Friday, June 30, 2006

Thinking Outside the Box

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, I had a graphic design professor who stressed the need to think "outside the box." Now, that is an overused and often abused cliche, but like most cliches, there is a ring of truth to it.

I belong to an online crit group. I had written something and wanted feedback, even though there are no immediate plans to do anything with the piece. I contacted the moderator since the submission was outside the concentration of the crit group; the group is for writers of children's nonfiction and this was an adult essay/short story. With permission, I posted my piece. Well, two of the members "got it." They understood what I was trying to get across through word choice and structure. The others, however, criticized it for lacking structure, being too loose. Someone even told me that it wouldn't work as an article. Well, duh, I said it was an essay or chapter in a book. If the piece didn't conform to their formulaic standards, it wouldn't work.

Though some in the crit group had legitimate criticisms, the entire experience reminded me of my college graphic design professor. The inability to break out of the box--to expand our boundaries, to leave our comfort zones--is not unique to that crit group. I think we all fall into that trap at one time or another. After all, we can feel safe there; it's tried and true; we've had success there before.

But, what happens when something forces us outside that safety zone? What if the market changes and your style of writing is no longer a hot commodity? What if your editor at the publishing house leaves and his replacement is not impressed with your work? What if your work--and you--become stagnant, no longer relevant?

But how do you start thinking outside the box? I'm still learning. One think the prof did was to have us take notes in a drawing book rather than a notebook. At first it seemed odd, but what difference does where you write make? Well, not being confined to lines can be amazingly freeing. Here are some other ideas I came up with:

1. If you're used to writing in one particular spot, go somewhere else for part of the writing day.
2. Change the font on your word processing program. Who says everything has to be the same size and in the same font and color. One caveat: I you're submitting your piece to a publisher or an editor, you might want to make them conform to industry standards. Changing the industry's way of thinking will take longer.
3. If you're used to writing nonfiction, try some fiction, and vice versa. This one I am trying. I can't say that writing fiction is easier or harder than the nonfiction I usually write, but it is an amazing break.
4. Tackle a writing topic you know nothing about. Learning is an incredible tool.
5. Write without using -ly adverbs.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Getting Started

At the BEA conference in Washington, DC, last month, I attended a workshop on historical fiction. One of the panelists there said that being an author means that you have to eventually put your butt in the chair and write. That's true for all kinds of writing, and that's what I've been having trouble doing of late. I can't say I have a writer's block, because I've not progressed past the idea stage. I have tons of ideas written on a variety of things and put in a variety of places (now I know what to do with those Roledex cards). But, it's the getting started part that's the biggest bugga boo. I have come up with a list of things to help get the ball rolling:

  1. Turn off the television. OK, that's not an original thought; someone on an e-mail list suggested it. I'm not sure that's doable for me. Even when I'm in my office writing--OK, doing almost everything but--the television's on in the living room, generally tuned to CNN. I have this fear--and that's not too strong a word--that some major news event will happen and I won't know about it.
  2. Write something every day. OK, that should be easier, but how do I choose which project to write on? For some reason, due dates just don't do it for me.
  3. Take Snood off the computer desktop. I wish I could recall who told me about Snood. She was not a nice person. Actually, I'm sure that's not true. I know she warned everyone that the stupid game was addictive. But really, I'm an adult. I can handle it. Yeh, right.
As if the distractions of everyday life aren't enough to put off writing, I'm having a bit of "after all, how important could anything I write be." I blame Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris for that. (You didn't think I'd take responsibility did you? The person who blames a computer game . . . ) They have a CD out, and one of the songs on it is called "If This Is Good-Bye." According to Knopfler, he wrote it because of the last calls made by people who died in 9/11. The words to the song can tear your heart out. There is absolutely nothing I--or anyone--could write that would have the meaning that those calls and notes had to the families and friends left behind. And, it probably shouldn't. Still, the thought is daunting.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Our Words, Our Strength

We all know that words can make a difference. They can move a nation, change a law, affect the entire world. Deep in our hearts, many of us hope that some day we will write the words that will make a lasting difference.

I am making no claim that I have done this, but I do want to make you aware of a publishing imprint trying to make a difference. In the interest of full disclosure, I work for the publishing company whose imprint it is. That's not meant as an apology; I say it with pride.

Village Earth Press is an imprint of Harding House Publishing Service. The goal of the press is to produce good products that will do good. In that vein, I would like to announce the publication of the first book under the Village Earth Press imprint--The Gift of Hope in the Wake of the 2004 Tsunami and 2005 Hurricanes.

Many of us sat in front of televisions or computer screens watching with disbelief the destruction caused by the tsunami. The terror on the faces of those running from the wall of water is not easy to forget.

Then, a few months later, the sense of disbelief hit us again when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Pictures of flood-ravaged communities and people stranded on the roofs of their homes dominated news coverage. In their aftermath, the hurricanes left entire communities almost destroyed.

In 2005, Village Earth Press publisher and director of photography traveled to Thailand to document recovery efforts there. Instead of finding people wringing their hands, they found people full of hope for the future, working to rebuild their communities and their lives.

Later that year, they traveled to the Gulf Coast. Although the destruction was more recent, they found people there already working to rebuild their communities and lives. Although separated by thousands of miles, these communities and their residents had much in common.

The result of those visits is The Gift of Hope in the Wake of the 2004 Tsunami and 2005 Hurricanes. With eloquent prose and evocative photographs, the book shows communities on their way to recovery, but with a new definition of normalcy.

The book will be available in July 2006, but it can be preordered now on the Village Earth Press web site: One-third of the purchase price will go to Habitat for Humanity and Give2Asia, two agencies working to help in the immense recovery efforts.