Sunday, December 25, 2016

Birthing a Blog

By Laura P. Valtorta

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to launch a blog about laws referred to often in the press but never fully referenced or explained. Title IX, the First Amendment, and Roe versus Wade are examples. The one I need to study more carefully is Dodd-Frank – the law enacted by President Obama to regulate banking and finance. Who is Dodd? Who is Frank? How does their law impact banking and investment?

The law swims through time like an amorphous amoeba. Figuring out how to research and explain it efficiently is difficult. I took a year to write the first edition of Social Security Disability Practice. Each new edition sucks up two weeks of work. With a blog, I won’t have that much time to mess around. The first steps will be to read the law and then listen to someone interpret it. With the First Amendment, the amendment itself is about six lines long, but the interpretive cases stretch on forever.

Wooo weee! The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, 12 U.S. Code 5301 et ff. is about 200 pages long. These pages are the single-spaced, two-column kind found in federal statutes. Every line opens itself up to interpretation, evasion and scamming. Thank goodness for Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short, that can help me understand the impetus for this law. Thank goodness for the holiday break.

At the onset, I plan to include these elements in each blog.

1.              REFERENCE TO THE STATUTE - Everybody writes “Dodd-Frank,” for example, but nobody writes 12 U.S. 5301 et ff. – which directs the researcher to the current wording of the statute.

2.              SUMMARY OF THE LAW – This part will be the trickiest to write. Dodd-Frank deals with banking practices and Wall Street trading. All of this affects the everyday lives of the average Jane. I don’t want my summary to exceed 300 words.

3.              WHAT THE LAW WAS INTENDED TO ACCOMPLISH – Writing about intent is always impossible, especially with something as old as the First Amendment. The blog needs to clarify that any description of intent is based on my own personal opinion as a citizen and a lawyer.

4.              SNARKY COMMENTS ABOUT HOW THE AMERICAN PEOPLE HAVE MESSED UP THE LAW – With something like Title IX, this will be my chance to rant about university life and sports. Comments about the importance of teamwork in scientific research may also fit in here. Once again, all will be my opinion, and clearly labeled as such unless I can point to reliable research and statistics.

Blogs allow us to express our opinions. They should never be read as news or fact. They can, however, aid us in interpreting the Wall Street Journal or National Public Radio.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Dystopian Writing

By Laura P. Valtorta

Margaret Atwood, who has written five dystopian novels, starts from a platform of modern civilization in first-world countries (people working, children being educated, women treated as $.68 citizens) before plunging into a future that looks both grim and strange. In the MaddAdam trilogy, her diving board is present-day corporate control from which she plunges into the soup of the future – a world where the environment has collapsed and big companies protect half of the population in sealed communities. She has a platform of values that she respects: love and camaraderie. The healing qualities of hard work such as gardening. But she attacks anyone who can’t think for herself. The books are hilarious.

Franklin Schneider has no such platform. His creative memoir, Canned, how I lost ten jobs in ten years and learned to love unemployment, begins with the premise that life stinks, all of it. He tells the reader why in an entertaining way. The reader may or may not agree, but the quality and funniness of the writing help to deliver his message. Because Schneider rejects everything (except sex and books), his insights are often deeper and more unexpected than those of other writers. He makes the reader question values that western society forces on us as given: family is desirable. Work is always good.

Donna Tartt, in The Secret Friend, starts from the premise that Mississippi life in the 1970s was terrible for everyone because of economic deprivation. Her central character, a young girl, hunts down a supposed killer who has not committed the murder. Nobody understands anybody else in Tartt’s world. The reader can see inside the minds of the main characters, but they hardly ever understand each other. In this way, she attacks some prejudices about the South and reinforces others. She does accept the conventional premise that people need money and ambition to make life work. The book is 95% funny and filled with snakes.

While writing my current novel about the barriers America has built around skin color, I am starting from the traditional notion that family can make a person strong. Friends are important in Doris & Carmen, but Americans, living in compartmentalized worlds, are never free to choose the friends they need. People who can break down the boxes are stronger than others. My main targets are the American legal system, greed, and lawyers.

Humor is what ties these writings together. Nobody wants to depress her readers, and human stupidity is an easy target. Laughter is what makes the message stick.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Wordtopia is Just One Way to Start

By Kasie Whitener

Jodie was right. NaNoWriMo is a crazy gluttony of wordtopia. Volunteers commit to producing 50,000 words in the month of November for what could be the first draft of a novel.

I’ve done it three times and have a lifetime achievement statistic of 155,363 words to show for it. This year’s entry, Interstate Butterflies, is a commercial fiction attempt: Maisy Diller returns to her hometown to escape her crumbling music career and wait out the cancer that’s killing her uncle.

What I love about NaNoWriMo is the purity of creation. There’s no room for revising in the word frenzy. I’m not someone who has ever written without stopping to correct spelling and grammar. I tend to edit-while-writing. No time for that in NaNo! Word count is all that matters. There’s no time for poring over the right word or the right construction of a sentence.

Just go! Blaze on! Word count is what matters.

There’s no chance to wonder if a scene has done what it needs to do, whether a character’s motivations have changed, or even what that character wants to accomplish in each scene. Just write! The rest will get worked out during revision.

I’ve always “pantsed” NaNoWriMo. It means writing-from-the-seat-of-your-pants. I just let the characters talk and meander through the story. I’ve basically taken the stream-of-consciousness approach for five first-person narrators, one of whom was a vampire.

But this year I “planned” which entails outlining the entire novel and waking up every morning with a “fill in the blank” approach to achieving my word count. Planning worked. By mid-month I had 25,000 words and I was on my way to winning NaNoWriMo.

Except I didn’t know anything about Maisy. Her voice sounded like an answering machine recording. I couldn’t figure out what the main conflict was. Which character was the antagonist?

Then I had surgery and went down for four days without a finger on the keyboard. In my anesthesia-induced fog, I asked the big questions:

What does Maisy want?
What happens if she doesn’t get it?
Who stands in her way?
What is she willing to do to achieve her goal?
What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to her?

And then she started talking. She said, “Listen, Kasie, this story is about my inability to see myself as anyone except the person the men in my life say I am. I want to be me in all my messy glory. Not Will’s best friend. Not Maddox’s talented niece. Not the band’s lead singer or Tyler’s ex-girlfriend. Not my father’s lost cause.”

Then, in a fit of 18,000 words, I crushed the last three days of NaNoWriMo and “finished” the novel. Except it’s not anywhere near done. It’s just 50,060 words of discovery. A lump of clay ready to be shaped into a compelling novel through revision. But it’s a start and that’s the whole point of NaNo: to start.

Now the real work begins.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

No More NaNoWriMo!

By Jodie Cain Smith

If I had my druthers, NaNoWriMo would find a tall cliff and plunge into the great hereafter. I have given it a try. Twice. And now I can claim two Novembers full of self-loathing and failure. Allow me to share my post-NaNo thoughts with you.

Who chose November?

Is this because whoever created this awful challenge wanted some cutesy alliteration? National Novel na na na. We get it. Adorable. No amount of alliteration will ever work for me.

Did the original NaNoWriMo-er not know that November is a really busy month, especially for those of us who already gave into the pressure of creating a Norman Rockwell version of the holidays? Which, by the way, start with trick-or-treating on Halloween. No more of this wait until after Thanksgiving. Nope. How can I be expected to write 50,000 words in the month that I am also supposed to avoid eating all my kid’s Halloween candy, tear down the cobwebs and witches, throw up a cornucopia, hay bale, and a sign that reads “So blessed” all in a mad dash before the day of gluttony? Then, I must figure out how to brine a turkey and do all of my Christmas shopping in one day that more resembles The Purge than holiday shopping. No, November will not do.

And, the cutesy doesn’t end with the name.

You must decide early on if you are a planner or a pantser, and be willing to fight to the death in defense of your chosen writing style. There are badges to be won, inspirational coaching to be bombarded with, and writing events. I can think of few experiences more awkward than sitting around a library table with ten strangers all with laptops and ear buds, all silently staring at each other when we collectively hit the writer’s block.

And, yes, I’m officially adding NaNoWriMo social media posters to my naughty list.

You finished your word count for the day? Congrats. You’re on thin ice in my Facebook friend list just for mentioning NaNoWriMo. Chapter 85 was really tough, but you suffered through it and exceeded your goal by 40,000 words but are going to have a really hard time cutting the manuscript back to a publishable length? Oh, my finger is itching to click that block button, humble bragger. You finished a week and a half early and decided to start another novel just for the fun of it? Blocked. Goodbye. You don’t deserve friends.

But, mostly, I hate NaNoWriMo because of what it revealed of me as a writer. I discovered I am a planner who really wants to pants it. I discovered I am weak in the face of distraction. I discovered that writing is a lonely road full of self-doubt. Thanks, NaNoWriMo, for revealing my faults and insecurities. Sometimes, I don’t want to know the truth.

To all of you who succeeded this November, my sincerest congratulations. You’ve done what many could not. Just don’t post it in my Facebook feed.