The opposite of dyslexia

I had some initial difficulty in learning to read. My mom tried to teach me with some instructional material from a newspaper supplement, with no success whatsoever. I was a motivated learner, but the whole premise of the instructional material—which was based on phonics—made no sense to me at all.

I learned to read more or less all at once on the first day of first grade, when the teacher flipped through some big cards with words on them, together with pictures that were supposed to help indicate each word’s meaning. (I remember that “ball” was one of them, and that “go” was another.) I was stunned to realize that many of my classmates were ahead of me—they could read these words, and I could not.

But immediately, after just four or five cards, I grasped that the fundamental unit of reading was not the letter (which is what all that phonics-based stuff had implied). It was the word.

I was instantly off and running. I generally only had to be exposed to a printed word a single time to learn it. There were still a few (sufficiently frustrating to be memorable 50-plus years later) instances where adults refused to just tell me what a word was, trying to coach me through the process of “sounding it out”—something that I was never able to do—but within a day or two I was reading well above grade level and never looked back.

Even now phonics is only something I understand backwards. The spelling of English words is interesting in how it freezes in time a brief period in the midst of vast shifts in pronunciation, but I still find preposterous the idea that it’s easier to memorize sixty or eighty common spellings of the 40-odd phonemes that make up English, to learn dozens of common exceptions, and then to use that knowledge to “sound out” a word, than it is to just learn all the words.

In my experience, just learning all the words was trivially easy, while sounding a word out was virtually impossible.

I am given to understand that dyslexia is roughly the opposite of this. People with dyslexia are unable to make the jump to what is called “whole-word” reading, and are basically forced to stick with “sounding out” every word.

This is mostly important only in that I think it illustrates why it’s stupid to standardize on one way of teaching reading just because most people will learn to read just fine either way. Some people—me on the one hand, dyslexics on the other—will only be able to learn to read one way, and it’s not the same way.

Although it’s not important, I do have a recent illustrative anecdote to relate.

One side-effect of the way I perceive words is that I have no idea how they are spelled. It wasn’t until I was in college (and realized that I simply had to learn how to spell) that I bit the bullet and learned how to spell the only way that works for me: I need to memorize the list of letters that makes up a word. To this day, if I have not needed to write a word, I do not know how to spell it. For example, I did not know how to spell “Los Angeles” until after I moved there—and even then I didn’t learn it for several weeks until I had to write it down for some reason.

A related side-effect is that certain words that have similar shapes get conflated in my brain. Especially if they have somewhat congruent meanings, I will simply not realize that they are not the same word.

I mention all this now because a specific instances of it came up yesterday. Jackie had put calamine lotion on the shopping list, so I was picking up a bottle of the stuff. I read the label to see if the generic would be just as good as some brand-name version, and was surprised to see that “calamine lotion” is a specific thing: calamine topical suspension USP.

Reading the label so carefully made me realize for the first time that calamine is something different from chamomile. To my brain the words look an awful lot alike, and they’re both key ingredients in traditional remedies, so I had just slotted them in as the same thing.

Two asides here.

First, it was only while drafting this post that I realized that chamomile has that h as the second letter. As I said, if I haven’t written a word, I have no idea how it is spelled. This always made the suggestion that I should “look it up in the dictionary” to find the spelling especially frustrating. I remember attempting to follow that instruction once and then coming back to my dad some ten or twenty minutes later and saying that I had looked at every word in the dictionary that started with the letters “ax-” and yet had been unable to find “accelerate.”

Second, the brand-name stuff, because it doesn’t follow the USP formulary, isn’t even calamine lotion; it’s just some skin protectant lotion with a similar color that happens to have calamine in it. Who would want that?

A short dialog

“I have finished my book,” I said, closing my library book.

“I have finished my book,” Jackie said, closing her library book at the exact same moment I closed mine.

“How syncronisical,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie said. “Syncronisical is exactly what it was.”

“It’s a good word,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie agreed. “It doesn’t get used often enough.”

Livin’ TV-free

For reasons too tedious to go into, Jackie and I never upgraded to a digital TV. We had an old cathode ray tube Sony, and were still watching TV on that.

One reason that we hadn’t upgraded was that our old TV was heavy. The two of us together just barely got it up the stairs and into our apartment. I was literally afraid to try to carry it back out, even with two of us. We’d about resigned ourselves to buying a new TV from some local store that would do delivery and setup, because those stores will generally haul away your old TV as part of the deal. (Around here you can’t just put a TV into a dumpster; you have to recycle it in some way.)

As part of moving, though, we donated a bunch of stuff to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which will accept old TVs and other electronics, and for $10 will send a truck to pick up your donations. We jumped at the chance.

The TV went about two weeks before we moved into the summer place, but we’re still TV-free, because the summer place doesn’t have a TV either.

Since we were getting rid of the TV and packing up the DVD player, we went ahead and turned off our disk subscription with NetFlix. We kept our streaming subscription, and have actually watched one thing since moving, mainly as test that it would work.

Aside from that, though, we’ve been livin’ TV-free.

In the short term, it’s great. We could watch stuff on the big desktop screen (although there’s no good place for a second person to sit in front of the computer), or on the laptop screen (although it’s kinda small for two people to watch, unless they sit right together and put the laptop right in front of them), but we don’t.

Instead, we’re reading books. I’ve read more fiction in the last three or four weeks than I’d read in the previous three or four months. (Oh, and once we went to the theater! The local Art Theater had a late showing of Serenity. What a great movie to watch with an audience!)

I don’t expect we’ll stick with our TV-free lifestyle once we have our own place. We’ll probably get a bigish flat-screen TV. Maybe a blueray player. Probably turn our NetFlix disk subscription back on. We enjoy watching the BBC and the Nightly Business Report and the PBS Newshour and various TV series. We enjoy watching movies on disk and episodes of old TV series on streaming.

But in the meantime, we’re enjoying livin’ TV-Free.

Hey! I wrote a novel!

It kind of snuck up on me. I hadn’t realized how close I was to being done with an entire draft.

After a couple of awkward starts, things had been going along pretty well until about spring. That’s when I started drawing more directly from the text of the short story that had been the basis of the novel, pulling the scenes from the short story and slotting them into the right spot in the climax of the novel. Except that process went very badly. They didn’t fit well. The tone was wrong. The characters had drifted. I kept finding small off-hand remarks to set up some thing or another, and realizing that in a novel there should instead be a whole earlier chapter to set that thing up. I kept finding that once I’d written those scenes, there was nothing left of this scene. It was such a struggle, I became discouraged. Progress ground almost to a halt.

A couple of times I got back to it, grabbed a scene, and reworked it—deleted the one-line remark and added the earlier chapter, reworked the interactions so that the characters were true to how they’d developed in the novel up to there, added full-blown scenes where the short story version had just had a brief reference that the hero had done something. But I found all that work hard and not much fun, so I kept not doing it.

Since moving to the summer place, I’ve been trying to reestablish a habit of daily writing, figuring that it should be as easy right now as it will ever be.

Today is my birthday, which I took advantage of by choosing to set my schedule exactly as I wanted—I got up, did a little social media stuff, had breakfast, read a little, then sat down to do some writing. I spent a good long while on one scene, because it had a lot of compressed action that needed to be more fully worked out in a novel-length work. Then the next scene went very quickly, because it was short, and then the next scene went quickly, because it was just about right in terms of tone and character. And then I realized that it was the last scene! I had finished my novel!

There’s a whole lot left to do, of course.

Although I tried to get the set-up stuff inserted as I went along, a lot of it is missing, or only present in vestigial form. I have to fix all that.

Probably a bigger deal, there were many little clever bits that might have set up something neat, but didn’t, and many short turns down side roads that seemed cool, but that didn’t end up leading anywhere. I need to locate each of those and think about whether it does lead somewhere—and then make sure that the “somewhere” it leads to is actually in the text and not just in my imagination. The others, of course, need to be ruthless pared away.

Most important, in the writing of the book I’ve finally figured out what it’s about. That too needs to end up in the text, and not just in my head. In particular, there’s a lot of economic and political stuff that kept showing up in my brain to be stuffed in the book, but didn’t all show up at the right points, so ended up getting stuffed willy-nilly into whatever corner happened to have a bit of space in it at the moment. Those bits need to be pulled out and carefully tucked into the right corner, now that I can see the whole thing and can figure out where they really go.

So, a lot of work to do—but it will be a lot of work on a novel! A novel that exists! A novel that I have written!

Great writers versus great posts

I do most of my on-line reading via a feed reader. For years I used Google Reader, without even really worrying about the risks. After Google ruined it, I experimented with several alternatives. I’m happy enough with a couple of the options, so I’m not so unhappy with how things have turned out (with Google having announced that it is canceling Reader). But the surge in interest has prompted me to think about how reading feeds is different from reading things via social media. Social media helps you find great posts. Feed readers are for when you’ve found a great writer.

I notice this whenever someone shares one of my pages (either here or on Wise Bread). I’ll get a surge of traffic to one post. Some of those people will read another post, or even a few. Only a few seem to become regular readers of my work—and fewer now than before.

Back in the old days—let’s say, five or six years ago—there was more of the latter, and I think it was because more people used feed readers. It was wonderful to find a great post, but it was much better to find a great writer. Then you could add their feed to your feed reader and read everything they wrote.

I still do that. Every time I find a great post via Facebook or Twitter (or whatever), I look at other stuff the guy has written, with an eye toward adding the feed to my feed reader.

I’m puzzled that more people don’t seem to do the same. Finding a great writer is way better than finding a great post.

Replacing Google Reader

In my ongoing search for a replacement for the sorely missed old Google Reader, I happened upon The Old Reader, which is pretty good. Good enough that I’ve moved my own reading and sharing activities over there, and updated the “Interesting stuff” item in my sidebar to point to the stuff I share out of the things I read via RSS.

It was the loss of an RSS feed of the stuff that I share that made me leave Google Reader, which was otherwise excellent. For a while I’d been using Tiny Tiny RSS, which was okay, but which put too much of a load on the server that my brother and I share. The Old Reader, although it’s not as quick about finding new items as they are posted, seems stable and functional.

If you’re interested in the stuff I share, feel free to follow that feed.

On Submitting Stories to Editors—a Useful Exercise

I wrote the following for my teenaged nephew, who is also a writer:

I understand that you’re ready to move beyond just writing stories for yourself, and to start submitting them for publication. There are a lot of articles with advice on this topic. You could spend a few hours reading a bunch, but I can save you the time. Their advice boils down to this: “Read the submission guidelines. Follow them.”

In the time I’ve just saved you, I suggest that you do a little exercise. It will take a couple of hours, and it will teach three or four very useful lessons on what it’s like to be an editor—and once you know that, you’ll scarcely need any of those articles.

Set aside two hours during which you can focus, and do this:

  1. Go to ralan.com. It has lists of markets to which you might submit sf or fantasy stories, organized by how much they pay per word. The top two categories are of markets that pay 3¢ a word or more. These are the markets that you’ll soon be submitting to. But for this exercise, we’ll be focusing on the lower tiers: Pay, Token, and Expo.
  2. Click on each of those lists. Look for markets that publish stories in your genre, and that publish them on-line.
  3. Make a list of 10 or 20 such markets. Pick ones that look like they’ll have the sort of stories you’d like to read. In your list, include the URL that will take you to each market’s most recent stories.
  4. Read 50 stories from those markets, and pick the two best.
  5. Write two quick notes about why each of those stories is superior.
  6. If you have time, write another 48 notes for each of the stories that didn’t make the cut, explaining how they fall short.

That last step, of course, is a joke. Obviously you won’t have time. In fact, if you tried to read every story all the way through, you’ll have used up your two hours long before you were done.

Now you know a bunch of things from an editor’s perspective:

  • You’ll know they start each submission they read hoping it’ll be great. They want it to be awesome, because that’ll mean that they get to read an awesome story—and then they’ll be able to print an awesome story in their magazine!
  • You’ll know that they can usually tell in just a few paragraphs that a story isn’t going to make the cut. Oh, they’ll read a bit further—they’ll be hoping that you’ve hidden an awesome story behind a weak opening. But they only get to accept two stories, and if your story isn’t better than the best ones they’ve read today, it’s not going to make the cut.
  • You’ll know why they’re so picky about the format they want submissions in. Editors don’t want submission stories to look awesome. They want them to be awesome, but they want them to look all the same. (How much time did you waste, just getting through each new market’s front page to find the stories?)
  • You’ll know why you aren’t going to get any useful feedback from editors. (How many of those 48 rejected stories did you provide notes for?)

Hopefully, you’ll also know a few new things from a writer’s perspective. You’ll know that there are a lot of crappy stories out there (and those are the best crappy stories—the ones that got published). There’s some consolation in that, but not much. It’s not good enough for your story to be better than the crappy ones—it’s going to have to be better than the great stories, and there are some of those too.

I’m sure you’re going to figure that you can get most of the benefit just by thinking about this exercise, without actually doing it. This is not true. Do the exercise. It only takes a couple of hours, and you won’t believe the things you’ll learn.

Am I a bad reader?

It’s common in novels to have scenes where a character who is known to the reader is observed by another character who lacks that knowledge. To indicate that fact, the writer sometimes refrains from using the character’s name (and generally from mentioning anything that the other character can’t know).

That’s fine, except when (for story purposes) it’s important that the reader recognize that the character being observed is the character that they know.

Many writers use some physical tag that, I guess, is supposed to clue the reader in as to who the character is, and here’s where my bad reading capabilities come to the fore: I read right past that stuff.

When the story talks about someone seeing “the tall man in the black coat,” I do not automatically assume that this guy must be the main character (whom I’ve long ago forgotten was described in the first chapter as being tall and some time later as owning a black coat).

I can’t count how many novels I’ve found utterly befuddling because I never realized that “the guy in the cowboy hat” was not just some guy in a cowboy hat, but rather was the main character (whose choice of chapeau had no doubt been mentioned, but without the important caveat “by the way, in the world of this novel, nobody else ever wears a cowboy hat”).

Now, it’s possible to make this work. I remember a novel that described one character as walking “with the outsides of his feet making first contact with the ground.” When someone with that particular gait was referred to later, I never once thought that maybe this was some other guy who happened to walk on the outsides of his feet.

So, how about you guys? When a book you’re reading references “the bald man” or “the guy with the red beard,” do you immediately know that the author means you to understand that this is the character described three chapters earlier as having that trait? Is it just that I’m a bad reader?

Clarion at home: Reading

This is part 3 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on reading, and in particular, on picking what to read.

Read many mediocre and a few great stories

A story is rather like a magic trick: a carefully executed series of moves designed to produce a specific effect in the reader.

Watching a magic trick performed perfectly teaches you very little about how the trick is done. The only people who are likely to learn anything are people who not only know how the trick is done, they can already do it themselves—except that their own performance is not perfect.

Learning how to write great stories by reading great stories is much the same. When the story is perfectly crafted, it’s hard to get past the surface to see how the story is put together.

It’s much easier to learn from mediocre stories. It’s especially easy when a story falls down in several areas but does one thing well. Because then you can see that one thing in relative isolation.

Clarion is great for this. Many of your classmates are really good writers, but even they are producing work under a certain amount of time pressure, so they don’t usually have time to craft seamless work. The result is a lot of seamy work, and seamy work is work you can learn from.

Happily, you don’t have to go to Clarion to find mediocre fiction. The internet is full of it. Check a market list that includes some on-line publications, and take a look at the markets that pay less than pro rates. The correlation between payment rate and quality isn’t perfect, but it’s usually pretty good.

Don’t limit yourself to just mediocre fiction; you can learn a lot from a great story too. It’s just more work.

One advantage of Clarion at home is that you can calibrate the quality of fiction you’re reading to match your own needs (rather than the skills of your classmates). Look for stories where the quality of “finish” challenges your ability to take the story apart and understand how it works, but doesn’t thwart it. As your skills improve, step up to stories that are more challenging.

Of course, the stories with critiques that you identified during the planning should be a key source of stories to read.

Part 4 of this series will be on critiquing.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.

Clarion at home: Planning

This is part 1 of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion, which provides my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on planning for your Clarion at home.

Pick your six weeks

Unlike the folks attending Clarion, you can choose any six weeks you want. You could go with the same six weeks as Clarion; one advantage of that is that you could read their blogs and maybe borrow some of their energy. But you don’t have to wait if you don’t want to (or if the reason you can’t go to Clarion is a schedule conflict).

Along with picking the six weeks, commit to a significant degree of focus on your writing during those six weeks. You won’t be able to focus like someone at Clarion—you’ll probably have to go to work or to class, you’ll no doubt have obligations at home—but negotiate to have these minimized during the period you’ve picked, and decide in advance that you’ll let some of your minor obligations slip for six weeks.

Pick a book on writing

At my Clarion, much of week one was spent in classroom instruction, and there was further classroom instruction in varying amounts through the later weeks. To substitue for that, pick a book on fiction writing that you can use to learn (or review) the basics of writing fiction.

Because of his historical connection with Clarion, Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction is an obvious choice, but any fiction-writing book that you happen to have or can get from the library would be fine.

Make a study plan

Make a plan for how you’ll work through most of the book you’ve selected over during the first two weeks.

When I went, week one was spent studying plot and character with Steve Barnes (who is quite brilliant about plot in particular—the stuff I learned from him forms a large part of the article I sold to Speculations: Story Structure in Short Stories).

Week two was spent with Kelly Link. She taught us all kinds of stuff, but especially about the importance of telling detail for making description compelling. She also provided a masterclass in point-of-view.

So, to make your Clarion-at-home like my Clarion, read through the chapters of your book on those topics (plot, character, description, POV) during the first two weeks.

Consider joining an on-line critique group

I say “consider,” because your goal would actually not be to get critiques of your work, so it might not be appropriate.

Everyone assumes that getting some thoughtful critiques of your work by people skilled in the field is the most important part of Clarion, but that turns out not to be true. The most important part of Clarion is preparing critiques, and then hearing your classmates’ critiques on the same stories. That’s what teaches you the most—whenever someone else offers a critique that’s different from yours, you learn something.

To get that benefit, you need to find some stories that have been critiqued. An on-line critique group is one possible source. If you can’t find one or don’t want to participate in one, there are other sources. (In fact, there’s a whole field of study devoted to it: literary criticism.)

If you don’t want to join an on-line critique group, you can make do with other kinds of critiques—scholarly papers, book reviews, etc. For speculative fiction in particular, Locus Magazine reviews a lot of published stories, and puts a lot of those reviews on-line. Any source of critiqued stories (with critiques) will serve your purpose.

Once your planning is done, you’re ready to begin. Part 2 of this series will be on writing a story a week.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.