Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 37: Two (or three or six) heads are better than one.

There’s a term in vogue among writers these days: beta reader. I don’t know where the phrase originated or why (or what they used to call it), but all it means is that someone (or several someones) is reading a manuscript you intend to publish, or submit to a publisher.
Sometimes a “beta reader” is a spouse or another family member. Sometimes a friend. Sometimes a colleague from a critique group or other writing organization. Sometimes all of the above, or someone else altogether.
The idea behind beta readers is the notion that two heads are better than one—that they will point out pitfalls in your plot, cracks in your characters, lapses in logic, problems with prose, and so on, and perhaps offer advice on repairs.
Things, it seems to me, a writer ought to find and fix while writing and rewriting.
But many writers find beta readers helpful. On occasion I have been asked to be a beta reader but I doubt I was of much use since all I can offer is my opinion, which may be at odds with what the writer thinks.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I don’t use beta readers. Here’s why. First of all, the people I want reading my manuscripts are publishers and editors. People whose opinions really count, in numbers preceded by dollar signs. 
Next, as mentioned earlier, any glaring weaknesses in a manuscript should have been found and fixed already, by me. (Or not, which may well be the case.)
Sometimes, comments and criticism are more related to style than substance, and style ought to be the writer’s province.
The advice offered may not be bad—but it may not be good, either. You could do something a different way based on their advice, but different may just be different—not better.
Also, readers have differing opinions, so the advice of one is sometimes at odds with the advice of another—even downright contradictory.
Most of all, I suppose, there’s the question of who’s right and who’s wrong. Criticism from beta readers may lead to your doubting your work, even your ability. When you set out to write this thing, you must have believed you could do it. You can’t let someone who has no horse in the race convince you otherwise. As the late, great author Kent Haruf once said: “You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence.”
It’s all up to you, of course. Use beta readers if it helps. Maybe two heads are better than one. On the other hand, it could be equally true that too many cooks spoil the broth.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 7

Win Blevins appears on my list as author of a couple of my favorite novels. But while filled with interesting short stories, this book is nonfiction.
The Dictionary of the American West includes definitions and explanations of “Over 5,000 terms and expressions from Aarigaa to Zopilote.” It not only makes for enjoyable browsing, it is a handy reference, always at hand on the shelf next to my desk.
I also use and enjoy Ramon Adams’s Western Words, but while that book covers cowboy lingo well, the Dictionary of the American West is broader in its scope, including language from other subcultures, including mountain men, miners, Indian tribes, fishermen, Hispanics, and on and on.
While better known as a Western Writers Hall of Fame author of fiction—and you’ll see him here again for that—today Win Blevins earns a place on my list of favorite books for this important work of nonfiction and history and lexicography.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Join the fight to rescue the Apostrophe.

The apostrophe is a handy little punctuation mark that does two (and only two) jobs in writing: it shows ownership in possessive words, and it indicates missing letters in contractions.
For some reason, this simple little mark is widely misused and abused. A lot. Perhaps as often as it’s used correctly. Many, many people seem to believe apostrophes belong in plurals. (They would write plural’s instead of plurals.) As annoying as that habit is, we’ll let it go. For now.
This particular rant revolves around what is often the correct use of the apostrophe, but with the incorrect punctuation mark. It happens when writers drop a letter at the beginning of a word, usually when writing vernacular or dialect. (Such as ’bout for about, ’er for her, ’neath for beneath, ’cause for because, ’fore for before—well, you get the idea.)
The problem is, I found—with very little looking for examples as I write this—all these contractions printed (or posted) as ‘bout, ‘er, ‘neath, ‘cause, and ‘fore. All using an incorrect punctuation mark.

This: is an apostrophe. This: is not.

You’ll notice the marks bend, or hook, in opposite directions.
The one that hooks opposite the apostrophe is the single opening quotation mark, for use when quoted material falls within a larger quotation, such as:
“I saw Shorty in town yesterday,” Slim said. “He gave me a tip of the hat and said ‘howdy’ but that was all.”
Blame it on word processing programs. But writers share the blame when they don’t fix it.
When you hit the appropriate key at the beginning of a word, the single opening quotation mark appears on the screen, rather than the apostrophe that appears if you hit the same key within a word. Computers don’t know any better. Writers should. There are two ways to fix it; both are simple, one more so than the other.
You can fix it by finding a proper apostrophe elsewhere in your writing and copying and pasting it at the beginning of your contracted word. Or, easier still, you can hit the key twice—that will give you a single opening quotation mark followed by an apostrophe (or single closing quotation mark). Then, delete the wrong one and you’re correct.
“Big deal,” I hear you saying (perhaps with a crude adjective between those two words). Maybe you’re right. But the more we allow little lapses in communication—which is what punctuation is all about in the first place—the more accepting we are of bigger and more serious lapses. Before you know it, it’s all gobbledygook. 
Too much writing comes out that way, anyway. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

“And the River Ran Red” debut performance.

Not long ago, singer and songwriter extraordinaire Brenn Hill debuted “And the River Ran Red,” a song I had the good fortune to help write. As I’ve said before, writing a song is a strange undertaking for me, as I couldn’t carry a tune with a packsaddle.
But, thanks to Brenn, I think it’s a damn fine song.
Based on the tragic events of the 1863 Bear River Massacre, where US Army troops slaughtered some 300 Shoshoni men, women, and children, the song adds to a list of my writings on the subject, which include a nonfiction book, Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten and a chapter in The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, as well as some short stories and poems.
Brenn Hill performed the song for the first time at the American West Heritage Center in Cache Valley, just 36 miles from the massacre site, on 10 and 11 April 2017. See a cell phone video of the performance on YouTube.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 6

John McPhee is a name you will see here again. He is, without doubt, one of my favorite writers. Some of his books are collections of articles he wrote for The New Yorker, others address a single subject.
No matter the subject, if McPhee writes it I will read it.
Witness the fact that I have read his books (and many others) on raising oranges, building birch-bark canoes, Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the Swiss Army, cargo ships, and the geology of North America—subjects I have no particular interest in but enjoyed immensely reading about.
Among my favorite McPhee books is Rising from the Plains, one of five volumes that make up his Pulitzer Prize-winning compilation, Annals of the Former World.
The book is about the geology of Wyoming, as seen through McPhee’s travels with geologist David Love. You’ll find that reading about rocks can be fascinating.  But Love is also a Wyoming boy who grew up on an isolated ranch when the West was still wild, and those stories are just as engaging as the tales about traces of the Triassic on the landscape.

This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West.

So begins Rising from the Plains by John McPhee. How can you not read on?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 36: Plan Your Plot, Organize Your Outline.

Many fiction writers plan out a story in great detail before writing the first word. And many writing instructors teach the hows and whys of plotting and outlining. They swear by the process, claiming it provides discipline and keeps you on track. If you plot and outline well enough, you’re less likely to wander off on tangents or let the story ramble down paths not of your choosing.
But it’s not the only way to write. And, for some, not the best way to write. While every story starts somewhere, and the writer likely has some idea about where it’s going, many writers know little else about it. They like to let the story find itself, rely on the characters to drive the action, and allow causes to create their own effects and conflicts to reach their own resolution.
That’s the way I like to write. In fact, as I write this I am about 50,000 words into a novel, and while the story and characters have decided what happens next (as they have, for the most part, all along the way), what follows after that is pretty hazy, and where it will end is unknown—at least to me.
There’s a quotation by Ray Bradbury that sums up this approach to writing a book: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”
E.L. Doctorow said something similar: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I trust that, at some point, the fog will clear and book I am working on will eventually reach its destination.

P.S. It did.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Let’s start the conversation.

Not long ago, within my not-so-distant memory, people used to talk. We’d chat. We’d have discussions. And, curse of curses, hoity-toity folks would dialogue.
Now, we have “conversations.”
We used to be asked for our two cents’ worth. Now, we’re asked to “join the conversation.” Reporters used to conduct interviews. Now, they engage in “conversations” with their subjects. Radio talk show hosts used to take calls. Now, they “invite another voice into the conversation.” Internet discussion groups used to have forums. Now, they have “conversations.” Even arguments and debates and disagreements are “conversations.”
What is it about the word “conversation”? How is it that it has wormed its way into so many places in our language once described by perfectly good, and often more precise, words?
I suspect it’s because the people who use it think it sounds friendlier. And few people can resist warm and fuzzy, even at the expense of clarity.
What do you think? Let’s start the conversation about conversation.