Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is anybody really out there?

I can remember when we got our first telephone. Only Mom and Dad were allowed to use it: it was a utility, not a toy. Dad worked for the railroad and a mysterious person called "The Caller" would phone and tell him what train he was scheduled to work on (nowadays we'd call him a dispatcher). These calls were important because if Dad missed one, The Caller would go to the next person on the list and Dad would forfeit a day's wages.

Mom waged a constant vigil on the neighbors who shared our party line. If she thought they were tying up the line too long she would ask them politely to hang up so Dad could get the call he was expecting. Most of the time they cooperated because they knew they might have an emergency and need the same favor themselves.

What really made her mad was when she caught someone listening in on a conversation. You could tell by the "click" when a person picked up and if they didn't hang up as soon as they realized someone else was on the line she would make some comment to let them know that she knew they were there. This didn't always work and she would fume about "people who don't have anything better to do." Of course, at that time television was just an idea in someone's head.

Even as teenagers, when Dad had moved up to a supervisory position and pretty much knew what his schedule was going to be like, we didn't spend hours on the phone. We made arrangements to meet at someone's house or at the pizza parlor or soda shop and did our talking there.

As a young mother, the telephone became a link that no doubt saved my sanity. I could call friends who were similarly housebound with infants and toddlers and have conversations that didn't include "Spit that out--now!" or "Please stop banging your brother on the head with his bottle."

When our sons reached adulthood and migrated like so many radarless geese to three different states to raise their own families, the telephone became a necessary link because -- let's face facts -- the generation after mine does not write letters. But we called to transmit information, not just to chat. Long distance calls cost money and we watched the minutes carefully.

All this has changed in a breathtakingly few years. Everyone has a cellphone. I am no longer startled by a person walking down the street apparently talking to himself. I just assume he has a phone attached to his ear.

People can text on their phones and send e-mails. There is no lack of a way to communicate-- just pick one.

What amazes me is that people (including myself) are no longer satisfied with communicating with friends and relatives. Now we reach out to everyone on the planet and beyond with our Web pages, blogs and tweets. I have discovered so many interesting, informative and humorous blogs that I could spend my day just reading them.

The reverse side of this observation is that when I blog or tweet or update my Website, I have to wonder if anyone is really paying attention. Of course, friends make comments on occasion, but mostly I have no idea if anyone has seen my posts. But I can't be certain, and that, as someone famously said, "is the rub." So I am careful of what I post because I don't want some rash statement to come back to haunt me.

Alas, some people aren't careful at all, as we have learned. The Internet is like a vast party line and you'd better watch not just what what you say but the photos you send out there to the ether because nowadays nothing is private. Yes, someone really is out there. And they are listening in.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Dreaded Deadline

After 10 years of newspaper work, I retired with dreams of never having to meet a deadline again. Or of having to write a specified number of words to exactly fit the space alloted to it on page four.

Not to mention writing headlines that both made sense and spanned two or three columns of type without running out of space.

Now I find that these skills still matter. While the length of a title may not matter, it must hint at the content of the story in a way that catches the casual bookbuyer's eye. The title is your first "hook."

Writing to an exact word count is a little more difficult. I mastered that skill by writing a weekly column that had to measure 11 1/2 inches. No more, no less. I learned to cut sentences and find one word that meant the same as a two- or three-word phrase. Conversely, there were times I had to stretch my brain to add another sentence so as not to leave that dreaded empty space at the bottom of the page.

I worked with a publisher who insisted on writing a column. Because I was the editor and responsible for layout, I would tell her how much space she had. Invariably, she went over by five or six inches. I would politely tell her she needed to cut. She would not so politely tell me she either didn't have time or that her prose was too precious to drop one word.

I never understood why she couldn't learn to trim her words to an acceptable length. War and Peace is one thing; a weekly outburst of what she was feeling at the moment was another.

That's why it is important to understand if you are writing a short story, a novella or a novel. If you read a publisher's submission guidelines and they ask for novels of 60,000 to 150,000 words, you don't send them a 300,000-word epic. If your novel is too long, look through it for places you can cut: a scene that doesn't move the action forward, a meandering backflash that doesn't really add anything to the plot, a detailed description when a few well-chosen words could just as easily evoke the scene.

In the newspaper business, deadlines loom over everyone involved, from the publisher down to the to part-time clerk. I don't miss the stress of writing with one eye on the clock.

I work at home and no one is standing over me insisting I write at least one chapter a week. It's hard to set your own deadlines after having them externally imposed for so many years, but I do realize their importance. If I didn't set internal deadlines I would still be on chapter one and my last blog would have been written six weeks ago.

Newspaper writing and fiction are worlds apart, but what I learned in the newsroom has given me a solid foundation for my writing. The three rules I took with me were 1) Don't act as if you have a lifetime to write your book or you will never write it; 2) Make certain you have chosen just the right words to convey your story; and 3) Write what you have to say and then stop.