Category Archives: criticism

Sales Speak and Trick Terminology

“What do you think of this ad?” my elderly cousin asked of me this past weekend. I won’t get into the product itself, but I could understand her interest, as the verbiage used ambiguity and well-chosen qualifiers to entice her, the reader.

“I’m not a lawyer,” I told my cousin, but the advertisement seemed to ride the fine edge of legal boundaries in order to be published in the magazine. I suppose some publications, more than ever these days, are desperate enough to do anything for a buck, as long as they are reasonably protected from litigation.

I know businesses have done this for many years, but this was a relatively respectable senior magazine, so I thought. Instead of using words implying any sort of guarantee that it would actually perform as expected, this advertisement used sales speak and trick terminology, such as “may,” “can” or “possibly” to describe the capabilities of their intriguing, but worthless product. In fact, reading it carefully, they actually made no promise or guarantee that the device would work at all. Even the four paragraphs of fine print – very fine print – at the bottom of the page disclaimed any “guarantee of performance” in a sentence of 96 words.

To further insulate themselves from liability, the company advertising their “wonderful” product, threw in the phrase, “based on proper usage and assembly.” I suppose the definition of that was clarified somewhere in that fine print too.

Of course, my cousin, as she read it with her nearly 79-year-old eyes, saw it from the opposite perspective. To her, she understood it to be a miracle device that would change her life and it was only $99.99. “Very affordable,” the advertisement read, “and now for under $100.” It should have technically read “for less than $100,” but that was just my journalistic arrogance emerging and, of course, beside the point.

For $150 or even $100, my cousin said she probably would not buy the product, but that one penny’s difference apparently placed it magically within the bounds of her budget, despite my own expectation that it would break within an hour after unwrapping the slick packaging which they had illustrated, again, if it ever were to work at all.

After explaining the verbal dog-and-pony-show to her, my cousin seemed to understand what I was expressing. Yet, after reviewing the advertisement on her own a second time, my cousin seemed more doubtful about my explanation as opposed to what she saw in print. In the end, I can’t be sure whether or not she placed an order and I sensed that, if I did ask, she wouldn’t tell me anyway, especially after our chat.

 

Borrowing Trouble

Last week I was required to take a TSI (Texas Success Initiative) assessment test so that I can begin registering for certain classes come fall. This is just a program/test that determines your skill level in the core areas and helps line a pathway better suited for each individual. It covers the basics with sections in writing, reading and math, totaling almost 200 multiple choice questions and a written essay and you have five hours to complete it in.

Five long hours.

There are worksheets and books out there designed to help you study for these types of things, but I was given exactly 12 hours notice before I was to take the test and that included time needed to make dinner, handle the night time routine with the kids, sleep, wake up and travel to the testing site. Needless to say, studying was not given an opportunity.

Did I mention, five hours of testing WITHOUT prior study.

My apologies, reiteration seemed necessary.

Now I am going to be real honest with you… I hate math. I absolutely detest the numbers and equations and simplicity of something that manages to give me so much grief. Sure, I can add, subtract, calculate percentages in my head – especially when there is a good shoe sale going on – but ask me the square root of anything and I am out of there. Numbers and I, we just don’t really get along, it’s nothing personal.

So when it came time to do the math part of the test, you might be surprised to learn that I truly didn’t sweat it much. I answered to the best of my ability and when all else failed, I any many miny moe’d what I didn’t know. At the end of the day, math is just not my thing and I was alright with whatever my math score was. The worst that was going to happen was me being told that I was not good at math. No big deal.

Out of the three parts, I was most excited about the reading part. Shoot, I can read! Reading is fun. It is an adventure, bring on the reading test!

What had me really panicking was the writing part. I am talking heart palpitations, sweaty palms, eye twitching, it wasn’t pretty. My husband just laughed, informed me to calm down and take a breather because this was not a pass or fail sort of test.

There was a lot of glaring going on at my house after dinner that night.

He didn’t understand. I wasn’t worried about passing or failing really. Sort of. It was more than that.

best-good-enough

I am a writer. I have spent the last ten years of my life with one goal in mind – write. What if this stupid assessment told me that I wasn’t very good at it? Then what? It was too much to handle, too much to consider and I almost called it quits last Wednesday. College just wasn’t for me. Not if it meant taking a stupid test that told me that I didn’t pass a writing assignment.

By morning, I stopped borrowing trouble and remembered something. I am a writer. So what if I didn’t score well, I would just learn to improve whatever I scored low on. That is the great thing about being a writer, there is always room for improvement. A first draft is just that, a first draft. No one expects you to get it right the first time, so do not expect as much from yourself either. Allow yourself room for growth and improvement, and remember… perfection is boring.

Have you ever been in a situation that made you doubt your abilities? If so, share with me in the comments below. 

Till next time,

~AJP

In case you are wondering, I failed the math section by 19 points, but scored a 7 out of 8 on my writing essay! All is right in my world.

 

Someone In Your Corner

 

THE CHAMPEverybody needs someone in their corner. Someone who can tell you that you’re good at what you do even though every part of you is trying to convince you that you suck.

It all comes back to that self-doubt problem that has been written about in this blog (and probably countless others) already. It’s just that it seems to be a constant issue with writers. We have to have people telling us that what we are doing is worthwhile to keep us going. Good sales on your books, help, of course. That knowledge that you have people out there buying and enjoying your work and anxiously awaiting that next installment is certainly a shot in the arm. But what if you’re new at this and don’t have that yet?

I’m lucky enough to have a group of friends and fellow writers who seem to think that what I write isn’t blech! And that is a big help in keeping me going. But even more important is the fact that I have a lady at home who thinks that I’m the next great American novelist and that my writing is going to make us rich. While I’d be happy if my book simply helps to pay the bills, she is convinced that Stephen Spielberg is going to read it and want to make it into a film and offer me a multi-million dollar movie contract. I think she’s being a bit optimistic but it’s great knowing that someone has that much confidence in what you’re doing.

It would be hard to keep writing if I was being told that I was wasting my time. “Why don’t you stop with that stupid typing and go mow the lawn, or something!” Ouch!

No, instead I have a wife who says, “What are doing that for? Get upstairs and write!” Sometimes I feel a bit like Paul Sheldon in ‘Misery.’ I hope my wife never reads that book.

Oh, okay. She’s not that bad. That’s just a slight exaggeration. But she won’t let me sit around doing nothing. If I have some spare time, I’d better be writing or else I’ll hear about it. And that’s good, because left to my own devices I might wind up getting lazy and my wife won’t allow that to happen. After all, I need to keep turning out that work for Spielberg.

Hopefully, most of you who are reading this have someone in their corner that has faith in what they are doing. A writing group. Friends. And, best of all, your own personal cheerleader at home. Right now I’m picturing my wife wearing a cheerleader’s outfit and waving pom-poms. She’s screaming, “Joe! Joe! He’s our man, if he can’t write it, no one can!”

All right, that just got weird there, didn’t it? She looks cute in the outfit, though.

 

 

Sometimes You Just Gotta Let It Out

A few weeks ago, I explained that my writing background is in journalism. While I am genuinely working to develop my creative side of writing, I find my roots, at least on a technical level, are still firmly rooted in my journalistic education. Face it, after 30 years of working to perfect any trade, it is hard to execute an about-face or even a deviation in one’s path.

So, setting aside my emerging creative aspirations and focusing this week on my anal, journalistic side, I want to address a couple of issues – “pet peeves,” you can call them – that I have in the hopes, that by jotting them down on paper (or a blog), I can shake them off and, perhaps, get them out of my system so I can move on. By the way, can I even use the word “anal?”

My rant is not about creative writing, but is directed mostly at professional journalism and, specifically, news broadcasters, although print reporters are not entirely innocent either.

Try this on for size: “The tornado completely destroyed the high school.” With all the storms in our area, this type of phrase has been used lately, either out of carelessness or perhaps toward exploiting the dramatic effect. But, as I was taught and had beaten into to me by my teachers, that if a building is “destroyed,” would it not be by definition “complete” and total? If it is not “complete,” then it would be “damaged,” since “destruction” is already all or nothing.

You see, journalism is about using language effectively and efficiently, meaning that redundancies on the professional level, as I was taught, are not tolerated.

Another example comes from the news of a recent tornado in Oklahoma where it was reported that “a warehouse had been totally leveled.” Again, if a building is leveled, would it not be “total?”

Then there is the word “unique,” which is also abused constantly by broadcasters and just about everyone else these days. According to Merriam-Webster, “unique” primarily means: “being the only one.” I say “primarily,” because the word has been abused with terms such as, “very unique” so commonly that their dictionary has a sidebar dedicated to the debate of how some people accept the term. After all, if an item or person is unique, how could adding the word “very” make it any more of one of a kind.

There are other examples in contemporary journalism that I could discuss, such as how the word “literally,” which has come to be overused and abused; or how the small word “very,” as referred to above, is frequently added for emphasis where it is not needed.

So there, call me “anal” but at least I got my rant and a couple of my pet peeves out in the open.

 

Rewrite, Rework and Lessons Learned

Rewrite

Several years ago, I began writing a story with a roundabout target of 50,000 words to 60,000 words. At this point, the plot and storyline don’t really matter, but the experience and its revealing lesson I think will be of tremendous help to me and perhaps other writers. In fact, this particular lesson is not over because it is going to still be quite a while until I will be ready to have my Twisted writing colleagues critique even the first few chapters.

I have, however, had a few people look at the first chapter or two of the original version – what I had thought was the final draft. Their consensus, though, was that the beginning was weak. So, I looked over the first couple of paragraphs, reworking them three or four times, but saw, at best, little to no improvement.

It tuned out that I had missed their point, which has caused some frustration, but I think it will be well worth it in the end.

Originally, I had liked the beginning as an intro to the protagonist and for creating the setting of the story. But, it was not until somewhat later when I realized it was not just the first couple of paragraphs that were the problem, but the whole beginning. Basically, that was when the learning experience started, as I had misunderstood what they were trying to convey.

As I look over the story now, these few years later and drawing from other critiques, the opening chapters, I realize, fail to spark any true interest and, like a car with a flat tire, it falls short of getting to the plot and pulling in the reader. Additionally, even though I had been generally satisfied with the background and character development, the plot, itself, was, indeed, rather weak.

Since then, I have liberated the story from my files and began to review it for a rewrite – to rework the beginning and strengthen the plot.   My thinking was to take the story and basically insert new sections, as a contractor would refurbish a building, and then shore up the links to ensure continuity.

That line of thinking, at least in this case, has not been working for me. So, I have decided on an alternate approach of coming from the opposite direction. I figure that by sticking with the same story idea, but adding some life to the plot, starting with a whole new beginning, I can write a much improved version, based on all the alleged wisdom I have gained since starting this story. Of course, I will still use much of what I have already written, like constructing a new building with some of the old walls. So, instead of writing between existing sections, as I first mentioned above, I will attempt to add as many of the original sections that will fit to the new version.

This rework is going to take some more time than originally conceived and I will have to discard at least a few of the sections, if not whole chapters, but I am already envisioning a much better and engaging draft. But then, who knows what other ideas I am destined to come up with and lessons I will learn toward improving this and future stories.

 

“Popular” Writing versus “Good” Writing

 

angry crowd

The success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ got me to thinking about popular writing versus good writing. Not that they can’t be one in the same, of course. Often they are. It’s just that, well…often they’re not.

Now, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t give an opinion on it. A lot of people I know have, however. Read it, that is. Not one of them liked it. As a matter of fact, several couldn’t get through it. These are people who, in my humble opinion have some pretty good tastes in literature. And most professional book critics seem to have torn it apart.

And with ‘Fifty Shades,’ not only has it become a runaway best seller, they went and made it into a flick which is doing very well in the theaters. On top of that, there’s a sequel planned, I understand. The writer of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is obviously very rich at the moment and probably isn’t caring very much about what the critics think. And why should she (Or is it a “he”) care, anyway. She’s giving the public what they want and they’re eating it up. And copy-cats have sprung up. One is called ‘Fifty Shades of Blue.’ The author is I.B. Naughty. Ya’ gotta love that one!

So, as a new writer, I can’t help but wonder how much I really need to work to try and turn out a successful book. I can’t help wondering if I’m trying too hard. Maybe I didn’t need to take three years to write ‘Jenny.’ Maybe I could have slapped a few hard core sex scenes in there and not worried so much about the story. If that’s what the public wants, why not give it to them? After all, there’s nothing wrong with sex. Right? It’s good. I’m not a Puritan, I’m all for it

But how would I feel about it, even if the book sold well? Roll around in my money and not care whether or not I’m considered a “serious” author? Or guilty that I had sold out? Hmmm…money would buy a lot of pretty things. And my wife really wants a house on the beach… (Sigh!).

There’s always a pen name, of course. Yeah…that would work. I.B. Naughty seems to have been taken. But I’m sure I can come up with something. How about Hugh R. Hornee? That’s not bad. I could write as Hugh and watch the money pour in while I satisfy the literary part of me by writing my “serious” book. I’m weak, though. I’m afraid that if I did that and started to see thousands of dollars rolling in from Hornee’s work I’d kick the “serious” work to the curb. Hell, if Hugh R. Hornee’s novels just bought me a yacht, screw Joe Bucemi and his high-falootin ways!

But, what if you can’t have it both ways? What if it was time to make a deal with the Devil? He gives you two options. You can write a trashy book that critics are practically laughing over, but sells a million copies and gets you a multi-million dollar movie deal. Or you can write one that is generally regarded as one of the most beautifully written pieces of literature ever seen by human eyes. The trouble is, hardly anyone will read it and you will barely make enough money on it to pay your electric bill. Ironically, it will become popular ten years after you’re dead.

Hmmm…again. Would I start to think of all those pretty words, or all those pretty things and that house on the beach? I would have to make sure my wife wasn’t in the room while I was making my decision. I know which one she would pick.

 

 

Criticism

 

LARGE BUILDINGS

The word criticism has a certain stigma attached to it. It conjures up images of your work being torn apart. Often, by people you do not consider worthy; the unwashed masses who are not intelligent enough to share your vision. Really?Geez…get over yourself!

Criticism, unless it’s done with some evil intent, can be a very good thing. As a matter of fact, it’s very often a good thing. It keeps you from getting lazy. A bit too complacent. I’d start to get a little suspicious if all I heard was how great I am. Okay, not that there is any danger of that…but I’d figure they must want something.

No, I want you to tell me that something is wrong if something is wrong. I can’t grow as a writer if you are trying not to hurt my feelings. Our Twisted group is terrific when it comes to this. We have all become friends, but when it’s time for critiquing, don’t think for a minute you’re going to get away with showing us something that you slapped together without putting in any effort. We will see the lack of effort and you will be called out. But no hard feelings. After the meeting we all meet at the Twisted Root for a couple of beers.

We have had those who could not get over themselves, however. And yes, we were considered dullards and our I.Q.’s were thought not to be high enough to appreciate the magnificence of the work in question. We do not meet at the top floor of a skyscraper, so they did not throw themselves out the window. They just did not return to the group. And that’s fine. We aren’t a mutual admiration society. We’re a writing and critique group and would prefer to have people who want to be critiqued and improve as writers.

When I read some of the work I did when first joining the group and compare it to what I’m doing now, I can see such a dramatic improvement. And it’s because they let me know when something was wrong. That’s why you don’t ask your Mother to review your writing. She won’t tell you it’s bad. She’ll just proudly hang it on the refrigerator with a magnet that has a nice yellow smiley face. If that’s all you are looking for from your writing, then that’s great.

But, I want to be published. That’s why The Twisted Writers are reading my book, ‘Jenny,’ in preparation for a review. I’d prefer to hear about the mistakes from them rather then read the lousy reviews in Amazon. I hope they like it. But, if it’s really awful, what the hell. I’ll just  hang it on the refrigerator with a smiley face magnet.