A post on why I’m not posting that often

It’s October. And that, as everyone paying attention to their nearest supermarket’s seasonal items aisle since August knows, means Halloween is nigh. And in order to capitalise on this, I – as a writer of horror stories – should obviously be dedicating time and effort into some sort of month long programme of themed blog posts, book giveaways and a general glut of content across my social media presence.

At least I assume this is the case, based on how everyone else seems to be responding to this time of year. But I’m not, and there’s a reason for it. And it’s also the same reason I don’t post on here as often as I could. Allow me to elaborate.

I would love to post more on here. I really would. I want to spend time threading my way through Twitter holding multiple conversations across the world. I want to curate material on my Facebook Page that both interests, amuses and terrifies. I want to keep a regular schedule of interesting posts here on my blog for you all to read. But I also want to work on my actual writing, and I have almost all of my day taken up with either my day job or “grown up stuff” (meaning feeding myself, paying bills, preventing my house becoming a tip, etc.). There is a finite amount of time in the day and until we get those pills that allow us to go without sleep I simply have to make the most of the time I actually have.

There do appear to be people who manage to post all the time, but if I look closer, what do I see? Well in 95% of cases all I see are hundreds of people all yelling the same thing into the vast echo-chamber that is the internet.

I don’t want to be one of those people.

There are so many folk out there in the world trying to get noticed and establish themselves as the latest independent writing sensation. All of them have read the same tips and advise on how to do this as I have. They’ve been told they need a social media presence, to post regularly to build an audience, to generate hits, to connect with people. But the problem is that the more people that there are doing this the less effective these actions become. It’s overwhelming.

I fully admit that having a regular and/or frequent posting schedule would be a good thing. However, what’s more important is to post things of quality. Over the last couple of years I’ve starting following so many people online only to stop a few days later as they clog up my feed with so many repetitive posts and comments that it’s impossible to find anything interesting, let alone engage with any of it. I’m not trying to sound like snob or imply that I’m better than anyone who manages to post more often than me. I’m just saying that I think less quality is better than more mediocrity.

Essentially, in my eyes at least, posting hundreds of things online for the sake of posting something is about as useful as publishing a single short story on Amazon every couple of days so that you have a large back catalogue. You might create a huge online presence, but none of it is going to be any good for you. If I have nothing interesting to say, why should I say it?

I don’t want to be one more wannabe desperately shouting into the void for a sliver of the world’s attention. I don’t want people Following me just to repost what I’ve reposted from someone else’s repost. I don’t want to participate in Like for Like schemes. I don’t want to throw out hastily written 100 word blog posts every day that say absolutely nothing. I don’t want to comment on another person’s blog in the desperate hope saying “I like this post” will somehow equate to greater book sales.

I want to post when I have an interesting idea I want to develop. I want to post when I have news that I want to share with you all. I want to post when I’ve discovered something I honestly feel needs to be seen by more people. I want to feel that the people who Follow me do so because they share my interests and enjoy my work.

This is why I don’t post as often as I would like. If I didn’t have a day-job I would definitely put more up here because I would have more time to think up ideas and then develop them into something worth reading. As it is, I hope you don’t mind the sporadic schedule I am able to maintain, and that the work I actually post is worth reading.

Obviously this post is obviously inspired by the vast number of book-giveaways and blog posts and half-finished short stories I’m currently seeing strewn across internet forums, but I’m not saying the practice is necessarily bad. Just do it right. Plan ahead and think about what you want to do, and then do it well. It all harks back to that central point of the aspiring writing: it’s got to look professional.

But speaking of people doing the Halloween build up right, my friend Christopher Brosnahan has been undertaking something called #octoberphobia. Throughout October he has been posting short pieces of flash fiction, each themes around a separate phobia. Go ahead and have a read if you’re looking for some effective little horror stories this October. Then if you like them, maybe buy one of his books. They’re really quite good.

Every writer’s best friend

Story ideas tend to come to me in one of two distinct ways. The first, and my obvious favourite, is when they just drop into my mind almost whole. I’ll be pondering a vague idea and suddenly an almost completely plotted short story just lands in my head. In these cases, if I can get two or three hours to type, I can get a first draft done in one sitting.

But the second, more frustrating way is when I only get a vague concept and have to spend time brainstorming and hammering the idea into shape over several drafts.

To this end I always try to carry my notebook with me. It’s nothing special. Just a simple A5 moleskine writers notebook. I’ve had my current one for almost six years now. It’s getting a little tatty, and it’s filled with ideas, brainstorms, early drafts, plans, and to-do lists from a whole host of projects; from stories, set designs for shows I’ve done, and even as far back as my wedding speech.

My notebook. Not quite the source of all my power, but definitely a tool no writer should be without

My notebook. Not quite the source of all my power, but definitely a tool no writer should be without

I have discovered that my thought processes works far better if I am able to write as I go. My brain finds it much, much easier to hold an string of ideas together if some of them have been put on paper as I go. I don’t have the greatest memory and if I’m following a train of thought I need to be able to remember each stop it makes along the way, no matter how rambling and disjointed the journey may have been. Having my thoughts there on the paper lets me see the entire process and, ironically, lets me keep the whole picture in my head far better than if I had actually kept them in my head.

And I find it much easier by hand. While I can use a computer or tablet I just don’t get the same clear flow of ideas. I think this is because I didn’t grow up typing in the same why I did writing. While nowadays I type far more often than I write by hand, I think it still takes up too much of my brain’s processing power. Pen on paper also gives me a freedom a computer doesn’t. I am able to write in any size, shape or position as and when I feel like. I can squeeze notes in between other lines of writing. While there are several note taking programmes on my Kindle that are remarkably good, none of them will ever come close to the pure, freeform freedom of pen on paper.

It’s not that I can’t work without it. It’s just that my brainstorming is noticeably slower without it. And yes, while I could do that on any old piece of paper, I like the concept of having everything in one place. I know if I have my notebook I have any notes I’ve made. It’s just simpler and easier.

It’s a weird thing to think about, how you use a notebook, but I suppose that it’s good to think about your methods and processes every so often, so you can work and improve of them. So, in summary: everyone needs a good, familiar notebook.

How to use grammar

And so we come to the third of my posts on the issues I have with writing. The first two were more focused on areas of ability; the problems I have with spelling and proof-reading. This post is slightly different, as it is more to do with my attitude towards the subject. Or, more often, the attitude of others towards the subject.

I want to talk about grammar.

Grammar can be an interesting subject. What is it? It is the framework that governs the structure of a language, and a set of tools that allows us to ensure that what we say or write is interpreted the way we intended. It is the framework of unambiguity.

Now, first off, I want to state that I do agree that grammar is important. Despite what many people who know me might believe, I do endeavour to use correct grammar.* It’s just that I believe that there is something about it that is misunderstood by many people.

The English language is a magnificent mess. A mongrel of a language where words and sentences can be open to a vast array of interpretations. A famous example being the following two sentences:

A woman, without her man, is nothing

and

A woman: without her, man is nothing

Exactly the same words, in exactly the same order. Yet they have totally different meanings. I could go into all the many ways in which grammar can be correctly used, but I don’t want to. Instead, I want to complain about a certain misconception that far too many people hold to.

Yes, grammar is a vitally important part of language, and, by extension, writing. However, it should never be considered definitive.**

Too many people believe grammar has rules. It does not. “Rules” implies that there is a ‘correct’ and an ‘incorrect’ way of using our language, and that people who deviate from these “rules” are wrong. This idea is rubbish. Grammar is not a set of rules, but of guidelines.

Languages change over time. We do not speak the same way people did a century ago. Or a century before that. And so if language changes, then surely grammar must change as well. And what about accents and regional dialects. I might say “I am going to work,” while someone else may say “I’m going down t’mill,”*** but you know exactly what we both mean. Is one correct, and the other not? Vernaculars, dialects, cultures, idioms, all make a mockery of the notion that any one set of grammatical ‘rules’ is definitive.

We have, over time, created certain linguistic conventions to ensure we all know what we mean when we speak or write. These are good things, but they exist to clarify understanding, not to judge those who haven’t memorised them. If somebody uses “who” and “whom” interchangeably, it doesn’t matter. You can debate which one is technically correct, but the fact of the matter is that as long as we know exactly what the speaker means, they both are. If that person was swapping between “who” and “kumquat”, then they would have an issue. That extra ‘m’ adds no ambiguity. ****

But while grammar has no ‘rules’, it does offer us ‘tools’. These tools are called punctuation. As can be seen in the example I gave above, the correct use of punctuation is how we define clarity of meaning. They allow us to indicate the intended meaning in a set of words that might have more than one possible interpretation. And yes, there are rules for the correct use of punctuation. I’ll give you that. But those rules are to be used in the pursuit of clarity, not for their own sake.

For me, the most important thing in constructing a sentence is how it sounds; the flow and rhythm of the words that makes reading pleasurable. I use the tools of grammar to ensure that the reader can understand exactly what I am saying, but I am not going to be shackled in how I choose and arrange my words. To me, grammar simply is part of writing. To others, it is some holy law of language, and breaking it tantamount to sacrilege.

I found a wonderful quote on this subject; “Grammar is often a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to.” These people are known as Grammar Nazis. These people believe there is only one way of doing something, and that is their way. They rule over us all on a magical grammar-cloud, informing us lowly word-peasants when we have spilt an infinitive or mis-conjagated with our errant words. More often than not, they bear the name like a badge of honour.

Tell me, when is the qualifier “Nazi” a good thing?

Yes, people have set down “rules” for grammar, but many of them were redundant to start with. Splitting the infinitive, for example, is a rule carried over from Latin that does not fit with a Germanic language such as English. And yet some people still argue its importance. These people are missing the point of language. *****

I’m going to be honest: my opinion on people’s attitudes to grammar has been coloured by people criticising my own. As I’ve stated before on this blog, from the age of eleven onwards I was never taught the rules of the English language as a separate topic. I learned grammar through literature. I read books, and saw how authors throughout history assembled and used the English Language.

And do you know what? I think that this is the better way to learn. Rather than sitting in a classroom and memorising cold hard rules, I was immersed in great literature. I read how the language worked, rather than being told how it didn’t.

They say the most important thing for any budding writer to do is read as many varied books as possible. This is why. Different authors will have different styles and feels to their work. Also, as I said before, language has changed over the years, and so reading books from different periods shows us how grammar and language are fluid.

I’m not saying that grammar is not important. It is. But it has to be understood that it is a framework, and what that framework is for.

My work is far from perfect. I’m not trying to argue that I am somehow above all the petty concerns of others. If someone reads my work and tells me that a paragraph isn’t as clear as it could be, that there is some ambiguity, that means that the grammar is wrong. This, I will fix. However, if someone tells me that I’ve broken some obscure tenet of the English language, set down by some dusty scholar two hundred years ago, I will ignore them. If I like the way it sounds, and it is clear enough to understand exactly what I mean, then I consider it acceptable.

So, to summarise, I do not consider grammar to be concrete. To put it simply; grammar equals unambiguity. If the reader/listener knows exactly what the writer/speaker means, then the grammar is correct. There are no rules to ensure this happens, but there are tools. Tools we must learn how to use.

*

And so there we are. Three blog posts discussing the three parts of writing that cause me the most issues: My problems with spelling, my issues with proof-reading my own work, and my disagreements about grammar. I hope they give some insight into how I work, or at least offer some excuse for the myriad errors I am sure you all find in my writing.

*

*Several years ago I was given a book entitled My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘Me’?): Old-school ways to sharpen your english. I’m honestly not sure whether it was intended as a joke gift or not, but either way it is invaluable to me. Mostly, to be honest, as a resource for the use of punctuation.

** Do you see what I mean about the inconsistencies of language? Even the guidelines set to guard against change, change over time. Isn’t the English language a wonderful thing?

*** Please don’t leave any comments pointing out that no one has ever actually used this cliched phrase. It’s just an example.

**** Incidentally, if you want to know the “official” way to learn when to use “Who” and “Whom”, The Oatmeal did a great comic on it. But even then he ends with the fact that the only real difference is that “Whom” sounds classier, whether it is correctly used or not.

***** Most of the blame for this attitude can be laid on one Robert Lowth, and his 1762 book; A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Research him if you like. Essentially, he was the first grammar-nazi, centuries before there were actual nazis. That’s quite impressive.

Proof reading

This post is sort of a follow up to my last. As I wrote last week’s post I found I had branched off on a couple of tangents, and so decided to cut them use them later. This was one of them, and the other will come next week.

I wrote before about how poor spelling can cause me issues as a writer. This week, I’m going to talk about proof reading my own work. In that I’m not very good at it. I’m not talking about editing. I can decide which sections need to be trimmed, expanded or otherwise tweaked. I mean actually proof reading and copy-editing the final product. My problem is that when reading my own work, I can sometimes simply not see spelling or grammatical errors, even when they are right in front of me.

I will always check my work, double checking every word, reading it aloud slowly, taking extra care to ensure I miss nothing. Then, having determined that I’ve caught and fixed all the errors, I will pass it on to someone else. Then, they will inevitably spot a dozen mistakes and typing errors that are blatantly obvious, and I look like an idiot.

It’s not spelling errors that cause issues here, as such. The miraculous tool that is Spell-Checker will highlight those for me. No, what gets me at this point is incorrectly used words. Words which are spelt correctly, but still wrong. Such as accidentally typing “spot” instead of “stop, or “weary” instead of “wary”. Or words that are redundant.

You want an example? Recently, a reviewer on YouWriteOn.com pointed out that in an excerpt I had posted of The Serpent’s Eye, there were two or three instances where I had left in unnecessary uses of the word “that”. I checked, and saw that they were quite correct; in the places they had mentioned, the word was utterly superfluous. Having fixed them, I decided to go through the entire manuscript, just in case I had done this anywhere else.

In the end I removed exactly 200 redundant “that”s.

Once it was pointed out to me I could see it easily, and using the Find function allowed a surgical search and removal. These redundant words were hangovers from the original vomit-draft, where I don’t worry about grammar and spelling and just get the story on the page. And over the course of the four following drafts, I just hadn’t seen them. Each time I re-read, my brain kept skipping over those extraneous “that”s.

It is deeply, deeply frustrating. I believe that the root of this is connected to the problem I have with spelling; when I am reading my own words my brain knows what is meant to be there and so often skips over the mistakes. But knowing this does not help the fact that it is still highly embarrassing to show your work to people and have them highlight myriad basic errors and mistakes. I know, as much as I don’t like it, that those of you who have read my blog posts and short stories on here must have spotted a bunch these errors. Just please believe me that these aren’t out of laziness. I’m trying, I’m just a bit rubbish.

I want to consider myself self-sufficient. That, if I needed to, I could write and polish my own work without needing any help from others. But I know I can’t.

This is yet another reason that alpha- and beta-readers are so important to the writing process. Sometimes you can be far too close to your writing, and you need honest, outside opinions of what works and what doesn’t work. And, in my case, to do my copy editing for me because my brain tries to be too clever.

Damn you brain!

And, as with my spelling, the only way I will improve is with practice. The more I read and critique, the better I will get. This is why sites such as YouWriteOn.com, which I mentioned before, are invaluable. Not only does this site allow you to get feedback on your work, it only gives you that feedback if you read and critique other people’s work first. This has given me the chance to see the kinds of mistakes others make, helping me to learn to spot them in my own work. I am better at proof reading other people’s work more than my own, so hopefully I will be able to develop this skill for myself.

At least, I hope that’s the case.

My name is Tom, and I can’t speel good…

All of us have issues in our lives that we have to overcome. Those annoying traits or tragic events that throw up obstacles along the pathways of life. Some of these, of course, are more serious than others. There are people in this world who, on a daily basis, have to suffer and face true adversity; battling disability, prejudice, misfortune or oppression.

In comparison, my obstacles are not all that impressive.

You see, the problem I am addressing today is that I am a terrible speller. And a terrible grammarer* at that.

There. See? Compared to losing an arm, or living under an oppressive regime that might execute me for my beliefs, or being ginger**, not being able to quickly and reliably recall the correct order of letters in the words of the English language is nothing.

But when it comes to being a writer, having problems with spelling and grammar becomes a fairly notable issue.

When I was ten, I had a spelling age several years below my own. Later on in life I learnt that this problem was most likely caused by learning to read too fast. My mother was an English teacher, and so as children my sisters and I were taught to read at a very young age. And apparently, a consequence of this can be that the brain learns to recognise words, but not necessarily the correct order of the letters within them. My brain skims the word, recognises it, and moves on without bothering the check each and every detail. Then, when it tries to recall the word later, it can’t.

Luckily for me, this was something that could be worked on. I had good teachers, including my mother, and so today I can proudly state that I am merely a bad speller, and not an abysmal one.

My poor grammar, on the other hand, is most likely down to never studying it after the age of eleven. As chance would have it, I had the same English teacher all the way through secondary school, and she focused all our work on literature, rather than language. I was quite happy with this state of affairs, and still am, as I much preferred reading the texts themselves over studying the cold, boring rules of the language. I learned grammar from reading it, not studying it. And while this is a fine way to learn your grammar, if you get to a point where you need to be able to analyse your own work it’s useful to be able to identify what is ‘technically’ correct, rather than what simply sounds right in your head.

I’m not as bothered about grammar, as it is far more fluid than many give it credit for.*** But spelling isn’t. And, as a writer, it is not an ideal state of affairs to be deficient in either. It’s fine to ignore something that some consider a fundamental part of a skillset, but you need to have mastered those fundamentals so you know what you’re doing wrong.

The answer to this problem is, of course, practice. While spell-checker is a lifesaver for someone like me, I refuse to use autocorrect. The only way to improve my spelling is by repetition, and autocorrect is simply preventing me from this all allowing the continuation of incorrect muscle-memory. But I endeavour, and I do what I can to improve my skills. And that’s part of being a writer. The more I do, the better I shall become. I know more about grammar now than I did several years ago, as I have made myself study the ‘rules’. Sometimes they are even useful.

At the end of the day, having perfect spelling and grammar is not vital to being a good writer. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write. But if something is different from the norm, it has to be because of a conscious decision, not because you didn’t realise it was wrong. The finished product must be free of all unintentional errors, but if you recognise you are a poor speller, you can do something about it. You can set up tools and structures to assist you. Recognise the problem, and you can work on it so that you improve.

The bottom line is, don’t let a disability, any disability – no matter how small or seemingly trivial compared to others – get in your way of what you want to do.

 

* It’s a word, dammit! [noun] a person who does grammar

** The writer apologises for any offence taken by ginger people. He recognises they are doing the best they can with their lot.

*** I had a whole rant about grammar-nazis here, but I’ve cut it and saved it for another day.