Writing Case Study: Open Road Summer

open road summer writing

As some of you have pointed out, I read a lot. While most of this reading is for fun, there is an element of “I am reviewing this” to a good number of the books I read, too. Reading doesn’t look quite the same when I’ve got a review to film or post instead of cracking open a book for pleasure. Just how different are the two?

Spoiler: not drastically. But there are far more copious notes to take when reading for a book review. Today I’ll give you a glimpse behind the scenes as I truck through one of my more recent reads, Open Road Summer by Emery Lord. And after talking about the concept of “show don’t tell” earlier this month, it felt appropriate to see the idea in action. (Need a refresher on what Show Don’t Tell is all about? Look no further!)

The Scoop
I’m only at 45% progress on this novel. I started reading it with moderate hopes, but am dangerously close to putting it aside forever. Obviously, being only partway through, I’m unaware as to whether or not my problems with the novel will be resolved by the end, but as it stands, this book is a pretty solid violation of show don’t tell.

Open Road Summer starts with an interesting premise, but quickly falls flat due to clunky narration. (Sadly) this book is a prime example of too much blunt narration and not enough development of characters and their motivation. It’s got other redeeming qualities, but its issues with overpower its rewards.

The Offenders

1. He hands me the notebook, and I can’t help but ask. Not only am I curious, but I’m also trying to get his attention. I can’t seem to stop myself.

“Tattoo, huh? Can I see it?”

Maybe this is a brazen thing to ask, but hey — he’s the one who had his shirt off in the first place. He tugs his shirt up and turns to the side. I lean closer, peering at the carefully inked letters. Clearing his through, he says, “It’s from the second verse of—”

“‘Forever Young.’ Bob Dylan,” I finish.

Matt’s tattoo is lyrics from a song I love, written by a singer I love. And I do not use the word “love” lightly or often.

I really can’t tell that Reagan loves this song, or Bob Dylan, or even music for that matter. Come to think of it, the only reason I know she’s associated with music is because she’s friends with Dee. The conversation here happens, but aside from her hasty response, Reagan doesn’t convey her love of “Forever Young” through anything other than her direct narration to the reader.

This could be a great moment to see Reagan’s reaction, to see how she reacts when she loves something, supposedly, so much. Not to mention the fact that she’s an interesting, “angsty” character, for lack of a better term, who’s trying to suppress her personal reactions as well as her growing feelings towards Matt.

2. “So I’ve spent the past two months atoning, keeping to myself as I carried my own brokenness beneath the heavy plaster of a blue cast. This whole time, I’ve been trying to figure that girl out — the one who got too drunk at parties just for attention, the one who dated a loser pothead because it seemed cool.”

Has she now? Reagan’s character is little more than a narrator in the direct sense of the word. She’s got a troubled, rebellious teen girl attitude, but most of her bad girl cred is implied and never shown. As much as I love the idea of her character struggling with a dark past, her characterization is all talk and no action. Up until this point in the story, I caught no real sense of this withdrawn Reagan, of a girl who is punishing herself in her own way for past behaviors that she doesn’t now approve of.

Reagan doesn’t even really cry for attention throughout the early pages of the story, making her statement about seeking attention at parties little more than empty words.

3. “Most reporters haven’t realized that Dee doles out face time based on respectfulness. If a reporter is especially nice to her, with thoughtful questions, she always remembers.”

Earlier, Dee remembers a little girl’s name in the crowd and gives the girl a very personal shout out in the middle of her concert. It’s a sweet moment that perfectly characterizes the singer and the attention she pays to her fans. Yet pages later, that moment is eclipsed by a matter of fact statement of Dee’s niceness that was more effectively portrayed earlier in the story. The earlier endearing moment of indirect characterization was better left alone.

While the story itself is intriguing, the abundance of direct characterization and narration make Open Road Summer a lackluster read. There are plenty of opportunities to provide insight into what are pretty interesting and complex characters, but the writing makes them forgettable and annoying. Being likable does not mean being perfect, but it does require readers to understand the character’s motivation and believe that it is honest, which is where Open Road Summer falls flat.

I won’t lie — this book frustrated me to the point of putting it down. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it, and until I can muster up the energy to sift through dry, direct characterization all day I’m putting it on hold for books that do a better job of exciting me. Despite its flaws, I do like Open Road Summer‘s depiction of female friendship, plus Dee’s got this Taylor Swift vibe going on, which is a major bonus and makes for an enjoyable aspect.

Like this post? Want me to break down my entire reviewing thought process?
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Show Don’t Tell

Show Don't Tell

Writers hear the phrase “Show, don’t tell” bandied about in the fiction world an awful lot, but what does it actually mean when editors comment that an author is simply telling rather than showing, and why is it made out to be such a big deal?

While authors have their own individual style, common story elements — from characters’ personalities to background about a fictional society — can be described in a number of ways. At times, it’s beneficial or even necessary for a writer to convey these details through explicit statements. But a story that consists solely of a laundry list of facts about a character or situation can get real boring real fast.

By describing characters’ conversations, facial expressions, actions and reactions, just to name a few, an author can convey the same information as a descriptive list would, but with more engaging prose.

Take the following examples:

  • “The cocky man was a smuggler, who didn’t care much about other people’s problems. He wasn’t pleased with the princess’s request.”
  • “The blaster dangled from his belt as he melted into the captain’s chair, legs sprawled in front of him. ‘Look,’ he snarled, ‘I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.'”

Yes, Han Solo is certainly cocky and doesn’t care for plans that don’t benefit him, but why just tell you that when I can show you through his actions, words, and stance? After reading the second example, you probably have a much better mental picture of Han and who he is as a character, not to mention aren’t bored out of your skull at the first’s relatively flat prose.

If you’re having trouble with the showing aspect of this common critique, practice describing different characters doing the same, mundane task (characters are probably the easiest example of showing vs. telling, hence my reliance on them in this post). How would Han Solo cook breakfast, versus Captain America, versus Cath from Fangirl? Each have different personalities, and aren’t going to move and behave in the same way. An angry Captain America will act differently than one running laps with Sam Wilson. Keep those traits in mind as you write descriptively.

There are times when, as an author, you need to cover more ground (and usually complicated ground, for that matter) and telling may better serve your purpose. Showing does take more time, but creates a much more vivid image than telling does. Just like with anything — really, anything ever, literary-wise or not — balance is key. I’ve read my fair share of stories that rely so heavily on description that the story turns into an adjectival mad-lib filled with clunky and empty prose. I’ve also read my share of stories that have no imagery whatsoever and use a character/narrator as a crutch to tell the reader about ALL THE THINGS!

As with everything, there is a time and a place for showing, as well as for telling.

What books drive you mad with too much telling or even too much showing?

Grammar “Rules” You Should Break (Right Now!)

Grammar Myths

The English language is full of rules that will make your head spin. Some are easy understandable necessary (e.g. ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’) while others are downright baffling. Why can’t you end a sentence in a preposition? Says who!? I’d love to know what sick, twisted person thought this rule up, and not-so-gently explain to him just how many times this awful rule has kept me up at night.

If you notice, however, I break these rules. Often. And you know what? It’s totally okay. Language is constantly changing to suit new ways of communication, and frankly, there’s a time and a place for even using the dreaded “academic ‘I'”. Writing and grammar rules are largely a matter of stylistic choice or personal preference. Depending on your audience, your purpose for writing, and even your method of communication, you may be better off ditching some of the most well-known writing conventions.

Generally speaking, the more formal your writing, the more of these rules you should probably adhere to, but I’m otherwise giving you the okay to stop fretting over the following grammar myths:

1. Writing in the passive voice is always wrong — The active voice is typically more engaging, however using the passive voice has its place too. Maybe this is my Japanese education showing through (the Japanese language loves vague subjects & passive structures), but using the passive voice can soften sentences, shift blame, and convey ideas in a more gentle manner. It can also shift the focus from one subject to another. Don’t know who’s responsible? Passive voice is your friend.

2. And you should never start a sentence with a conjunction — Another stylistic choice. Starting sentences with a conjunction adds variation to your cadence, can be used to create suspense and/or flow, and is often a marker of personal, more colloquial style. Forget what you learned in grade school; this is a grammar myth.

3. Don’t split infinitives — An infinitive consists of “to” + a verb. Take the classic Star Trek example, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Grammarians would argue that it should be changed to, “to go boldly“, so as not to split the infinitive, but this is simply a pet peeve.

Choosing to split an infinitive is all about where you want your emphasis, and most times is a purely stylistic choice. Don’t let people’s personal pet peeves get to you.

4. A paragraph contains 3-5 sentences — I want to yell at every school teacher who has told their students this. Sure, it’s a technique to help students set a foundation for writing, but it’s a juvenile tactic that is often abused. Paragraphs are meant to organize ideas. You can have a long paragraph, or a short one. Breaks in paragraphs should occur when you switch topics or ideas; 3-5 sentences is an arbitrary number.

In today’s age of short, quippy Internet articles, paragraphs are used to visually break up information so as not to overload readers. You’ve probably seen loads of one sentence paragraphs, and guess what? That’s okay too! Break this rule now and vary your paragraph structure to not only better organize your writing, but create personality and flow.

5. Never end a sentence with a preposition — Trying to rearrange your sentence so that it doesn’t end in a preposition can leave you reeling. Ending a sentence in a preposition either a) leads to overly formal-sounding sentences (not meant for more conversational writing, creative writing, or informal pieces like blog posts) or b) makes your sentence just sound weird. Blame this myth on the 17th century Latin-obsessives and end your sentence in a preposition if the occasion calls for it!

What writing rules do you find unnecessary or annoying? Rant away!

Avoid Common Resume Mistakes: 3 things that you should always include in your resume

3 Things Your Resume Should Have

Last week my Twitter feed let out a collective sigh of frustration when I tweeted this:

Twitter: Resume help
Some of my favorite responses?

Twitter: Resume advice

Twitter: Resume advice

I knew resumes weren’t super exciting, but I didn’t know quite how deep my readers’ loathing of job-related writing went! They’re not that scary, I promise! But they do take some getting used to. And what better place to start with all of this resume mumbo-jumbo than at the beginning: what is a resume supposed to be and what is it not?

A resume IS NOT an extensive list of every job you’ve ever had since you were 16.

A resume IS NOT a one-size-fits-all document.

A resume is a summary of your skills, experience, & qualifications.

A resume should be specific.

A resume should be tailored to the specific job that you are applying for.

Simple as those “rules” may be, it’s easy to get stressed out when writing or refining your resume, whether you’re new to the workforce or changing careers. Though I’m not a fan of writing “rules” (hence the quotation marks; if you know me, you know I’m a huge proponent of chucking the rules out the nearest available window), resume writing is a more structured beast that largely depends on the field that you’re going into. Despite a few common rules that are largely upheld across the board, you do have some flexibility in crafting your individual resume.

But how do you know which rules to adhere to and which to break in the name of standing out?

Here are three things your resume should include, regardless of how creative of an industry you’re entering or how much you’re dying to stand out from the crowd:

  1. Numbers. When it comes to resumes, specificity is king. Rather than use subjective language to talk about the “mass online book club” that you run, give measurable numbers. How big is “mass”? Is 50 people what you consider “mass”? 5,000? Numbers clear up vague descriptions and give employers a sense of your accomplishments. Don’t be afraid to get specific and say “I run an online book club with over 250 active members. We operate 7 sub-groups for topics including non-fiction, zombie fiction, and Neil Gaiman.” Objective measurability at its finest.
  2. Your contact information. It sounds like a no-brainer but I can’t tell you how many times I see a resume with no contact information. Your name is great and all (and important), but how is a future employer supposed to get in touch to talk about your awesome skills!? Thanks to email, mailing addresses aren’t so important anymore but make sure to include your phone number and an email address that you check frequently. Tip: don’t forget to check said email (and your spam folder, too!)
  3. Keywords from the job posting. The job posting is the first thing I ask my clients for when developing a resume. More often than not, employers will tell you exactly what they’re looking for in a candidate in the job description itself. Sometimes you’ll find key words under the “skills” or “qualifications” section, but just using the language of the posting helps to align yourself as a candidate with the skills that the company is looking for, without the company having to guess at how your skills are related to the position.For example, if the posting lists “ensure alignment with the company’s brand and image” as a responsibility of the job, I would hone in on the words “align”, “brand”, and “image”. Then when I write my resume, I can use the same vocabulary in talking about my experiences (i.e. “Maintain a consistent voice across social media that aligns with the My Life as a Teacup brand”.)

These certainly aren’t the only things that make a killer resume, but it’s an easy place to start when sprucing up your resume for potential employers to peruse.

Go ahead, take out your resume. Yes, right now. I’ll wait.

Scan through it. Does your resume have these three things? If not, put them there! Right now! It’ll take you 30-minutes tops, and give your resume the boost it needs.

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Building Your Vocabulary: Word Workout

Word Workout Vocabulary

From SAT takers to business owners, everyone seems to want to improve their vocabulary. There’s no magical secret to increasing your vocabulary, however. At least, not that I’ve yet found (If I ever do stumble across this holy grail of vocabulary building, you’ll be the first to know!)

Luckily, there are plenty of tools out there to help you improve your vocabulary if you’re willing to put in some hard work and studying. Apps like Vocabulary.com act like a soulful dictionary, and SAT 1500 Words Challenge pits you against others in a real-time game. Even just reading a myriad of articles and books, and gaining exposure to new words can be a help when looking to add new vocabulary words to your toolbox.

I’ve found that I have quite a bit of untapped time in my daily commute, however, and I bet you’ve got some time of your own. You can’t exactly play a game-style app in your car, but you can pop in an audiobook, which is exactly what I’ve been doing these days.

You might remember this SoundCloud link that I tweeted about a few weeks ago, featuring a mini podcast-style explanation of the difference between recur and reoccur. The clip is a part of the Word Workout audiobook by Charles Harrington Elster, which introduces listeners to a series of higher-level vocabulary words, and provides each word’s etymological background, as well as associated words and anecdotes to help you remember tricky words. There’s even a quiz at the end of each “chapter” for you to test your knowledge and see how well those words are sticking. The odds of you building your vocabulary if you just listen, take the quiz, and never use the word again aren’t in your favor, but Word Workout provides a substantial introduction to more sophisticated vocabulary words that, though learning more about the words themselves, help you forge connections to better remember the words in context.

The book does read a bit like a textbook, which may not be up everyone’s alley. I’ve found it works best for me when I couple it with something hands on, which isn’t hard to do with the way Word Workout is set up. Instead of just listening to each lesson straight through, I’ll stop after 3-4 words, jot them down, and spend the next few days trying to incorporate them into my everyday speaking and writing before tuning in for more words.

It’s certainly not the only way to improve your vocabulary, but I’ve enjoyed listening to Word Workout as a way to make new connections about words, learn new vocabulary, and correct some of the fine details in word usage (like recur vs. reoccur!).

Do you have any effective methods for studying new vocabulary words?

I am by no means guaranteeing that any one method here is better than another, or that any of these methods is guaranteed to boost your vocabulary. But I do believe with hard work and exposure to a variety of words you can help yourself improve your vocabulary, just like practicing your times tables can help you recall them with more ease. Word Workout may not be for everyone, and while I was sent a copy by the publisher for review, I wouldn’t share it if I didn’t think it might be of interest and some help to you, dear readers!