What’s Your Reason for Blogging?

(gadgetsin.com)

Walked out this morning
Don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home

-Sting, Message in a Bottle

I read a post at Jodie Llewellyn’s site, Words Read and Written that asked the question, How do you measure your blog’s success? The comments from readers provide an interesting snapshot into people’s motivations for blogging. Some are in it for followers (hoping, perhaps, to translate that into book sales some day). Others want to share their dreams and insights with others (for example, writing instructional articles). Others are unconvinced that others care much about their blog, and they are doing it for themselves.

My perception of what constitutes a “successful blog” has changed over time. Initially, I suppose I wanted to be read by people. My mental image was of my fingertips etching words onto computer screens around the world. The sluggish statistical reports provided by WordPress quickly dispelled that unrealistic expectation. But for a long time, it still made a big difference to me whether people visited, liked and commented. Other people’s reactions to my posts mattered.

Now, I am content to write this blog as if I am writing it to myself only. A memoir in a glass house, a digital message in a bottle. Others are welcome to read it (or ignore it, or remain blissfully ignorant of its existence) as well. However, to say, “then” and “now” is overly simplistic. There was a transformation that did not go without at least some cynicism. In fact, cynicism seems to be one of the two most predictable outcomes of maintaining a blog. (The other being apathy, if the innumerable corpses of now defunct blogs last posted to sometime in 2007 are any indication.)

Why is cynicism such an easy course to take as a blogger? For me, it was a natural product of the process and interface with the readers. I found myself opening my dashboard, immediately looking for that little box in the corner. Is it orange? Hey, someone liked a post and followed my blog!  Hang on a second. Did they only do it so that I would visit their site and like or follow them?  Did they pepper a bazillion unlikable blogs with Likes just to increase traffic to their site? And what is the purpose of a Like, anyway? Why can’t I Dislike a blog?

My blogging nadir (at least, my nadir-to-date) came in mid-November 2012, halfway through National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). My posts just ceased for about two years. For about a year, I still had a bookmark to my dashboard on the bookmarks bar, thinking that perhaps I might get back to it. Then, realizing that I subconsciously avoided looking at that part of the bookmarks bar, I finally deleted the bookmark. (Demented, I know.)

Life continued happily. I read no blogs, and a quick scan of the stats confirms that very few people read mine. (Actually, that’s not entirely true… there are a few inexplicably popular posts. If I constantly wrote about graphic novels, I’d have some really “impressive” stats.) I wrote a lot… I just didn’t share any of it.

Then, about three weeks ago, I started posting on this site again. I’ve made a conscious decision to remain unruffled if two or two hundred or two million people click through my site daily, reading all or none of my posts. I was only able to come to this conclusion because the same process had already occurred for my writing in general. I write for me. I will continue writing, even if no one reads it.

When I picked up this blog again, I went through and read my posts from start to finish. It was interesting to see the evolution of the thing, from protozoan brag board to an online notebook with opposable thumbs. I enjoy having a record of my thoughts that I can go back to months and years later. The advantage a blog has over a journal (which would otherwise serve the same purpose), is that I  would probably not worry about the cosmetic appearance of my journal at all, whereas I have some incentive (real or imagined) to make my blog posts look good, read well, and be of interest to someone other than myself.

Hopefully, I am not the only one who will ever read this. But if I am, then at least the echo inside my own bottle sounds good.

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A Helpful Word Tool for Writers: The Online Etymology Dictionary

No, it’s not a dictionary about insects.

As writers, we sometimes need to know more about the word than just its definition. Where did it come from? How has its usage changed over time? This is especially useful when writing historical fiction, because language, especially spoken language, changes so much over time.

For example, let’s say I’m writing dialogue for a woman living in Philadelphia in 1753. Would she have used the word sticky?  It turns out that she could have, but not in all the senses that we use it today.  Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

sticky (adj.) 1727, “adhesive, inclined to stick,” from stick (v.) + -y (2). An Old English word for this was clibbor. First recorded 1864 in the sense of “sentimental;” of situations, 1915 with the meaning “difficult.” Of weather, “hot and humid,” from 1895. Sticky wicket is 1952, from British slang, in reference to cricket. Related: Stickily; stickiness.

So, my character would have said, “This honey is very sticky,” but she would not have said, “We’ve gotten ourselves into a very sticky situation here.” (Unless, of course, she’d somehow become covered in honey.)

Personally, I find the history and evolution of language to be fascinating in general, and so I’ve spent some time just looking up words I think might have interesting origins. For more discussion on that, see another post I wrote, called The English Language is the Brady Bunch on Steroids.

Hope the dictionary is useful to you in some way.

The Agony of Ether to Substance: Bringing Your Story to the Page

In this post, I’ll explore the process of writing the first draft of a novel, with particular attention paid to that awkward period between “Nothing on the Page” and “Done”. (Yes, the part where the writer is writing.)

Because every writer and the creative patterns they follow are different, it may be helpful to share how I go about the process of creating a story. In a previous post, Before Page One, I detailed the process of how I plan for writing a novel. In a nutshell, I follow this pattern:

  • Explore a landscape (where the story happens)
  • Consider the possible implications of that landscape on the story
  • Populate the landscape (create characters)
  • Develop an intimate understanding of those characters
  • Establish point-of-view
  • Build a plot around the actions of the characters on the landscape
  • Outline the story (to whatever level of detail makes sense)

I have never had a problem coming up with story ideas. Like a rabbit, I am an endless source of gestating stories, each one waiting to spill onto the page.  And when they do, the first 5000 words or so come easily. Blind and wriggling and pink, they are born almost of their own volition.

But then, gradually, a few chapters in, the flow begins to taper. I look back at the notes I crafted around the story for inspiration, but what I see haunts me. The landscape, the characters, the plot, the details, they all seem less real than they did before something was put down on the paper.

I’ve asked myself, Why is this? What is it about the physical act of plucking ideas from the ether and making substance of them so agonizing? And why do the ideas seem inherently more diminished or even hollow when they’ve been transformed into words?

I’m not alone in wondering this. Fellow blogger, Anastasiabetts, recently wrote in A Room of My Own:

I think I just need to keep writing until I have a breakthrough. Someone […] said, “First drafts are an act of discovery,” and boy are they! I never really realized this before — just how much I thought I knew before writing, completely goes out the window while writing. I feel like the story I knew so well, for years even, doesn’t even exist — and suddenly this new imposter story has shown up in its place. (11.9.2014)

I suspect that there are two reasons for this agony: (1) it takes time to write well; (2) there is an implicit trade-off associated with writing about what we’ve imagined. I’ll explain.

Time

As for the first point, the relationship between writing and time has been on my mind of late. I am currently participating in NaNoWriMo, an annual writing event that challenges the individual to write 1667 words per day for 30 days. That’s 50,000 words total. It’s a major achievement reaching the end, because at that pace, many people (myself included, in 2012) burn out before the halfway mark. There are folks out there who top 100,000 words by December, which leaves me speechless. That’s in excess of 3333 words every day — the sparks must be just flying off the keyboard at that speed.

Of course, word counts mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, writing is a product, and like any product, it is judged according to the consumer’s tastes. (Sure, we may wish to use more favourable comparisons — works of art to be experienced, perhaps — but a quick scan of the Amazon website or the shelves at Barnes and Noble, or worse, the endless parade of form rejections from agents and publishers, makes that desire feel a little idealistic.) If writing is wine to be sipped or swilled, then some people are after Pinot Noir, and some evidently want Boone’s Farm.

If we assume that the 3333+ words-per-day writers are the statistical outliers (a safe assumption, I think), then for most of us, writing takes a long time. Not necessarily the 17 years it took James Joyce took to write Finnegans Wake (that’s probably at the extreme opposite end of the bell curve, statistically speaking), but somewhere in between.

What I’ve found is that enough time passes during the writing process to allow the writer to lose vision. In the beginning, the panorama of a story idea spreads in all directions. Then, as the writer begins to select words that represent the idea and places them on the page, frustration and doubt begin to creep in. These come long before the rewards of seeing something tangible and exhilarating, which only come after a long and sometimes awkward process of pushing through the discomfort.

In this sense, writing differs from painting, in which the artist can see the entire product-to-date, even if that product is incomplete. It is more like sculpting from stone, an act of discovery.  And that brings me to my second point.

The Trade-off

A sculptor begins with a block of stone, three dimensions of infinite possibility. I imagine the terror of that first swing of the mallet, the moment that the chisel reduces, however infinitesimally, the sculptors’ possibilities. The very act of realizing her vision reduces her options. She can’t reattach the crumbs of marble to the block.

The very first line of a book is a door closed. There can only be a line after it, another step away from the infinitely elastic concept, something that was felt more than it was seen. The writer begins to feel constrained and frustrated as the feeling that was so initially strong is not realized. Thankfully, backspace is just a pinky’s stretch away, and words can be undone. But something about giving birth, only to commit infanticide moments later, is demoralizing, and seems to leave its ghostly mark on a canvas that was once white.

Only time and dogged determination can rescue the writer, looping us back into my first point, time. In the long-run, perseverance and even the willingness to surrender the panoramic perspective that was had in the beginning, will pay off. Pushing through discomfort allows new excitement to build, as something tangible and concrete takes shape. The words become something greater than the sum of their parts, and a story emerges.

As Anastasiabetts says, first drafts are an act of discovery, and boy are they!

Kindle E-Book now available: No Short Roads to Flin Flon

Looking for a fun read on your Kindle?  Check out my collection of short stories, newly released on Amazon.  It’s titled No Short Roads to Flin Flon: Only Short Stories for the Journey.

Here’s the description from the website:
——————————————-
A zookeeper forms a bond of hope with an elephant in a city devoid of people. Alec Baldwin seeks advice on a movie script in orbit. Soviet zombies infest the frigid waters beneath the polar ice cap. A failed dictator and his cronies face off with croquet mallets in exile. A young acupuncturist is confronted by his father’s dead cat.

No Short Roads to Flin Flon draws the reader through the humorous and the bizarre, the poignant and the soulful, the broken down and the uplifting. And like the long road itself, it won’t be soon forgotten.
——————————————-

The collection includes 23 short stories and 7 poems (about 60,000 words or 200 pages in total).

Check it out on Amazon here.

Grind Away, Little Rumour Mill

Have you ever driven to British Columbia from Manitoba? It’s an endurance battle. I am, by no means, the type of person who thinks that the Prairies are boring. Far from it. But after driving for hours and hours and hours, there is something — the flatness of it all, maybe, or the absence of people — that starts to wear on a person.

Writing a book can be a little bit like that, except that instead of 20-some hours, it can take you months, or even years.

And then… you see your first glimpse of the mountains. You’re not in Banff yet — that won’t happen for a while. But the ground isn’t so flat anymore. You look around, and suddenly realize that you’ve already climbed, without even noticing it. You’re in the foothills.

What am I getting at?

Well, I feel as though I’ve reached the foothills with my novel. I’m not finished-finished (as in, close the file, I’m never touching it again). But I’m sure getting close. And when that happens, it will be time to start a whole new chapter — mountaineering.

I expect that mountaineering is probably a pretty good approximation of the “trying to get published” process. Maybe only for some. But I’m already trying on my crampons (my favourite climbing word, aside from crevice — both so distasteful). I’m donning my oxygen tank for those extended periods above the Clouds of Try-Try-Again, where the air is too thin to support life.

One last tidbit before I extinguish the flame of my Metaphor Machine: I’ve settled on a name for my novel. In actuality, I’m returning to the first idea I had for a name, way back when the writing process began. I’m going to call it Minzanto.

Bye for now.