodreads, they had posted unfavorable criticism of the books written by people affiliated with Writer Beware, including people who merely commented on the blog postings to thank Writer Beware for alerting them to scams.  They consisted not in literary critique of the work in question, but in a one-liner saying that the book had been "banned."  I always have a problem with someone who adversely remarks on a book (or movie or other form of art) without having first READ or VIEWED the thing!  As a former librarian, I also have a problem with anyone who would presume to set themselves up as censors.

But there is one tactic they have proposed which I find deeply disturbing, even the mere mention of it: They said they were going to organize a book-burning of books by authors whom they had put on their "propaganda watch list."   Again, these are all writers who are affiliated with Writer Beware, even if only having made a comment on a blog posting.

Even today, more than 65 years after the end of World War II, the phrase book-burning conjures up one image:  See it here.

Enough said that these people have put themselves in with some extremely unsavory company.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Two Books by Two Friends

I have recently had the pleasure of reading two books written by authors whom I consider friends.  The first I read is The Crack in the Lens, by Darlene A. Cypser, a tale of Sherlock Holmes as a teenager.  As a member of the Hounds of the Internet, I have become acquainted with Darlene.  Whether or not I had known her prior to the publication of the book, I can say with no reservation that I enjoyed it.  It is not a light book, as we see young Holmes in his home setting in a family that might be characterized as somewhat dysfunctional.  It seems to me that most upper-class families of the time, in the manorial system that existed across Europe (and in the United States on southern plantations) were dysfunctional to some extent.  Ideas of place and class were rigid, children were to be seldom seen and almost never heard.  Upbringing of children was a hands-off affair for parents, leaving children first in the nursery for the first six years or so under the care of governesses and nannies, and then sending them off to school away from home.  The rigid class system provides a heartbreaking problem for young Holmes, and leads him to the definition of his life's work.  The book also contains an original handling of some of the wonderful bits of trivia we Sherlockians find so delightful.

The other book, which I am in the process of reading, is Prussian Yarns by Laurie Campbell.  I have known Laurie for something like 30 years in cyberspace, and met her face-to-face when she was one of my supporting friends during a very trying time in our family.  She has worked for years on getting Prussian Yarns polished and published, and I have read bits of it over the years for critique and suggestions in an online writers' group she and I have been affiliated with for those three decades.  The wait has been worth it.  The story involves Otto von Goff, a Junker (member of nobility) in 19th century Prussia.  The setting and time period are very similar to that of The Crack in the Lens-- that is, a 19th century manorial family.  Herr von Goff has married well but problematically.  His wife has relatives who are scheming to obtain the family estate, which Herr von Goff inherited.  The senior servant staff, all holdovers from service to his wife's family, the von Puttkamers, are scheming as well to undermine Herr von Goff's authority.  This complex plot is well laid out, the characters have been drawn believably, and the setting is charming.

I highly recommend both books.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Reading on the Kindle

The Kindle I ordered arrived Wednesday.  I had already installed the Kindle for PC program on my desktop computer and had books waiting to put on the Kindle.  I was happy to learn that the Kindle will read PDF files, because I have journal articles, books from Google Books, and whole issues of the Florida Historical Quarterly in PDF form for my St. Augustine project (which I discuss on my genealogy blog; see at right for link).  So I have put those on the Kindle, too.  Now I can read and make notes for the project at various times.

Thursday I was on campus all day, and it was a gloppy, rainy, gloomy wet cold day.  Ugh.  But I was happy to sit in the History Commons or on a bench in the building where my Spanish class is, and after doing my required reading, I read on the Kindle.  Right now, I'm reading Mighty Fitz: the Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher.  It is interesting, and I like reading about maritime incidents, having been in the Coast Guard.  The author seems to do a good job of reporting the facts and not getting terribly judgemental.   That is not to say that he doesn't speculate, but then, in the case of this particular incident, much is speculation.  In all, it is a sobering and sometimes chilling story.

Another thing I can do with the Kindle is type up my class notes and put them on the device, so I can study and review at odd times.  The free program Calibre, an e-book management program, says that there is some difficulty in converting Microsoft Word docx files, but the solution to that is simple:  have Word export the file as a PDF, and load that right onto the Kindle.  Easy peasy.

In the History Commons, I talked with the Departmental office manager, who was eating her lunch.  I told her I had a new toy, and it turns out she did, too.  She had bought one of the first Sony e-readers years ago, and had read it to death.  It did not owe her anything when it gave up the ghost, and she promptly ordered another one.  We compared our machines, discussing our preferences and pros and cons.  We agreed that the "e-ink" technology being used by apparently all the major readers is eminently easy on the eyes, and produces a very sharp image.  Illustrations, especially photographs, come out looking great, with exacting detail.  They appear like greyscale newspaper photographs, only much sharper.

My younger daughter had the bon mot concerning the e-ink technology, however:  "It's a high-tech Etch-a-Sketch," she said.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Bowing to the Inevitable

Okay, I went and did it.

I bought a Kindle.

A woman, probably in her mid-forties, in my Ancient Near East history class has one.  She was reading on it one day before class, and I asked her how she liked it.  She told me her sister had given it to her for Christmas, and that she was convinced at first that she would not like it, because -- like me -- she has a fondness deep in her heart for the physical book.

She loves it.  She is handicapped, and like me with my increasingly painful arthritis, has a difficult time carrying around loads of books, as we history majors of necessity do.  She said it was eminently readable and easy on the eyes.

She convinced me.

It will arrive either tomorrow or Wednesday, and I've already got a store of books ready for it.  I downloaded the free "Kindle for PC" app, and bought some books, most for 99 cents, some for $7-$9, nothing over $10.  (My own Non Federal Censuses of Florida, 1784-1945: A Guide to Sources is $19.95 on Kindle.)  A few were free, off of Project Gutenberg.

Here is the list of my "starter" books awaiting my Kindle's arrival:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles,

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol (the original unabridged version).

Robert Southey, translator:  The Chronicles of El Cid.  (My other major is Spanish, and I've read part of El Cantar de Mio Cid in Spanish for my class last term.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt:  The Fireside Chats of Franklin Delano Roosevelt:  Radio Addresses to the American People between 1933 and 1944.  (The book does not say who the compiler was.)

Frederick Jackson Turner:  The Frontier in American History.  A must for any history major, and I shamefacedly admit that I have not read this book before.

William D. Dewhurst:  The History of St. Augustine, Florida . . . which continues on with the ungodly long subtitle common in 1881, when this was published.  It is an astounding and wonderful fact of a century I am otherwise mostly disappointed in, that books which have been accessible only by traveling to a particular library or archive are becoming available for everyone.  It is making historical research a lot easier.

Mercy Otis Warren:  History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution . . . another one with a long rambling subtitle.  Mercy Warren was THE early American woman of letters, and an eyewitness to the whole thing. 

Alfred Thayer Mahan:  The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783.  Another must-read for history majors, and for anyone having connection to the seagoing military services (I was in the Coast Guard).

Theodora Kroeber:  Ishi in Two Worlds.  I had heard about this book from when I was a kid, but never got around to reading it.  The base fact, that an American Indian whose tribe had been obliterated had been living in the mountains of California, and came down ragged, bedraggled, nearly starving, sounds like the stuff of fiction.  Ishi was found cowering in a corner of a rancher's corral.  The rancher called the sheriff, and the sheriff, bless him forever, called anthropologists at the University of California.  Ultimately a sad tale.

Anna H. Leonowens:  Memoirs of a British Governess at the Siamese Court.  This is the original, true account on which Margaret Landon based a novel, Anna and the King of Siam, upon which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II based one of my favorite Broadway musicals, The King and I.  Richard Rodgers is one of my favorite composers.

Michael Schumacher:  Mighty Fitz:  The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  Schumacher dedicated his book not only to the crew of the ship, but also to Gordon Lightfoot.  And if you do not know the connection between the ship and Gordon Lightfoot, go here: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot.

I do have a problem with some of the books prepared for the Kindle:  on some of them, the bibliographic information (found on the backside, or verso, of the title page) is missing.  That needs to be remedied.

I'm looking forward to playing with the gadget, and I have one great use already for the Kindle:  I am taking it with me on my doctor visits.  I will have something to read that I will truly be interested in reading, and a platform to read them on which has not been handled by a bunch of sick people!

Now, go to the YouTube link and listen to Gordon Lightfoot sing about the Edmund Fitzgerald.  It is an awesome song.