Kill Language – Kill Freedom

I love watching my son grow up. What parent doesn’t, right? The best part for me is how he develops, especially when it comes to language. When he was still a toddler, I was astounded at how quickly he picked up concepts, and how they all tied to language. For instance, I showed him an apple, and said “This is an apple.” He understood right away what I meant. He also didn’t get confused when I taught him colors. I pointed to a red apple to show him “red,” and he easily grasped the difference between “red” and “apple.” I understood then that language is built into our brains and develops naturally as we grow up.

Language keeps us connected to each other, and helps us learn about the world. Without language, we couldn’t build anything (consider the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9). Imagine trying to build a house with others without the ability to communicate what needs to be done.

Even math and music are considered languages, and while some believe they can do without math, most everyone needs music.

Mess with language, and we mess with the free exchange of ideas. People no longer understand their world or each other, and we no longer grow as a species.

George Orwell understood this better than most, I think. He expressed his concerns in an essay titled “Politics and the English Language.”

He dug deeper into and expressed it more in his book, “1984,” most specifically with the language he labeled as “Newspeak.”

According to a website dedicated to Orwell:

“The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.”

To expand the idea (on the same webpage):

“Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in The Times were written in it, but could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English) by about the year 2050. Meanwhile it gained ground steadily, all Party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech.”

I ran into this article earlier today:

College Writing Center Declares American Grammar A ‘Racist,’ ‘Unjust Language Structure’

Which in turn led me to University of Washington / Tacoma’s University Writing Program and their Writing Center:

Under “Our Beliefs” of their “Statement on Antiracist and Social Justice Work in the Writing Center” it states:

“The writing center works from several important beliefs that are crucial to helping writers write and succeed in a racist society. The racist conditions of our society are not simply a matter of bias or prejudice that some people hold. In fact, most racism, for instance, is not accomplished through intent. Racism is the normal condition of things. Racism is pervasive. It is in the systems, structures, rules, languages, expectations, and guidelines that make up our classes, school, and society. For example, linguistic and writing research has shown clearly for many decades that there is no inherent “standard” of English. Language is constantly changing. These two facts make it very difficult to justify placing people in hierarchies or restricting opportunities and privileges because of the way people communicate in particular versions of English.”

I’m sure you can see the correlation between Newspeak and what the writing center is espousing.

What led me on this journey (thanks to LK Hunsaker) is this article:

According to the article, some publishers are hiring so-called sensitivity readers “who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as ‘dealing with terminal illness,’ ‘racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families’ or ‘transgender issues.'”

These statements are of special concern:

“Sensitivity readers have emerged in a climate – fueled in part by social media – in which writers are under increased scrutiny for their portrayals of people from marginalized groups, especially when the author is not a part of that group.”

And:

“It feels like I’m supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery,” Clayton [a sensitivity reader] said. “Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don’t understand it?”

Also known as “cultural appropriation.”

As an aside, for me personally, I don’t care who writes about my culture, as long as they do so accurately. Not every person in a particular culture wants to write about their culture, so why limit themselves, and in the end possibly dooming their culture’s future to oblivion because no one dared, or was allowed to, write about it?

As another aside, the article included this:

“Despite the efforts of groups like We Need Diverse Books, ‘it’s more likely that a publishing house will publish a book about an African-American girl by a white woman versus one written by a black woman like me,’ Clayton says.”

I’m calling bullshit on that. During my own search of agents, I had to cross out quite a few because they are actively seeking so-called marginalized writers such as Ms. Clayton. For which I am not a member.

Most agents care only about the story and the quality of writing. They don’t give a rat’s ass about the writer’s race, gender, etc.

Even those seeking minorities still need a salable story, so although a person’s minority status may get them to the front of the line, he/she still has to deliver. Seems to me, Ms. Clayton is holding herself back, and using her race and gender as an excuse not to try, let alone succeed. Too harsh? Offensive even? Good.

Now back to the original subject.

All of this is political correctness not only run amok, but an attempt to control thought. When you control how language is used – eliminating certain words, or changing the definition of words in order to change peoples’ perception – you can control how a person thinks. When you control how someone thinks, that person loses their freedom to think otherwise. They can no longer think critically, because, in a sense, their words are chosen for them. The number of words – and ideas – they can use are curtailed if not outright eliminated.

If I offend you, or if you offend me, all the better. To quote (where it originated I don’t know): “The solution to offensive free speech is more free speech, not less.”

Writers especially need to protect all words and language – our tools of trade. We can’t allow any type of censorship, because once it grabs hold, we may lose everything.

Truth is most often found in offensive speech, because it forces us to think and respond. Human beings are experts at lying to ourselves, and lying to each other. By attempting to control words and speech, the truth gets lost and liars rule at the expense of everyone else.

Don’t Follow Me

I started watching a Netflix series called “Black Mirrors.” It’s a “sci-fi anthology series [that] explores a twisted high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.”

The first episode is about a young woman whose social media rating is at a 4.2, but before she can really get what she wants, she needs to raise it to a 4.5. I won’t give much of the details, but let’s just say it all backfires on her.

It serves, I think, as a warning to us all. How often to we post something and eagerly await every single like and comment. Even here, we are given ratings on our writing.

In and of itself, it isn’t a bad thing, especially here. Ratings help us to improve our writing. The problem comes when we take those same ratings and apply it to how we perceive ourselves as individuals. How much do we determine our self-worth based on how high (or low) our ratings go?

During the last writers conference I attended, I sat in on an agent panel, and one agent said, “If I am to look at two writers, and one has thousands of followers on Facebook or Twitter versus another writer who has only a few hundred, I will most likely sign the first writer.”

From the agent’s perspective, it’s not a horrible thing. As writers, our success or failures in readership will always boil down to the numbers. It may seem unfair, but that is the very definition of fair. Numbers don’t discriminate. They are what they are; how we feel about them is never part of the equation.

That said, I don’t want to succeed that way, at least considering the numbers first before anything else. I follow people on Twitter and Facebook because I care about what they have to say. I want people to follow me for the same reason. In fact, I have no idea how many friends I have on Facebook. I only know how many I have on Twitter, because it shows me every time I login. If it didn’t show me, I wouldn’t even care to look.

Some authors have followed me on Twitter. As soon as I decide to follow them, I get a standard private message stating, “Thanks for the follow. Please see my books and/or other products I have for sale.” Out of fifteen or twenty of those, guess how many books I’ve purchased? One. And only because the way that author asked it was so funny and unique, I had to check it out (I’m glad I did. The novella he advertised for was actually quite good). I know then that they’re not interested in my posts. They’re out to get a sale, to uptick their own numbers. As a potential reader, I feel more than a little used.

Writing and gaining readership aren’t solely about the numbers for me. They never were, and I hope they never will be. As other – especially Christian – authors have said and stressed, writing should be my ministry. For me, it shouldn’t matter if my words influence and comfort a mere 100 people instead of 100,000. Nor should any number of ratings or likes on social media determine how I view myself, or even in how others may view me (“Psh, she only got seven likes for that post. Must be crap. I ain’t reading that!”)

Now this last part may sound like a sales pitch in disguise, but it isn’t. I don’t want you to follow me — unless you really care about my words. Also know that if I follow you, it’s not to try to sell you something, or increase my numbers and/or ratings. I do so because I want to know what you have to say. It’s as simple as that.

10,000 Ways

One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison when he talked about creating a light bulb:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

With my first rejection letter out of the way, I can now say I know one way that won’t work.

But I am impatient. Always have been.

I buy a lot of books — too many of which I haven’t read — on subjects ranging from basic economics to warfare.

They collect dust, because for some reason I keep thinking that the mere presence of a book on my shelf means I can learn the subject, as if I can absorb it through osmosis. It’s a sad realization that I don’t necessarily want to learn new things; I want to know them without having to work to get there.

Unfortunately for me, to find an agent who’ll hopefully find me a publisher requires not only patience, but a lot of studying and research. I have to study each prospective agent carefully to see if they will not only be a good fit for representing my book, but also a good fit for me personally. I will, after all, be working with said agent — for years if everything goes right.

I must be like Thomas Edison, and continue to write, to pursue, and figure just the right combination for success, even if it means learning 10,000 ways how not to do it.

To quoth Mr. Edison again:

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

God willing, it won’t take me literally 10,000 tries. I’ll settle for 12. Okay maybe 20. 50?

Schmooze and Charm

Am I charming?

It’s a question I never before asked myself. I don’t recall if anyone’s ever accused me of it, either. Perhaps in my teenage years I tried to charm people, because who doesn’t want to be loved and accepted by his/her peers?

Now that I’m older, and I care quite a bit less about what people think of me; charming others is not even the tiniest of my many goals in life. Sure, I want love and respect – who doesn’t? What I’m willing to do to get it is the question. Truth is, not much. I simply don’t have the desire or the energy to schmooze people

ASIDE: Isn’t “schmooze” a great word? It goes great with – and can even replace – charming, because the simple definition of schmooze is “To talk with someone in a friendly way, often in order to get some advantage for yourself” (Per Merriam-Webster).

People are selfish, and I’m no exception. Too often, when someone describes another as “charming,” it’s not always a compliment. The term implies an almost dishonesty, that the charmer is only in it for him/herself – to gain something in return.

Unless the person wants to be charmed, or schmoozed.

Now why would anyone want that – to purposely be “taken advantage of”?

Feeling a bit overwhelmed with writing query letters, I purchased a book called “Rock Your Query,” by Cathy Yardley. It’s a short read at only 61 pages (Nook Book), but that’s its strength. The author’s advice was succinct, and as such took away all the mystery of what a query letter should contain, and what to avoid.

The second chapter focused on the opening paragraph. She suggests that it needs to focus specifically why the writer chose that particular agent. In other words, don’t be afraid to schmooze a bit. Be charming.

The agent in question, after all, wants to be schmoozed. Not to be taken advantage of, per se. The end result is a partnership between writer and agent where they both get paid from the profits of the published book(s).

So now I have to ask if I can be charming. Can I schmooze prospective agents enough to pique their interest?

I don’t know. And perhaps that’s even the wrong question to ask.

If I gained any wisdom from reading “On Writing,” by Stephen King it’s his advice to never lie to readers. They can always tell.

The same holds true with everything I write. All I can do while writing a query letter is to be as honest as I am with my fiction and whatever else I write. Everything else will simply have to take care of itself, because no matter how much I can schmooze (or not) someone, I can’t force them to do what I want. They will either be intrigued enough to ask for more, or they won’t.

I’m reminded of a line in the movie “Trading Places,” where Eddie Murphy’s character said (paraphrased), “What do they want from me, Coleman?”

“Just be yourself, sir. No matter what happens, they can’t take that away from you.”

Charming or not, all I can do is be me, because that’s what I’m best at anyway.

At the Precipice

I hate heights, and I know when it all started.

I think it was either pre-school or kindergarten, and the class went on a field trip. We went to a park, and at one point dug for tiny seashells near the bank of a river. The bank was very steep (and to my childlike brain had to be hundreds of feet high, but was likely no more than ten). While I stood looking down at the river below, another child pushed me. Not hard enough to make me fall, but certainly enough to scare me.

I’ve been afraid of high places ever since. What’s weird is I don’t mind flying and even took a hot air balloon ride once. Good luck getting me up a ladder, though.

With all my novels mostly complete, it’s now time to dive into seeking agents. I already found a few that look promising, so all I need to do now is write my query letter,  and synopsis. I don’t look forward to either, but it’s gots to be done.

The main part is how do you boil down a 100k book down to three pages, seven at the most (depending upon the agent’s guidelines)? Most understand that synopses don’t need to be perfect, as long as they know what happens from beginning to end.

The query letter I find most intimidating, because, like the cliché says, “You have only one chance to make a good impression.”

I want it to be interesting, and even engaging, but professional. Informative, but not boring or dry.

I stand at the precipice where I must dive into the dark below, not knowing if my efforts will succeed or fail.

Part of me wants to start another book so I can avoid finding someone willing to represent my finished novels.

Because dreaming is easy. Making it come true with no guarantee of success is hard, and downright terrifying.

Much like my fear of heights. If I want to fly and not merely imagine what flying is like, I must jump off that cliff.

Old Lady Kayaking

IMG_0893Last Thursday I attended a Bloggers and Writers Workshop at Fort Lincoln State Park sponsored by North Dakota Department of Commerce.

The first part of the day consisted of travel writer and filmmaker Joe Baur who gave the attendees advice such as conquering fear of new places and new people. He shared some of his own fears such as even leaving his hometown to visit larger cities. Other sage advice he gave is since the internet is so visual, if we want to gain more readership, we must add visual elements such as photos and videos.

This in particular grabbed my attention, because I love taking pictures. I’ve also wondered how I could work it into my writing, or even if I should. It takes a bit of extra time to add visual elements to a blog post, but if it means gaining more readers, certainly the extra five to ten minutes adding the photos would be worth it.

He also mentioned that we must set a schedule for our releases (something I’ve slacked on of late). If we’re not consistent in our writing, we very quickly lose our readers.

Jenna Cederberg, Editor of Montana Magazine spoke next. Her focus was on knowing what you’re submitting your writing to. Know the magazine or publisher, because an editor will know right away whether or not you read their publications. She also stressed the importance of relationships. Successful publishing is largely due to good relationships between author and editor. Once you establish good ones, hold on to them.

After we broke for lunch, we had round-table discussions with Joe, Jenna, and Kim Schmidt, the public relations manager of the ND Department of Commerce where we could ask more in-depth questions. Kim gave us all advice on how to use social media to its fullest. Her focus was on the relationship we can build with them. They need North Dakota writers to help promote the wonders of our state that the rest of the nation doesn’t see. The best part is, when we promote them, they’ll link and add our writings to their publications and social media. It’s a win-win. She also said (and I’ve seen it, too) looking at North Dakota nationally, we’re the windy, cold, vast prairie with nothing to offer but agriculture, rising crime and oil.

When we are so, so much more than that.

But that’s another entry – or twelve.

Afterward, we had the choice to either tour the Custer House, Barracks and Indian Village, or go on a bike ride, hiking and kayaking. I chose the latter, because I’ve toured the Custer House before.

They were kind enough to provide the bikes, which, surprisingly enough, I only wobbled a few minutes before my muscles remembered that bike-riding thing. I guess it’s really true you never forget.

We rode down to where the Heart River converges with the Missouri. Waiting for us was a father and son team from Missouri River Kayak Rentals with enough kayaks for the small group. I told Kim I was staying on shore, and that I would take pictures. She said, “You really should go.”

I remembered Joe saying that we need to step out of our comfort zone. I said okay. After all the instructions (and there weren’t many), we donned our life jackets (also provided) and proceeded down to the water’s edge. I managed to step into the kayak without capsizing the small craft, which made me a bit more confident. The father of the team pushed me off and I started to row.

Kayaking never interested me. I wasn’t adverse to it, per se, but it also didn’t look all that fun. Mostly it looked like a lot of work.IMG_20150604_143510856_edited-1

And these old bones aren’t used to work. Sitting at a computer and typing all day doesn’t exactly keep the muscles in prime form. At this point, I was glad my body didn’t rebel riding a bike down to the river’s edge (even though it was mostly flat with a slight downgrade).

As I paddled around in a few circles to see how stable the kayak was, and how sharply I could turn, I realized just how easy it was. After ten minutes in the calm water, and finding a rhythm in paddling, I was surprised how relaxing it was.

With the cloudy skies, little wind and mild temperature (about 70 degrees Fahrenheit), we couldn’t have asked for a better day for kayaking. I even managed to keep up with everyone who had obviously kayaked more than me (which wasn’t saying much since this was my first time).

After about an hour paddling up and down the Heart River, I understood the allure of it. How can something that took physical effort (although well within reason) could be so relaxing? Kayaking manages, and is something I hope to do again. Having traipsed many times on the river in a speed boat, fishing boat and pontoon, floating on a kayak makes a person feel closer and almost a part of the river itself. I highly recommend it.

Even (or especially) if you’re an old lady like me.

Creating a (Positive) Online Presence

Along with researching agents and publishers, I’ve been thinking a lot about creating a better online presence.

The problem is, how without sounding like some annoying salesman?

From what I’ve read, the commonest advice is to offer something potential readers want and will make them keep coming back.

Okay. What do I have to offer?

It has to be free to start. It could be humor (that one’s easy. My son and husband are always coming up with something). Information and advice is another. There it gets wrinkly. Everything I know and learned has come from someone else. The trick will be to put my own unique spin on it and make it entertaining as well as informative. Otherwise all I’ll be doing is adding external links to every blog entry.

I should care about my readers, and respond in a timely manner to any comments or questions they might have. One way to do that is see myself not as a writer, but as a reader. What do I look for in writer websites/blogs? What encourages me to keep coming back? How can I emulate them, again without being repetitive or plagiaristic?

Yes, I want to sell my writing, but that should the end result of an online presence, not the foremost.

After all, if a reader enjoys my blog, my website, Facebook page and Twitter tweets, then they’ll naturally want to read my books.

The mindset has to be thus: It’s not about me or my books, per se, but about pleasing my readers.

One thing that sucks about writing and desiring to publish is that my writing succeeds or fails based solely on the opinion of others. That said it’s something I chose (sort of) and knew going in, so I really shouldn’t complain.

So far I have several ideas:

  1. Book reviews. I’ve wanted to do more of these, and I could certainly use the practice. That I read a lot makes this fairly easy. It’ll also help garner more readers, because if they’re well-written enough, the authors may link the review on their own websites.
  2. Humor pieces. There’s a blog I read (Literary Agent Steve Laube) and every Friday he writes an entry called “Fun Fridays”. He’ll either add a humorous Youtube video, or fun facts. For me, I’ll likely dedicate Mondays, because who couldn’t use a little laughter on Monday?
  3. Continuing my publication journey. I’ve written a few entries in an older blog dedicated to the pitfalls of pursuing publication, and received some very good responses to it (One even went so far as comparing me to Erma Bombeck. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are). Apparently I’m fairly humorous when describing rejections. Good, because I have a feeling there will be a lot more of those.
  4. Faith. Seeking publication is a journey of faith. I’ve learned more about God and seen my faith grow ever since I decided to pursue it. There were a lot of bumps and bruises from falling on my face, but I learned more from those failures than I ever will from my successes. Perhaps others can learn from them as well – without the bruises. And laugh at my obvious ineptitude.
  5. Write more. One entry a month simply won’t cut it (my average of late). People’s time is short and precious, and if I’m not consistent – no matter how good the entries are – they will lose interest.

Now it’s your turn. What would you like to see me write or add to my website? As an incentive, I’ll send you some free stuff.  I’m thinking some pens and bookmarks, or a free critique of the first five pages of a novel, short story or article. Your choice.

What? It’s Not Perfect?

I read a while back that to help gain interest of publishers and agents, a writer should have endorsements from other authors. Taking that advice, I asked Amy Deardon if she’d be willing to write me one for “Traitors,” but only if she felt it was good enough. I also asked if she found any boo-boos to let me know.

She kindly agreed.

A few days ago she mentioned there was a consistent mistake I’m making that’s reducing the tension in my story, and she would explain what it was if I wanted her to.

She emailed me back today and said that although she is enjoying the book, she’s found a consistent mistake that reduces the tension, but that it was a big enough problem it would take some work to fix it. My response was to email her back and nearly beg her to tell me. it’s not mere curiosity, but a fidget-in-my-chair eagerness to know what that is.

It’s funny how I no longer tense in horror at the possibility of criticism, or even take the blows with quiet grace. Instead I’m banging at the proverbial door for it.

Does that make me a glutton for punishment, a slight case of masochism?

Or perhaps I want to see my novel as perfect as can be before it’s released into the public.

Soon (I hope) I will have yet another editing project to add to my list.

In the meantime (so I’m not checking my email every three minutes for the author’s advice), I’m going to continue on with my Nanonovel.

From the Just ‘Cuz Files:

I’ve decided to reduce my inventory of “A Reason to Hope” by offering it at a 55% discount. See my Products page for more info.

Branding is a Very Bad Thing

Just ask a cow.

Yet that’s what writers are required to do if they want to sell their books. Develop a brand, something that sets them apart from every other writer out there. Something (or things) that will attract potential readers and keep them coming back for more.

It’s a horrible thing to ask (demand) of a person who — in general — is anti-social by nature. It’s not enough to merely write, find a publisher, and write some more. Now we have to create a Brand before we even hook an interested publisher.

I recently watched a show entitled “Genius Minds” on the Science Channel about an autistic lady named Temple Grandin. Since a little girl, she always had an affinity for animals. She understood them, because, like her, they have no grasp of abstract concepts. She empathized with the cows especially when they were herded into the chutes to be branded. They bounced around in terror, potentially injuring themselves and others, until the headgate closed on them. They immediately calmed down. When she was in college , she created something similar for herself, which she used when feeling overwhelmed or out of sorts. She called it the “hug machine.” It was so successful for her, that it’s now used for other autistics to help keep them calm.

What does that have to do with branding? Other than the fact they’re used to brand cows?

Because I’m not a cow. I’m not like Temple Grandin where I would find something like that comforting. I see it as constraining. I don’t want to be branded, to be known as one thing and one thing only.  I’ve seen other authors who’ve gone from one brand (or genre) to another and it either failed dismally or it took years for it to catch, because the author had to find a whole new set of readers.

Admittedly, the fight against branding is an excuse. I keep asking, “What do I have to offer that will keep them interested enough that they will buy my product without feeling pressured to buy it?”

Everything I’ve learned I’ve learned from others. I know a lot , but I’m not an expert at much — unless you want to know how to survey land. Even then, there are thousands more who know more than I do. There’s nothing unique I have to offer except my stories.  Unfortunately, that’s not enough anymore. I have to sell myself.

*shudder*

But it is what it is. As much as I might hate it, it has to be done. My reticence, fear and lack of confidence has more to do with not knowing how to even start marketing. At Barnes and Noble the other day, I spotted “Guerrilla Marketing for Writers.”  I’m only 20 pages into it, and I’m still feeling overwhelmed. I will continue to slog ahead, however, because the desire to publish is greater than my fear of putting myself out there. I will simply have to fight my anti-social tendencies.

Hopefully getting branded won’t hurt too much. Once I figure out what it will look like, that is.

The Interview

First of, to listen to the show I did on Saturday, go to www.ashfordradio.com. From there click on the first microphone that says “Radio Studio A”. From there scroll down until you see my name. Click on that and the show will start playing.

Overall, I think it went well. I didn’t stutter too much. At least I don’t think I did. Just over halfway through, they accidentally cut me off and had to call me back. It was a good experience, and I wasn’t as nervous as I anticipated. Many a prayer was whispered as I waited for the show to start, let me tell ya.

Turns out I needn’t have worried about whether or not I would be more open about my faith during the interview. The subject never came up as the interviewer focused on my job and what Land Surveying entails. My biggest concern was that I described what land surveying is without talking over people’s heads. As with any technical occupation, there is a tendency to techno-speak. I tried to stay away from it, but I’m not willing to listen to the interview and find out. I never did like the sound of my voice (although I’ve never heard anyone else complain about it). I prefer blissful ignorance and believe I did okay. Why listen to the show and discover I sucked? Yeah, when it comes to this, I prefer delusion.

Since I received such good feedback so far, I’m doing another four half-hour interviews over the next four Saturdays staring at 9am Central time. These will focus more on my writing and photography. A perfect venue to talk about my faith since it’s such an integral part of my writing. As with the first one, it will be archived. I’ll provide a link should you miss it.

But it’s hot, I have a cold (when I just got over one two weeks ago), and I’m tired.

I think my next entry (should I have more mental energy) will be about the definition of faith, and why it can be such a struggle at times.

Later!