The Intensity of Work

I have been writing with an intensity that I had yet to experience. Since my last post five days ago, every spare minute has been spent working away on my rewrite. My focus has been on clarity, clarity , clarity. The sections of my book that have occupied my time these days are those that set the stage, so to speak. These are very important sections to say the least. You may recall that my book is a work of non-fiction, but I have not said much about it.  The book is comprised of  three main sections that fit within a developmental sequence. While each section is distinctive in character, and could stand on its own as an extended essay, they lead nicely one to the next, from start to finish.

The first section sets the conceptual base and philosophy for the second. The second section is an extended analysis of important elements looked at through the philosophical lens of the first, and is somewhat confession like.  The final section is a synthesis of ideas provoked by the first two sections of the book, which is essentially revelatory. This all sounds a bit heavy, but I am striving for the feel of a series of extended chats between acquaintances that get to know each other better over time. I cannot help but think of a Dickens’ title as I write all this, “Great Expectations” indeed.

The philosophy that initially directed my writing has matured over the last eighteen months in ways I could never have anticipated. I certainly believed in my message from the beginning of my project, but as I became more and more committed to producing the best book I can, my initial philosophical motif grew into a surge of thought that revealed a greater theme than the original.  That original philosophy has developed into the modus operandi for confronting each day and each task. The act of writing has become transformative. At the age of sixty-seven, that was a bit of a surprise. Old dogs do learn new tricks after all.

My writing project was originally just another challenge to be faced in a lifetime of taking on challenge. If you have been following my blog, you may recall that am a mild to moderate dyslexic who has a serious spell check and “Grammarly” addiction ( Grammarly is a commercial grammar checking service available at www.gramarly.com.) The project has evolved and become much more, now driven by an intense desire to communicate my ideas to others. Writing has also become a therapy for the literarily  challenged (me). If I were still a practicing special educator, I would have my students write, write and write some more. Of course they would need support to write correctly, but I am certain that the exercise would cause a few writing and language based neurons to make some new connections.

I took a break from writing to write this blog, but forty-five minutes is all I can spare. I was on a role today, and I want to get back to what I was doing before I lose the thread. I have been thinking a bit more about Yin/Yang relationships so I wouldn’t be surprised if those thoughts show up in my next entry. Until then . . .

L

PS. I am a proud Canadian today. Alice Munro, the great short story master, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A great day for Canada. A great day for women. A great day for the art form that is the short story. A great day for literature.

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Conference Day – October 4, 2013

Today was conference day. When you work with an e-publishing house, a number of individuals contact you from time to time. I finally had a contact from the editorial office rather than anyone in a sales capacity. I enjoyed this conference more than any in the past months, because I received affirmation that I was on track re: following up on the suggestions and critique of the developmental edit. Since beginning the rewrite process, every attempt has been made to take the editors comments to heart and follow the guidance they offered.

Since I am a novice writer (author wannabe), my first draft suffered from a number of rooky errors, all of which emerged in the DE (developmental edit). My writing style was dry, dry, dry.  My first draft was full of redundancies, superfluities, and content sequence problems. The thread of my theme disappeared from time to time, only to reappear later out of context. Although sections of the text were well and intelligently written, the impact of my words was lost in convolutions, contortions and cognitive machinations. I even ranted from time to time offering opinions on material that did not contribute to the essence of the book in any way. From my title to my terminal section, the silk purse containing gems of ideas I had hoped to create was still a sows ear attached to a pigs breakfast of a manuscript. Instead of getting angry, I decided to get even with myself by working smarter, not harder. It turns out that smarter was also harder.

Since I was rewarded with encouragement from someone who is actually in the editorial office at the publisher, I think it appropriate to share how I handled the DE comments and what I did to get myself back on track. Here are a few basic preliminaries re: the mindset required to take full advantage of the DE.

1. Chuck your ego out the door, shut the door, and keep away from it with deliberation. A good healthy dose of old fashion Buddhist selflessness is in order here. An ego just gets in the way of the reality of the task ahead.

2. Keep this thought firmly in mind; the developmental editor is just doing their job and the DE is not a kick in the pants, it is an honest and thoughtful critique. Think of the DE as a push from behind to help you write better than ever and reach new heights of written expression.

Now that you have the correct mindset, you can begin the task of preparing to rewrite. Yes, I said preparing. Like setting up to do any task, be it writing or painting a wall, good preparation is half the job.

3. The next step is to read your DE carefully and critically, not as a critic, but as an empty vessel awaiting to be filled with precious elixir. That’s a bit of Taoist philosophy for you in case you missed it. Taoists believe, and I have come to believe,  that the usefulness of anything is marked by its emptiness, so that it can be filled appropriately when needed.

4. As you read the DE, keep a record of the number and types of comments made. Such a record will give a clear picture of weaknesses in writing style and inconsistencies in logic within the content.

5. Make a careful list of all the major flaws in your writing and make a sacred vow to yourself never to write another sentence, paragraph, section or chapter that contains any of them.

6. Never write too much prose without checking to make sure that what you wrote: (a) is consistent with your main purpose, (b) follows from what you wrote just before those words, (c) leads from where your have been to where you are going, (d) contributes to, and does not detract from your writing, (e) holds your reader and not turn them off, (f) makes your point without being offensive (of course you cannot please everyone), (g) is not a rant, (h) expresses an opinion without being opinionated, (I) uses plan words written in as grammatically correct prose as possible, (j) is an exercise in clarity not confusion  , (k) supresses negative aspects of ego, (l) and finally avoids all the issues identified in your DE.

I do not profess to have the magic formula for rewriting a first draft, only that this is what works for me. I hope it will be helpful to my readers and followers.

PS – An open note to my editorial contact re: today’s conference.

Thank you for being so generous with your time today. It was our first contact and it was important for me to let you know what I was doing re: my rewrite. I have been working in less of a vacuum since the DE, but I still had a sense of uncertainty about the direction I had taken with my writing. You listened patiently, reassured me that I had taken the developmental editors comments to heart and revised my work accordingly, and most importantly gave me a sense of being listened to. You also gave me some supportive responses directly and indirectly, for which I am very thankful. It was a great conference.

My intent is to share the process of working with an e-publishing house as well as sharing my reactions and feeling about the process in general. I will reveal which organization I am working with only after my book is officially released. Until then, I can only wish that others have an equally good experience working with an e- publisher.

Until my next post . . .

L

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Yin and Yang Cycle – A useful tool

It has been nearly one week since I posted thanks to a mire of major and minor technical problems. The Yin of Windows 8 is excellent. The Yang of it sometimes causes problems. It is 4:15 AM and I have finally re-established contact with the Internet.

This post is about how to apply a Yin/Yang cycle to enhance the writing process. Essentially the idea is to let the Yang (expansive, creative, and sometimes less than substantial) dominate the process for a while, then let the Yin (focused, well edited, and substantial) take over before the essence of an idea is lost or gets off track.

I have been applying this practice to my own writing and it works well with one caveat. Just before the creative burst gets out of hand and the editing process begins, make a brief note of where the thought was going. I found that sometimes it was difficult to restart a line of thought without some form of prompt. The editing process is cold and unfeeling, requiring the objective application of the rules of grammar and a critical focus on word choice, can have a dampening effect on the heat of the creative process.

Generating a prompt to assist to support generative process requires one to ask two critical questions; the first relates to the material to be edited and the second relates to the relevance of the next generative burst. The principal idea that dominates this process is relevance, which demands what has been generated remains relevant to theme of the overall piece and at the same time is relevant to the target audience. Given that the test of relevance has been passed, the written lines must pass the test of completeness of thought. When the Yang of the process is complete another Yin phase can begin. This cyclic, iterative process continues to role along like a rolling Yin/Yang symbol. process
So far, this approach to writing has been keeping the end product tightly written and strongly creative.

Until next time . . .

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The Yin and Yang of Writing

This entry comes from off the coast of Italy on what is actually a dark and stormy night. I’m posting this entry using a BlackBerry Z10 so the editing is a bit tricky. I’ll do my best.

I’ve been thinking about the nature of the writing process in terms of Yin and Yang.

The Yang of writing is the fun part of the process. It’s the creative, generative, searching for substance part of the act of writing that places demands on writer. It’s the out there, upfront energy that emerges from inspiration. It is the Yang element that results in the first draft.

The Yin of the process is that of editing. The writer take his or her draft from a stage of a work of a less substantial form to one that is more dense with greater substance. By carefully shaping the syntax, grammar and word choice the work takes on a more substanti
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Touchstones – An essential for achieving unity in writing

Once upon a time I was a teacher. Sorry for starting this like a Fairy Tale, but I have been retired for more than six and a half years and it all seems like a life that existed in a place long ago and far away. It’s interesting how when you least expect it, a few neurons trigger and you recall something very important. In my case it was the idea of using touchstones to preserve unity. Touchstones were very important to me as a teacher. As a teacher it was the unity of the subject matter I was concerned about, not just the content. The same thing applies to writing.  Another word for touchstone might be theme, but they are not exactly the same. When you carry a touchstone around, it is an object that brings you back to your center.

When I taught Senior High School Biology (I did so when there was still a Grade 13 in Ontario, so the content was equivalent to Freshman Biology at a college) I always had a few key touchstones that I would refer to as I taught through the year. I did that persistently so that my students could follow the flow of the lessons, and at the same time see the unifying elements among the different themes of Biology presented to them. It was a very successful teaching technique. So the other day, when those neurons fired for no particular reason and connected to the memory of my successful teaching technique, I saw it as a good way to approach the rewrite of my manuscript. Thank goodness for neurophysiologic phenomena.

Instead of picking some touchstones at random or through some approximation of what might work, I reread the comments of my DE (developmental editor) and reviewed all the discussion I have had with my editorial consultant, cleared my head of all preconceptions, and low and behold, there they were right in front of me all the time. My writing and thinking are heavily influenced be Eastern philosophies. In fact, my touchstones were deeply influenced by  Taoist and Zen Buddhist concepts related to “emptiness” and “Yin”Yang”. No big surprise really when I thought about it. Suddenly, the reorganization of content required by the DE just lined up the right way, and I was off to the races so to speak.

The expression “off to the races” might be a bit of an exaggeration, because the rewrite still needed a lot of work. With my touchstone securely in my mental pocket the work was moving in the right direction. There is no doubt that I was inspired to write by the essence of these philosophies, but even I had to look, read, think, and analyze to bring them to the surface. It is a “Chicken and Egg” sort of thing. The inspiration for the content arises from the philosophy, but the philosophy (the source of my touchstones) is partially obscured by the content. I not only had to look at my writing through the eyes of the reader, but I had to look at it through the eyes of a reader completely new to the content. I had to look at my readers as I looked at my new students who were new to the content of the course.

With more experience, I believe that I could have discovered my touchstones sooner in the creative process. Perhaps with a great deal of experience, the touchstones would have been there for me from the start of the project. The only thing I know for sure, at least for me, is that I need touchstones to write with power and coherence.

I don’t know how many posts I can produce over the next few weeks because I am off to Europe. My only avenue for communication is my trusty Blackberry Z10. I have been practicing writing longer and longer texts on the device, so I think I might be able to pull off a few posts. We shall see what I can do with my pocket-sized office. Have WiFi, will write.

Until the next time . . .

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The Struggle Goes On

This post will go down on record as the first and last multi-day post I will ever write.

(August 24, 2013) Re-writing is even more difficult than writing the first draft. One would think that wouldn’t be the case, but it is. The difficulty in reorganizing the manuscript lies in reorganizing the content according to a suggested revised table of contents. There are three dimensions to the task; the first is to find all the information scattered through the manuscript that applies to the new suggested sections, and second is to sequence the information, and the third is to smooth the transitions from paragraph to paragraph.

The reorganized TOC suggested by the developmental editor makes sense, but it is only a skeleton to hang the meat of the body of my work. As I write, I continue to struggle with reading my text as an outsider, although that is becoming easier with time. As I work,  I ask myself if it is possible to overwork and overwrite a text? I suspect that is true, but lack the experience to know if that is what I am doing. When is enough going to be enough?

I’m writing this on a train traveling from Montreal to Toronto, after a few excellent days in celebration of my birthday. The whole trip was my wife’s gift to me. As time marches on, the experiences of the visit are now a part of the repertoire of my experience. I’m going to sit back and enjoy the trip home and some recollections of the last few days for a few hours before I return to completing this post.

(August 29, 2013) I’ve been back from Montreal for a few days, but have been out of communication with the internet. Whatever you do, do not download the beta version of Windows 8.1. It has taken this long to get back to an original form of Windows 8 that was working just fine. Sometimes one just has to fight that nerdy urge that comes up from time to time.

When I left off I was pondering the idea of overworking one’s rewrite (and perhaps one’s self) to death. I still don’t think I have the answer, but I have some ideas. When one prepares a first draft manuscript, some specific ideas drive the process. When an editor suggests a revision of the sequence of content, it becomes problematic. The flow of the whole work dictated the flow of whole sections of the book. Back references to earlier ideas and foreshadowing of ideas to come are now completely out of register. As I began the rewrite task, a sense of being overwhelmed descended like a black cloud. The suggested revision of the TOC pushed me in the correct direction, but it left a great deal to my imagination.

The original introduction was geared to the original sequence, so an entirely rewritten intro is going to be required if I include one. It is likely the last part of the book to be written since one needs to know the full extent of a revised manuscript before an introduction can be prepared.  I decided to approach the rewrite as  if there will be no official introduction, since I am not writing anything so formal that an introduction is likely to be required. Once this idea guided my work two important things happened; first I was able to start writing a revision in earnest, and second, clarity and simplicity guided my writing in an effort to overcome the need for an introduction. The whole task seems less daunting than it did at first.

Next post . . . Flow In non-fiction writing . . . until next time

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Could’ve – Should’ve – Would’ve

Life is full of should’ve, would’ve and could’ve moments. The problem is not that they exist, but what one’s response is to those situations.  What did you learn from the situation? What are you going to do about it? If you say “fagetaboutit”, then you missed the point of the opening few lines of this post even before you read them. While “polishing” the content of the second part of my manuscript rewrite, I had a “should’ve done” moment. I was losing track of my ideas as the word count increased once again. At 5000 words, there was a distinct danger of either repeating myself or missing out important content. NOT GOOD!

The rewrite was progressing well until the end of the second section when the path already travelled started to fad from sight. I needed to resolve this issue post-haste or risk losing valuable time. It would be a tragedy (the no-fiction sort), if my rewrite was no better than my first draft.

Even though I had an outline to begin with, a system of keeping track of where my writing was going was needed. When I revisited the initial outline drafted at the beginning of the project, the reason my first draft wandered around idea-wise and included some repetition of material was due to the vagary of the initial outline. In fact, I was more of a web diagram than an outline. All the ideas were there but there was no structure or sequence included in the planning, a major oversight indeed. I just “flew by the seat of my pants” as I wrote according to the logic in my head. Clearly a less than adequate approach.

The other problem with my initial outline was not the outline at all. The problem was with me. It is easy to deviate from the plan as one gets wrapped up in an idea or explanation. Since the author knows were he or she is going, it is easy to get back on track. The reader has an entirely different problem, since they have been led astray and are not likely to return to the path the author is following with ease. They might even put the book down in frustration. I can deal with a reader putting my book down for any number of reasons, but frustration is not one of them.

The “should’ve done” moment for me was understanding that once one generates an outline, it needs to be followed carefully.  The outline should stand up to the same scrutiny as the text itself. Questions like:

Does the content of a part of the book lead to the next?

Is all the content listed in the outline necessary or is some of it redundant.

Will the content engage or disengage the reader?

etc. etc. etc…….need to be asked.

The outline in question is a prospective outline. Once the first draft is completed it “could’ve been” carefully checked against the prospective outline for its scope, content and sequence. Better yet, the first draft “should’ve been crosschecked with the outline after each section was completed. If that had been done in the first place, the rewrite “would’ve been” less of a task than it has become.

The next type or outline is a “retrospective outline“. I am generating one of those after each section of the book is rewritten. Think of this form of outline as a type of homework assignment requiring one to outline a text. The purpose of a retrospective outline is two-fold. First, it serves as a quality check on the content. Second, it serves as a way to keep careful track of the content of the rewrite as it unfolds. It is a kind of final checklist for the writer.

Once the rewrite is complete it will go back to the publisher for a content edit. There will be a blog about what that entails when my project reaches that stage.

I plan to write about the idea of taking too much owner ship of one’s ideas and not enough ownership of the content in my next blog. Until next time . . .

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What to inlude, what to cut, and what comes next?

I tried writing this post on a Blackberry Z10. It is possible, but only when no other technology is available. I’m back to the tactile keyboard for now.

I just finished a copy-edit (to the best of my ability and with the help of grammarly.com) on the fist completed sect of my rewrite. As I stated in a previous post, my intention is to follow the suggestions of the developmental editor closely. If material is considered superfluous, it is cut. Whenever the editor suggests that an idea needs more support or requires clarification it is done. The most time-consuming aspects of the rewrite process is keeping the content sequenced correctly and copy editing.

One has to give serious thought about how to begin a section of the book and what needs to be included. I’m discovering that some of the supporting content suggested by the editor, actually shows up in sections of the book other than the one I am working on at the moment. I looked back on my planning sheets prior to writing and discovered that many of my problems resulted from deviating from the plan and not asking myself the correct questions.  Reflecting on those planning sheets suggests a different approach might have been useful.

The next time I generate a plan for writing a work of non-fiction, I will include the following processes:

1. Establish a content development line, analogous to a plot development line in a novel.

2. Each time an idea or topic is included on the development line, the following questions should be posed:

a. Is this the next logical idea or topic that should appear in the book?

b. What do I need to know to write about this topic or express the idea?

c. What do I want the reader to understand from what is written?

d. What information or clarification do I need to provide to the reader?

e. Have I considered my audience as I am writing a section?

f, Am I leading my reader painlessly from paragraph to paragraph and sub-section to sub-section?

g. Have I included all that is necessary and cut out all that is superfluous?

3. Keep referring back to my plan and keep track of where I am.

4. Be consistent in following my plan, but don’t be married to it.

I think this checklist of questions would have been useful in the preparation of my first draft. If anyone reading this blog has a comment on the list of guiding questions provided, or anything they would like to add, please comment.

Until the next post . . .

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The Small Blue Dot

A recent photograph taken by a satellite based camera showed us what Earth looks like from the vicinity of Saturn. The post from gizmodo.com shows this image. I remember the sense of awe that accompanied the famous photograph taken of Earth from the moon. I remember the impact on our understanding of how much life depended on such a thin layer of atmosphere. How we, and all other life forms, were interdependent. The image of a small blue dot (the Earth) hanging just below Saturn’s rings should become another of those iconic images, which reminds us of how miraculous life on earth really is.

Despite these powerful images, we don’t seem get the message. That small blue dot hanging in the black vastness of space harbours an organism so violent that some groups are forever bent on annihilating another. It harbours an organism that is so dependent on toxic substances for its survival (pesticides, herbicides, and petroleum products) that it willfully poisons the very air it must breath and water it must drink. It generated a species so arrogant and self-centred that it would endanger every other species on earth just so it can have what it wants, do what it wants, and destroy what it wants without regard to the natural balance of life on earth

That species, dubbed by C. Linneus in 1758  as Homo  sapiens  is not very wise at all. We, as a species, seem more intent on death and destruction of the environment than we are on life and preservation of the environment. Politics, profit, and protectionism reign supreme in a world gone mad, Governments exist for themselves, not for the people they are supposed to represent and protect. The developed world is content to have the third world manufacture all they need at wages that are so low that it is an embarrassment and even a sin, The third world is content to work for slave wages since that is their only means of survival.

What to do? What to do? What to do? We need a real United Nations, not the emasculated shame that cannot seem to stop the murderous regimes in the world from murdering. The wealthy nations of the world depend on the labour of individuals that should be in school getting an education. What a crime.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that there are many people trying to do the right thing. I know that there are individuals who put forth enormous efforts to improve the lives of others. However, that small blue dot hanging so elegantly in the blackness of space is very precious, and I fear that all the good intentions in the world will not save it in the end. I ever there was a time for a world wide revolt against the insanity that is killing us, it is now. I hold the sanctity of that small blue dot under my dome of heaven.

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