Goodreads: A Tool for Becoming a Better Writer

I have reconnected with a web site called Goodreads recently. It is dedicated to helping you keep track of your reading and finding new things to read and discuss with other members of the site. I had set up an account a while back and gone through the motions of identifying some of the genres that I liked to read, some of the books that I wanted to read, rating books that I had already read, and even reviewing some of them.

What occurred to me was that it was important for me to keep better track of when I started reading books, when I finished them, and to set goals for myself. So, I went back to Goodreads and took up a challenge to read 24 books in 2019. I will probably read more than that. I will adjust my goal if it becomes obvious that I have set it too low. The important thing is to get a clear idea of how much and what I’m reading.

I have learned an important thing working with engineers over the past thirty years or so. The first thing they do when they start a project is they set up goals and metrics. This helps them to understand the rate at which they are getting things done. I don’t know why it has taken me this long to start applying this principle to things I want to accomplish in my own life.

It is important for a writer to read at least as much as they write, if not more. After all, that is how one learns to recognize good writing so that one can emulate it. Keeping track of how much one reads, and for that matter, how much one writes, becomes a useful tool in evaluating ones progress as a writer.

Aside from the strictly quantitative aspect of the site, there are a number of forums that encourage one to discuss the books that they have read. This too is an important aspect of growing as a writer. I took the time to search out some of the people that I new and connect with them on the site. This allows me to see what they are reading and to strike up conversations about books that we’ve both read.

It is refreshing to find a web site that exists primarily to enrich the lives of its patrons. I’m sure they make a reasonable profit from advertising but that is how such places ensure their ability to continue to serve their community. If you’re an aspiring writer or just enjoy discussing books and discovering new things to read, check it out.

Writing as a Collaborative Art

I’ve been doing some thinking lately. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about why I write. What do I want to accomplish? Am I writing with the intention of selling my writing to someone else to read? Or, am I writing to figure out what I think about things? In either case, there is a desire to engage with my readers. At my age, I don’t expect to make a living with my writing. It would be nice if I could swing it but I’m not betting on it.

This puts me firmly in the category of amateur writer, in the sense that an amateur does something for the love of doing it. Any income derived from writing will be welcomed and probably immediately reinvested in producing more writing.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to become a good writer or that I don’t want to figure out how to publish my work and make enough from it to at least pay the costs of writing and promoting my work. I have the added luxury of being able to retire and live partially on my pension. I face the challenge of all pensioners of trying to ensure that my retirement money lasts as long as I do.

I have discovered as I look into the business of writing that I know more than I realize about running a business. I know that you have to account for everything, time, materials, services, relationships. You’ve got to keep meticulous records. Records of expenditures, details of the things that you’ve tried and how well they work. Ways of stretching your time and money to accomplish as much as possible with the least investment. You look for win-win situations and ways to get investments to serve double duty.

This leads me to the conclusion that, like it or not, I’m going to have to develop some level of skills at running a business. This may actually have the added benefit of helping me manage my personal finances more prudently. It is rather late in life for me to be figuring these things out but I guess it is better late than never.

I have made a good start on an important aspect of a writer’s career. I have begun meeting other writers and forming support networks. No one ever truly accomplishes anything totally alone. This is particularly true of writing. After theatrical productions (in which category I clump stage, screen, and concert productions), publishing is one of the most complex of the collaboratory endeavors.

Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers, can all practice their professions solo. They often choose to employ teams of support personnel but they aren’t totally necessary. Writers can write by themselves but to produce a salable product they most collaborate with editors, artists, graphic designers, typesetters, publicists, the list goes on and on.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Rhetorically Speaking …

I’ve written here about the benefit of constraints and I have commented on the fact that writing in a different place helps get the creative juices flowing. I recently read a blog post by Alec Nevala-Lee where he mentions a technique that Anthony Burgess described in the Writer’s Digest. He said that he often turned to a page in the dictionary and tried to use as many words from that page as possible in writing the scene at hand. It was that process of random selection that provided the constraint that inspired the creative process.

It is this process of transforming something from one form to another that captures our attention. I often write my blog in the same place but I find that I have more luck when I have watched a particularly engaging show on television or read something on the web prior to attempting to write.

From this, I conclude that writing, at least the way I do it, is a processes of assimilating something, transforming it, and creating something new from it. My dad taught Rhetoric. It was in the school catalog as Speech, English, and Theater but he was a Rhetorician so that was what he taught no matter what the title of the class was.

One of the fundamental mechanisms of Rhetoric is dialectic. Dialectic starts with stating a thesis, continues with stating the antithesis, and concludes by forming a synthesis of the two. This is what is going on when you take something like an article or a television show or a page from a dictionary and process it through the filter of your intent to produce the synthesis which is the piece that you write.

Being aware of this process makes it easier to come up with topics for my blog. It also makes the posts that I write better. Who am I to argue with Aristotle. He’s been inspiring the best writers for millennia now. I will just knuckle down and learn my craft and tip my hat to Aristotle and Dr. Joe Miller who introduced me to him.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Deadlines Are Your Friends

I’ve never particularly liked deadlines but they do seem to boost productivity. For example, I had from February 8th until March 8th to write approximately 2000 words for my writers’ group. After a couple of weeks, I came up with an idea for a story. I wrote about eight hundred words of the story. Then I let it sit until two nights before the deadline.

It sounds like I was just procrastinating and I’ll admit that there was a component of procrastination at work but there was also something else. I was trying to figure out how I was going to tell a story that I was beginning to suspect was more of a novella than a short story. It took the pressure of an impending deadline to trigger that last little bit of imagination that helped me to reimagine it as a short story.

A short story has less room to develop complex ideas. It is more like a sketch than a complete drawing. It takes advantage of stereotypes and other means of suggesting more detail than is actually there. And the point is often some sort of twist that is clever but doesn’t result in any major change on the part of the protagonist.

So, two nights before the deadline, I finally figured out my twist. I wrote five hundred words that night and the rest the next. The story isn’t polished yet. That is the point of the writer’s group. I am looking for help to tease the most out of the story. But I did end up with a credible first draft and I credit the deadline with helping me to pull this juicy piece of bacon out of the fire.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Pause to Plan

I have come to the conclusion that the major reason that I am finding it so difficult to write a blog post most days is the time of day that I’m setting aside to do it. I have been waiting to blog until right before I go to bed. By then I am tired and not thinking as clearly as I do earlier in the day. I struggle to remember the things that have occurred to me earlier in the day that would indubitably be exciting topics for a blog post.

Life is about making choices. I made an important choice seven years ago when I started writing at In those seven years I have become a much better writer. I have completed NaNoWriMo twice and attempted it two other times. I have written several short stories and hundreds of blog posts.

Almost a year ago I decided to step up my game and commit to writing a blog post daily. I felt like it would have several beneficial effects on me. It would force me to write things to be read by other people. My journal was private. No one but me would ever read it so it didn’t matter what I wrote. When you write for someone else to read, you shoulder a certain amount of responsibility. For example, responsibility for the veracity of what you say when you assert that something is true. You also accept a certain amount of responsibility to entertain, or inform, or both. You must give your reader some reason to read what you’ve written.

At about the same time, I stepped up the quota on my journal entry to a thousand words. Writing longer journal entries helped me learn to sustain longer threads of thought. It has been a productive year.

Now, I find myself feeling a need for a shift in my focus. I want to do some writing to share with a critique group. The experience of reading other people’s writing and giving constructive criticism of it while at the same time having them critique something you’ve written seems like the next step in my development as a writer.

This is going to require me to rethink my schedule. I can’t continue to write approximately fifteen hundred words a day, a thousand word journal entry and an approximately five hundred word blog post, and still have enough time left over to write things for the critique group.

The choice that I face now is what to keep and what to put aside, either for a while or permanently. My blog is something that I want to keep writing but I need to move that writing to a time of day when I have more clarity of thought. My journal entry may need to be repurposed and perhaps made shorter. Perhaps I should use it as a venue for writing a first draft of my blog post. Or perhaps I can use it to write pieces to be critiqued. During NaNoWriMo I used it as the time and place that I set aside to work on my novel so using it for other purposes than journaling is certainly not without precedent.

These are all good thoughts. I need to consider them for a while before I make a decision. I felt like it was the kind of thing that might be of interest to those of you that bother to read my blog. Although it was a bit of navel gazing, it had a clear motivation and it does effect the future direction of this blog (which is in no danger of ceasing publication any time soon.)

As always, let me know what you think. You can post comments on Facebook or Twitter, email me at jkelliemiller at gmail dot com, or talk to me in person if we happen to know each other IRL (In Real Life). I have tried repeatedly to set up comments in WordPress but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’ll give that a try again in the near future.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Backwards and in Heels

My mother taught high school English, Speech, and Journalism. She discovered rather late in her college career how much she enjoyed Journalism. Perhaps if she had found out earlier she would have majored in it.

As it was, she graduated with a degree that they called an area in English. It consisted of course work in all the subareas of English, Speech, Theater, and Journalism. She also took enough Education courses to qualify for a teaching certificate. She did her student teaching at Lone Oak High School in Lone Oak, Kentucky, a suburb of Paducah, Kentucky.

She was offered a position teaching there even before she graduated and she took it. She became the sponsor of the Oak K, the school paper. I remember how hard she and her staff worked to put the paper out.

She also directed the plays and took interested students to Speech tournaments. And, as if that wasn’t enough, my dad did much the same job at Paducah Tilghman High School. Except Tilghman had a dedicated Journalism teacher so dad didn’t have a school paper on his plate.

After a couple of years of overachieving, and a petty, insecure, jealous boss, mom finally had what was called a nervous breakdown. I’m not exactly sure what happened. I’m told that they no longer consider nervous breakdowns a diagnosis. I do know that after she quit teaching she battled depression for the rest of her life.

She wrote for as long as I was old enough to be aware of it. She joked that she had given up on writing the great American novel and was currently working on the great American paragraph. I read some of her essays. They were what would be called features in the newspaper business. They were always very entertaining. The world will never know what they missed out on.

My mother is not the reason I am striving to be a writer. I’d like to think she’d enjoy what I write and be proud of me. In any case I miss her.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Different Perspective

It is exciting to be able to park your car in a parking lot, whip out your laptop and start writing. I suppose it is really not that different from pulling out a physical notebook and writing but somehow it feels different. It gives you a different perspective on the world. Perspective is an important ingredient in writing. It can make the difference between a piece so boring that you can’t stay awake long enough to read it and one so dynamic that you can’t seem to read it fast enough.

I made a funny mistake this morning. I misread the clock and thought it was time to go to lunch. I put on my hat and coat and headed out. When I got to the restaurant I was surprised to find the parking lot was empty. I looked at the clock on the dash again and realized that I had left an hour too early. There was no point in driving back to work going in for fifteen minutes and then leaving for lunch again so I decided to take advantage of my mistake.

I pulled out my laptop and started writing my blog. I had the windows down and the radio tuned to BB King’s Bluesville on SiriusXM. The sky was overcast and provided an interesting backdrop. As I started writing it occurred to me that I should probably do this intentionally more often. It would help me solve my schedule problem and might also help inspire new topics that would have never occurred to me while sitting on my couch where I have written most of my blog posts in the last three months.

It finally occurred to me why I made such a gross error in time perception. I have been getting up earlier and getting to work earlier. My metabolism is finally adjusting to the time shift so I’m getting hungry for lunch earlier. Mystery solved. I’m not getting senile, just hungry.

It’s just as well that I wrote this now. I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon that would have played havoc with my schedule this evening. As it is, I will have published this approximately nine hours early and I might even get some other activity into my schedule today.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Downtown Writer’s Group Meeting

Tonight was the inaugural meeting of the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library Downtown Writer’s Group.  There were nine people in attendance. We discussed what we expected to get out of the meetings and heard about the planned program for out next meeting. We outlined some ground rules for the critique sessions. Then we sat around and talked informally. It was exhilarating to meet and take with people that had similar interests to me.

I first heard about this group at the “Thank Goodness It’s Over” luncheon that was held by the regional volunteers of the NaNoWriMo organization. The library had hosted “write ins” where participants in NaNoWriMo could come and work on their novels and hang out with other writers. I didn’t make it to any of the write ins but I did make it to the luncheon.

One of the perks of the luncheon was some free books that were donated to the group. Everyone got one and the book that I got was entitled “Imager” by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. It turned out to be a well written fantasy novel. It takes place in a school for wizards and was set in a world that reminded me of nineteenth century Italy with a well thought out system of magic that revolves around the wizard’s ability to manifest matter from matter in the environment through sheer force of will. I plan to read the rest of the novels in the series.

I also heard about several online resources that I hadn’t come across before. One of them, Scribophile, is a source of online support for writers. You read and critique other’s works to earn karma points that can be spent to upload your own works for others to critique.

I am excited about participating in the group. I’m also excited to have met some like minded people. It was a fantastic ending to a rather hectic day.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Epistemology? We Don’t Need No Stinking Epistemology!

What is thought? We don’t really know. There are a lot of theories. There are a lot of assumptions. For instance, we assume that what we perceive with our senses have some grounding in an objective reality outside of ourselves. Further, we assume that there are other people, besides ourselves, that perceive the same objective reality with their senses.

But how does a network of electro-chemical reactions somehow emerge as the complex process that we label thinking. We can’t even agree upon what constitutes the base criteria for judging a process rational thought. In the past we chauvinistically maintained that only humans were capable of rational thought.

Recent experiments with animals from whales, through various primates, studies of dogs and cats, and even crows have demonstrated mental abilities that were once claimed as evidence of conscious intelligence and the exclusive domain of humans.

Alan Turing posed the functional test for intelligence. A person interrogates an entity through an electronic connection and asks them any questions that he likes. He then guesses whether he is talking with a person or a program solely on the basis of their answers. If the program consistently fools the interrogator, it is judged intelligent. By that measure, we have already produced programs that can pass the test.

And yet we still have no clear definition of intelligence and the program that occasionally passes the Turing test is only nominally intelligent. The lack of depth of its so called intelligence is eventually exposed.

So why am I asking these questions? I am trying to figure out why when I try to think, I just get frustrated but when I relax and go with the flow I write coherent, if not brilliant, blog posts. Is it a universal admonition to be here now? Is it evidence of something larger than ourselves? Or is it just a statistical expression of the fundamental laws of physics amortized over millennia of combination and recombination?

I guess I’ll climb out of my navel now. I really am interested in the answers to these questions. I’m not just asking them to seem like I think deep thoughts or anything like that. I think that coming to terms with some of the ramifications of such questions and their possible answers is part and parcel to becoming a good writer.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Questions of a Thousand Dreams

Good questions make good writers. Some of the best questions start with “What if…”. I have managed to keep a draft on track by asking myself a few choice questions like that. I won’t say that the answers were always entirely satisfactory but they kept the story moving forward. One of the challenges of writing by the seat of one’s pants is that you generate a lot of extraneous side stories that don’t contribute to the development of the main plot.

The conventional wisdom among writers is that you have to weed out the extraneous threads when you edit. The key here is figuring out what the main story is that you are telling. I do appreciate the archival features of modern writing tools. It allows you to save all the iterations that you go through on the way to writing your masterpiece. If you delete something critical, you can easily retrieve it. You can also try various alternative sequences and versions to see how they read.

All of these tools aren’t worth a whit if you don’t have the judgement to figure out what is good and what isn’t.  This is the foundation of the advice that writers must read a lot. It is how you acquire the experience that feeds your judgement. Thus, it is good to read widely, even beyond the margins of your chosen genre. The primary criteria should be quality writing and insight into human nature. I suspect the two are subtly related.

The other big question that challenges every writer is deciding when a piece is done. There are numerous objective criteria, such as number of words, structural completeness, and carefully listening to the comments of respected reviewers. The latter takes practice. It is hard to hear people say critical things about your creation, no matter how deserved the comments may be. But the writer’s response to such criticism must be kept simple. They must thank their critics. No excuses should be made. Discussion is not event required unless it is to ask questions in order to better understand the comments.

It is incredibly difficult to listen to criticism without becoming defensive. It is hard enough to expose your most sensitive inner thoughts to others but then to accept their comments without response is harder still. It is absolutely necessary though. If you value honest criticism, as you must if you intend to grow and improve as a writer, you must reward the person that provides it with your sincere thanks.

I know this to be true but I must admit that I haven’t managed to write a draft that was complete enough to ask for serious criticism. I have written some  character sketches that I have asked for criticism on. I have intended to thank my reviewers properly. I am not a good judge of how well I did on that. I suspect there is plenty of room for growth in that regard as well.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.