May 2011

Writers of writing self-help books, please stop giving out the advice to eavesdrop on those around us when we’re out in public in order to form a good model for writing dialogue.  Eavesdropping doesn’t work.

I have tried eavesdropping multiple times when I’ve been out at restaurants or in stores.  Not only is there almost always music playing, and very loud music at that, but the rumble of ambient noise fills in all the quiet spaces between the words my target subjects are saying.  In restaurants, add the ting, crash and clink of glassware, dishes, and tableware.  The only place I’ve found that I can reliably eavesdrop on people is listening to the characters in television programs and movies, and that’s already dialogue.

In future, admit that eavesdropping is impossible.  It will save those of us trying to develop dialogue a lot of trouble, and we won’t think the rest of your advice is as valid as the recommendation to eavesdrop.

It would make me happy if I could submit manuscripts to publishers again. I don’t need instant success, I  just want to be in the game and fulfill the dream I had at 15 while singing along to my favorite Beatles song, “Paperback Writer.”  I’d be a part of publishing.  All I need to do is get those stories on (virtual) paper, and submit them.  Rejections are part of the process, so even receiving rejection slips would show I was officially working at writing.  Before I do this, though, the computer daemon also demands submission, but submission of a different kind:  apparently as a rite of passage, the word processing program wants me to suffer before it gives up the secret for applying headers on the pages I create.

In order for a writer to successfully storm the transom and convince the publishers’ slush pile readers that a manuscript deserves a second look, any piece she sends them must conform to the standard format. Not using standard format will get your manuscript sent back to you far faster than it took you to write it. Part of the standard format is using headers on each page. Among other things, this allows publishing company minions to reassemble a story if the printed manuscript falls to the floor and the pages scatter.

When I was composing on a typewriter, putting in headers was easy, you typed them at the top of the page before carriage-returning your way down the paper.  Since processing words is now computerized, putting in a header isn’t managed through the simple task of typing.  Yes, in our complex word processing programs the “find and replace” function is marvelous.  Yes, spell- and grammar-check are amazing.  Voice recognition programs save, save, save my wrists.

Up until now I’ve been a successful word processing autodidact, but the basic header is about to do me in:  I can’t get it to work.  Multiple menus are involved; many boxes need clicking; and what you click affects the next action you humbly ask the program to perform.  Also, some buttons are located on ribbons, which has me baffled because the last ribbon I used was in a typewriter.  However, since I’ve made it this far — we didn’t have blogging classes in the 1960s — I’m sure I’ll catch on.

To get myself in gear, and because Word doesn’t come with the much wished for Abracadabra shortcut, I asked friends in one forum for a how-to on headers and received two separate instructions.  The first instruction mentioned the ribbon, and after later watching an online tutorial, I think the ribbon instruction is for Office 2010.  I have Word 2003 (hey, I’m not still using GeoPublish).

The second set of instructions almost worked, except they didn’t because clicking buttons that are supposed to separate the first page from all the others so that page 1 is its own section isn’t sticking. I click for the header to be activated “from this page forward” and with “first page different,” only to scroll back and find the header imprinted at the top of page 1, as still and obdurate as a rock.  The shouting had no effect and the curses aren’t working.

Using the hints my friends supplied, I played around — unfortunately, rather than sorting out my characters’ timings, manipulating the subtleties of scene decoration, or crafting a really brilliant twist — and I did manage to keep the header off the first page with the numbers starting on page 2.  I was so happy.  Then I scrolled down to page 3:  nothing.  Oh, my text was there but pages 3 and 4 of this trial document had no header. The only page displaying a header was page 2, the “from this page forward” page. I did have pages from that page forward, I just didn’t have any headers. The curses still aren’t working as I haven’t yet seen any reports about the programmers of Word 2003 spontaneously combusting.

Part of me figures it doesn’t matter whether I ever learn how to make Word’s headers. At the rate I’m flattening this learning curve, I won’t have to worry about making an incorrect submission because I’ll never again have time to write: I’ll spend the rest of my life figuring out headers. Problem solved.  No writing = no need to submit.

It’s at this point that self-publishing doesn’t sound so bad. I self-indulgently blog, I can self-indulgently publish.  Who cares if I have validation from the minions of a conglomerate whose main interest is the bottom line? Minions begone! If I don’t have to fight with a mute computer program that formats as it pleases, frustrating my desire to please minions, I’m happy.  I just hope that the self-publishing format doesn’t require headers.


Update:  Repeating the header insertion on page 3 after inserting it into page 2 kept the page 2 header and also inserted headers on pages 3 and beyond.  Odd, but if that’s what it takes …

The more I read about story theory, the less competent I feel I become.  Decades ago, I was confident I could tell a story; today, I’m not so sure.  Still, the trying of it keeps me off the streets and out of most trouble, so I don’t think I’ll chase off after Chicken #42,567,890.

I’m in the middle of creating new characters for an older story line because the characters I created years ago did not fit parts of the  story theory I’m now learning, and I still want to write about the main character.  The difficulties I had putting stories together for this group may have been because the characters were not as well-constructed as I’d hoped.  Luckily for me, not all of the characters were fatally flawed so I’m not in need of an entire cast.  The setting also stayed the same, so I don’t have to reinvent it as well.

To add to my slowness today in getting down to work making these new characters, I saw a reference to “character flowcharts” in an interview of Meg Waite Clayton, an online SheWrites colleague.  Using flowcharts seems like a natural addition to my notebook-upon-notebook style of composition, but I think flowcharts are more formal than the bubble maps I already use.  I’m not flowchart-trained so the research-junkie part of me went looking for more information.  My first search didn’t produce any links to a useful flowchart/storyline explanation, although I’m not done looking, but I did find a chart of stereotyped female characters.  Humor distracts me every time, and this example at least has one useful path to follow for any of the important women in the stories, and many more to avoid:

Female character flowchart from

Can she carry her own story?  Yes  –> Is she three dimensional?   Yes –> Does she represent an idea?   No –>  Does she have any flaws?   Yes –> Is she killed before the third act?   No –>  Congratulations!  Strong female character

The up-side of of my chicken-chasing today is that the distractions gave me this blog post.  I can check that job off this week’s to do list for writing and get back to inventing people, their world, and the stories about the trouble they get into.

I’m putting this here so I don’t lose it.

The members at submit their own work for critique, and read the work of other writers and provide critiques.

Umberto Eco’s rules for writing resemble a similar list by William Safire.  Some advice is universal.