Category Archives: Writing Blogs

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

A couple of weeks ago, I co-presented a stimulating session entitled “How to Write a Cover Letter that isn’t Boring”* as part of a day-long marketing boot camp. When the program organizers requested that I discuss “writing tools and resources” as part of the presentation, I got to thinking. What are a few of my favorite things? And since I’m a giver (not unlike Oprah minus the $10,000 refrigerators and $500 face cream), I will share them with you here.

Wordle.net (free) Wordle creates a visual representation of the most used words in your text. Businesses often use this as a tool to delve deeper into a client’s vision and mission statements, assuming that the most often used words are of particular value to the company. But I use Wordle to determine which words I use too often. For instance, I was horrified to find that “like”, “just” and “little” are among the most common words in my novel. There is no excuse for such lazy writing. I did a search for each instance and weighed out the necessity of each word in context. Of course, now that I’ve cut back on those pesky qualifier words, I may find something even worse lurking around the corner.

Small Legends Wordle

Like? Just? Little? Back? WTF??

 

Hemingwayapp.com (free) I use the Hemingway App more often for business than creative writing, but it is handy for both. Simply paste your text into the site and receive a color-coded critique to rival that of your high school English teacher. The app highlights sentences that are difficult to read, use passive voice, or include the most dreaded of all writing faux pas, the adverb. It also determines the grade level for overall readability. The app does not suggest how to “fix” these issues, but leaves it up to the writer to make a judgment call. After all, we need not all write like Hemingway.

Hemingwayap

What’s so bad about adverbs anyway? And so what if my sentences are hard to read? Maybe I don’t want anyone at less than an eighth grade reading level to read my book! Harumph!

 

Visualthesaurus.com (paid but trial subscription available) Visual Thesaurus is a nifty tool that creates interactive word maps, building off of a root word to offer related words and meanings. The sidebar provides definitions by: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. While the tool doesn’t perform miracles beyond those of a regular thesaurus, the interface is easy to use and fun for us word nerds.

Visualthesaurus

I’m surprised it doesn’t branch to “procrastinating” or “pulling out ones own hair”.

 


* A rather boring title that I promptly subtitled “Always Judge a Proposal by its Cover Letter”. Total marketing nerd humor.

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So Now What?

Over the holiday break, I finished the third draft of my novel. And by “finished”, I mean forced myself to turn off the computer and walk away. This week, I will distribute the manuscript to my beta readers, who will then spend the next six to eight weeks reading it and preparing responses that I desperately hope will be lovely pairings of accolades and useful notes for improvement.

And in the meantime, I will spend my free time doing…what?

drumming-fingers

My nails have never looked this good.

Possible answers include: finish watching Game of Thrones, start watching Mad Men, crack open one of the unread novels piled up on my nightstand, put away the Christmas decorations, repaint the hallway, do more yoga, plan a vacation, and clean out my closets. And so many others.

I can also use this opportunity to…write something else. For instance, that essay about the all genders bathroom sign. Or about my hoarder former housemate. Or the really funny story about the time I saw the guy who  broke my 18-year-old heart (Spoiler Alert!) making balloon animals at Ghiradeli Square. Or I could begin to revise the forsaken first draft ‘tween novel I cranked out and set aside two years ago.

Or I can pick a few items from each list. Where to begin…

(As I have just now finished writing this blog post, I will reward myself with the new episode of Downton Abbey. Cheerio!)

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To Blog or Not to Blog

“I thought you were going to try to get that piece published,” a writer friend said to me. This was just about a year ago, and I had recently posted a work-in-progress — a personal essay about the stigma surrounding public displays of emotion — on my blog. My intention was to continue to work on the piece until it was ready to submit to online literary journals. As far as I was concerned, publishing it “as is” on my blog was a kind of dress rehearsal.

But my friend set me straight at once. “Never post anything on your blog if there is a chance you’ll want to publish it,” she said, exasperated by my naiveté. She explained that most journals don’t accept submissions that have been published elsewhere, even in part. And that there is no point in lying about it since editors Google every piece prior to publication; if they find you out, you’ll be blacklisted forever.

I hopped right onto the Internet and scanned through the submission rules of several journals. They all said essentially the same thing: We accept only original material; we cannot publish anything that has appeared elsewhere, even if it’s just on your personal blog.

Keys

Not only did I feel like an idiot, I was disappointed that I had already blown my chances of publishing my essay before I’d even finished writing it. Luckily, I later found an online journal that didn’t object to its debut on my blog. But I’d learned an important lesson.

Since then, as I ponder the theme of my next post, I am faced with the difficult task of determining which topics are a) interesting enough for my blog, but b) not so interesting that I may want to submit them for publication elsewhere. To put it crudely, I must be careful not to shoot my wad.

This here blog post was going to be about the “all genders” bathroom sign I saw in the San Diego airport and the power of words. But since I may want to publish an essay about this topic in the future, instead I am blogging about the trials and tribulations of blogging.

See, I’m learning.

Are You Ready to Get Mortified?

Writing is generally a solitary experience. Whether you write at your kitchen table or in a bustling café, you are still alone with the words on the page. And while most writers intend for their work to be read, they are not often present when it is. In short, we don’t often get real time reactions to our work unless we hover over our readers’ shoulders. And that’s just, well…creepy.

Last year, I made the first big jump from the relative anonymity of the written (or web) page to a more public forum. Four times now, I have written and recorded personal essays for broadcast on public radio. But even in the studio, it’s just me and the sound engineer — an audience of one. While I’ve received a good deal of feedback post-broadcast, thus far I’ve listened to all airings alone and in the safety of my own home. I have yet to witness a “live” reaction.

So the next big step is a live reading. This both excites and terrifies me.

I love to attend live readings. Let me rephrase that: I love to attend good live readings. Or at least awesomely bad ones. Enter Mortified.

610-stage-frightFor the uninitiated, Mortified is a celebration of all things awkward teenager. At each event, several brave souls take the stage to read cringe-worthy poetry, song lyrics, love letters, and excerpts from their teenage diaries for the entertainment of the crowd. It is hilarious.

At the end of each Mortified show, the emcee puts out the call to anyone who may be interested in participating in a future show. A few drinks in and still wiping away the tears of laughter from my eyes, I always think: “Maybe I should do this. I have a ton of truly terrible teenager writing to pull from. Certainly, I could put together a good reading.”

And then I sober up.

In high school, my favorite subject was drama (literally and figuratively, ha ha). I both loved and feared taking the stage. During a performance, I went on automatic, and the play seemed to go by in an instant. If I’d stopped to think about what I was doing — essentially pretending to be someone else in front of my peers — I probably would have blacked out. But the post performance high was almost palpable. The adrenaline rush lasted all night, and I was immediately pumped for the next opportunity to get back on stage.

Of course, I was performing someone else’s play, someone else’s writing. At Mortified, I would perform my own writing. So there are two ways to bomb: in delivery and in substance. Then again, the beauty of Mortified is that the writing is supposed to be bad.

But what if my writing isn’t bad enough?

I’ve thought a lot about what I would read. For better or worse, I have a lot to choose from. As a preteen and teenager, I was a prolific writer: angsty poems, ranting hormonal diatribes in my journal, notes passed in class…oh and of course all of those mortifying stories about dating various members of Duran Duran.

Bingo.

A never-been-kissed 12-year-old girl’s take on sex and romance? My cheeks get hot just thinking about it. But counter-intuitive to all of my fight or flight instincts, I know that whatever makes me squirm the most is what will best entertain the crowd. And that’s what I’m there for, right? To play to the crowd? To get a reaction?

But to stand up on a stage in a roomful of buzzed people, spotlight on, hundreds of expectant faces peering up at me…

Dare I?

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Thank You, Books

I can be a bit of a curmudgeon around the holidays. As much as I would like to blame the PTSD from my days of working retail at Christmas, most of my holiday-based anxiety is of my own creation: pairing my general intolerance for shopping with the self-induced pressure to find the “perfect gift” is asking for trouble. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, I am fully on board. I love everything about Thanksgiving, from the kick-off cocktails to the requisite crisp, after-dinner walk to make room for dessert. And although the cynic in me can’t help but raise an eyebrow at a nationally designated day of thanks, I do appreciate the nudge to, well…appreciate. So in the spirit of the holiday – and in the theme of this here blog – I have listed below just a few of the many, many books for which I am thankful:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I enjoyed this version almost as much as the original.

Now With Zombies!

I first read Pride and Prejudice whilst studying at the University of Swansea in Wales. I was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in my life, and – despite being three years into an English degree – totally intimidated by many of the classic works of the language. Pride and Prejudice was not assigned reading for a class, but rather a recommendation from my friend Emma, who proclaimed it as not only “a good laugh” but also as one of the smartest books she’d ever read. And she was right.

From Jane Austen, I learned to appreciate wit, social commentary, and early 1800s feminism. I also learned that I was perhaps more intelligent than I’d previously believed. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least a half a dozen times, and choke up every time Mr. Darcy says to Elizabeth: “Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.” I am such a sap.

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

galapagos-vonnegut-kurtI was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut by way of my father’s bookshelf. Vonnegut taught me about satire and how to find truth in the absurd. With literary tongue in cheek, he reveals the darkest parts of the human mind, yet his writing never despairs of hope. He also demonstrates the indisputably powerful punch of the well-placed short sentence: “And so on.”

I have read and loved many of Vonnegut’s books, however it was Galapagos that inspired me to seek out that living diorama of evolution for myself. For my 40th birthday, I crossed off the item in the top spot of my Things To Do Before I Die list: Visit the Galapagos Islands.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

She's Come UndoneAt the risk of being over-dramatic, this book changed my life.  While the cringe-inducing coming of age story is at times almost too painful to read, it feels 100% genuine throughout. The central character is complicated – her behavior sympathetic and abhorrent in turns – and her journey leads the reader to a wholly satisfying conclusion.

I am in awe of Wally Lamb’s beautiful, flawed heroine, but I am indebted to She’s Come Undone for inspiring me to start writing again after a very long, very dry spell. Read all about it in this blog post from last Spring.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

hppmeab05-w813I’ve probably lost a certain amount of credibility by including this on my list, but I’m willing to risk it. I wish these books had come out when I was a kid, because that’s really the only way I could love them more. Okay, so they are a tad formulaic in structure, but they have all of the elements of a compelling story: an underdog to root for, mysteries to solve, good vs. evil, and of course, magic. Who doesn’t want to be magical? Rowling is not only a master of world building, but also of long-haul plot development: her clear vision for her characters and storyline allowed her early on to plant the subtle seeds that germinate into major plot points in the later books. As a fellow writer, I am damn impressed.

I have reread this series more times than I can count, and have a special love for the audiobook versions, which for me are like aural comfort food. When I am anxious or unsettled, or can’t get to sleep, I can nearly always find calm in narrator Jim Dale’s soothing voice.

Road Trip, Party of One by Lisa Thomson (that’s me!). Unpublished.

BookQuestionMarkMy early attempts at novel writing were not unlike my attempts to quit smoking: I started off full of inspiration and determination, but within days or weeks – and often after a couple of drinks – I’d stumble off the wagon. My plot lines, like my will power, were too thin to carry a story for more than a dozen pages.

I finally quit smoking at age 24, but it was another few years before I was struck with the inspiration for my first completed novel. I was listening to the R.E.M. song Night Sleeper on my pre-iPod portable music device whilst on my way home from a long day at work when an intriguing character popped into my head: a misanthropic shift worker in his late 20s, cut off from all family and friends, almost without hope. Almost. He was both my alter ego and my cautionary tale. I was hooked.

Although this novel isn’t likely to make it out of the figurative box in the back of the closet, I will always be grateful for it. Through my experience of developing this story over a somewhat turbulent four year period, I learned that with a little inspiration and a lot of determination, I could create a whole new world. I wasn’t a failure as a writer; I simply hadn’t yet found the right story.

 

 

 

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Two Minutes of Fame

Every writer dreams of having thousands of people read his or work. The very first time I shared something I’d written with that large of an audience, the piece in question was an edited version of a post on the blog that I write about writing (this one!). Talk about meta.

Last month, when I wrote about my heartbreak over the closure of my hometown Denny’s, scene of many teenage hi-jinks (https://lisathomson101.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/an-ode-to-dennys/), I received a lot of feedback from folks who fondly remembered their own youthful hangout spots, whether it was Country Kitchen in rural Iowa or Carmine’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York. It seemed I’d hit a nostalgic nerve.

So I decided to take my story to the radio. old_radio_by_hkgood

For years, I’ve enjoyed a segment on my local public radio station KQED called Perspectives, a two-minute commentary written and recorded by a Bay Area resident, and covering topics that range from local politics to social commentary. Think This American Life meets open mic night. My piece about Denny’s was: 1) regional, 2) reflective, and 3) touched on the bigger issue of the ever-increasing pressure on kids to compete for college admissions. I figured it was ripe for public radio.

And apparently I was right. I read KQED’s submission requirements, edited my piece for length, and emailed it off. The very next day, I received an enthusiastic response from the segment editor Mark, saying how much he liked my submission and asking to schedule a phone call so that I could read it for time (in radio world, a two-minute segment is two minutes, not two minutes and a few seconds).

Over the phone, Mark couldn’t have been nicer or more complementary. He loved my piece, he said. It was well written and compelling, with varying sentence lengths. In short, perfect for radio.

The following week, I went to KQED to record. There I met Mark, who again told me how much he loved my piece, as well as the online producer and recording engineer, who also complimented me and listed off their own teenage hangout spots. Everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic – even for public radio – I started to wonder if the building had a nitrous leak (happy gas). But then it was time to get down to the business of recording.

I’d practiced reading the piece aloud a dozen times, but something about being in a sound proof recording studio and having a stranger listening carefully to my every syllable made my mouth a little dry. I read it through three times, stopping periodically to sip from my water glass. And less than 15 minutes after I’d entered the studio, we were done.

On my way out, Mark told me he would air my piece in two days. Only two days? I’d barely wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to hear myself on the radio. I made haste to alert my friends, family, and select colleagues.

radio_mainOn the big day, I set my alarm so that I could listen to the 6:05am airing while still in bed. I listened to the 7:35am airing while in my kitchen, making coffee. I felt exhilarated and a little embarrassed. And proud. I didn’t sound half bad. Later that night, I fired up the voice memo app on my iPhone and recorded the final airing at 11:30pm. I wanted a record of this cool, surreal, mouth-drying experience for a long time to come.

My friends and family were of course full of praise, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive compliments from several past and present colleagues who, as it turns out, are also avid KQED listeners. And the word seems to be spreading among my co-workers. Since the airing last week, I’ve had multiple requests for the link to the audio file on KQED’s website, which you can listen to here: http://www.kqed.org/a/perspectives/R201407310735

Who would have thought all of those hours spent at Denny’s would have amounted to anything?

Next stop, This American Life? I’ll keep you posted…

 

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Upward, Dog!

On a recent trip to Los Angeles to visit my dear friends Mari and Gary*, I attended a class entitled Yoga for Writers. It wasn’t clear whether the class was a writers’ workshop in lotus position or a yoga class that swaps out the usual “ohm” chant for a little Hemingway, but I was intrigued.

Hemingway accomplished many things, but I'm pretty sure Dolphin pose wasn't one of them.

Hemingway accomplished many things, but I’m pretty sure Dolphin pose wasn’t one of them.

After a warm, lazy Saturday spent meandering the hipster-lined streets of Silver Lake, eating hippy food in Eagle Rock (I had the bbq chickpea salad with tofu), and sipping iced organic coffee, the three of us headed out for the 6:30pm class. It was co-led by the resident yoga teacher – who had both the requisite calm demeanor and strong yoga legs – and the editor of a popular online literary magazine. The class was small and friendly, and as far as I could tell, consisted mainly of bloggers.

I quickly came to the conclusion that while the class was called Yoga for Writers, it could have applied to anyone who spends the bulk of his or her day tapping away at a keyboard. And isn’t that most people these days? Then again, this is Los Angeles and everyone needs a hook.

We started out on our mats, reclining against the supportive bolsters that helped to open up our shoulders – presumably rounded and tight from all the hours we writers hunch over our laptops or notebooks – and immediately, I began to doze off.** This phenomenon has long baffled me: why is it that I so often have difficulty falling asleep in my bed at night yet nearly always conk out during shavasana (corpse pose) while lying on the hard floor in a room full of strangers as cars and people pass by on the street just twenty feet away from my head?

We moved on to a series of other poses and movements with a goal of opening up our necks, our shoulders, and our lower backs. The movements were slow and deliberate, and – accustomed to a more strength and/or balance-based practice – I had to remind myself to be patient with this type of gentle yoga. At two hours, it was the longest yoga class I’ve ever taken, but also the least physically demanding.

After class, Mari, Gary and I compared notes over ginger fish pho noodles. Gary revealed that for the first time, he’d felt a floating sensation during the guided meditation, as if he was in a small boat drifting down a calm river. I was a little ashamed to admit that I’d fallen asleep again during meditation, until Mari confessed she had as well. I shared with them my puzzlement over bedtime vs. yoga time sleep. “I think it’s because you’re supposed to fall asleep when you get into bed at night,” Mari explained. “But there’s no pressure to fall asleep on the floor of the yoga studio.” Chalk another one up in the Neurotic Writer column for me.

Aside from the Clock and Butterfly shoulder rolls, the thing that resonated with me most of all was a Buddhist saying shared by one of the instructors. When a fellow yogini asked: “If you don’t have a lot of time, which movements are the best to do on a day-to-day basis?”, the instructor responded with: “If you have time, meditate for ten minutes a day. If you don’t have time, meditate for an hour.”

Translation: “Get your priorities straight.”

I once had a writing teacher who instructed the class to write for at least 15 minutes every day. Not for a month or a year, but forever. She said, “You might spend the entire 15 minutes changing around two words in a sentence. Or you might find inspiration and write for four hours straight.” Her point, of course, was that if you want to make writing (or anything) a part of your life, you will find 15 minutes in which to do it. Get off of Facebook. Stop checking your email every five minutes. Turn off the TV.

Write. Stretch. Write more.

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*Mari is a full-time writer/cartoonist and occasional yogini. Gary is just a damn good sport.

**My friend Fiona refers to this type of restorative yoga as “advanced napping”. She isn’t wrong.

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Kill Your Adverbs: The Anti-Blog Blog

I’ve perused a fair amount of blogs about writing and have found that, with a few notable exceptions, they tend to break down into two categories: Do’s and Don’ts, and Why I Haven’t Written.

I Heart Adverbs!

How can Schoolhouse Rock be wrong?

The Do’s and Don’ts are pretty straightforward: Avoid adverbs. Never open a book with the weather. Take it easy on the exclamation points. Avoid prologues. I take these Writing Commandments with a large grain of salt, since many of these rules are subjective and made to be broken. Beside, I figure if the occasional adverb doesn’t ruin a story for me, it probably won’t ruin it for most other people either.

My favorite Do’s and Don’ts lists give insight into the writing habits of well-known writers, from Henry Miller to Kurt Vonnegut to Zadie Smith*. I am fascinated to learn about what works – and what doesn’t – for these beloved authors: Write to please just one person. Start as close to the end as possible. Work on one thing at a time until finished. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. When sharing advice, these writers often contradict one another, and sometimes themselves. As Steven King famously wrote, “Ignore all rules.”

The other common – and certainly the most disdainful – type of blog I’ve encountered is the Why I Haven’t Written, aka Dear Diary: Life is Hard. “I didn’t write this week because I had to call my mother and the dog was sick and my boss was being a jerk and my pen was leaky and American Idol was on…” Why on earth would anyone write a blog about why he or she doesn’t have the time or energy to write? And why on earth would anyone want to read this drivel? That’s what support groups are for. If you have the time and energy to update your blog, guess what? You also have the time and energy to whip out a paragraph or two of your short story, memoir, or novel-in-progress.**

Now that I’ve planted my size eight feet firmly on my soapbox, it’s time for me to confess my own (largely) selfish reasons for starting a blog about writing. I want to make writing a constant in my life, to keep it in the forefront of my conscious mind. I want to make myself accountable. Most of all, I want to WRITE MORE. And as a side benefit, I hope to entertain a couple of folks along the way. I write about my experiences and what works for me in the hope that this will be of interest to others, just as I’ve learned from reading about what works for Miller, Vonnegut, Zadie Smith, and even Steven King.

So. Why do you read or write blogs?

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* I think this heartbreaking bit of advice from Smith will resonate with most creative folks: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”

**Perhaps my next blog post will be: Too busy writing novel to write blog post. Check back later.

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