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Polish your writing skills while you travel.

Monday, April 5th, 2010

A great way to develop as a writer, or as a traveler who wants to share their experiences is through blogging. This article provides a practical checklist of what to bring as a writer on the go say on an international backpacking trip or moving city to city in Europe or Asia.

First off, I am going to eschew laptops. While traveling in hostels and remote places laptops, are prone to damage and are targets of theft. It also fails the baggie test, can you put it a ziplock bag to protect it from the elements?

So the assumption of this article is that you are going to use a phone to take basic notes and construct first drafts. Then utilize internet cafes and friends to do the heavy lifting of getting on the internet. It assumes that you cannot afford to use mobile data and definitely cannot afford to use roaming from your home network. If you can, you are a successful writer, not a struggling one.

The first thing you want is an unlocked mobile GSM smartphone. GSM is the wireless standard used in most of the world which means you will be able to use it in most places. Unlocked means that the phone can work on any carrier (or wireless phone company). Most phones sold in the US are locked to a specific wireless provider. But you can find with effort unlocked phones, Best buy, eBay and craigslist are good sources for used and new unlocked wireless phones. I am partial to the Treo 650 and Treo 680 when traveling internationally because they have a long battery life, solid keyboards and basic internet access. They also have the excellent Documents To Go by DataViz that allows you to read common document formats on the road. I also like that they support SD cards, which are easy to find and carry on the road.

2. The next thing you need is an USB to SD card adapter. This is critical because it allows you to move photos from most cameras and your smartphone to the internet where it is safer from loss. Make sure your card adapter covers all your card formats. Most popular new smartphones use the micro SD format so you will want to make sure you have the right converters.

3. An international USB charger. This charger plugs into either a 110 US voltage or 220 european voltage and delivers power to a usb plug where you can charge most anthing that has a USB cable for charging including your smartphone or ipod. I have yet to find a camera that is chargeable by USB but if you know of one let me know. Some of these chargers have plugs that can be switched depending on the country.

4. A travel power adapter. These are the doohickeys that allow you to plug your appliances into wall outlets around the world. Get an global one so you only need to bring one.

5. USB cables corresponding to your devices that you travel with. These will allow you to do two things. One charge your tools so they are usable during the trip. Second, the cables enable you to connect your devices to computers at internet cafes and other places. Many smart phones have a mode calles “mass storage mode” that permit you to connect your device to a computer where it appears as a flash disk and you can access your photos and articles.

6) Spare battery. Self explanatory

Now that you have the tools how to use them.

When you land in a new country the first thing you are going to do is get yourself connected. Stop by a convenience store or a wireless store and get yourself a prepaid SIM card. This is a no subscription commitment cell phone plan. You can make calls, send texts and in some cases surf the internet. If you run out you can add in small increments. This is the most popular way to but mobile service in the world. It gives you a way of calling ahead to book a room, send texts back home, just like your phone back home with a huge difference. It will be cheaper than using your phone in roaming mode.

Use your phone for copious note taking. While you are traveling and sight seeing you are likely to see things that are interesting that you are going to want to remember. Pull out your smartphone and using a notes application jot a quick note. Or text it to yourself. As a memory aid you can take a picture as well.

Be relentless in this, if you find a traveler with a guide book, take a quick glance at lodging or restaurants in upcoming destinations, get phone numbers and addresses so when you arrive you’ll be able to get your booking done right away. Take a quick note. Your goal is to travel light, so skip bringing big travel books.

Start getting use to the habit of writing during down times. Your goal is to chronicle while you are fresh with the experience. So on trains, buses, etc., start composing your articles on your smartphone. I am big into physical keyboards since typing is so much easier than touchscreens. This is your first draft. Save a copy you the external memory on the SD card. Remember “Documents to Go” stores in RTF so WordPad can open the file. This is your outline or your first draft.

Use internet cafes to get the article out of the phone and into the cloud. Internet cafes can be expensive or slow, so when you are dealing with your email at a cafe. Take the SD card and plug it into an adapter and plug it into the computer. You can also do this via mass storage mode which I spoke about earlier. Open the file into wordpad, can’t read the computer because everything is in a foreign language, fake it by memorizing where it might be or just double click the icon of the saved doc on your SD card. You can navigate by memory. You touch type already right. It will open in most cases.

Use a web browser and open up blogger or whatever blog service you use. Copy and paste your article and edit it there. Upload any photos and publish. If you have a fast internet connection consider backing up your photos.

If you are on a long trek, I recommend periodically going to a photo store and burning your a cd of your sd card. Mail a copy and burn a copy to keep while you travel.

This small list of items let’s you document your travels in realtime, take notes and be connected. Doubt me the text of this article was written on a train on a blackberry. (or at least everything in blue - or at least it did initially before something messed up in publishing oh well. It’s 80% of the article.)

Dang it, just write.

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Of course do as I say, not as I do. But writing is sport, just like any sport it requires practice. There are rules that you master and clever things that lead to amazing results. But you got to practice. So if you have a blog that you have been neglecting, start writing.

The best exercise is something that lets you turn off your inner censor. Something you love or have a great interest in. Right now is the NCAA Basketball tourney and I’ve written about that elsewhere. I write a green blog and there’s been some tremendously interesting things, so I just write. Even if it’s a blurb. The goal is to get into the rhythm. Focus on rhythm then focus on quality.

So the coach says, shoot for 10 straight days of writing. In your journal, on your blog or on your novel or screenplay. Just write!

Follow the Story

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

James B. Stewart’s Follow the Story is one of those writing books where the central question is “Do you like the work of the author?” If the answer is yes, you are going to really enjoy the journalistic lessons shared by Stewart. If you are less impressed or enamored of the non-fiction as narrative school of writing, then you are probably going to have some objections to what he tells you. Stewart was breaking ground in the form made popular by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm.

The book covers a very specific form of Non-fiction writing and that is the ability to frame the story in the form of a mystery or an anomaly with the end goal of unraveling the mystery. The central theme is that people are curious, so you should use that to your advantage. He is not wrong, but he does open that his story strays from the general class of Non-Fiction to that of feature, as in made for a feature film. If anything, this could be a book on writing a three act play. In fact, some of his chapters focus on leads, transitions and dialog.

You might gather that I am not a big fan of this book, but I actually think it is very good. For a feature writer looking for tricks on salability, this is a fantastic book. It is a very good cookbook for the non-fiction feature targeted for magazine market with the intent of extending to a long form such as a book. The mechanics are clearly explained and he speaks from authority using his own work as examples.

This is worth a read if you are a commercial writer, and the subtitle to the book explains its objective clearly “how to write successful nonfiction” with an emphasis on successful as in commercial. This book is also solid if your work is focused on the real world (crime fiction for instance) or you are looking at dramatic forms. For the emotional or literary writer, its value is less direct.

How To Write

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Richard Rhodes How to Write is a very difficult book to categorize. Ostensibly a how to book by Pulitzer Prize winning author of the seminal work “Making of the the Atomic Bomb”, it brings in aspects of memoir detailing Rhodes development as a writer. This hybrid is both a strength and a weakness of the book, since autobiography is not a transferrable mechanism of training. Rhodes unique circumstances, can in many ways deter would be authors because it is true that circumstances and experience inspire the writer. For those whose lives are tragically ordinary, it is difficult to bring the veracity of life without relying on the hackneyed cliches of works of others.

So if experience is not transferrable is craft. This is where Rhodes book is more useful for the budding writer. Chapters on research, developing voice and structuring your writing are much more helpful. But the chapter that gives How to Write its strength is an excellent chapter on editing that goes through the process of editing on a short piece that Rhodes wrote by parenthetically interspersing the text with the decisions and questions that took place as he revised the piece. This example effectively illustrates the active process that good editing entails.

One major fault with this book is that it’s often too clever by half. Rhodes tries to coin the neologism verity to cover the writing more commonly known as non-fiction. His objections are valid, but it’s a needless distraction.  He also beleaguers the point that writing is hard, and the writing business is even harder. You can’t simultaneously romanticize writing and make it mundane without losing your point of view on the subject. 

How To Write is not as prescriptive as other comparable works, and is definitely of less value to a novice than an experienced writer. It’s best suited for those who admire Rhodes work and want to understand his writing process as one template out of many.

On Writing Well

Monday, June 29th, 2009

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well longevity on campus reading lists is remarkable, what is even more amazing is that Zinnser has continually updated the book adapting it to the times and the tools of the current age. My fourth edition has something so quaint as writing using a word processor, I have yet to see if today’s edition talks about writing using an iPhone. But as dated as the references to the tools of the time, Zinsser understood that the tools shape our thinking, and if writing is nothing else it is captured thought. On Writing Well can be summed up in three basic themes, the understanding of the Why, the How and the What of non-fiction writing. 

That last sentence unfortunately has condemned the book to the Ghetto of expository writing when the themes of the book are much more universal and applicable to all writing. Zinsser focuses first on the why. The necessity (not the desire, but necessity) of communicating succinctly and with intention. Writing should be alive and encourage the reader to keep reading. It is in effect the contract, or the transaction between writer and reader that must be satisfied.

With a clear sense of the goal, Zinsser explores the mechanics of writing an expository piece. Well conditioned for journalistic goals it focuses on the basics of the lede, the ending, how to interview, how to set the stage. The secret of great writers is that they are relentless thieves, borrowing the great turn of phrase of trick of other writers to cause a pause in their own work. My favorite is the accidental creation of adjectives that don’t naturally lend themselves to object at hand. Richard Ford once wrote about a character who dropped her old-eyed stare on others. However, the original in earlier editions was cold eyed. Now I never read the tale, but I liked that adjectives can be used in new ways.

That anecdote is not covered in the book, but other juicy excerpts are presented on how to give the different parts of your essay strength. They are not meant to be copied, but to demonstrate what is possible and serve as a guidepost for your own writing. 

On Writing Well also explores the what of non-fiction writing. Exploring the different genres of non-fiction writing and how they are structured to achieve their aims. Writing exists in the context of what came before it, without such context metaphors, allusions and aphorisms lose their power. And each context has it’s idioms and flow. Understanding the implicit assumptions of the form is critical.

Zinsser takes these tools and closes by imploring the writer to believe that they are holding the truth and defend it. Too often our writing is ripped to shreds, weakened by the goals of others, or defined by the incongruent tastes who’s flavors are dulled altered. Zinsser reminds that with training and desire that good writing can appear anywhere, and often does. So get on with it. 

On Writing Well’s breezy style and mission make it a rare combination of inspiring one to enter the writing zone, while providing the mechanics to write well once there. A natural follow on to this is James Stewart’s Follow the Story.

Writing Down the Bones

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is probably the most popular writing book out there based on my unscientific sampling of people who keep recommending it. Not so much a book with a sustained narrative, the book is structured as a series of exercises and anecdotes that emerged from Goldberg’s experience as a writing instructor. The book eschews topics such as character and narrative, but instead relies on vignettes that say one thing — it is ok to write lousy stuff. With the premise that writing the bad stuff will lead to the good stuff. This is not radical stuff not much different than the notion of constant revisions that John Gardner advocates in On Becoming a Novelist (to be overviewed later). 

Goldberg’s approach is heavily influenced by her practice of Zen Buddhism, and could have as easily been titled “Zen and The Art of Writing” In a contradiction fitting of a Zen koan, she says that the way to become a good writer is to become detached from your writing. Do not let the quality of the writing reflect on yourself. A good example is one of her exercises to open a poetry booth at a local fair. Let people pay you to write a poem on a topic of their choice, and then read it once and let it go.

Writing Down the Bones doesn’t make you a better writer, but it does its best to inspire you to practice and persevere with the act of writing and write more, and by writing more you should become better. If you have strong perfectionist tendencies, than you may struggle with the ideas presented, but you would probably be the best candidate for thinking about what’s presented. 

If you want to be a writer, (and as they say if you say you want to be a writer, you aren’t one, since it’s a job title you have to take yourself no one is going to give it to you) and you are struggling, this is a good book. If you are a writer, you really are beyond this but the exercises can be fun if you are bored or want to try something new.

Reading on Writing

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

The next few posts are going to be overviews and reviews of books on the art of writing. I am hesitant to use the word review because anything which improves ones chances of getting words on paper shouldn’t be denigrated as reviews often do. Nor does one know what motivate a person. What is rah rah to a person may be blah blah to another and demotivating. That said, the books I will be covering are considered “Classics” or books on writing.

Books on writing come in two major forms. The first is the helping individuals get into the “writing zone”. Tips, tools and stories on how to turn off the inner editor and give oneself permission to write without judgment. Writing is a scary task in that every action is a form of commitment. You commit words to paper, ether and others can see it. Others will judge it and the truth others will tear you down. Most will. The art critic Rene Ricard said ‘You can never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave that you use God’s gift to be free.” Those who criticize without the experience of creation have different aims. The first group of books provide exercises to move beyond those voices, even if one of them is your own.

The second set of books focus on the mechanics of writing. These are not books on grammar or style, but instead books on developing voice and point of view. What does it take to create verisimilitude of voice such that truth resonates in the words that emerge. Inevitably, mechanics books focus on the art of rewriting. 

These books do not make writers, but they provide tools, camaraderie, connectedness to other writers and make what is necessarily a lonely practice not an isolated one.

on writing a novel, or heck just writing…

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Writing is hard work. Let’s face it. It’s solitary, it takes time, someone is going to not like it (the more subjective the more vicious the criticism), it pays lousy. But so many of do it. Why? Why is pretty much an irrelevant question, since motivations are infinite. What is valuable though is the how of writing, and in that arena there are almost as many ideas. 

Pia Chatterjee in this feature about local talent in the Bay Area writes about the daunting challenge of writing a novel. I can sympathize as mine has been sitting for ages. She gives a plan for getting a novel done. While I don’t agree with all the tips, since it requires a lot of time and discipline which is not available in many careers, it does provide one meaningful path toward the goal of writing. Check it out. What are your tips for writing? How do you learn? How do you get better?

Writers Resolutions…..

Monday, January 5th, 2009

Whereas the world is in dire straits.

Whereas the people are feeling more disconnected than ever.

Whereas it feels like so much is out of the control of individuals.

Be is resolved that as writers we take the following actions…

First, we acknowledge that the act of writing is a heroic act.

Second, we acknowledge that writing is an act that we simultaneously cannot control and completely control. 

Third, we acknowledge those that have written before us and honor the words of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and follow his dictum that ”A writer must sit down to write every day, pick up his pen and try to write something — anything — on a piece of paper,” or blog, or computer, or stone tablet.

In these days of uncertainty, make a positive act. Commit a thought to paper, let it live, let it suffer the indignities of the critics, but leave a mark. And then take all that burdens those words and make it better.

As writers, we must worry less about getting things right that writing nothing at all. Be courageous my fellow writers. The final draft only begins with a first draft, and let the writing begin.

But more seriously, ways to help your writing in 2009.

1) Set up an account with a major blogging site, it’s free and you don’t have to publish it to the world. It’s a great way to take a free moment at work if you have access to a computer. Just go to the site and toss in a few words.

2) Consider carrying a personal journal. Moleskines are wonderful, if absurdly expensive. The hipster PDA  is a great way to take notes as you need them. It’s cheap and works.

3) Consider a netbook, these new sub-laptops have great battery life and are a way to have your writing tool where you need it. 

4) Write letters and postcards, writing flexes muscles, muscles need exercise. Pick up postcards in the town you live and send off a quick note, poem, postcard post to friends you don’t correspond with, hell send a postcard to those people you email and IM with all the time (I promise, it’ll blow their mind!)

5) In these Dickensian times, think “Bleak House”. Charles Dickens was a great serialist, think of your great American Novel as a serial and write it as such. It worked for Harper Lee, it can work for you, even if you never serialize it.

The most important thing you can do, when you think you are powerless, it to write. Make a mark, any mark.

Practicing your writing mojo this holiday season…

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

It’s the holiday season and one of the chores, or traditions is the sending of cards. I always find it interesting to see what people do with this commitment. Do you go industrialized and send out pre-printed cards that have been personalized with a photo of your choice? Or are you one to get store bought cards and insert a printed out “newsletter” of your past exploits. Do you just sign your name on a whole bunch of cards and send them out.  Or are you more of a traditionalist, writing each card by hand. Or are you one to send out bulk holiday email newsletters.

Well, whatever your style. I recommend going big and unleashing the writer in you and decide to make a memorable holiday letter. Here are some tips on how to make a great holiday card.

1) Have a point of view. There is a lot of pressure to be cheery and paint a pretty picture with your holiday update. Resist that pressure, instead insist on being true. If it was a crazy year, than say so. If it was a sad year, then explain it. Don’t whine, don’t wallow but say it was a year of change or tragedy. Maybe your wife or child died. You aren’t going to say it was a great year, so don’t fake it. Your friends will want to know what happened.

2) Offer a lesson learned. What came out of this year that mattered. Sharing something you didn’t know before will benefit those who you care. Did you read a great book that moved you. Maybe you found out that living with less stuff make you happier, or maybe that new dream car really was a dream. Or maybe you found out that asking your boss for a raise does work. It can be short, as simple as “writing every day is an act of progress in that something existed that didn’t before.” and then it become your novel. This is your opportunity to pontificate.

3) Commit to a goal for the next year. Say I’m looking forward to 2009 to finish X. It took me three years of promising in my annual holiday card that I was going to do a triathlon, but this year I finally did. Saying what you want holds you to your commitment, and it gives something for your friends to follow up on.

4) Give thanks and acknowledge that which matters. This is a simple thing to close out your letter, it works for the Academy award winners.

5) Be true to your voice. The cliche is always to write in the memoir style. Unless you are old and reflective. Avoid it. Write as if you were telling a story over coffee or a beer.

Incorporate a new view on this annual tradition and it’ll be a better read, a better write and people will remember it.