Selected Shorts, Evernote, Grammar up

I guess I'm luckier than some, I have several outlets through which I can vent my occasional creative urges. I can shoot photos, write something, and, on the extremely rare occasion, I can draw.

Unfortunately, I can do none these well. My skills with pencil and paper exceeds stick figures, but I've never been called talented in that regard.

My photography skills are improving, and I'm glad for it. I love photography, my own efforts and those of others, and I really want to be better than good at it.

My writing skills, however, are in desperate need of work, as those of you who read my columns with any regularity will attest. I'm not horrible at writing; I'm just not very good at it. That's a sad state of affairs for someone who enjoys writing. I guess it isn't so much the finished product as it is the act of writing that I enjoy. So, even if I produce crap I'll have had a good time producing it.

It would be so much better, however, if what I create is at least coherent and is enjoyable for others to read as it is for me to write.

Coherence at writing can be learned, I believe, but knowing what to write about and making what's written enjoyable to read has kept many writers of every skill level up for far more nights, nursing mugs of coffee or glasses of gin, than can be counted.

There are all sorts of tricks writers use to give themselves a jump start on a story. Some keep journals and logs of the random thoughts that float through their minds during the course of the day. These bits of mental lint can become seeds of a character or scene in a story or become the story itself.

Some writers carry around a voice recorder and use it to not only record their musings, but also the sounds of everyday life, and that can be inspiration for a story.

I would rather listen to others tell their stories than to talk about what and how I see things. Not that other peoples' views are any better than mine, it's just that theirs is different from mine. For a writer, different is good.

Other writers collect stuff. A doorknob, some string, an empty condom package, the detritus of everyday life which they then use as fertilizer for stories.

One exercise I've taken to lately is to write a nano-story (what I call an extremely short story) around a new word I've learned.

When my iMac is in screen-saver mode it displays random words for the dictionary built into OS X. Many words I know well enough, but often there are words I've never seen before, and it's fun to come up with a few paragraphs that tell a story based on that new word.

Here's an example: The word was "crapulent" which means relating to drunkenness.

"His crapulent stupor, punctuated with barely coherent proclamations of his innocence, only exacerbated the judge's ire.

His sentence was pronounced swiftly; he was to be interned for 8 months. Hearing the harshness of the penalty sobered him, but only a little. His speech was slurred, but he managed a pule for mercy, which the judge ignored.

As the bailiffs guided him from the courtroom, he caught a fleeting glimpse of Marcia. For an instant their eyes met, and in that instant the full weight of his sorry for his actions were relayed to her, and she, in return, transmitted every ounce of hatred she had for him.

He flinched as if she had sent him a spray of acid rather than a look of utter contempt, and the link between them was broken. It was that look, her eyes that spoke nothing but pure, unadulterated loathing aimed squarely at him that haunted his dreams in the ensuing months of his prison term.

Whenever he closed his own eyes he would see hers as if she stood, only feet away, in the cell with him. Her eyes were hazel, he saw, with flecks of reddish gold that burned like fanned embers, and they refused every entreaty for mercy, for forgiveness. They bore into him each night, and each day her eyes haunted him. They waited just beyond each blink and in the shadows of every quiet moment of every day and night. Week after week for 8 months.

By the third month the eyes no longer had an owner, they appeared as a pair of malevolent, smoldering orbs that stayed in the shadows as a cat or wolf might when stalking its prey. They hovered and watched him with a hateful glare as he fought for the right to remain a man in a man's prison, observed each meal he ate and eliminated, and scrutinized every his every waking moment with complete disgust."

Unfortunately, there's more. Fortunately for you, I won't bore you with it, but I think you get my drift.

If you want to hear what REAL writers of short stories can produce when their writing is not mentally blocked then, you need to look no further than the iTunes Store.

There you'll find podcasts aplenty where people of every skill level read aloud what they or others have written, and that's pretty cool.

One of my favorites is Public Radio International's (PRI) Selected Shorts Podcast.

This is a relatively new podcast, and there are only five episodes so far, but stories that are read are wonderful and the readers, different with each podcast, do an excellent job.

Particularly I'm a huge fan of the story "Figuring it Out." It's about a guy working on important, career changing project, deep geek stuff, and how he handled his social disconnection.

It's a wonderful story, and I found elements of it ringing true for me, which, I suppose, is the point of writing and publishing stories in the first place.

Each podcast is an hour long so make sure you have an uninterrupted hour to spend listening. Selected Shorts well worth it.

If you write anything -blogs, short stories, novels, Dear John letters- then you likely use one of the tricks I mentioned earlier to collect your random thoughts.

One tool I use to handle my thought collection is Evernote.

With Evernote you can take note of everything and anything in any way you think is applicable then catalogs it all for easy recall.

See something amusing? Use Evernote and Snapshot mode to take a photo then annotate it. Find some useful info on a website? Evernote can save and catalog the link. Has a weird dream? Evernote lets you voice record your thoughts while they are still fresh, then saves it for easy recall later.

The free version Evernote is ad supported, but the ads are not intrusive.

Another nice thing about Evernote is that you can sync it and get to your synced notes online.

I have had an instance where Evernote refused to function, but I had my iPhone in airplane mode, which really should not have made a difference.

Check out Evernote at the iTunes Store.

Another way to make your writing worth reading is to write it correctly. I will freely admit that I have a problem with grammar.

Some of my grammatical flubs are simple mistakes, typos where either my finger type out what they want to say instead of what I meant to say, or tense cases where my time reference for a sentence is in the past, present, and future. These are common mistakes, and I usually catch them when I read what I've written.

There are other mistakes I make, however, that any good writer should know better than making, but I make them anyway and read right pass them when I edit. These are less common grammar offenses, which are really no excuse. If I'm going to write something for others to read I should at least know my craft well enough not to continually make the same or similar mistakes again.

I've taken to running a grammar checker against my compositions and that as helped, but I don't feel that I'm understanding why come errors are errors. That's where Grammar Up comes in.

FREE Grammar Up is a pleasant little app that quizzes you on your grammar knowledge in a game-like format. It'll help you make better word choices when forming sentences and when you make a mistake Grammar Up will flag it and tell you why.

Believe me, even those of you with an excellent command of the English language can stand to brush up on your grammar skillz and Grammar Up can help.

There's a $4.99 version that offers a lot more help, but if you are just looking to brush up or sharpen you grammar skill FREE Grammar up should do it.

Well, that's a rap for this week. Stop back next week for more Free on iTunes.