Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Backstory

When I meet someone new, we start to talk about what we have in common, and if we hit it off, we tell stories. Stories of events, where we came from, the people in our lives. In other words, backstory.

We share these things because the events in our lives have shaped us into the people we are today. It’s the same with characters in a fictional story. She stood at the crest of the hill, her short sun-bleached hair tousled by the wind. Mud streaked across her NAU sweatshirt. Okay, we have a snapshot of her, but who is she?

In order for that character to seem real, we need to know her background. Was she an only child? Did she have any pets? Did she stomp in mud puddles or did her mother keep her indoors? Writers know these things, and since we’re trying to introduce the character, we want to tell the reader everything we know, as soon as possible.

That’s where we run into trouble. If that person I just met immediately bombarded me with all his history and his most intimate details, I’d probably back away. A story here, a snippet there: that’s how we get to know someone.

I once had a dog named Barney. We left him home alone while we went to a movie, and when we got home, a bag of two dozen dinner rolls was missing from the kitchen counter. We couldn’t believe a fifteen-pound terrier could have eaten all those rolls, but they were gone. Only the empty bag remained. Then we began to find them. One was in the shower. Another behind the toilet. Two behind the laundry hamper. He’d even scratched up the carpet in the corner of the bedroom and hidden one underneath. We were finding rolls for weeks.

We need to hide our backstory the way a terrier hides food. A comment here about a camping trip. A memory there of being forced to wear a scratchy dress to a wedding. A hint now and then that there’s a story behind the story. If we do it right, the reader is turning the pages, eager to find out more. And by the end of the story, we’ve made a friend. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Joshua Trees


This week, I saw my first Joshua tree. I’ve seen pictures, but never before seen them in person. Their scientific name is Yucca brevifolia, so they’re more closely related to yucca than to trees, but they seem to grow like trees, even to the point where they appear to have bark.

The legend is that they were named by Mormon pilgrims, because the upraised arms reminded them of Joshua, the man who led the Jews into the promised land, and they were on the way to their own promised land. There seems to be some debate about whether the name is really that old, but whether it was pilgrims or latter inhabitants, they were named after Joshua because they seem to raise their arms to God.

One of the stories in Joshua (10:13) says that Joshua asked God to hold the sun still, and it stopped in the middle of the sky for a whole day. I wonder if this was the verse they had in mind when they named the Joshua tree. Traveling through the desert in the summer, it must sometimes seem as if the sun isn’t moving, that it’s hanging in the middle of the sky, pouring down heat on the poor travelers below.

Regardless of exactly who named them, or exactly why they got their name, Joshua tree is a wonderfully evocative name for a very unusual and strangely beautiful plant, and I feel lucky to have seen them. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ideas to Improve Standard English

English is a rich and wonderful language, with contributions from other languages around the world. Writers can have their characters interact at a gathering (Old Dutch), a forum (Latin), a tete-a-tete (French), a powwow (Narragansett), or a shindig (American 1800s). But proper English has a few gaping holes in ease of use, and I’d like to suggest a fix for one or two that bother me the most.

First of all, we need a word for “his or her.” Writers constantly tie themselves in knots trying not to say, “I want to thank the anonymous donor for their contributions,” because of course, that’s incorrect. Donor is singular and their is plural. However, “I want to thank the anonymous donor for his or her contributions,” sounds awkward. That’s how we get sentences like, “The contributions of the anonymous donor should be applauded, and I’d like to be the first to say thank you.”

So, here’s my first recommendation. “Their” should officially have a recognized meaning of “his or her,” in addition to its other meanings. Casually, we're already using it that way. Just make it legal, people. 

Next, English needs an official plural form of you, and we have a perfectly good one – y’all. Yes, it’s a southern American term, but I say let’s borrow it, as we have so many other useful terms, and make it official. But use it correctly. Y’all is a contraction for you all, and is never, ever singular. If the sentence doesn’t make sense using you all, don’t use y’all. It’s that simple.

Finally, we have a punctuation mark for a question, “Who drank the Kool-Aid?” or an exclamation, “He drank the Kool-Aid!” What we need now is a mark to indicate irony or tongue-in-cheek. “I drank the Kool-Aid – not.” 

This is not a new idea. Apparently, people have been floating this since at least the 1580s. Wiki article. The most common suggestion is a backward question mark. Think of all the internet flame wars that could have been prevented had it been clear the original message was not intended to be taken at face value. This punctuation mark could save lives[!] (See, that sentence needed an irony mark.)

Apparently, there is no official board to petition, so we just have to spread the word. The grammar textbook writer can consider the changes in their next edition. The keyboard designer can consider adding an irony mark next to the right shift key. So, y’all need to get on board and tell somebody about this. Help English flow more smoothly. Spread the word.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Are Incentives Effective?

Incentive (noun) – something that incites or tends to incite to action or greater effort, as a reward offered for productivity. (Dictionary.com) 


Basically, an incentive is a reward to preforming a desired action, or a punishment for not preforming that action. We have tax incentives, incentives to fill out surveys, work incentives, buy-one-get-one sales, and many more incentives competing for our attention every day. The tricky part of incentives is designing them so they actually work.


I once read of a study (I wish I could quote it, but I can’t find it now) of young children who liked to draw. On day one, researchers gave them crayons and ask them to draw as many pictures as they wanted. The children loved it, and created piles of pictures. On day two, the researchers divided them into two groups and offered to pay each child in one group $1.00 for each picture they produced. They drew even more pictures than the control group. Finally, on day three the researchers announced they would no longer pay for pictures. The control group that had never been paid still drew many pictures, but the paid group only drew a few. Apparently, once you’ve gone pro, it’s hard to go back to amateur status.

I’ve seen the same phenomenon in my own household. My husband has been faithfully exercising six days a week for over thirty years. He especially loves cross-country skiing and biking. Last year, his company decided to award points worth certain increasing incentives if their employees would log one, two, or three million or more steps in a year. Sounds great, right? Especially since he was already exercising.

Unfortunately,  he soon found he could get efficient steps strolling on a treadmill, but cross-country skiing, a much more intense exercise, logged fewer steps, because the glide portion only counted as one step. Biking didn’t register too well, either. So this program inadvertantly dis-incentivized him to work at his more aerobic sports, instead encouraging easy walking.

Free books may fall into this category, too. Many authors and publishers, in order to incentivize readers to take a chance on an unknown author, offer one or more of their books free. And it works, at least sometimes. But with so many free books out there, instead of encouraging readers to buy another book by the same author, a positive reading experience may just encourage them to pick up a different author’s free book. On the other hand, a negative experience may discourage them from trying out any new authors in the future.

We have to be careful with incentives. If we offer to pay kids for good grades, maybe they’ll choose easier classes instead of challenging themselves. If we teach the dog to bark when we command “speak” and give them a treat, the dog may bark every time we’re holding food.

Incentives are powerful, and like many powerful things, they can backfire. So before jumping in, carefully consider the possibilities, and use incentives wisely.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Impressive

What impresses us? ESPNs Top Ten Plays is always impressive. Based on People Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, we’re impressed with people who can sing and act, as well as athletes, innovators, and politicians. For some reason, we also seem to be impressed with celebrities whose only claim to fame is that they’re celebrities. I’ve always wondered how that comes about.

But maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things. Maybe we should give a little more credit to the people who designed the bridge we drive over every day, or the elevators we ride in. We only tend to pay attention to them when something goes wrong, but to work, the designers, engineers, and builders had to do a million things right.

On one hand, we’re impressed with people who can do things we can’t, like throw a baseball almost 100 mph or walk a tightrope. On the other, we ignore people who are good at things we know nothing about, like dentists or farmers. We assume our fillings are supposed to be perfect and our fresh produce will be at the store whenever we want it.

Personally, I think Edwin Ruud, inventor of the tank storage water heater, should get more credit. If I had to do without modern conveniences, a hot shower would be in my top ten of most missed.

I’m fairly ordinary, but I graduated from college with honors, I’m a decent cook, I’ve made some lovely quilts, and I’ve written several books and short stories. And yet, the only time I remember truly impressing my son is when he was in the fourth grade. I was typing a paper for him, and suddenly, with awe in his voice, he said, “You’re not even looking at the keyboard!”


Ironically, I’m not even a good touch typist. In my high school typing class – yes, with typewriters like old black-and-white movies – my highest speed was around thirty-two words per minute. My best friend could top fifty on a good day. Fortunately, I didn’t have to earn my living that way. And yet it impressed him because it was something he couldn’t do.


Look around. We’re surrounded by the fruits of talented people that make our lives easier, healthier, and more fun. What impresses you?

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Fleeting Glimpse

On the way home today, driving from downtown on the Glen Highway, I saw something amazing. After a couple of weeks of gray overcast, the day was clear. It was a quarter after four. The sun had set, and the half-light painted the sky the rich blue-gray of a well-washed pair of jeans. New snow, pure and crisp, frosted the Chugach Range, illuminated by an almost full moon rising. Even the lights lining the highway added to the beauty of the scene, leading the eye to the mountains beyond.

Taking a picture while driving 60 mph isn't wise, so I waited until I got home. By that time, the moon had risen further, the sky was darker, the angle was wrong, and trees blocked the view. This is what I got.


January 2, 2015 4:25, Anchorage Alaska

It's like the old riddle: if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, did it make a sound? If there was nobody to share the beauty and no way to capture it, was it still a beautiful moment? Yes. Oh, yes. 

Even if there is no tangible proof, I was there to see the moon on the snowy mountains, just as I've seen hummingbirds, and rainbows, and a million small miracles I wasn't able to capture on film. These memories are a part of me, of who I am. They're also a treasure trove to dig into as I write, so that my characters can feel the awe I felt. As we start a new year, we need to remember to cherish the unexpected moments of beauty whenever they happen. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Resolutions to make 2015 a Happier Year

A new year is upon us, the traditional time for New Year’s Resolutions. I’ve been around long enough to have made a lot of resolutions, with mixed results. So instead of resolving to lose weight or get rid of clutter (because they've worked so well in the past) I've decided to focus on three resolutions that will make me a happier person.

I do have specific professional and personal goals in mind for 2015, but while I’m working on those, I resolve …

1) To put my head down and bull through the work that needs doing, but remember to pop up often to touch base with the people in my life.









2) To take time to notice the beauty in nature, big and small.




3) To share my abundance and give thanks for the sun, the rain, and the wind ...



and most of all, for love and laughter.




 Happy 2015!