Category Archives: Writing

Write science fiction and fantasy under the guidance of George R. R. Martin, Cassandra Clare, Chuck Palahniuk, Ted Chiang…

The 2012 Clarion and Clarion West Writers Workshops for science fiction and fantasy have each lined up an amazing group of writers as teachers.

Clarion West will be held in Seattle from June 17 through July 27, and the instructors are Mary Rosenblum, Hiromi Goto, George R. R. Martin, Connie Willis, Kelly Link & Gavin Grant, and Chuck Palahniuk.

Clarion will be held in San Diego from June 24 through August 4th, and the instructors are Jeffrey Ford, Marjorie Liu, Ted Chiang, Walter Jon Williams, Holly Black, and Cassandra Clare.

The two workshops are each accepting applications now through March 1st.  See their individual websites for more information and instructions.

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No, Oxford hasn’t abandoned the Oxford comma

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love the Oxford comma (also known as the serial or series comma). I wrote in a post over two years ago:

If only we could convince the Times (and other newspapers) to use the serial comma (also known as the series comma or the Oxford comma). I’m a big fan of the serial comma, and the Chicago Manual of Style now “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…, since it prevents ambiguity.”  Here’s an example from the Times that shows what can happen without the serial comma: “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Perhaps the most famous example of why the serial comma should be used is this apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (For the origins of these two examples, see this 2006 Language Log post and this 2003 Language Hat post.)

This morning a GalleyCat post reported that the use of the Oxford comma is now discouraged by the University of Oxford (in their online Writing and Style Guide). This has, of course, ignited the Twittersphere with strong reactions, pro and con.

However, it turns out that the story isn’t really true.  Galleycat has just added an update to their blog post:

Reader Michael Williams adds this clarification: “That’s the University of Oxford PR department style guide. Oxford University Press is a commercially and editorially autonomous organization.”

So, much ado about nothing. (Yet another reminder not to believe everything you read on the Internet.) But even if it were true, that would certainly not convince me to give up the Oxford comma.

Update, 6/30/11: 

Oxford Dictionaries tweeted this morning:

The Oxford comma is alive and well at Oxford University Press: http://oxford.ly/mnx8XK

This AP article explains:

But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.

Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”

The only explicit permission to dispense with the Oxford comma — apparently the cause of the alarm — was in a guide for university staff on writing press releases and internal communications. “It’s not new, it’s been online for several years already,” said Maria Coyle in the university press office.

Yet the report caused a Twitterstorm….

Scrivener software news

Over the years I’ve heard writers rave about Scrivener, software that combines a word processor with project management tools to help organize research and ideas and structure long works with outlines and storyboards.

Scrivener was created by Literature & Latte and has long been available only for Mac. The company recently made two announcements: the new and improved Scrivener 2.0 for Mac will be released on November 1st (just in time for National Novel Writing Month); and Scrivener for Windows is being developed for release in early 2011. Today they released a free public beta version of Scrivener for Windows on the website. (I just downloaded the Windows beta and am looking forward to playing with it.)

For reader recommendations of other software and tools to help organize your research, see the comments in my August 2008 post, “A question for my readers about software.” If you have recommendations or opinions you’d like to share, please do so in the comments to this post.

Productive frustration, lost libraries, and required reading for aspiring writers

As I read  Ben Greenman’s “Lives” essay in today’s New York Times Magazine, this caught my eye:

By supplying answers to questions with such ruthless efficiency, the Internet cuts off the supply of an even more valuable commodity: productive frustration. Education, at least as I remember it, isn’t only, or even primarily, about creating children who are proficient with information. It’s about filling them with questions that ripen, via deferral, into genuine interests.

I like the term “productive frustration” because it is an apt description of part of the research process. Finding quick answers to simple questions is easy, but it shuts down the process. When you wrestle with more complex questions, try to figure out what you need to know and the different ways you might look for it, or can’t find what you’re searching for, it’s an opportunity to think more creatively, explore new paths, feed your curiosity, and make unexpected discoveries. As the Gaga librarians sang, “when it comes to search if it’s not tough it isn’t fun…”

Here are links to some other excellent pieces I read this week:

Craig Fehran’s “Lost Libraries: The strange afterlife of authors’ book collections” describes what happened to the personal libraries of David Foster Wallace, David Markson, John Updike, Mark Twain, and other authors after their deaths:

Most people might imagine that authors’ libraries matter–that scholars and readers should care what books authors read, what they thought about them, what they scribbled in the margins. But far more libraries get dispersed than saved. In fact, David Markson can now take his place in a long and distinguished line of writers whose personal libraries were quickly, casually broken down….

The issues at stake when libraries vanish are bigger than any one author and his books. An author’s library offers unique access to a mind at work, and their treatment provides a look at what exactly the literary world decides to value in an author’s life….

Charles Stross’ post “Why Wikipedia is the writer’s friend” explains why fiction writers should do at least enough research to avoid errors and prevent the collapse of suspension of disbelief. Though I certainly don’t recommend using Wikipedia as your source for research and fact-checking, I strongly agree with his larger point: 

Always do, at a minimum, a brief fact-check on everything you write in a work of fiction with a non-fantastical/far future setting. Otherwise you will be sorry….

Fiction relies upon the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief — if you’re immersed in a novel, it helps not to be jerked up short every ten seconds by the realization that the setup is nonsensical….

John Scalzi’s “Writing: Find the Time or Don’t.” This post should be required reading for all aspiring writers:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

If your answer is “yes,” then the question is simply when and how you find the time to do it. If you spend your free time after work watching TV, turn off the TV and write. If you prefer to spend time with your family when you get home, write a bit after the kids are in bed and before you turn in yourself. If your work makes you too tired to think straight when you get home, wake up early and write a little in the morning before you head off….

And if you can’t manage that, then what you’re saying is that you were lying when you said your answer is “yes.” Because if you really wanted to write, you would find a way to make the time, and you would find a way to actually write….

But if you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake…. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.

A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words

Though two of the most influential style manuals (Chicago and AP) recently changed from “Web site” to  “website,” they still differ in their treatment of other tech words, which won’t be a surprise to writers and editors who work with different styles.

Below I’ve compared the current recommendations for tech words from new editions of four style and usage guides.

Chicago is the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (published August 2010), the authoritative style guide used by most of the publishing world.

AP is the AP Stylebook Online (updated April 2010), the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists. (The New York Times uses its own idiosyncratic style.)

Yahoo! is the Yahoo! Style Guide (published July 2010), a new style guide for digital content.

Garner is the 3rd edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (published August 2009), an excellent book that tracks recent changes in usage and language.

The results:

  • All four agree on “website,” “World Wide Web,” and “the Internet.”
  • All except Chicago capitalize “the Web.”
  • Chicago, AP, and Garner use the hyphenated “e-mail,” but Yahoo! uses “email.”
  • Yahoo! and Garner use “webpage,” Chicago uses “web page,” and AP uses “Web page.”

It may look like consensus has finally been reached on “website,” but this is not the end of “Web site,” as it is still the standard in older works like the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (which hasn’t been updated since the 2004 3rd edition) and both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, published in 2003) and Merriam-Webster Online. (By the way, the December 2009 Apple Publications Style Guide uses “website,” “webpage,” and “email” without the hyphen.)

What does this mean for you? If you are using an older style manual, you should probably get a more current one. Which style manual you use will depend on the kind of writing, editing, or publishing you do. Chicago will likely be your primary style manual unless you work with specialized fields or content, such as technical writing, journalism, academic writing, scientific writing, etc. If you are working for a publisher or company, use the style manual and/or “house style” they specify. (Some use a hybrid, based primarily on a particular style manual but customized for internal preferences.) If you are writing for yourself, you can do what you want, but try to be both consistent and open to change. (Though Chicago is my default style manual, I’ve been using “website” and “the web” since I began this blog two years ago. Though I’m tempted to eliminate the hyphen from “e-mail,” I’m not quite ready to do so.)

So, in light of all this, are you going to make any changes to your style or try to convince your employer to modify the house style?

For more on style manuals, see my previous posts.

Update, 8/11/10: In the comments, Delf notes that though Microsoft’s published style manual hasn’t been updated since 2004, their style guide for internal use continues to be updated, and the latest version (June 30, 2010) specifies the following:

website
World Wide Web
the Internet
the web
email
webpage

Note that all of the tech/digital style guides (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) have dropped the hyphen from “email,” which I don’t think we’ll see adopted quickly by Chicago and AP.

Update 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

“The new phone book’s here!”

My print copy of the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style just arrived from Amazon.com, though the official publication date is not until the end of August.

Here’s an interesting change: the 16th edition of the CMOS, like the new edition of the AP Stylebook, now embraces “website” (instead of the more formal “Web site”) as well as “the web” and “web page” (see 7.76 and 7.85). For more on “Web site” vs. “website,” see my earlier post on the subject.

For a list of some of the other changes in the 16th edition, see The Subversive Copy Editor’s “16th edition Sneak Peeks and Retired Rules.”

If you prefer your reference works in digital form, see The Chicago Manual of Style Online for online subscription options.

By the way, in the package with the CMOS was another new style manual, The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World. When I have more time, it will be interesting to explore and compare the two works.

Interview about my “Creative Research for Writers” class

Kate Lebo’s interview with me about my May 16th “Creative Research for Writers” class has been posted on the Richard Hugo House blog. Here’s a preview:

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example….

You can read the entire interview here.

You can still register for the class, which will be held on Sunday, May 16th from 10am to 5pm. See my previous post for details, or follow the link within the interview to register.

Update, 2/19/2014: Hugo House has redesigned their website, so the original page I linked to is gone. I’ve replaced the link with an archived version of the page from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I’ve also copied the full text of the interview below.

May 12, 2010 Hugo House interview with Lisa Gold

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example. I’ve also put together an annotated list of selected references and resources to help students with their own research.

KL: How does research lead to better writing?

LG: Creative research can help writers with inspiration, world-building, storytelling and character development. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing about real people or fictional characters, or about living in the past, present, future or an imaginary world—the more you know (or decide) about their day-to-day lives, their worldview and their world, the more real and understandable they will be to you and your readers. John Crowley wrote that these “small details of common life… give actuality, aliveness and thickness” to a story. The point of doing research is to help you tell a great story and breathe life into your characters, not to show off all the cool stuff you’ve found. Kelley Eskridge told me that she tries to “learn enough in research to create a culture in the story that feels real to people who know it, and is accessible to people who don’t… Every ‘research detail’ that makes it into the final story needs to serve a dual purpose—to establish/ground the world of the story and to either serve as an emotional backdrop or reveal an aspect of character.”

KL: What’s the most common hurdle people encounter when doing research for their writing? What’s the best/easiest way to overcome it?

LG: I think the most common mistakes people make are using research as an excuse not to write and not knowing when to stop. You shouldn’t wait until you finish your research to begin writing, and you don’t need to know everything about a subject in order to write about it. Writing and research are interconnected, and each should fuel the other. Don’t let anything stop the writing—if you are missing details, mark the spot with a quick note of what you need, keep writing and fill in the blanks later. Knowing when to stop researching is harder, but you should think carefully and make conscious decisions about what you actually need to know and what you can just make up.

KL: What’s the most creative method you’ve used to find information?

LG: I’m a strong believer in browsing and serendipity, which can lead to amazing discoveries. I spend a lot of time browsing bookstores and the Web, and I like to feed my curiosity and see where it leads. Whenever I’m looking for something in a bookstore or library, I always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found books much better than the one I was looking for or spotted something that I didn’t need at the time but later proved indispensable. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you stumble across it. Talking to people is another great way to uncover information—chances are you know someone or have a family member with unusual interests or expertise or who has done extraordinary things or lived through important historical events or periods.

KL: What kind of research do you do?

LG: I do whatever kind of research my clients need. Because I work with writers of fiction and nonfiction, I’ve researched a really wide range of subjects—life in Victorian London, the rich and their servants in 1930s New York City, cultural and historical trends throughout 20th-century America, American Revolutionary pamphlets and broadsides, as well as an odd miscellany of subjects for my husband (Matt Ruff), to name a few. I like working on unusual creative projects, such as when I encrypted messages into John Wilkins’ 17th-century “Real Character” symbolic language for the promotional campaign for Neal Stephenson’s historical novel “Quicksilver.” My own research is also eclectic, as I have a lot of interests and like to learn stuff, and some of it ends up in my blog.