The Monday’s – on the road to blurbs

800px-BlurbingFirst there is the word count. Then there is the woods of publishing to get lost in, and if you are brave enough (like David Simpson and his Post-Human project) even bring it forward into a script and movie. But wait there is more: type set, cover art, bio, social media, promotion. So much to deliver a story.

I just want to tell my stories. They are in my head, they talk to me. I like stories. I see them on TV, I read them in books, I like to share stories, so it makes sense to me (with the risk of being insane) that you want to hear my stories.

So then I need to make time to get it to paper and it should all make sense. Even that is fun. I like to write, wish I had more time for it, yet it is fun.

I mentioned in my Friday blog about grant writing and that this Friday I will discuss the abstract, so I thought in the bus this morning I want to discuss the dreaded Blurb with you.

Summary, abstract or marketing tool?

On wikipedia it is listed as a promotional tool, so I guess it could be a t-shirt. Lets say you are browsing the book store and pick up the book* (yeah the cover worked!), then read the back and put it back (NOOOO! the blurb is wrong). Why? Please comment to let me know. Remember I love for you to share the stuff from my head, but now you did not want to read the book. Is it personal? Is it something I did? Can we talk about it? Should I put my phone number on the back so you can call me to ask questions?

It all sounds very silly, because I have put books down. Not my genre, more for young adults, mêh sounds dull. So if the cover did not screen me out for genre, then why does the book appear to be dull? An abstract is just that. Kind of dull, but a good summary of what is going to happen. On the other hand, if the story is a lot dialogue and scenery, but the blurb makes you feel like you going to read Die Hard 7, chances are you loose the audience quickly and reviews will be bad.

The art of writing blurbs is lost on me. Consider the first draft of probably many to come of my WIP:

“It is the year of the Rabbit, 341 years after battle-weary warriors gave us peace through a senseless war when a selfish choice endangers the fragile balance.

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes melancholic, sometimes embedded with deceit – this is the story of the assassination of the emperor told through the eyes of his subjects. Follow along to piece together the connections of that mournful day.”

I sort of like it. I had some help due to feed-back, so let call it draft 0.85 or something. My WIP is not done yet, so this will change. The “battle-weary warriors” may be a bit much. More for the 3 prequel books I have planned in my head. The rest is ok, but is it a good abstract or a good ‘promotional’ piece. Is it a blurb, will it catch your imagination?

I guess that is what it is intending to do: to catch your imagination. That is hard to know without knowing you. I just want to tell my story…

So in the realm of trying to tell stories and not being part of a team that is put in place to sell your story, it is up to the author do so. It may not be part of our skill set, but as an author you better learn. Or do have a guy/girl? do to this for you? Please comment your thought blow.

Maybe I should stick with the t-shirt idea…

*) Same for ebooks: recommended because you like this, or you see the cover, etc…

The Fridays – Clarity

clarityThe quality of coherence and intelligibility. Yes, this is very important. First of all, in scientific writing we need to be understood. This is important if your peers read your text, but maybe even more so if others read it. In other words: the reader needs to understand what you mean.

Of course the text needs to be written following the proper grammar rules, spelling should be perfect and writing hooks to draw the reader in and through the article or grant proposal are a given.

However, scientific writing is often taught at school and universities for a reason. Poetic freedom in the phrasing does not convey coherence and intelligibility, or clarity. Side by side the two next sentences are trying to convince the reader about a trend in the data:

  1. We [the authors] feel that deriving from graph 1 we can conclude that no trend is apparent.
  2. Analysis of graph 1 showed no trend [evaluated by method X].

We  can clearly see the difference, the graph should not be open for interpretation if it is used to make a statement or an argument. In science presenting any data for the public eye is definitely an invitation to interpret the data from the reader’s perspective. The text is there to weight it, agree, or counter with scientifically sound arguments. Scientific ‘truths’ change all the time due to better understanding of the underlying phenomena.

But,

the message of any give scientific text is to make a clear what has happened, or in case of a grant application, how things will be done in the future. There should be no room for opinion nor should is be a slideshow of the data produced. The reader should ‘get’ what the author(s) message is.

The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication – George Gopen, Judith Swan*.

From the quote above we may get a hint in the difference of a novel and a scientific article. A bit more difficult is an article written about a scientific article. Most often this is a statement or opinion about its message. I would argue that most articles about science news are not scientific in nature, but I am open for the discussion.

Now,  a scientific text is typically divided in following sections:

  • (an abstract)
  • The introduction – Background, state of the art, statement of what was done/aims.
  • Methods – How did we do this thingy/how will we do this thingy
  • Results – This is what we have observed and how much the data is worth within the context.
  • Discussion – (Sometimes mixed with the Result section) reflects the quality of the results and how the results compare to the state of the art and beyond.
  • Conclusion – This is what we found and this is what it means.
  • References

Grant applications may follow a similar scheme or more likely are presented in the form of a project plan/project work-flow. Of course you do not have results yet, but you will tell how you expect the future results will impact society/your research field/your aims/teaching/etc… There is also a tiny bit of room for your opinion, but be careful! It should be a logical statement that flows from the presentation, not your personal feeling about the topic: “give me money, because I think it is the most important research ever!” does not work. A discussion of a topic A, described in reference of problem B, which can be solved with a novel method C is a better argument, but I will get back to that another day.

I want to discuss from my point of view each section mentioned in the bullet-list above from a grant proposal point-of-view in the next blog posts. The reason for this is twofold: (a) I am writing a grant right now. It may clear my head and help in the writing, and (b) before you present data that you have done, you need money to do the work. So logically the article comes later. Also I need to get back to the lab…

*) Please find an excellent article by George Gopen and Judith Swan on the The Science of Scientific Writing to find more details on how to write more clearly if you are interested.

The Mondays – Editing

http://blog.kbuuk.com/2014/05/14/8-tips-for-self-editing-your-novel/
The red pen. So feared, so crushing my hopes. Stifled is my voice by hurdles of grammar…

Edeting. Editing is a necessity for a non native English speaker. However, I understand that it is also hard for English natives. I understand, I am horrible in (or at) Dutch grammar.

You see it took me 3 Google searches and several minutes of my time to look thing up in the above paragraph and if further grammar errors are present in this text please send me you suggestions.

I used to write by hand, mainly for the poetry and short stories and I frequently got annoyed by not knowing the English word, a suitable synonym or just the correct spelling that I switched to computer based writing. When Firefox introduced the spell check in the browser life got again a bit easier. Though annoying, as if tripping over a stone, at least the major spelling mistakes are filtered out. Well that is what I thought. Then you share some text with other writers, some of them editors and apparently ‘tow doves on a wire’ does not make any sense. Frustrating.

So then back to older texts and re-reading them; sure enough many grammar mistakes and errors in spelling. Typos in most cases. I can recommend to read this book: The Well-Presented Manuscript by Mike Reeves-McMillan and must admit that I am not good at the clean writing from the get-go. I need to polish afterwards. I have never had my text proof-read by a professional editor, my wife is American and experienced proof-reader, so I ask for her opinion. However, where some of my doubts slip in are if the order of chapters is correct. Or if I should break up the chapters or leave them as they are. Maybe I should delete the whole thing? Like a painter at one point it is done (enough) to move to something else.

While I looked for the image for this blog, I came across some other useful tips (I am sure there are numerous blogs of respectable and capable editors out there, but I just stumble here). You can find the 8 tips here. I found them useful. Never thought about tip 1: reading my text out loud. I will start doing this, and putting it on Soundcloud so I can listen back to it myself.

What do you do to get past the editing stage and evoking the feeling within that the manuscript is super awesome and ready for the world? I would love to hear you comments so I can learn. Or if you are an editor I can afford, that too (or to?)…

The Fridays – the hard 2%

keep-calm-tomorrow-is-friday-Deadlines. A fearful word since it has the word ‘dead’ in it. Lines can be scary too for some. In academia it often means a day most things are sort of done. We can push the deadline away a bit.

However, when I see it in my colleagues’ eyes: the tired, frantic look.

“I have no time right now”

Then I know: an application deadline is coming up. Application deadlines are strict and dangerous. We all had the servers of the grant institution crash on us those last minutes before the deadline, because everybody submits their ‘final_final_v3.1.pdf’ document 2 minutes before the deadline. So everything must be ready and done.

Unlike writing a story or a book, writing an application is (most often) a collaborative effort. Even if the full text is only from your hand you do need feed-back on the budget, feed-back from your boss or ask your students to write some small parts for you. A more likely scenario for larger applications is a chain of events that need to happen: (1) Idea, (2) formulate idea, (3) find research partners, (3) find/know/discover where to get money, (4) write sciency bits (yeah!), (5) find the right template for the application, (6) fill all that is needed, (7) the last 2%.

Yes I know it looks like I cannot count. Truth of the matter is that in order to do the research we need the money, and in order to truly work on your long-term vision you need a certain critical mass. That critical mass comes from obtaining results with a long and deep impact. I know that sounds vague. Lets just say I am not there yet. So for me this means I need to apply where ever I can. I swear I almost talk to strangers on the street to see if they have something in common with me so we can write and application together so I can get some money to do the research I want to do. By applying to “whatever” you do need to bend you previous results and ideas into the scope of the application. I think this is how the term “creative writing” was invented. If you have to bend to far, it gets broken. Reviewers see broken things, and have a magical wand to detect cracks, so be aware of that.

Sometimes you need to find new partners because the grant call requires a certain expertise you do not have and you do not know anybody in your network who does. That is hard, and cold-calling even in Academia is hard. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes it does not even work after you get the money. Most of the times your collaborators that are sharing a grant and the grant writing with you want the same as you: money for their research.

So back to the writing of a collaborative piece. Now a few sciency bits (yeah!) are stuck together and from the general idea/grant-call come the aims of the project. Oh **** it is a project. Maybe do some project management courses later in the year? Then fill the template(s). Aims funnel into work-packages, which funnel into tasks. It is going great! Gantt chart made! Budget. Mmmm, better have some email/Skype with the others. Meetings with grant writing specialist (often called Research Managers or something similar): ok we have numbers on the page. Done!

Oh wait, tomorrow is Friday (the deadline is often on a Friday) and we need to still write about Societal Impact/Measuring Societal Impact/Management Structure/Project Management/Do we have all the signatures?/Something else not Sciency*. Ofter it is something you cannot decide alone, you have only a paragraph left for it, so you make the figures a bit smaller/outline a bit broader/go to font 11*. It is crunch time (your family hates you now): the last 2% are often the hardest and take the most time.

This is what makes writing applications hard and a skill you need to train. How are you clear to the reviewers? How do you get them to read the full application, because you know their time is limited as well. Reviewers are researchers like you, with deadlines and applications to write. How to get them past the abstract? The writing hook(s) we put in our stories and books apply here as well. Despite the mandatory bits and the hard parts like project management, budgets and other non-sciency bits, the text needs to be clear and well written. That takes practice as well. These almost marketing-like skills to sell your ideas in word and written text I do like, however I fully agree with some of my fellow scientist (most of whom are much better scientists than me) it should not be such a big part of the Science.

Luckily I like to write. For most is as fearful as the word deadline, I just do not like the last 2%…

*) take your pick

The Mondays – about flash-backs

filepicker_Zrrws6IxR0GItZA4dei2_Every_Flashback_Has_A_Silver_LiningEditing. I thought last week I wanted to write about editing today. However, I just submitted a scene to #saturdayscenes on Google+ where I start with a conversation and then right after that a flash-back. I like saturdayscenes in that respect because it forces you to get something written which is half decent, while you get feed-back from other writers, luckily many more experienced than I am.

One critique I got was that, especially inexperienced writers, use flash-backs a lot. It felt personal at that point, simply because I am an inexperienced writer. I then read  some articles about flash-backs and writing tips. I will not copy the ideas and advice here, but you can check them out here and here. I think the articles offered me some good insight in what I do wrong and how to address these issues. One comment to my scenes was: “short flashbacks are a part of your writing style…” In the critique that I got the majority of the commenters thought that the short flashback worked for the scene. I did not get the feeling people loved the scenes (to be fair, not much happened).

My intent for that chapter is to give the reader a window in the relationship she was in just one day before she has to meet her former lover again. The meeting will be very formal and very public. I want to have the reader carry her baggage with her. Now that I read more about flashbacks I am happy I did not finish the chapter yet. It would have been a sinus-wave of past and present, while the present would have no flow. I already have a chapter like that, but there a father is re-reading the journal of his long, lost daughter. To make it even worse, some chapters are in the past, some now and some later. ‘Now’ is the defined by the event that binds all vignettes.

I think I need to sharpen the writing tools and learn how to bring in short bits of information to the reader via conversations, comments by others or short memories of the character to bring out the tension for the meeting.

Or

Split the chapter in two: past and present in two different sections. I cannot put it somewhere else (I think) for the book will be a set of vignettes. Now how I will present the vignettes is topic of research I will leave for another day.

So what are you thoughts on flash-backs in books? Do or don’t? And how to do it best?

The Fridays – Part 1

32005daWriting. For some it is a nightmare. I hear it often from students at the lab. Similarly, a writers block for authors is a nightmare. Writing is the answer to both problems.

I know this sounds strange, but the best way to get out of a writer’s block is to write. Anything. The inspiration for the other thing will come back by itself.

So also goes my advice to students, my first supervisor gave me the same advice when I started my 9 month lab project for my bachelor thesis: “Start writing today”. I was surprised, “But I do not have any data yet!” A smile. “Then write the layout of your thesis, and fill it out along the way.” My PhD supervisor told me the same for the article that needed to be written, but where not all the data was in. “Just fill what we have, and make bullet-points of what you think we still need to do.” Clearly these people were more experienced than I am, so I listened (mostly) to their advice. The thesis and articles got done, with respectable merit, though looking back it could have been a lot better.

Start writing today

For compelling reasons I do not fully understand why I need to write and share my writing effort with others. I like the feed-back; as much as I enjoy stories of others, I like it when other like my stories. About these efforts I share some of my personal struggles and day-to-day insights on Mondays. What I like to do on Fridays is to write about writing I have to do to (indirectly) pay the bills.

Let me explain that briefly: I am a researcher and I am working in Academia. This means I need to write grants so I can do research. Out of these grants also comes my salary. Grants are easier to obtain if you show that you do things and know what you are doing. You are judged on how you write and your track-record. Only then comes the idea for the research into play. A track-record is a list of accomplishments: awards (including grants), conference talks, teaching if relevant, but above all: articles.

So in order to get paid I need to write grants, most often in collaboration with other people who also need money, and in order to get grants I need to write articles. Of course no articles without data. One other great piece of advice from my supervisor during my Master’s thesis work: “Get the data first.” It is one of my weaknesses, I like new challenges and new ideas. It takes discipline to finish a project and move to the next, especially when you know how to finish it.

make bullet-points

I think some of the lesson of during my studies and career as a researcher can be applied to daily writing as well. I am not good at making a frame work for my book, in other words Making the Bullet-Points. Yet in my articles and grant writing it is where I start. I do write to write more, as I explained earlier. Data collection for writing my book and lyrical poems “My Opaque Dreams” I do beforehand and on the fly. New insights and new twists in the story require research into topics on the spot. I do not have an eduction in Greek mythology, nor in Chinese culture. So I have to investigate, filter and write.

So therefore with this introduction I will leave you now this Friday and will next time try to write something about grant writing. I am currently perpetually writing a grant (a though one: for the EU) and at the same time editing a review article we are working on.

Get the data first

(I need to go to the lab now…)

Image is (c) the Upturned microscope under a http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ licence

The Mondays – part 1

“I decided to give my gun a name, so it would not look so strange when I talk to it. I call him Incentive.” Daydreaming in the bus. Not that I was daydreaming about really buying a gun or naming my imaginary gun, it came up in an imaginary interview I was conducting with two people I actually do not know.

Winters in Finland can be quite cold at times, so I take the bus. It is a good time to read book(s), since the winter-bus-time is about 5 months and I have 2 hours a day to kill. The rest of the year I try to cycle as much as I can. It is about an hour cycle each way, not great for reading book(s). Now my bike is broken and under repair, so I am reluctant to start a book. Either way on the bike while bikeling or on the bus while busling I daydream. Many silly ideas fly by, some good sentence and ideas for stories.

I also decided that in order to get some content to this blog that at least I should do something once a week. So since Monday mornings are already filled with a tired stare at the screen while tanking up on coffee, I decided I should dedicate this time to write my blog. So now I am writing in this blog about writing a blog. Not really Keats, but oh well…

O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
So withing daydreaming I can find sentences I would like to remember for use in poems or stories, yet larger ideas for (bigger) stories are usually born while writing from those ideas. Short stories, as I used to write them, followed an opening sentence I felt important to pen down. Now I am writing chapters for a book I hope will someday be a book, I noticed I am inspired differently and look ahead more. More like driving a care then riding a bike. Which is a wrong comparison, since writing short stories is like speeding down a hill without breaks, while writing a chapter is more like cycling uphill with a kid’s tricycle (at least for me).
I am curious about how do you scoop ideas from your head, from initial ideas to sentence to sentence?

Cold wind and blazing sun…

18a2726So here I stand then, visible and open to the world. Another forum, yet different. Sure I wrote three posts on my LinkedIn page pretending I am producing clever posts. I have a collection of writing efforts out there: the Cave (my other blog), Wattpad, Google+, even some poetry in a collection in hard copy. So I think I am a writer.

So why do identify myself as a writer? I read a lot of books and discovered book, my own hiding places from that world when I was a teenager. Then I started writing little things, short stories. Even now they fall from my pen, almost effortless. Somewhat incoherent words from the consciousness. With that poetry followed. Long stories, the dream and attempts of a writing a whole book end always in a bog of quicksands of words. Now I am trying to write a book in a different way, it may work. I will let you know. Also I am older and have written more things at professional level, like theses, grants and text for scientific journals. Some sense of structure. I am a writer, because there are stories to be told. First I was younger, then I just needed to breathe stories: read and write. In and out. A tide of words. Now I am getting old(er), I have children. From somewhere there comes the need to share my exhaled air, the flood of outward words. Ego? Legacy? Sharing thoughts to find others who listen and who can connect with me at this level? Scared to be another anonymous soul among so many, so a needle-prick stab at mortality? Death is the ultimate conversation killer after all.

Writing is fun. A friend of mine he has a wonderful voice as a writer. On some levels we are alike, yet on so many levels so different. His internal contemplations and literary output are resonating. He is breathing his words often after he holds his literary breath. Savoring the input to explore the depths. Maybe in some writing efforts I am too impulsive. With him I am in a drabble war. A drabble is a 100 word short story, excluding the title. I provided the first title, the response a drabble and a new title for the other person, and so forth. My clever friend called it Wordexpanding. If you want to read them hop on over to “The Cave” (link on the left on this blog).

If you are interested in a drabble war with me, please comment. It is a great way to play with a certain genre or style one have never written in.

Over time I will write about several things related to writing from my perspective here. I hope it a journey from: “help I am writing!” to “please check out my latest book”. I have no idea how to get there, but I set out on my journey anyway.

~ Marco

Hello world!

A classic blog starts with the classic Hallo.

Hallo World, while I wave with another hand at you I hope this blog will become the steel frame underneath all other efforts I put out there. Duality while I inform you of some sciencing and some authoring.

I will not post stories, whole books, poems, scientific articles nor grant applications. No, I will try to discuss processes and things that just happen.

How I came from Dutch till Now…