Grammar Rules I’ve Given Up

For my entire life, I’ve been known as a Grammar Nazi. The Punctuation Czar. Now, not so much. I’ve written about that before: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6z

In that post I said:

I used to take delight in knowing all the rules and enforcing them ruthlessly. Gradually I have gotten away from that practice. I felt it was impolite to go around correcting people unless they had asked for my help. I still corrected my family because – hey – it was mentally painful to be around people who misused “hopefully” or split infinitives. Or who mispronounced “nuclear” or “foliage,” for that matter.

Gradually, I changed. Here are some of the rules I am no longer an enforcement officer for.

Split infinitives

I admit that my desire to throw this rule overboard was influenced by my hope that I might find a way to approve of the phrase “to boldly go.” (Okay. I was a grammar geek, but the other kind as well.) Then, one day, I found my “out.” The rule was not only wrong; it was stupid.

The old bugaboo about not splitting an infinitive, to which I was passionately devoted, has its source in the fact that in Latin it is impossible to split an infinitive. Latin infinitives are all one word. It makes no sense to transfer that rule to English.

I breathed much easier the next time I watched Star Trek.

Impact 

I hate the use of “impact” except as a way of referring to one thing crashing into another thing – an asteroid into a planet, for example. I still much prefer that to its metaphorical usage, in which it means “has an effect on.” There’s already a perfectly good word for that – “affect.”

My co-workers, however, ridiculed me mercilessly on this one. They showed me examples of “impact” used to mean “affect” in other pieces of writing. They counted the number of times I made the change. They never let up.

And eventually I caved. It still sounds awful to me, but I have given up defending the usage. I have not, however, given up the rule that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun 99% of the time, with the one percent being so seldom used as to be negligible.

Not starting sentences with “and” or “but”

Or “so.” Or “or,” for that matter. I know that conjunctions don’t belong at the beginning of sentences in Standard (Formal) Written English. But what I write is usually informal, colloquial English. If I followed the aforementioned rule, that last sentence would have had to have been, “What I write, however, is usually informal.” I use “however” enough as it is. And phrases like “would have had to have been.” (I suppose since I am writing informally here, I should have written “would have had to be,” but there you are, it’s hard to break these habits after so many years.)

There are some grammar and punctuation rules that I have not given up, however.

The semicolon

Noted author David Gerrold recently declared the semicolon obsolete and ugly. I disagree, and not just because I have one tattooed on my left wrist (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9G). To me, the semicolon is both elegant and useful; it implies a connection between two independent clauses. In that sentence, the semicolon means that the semicolon, by implying a connection between the two halves of the sentence, is therefore both elegant and useful. If I had said, “The semicolon is both elegant and useful. It implies a connection between two independent clauses,” those would have been true, simple statements. But they would not have emphasized the connection between the function of the semicolon and its beauty and elegance.

Okay. I’ll shut up about the semicolon now. David Gerrold and I will just have to agree to disagree.

The Oxford comma

First, let me say that one of my main clients does not use the Oxford (or “serial”) comma in the pieces I must edit, and it chips away at my soul each time I have to remove one. The lack of an Oxford comma can make a sentence both confusing and laughable. You’d get book dedications like this: To my parents, my English teacher and Barack Obama. Without the Oxford comma (the one that should go after “teacher”), everything after “parents,” becomes an appositive – equivalent to what came before. In other words, sans Oxford comma, the author is saying that her English teacher and Barack Obama are her parents. All that hilarity and confusion can be avoided with a simple comma.

The subjunctive mood

Don’t get me started on the subjunctive mood. No, I mean really don’t. We’ll be here all day.

Freelance Editing vs. Freelance Writing

I am a freelance writer.

I  am also a freelance editor.

Most people have to pick one or the other, but it is possible to combine both – although usually not on the same project. There are distinct differences in the skills required, the clients you take on, and the likelihood of finding work.

Let’s take that last point first.

How do you find work?

Most magazines, ezines, publishing companies, and editorial services companies have editors on staff. They hire freelance editors only when a big project comes along and they can’t handle the volume of work in-house. Then they usually turn to a stable of proven, reliable freelance editors. So it’s important to get your resumé and sample work out there and on file with them.

It also helps to network with other freelance editors. You may think they’re your competitors, but they can be your best sources of work. I’ve gotten many jobs because an editor friend of mine has said to a client, “No, I can’t take on that project now, but I can recommend Janet. I’ve worked with her before and she has experience.”

If you don’t have a recommendation – and sometimes even if you do – you may have to take an editing test. The best question you can ask before beginning is, “Who is the audience for this piece?”

How do you get paid?

Many magazines, ezines, and other outlets use freelance writers. Some use nothing but freelance writers. Not all of them pay, however. Those that rely primarily on blog posts are the least likely to pay. You can hold out for paying jobs, but the pool of possibilities will be correspondingly smaller.

Freelance editors, on the other hand, almost always get paid for their services, at least if they are firm enough to insist on it, even among friends. It probably isn’t necessary to charge for 15 minutes of work reading over liner notes for a new CD, but for substantial work like a doctoral dissertation, friendship doesn’t stretch that far.

Pay for freelance editors is usually by the project, by the hour, or by the page. The client gets to decide which.

What skills do you need?

Of course you need strong skills in grammar, punctuation, and all the other fiddly bits you learned in English class. But those skills alone make you a freelance proofreader or copy editor. A freelance editor needs more.

A freelance editor needs to be able to see the flow of a piece of writing and to see the holes. For example, does the piece have a strong introduction and conclusion? Is an assertion backed up with evidence or reasoning? Is some material repeated? If you’re looking at a piece of academic writing, is proper footnote procedure followed? If the author uses quotations, are they properly introduced and cited?

Remember that question about who the audience for the piece is? The freelance editor should keep in mind that audience and make sure the writing is appropriate for people at that level. (There are lexile checkers that can tell you if you are writing at a ninth-grade level or a grad-school level.) Is the tone of the piece right for the publication or purpose? Is it supposed to be friendly? Informative? Persuasive? Does every part of the writing support that tone?

The secret to being a freelance editor is finding a couple of regular clients who rely on you for a certain amount of work per time period (week, month, quarter). Then look for other one-time jobs to fill in the gaps. Using this formula, you can make a pretty good living. Of course there are ups and downs, as with any freelance work – editor, writer, illustrator – but for those with the skills and desire, jobs in freelance editing can be enjoyable, stimulating, and a good use of your time and talents.

 

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

The Basics of Editing On-Screen

Most of the writers I know do their writing on-screen. Naturally, that means they also do their editing on-screen.

Editing on-screen is, admittedly, not as much fun as editing on paper, when we got to use colored pencils and make arcane hieroglyphic marks that the uninitiated couldn’t translate.

But these days, it’s necessary. Whether you’re editing your own writing (see http://wp.me/p4e9wS-rS) or someone else’s, it needs work. It’s a mistake to take the first outpourings of your brain and slap them up on WordPress or LiveJournal. Even if you’re a fantastic writer with brilliant thoughts, there are many glitches possible between your mind and what you offer to the public.

I write mostly in WordPress and Microsoft Word and edit mostly in Word or PowerPoint. But whatever the platform, there are certain similarities. Here are some techniques that will make your on-screen editing easier and more accurate.

Editing Ergonomics. This may sound obvious, but with wide-screen monitors taking over America’s desktops, perhaps it needs to be said: Center the page you’re editing directly in your line of sight. And remember to blink so your eyes don’t dry out. You already do that, don’t you? Find a type size that’s comfortable for you (175–200% enlargement is about right for my feeble eyes).

Periods and Spaces. Forget all the arguments. The standard for anything that is to be read on-screen is one space after a period. Period. Many writers don’t know this, and even those who do may lapse into their old typewriter ways and automatically, robotically, put in two spaces.

Fortunately, there is a cure – Find and Replace. All you have to do is ask the computer to find two spaces and replace them with one. Ask it to replace all the double spaces it finds in one go. Then save (for heaven’s sake!). Voilà! Your manuscript is now up to date in the format accepted by online publications.

Use Your Tools. Word processors these days have built-in tools that check your spelling, your grammar, your word count, and sometimes even your lexile. (Why is lexile important? It’s a readability score that indicates whether you’re writing at, say, a fifth-grade reading level or a seventh-grade level or a twelfth-grade one. A ninth-grade level is usually acceptable for a general audience.) Add-on tools also exist, such as Grammarly, which checks your writing on the fly and suggests what you might have meant or how you should have punctuated it.

Don’t Trust Your Tools. For most problems, you can, but sometimes you know better than the computer what you mean to say. For example, my computer flagged “lexile” and wanted to know if I meant “exile” or “flexible.” (I didn’t.) There are thousands of autocorrect memes floating around out there that show just how funny or horrible the results can be. Nor will spelling/grammar checkers catch everything. I just typed “Thre” for “There” and the program didn’t flag it.

Remember Your Low-Tech Editing Habits. Read over your finished piece slowly, or, better still, aloud. Put it away for a few hours at least, or preferably a day, and reread it. Slowly. Concentrate on a paragraph at a time, then go back and read the whole piece straight through. Double-check the spelling of names and places, another thing spelling checkers may overlook. (Although I just wrote a piece using the name “Semelweis” and the checker suggested “Semmelweis,” which was indeed correct.)

Have Someone Else Read Your Piece. You may be writing all alone in your Fortress of Solitude, but there’s a world of people out there who may be glad to look over your work before you release it into the wild. (Also some who won’t, so you may want to set up an arrangement with a trusted friend or a writer’s group.) Shoot the piece off by email and get replies the same way, or using those handy electronic Post-It Notes or comment features.

As time passes, fewer and fewer people will have those old typewriter and pen-and-paper habits. Even those born writing on-screen can use a few reminders, though. But on-screen or off, remember that there is still no substitute for a pair of human eyes and a human brain. Blaming errors on the technology is a cop-out – you’re the writer; you are responsible for the finished product.

Why I Write About Myself

Lately I’ve been taken to task for writing about “me, me, me.” So I felt compelled to introspect, and I’ve decided to write more about me. Here’s why.

I’ve tried to live an interesting life. I’ve always admired and enjoyed people who have tried many different things and talk about them. Once I realized that, I set out to try new experiences – travel, hobbies, friends, music, education.

I’ve traveled to the Caribbean, England, Ireland, Croatia, Montenegro, Rio de Janeiro, and other destinations (“Travels With Mom” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-dM). I’ve studied French, Spanish, and Russian, and taken a college course on beekeeping (“How I Faced My Fear – And Failed” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7H). I’ve taken up archery (“I Arched Before Arching Was Cool” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6E), ninjitsu (“I Was a Teenage Ninja” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-49), spelunking, and geocaching, and tried horseback riding, cross country skiing (“Whoa!” http://wp.me/s4e9wS-whoa), writing a novel, guitar and banjo, and reloading bullets (“The Day I Brought Bullets to School” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-50). I’ve written for I Love Cats, Black Belt, Today’s Catholic Teacher, and Technology and Learning. I’ve drunk with Tom Paxton, met the Archbishop of Jamaica, taken Carl Sagan’s class, and interviewed Captain Kangaroo. I’ve eaten snails, octopus, goat, and sashimi. That’s plenty of material for blog posts.

I have a blog called Bipolar Me (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). Inevitably, that involves talking about myself. While I try to include posts about news and events regarding bipolar disorder, the person whose case I know best is my own. I can’t generalize my experience to encompass everyone, or even most, people with bipolar disorder, but I hope my readers can see some of themselves in my writing.

My personal writing is what most people seem to be interested in. When I write about politics (“Political Noise” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ol) or books (“Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ry) or social issues (“Whitewashing: Where’s the Line?” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-5a) or music (“Owed to Songwriters” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-mr), the response is underwhelming. (I write about them anyway, because sometimes I need to. I’m not doing this for the numbers.)

But when I write about things I’ve seen and done, especially humorous pieces (“Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-56, “Butt Check” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2U)), I get more reactions and comments.

I don’t know a lot about any particular subject. (Except bipolar disorder, I mean.) Some people know all there is to know about medieval Scottish armor or the works of Tolstoy or Hungarian cooking. I’m more of a generalist. My education has been broad, rather than deep. If that means I’m full of useless trivia, so be it. I can write about what I know about Shakespeare or astronomy or getting rid of possums (“How to Get Rid of a Possum” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46), but if you want detailed, expert knowledge, you’ll have to go somewhere else.

I write a lot about cats, too. My cats, in particular, so in a way that’s still about me. (“Stupid Cat Tricks” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8I, “Sir Boinks-a-Lot” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8A, “I Blame the Cats. Always.” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B)

So, although I’ll try to keep the posts about other topics coming, I have a feeling I’ll continue to mine my own life for material. After all, it’s the subject I know best.

 

What I’ve Learned About Publishing From Lack of Success

I have been an editor. I have rejected lots of manuscripts.

I have been a writer. I have been rejected by lots of editors and agents and magazines and ezines.

Right now I have two books in the works: a memoir based on my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com) and a mystery novel hovering around 40,000 pages (60-75,000 would be a reasonable length).

Here’s what I’ve learned.

BOOKS

I’ve learned one queries nonfiction with a proposal and fiction with a completed manuscript. However, I spent so long contacting agents and publishers about the memoir that I actually finished it while I was waiting to hear back.

At some point, you will reach the “This book is crap” stage. Do not give up. This is natural and to be expected at least once or twice. The thing to do is pause. Go read a book about how to plot or write description or whatever it is that made you say “This is crap.” Or work on another project for a while. You do have at least two going, don’t you? Or at least a great idea for another one? Or you could join a writers’ group and see if any of them can figure out the reason for the crapitude.

Note: The first draft is not a manuscript and should not be submitted. That’s why it’s called a first draft. You will need at least another draft or three before it’s ready to release into the wild.

Yes, you need an agent. Probably. Only a few publishing companies look at proposals and manuscripts that don’t come from an agent. There used to be editorial assistants who had to read those submissions, but budgets are tighter than tight in the publishing industry. You don’t need an agent to submit smaller pieces of work like short stories and articles.

Which brings us to:

EZINES and MAGAZINES.

I write blog posts of 600-1000 words and, if appropriate, submit them to online magazines. (Most of this applies to print magazines too, if you can still find one.) A large part of the time, it’s like dropping my writing down a proverbial well. But again, I’ve learned a few things.

First, a heresy: You will have to write for no money. At first, anyway. People who say not to write for free are coming from a position of privilege. They are at a stage in their careers when they can get actual money (at least a little). If you’re just starting out, you’re not. There are reasons for this.

Some editors will want to see work that you’ve had published, just so they can tell you can write, meet deadlines, and be professional. The other reason is exposure. Yes, I know starving artists die of exposure. Yes, I know that exposure doesn’t pay the rent. But it does help in other ways.

An agent or an editor will look at a query more seriously if it says, “I am a regular contributor to X website and have been published on Y and Z.” Or “I have had short stories printed in Publication A and B.” Even if you only got six copies of the magazine as pay, or a byline and a bio, these are credits. They indicate that you’re more than just a wannabe. After you’ve got a few credits to your name, you can start pitching to sites that pay.

Do you really need to pitch? Or can you just send a story or article? Publications differ. The website will have a page helpfully called “How to Submit” or “Submission Guidelines.” Follow these instructions exactly. If they say query first, do that. If they say send completed story, do that. If they say paste it in the body of an email, do that. If they say attach your file as a Word doc, do that. Whatever they want, give it to them. It takes longer than blasting out a flurry of identical query letters or submissions, but it increases your chances of getting favorable attention.

I have either made all of the above mistakes or seen them made by people who submitted work to my publications. I can’t guarantee that any of this advice will get you published. This business doesn’t come with guarantees. But you can piggyback on my failures and those of others on your way to becoming a success. Good luck. Even if you’re a terrific writer, you’ll still need it!

 

 

 

Should You Self-Edit?

In a word, “Yes!”
That’s not to say that you won’t need a professional (or at least semi-pro) editor at some point in the writing process. But in order to get your manuscript – anything from a blog post to a novel – ready for a wider audience, you need to give it a good edit.

Proofreading. Of course you’re giving your manuscript a good proofreading. Aren’t you? Proofing is the stage when you catch errors of spelling, punctuation, typos, and some simple grammar flaws (such as subject-verb agreement). Anything more complicated than that is copy editing.

You may or may not be able to do copy editing yourself, although it’s always worthwhile to give it a try. Flaws to look for in copy editing are sentences that are too long or all the same length, too much passive voice, parallel constructions, and misplaced modifiers. If you don’t know what those are, you definitely need to have your manuscript vetted by someone who does. And don’t trust the “grammar checker” built into your word processor. There will be times when you want to use the passive voice, for example, and your grammar checker may tell you to change all of them.

Nonfiction. Whether you’re writing an article, a memoir, or an essay, take a close look at your first and last paragraphs. One good technique is to ask yourself whether you really need that first paragraph. Try reading the piece without it. Sometimes the second paragraph is more vivid or personal or relevant.

The last paragraph should do something, not just dribble off. It can reinforce (not restate) the first paragraph, ask a question, suggest an answer, sum up, or leave your readers with a final thought. Whatever you do, don’t end your piece with “Time will tell.”

Fiction. Fiction can be trickier than nonfiction in some ways. You have to take all the regular steps of self-editing and more besides. One of the best ways to discover where a story may be dragging or missing essential information is to read it aloud. (Actually, reading nonfiction aloud is not a bad idea either. If a sentence is difficult to say, it will likely be difficult for your audience to read.)

It may be best for you to have another person read your work aloud while you take notes on a separate copy. Then you can go back and fix them later. Trying to do this solo can divert your attention from the overall flow of the piece as you start and stop to make notes or corrections.

Longer works. Say you’re writing a book. You’ve self-edited every chapter using the above suggestions. Now you’re faced with the challenge of editing the whole darn thing. Pay particular attention to the breaks between chapters. Especially in fiction, the reader needs a reason to continue reading. That doesn’t mean you need a cliffhanger in every chapter, but it does mean that some question, action, motivation, plot point, or dilemma should remain unresolved, or at least suggested. If the action has reached a point for a logical pause, hint at what is going to happen next.

If your book is nonfiction, it helps to give readers “way-finders” that suggest how the next chapter is related to the one or ones that have gone before. If you have given some thought to the order in which you present information, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Re-ordering the chapters may be necessary, though.

Congratulations! You have now finished your first draft and produced a second. If you are writing a blog post, article, essay, or other short piece, you may be done. In fact, you may have produced a third or even fourth draft, depending on the length and needs of your manuscript. It’s very difficult to perform all the self-editing techniques in a single pass. The general rule is content edit first, then copy edit, and finally proofread.

Professional editing. Self-editing may be sufficient if what you are writing is a blog post, essay, or other short, less formal piece. But what if you have written a book? In that case, a professional edit is advisable.

Make no mistake: If it is going to be published, your manuscript will be reviewed, judged, and perhaps altered by at least one editor. (For books, the editor may suggest edits and you can then play a game of chess by email as you work out the details.)

But should you hire a professional editor to examine your manuscript before you submit it to an agent or publisher? It’s a really good idea.

For a blog post or short article, you may be able to find among your friends an English major or experienced blogger who will give your manuscript at least a quick once-over. For longer works, you will likely need a professional. And you will have to pay this person (by the page or by the project) to give your work a thorough, comprehensive edit. Since you’re going to be dealing with a professional and spending money, you may want to check the editor’s references first.

If you self-edit, you can argue with yourself all you want over details and potential fixes. If you’ve hired a professional, don’t argue. Just say, “Thank you” and pay the fee. Then decide which of the suggested edits you want to implement. Think carefully. You hired this editor for a reason. If you are too attached to your original manuscript and your immortal, golden prose, you might as well have not bothered and saved yourself the fee.

Ideally, a combination of self-editing and professional editing will produce the best, most marketable manuscript possible. But if you decide to go it alone, don’t skimp on the self-editing. Build time in your writing schedule for a thorough, objective look at what you’ve written. You will produce a better manuscript and be more likely to meet your publishing goals, whether you are looking for increased readership for your blog or an actual published book in your hands.

Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies

Just in time for Halloween, Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) has published Feedback, the latest in her series of zombie novels. The original books were Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, collectively known as the Newsflesh trilogy.

Sign of infected areaThe thing is, they’re zombie novels, but they’re not really about zombies. Oh, there are plenty of undead, infected creatures roaming through the novels, trying to bite the living, converting them to more zombies, or simply feeding on human flesh. There are brave zombie hunters who defend civilization against the shambling menace with intelligence, courage, and a vast amount of firepower. There are excitement, chase scenes, well-drawn characters, stunning surprises, and all the things that make a good horror-scifi-action-thriller.

So what are these books really about? Not Jane Austen, that’s for sure.

Fear. Okay, you probably expected this one. A zombie novel about fear. But in the Newsflesh books, fear of zombies is the least of it. There are alarming secrets that turn out to be symptoms of big, appalling conspiracies. One of the novels’ underlying messages is that fear can be – is – used to manipulate people and control them. If the threat is big enough, and scary enough, and relentless enough, people will do anything, give up anything, completely change their way of life to avoid the danger.

And people who know that can pull their strings.

Safety. Again, a fairly standard topic for a zombie book. But in this world (and ours), there is no guarantee of safety. All you can rely on are yourself and the few people around whom you can trust – and sometimes not even them. Mechanical defenses have holes; strategies have deficiencies; friends have their own agendas. In the end, you have only yourself and your principles, and maybe a few other people if you are very, very lucky.

Journalism. The main characters are bloggers, who form teams that gather the news, poke zombies with sticks, or write fiction. This gives the author plenty of room to explore how modern technologies have affected news-gathering, as well as the consumer’s desire for real-life action-adventure, poetry, and stories too. Large questions are explored: How far does the public’s right to know extend? Are there secrets that journalists shouldn’t reveal? What happens when the journalists become part of the news themselves? Have no fear (except of the zombies and conspiracies); these subjects operate in the background while the plot continues to rocket ahead.

Politics. The blogger-journalists are embedded with the campaign of a possible candidate for President, which makes the books all the more timely. Politics and zombies may not sound like a fascinating combination, but when the dead are rising everywhere in the world, people look to governments to address the problem. Whether those governments and the people in them make sound decisions, put responsible policies in place, and fund research can affect the outcome for individuals. Anyone who can’t make connections with the current political climate just isn’t paying attention.

I hope I haven’t scared you away from the novels. There are plenty of gore, ambushes, narrow escapes, heartbreaking deaths, and all the other accoutrements of your standard zombie novel, if that’s what you want. There’s even a zombie bear. You don’t have to pay attention to the various subtexts, though your reading experience will be richer if you do.

Not content to stop after writing the trilogy, Grant has revisited the near future, post-zombie-apocalypse world with short stories, novellas, and now the new stand-alone novel. (I say stand-alone, though its plot runs roughly parallel to Feed.) She explores interesting questions: What is this character’s backstory? What would happen in zombies got loose in a science fiction convention or a school? Who was responsible for starting the zombie plague? Is the zombie situation the same in Australia? Clearly, this is a fictional world with lots of room for expansion, despite the definitive ending of Blackout. It’s an impressive piece of world-building.

Grant is a gutsy writer (pun intended). Writing under the name Seanan McGuire, she has even written a novel in which one of the major plot points is Evil Pie. And for some reason, it works. (It’s in Chimes at Midnight, one of the October Daye series of urban fantasies.)

For more about Feedback, the other Newsflesh novels, short fiction, and Mira Grant, see miragrant.com.

Muse Blues

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a question most writers have heard. And struggled to answer.

Those of us with blogs or columns get our ideas from daily life – family, news, travel, and what’s going on in the world around us. For example, I’ve written about ratatouille, possums, education, books, toilets, advertising, bipolar disorder, ghost towns, grocery shopping, and feminism, to name a few. Subject-specific blogs get their ideas from (duh!) the subject matter – recipes, medical conditions, politics, or whatever.

But sometimes the muse eludes us. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. That’s when you know what you’re writing about, maybe have even made a start at it, but hit a blank wall. This is the blank sheet of paper phenomenon, or Creative processthese days, blank screen. It gapes. It mocks. It snickers. It yawns. You rack your brain for amusing anecdotes, clever observations, strong opinions – anything at all worth writing about.

We’ve all been there.

But what can we do about it?

First of all, do not ask any friends or relatives, “What should I write about?” Ninety-nine times out of hundred you will get either “I dunno” or something exceedingly lame. That’s why you’re a writer and they’re not. Don’t ask a writer friend either. You don’t want to take an idea that she or he might want to use later.

Look at pictures. These can be snapshots of yourself, nature photos in National Geographic, or other sources. I belong to a photo service that I use to find the illustrations that accompany my blogs. Sometimes I browse through them and see if something strikes me. Mystery writer Sue Grafton even goes to secondhand shops and buys old photos from other people’s abandoned shoeboxes. It worked for Ransom Riggs, too.

Go somewhere. Really, you’ve looked at all the stuff in your house a million times and it’s just not speaking to you any more. Walks in nature often work for Thoreau-types. People-watching in malls and cafés (and, frankly, eavesdropping) can work too. Go to your basement or attic and see if that stirs memories as well as dust.

Read. Read a novel. Read the newspaper. Read your Facebook newsfeed. Someone else’s thoughts can trigger your own. Agree, disagree, explain, apply something to your own situation or town or friends. Read your old blog posts. Maybe you’ve changed your opinion, found a better recipe, or seen a follow-up news story. “Bathroom books” full of trivia and weird facts are good for topics to explore further.

Do research. This is for the truly desperate. You’ve spent all that time staring at a blank screen, and there’s not much left before your actual or self-imposed deadline (if you have one). Treat your topic like you would a research paper in high school or college. How many for-profit prisons are there in the U.S.? Are we the only country that has them? What about the time an elephant was electrocuted? What was up with that? How many raisins are in a box of Raisin Bran? Calculate the size of a “scoop.” (Okay, that was a dumb idea, but you get the gist.)

Google writing prompts can be fun too. Simply enter your name and a verb in the search box and see what Google suggests. One that I got was “Janet has a secret daughter.” Topic: If I did have a secret daughter, what would I want her to know about me? Other prompts: Janet shoulda known better. Janet is a party pooper. Janet loves jewelry. I could write 650 words on any of those.

If you’re getting down to your deadline and nothing else has worked, there are two more solutions. One is to ask one of your blogging buddies to do a guest post. The guest doesn’t even have to write something new for the occasion – an old post from his or her blog will be new to your readers. Then later, you may be able to return the favor and write a guest post, expanding your readership.

The other last-ditch option is to re-post something you wrote when you were first starting out. Maybe you had 50 readers then and 600 now. That means that most of them won’t have seen the piece. And some of them hold up quite well, or will with just a few tweaks.

And once you’ve chased down your muse and found something to write, don’t let her get away again. Write down good titles or one-line drafts. Save the URLs of interesting news stories. Keep digging in that attic, or whatever worked for you this time. Or try a different suggestion.

If all else fails, take Hemingway’s advice: Write drunk. Edit sober.

Art Is Love. Art Is Work. Art Is Football.

Art is love.

Deep in our hearts, most of us long to be artists. Most artists, deep in their hearts, long to be some other kind of artist.

I can write, but I would really like to be able to sing.

Dan can sing, but he would really like to be able to draw.

Jason can draw, but he would really like to be able to paint.

Peggy can paint, but she would really like to be able to write.

And all of us wish we could be better at the creative things we can do.

Art Creative Imagination Inspiration ConceptWhen I say “creative things,” I’m not just talking about the fine arts, either. Quilting, cooking, crocheting, and woodworking can all be creative acts. It all depends on the imagination, the love, and the attention you put into it.

Art is a process as much as it is a product. The process itself is valuable, even if the art never reaches professional levels. It expands the mind without drugs. It stretches your creative muscles without workout clothes. It brings frustration, and satisfaction, and courage, and effort, and pleasure, and giving all together. Just like love.

Art is work.

Remember the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” It’s not enough to want to create art. Even singers born with perfect pitch have to practice breath control, projection, and reading music.

Dan will not learn to draw unless he tries, fails, tries again, takes classes, studies other people’s drawings, starts with something simple, practices, and practices, and practices. He may never become an artist in the sense of selling his works, but he will improve. And if he doesn’t improve enough to satisfy his inner longing, he can try photography or songwriting.

Art is work for your brains. And for your hands. And for making them work in sync. No one was ever born at the height of their creative powers. (Well, maybe Mozart, but I bet his compositions improved from when he was a child prodigy to his later works.) You may be born with creativity – we all are – but you will never make anything of it unless you use it.

The workers who made up the Bread and Roses movement had it right. Originally a call for both fair wages and dignified conditions for workers, the slogan has been used in poems and songs: “Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses.” Roses are what feed the heart. So does art. Art is necessary to our lives, a fact that has apparently been forgotten by everyone from politicians to businesspeople to educators.

Giving up on art is a sad thing. Never trying is worse. You may not be depriving the world of brilliance, but you are depriving yourself of potential and joy.

Art is football.

Young people playing sports imagine that it will propel them to the Good Life – fame, glory, sex, and millions and millions of dollars. Art can do that too. It allows a person to aspire to gallery shows, museums, art auctions, becoming a household name, and millions and millions of dollars.

Of course, that happens to only a select few persons – football players and artists alike.

But that’s not the point. If you truly love your art – or your sport – you do it anyway.

That’s not to say there are no ways to get recognition. You can teach art to others, just as you can coach pee-wee football. You can enter your artwork in local competitions and even state fairs. You can sell it at a booth at an outdoor art fair. You can give it to friends as birthday and holiday presents. Or you can keep it to yourself, for your own enjoyment, as Emily Dickinson did. You can even combine two of your passions and do art about athletics, like Leroy Neiman.

Nurture your art as you would a relationship. Throw yourself into it as you would work. Improve at it as you would at sports. Grow and your art grows with you. And as your art grows, so do you.