Ever wondered how the English language developed? Or, to be more accurate, where? There’s an interesting book out called “A History of the English Language in 100 Places.”
I haven’t bought it, although I have to say I am very tempted: I mean, what an interesting idea!
It appears to be an outcome of the work of The English Project. This is a website that is definitely worth exploring. It has a few nice bits and pieces, such as an article about prison slang, followed by a selection of words that prisoners in England use.
Another interesting section, which relates back to the opening paragraph of this article, is 100 Landmarks (of the English Language).
For example, the earliest evidence of written English dates from the year 475. Nearer our own time, San Francisco is where “Twitter English” started, in the year 2006.
In some ways, I suppose, not an especially useful site unless you are working on a historical novel or are undertaking research into the development of our language.
But then, not everything that is interesting has to be useful, just as not everything that’s useful is interesting!
I always try to follow my intuition. Thus it was that a couple of weeks ago, with deadlines pressing on me, and pressure from all sides, I decided to ignore my intellectual protestations and listen to my inner voice.
That voice whispered to me:
You haven’t looked at The Atlantic for a while, have you? Go check it out.”
So I did, and I came across an interview with a writer I’d never heard of, Sherman Alexie.
Alexie is a Native American writer, which is why I suppose I’d never come across his work. Interestingly, he refers to himself as “Indian”, which we are told is politically incorrect. I think I’d rather take Alexie’s word for that. But anyway….
I really enjoyed reading his story, which I found somewhat moving. Reading about him inspired me to write an autobiographical article called Three cheers for anti-plagiarism software. Which, as it happens, relates the opposite experience to his: Alexie talks about how a teacher inspired him to write; my teacher, on the other hand, thought I’d ripped off someone else’s work.
In the interview, Alexie also relates this story, which I absolutely love:
Joy Harjo, who’s a Creek Indian poet and a jazz musician, was once asked by a white reporter why she played the saxophone, since it’s not an Indian instrument.
And she said: “It is when I play it.”
After reading the article, I made a beeline for my local library. Amazingly, they had one of his books: Flight (click on that link to not only buy the book, but also to contribute a small commission to my household income. As I may have mentioned elsewhere, I have a wife and seven kids to support. And as I think I also pointed out, the aforementioned wife and kids are not mine, but we’re very close!) But I digress.
I found some parts of the book, which is fictional, a bit harrowing, but also moving and, ultimately, celebratory of the human spirit.
I also reserved, and have now picked up, a copy of his well-known book, Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven, which I am greatly looking forward to starting.
So, there you have it: following my intuition led me to discover a writer I hadn’t encountered, books I hadn’t read, and some wonderful emotional and intellectual reading experiences. And I have also been inspired to write two blog posts as well!
(There has also been another unintended outcome, but a welcome one: as well as inspiring me to read more Sherman Alexie books, this experience has made me want to explore further Native American/Indian writings. See the NDNs With Pens reference below for links to several books.)
Here’s that interview I talked about. Do read it: The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to 'Drop Everything and Be a Poet'
There is a “law”:
Ninety-nine Rule of Project Schedules
The first ninety percent of the task takes ninety percent of the time, the last ten percent takes the other ninety percent.
I never really understood this in the context of “projects” as normally understood. But in the context of a writing project or assignment, it makes perfect sense.
Take this morning, for example. I wrote 240 words in 11 minutes. Amazing! Good stuff it was, too! Maybe you’d like to pause in silent reflection and admiration for a couple of minutes? No? Well, please yourself.
Anyway, the document as a whole, which was around 900 words, took another hour and a half. A quick calculation will tell you that it should have taken around 44 minutes. Instead, it took over twice as long.
Well, Elaine and I sometimes have a conversation that goes something like this:
Elaine: Go on, bash out an article. You’ve got around 30 minutes.
Me: I don’t “bash” anything. I craft my articles. Each word is hewn, moulded in the furnace of my merciless judgement, weighed both for meaning and balance…
Elaine: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever.
Me: … while I offer prayers and sweetmeats to my Muse, imploring her not to desert me in this time of pressing need, etc etc.
But the truth is, I do both: bash and craft.
I have found that the best way to write anything is to bash first, and craft later. This works for me. Moreover it works for any kind of writing, whether an informal piece of writing like a blog post, or a formal report on a school’s ICT/Computing provision.
I find, for example, that if I stop to check the spellings of words, or rearrange the wording in a sentence, or – worst of all – what the document actually looks like, it slows me up terribly.
Even fact-checking is not necessary, unless the text that follows is predicated on those facts. That is, if the fact I wish to cite is simply an example, and not critical for the direction in which the text is going, then I check it later.
If you think about it,this is a very practical way of going about things. Unlike (I imagine) something like working with solid materials like wood or metalwork, it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes, because you can always undo them. If you take out too much text, for instance, you can simply put it back, whereas I imagine that if you saw off too much wood of a door, say, you can rectify it, but not without a lot of hassle. That being the case, you have little to lose, and much to gain, by getting as much down on paper (as it were) as quickly as possible, because then at least you will have something tangible to work with.
I think there is a very strong psychological element to this approach too. Maybe it’s just me, but if, after a whole morning’s work doing research and reading, all I have written down is a title (and probably a working title, at that), I feel that I haven’t done any work. On the other hand, if I have several pages of stuff, even though it needs editing and refining, I feel I have used my time well.
I have found 4 Ways to Write Quickly that may work for you too.
On the other hand, if you prefer to craft rather than bash, right from the outset, then good for you!
It is almost a year since I suggested 7 reasons writers should blog. I’ve recently discovered another one.
Look, this is my situation. I have a book inside me. Isn’t that what everybody says? Except that in my case it’s true. In fact, I have several books, and updates to previously-published books, inside me. And that’s the trouble: they’re inside me, instead of inside my computer as a word-processed file ready to be turned into books that others can read.
The reason for this state of affairs is not laziness, I can assure you. But faced with the choice between doing some “urgent” work in order to earn a crust certainly (the work always seems to be urgent), and writing a book which may or may not earn a crust, I have to opt for the former.
I was bemoaning this state of affairs yesterday when Elaine said, “So why don’t you write the book as a series of blog posts?”.
I have had that idea before, but ideas, like seeds, have to be planted in the right conditions. Yesterday, the conditions were right; suddenly, the idea made perfect sense.
There are at least five reasons that writing a book as a blog post is a good idea. At least, good for me, at this time.
As Elaine said, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. (I need to ask her whether that is based on personal experience; I thought she was vegetarian. Anyway.) When I think “I must start the task of writing 30,000 words”, I sort of freeze up over the enormity of it all. (That is strange, to be honest, because it never used to happen. But still, it does, at least at the moment. I must be overworking.)
On the other hand, saying to myself, “I must write a 500 word blog post that will become a chapter, or part of a chapter”, is very doable. In the last two days I have polished off a thousand words with hardly a second thought. Only 29,000 words to go! I wish I hadn’t thought that….
Blog posts have to be self-contained, that is, they must work on their own. It’s true that the thousand words I’ve penned so far were written over two days in one blog post, and that they form part of a larger chapter, but each bit worked on its own. I think having a 500 word limit in your head is a very good discipline, and guards against excessive rambling and meandering.
I use Zemanta, which suggests articles related to your topic. (I understand that Wordpress users my take advantage of a similar facility built in.) That means that I automatically come across references I may otherwise have not known about, and which have the potential to enrich the text or influence my thinking. I don’t have to use them, but it is almost effortless research; that’s the point.
Who says blog posts have to be published? I am not publishing the posts that form part of my book. But if I want to publicise the book at some stage, or if I wish to test the water to see how people react to the ideas contained within it, I can do so with almost no effort because the posts have already been formatted correctly. Unless, of course, you regard finding a suitable illustration and then clicking “Publish to blog” as effort.
I like to write, especially blog posts. I like to try to get my writing done either first thing in the morning, or later in the evening. In other words, during the times that I don’t feel I should be working. (Because I find writing so enjoyable, I have not yet convinced myself that it really is work, which is a pity.) Besides, first thing in the morning is a great time to write: no phone calls, no people calling at the door, just the birds, cats and the sunrise. It certainly worked for Anthony Trollope, who consistently bashed out 2,500 words every day before breakfast.
We often hear of blogs that have been turned into books, as a response to the blog’s popularity. I shouldn’t be surprised if some of them were intended to be published as books right from the start.
How do you know if you are, objectively speaking, a success as a writer?
Although I may be accused of taking too simplistic an approach to this question, I really do think that it comes down to just one thing.
Well, in practice, of course, there are many potential indications of success. For example, people telling you they like what you write. People asking when your next book is coming out. That sort of thing.
However, nice as such accolades are, they don’t pay the rent, and talk is, or can be, cheap.
No. For me, the ultimate test of whether a writer is successful is whether someone wants to actually pay for his or her work. Payment represents a commitment that has consequences.
For example, when a magazine editor offers to pay you for an article, she has to make sure that the payment can be justified: to readers, the the accounts department, and to her boss.
When a publisher offers you an advance it is taking a chance, and gambling on you rather than someone else. They are saying, in effect, “We think your work is going to sell, and we’re willing to pay you.”
Payment is also an acknowledgement that your work is valued. And why not? If you spend time and effort honing your craft, you should get paid for your work.
And the corollary of that statement, of course, is that if you write for no payment at all, what does that say about the value you place on your own work, your own expertise, your own craftsmanship? If you are going to write for nothing, make sure you have a really, really good reason – not least so you can bear to look at yourself in the mirror the next morning.
If you would prefer a more altruistic reason not to work for nought, consider this. There’s a case for saying that the greater the supply of cheap or free articles, the less even paid writers can command. I’ll be exploring why this is in another article. In my opinion, it’s all to do with perceived cost.