Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Trouble With E-Mail

How many e-mails do you get every day? I receive around 150 messages a day, and the majority of them require some sort of response or action. I’d bet it’s the same for most writers, especially those of us working primarily on the Internet. For press releases, news flashes, and notices about library books that are due, e-mail is great. I can take care of those messages at any time of day or night with a few clicks. Most of the time, e-mail is an effective way to communicate. But like most utilitarian written communication, e-mail has one glaring deficiency: it can’t convey tone of voice, facial expression, or body language. Writers know the importance of non-verbal cues—when we’re writing narratives, we describe those things. When we’re responding to e-mails, however, that’s not usually the case.

You’ve probably read that up to 93% of communication is non-verbal. This number comes from studies at UCLA and if you Google “93 communication nonverbal” you’ll see that a whole bunch of people have been working hard to clarify or even debunk this finding. Their assertion is that this misunderstood statistic makes a blanket statement about all communication when it only applies to certain circumstances. If you’ve ever had an ugly e-mail exchange with someone, however, you know that there are plenty of instances in which that 93% thing holds true. That’s why we put in little smiley icons in our e-mails or write LOL. Sarcasm, humor, and witty remarks—minus body language and tone of voice—can often come across as just plain rude. I once had a terrible e-mail snafu with a boss (complicated by her decision to hit “reply to all” so everyone could read her cutting comments to me) because she interpreted my statements as insubordinate. I almost quit over that e-mail. That experience taught me some valuable e-mail lessons that I use every day:

For professional e-mails:

• Leave out humor, sarcasm, or witty remarks. Cheerful is acceptable. Snarky is not.
• Take a deep breath and wait before responding to an e-mail that sounds ugly. Double the wait time if it’s your boss.
• Concentrate on the words alone. Totally suspend conclusions beyond a strict interpretation of just the words.
• When responding, keep it short, simple and professional. Do not try to slide in a dig at perceived insults.

For personal e-mails:

• Ask for clarification on comments that sound funky. “Did you mean,” or “Is everything okay,” or any other variation will do.
• If it sounds really awful, pick up the phone and call.
• When attempting humor, be clear that you’re being a smartie and not a jerk. Use some smiley icons, LOL, or anything else that communicates “I am joking.”
• Call them. Seriously. Before they un-friend you on Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Chelsea Oakes

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Writer, Interrupted

"Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." –Stephen King

Almost ten years ago, I decided it was time to make a career change and do what I’d always wanted to do for a living: write. I naively imagined my writerly-life-to-be as Shangri-La with a bookstore and a Starbucks. What I didn’t know was that almost no one else in my life had that same vision. Not only was I alone in my Shangri-La-bookstore-Starbucks fantasy, I was also the only working writer that many of my friends and family had ever met. They had no idea about the basics of a writer’s life, much less the idealized version I had in my head.

My friends and family were confused. For instance, why couldn’t I take their calls while I was writing? And if I did answer the phone, why wasn’t I available to talk for hours? After all, if I was self-employed, didn’t I get to do whatever I wanted? Eventually, I gave up trying to explain that when I left the world of 9-5 employment, I also left the world of a guaranteed paycheck—along with paid lunches, sick leave, and vacation. One of my friends got angry when I told her that I could not help her paint her house during the middle of my work day. People who called when I was writing left me irate messages: “Terrisa! I know you’re there! Pick up the phone!” and were irked when I didn’t call them back until after my work hours were over. My husband was aghast that “working at home” did not mean “cleans house and does laundry all day,” and told me so. I knew that if I didn’t set some firm boundaries, I would not be a writer. I would be a unemployed person who wrote occasionally.

After the people in my life reluctantly (and grudgingly) realized that I was not going to give up my bewildering new career, the complaints I heard changed. Some variation of “You work all the time” started cropping up in conversations. Instead of assuming I was available all the time, my friends and family were hesitant to call me. When my very ill mother told me she didn’t want to bother me because I was so busy all the time, I realized that I’d crossed the line from firm boundaries to tunnel vision. I pictured the pained look on people’s faces as they contemplated calling me: “Well, yes, little Lisa does need the blood transfusion right away and Terrisa’s the only one with a compatible blood type, but do we really want to call her? She’s so busy.”

I learned to ask myself, “When I was employed by someone else, would I have taken time off for this?” If the answer is “yes,” I make adjustments accordingly. I’ve learned to think in terms of what I can do instead of what I can’t. Sometimes that means I have to stay up late to meet a deadline. Sometimes it means that I have to put a project on the back burner. When I read Stephen King’s quote (above) in On Writing, that summed it up for me. Yes, I had made a deliberate choice to become a writer, along with all that it entailed. But even if I’d discovered that Shangri-La-bookstore-Starbucks place, it would have been lonely if I’d arrived all alone.
Photo courtesy of Martin.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Writers & TV

How much television do Americans watch every day? According to Nielsen, most people in the United States watch more than four hours of TV every day, for a total of 28 hours per week. That’s like a part-time job. The average amount of time spent reading, by contrast, is measured in minutes—which is disheartening to most writers.

I’m not sure exactly how much television I watch every day, but I know it’s not four hours. Except for the time the A.C. Nielsen people drafted me, I’ve never kept close track of my TV viewing, but I do have my own non-scientific measurement. I haven’t come up with a catchy name for it yet—I guess you could call it the Unfamiliarity Measure. I took a look at "TV Guide’s" list of the 100 most popular television shows, and I’ve seen 12 of the 100 shows listed. Which, I know, makes me kinda weird in a society filled with people who feel sitting mindlessly in front of the television deserves almost 30 hours per week of their time. This means that I have a lot of conversations that go like this:

People are enthusiastically discussing aspects of the latest reality TV show or murder-mystery cop series, while I listen without making any comments. Then they remember I’m sitting there: “What about you, Terrisa? Don’t you think they should vote Fancy Franny off the island?”

Me: I don’t watch that show.

TV Watcher: Really? Never?

Me: Never.

TV Watcher: You must be watching “Ridiculous Suburban Tales”—or, I know, you used to work for the police department, so you must be watching “Armed and Stupid.” They all come on at the same time.

Me: Uh, sorry. Don’t know any of those. Haven’t seen ‘em.

TV Watcher: Never? Really? The person is now staring at me like I have grown a second head.

I might as well say I’ve never seen an airplane, or that I still have a party-line telephone. It’s incomprehensible to many that there are people who do not spend the evening in front of the television. If you’re a writer, however, I’d urge you to think about the time you're spending in front of the Brain Sucker—if you gave up half of your viewing hours (assuming you are taking in the full 28 hours per week), can you imagine how much writing you could do, or how many books you could read? And if you want other people to read your work, well, I’d say it’s a good idea to return the favor. Step away from the TV, fellow writer. Just step away.

Photo courtesy of Neil Anderson

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ten Writing Rules

The Guardian, a UK publication, published, "Ten rules for writing" in February, and writers around the web are still talking about it. Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Franzen, and PD James are just a few of the writers who weighed in with their insights about writing. Read the article, and you might find a few good tips. For instance, Leonard believes that using adverbs is a mortal sin--a piece of advice that makes me worried.
Photo courtesy of Peter Dutton

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Comedy and Tragedy

Do you feel a story must be dark to be serious, or does humor have a home in your deeper stories? William Skidelsky's article in the ("Women authors can lighten up and still be taken seriously: When Daisy Goodwin complained of too much 'grimness' in this year's list, she was lambasted. She should have been applauded") makes some points about the lighter points in life--and thus, in writing. Here's an excerpt:

...As a form, the novel has always worked best when, like life itself, it contains both joy and sorrow. Most great novelists have been brilliant at comedy as well as tragedy. And this is no less true of Jane Austen and George Eliot than it is of Tolstoy and Dickens.

Recently, however, there does seem to have been a movement away from comedy in fiction, a growing feeling that, in order to be serious", novels have to be dark in tone....

I admit that I'm biased on this point; I was raised by parents who believed that if you'd lost your sense of humor, you'd lost it all. I've had to suppress laughter at a funeral, and in the midst of every crisis I've had a moment during which I laughed to avoid crying. What do you think? Does comedy, however dark, find its way into your writing? Must a piece be devoid of humor to be "serious"?
Photo courtesy of Julie Elliott-Abshire at

The Casino & Other Writing Prompts

Pick a prompt that intrigues you in some way. Freewrite for ten minutes on the story it inspires--write without stopping or editing your work. At the end of ten minutes, you may have a story worth exploring. Or you might not. Don't worry about how it will turn out--just write!

--Ann walked into the casino....
-- I like spring because....
-- Dan began smiling. "Really? If that's true, then...." -- Is your clutter under control?
-- Combine a box, a tape recorder, and a fish in a story or poem.
-- If only he'd known....
Photo courtesy of William Picard at

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Wind & Other Writing Prompts

Looking for a little inspiration? Pick a prompt and freewrite about whatever the prompt brings to mind. Write without stopping, and minimize your corrections. Just write!

--The wind blew so hard....
--Describe the last wedding you attended.
--"That hole's not nearly deep enough," said Terry. "It'll need to be a lot bigger for...."
--He was waiting at the corner....
--Do you like to go out, or would you describe yourself as a "home-body"?
--Combine paper clips, batteries, and tulips in a story or poem.
Image by Christian Ferrari -

Monday, March 29, 2010

Writers, Don't Be Boring

MovieLine recently published an article by Seth Abramovitch about a memo written by the well-known screenwriter (and director, among other things), David Mamet. "David Mamet's Master Class Memo to the Writers of The Unit" reproduces the entire memo, which is worth a read both because it's full of good writing points (regardless of the genre or medium in which you write) and beause it's funny. Abramovitch describes it this way: "Besides the fact that it’s written in all-caps, there’s nothing particularly ranty, pejorative or potty-mouthed about it. Rather, Mamet lays down an extremely sensible case for what makes good television, imploring them to avoid expository writing for what he characterizes as authentic 'drama.'"

Although writing for television or the screen is a very specialized form of writing, the basics of good writing remain the same. One of those basic points is that we must not bore our readers (or viewers, in this case). Mamet's memo to this a group of TV writers is very clear on this point:


How can you tell if you're boring your readers? If your mind starts to wander when you're reading your work, that's a clear sign you need to re-think what you've written. If you can't hold your own interest, you probably aren't captivating your readers, either.
Photo courtesy of Michael Lorenzo at

Friday, March 26, 2010

Writers & Blogs: Can You Be Your Own Editor?

In this digital age, writers have a self-publishing option unknown to any prior generation: blogs. Blogs give writers tremendous freedom, but like all forms of self-publishing, blogs require a writer to wear many hats: editor, proofreader, and publisher.

If you’ve seen the movie "How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days," you probably remember that Kate Hudson’s character, Andie, is a writer. She longs to write about politics and news, but she writes for a women’s magazine that wants articles on Botox, diets, and shoes. After tormenting Matthew McConaughey’s character, Andie writes an article that her editor loves. The editor tells Andie that she’s earned the green light to write about whatever she wants. “Wherever the winds blow you,” says her editor.

“Even politics?” Andie asks.

“Well, the wind’s not going to blow you there,” her editor responds.

Keeping blog posts on topic, in the right tone, and in line with readers' expectations can be tough. I know, from my own blog experiences, that even the most well-intentioned posts can fall flat, annoy people, and result in lost readers. In hindsight, if I'd been thinking like an editor instead of a writer, I might have known better. Think about it: if you were the editor of your blog, what would your guidelines be?

Who is your audience? What is the tone of your blog? Can you describe your blog's topic or goal in one sentence? If you want to attract readers, these are questions you must consider. Just as an editor rejects material that isn't a good fit for her publication, you should be critically looking at your own work in the same way. Unless, of course, you don't care about attracting readers, in which case you can let the wind blow you wherever you want.
Photo courtesy of Nic McPhee at: / CC BY-SA 2.0

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Running Away & Other Writing Prompts

It's Wednesday, which means it's time for a fresh batch of writing prompts, hot off the hard drive. Pick a prompt and write about anything it brings to mind. Write without stopping for ten minutes. Minimize crossing out words, and don't even think about using a dictionary. At the end of ten minutes, who knows what you might have?

--Eric decided to run away because....
--For dog lovers: do you prefer big dogs or small dogs? Why?
--The clock ticked....
--Betty was frustrated. She said, "It isn't funny, Ernest. How can you laugh about...."
-- The view from the top of the mountain....
-- Combine firewood, a wind chime, and a rat in a story or poem.
Photo courtesy of Brennan Paezold at

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Question for Murder Mystery Writers

An interesting question was posted on the "Sisters in Crime" blog by Ellen Hart:

I remember the first time I was asked this questions: Does it bother you that you're writing about murder as entertainment?

What about you? Are you bothered by the homicide(s) in your stories?

Read the rest of the post and comments for some thoughts about that question.
Photo courtesy of Deepak Malhotra at

Writing Around the Web: Dialogue

Are you pleased with the way you handle dialogue? Are you considering what is going unsaid in a scene?

Here are some thoughts from Midge Raymond, in a post, "Advice for Fiction Writers," on her blog, The Writer's Block: Living a Writer's Life, at She is writing about what writers can learn from plays, and she's using two that she saw, Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska and Ashes to Ashes, to illustrate her points:

As I'll often mention in class, when it comes to dialogue, what's not being said in a scene can be just as important as what is. During the post-production conversation, Suzanne Bouchard, who plays Rebecca in Ashes, pointed out that the play's tension was heightened by the fact that so many questions go unanswered,remarking on how this resembles real conversations, in which people often talk over and around a subject. (I love that she added she'd taken the bus to the theater that night -- an exercise I often to give to students. Eavesdropping is one of the best ways to get a feel for real dialogue, on public transportation in particular.)

As a fiction writer, going to the theater reminds me ofwhat is possible to achieve through dialogue alone; it's something I tend to forget when I get caught up in description or interior monologue. In these two short plays, Pinter creates fully human characters not only though their words but through the spaces around them.
Photo courtesy of Sanja Gjenero at

Rising Water & Other Writing Prompts

Your mission, fellow writer, should you choose to accept it, is to pick a prompt that intrigues you and freewrite on it for ten or fifteen minutes. Don't stop, try not to cross-out, and go with the story in whatever way it presents itself. Just write!

--The water was rising fast....
--My favorite television show....
--Jane said, "No, Tim, I'm not leaving. I'm...."
--Combine a pumpkin, a boulder, and a bookmark in a story or poem.
--The room was dark....
--If your traveling options are to drive or fly, which do you prefer?
Photo courtesy of Pietro Ricciardi at

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Best News & Other Writing Prompts

What's the best news you ever received? Or, perhaps, the best news that a character in one of your stories received? Take ten minutes to freewrite on that prompt or another prompt. Write without stopping and minimize crossing out words. Let the story have its way with you. Just write!

-- The best news I ever received....
-- The vet told Martha, "The good news is that Fluffy is very healthy. The bad news...."
-- Tim heard glass breaking....
-- Combine a roll of paper towels, reading glasses, and a telephone in a story or poem.
-- In the distance....
Photo courtesy of Asif Akbar at

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Writers and Mistakes

Writers are human, so we make mistakes. But with so many writers out there pitching ideas and looking for work, all it takes is one little mistake for your work to be deleted from an editor's e-mail (or tossed into her File 13, if it's snail mail). Today I had a cringe-inducing moment that reminded me of the old carpenter's adage: Measure twice, cut once. For writers, I'd alter it to read: Proofread ten times, hit send once.

I'd spent the better part of an hour carefully crafting a letter, re-working my resume, and selecting the best clip for the job. I was so involved in polishing my e-mail that until the moment I pressed send, I didn't notice that I'd somehow left the subject line blank. Now, in most cases that's just an annoyance, but in this case the text of the subject line was a part of specific directions for this job. Yelling at my computer did nothing. I did not have an "unsend" option. Worst of all, I had described myself--in my much-labored-over e-mail--as "detail oriented." Gasp.

I had two options. First, I could simply ignore the error and hope my e-mail got to the right person, but the subject line was essential because it contained her name. Second, I could re-send with a corrected subject line and an apology for any confusion my first e-mail might have caused. I went with Option Two. I decided that acknowledging and correcting my mistake at least indicated I'd been paying attention--if a bit too late.

Someone should invent an add-on to e-mail for writers, another step that pops up after you hit send that says, "Are you sure? Proofread it again."
Picture by Zsuzsanna Kilian at

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Writing Obstacles and Motivators

"The Death of the Slush Pile" was a title that caught my eye; Katherine Rosman wrote the article in The Wall Street Journal. Rosman tells us: "Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction." Agents have become necessary to get a book published. Producers are afraid they'll be accused of stealing movie ideas. Even magazines, many of which still accept unagented material, struggle to sort through large numbers of submissions.

Writing has never been an easy career choice. As one of my writing group members pointed out, people have bills to pay. Even writers who don't want to quit their day jobs often want to be published. How do you think these obstacles to publication affect a writer's goal/desire to be published, or just to write? Writers are a stubborn bunch. We tend to persevere in the face of repeated rejections and obstacles. Do you find the obstacles to publication discouraging, or do they inspire you with an "I'll show them" attitude?
Photo courtesy of Adrian van Leen at

Rainy Days & Other Writing Prompts

Ready for some freewriting? Las Vegas is getting a lot of rain this week, so that was the inspiration for prompt number one. If the rain doesn't inspire you, find another prompt and freewrite for ten minutes without stopping. No dictionaries allowed. Do your best not to cross out words. Enjoy the process, without worrying about how your piece will turn out. Just write!

--Rainy days....

--"Of course I miss her. I never expected...."

--If all your writing work was destroyed, what piece would you miss the most?

--With the knife in her hand....

--Beach, mountains, or desert--which is your favorite?

--Combine a calculator, a piece of wire, and an egg in a story or poem.
Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Comisarenco at

Friday, January 15, 2010

How Does Success Change a Writer?

Do you think success as a writer--however you define it--changes your work? Does having a wider audience and/or wider acceptance of your work improve or deteriorate the quality of your writing?

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Love, Pray, has received mixed reviews on her latest book, Committed. One of the reviewers I read stated:

The only event more hazardous to a writer’s career than a book’s catastrophic failure is its meteoric success.

What do you think? If you published a best-seller, how would it change your writing? How would it change you?
Article Quoted From:

Photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian at

The Stairs & Other Writing Prompts

If you've been here before, you know the drill. Find a prompt that grabs your attention. Freewrite for ten minutes. When you're done, you might have the start of something... or you might not. Don't worry about the end product. Just write!

At the top of the stairs....

"I'll say this slowly. You can threaten me all you want, but you'll never...."

Have you ever had a murder in your neighborhood?

Combine a paperclip, white paint, and a bookmark in a story or poem.

Linda fell on the....

How many pets currently reside in your home?
Photo courtesy of Amazed646 at

Friday, January 08, 2010

Ellen in the Car & Other Writing Prompts

Why is Ellen sitting in her car? What’s inside John’s house that she doesn’t want to face? You can use writing prompt number one to freewrite for ten minutes, but if Ellen and John don’t inspire you, pick another. Grab that pen and paper, or fire up Word, and just write!

--Ellen sat in the car. She knew she had to go into John’s house, but she didn’t want to go inside because….

--At the fork in the road, Jake hesitated. Should he take the faster route, or the scenic route? He finally decided….

--Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?

--Susan was firm. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. No matter what you say, I’m going to….”

--Do you collect anything? How did your collection get started?

--When Daniel sorted through the mail, he was thrilled to find….

--Beyond the rusty gate….

--Combine a tree, a sweater, and a stove in a story or poem.
Photo courtesy of Troy Stoi at