Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Writing Profile: Finding Myself

Every now and then I take the time to search for myself online. This may sound like a bit of an ego trip, and while I am loathe to admit that I actually have an ego, it really isn't really about my ego. It's about marketing. Checking myself online is more like taking the temperature of my writing, finding out how hot I am on line. Can people find my work easily? Do I need to add tags to something I want to have be more accessible? What can I do to boost sales?

Sometimes I find something surprising. For many years if you googled "Laurie Kay Olson" the first item that would come up was a pregnancy and childbirth website. It was a strange connection for an old, childless spinster. The website had selected to quote me from one of the columns I wrote for the Colorado Daily newspaper back in 1997. It was a humorous observation of why men felt pressured to invent the epidural. In the past few weeks, this entry has disappeared.

There was a time when your work as a journalist lasted about a day, just until the next edition was on the street and the old one was lining the bottom of a birdcage or was put down for the dog to make his editorial comments. Now, with the advent of the Internet, writing has a much longer shelf-life. So, on a whim I added Colorado Daily after my name and found a few interesting items from the long past.

1. Yesterday's Junk Becomes Tomorrow's Office Building
2. The review of the book The Soul Unearthed on the publisher's site
3. One of my columns re-posted by a fan - Look What I Writ for International Literacy Day

So my past journalistic endeavors have not completely disappeared into the morgue at the Colorado Daily, bound up in some dusty volume, or, more likely, on a forgotten roll of microfilm.

There is an old Hungarian folk tale that says that when you die, if you have created something that outlives you, you go on to live in a special place for as long as your work is still around. I've always liked that story. I'd like to think that all of us who write would have a long and healthy life in that place. Words can be eternal.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Writing Down the Past: An Examination of the Geek Life

Years ago I went to my 20th high school reunion. It took a lot for me to do this since school had not been good to me and I had faced a fair amount of bullying. I was working for the paper at that time and I convinced my boss that I would be able to get an interview with Rick Reilly, then of Sports Illustrated fame and now with ESPN. My editor had serious doubts about this since Rick hadn't given him an interview. However, being armed with a professional task gave me some level of comfort. If things got uncomfortable, I would be able to retreat behind the professional mantle of reporter. It also meant that I had a photographer with me and wouldn't be standing around alone.

Despite my discomfort over facing the past, I ended up having a great time. The drama of high school had fallen away and everyone was just friendly. I had been the Queen of the sci fi geeks back then -- okay, I was president of the science fiction club senior year. I was surprised by how many people had known me and remembered me. True to what my sister had told me had happened to her at her reunion, I spent most of my time talking with the people I had also known in Junior High.

In a most surprising conversation, one of the girls told me about how much she had hated high school. I was astounded. For the sake of this post I shall call her Lisa. Lisa had had it all in high school - the popularity, the boys, the cheerleading. She had had the high school experience that could have made her a Norman Rockwell poster girl. Where she had been in the full flow of the experience, I had been marginalized to the world of freaks and geeks. My senior year of high school was one of the happiest years of my life.

When I had first started high school, I had tried to go the traditional route. I had joined the pep club and hung out around the cheerleaders, the jocks, and the popular kids. I was absolutely miserable. As time went on I gravitated away from them and towards those who were into science fiction and Star Trek. My junior year we geeks had coalesced into our own clique - the uncliquiest clique ever. Some of my sci friends were also writers in the making, so we had a lot in common. We had a great time embracing the silly, the odd, and the absurd. No doubt are parents were rather taken aback that they were raising Trekkies. On the other hand, if we were going to be addicted to something, this was pretty tame.

It has taken years of ruminating on this to begin to get a handle on it. Perhaps Lisa had been just as miserable as I had been doing the whole pep-club-cheerleader-jocks standard high school experience. Where I had taken a sudden left turn into geekiness, she had tread the straight and narrow of what was expected of a high school girl. Without trying, I had been drawn to my truth. Perhaps Lisa hadn't even known what her truth was at that time. I'm not saying that Lisa was a closet Trekkie and would have been happier with my crowd, but there may have been a happier place somewhere in the high school hierarchy for her. Peer and parental pressures may have come to bear to help keep her in an unhappy place.

Unlikely as it seems, perhaps the geeks and the nerds are happier with their lot than the popular kids. We didn't spend as much time trying to fit in with the right clothes, make up, and gear. We didn't have to be in the right relationship with the right, socially acceptable person.

Lisa and I both ended up as writers. She has been much happier post-high school. I've had some difficult times, but I am much happier post-Prozac. At least one of my old Trek posse has also become a writer. And as far as I know, not one of us is living in our parent's basement. Being a geek has probably helped me in my writing life. At the very least, my first published short story was science fiction. It played a part in other things as well. One of the characters in the novel I am putting finishing touches on was abducted by aliens. Yep. I love the writing life.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Leaping Into the Void

In the last week I have embarked on a new venture. I was looking for a regular 9-5 job on Craig's List when I found an ad seeking writers. On a whim I took a chance and followed up to see if the post seemed to be legit. I included my resume, which shows my newspaper work, and a link to this blog. In short order I received a reply from

To begin with them I was to write three blog posts as a Guest Blogger. This would allow us to work out how we would work together, my understanding on submitting, and what they are looking for. They had especially liked what they had found under "This is a Life?" So they wanted news stories with a humorous slant on pets and animals. Great! I can do that. No problem!

One problem. I am no longer all that used to writing to someone else's specifications. How do I do that again?

I selected a topic -- the dogs who were passengers on the Titanic for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship. Nice, topical, trendy. Yep. I can do this. Wait. How do I make this funny? It was an enormous tragedy. So I set about surfing the web for everything I could find out about the dogs who sailed. There I finally found the answer. The ship's cat, who had boarded in Ireland, had left the ship in England before the start of the actual voyage, taking her litter of kittens with her. Yes! A conspiracy theory of the first order! The first post was good.

The second blog post would center on transgendered chickens. My neighbor, Isabel, had set up her tiny urban farm with nine hens to supply her large family with a steady supply of eggs. Then one of them switched sides and turned rooster. I did a little web research and found more information on this phenomenon. This was a tricky subject to treat with humor. I had to be careful about passing opinion. I wasn't out to create any more controversy than already existed on the topic. I think I did well. They published it.

The third was giving me fits. What to write about now. All I could think of was some of the strange encounters I had had with animals. They were very funny, but not exactly news. So I tried the exotic pets angle. Don't have a raccoon as a pet, no matter how much they want to volunteer for it. I added my mum's experience with raccoons in the house and my experiences with them in the neighborhood. I added in a recent news report of raccoon attacks in public parks. Okay. It seemed to work. They published it. Then I received an email reiterating that they wanted more of a "news" story to improve their website's progile. They asked if I thought I could really handle that part. I quickly responded that I could handle both the news stories and the softer personal pieces.

All of a sudden I fell into a funk of depression the likes of which I had not experienced in a long time. What was wrong? Was I doubting if I could really handle news? Perhaps. Was a wondering if this was an opportunity that I should pass on? Possibly, but I doubted that. I dealt with it in the old way -- a couple of Big Macs and large fries. Something was definitely bothering me. I hadn't eaten  a Big Mac in years. As I let the depression run its course I finally looked into a metaphorical mirror. That was hard. I realized that I was indeed having a reaction to writing to someone else's expectations. What it came right down to is that my ego was feeling a bit bruised. I knew the prescription for that -- GET OVER THYSELF, LAURIE!

You can't truly be professional writer or author without being able to set your ego aside and take in what your editor or publisher is asking of you. Compromise is not a dirty word. You need your editors and publishers to help you reach what you want -- a readership, and hopefully a decent amount of sales. I swallowed what my false pride and set out to work on more blogs for Happily so and with a full heart. After all this was a new chapter with a new adventure. This was a move in the right direction for what I wanted in life -- to support myself as a published writer. What could be better than that? Okay, suddenly finding myself with a Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games would be. Being a blogger was not going to make me rich, either. But you have to take the first steps on a journey to make it to your destination.

This morning I mailed my signed contract. There was a definite feeling that I was jumping off a new cliff straight into the cavernous unknown. I'm not the biggest risk taker, but if you don't try you will never know. Now I am getting excited about some of the ideas for blog posts that are coming my way. Most will be on the news beat, with the occasional personal experience piece. All with humor. Which, after all, is my milieu.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Not Another Diet!

Yes, but this one is a bit easier than trying to count calories, carbs, or fat. This is more of a portion control diet - for your manuscript. It is so easy to over write your story and lose the point and slow the tempo with too much verbiage. Trimming the excess from your work can create more immediacy of contact with your reader. You want to dazzle them with brilliance not make them hunt through a word search puzzle to find your meaning.

Many years ago I took classes in creative writing from children's author Barbara Steiner through the University of Colorado's department of continuing education. Taking classes from a published author rather than an academic did a great deal to hone my writing skills. Class assignments were very limited in word count, so you had to edit. It was from Barbara that I learned a number of tips on writing leaner, more direct writing. Here are some of the gems I still treasure:

When rewriting, you can usually cut at least one word from each sentence. I used this technique a lot when working for the newspaper because there space is everything. A subcategory under this heading would be word length. My newspaper articles were not limited by word count, but by the number of characters I was allotted. As I struggled to cut my character count, I found that my writing was improved by using shorter, simpler words. The streamlined result was sharp and to the point.

Use adjectives sparingly, lead the reader to that point without telling them outright. This is a tough one. It can be so easy to tell someone that something is lovely, friendly, adoringly, handsomely, than to add a bit of detail to take the reader there. In Barbara's class we had to write a short piece describing a scene without using any adjectives. It was sheer torture! And one of the best lessons of my life. I described a moment of fresh snow. Without adjectives I had to really move into the visual of the scene and added detail that I might never have though of otherwise.

Avoid thesaurus abuse.  There are times when you want to find just the right word with just the right nuance to enhance your story. Some writers will fall into the trap of using far flung language to make them sound more educated, more intelligent, or worse, show off a high-highfalutin vocabulary. One thing you never want to do is stop your reader and remove them from the flow of your story. If they have to keep running for the dictionary every other sentence. This doesn't mean you need to write down to them, just speak to them as though they were there in the room with you.

Cut out the cliche. This can be as fun as a barrel full of . . . well, you know. That's the problem. Everyone knows. Why should they read what you have to say if it has already been said? I once went to the local theater to see a revival of Dracula. It was the funniest thing and the audience roared with laughter. The problem? It was a drama. Every line in the play had been replayed so often over the decades since it first frightened theater-goers, that the original intent had been completely lost. Make your vampire totally unique if you insist on going down that well-trodden road. Maybe your vampire is anorexic, or your werewolf has split ends. You only need to take a step or two one direction or another to put your own stamp or originality on your work.

Don't regurgitate. Okay, that sounds disgusting, but the point is valid. Much of the writing we do in school is just regurgitating what we've learned there. The old "write what you know" can be easily misconstrued into various forms of regurgitation. I know all sorts of things, but just spitting that back out would be boring as hell. If it bores me to write it, I can be fairly certain that it will bore others to read it You can take a wild idea and build it out of what you know. I don't know a whacky small town in Arkansas filled with unique individuals who have unlikely experiences, but I can extrapolate what I know into that space. You know people and how they act, react and interact. You don't have to write those specific people, but you can draw on your knowledge of them to create amazingly real characters, even if they are wizards or aliens.

 Now, go forth and write. And don't be afraid to remind me of these things when it looks like I've forgotten them. We writers are all human after all, no matter how many times we dream of being something else.