Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More Pieces to Fit In: Background, Bridges, Your Next BFF - Diane Coleman

Jigsaw puzzles often have large sections of background—sky or grass or trees—with lots of similar pieces. Books have background pieces too: documents, descriptions of locations and sites, newspaper articles, community events and gatherings, awards and commendations given to key characters, family/company/team photos, newsletters, correspondence, organization minutes, advertisements. The list goes on and on.

There are several ways to document these. The simplest way is to photograph them, but they can also be read aloud and recorded for later transcription or merely copied by hand. If you have access to a scanner, images can be scanned directly into your computer. Organize them with color-coded flags just like the transcript quotations.

So now you have lots of little piles of color-coded pieces that you want to assemble. And the whole thing is going to seem disjointed unless you smooth out the narrative with what I call “bridges.” These are sections of text that move readers from one topic or speaker to the next.

Quotations from different people about the same topic should fit together as if all the interviewees were in the same room when you talked to them. This is usually not too difficult to do.

But bridging between topics can be a little trickier, requiring some kind of segue way. Usually background information can be inserted to set the scene and take the reader from one topic to the next. But sometimes the transition may not be easily accomplished, in which case you need to interrupt the text with a visual break such as an asterisk line or white space. For very abrupt topic changes, a complete chapter break is necessary.

This is where you need the advice of an outside, independent, experienced editor.

A quick word about editors: they are your BEST FRIENDS. Rule of thumb: ALWAYS TAKE THEIR ADVICE.

For any writer, allowing someone else to work on your beloved manuscript (your BABY!)…well, it can sometimes be super-intimidating. And it’s hard at first not to internalize their suggestions as personal criticism. Another rule of thumb: YOU’LL GET OVER IT.

Remember, editors are as eager and enthusiastic as you are to see the final manuscript go to press and be well-received. They are your allies, not your enemies. So embrace—yes, embrace!—their comments (and them too—they like that). Even when they change what you think are your most clever passages. Even when they seem to be way too fond of their red pen (or font, as the case may be). I’ve found that in the end, they always make me look like a far better writer than I am—praise God for that!

Next week: collaborating and writing for someone else.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Interview Piece - Diane Coleman

A week or so before each interview, I give the interviewee a list of basic questions that I intend to ask. This primes the pump, gets them thinking, and puts them at ease about the process, reassuring them that I’m not out to ambush them or dig up dirt. I’m not Maury Povich (God forbid!)

But neither am I Barbara Walters. So to make sure I get everything right I use a digital recorder.

This may not be practical or safe in some of your locations. If it arouses suspicion or dampens the spontaneity of the conversation, it’s simply not worth it. But, if it is at all possible, I highly advise it. It is far superior to taking notes, allows you to give your full attention to the interviewee, and guarantees your accuracy.

I ALWAYS ask their permission to use a recorder. Most people agree when I explain why and how I will use the recording. I transcribe every interview, clean up the inevitable grammatical errors, sentence fragments, and other assorted verbal weirdnesses that everyone exhibits in normal conversation. Yes, this is time-consuming, but trust me, it will save you HOURS of work later on when you are actually writing.

Then I give each interviewee a hard copy of the transcript for their review and editing BEFORE CHOOSING ANY QUOTATIONS FOR PUBLICATION. It is amazing how relieved everyone is about this. If you’ve ever been misquoted, had your comments taken out of context, or winced at a slip of the tongue or terrible grammar, you know why.

Self-editing allows interviewees to correct inaccuracies, fix misspellings of unfamiliar names, and eliminate things they now wish they hadn’t said - which happens a LOT. Most interviewees become very comfortable as the conversation progresses and tend to reveal more than they expect to. A few transcripts have been returned to me looking like the CIA got hold of them. Sometimes I’m really sad about this because the discarded stuff isn’t “bad.” Some of it is really funny, or poignant, or devastatingly real. But - sigh - I stick to my promise and don’t use it if the interviewee is uncomfortable with it showing up in black and white.

When the edited transcripts are returned, I highlight all the possible usable quotations and categorize them according to a basic outline of topics, assigning colors to each topic and using colored sticky flags on the pages to tag every highlighted quotation so I can find it easily when I start writing.

The final extraction of these quotations can be done electronically with the original docs on your computer. Quotations can be cut and pasted directly from them into your draft, cross-checking them with the edited hard copies to incorporate any changes. The “find” feature in Word is indispensable for this.

Meanwhile, you should be actively collecting other puzzle pieces. More about that next week.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's a Jigsaw Puzzle: Acquiring the Elusive Pieces of Writing - Diane Coleman

The Truth About Islam and Cry of the Heart and Quest of the Mind were co-authored with Dr. Anees Zaka, founder of the Biblical Institute for Islamic Studies in Philadelphia. Anees is EASTERN and he’s MALE, so we’re about as different from one another as two people can get.

Yet when we work on books together, we have this “mind-meld” thing going on. Really. I can’t count the number of times that one of us thinks of something and the other e-mails the exact same idea almost simultaneously.

The two biographies, It All Began with a Number Two Lead Pencil and Bruno-isms: A Profile in Uncommon Sense, were written primarily from hundreds of hours of recorded interviews of people from all walks of life, from plumbers to financial analysts to a state senator.

And as I’m sitting here wondering how to describe these projects, all I can think about is jigsaw puzzles.

Writing a book-length memoir or biography is a lot like putting together jigsaw puzzle. Books are made up of pieces, but the pieces are far more elusive. They are sensory and fleeting—scenes, songs, smells, textures, flavors, words. Especially words. You have to collect a lot of them from a lot of sources and then figure out how they all fit together.

If you are serious about writing a memoir of your overseas experience for a broader audience, your journal, as good and deep and insightful as it is, cannot supply all of the hundreds of pieces you need for a book. Differing points-of-view and background information give texture to any story. I mean, really, your observations are great, but don’t you like it that there are FOUR gospels?

So, as a first step, maybe you ought to think about …gulp!… interviewing other people.

Don’t panic. It’s really not as scary as it sounds. In fact, it is actually a very “piece-ful” process (groan…I know, I know…I couldn’t resist…).

Your interviewee list includes people you interact with on a regular basis, those with whom you have a personal relationship, plus individuals with special insight or information to add depth to your story. We’re talking about co-workers, team members, national friends and officials, organization leaders, etc.

Don’t be nervous about asking people if they will agree to be interviewed. Most people are really flattered to be able to contribute to a book and some are downright eager! But you’ll also get a few who will be reticent and drawing them out can be a little tricky. I have found that conducting the interview in an informal setting or doing it jointly with one of their friends or colleagues often helps.

Remember that interviewing is basically just a structured conversation. With practice, you’ll get the hang of it. But afterward, extracting and organizing all that verbiage can be overwhelming. As I stumbled and bumbled my way through this process, I developed a few little techniques that turned out to be lifesavers for me. I hope they will be helpful to you too.

More about that next week.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Best Author Characteristics

While we wait for our next blog host to show up--she's coming next week--I'll give you a list of best-author characteristics given to me at a workshop at the Evangelical Press Association Convention last week by the Loyola Press Senior Editor and author of The Soul Tells a Story, Vinita Wright.

Best-Author Characteristics

1. Willing to learn what the editorial process is and how best to participate in it

2. Meets deadlines

3. Responsive to editor

4. Has a worthwhile and fresh message

5. Openness: really tells the editor what she thinks and feels; the editor feels she knows the writer's opinion and won't voice a different one to someone else in the company (magazine/book publisher)

6. Understands that, even though she's accomplished in some areas, there's always more to learn

7. Listens to and does her best to process the editor's suggestions and instructions

8. Argues with the editor when she really thinks she's right; has thought out reasons for wanting to go her own way in specific situations.

9. Understands that being a good speaker, teacher, or pastor does not automatically translate into being a good writer

10. Enjoys brainstorming with the editor about the ideas in the book/article and ways to organize and present them

11. When upset, processes emotions before responding to the editor

12. Respects the job the editor is obligated to; respects her editorial opinion even though she doesn't always agree with you

The Soul Tells the Story synopsis: There is a reason artists tend to feel a sense of the sacred in their work. It's the same reason those on the path of spiritual formation find that creative exercises lead them into a deeper, more authentic experience with God. Creative work is soul work, and soul work is always creative work. Feeding one while neglecting the other will leave you restless and unsatisfied. Nurturing them both will lead you to new places of self-discovery and God-discovery. "I believe that spirituality and creativity are intricately connected, yet they are rarely nurtured and talked about that way," contends Vinita Hampton Wright. In these pages she leads you through the process and practice of integrating the worlds of Christian spirituality and creativity. You will find both inspiration and practical help for
  • embracing the life that chooses you
  • understanding the spiritual process of creativity
  • facing the self you have to deal with
  • comprehending the relationship of sexuality to both art and soul
  • developing a supportive community for your work
  • thriving as a creative person in the real world
The Soul Tells a Story helps you to turn frustrated longings into satisfying growth.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Signing Off: Blogging Wrap-up - Robin W.

I want to thank you all for the privilege of hosting WOTH Writer's Blog. It was such an exciting opportunity to meet all of you, especially those serving cross-culturally. Even though this is the last post, please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding your blog. I would love to continue to help you further develop your blog.

I am going to refer back to my first post, and ask the question: “Why are you blogging?

No matter the answer, you have a blog; therefore, you want the readers. Why else post? You are posting to share. Blogging is a community, a big community with many MANY different “sub-communities.”

IF you desire the readers--GET INVOLVED. Read other blogs, comment, build relationships. Find blogs similar towards yours, and encourage their writing.

Jamie Jo, a fellow blogger said, “Comments are a blogger's paycheck.” How true! I know that I often post to start discussion through comments.

QUESTION: But how do I get people to comment and be interested?

ANSWER: Through simple comment etiquette. If someone comments on your blog check-out theirs and post a comment. If they don't have a blog, respond to their comment. First thanking them for the comment and then responding to their comment.

The length of the response is easily judged by the length of their comment. In most cases I try to give the responder a little more than what they commented.

For example: If someone simply said, “Great post, loved it.”

I would say, “Thank you so much for commenting and reading. I really appreciate the comment, it is such an encouragement.


Conclusion and Self-check:
My former housemate, a fellow-blogger, and I were talking about blogging. Why do we blog? Is it pride or desire for attention. Of course! Blogging can be very affirming, and answer all of our immediate needs. I quickly learned that for me blogging is secondary to the needs of family and ministry.

Although I know a few people who use their blog for ministry, they are not the majority. No, for me I blog for my friends and family back home. Yes I am ministering to them, but mostly I blog because people back home can feel more intimately involved in my life and I can share my love forwriting ---> a win, win situation.

However, blogging can quickly get-out-of-hand because it feeds right into our sin-nature. Our blog highlights us as individuals, and as we all slowly gain more and more readers, we need to continuously ask ourselves these questions: “Why am I blogging?”; “Is blogging taking me away from my first priorities?”; and “On a value scale, can I live without my blog?”.

In Job 34:5-6a it states: “For Job has said, ‘I am righteous, But God has taken away my justice; Should I lie concerning my right?” Job lost all his rights in birth.

Be careful of pride or self-righteousness in our own works and blog.

Signing-off from Jordan, Robin W

Special thanks to:
Cindy B (editor of WOTH)
Kinzi (my mommy blogger)
Lisa B (my housemate and encourager)
Brooke W (my editor)

Editor's Note: Congratulations to Robin on her article, "Loving Arabs without Losing Myself," published in the new issue of the WOTH onlineMagazine, May/June '11!


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