A Dalhousie story – Don’t write something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read

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Like many newsies and feminists alike,  I have been following the story surrounding the Dentistry school at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Amidst a time of Canadian sex scandals and rape culture awareness these men chose to be sexist, misogynistic and downright rude regarding their female colleagues. From a personal standpoint, I find  their choices to be awful and am glad to see that these men have been suspended. Their wild lack of professionalism should earn them nothing less.

That being said, this post is not about the punishments awarded to these men.

I plan to discuss the fact that this group of people chose to use social media as a place to share these thoughts.

When I was a teenager, I was told, quite emphatically, never to put into writing something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read. I cannot remember who gave me this piece of advice, but I owe them a lot of thanks. As social media has expanded it is much easier for unwanted text comments to gain public scrutiny. As I have both of my grandmothers as Facebook friends, my mother following my Facebook, Twitter as well as all the other social media accounts I manage and many other family members able to access everything I say and do online, I tend to choose my words wisely. I try not to swear too much, substituting “effing” for more crass wording and generally keeping my profile clean of overwhelming smut.

These men ignored this protocol so spectacularly it makes my head spin. What these men did can be loosely classified as “hate speech” as defined by Random House Dictionary (speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability). moreover, now they have left written proof. As we all know, Facebook owns everything we put on their site and almost nothing is ever truly deleted. These awful statements made about their once and future colleagues can and will come back to haunt them.

I have always loved the old tattoo adage, think before you ink. the same principle applies to writing. We have all made off-colour jokes in our time – most of us are smart enough not to put it in writing.

AI

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iPod inspiration #2 – Greed

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“And there’s a crooked line I don’t want to take the time to straighten,
Cause when you do you realize it’s the whole damn world that’s bent.” – Patrick Stump, Greed

Time for iPod inspiration number two!

But first, a confession; I love Fall out Boy. I always have and when I found out they were (had) released a new album (Save Rock and Roll), I was rearing to own it. On the same note, when I found out that Patrick Stump had released a solo album (Soul Punk) I checked it out. Once I got used to the fact that it did NOT sound like Fall out Boy in the least (minus the obvious correlation between the lead singer’s voice) I started really getting into the sound. It’s currently one of my favourite walking albums.

But to the point, why have I chosen this quotation? Well, I work in service when I’m not writing and some of the fodder you get from the presented situations… well, you just can’t make them up. Call me jaded, but the world is a brilliantly twisted place and I like to watch it burn … it’s great for writing. In all seriousness, some of my best short stories have come from my experiences with the public; from snotty customers to the sad man who sat at his slot machine for three days straight, the world is full of things to write about if you open your eyes.

Even if you’re not in the trade of writing fiction, taking these situations and using them as an exercise in descriptive writing can do wonders for any potential paid work that could come your way. It’s easy enough to say “That man hasn’t moved from his chair in a while,” but think of how much more effective it would be to say:

My third shift in as many days and he’s still here; tiny in the over-sized chair, the clothes haven’t changed but the smell has. People will start complaining soon, but he seems oblivious. As long as his right hand can reach out and wrap around that lever, he still has hope – hope that the next pull will be the lucky one – hope that he will prove the deniers wrong – hope that he can be validated again. Lights and buzzers for the man beside him while he is greeted by mocking silence. Again.

I worked in an OLG slots and racetrack for many summers while I was at school and saw some wonderful and horrible things – and I learned a lot about the human condition. I learned how real psychological addiction can be. I learned about lying (“No honey, I’m just leaving the doctor’s office now” – said while walking off the gaming floor). and I learned how to both be compassionate and harden myself against the constant onslaught of humanity that you saw on the gaming floor. I was verbally abused and sexually harassed, but I also met some truly wonderful people. I saw the mundane and the strange…

… but let me tell you, Mr. Stump is right. The world is bent.

So write little vignettes about the oddities. Writing a description never harmed a writer’s style whereas not writing is always a detriment.

AI

How to create something great – one idea

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“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Steve Jobs, 1996

So what do I mean?

Obviously you cannot truly steal someone’s creative work; beyond being unethical it is also highly illegal. People are getting sued for millions of dollars for creative infringement (and as a young freelancer/ writer, you can ill afford that kind of bill). But there are aspects of another person’s writing that you can borrow for your own – the trick is finding the parts that are worth utilizing.

My suggestion: Read. I know it sounds so simple and even a little cliched, but it’s true. To become a great writer, you must read great writers… and I do not use the term must in a light sense. if you don’t explore what makes other writing great, you will never be able to figure out a way to make your copy shine.

What kind of writing should you read? Everything. Any book someone hands you. Every well-written article. Every effective manual.

I know this is a big order to fill, but trust me, your writing will not suffer; it will only get better.

Case and point – when I started freelancing, I was hired by a company to write copy for a variety of different how-to videos to go along with a new cell phone launch. It was not an easy task, especially since my background was in print – not video – and in either scholarly or journalistic writing – not purely instructional. It really felt like a tall order to fill. I was new, inexperienced and in a position that could make or break my freelancing opportunities with this company. In short, I was terrified.

So what did I do?

I went home with the style guide for the company. I watched all of the previous how-to videos for this company. I watched the how-to videos for other companies that had received high ratings on Youtube to figure out what made them effective. I watched a few crappy ones to see where they fell short… and then I wrote. There is no question that these pieces were not high literature, but it was writing. By stealing the best from the best I was able to write effective copy and garner repeat business.

So back to the point – steal style, concepts and rhetorical devices. Read great literature. Read bad literature. Read fiction, non-fiction, magazines, fantasy, science, pre-teen novels… anything you can get your hands on. It will make a difference.

One thing I also suggest is to read writing that you dislike as well. Having completed a degree in English Literature I had multiple opportunities to read authors and books that I truly despised (don’t shoot me, but much of that disliked literature was Charles Dickens). I learned what I didn’t like about that literature (again, my biggest teacher was Dickens… and it’s a long, long list) but also that even these writings that I loathed so much still had many positive aspects. For example, my biggest issue with Dickens was how he brought about change in his books – he usually relied on some form of “miracle,” be that a mysterious benefactor or a ghost (or three); I hated his narrative on the working class and his general hopelessness for that group of people barring some spectacular change of circumstance… BUT I did admire his attention to detail and his truly bizarre sense of humour in the naming of his characters.

There is always something to be learned from writers – good or bad, enjoyed or despised; it’s utilizing the information presented and using it in your own work… without getting sued, of course.

AI

iPod inspiration #1 – Counting Stars

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“Everything that Drowns me makes me want to fly” – OneRepublic, Counting Stars

First and foremost, Happy New Year! I am back from my mini vacation from writing and ready to start my musings again! I have set out some resolutions for this and my other blog (www.ashleyidle.com/feelingoodlookingood) to push me to post more regularly. Through some brainstorming, I came up with the idea of posting a series that can be interspersed through the year. This, obviously, is one of those series.

I like to walk, and when I’m walking, I usually have an mp3 player blasting something in my ears. I enjoy a lot of different music and being a word junkie, I am always listening to the lyrics. A lot of songs have some great one-off thoughts that work brilliantly as a jumping-off point for a blog post, so here I am, analysing random song lyrics in hopes of inspiring anyone willing to take the time to read my musings.

So, here we go!

This song came on my iPod while I was having doubts/ stresses about my writing career (or lack thereof). I was thinking of the setbacks I have had over the past year and dwelling on the negative. I was pushing myself down deep into anger and frustration, but I guess I must have found something that I could push off of, figuratively speaking, and I managed to resurface from my negativity.

Has the past year gone as planned?

No.

Have I gained new clients?

Yes.

Is this a sustainable way for me to make a living yet?

No.

Could it be?

Yes.

Is it frustrating?

Maddeningly.

Do I love what I’m doing (writing)?

Absolutely.

Not all of these answers are positive, but they give me a goal to strive for and a reason to make an action plan. For example – I mention that this is not yet lucrative enough for me to quit my “day job,” Well, that means the goal is more paying clients. I can advertise, make cold calls, get in touch with old contacts… all things that are easy enough to accomplish.

Seeing hope in the future makes me want to pull myself up by my bootstraps and start reaching farther. It may not be flying yet, but it’s definitely not drowning, either.

I have seen some serious disappointment in the past couple years of my life, but through those disappointments I have pulled myself up and bettered my situation. For example, I came out of school a big fish in a small pond and was greeted with a very harsh reality that I was not just going to walk into a media career. That realization made me decide to start freelancing, and thanks to dedication and the support of my friends and family I have a devoted (though small) client base that is continually recommending my services to other contractors. It has not been easy, but it’s been worthwhile.

So don’t let things get you down. If you’ve chosen to freelance (or write commercially/ publicly in any way) you are bound to meet with rejection, hardship and frustration. Don’t dwell on the negative; use it to reach for the stars.

AI

Counting Stars – OneRepublic

My Friday the 13th Christmas story

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So about a week back I posted a question on my Facebook and Twitter about possibly writing a Friday the 13th story in honour of the unlucky day. A friend of mine, Ivana, suggested:

a spooky/creepy and Christmassy since this year it falls in December. 🙂 Your take on the Grinch or something about Santa’s evil elves?

Well, I thought it was a brilliant idea! I started a quick story about some Christmas gnomes that was going to be creepy, but as usual with me, something dealing with Christmas and gifts ended up morphing quickly into something cute… so here it is, the first manifestation of my “creepy” Christmas story. This is a first draft, and I would love (LOVE) constructive suggestions!

The Christmas Gnomes

Everyone knows Santa Claus

And all his little elves,

But who knows of the Christmas gnomes

Who hide up on the shelves?

 

These little munchkins do not like

How Santa steals the scene;

It makes them feel like they’re not loved…

It really makes them mean.

 

Many, many years ago

The gnomes were well known chaps

Running ‘round in furry boots

And funny winter caps.

 

They were the kings of Christmas town

Until one fateful day;

When a lonely wanderer

Decided “hey, let’s stay.”

 

This jolly old St. Nicholas

Made the North his home

And turned that pole into a place

Not fit for any gnome.

 

When Santa chose to set up shop  

In the gnome’s old home

He also brought a bunch of elves

Who made this place their own.

 

All the little boys and girls

Decided gnomes weren’t fun;

“Santa gives us toys and presents,

Your time in sun is done!”

 

The gnomes, they all got angry!

They loved those girls and boys!

So as a form of payback,

They decided to mess with their toys!

 

So any time on you have a toy

That breaks on Christmas day,

It’s a reminder that the Christmas gnomes

Are something that’s here to stay.

 

They lie in wait ‘til Santa Claus

Delivers his load of goodies,

Then gnomes come out and play about

To ruin Christmas mornings.

 

So if you’ve ever received a toy

Parts missing or parts broken

Remember it’s the Christmas gnomes

That made this ungrateful token.

 

I am my mother (a writing exercise)

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Sometimes inspiration hits at the oddest times. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple gesture. I had one of these moments earlier today and am finally getting a chance to sit and see it through, writing-wise.

Just because you are not writing for a purpose does not mean that your writing doesn’t have purpose; remember that every word has the potential to help you craft your skill.

I dedicate this one to my mother.

*** THIS IS A FIRST DRAFT! edited VERSION TO COME LATER ***

Every year, around early December, the Tupperware boxes full of lights and tinsel would be pulled out from under the basement stairs and the process of readying our family home for Christmas would begin. This was my mother’s job; no one dared to try and tell her where to put the garlands and holly. Everything had its place and that was where my mother placed it. The only place we were allowed free reign was the Christmas tree.

Ah, the Christmas tree. Sometimes real, sometimes not, always full of potential. The tree would go up after all the furniture was rearranged (a task my brother and I always disappeared during) and when the tree was up, mom would artfully string the lights. The biggest, brightest lights would be wound close to the trunk, illuminating from the inside out. The smaller lights would go closer to the ends of the branches. The coloured ones blinked playfully and the white ones shone like diamonds. Once the lights were on, sections of them would be removed again and re-strung, then removed and re-strung until mom had created the perfect ambiance. She had it down to an art.

Once everything there was up to standard, my brother and I set to work decorating while mom watched from the dining room chairs. She would place a hook on every bauble and hand them to us, suggesting areas that we altogether ignored. To my brother and I, the tree was a place of endless decorating potential – at eye level. anything above or below that foot and a half span was largely forgotten. We had the few ornaments that were hung high because they were particularly delicate and pretty or the ones that went lower because they were heartier and wouldn’t break if they were knocked off by a dog or a curious present snoop, but the “waist” of the tree was our domain.

WE were always proud of our work, but mom, while always proud and supportive, always came up with some “suggestions” as to the better placement of some ornaments. If two were hanging too close, she would tell us. If two were too far apart, we would hear about it. So we would redecorate parts of the tree, and that foot-and-a-half window would become a two-and-a-half foot window and my brother and I would go to bed proud of our decorating prowess.

The true magic happened overnight.

Without fail, every year on the morning after my brother and I decorated the tree, we would come down to admire our handiwork and notice that something had… changed. That one special ornament we had hung in that most perfect of spots was missing. We would scour the tree and find it tucked into an equally perfect spot except for one factor; we didn’t choose it. When queried, my mother would say, almost without fail, “but doesn’t it look better there?” Over the next two days, every single ornament on the tree would move no less than twice until everything was perfect.

As years passed I still helped decorate the tree and mom still rearranged it. As I entered my teens and passed into early adulthood I looked forward to the dance of the imperfect ornaments around the tree, finally settling after trekking from place to place after a year in slumber. It became a source of amusement for both my brother and I watching mom craft the perfect tree.

I now have my own house with my fiancé and this year we have our first full-sized tree. we went out and bought some new ornaments and spent a wonderful evening placing each colourful bulb in its rightful place… but this morning, when I woke up, I looked at the tree, and out of the corner of my eye noticed that there were two little ornaments hanging on the same branch. I walked over and delicately moved the offending extra to a more sparse area of the tree. I stepped back and admired the ornament’s new home, thinking to myself, “now, that’s a much better place for that ornament.”

Then I started to smile.

I truly am my mother’s daughter.

I’m mad…

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Language is a wonderful thing but it also has a very distinct way of being annoyingly vague. To make any headway as a writer, it is extremely important to have a grasp of language; not only what a word means, but the nuance it carries. It is a huge pet peeve of mine when I read something that could be better described just through a slightly different word choice. Below I have listed five of my least favourite “vague” descriptors:

Mad – Are you angry, frustrated, livid, full of rage, insane or just a little miffed?

Pretty – Is it (he/she) stunning, handsome, striking, elegant, beautiful or maybe gorgeous?

Good – Why not try something like excellent, extraordinary, alright… or when talking about character traits, why not kind, saintly, or loving? Big-hearted?

Fun – Is it a person? Are they funny? Hilarious? What makes them fun? A situation can be extreme, intense, enjoyable or maybe even entertaining?

Smart – There are so many different types of “smart.” There’s intelligence, street-smart, book-smart, scholarly, or learned. Smart can also be used as slang for pain. Describe the pain. if it smarted, was it a pinch, a twinge, a bump, an ache, or something else?

These are some of the simplest examples that I could come up with off the top of my head (Thank you to my lovely fiancé for helping me with some synonyms), but the message stays true. Just like with tattoos, think before you ink. When you revise your drafts, ask yourself whether you have used the best descriptor. As someone who has written hundreds of second, third, fourth and even fifth drafts, I can tell you that my first work is never, EVER my best work. Most likely, yours isn’t either. First drafts are for getting ideas onto a page. Revisions are where you turn those words into things of beauty. Plus, with the advent of computers, you have infinite opportunities to arrange and rearrange your words into their ideal form.

One final example:

The pretty woman was mad that someone interrupted what should have been a very fun evening.

OR

The stunning woman was livid that someone interrupted what should have been a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Each sentence includes 16 words. Which describes the situation better? Which one paints a better picture? Which one evokes more emotion?

Words sell. Always remember to write, rewrite, ask for outside opinions and write some more. Putting in the time to find perfect descriptors pays off in great dividends.

AI