Monday, November 19, 2012

Academic writing

When I began writing seriously at the end of the 1990s, I was face with a choice.  In 1999, just before Christmas I defended my PhD dissertation and obtained my academic union card.  At that time I was also working on a popular history for a group of Professional Engineers.  They had been floundering trying to produce a millennium history of engineering achievements in the Hamilton/Burlington area - the western end of Lake Ontario.  Through someone I knew, whose husband was on their committee, I managed to get hired to write it for them.  Meantime, I was also writing an article for a major academic journal, histoire sociale/Social History.  The popular book:  By Design:  The Role of the Engineer in the History of the Hamilton/Burlington Area. 

The academic article: Edward Smith.  "Working Class Anglicans:  Religion and Identity in Victorian and Edwardian Hamilton, Ontario." Histoire sociale/Social History vol. XXXVI (no. 71) Mai-May 2003, 123-144.

I had two roads to follow - popular writing, or academic writing.  The purpose of academic writing is to get you tenure, or to increase your place on the pay grid if you are already tenured, and to make a name amongst academics.  Oh, yes, and also to increase our understanding of human nature....
The purpose of writing popular histories is to inform others of the roots of human society - to expand understanding of ourselves to ourselves, and to entertain.

Well, I chose popular writing - on the one hand I was patted on the head for the academic article, but it had no impact on any chance of getting full time work in acadaemia as there are sooo many History PhDs floating around out there.... on the other, the engineers were pleased with the book and paid me $40,000.

I am working on an academic opus - but only because the topic interests me greatly and I want to produce a book length essay exploring the relationship between religion and society - primarily at the level of ordinary people.  Most of my writing is reserved for poetry and my multimedia novel project.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Moods and a silly poem tacked onto the end

On the Live Journal social media site (where I rarely post anymore), they used to have a list of emoticons - moods - you could attach to each post, I guess if your writing was so ineffective that a reader could not pick up on it from the words themselves.

This got me to thinking about the impact of one's mood at any particular time you set out to write.  At this specific moment, it is sunny and mild outside - as has most of November thus far this year.  Sunny and cool days in Fall always get my word conduit operating at maximum efficiency.  For example, these very words - I opened the blog editor and stared at the screen for about 5 seconds then wrote 'Moods' in the subject box and started to write these words.  Prior to that I had no idea what I would write, only that the conduit was clear and clean and ready for that crazed part of my brain that allows this, whatever it is, to happen.

Let's try a poem out of nowhere before closing  [a rhetorical question]:

Rhetoric to the Rhetoritician
is like magic to the Magician
like politics to the politician
oh if I liked it I would go fishin'
because I don't like any of these ishins
words in my head are my only condition


Friday, November 16, 2012

Libraries and eBooks

I have been following the debate [battle?] between public libraries and publishers over eBooks for a year or two now.  The latest blast was posted on the Digital Book World [DBW] site.  I received an email post on it this morning.  The American Library Association reported statistics that library borrowers buy on average 3.2 books.  The need for constantly hammering publishers with these numbers is real.  Some of the big legacy publishers will not allow their eBooks into libraries, others limit the number of times a patron may borrow a book, all allow only one eBook to be lent at a time.

Mike Shatzkin in this blog post details the arguments on both sides neatly.  To summarize - libraries point out that making eBooks free for borrowing stimulates sales of eBooks - that is, people use libraries to discover books, then when they find an author they like, they tend [well, maybe 'tend' is too weak, given the 3.2-1 ratio of library reader to book buyer], they buy.

Publishers on the other hand, fear that making all books available free as eBooks through libraries will foster a habit and an expectation that books should be free.

It is the wild west out there now.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Police Officers

I went to a dinner last night with a curious little club formed 25 years ago by a friend, a now-retired police Constable.  I am  now a member of this dinner club - I sat at a table with 10 men - one a younger, still working officer, the others all retired, some for quite some time.  The gentleman who sat next to me now writes historical fiction eBooks.  So we chatted about publishing and marketing and editing for the eBook market.  He uses American publishers who publish only eBooks - but the rest of their work is, as far as I can tell, identical to legacy publishing - editing, copy editing, marketing.

Bill Hewitt's site author

Mostly, however, I listened to shop talk - tales of people injured or dying in accidents and how officers deal with that emotionally, of arrests made, of amusing incidents, of family, ordinary chat about houses and cars and gardens and restaurants.   All of which would make an interesting book, I think..... but too much on my plate at the moment.

There is something I have noticed about police officers that I have also seen in the faces of war veterans. There is a ...... hmmmmm..... how to describe this..... a tightness about the mouth that you see in people who have seen horrible things and have had to be violent in a cause.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


How much should a writer reveal?  Is good writing merely a writer streaking the world?  The old adage  says 'write what you know' - but what happens when you really do not know yourself?  Well, that, I guess, is another topic entirely.  If you do write what you know, you write characters that are composites of people you have known, including yourself.  One of the great guessing games played by readers and critics [sometimes the same people!] is to uncover the real life origins of fictional characters.  Even in writing non-fiction - history, as I do - analysis of an historical character will be predicated on my knowledge of people, garnered from those I know.

All this was prompted by one of my interminable re-jiggings of me  - I tend to take to heart the critiques of me offered by friends and family and this causes me to retreat and process and rebuild.  It is as though I write 'me' in the same way I write character in a novel or a poem, or describe a person in historical context.  I doubt I ever really change in essence though - I merely engage in a redecoration of the outer 'me'.  More to the point here then, when I add or subtract traits from a fictional character, is there an essence, an unchanging foundation for that character that does not change?