I’ve been reading a few blogs about writing and words to avoid.  My husband sent me a blog about the overuse of adverbs in science fiction.  Science fiction does not fit into my personal taste, but I read the blog anyway just to get some insight into adverbs.  The first thing that struck me (the wrong way, no less) was that the blogger used the word “different” in a sentence followed by the word “than.”  Talk about dragging your fingernails across a blackboard.

The word “than” is intended to be used to compare a word to another word.  When you say something is “different,” you are not comparing it.  Rather, you are distinguishing it from something else.  Let’s look at an example.  “Shaquille O’Neal is taller than Kobe Bryant.”  “Meryl Streep is older than Amy Adams.”  Those are sentences of comparison, so the preposition “than” is appropriate.  By comparison, let’s look at some sentences using the word different.  “The weather in New Jersey is different from the weather in Hawaii.”  In that sentence, we are comparing the weather in the two states, true.  But we’re are using New Jersey as a baseline to distinguish it from Hawaii.  Alternatively, to use the word “than” we might say “the weather in New Jersey is cooler than the weather in Hawaii.”

I’m not sure I’m being clear here, because there comes a time when grammar just makes sense, and you’re not sure why you say things a certain way.

I’m taking German classes right now, and I’m struggling to figure out what conjunction goes with what verb.  In German, you don’t hide from something, you hide for it.  You don’t take medication for a cold, you take medication against a cold.  I’m in the process of memorizing those combinations, and it’s made me think about my English.  In English, my mother tongue, those word combinations come without thought.  Somewhere along the way, some English speaker got a little lazy and said “different than” and it just caught on like wildfire I suppose.  Because it is rare when I hear the word “different” used with it’s proper partner, “from.”

I did a quick Internet search to make sure I was correct about all this before I started writing.  I found a blogger who says that this “different than” thing is an American modification to English and, even so, is only acceptable in American English when comparing a noun to a clause.  (Am I getting too technical here?)  As an example, she offers, “Sara’s appearance is very different than I expected.”  “Appearance” is the noun and “I expected” is the clause.  I’m still not clear on this, and I would probably avoid using “different than” in any case.  Bottom line, she says, if the choice between “different from” and different than” comes up on a standardized test like the GMAT, be sure to use “different from,” which is the standard proper English, not the Americanized version.  Here is another grammar blog that is a little less uptight than I am.  (I’ll save my opinions about the word “less” for another day.)

Admittedly, I’m a stickler.  I had a very traditional high school English teacher, and I held on for dear life to every word she said. Then I studied journalism in college, where these rules were further ingrained.  It’s difficult for me to relax my language standards.

So that’s all I have to say on the point.  I hope my use of quotation marks and italics have not driven you crazy.  I have a feeling that quotation marks live in my personal sea of cluelessness.

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So my friend Sharon, an emerging writer of young adult fiction, had some advice for me.  First of all, she told me that writing improves as you do more of it.  Of course, I know that, but so far it hasn’t gotten me to put fingers to computer keyboard.  As for Sharon, she is living proof.  With four complete drafts of her first novel under her belt, her critiques have improved exponentially in just a few short months.

Sharon’s recipe?

  • Read tons and tons of book in your genre.
  • Write.  A lot.  Even writing that is imperfect is good writing in the long run.  Her attitude is to write now, edit later.
  • Read books about writing.
  • Read blogs about writing.
  • Have enthusiasm (her secret weapon)

What I’m struggling with now is how to write.  Do I just dive in, chapter by chapter? Do I need to know where my story is going?  Don’t I need to plot out each character so that I know who they are before I begin?  Or will my characters tell me who they are as I write? Should I have an outline?

Today I’m going to put those questions aside and try out writing software.  Sharon uses Scrivner, which is a program I recommended to her.  Why I recommended it, I’m not sure.  I never really figured out how it works.  But Sharon did.  And she likes it.

Author Michael Chabon used Devonthink Pro and Nisus Writer Express to write his ninth published novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  I’ll try those  as well.

Let me leave you with a word of advice from Chabon, who attributes his success as an author to talent, luck, and discipline.

“Discipline … is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.”

I’m assuming that good writing software is also helpful.


Resolutions

04Jan10

Here it is January again, and once again I am resolved.

A little more than a year ago, I quit my job as a lawyer to live my dream.  Like so many others before me and those in concert with me now, I’d like to become a writer.  My friends are very supportive, and they correct me when I say things like that — “I’d like to become a writer.”  The tell me that I have to start saying that I AM a writer.  And in my heart of hearts, I am, and I always have been.  The problem is I can’t begin.

When I was younger, throughout the first half of my 20-year legal career, I was a writer.  It was so simple for me then.  No pressures of publishing or wondering whether anyone else thought my product was good.  I wrote because I enjoyed it.  I could let my imagination rip and run.  I wrote short stories, poetry, I created film and TV concepts.  Just for fun.

Then, at some point, the scales tipped and I became more of a lawyer than a writer.  I forgot how to use adjectives and abstractions.  I wore suits.  All of my legal thinking and strategizing exhausted my reservoir of imagination. Before long, my primary source of entertainment shifted to reality TV.  I knew something had to change by Thanksgiving a couple of years ago.  I was sick, and I sent my husband out to have some fun and celebrate Thanksgiving without me.  I stayed at home in bed.  That’s when I stumbled across a “Bret Michaels: Rock of Love Marathon.”  I’m here to tell you that rock bottom is nowhere you want to find yourself.

My husband and I ultimately decided that moving to Berlin was my best hope.  It’s cheap here, so we don’t need two incomes.  My husband gave me this stunning gift of not having to earn an income so that I could live my dream.

Here’s where I am after 10 and a half months:

  • I drink more.  In the U.S., I hardly drank at all.  I taught my acid-sensitive stomach to handle alcohol so that I could become a boozy mess like all of the greats.  I invoke Ernest Hemingway’s name gratuitously.  I think often about taking up smoking, but realize how truly pathetic that would be at age 47.
  • I periodically refuse to read e-mail, use Facebook, or read the Huffington Post.  The void created by those electronic drugs is too depressing.
  • I’ve started writing three different books.  Once I became engrossed in background research and sketching out characters.
  • A friend of mine decided to write a book and has during the same 10 and a half months finished at least four drafts.  She encouraged me a few weeks ago to write just four sentences to get started.
  • I wrote four sentences.
  • I’ve almost decided on four different occasions to change my plans and instead get another graduate degree.
  • I’ve become addicted to a German reality show, “Das perfekte Dinner,” even though I only understand about 50 percent of what is being said.
  • I’ve taken up cooking.
  • I’ve delayed my first book project until after I purchase my new iMac computer … sometime after January 26th when Steve Jobs unveils some new model or software or some technological brilliance I otherwise can’t live without.

Hello?  Seriously now.  What am I doing?  On the bright side, it is 2:34 a.m., and I elected to open my laptop and blog tonight rather than watching five straight episodes of The Wire until I’m so disturbed I absolutely can not imagine anything beyond during which episode the frighteningly handsome drug dealer Stringer Bell will find himself in a body bag.  (I watched that episode two nights ago.)

So maybe in 2010, I will outpace my four-sentence record.  Maybe the pendulum will reposition itself so that I can call myself a writer and not feel as though I am exaggerating.

If you want to find out my fate, or if you want to feel good about the five sentences you wrote last year, stay tuned.


Emerging

27May09

I’m here today because my friend Matthew told me to.

I’m a blogger on blogspot where I write the way too occasional blog Diary of a Fab Black Woman.  I started that blog several years ago as a platform to talk about a host of issues that I am moved to mouth off about from time-to-time.  In contrast, this blog, Speechless, allows those interested to peek into the life of someone who is leaving another career to pursue her lifelong goal of becoming a writer.

I am at a period in my life when many of the people around me are re-examining their careers and either making radical changes, like myself, or trying actively to find room in their lives for the things that bring them joy.  My friend Matthew is a lawyer who is giving more and more time to his passion, photography.  Among other gifts, Matthew is a talented photographer.

I am a writer.

I studied writing in college as a journalism major at the University of Southern California.  While I was there I quickly found myself also involved in student government.  At USC at the time, in order to be a member of the student senate, you were required to run a political campaign.  Students seeking election engaged in extensive grassroots organizing to dig up votes from a student population topping 30,000.  I ran a half-hearted campaign thinking I would never be elected.   I garnered the fewest votes among the students to be seated, but somehow I managed to get elected.

For four years I served actively on the student senate.  The details are not all that interesting now, but serving in the senate changed the course of my life.  A small-town writer whose first job was as a sports writer for her town newspaper found herself surrounded by kids who planned to be lawyers, some who planned to run for public office.  Hanging out with this fast-paced pack engaged me fully in community organizing and volunteer work, but it also led me to following my peers in taking a prep course for the LSAT exam that was offered for credit at USC and ultimately taking the LSAT.  Not sure what I was thinking then, but who knows with 20/20 hindsight what they were thinking when they were 20?

After graduation, I moved to San Francisco to become a news writer for a popular drive-time radio show.  Every Monday through Friday, I appeared, bleary-eyed, at 3 a.m. at the loading dock of the San Francisco Chronicle to pick up the first edition of the newspaper and report to my job.  I checked daily police beats, fire beats, and wire services to prepare copy for So-and-So and Whats-His-Name, the drive-time anchors.  Finishing my workday at 10 a.m. was a boon, but I soon grew tired of starting my workday at 2 a.m.  I’m not a morning person, unless staying up until 2 a.m. after a night of partying fits within that definition.  I’m a little more mature these days, but I’m still not a morning person by any definition.  It’s a rare day when I’m up at 2 a.m.

Moving right along, I took another job as an administrative assistant and informal copywriter for a radio sales department at a different station in the San Francisco market.  After a year and a half, I reminded myself that I didn’t go to college to do this kind of work.  I’d started on the remarkable adventure of becoming a journalist, and I needed return to my quest.

I decided that I should get a graduate degree to make myself more marketable as a journalist.  I’ll admit to a couple of things here.  I’m not an interventionist.  I like my life to happen organically.  (Translation:  I tend to be lazy.)  Since I had taken the LSAT and gotten decent scores that were still valid, I applied to law school.  There are lots of details here that I won’t bother with.  I had a pipeline to a commercial copy writing job for a large department store, and I’d gotten an enthusiastic though informal job offer.  The day after I secured the offer, the store called me to tell me the store was reorganizing and moving the headquarters to Plano, Texas.  They weren’t expecting there to be room for me there, and moving to Texas was not part of my plans.  I went home from work that day with my head hanging in despair.

However.

When I got home, I found in my mail my first acceptance letter to law school.  The dye had been cast.

I never intended to be a lawyer.  My plan was to go to school for three years to get a couple of letters to put behind my name.  By accident, I was swept up in the high energy of law school.  I found myself taking courses like tax.  Utterly ridiculous.  But I’m certain it was not demonic possession.  I just lost my way.  Law school is a very structured place, and always being one to comply (but complain about it), I accidently became a lawyer.

Almost 20 years later and with many lessons under my belt, I am a writer.  I’m an organicist, which is probably not a word.  I’m taking liberties as a creative thinker.  But I have no regrets about becoming a lawyer.  I’m pleased about it.  It has given me maturity, focus, and authority.

This blog will track the challenges I face as I redefine myself.