Even More Fun with Amazon’s SIPs

Per this entry here and this one over here, Amazon’s algorithms sometimes offer up odd SIPS (Statistically Improbable Phrases).

In the case of Wolverine: Worst Day Ever, check out the two circled items:

Now, the second item sort of amuses me like the others. Am I really to believe that “strawberry milk” is a statistically improbable phrase? Really? Does the Quik Bunny know about this? (More importantly, when did the Quik of my childhood become Nesquik? What the hell, people?)

OK, so Amazon hates all things pink. We get that.

But that first item that’s circled? The one that says “entry pasted?” I agree it’s a SIP. In fact, it’s so improbable that it doesn’t even occur in the book. At all!

Seriously! I checked. Nowhere in the book does the phrase “entry pasted” appear. “Entry posted,” well, that shows up a hell of a lot. But “entry pasted?” Nope.

Oops.

Amazon’s software can’t tell the difference between an “a” and an “o.” Must be from drinking all of that chocolate milk. Strawberry milk is good for the eyes.

(Once again, for the merriment-imparied: I’m not annoyed by any of these SIPs. I find them amusing, is all. It’s what happens when you let a computer think. A human being wouldn’t blink twice at those phrases. A computer isn’t so sure about them.)

Writing Advice #3: Education

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!


 

I know that last time I said this blog would be about inspiration, but I realized I had something else I needed to talk about first: education.

(Parents and teachers, you might not want to read any further.)

One question I’m often asked by people who want to write is this: “Where did you go to school?”

Usually followed by something like, “What was your major?”

And stuff like that.

Here’s the deal, people: School doesn’t matter. Your grades don’t matter. Your major? Doesn’t matter.

Now, I say this and then people go look up my bio or something, so, yeah, let me come clean.

Yes, I was a straight-A student in high school

Yes, I went to Yale.

Yes, I majored in English.

But honestly — I didn’t HAVE to do any of those things. Not a one of them was necessary to me becoming a professional writer. I did them because I liked doing them and because — let’s face it — I’m a geek.

Look, in order to be a writer, there is only ONE prerequisite: You have to be able to write REALLY WELL.

That’s it.

If you need a world-class education to get to that point, fine. But if you can manage it with an eighth-grade education, then that’s fine, too. My editor has never once said to me, “So, what was the subject of your senior essay at Yale?” (The American body paradox, BTW.) She just doesn’t care. NO ONE cares about my high school grades or how well I did or didn’t do in college.

All they care about is my writing. And that’s the way it SHOULD be.

Look at it this way — let’s say you read a really crappy book. I mean, this thing was just a piece of garbage, right?

Now imagine that you learn that the author of that crappy book went to Harvard and got straight As in English there.

Do you like the book any better now? Has the book changed at all?

No. It’s still just a crappy book.

So (and this is the part where parents and teachers should cover their ears!) don’t worry about your education. At least, don’t worry about as it pertains to your writing. Just WRITE. Just write WELL. That’s all anyone cares about.

Education matters for one reason — because you learn new things and you become curious about them. And that often leads to inspiration and ideas and great stories. But it doesn’t have to be ABOUT writing. I mean, I was an English major, but sitting in an astronomy class one day I was inspired to write a short story about a woman who cheats on her husband…all spurred (believe it or not) by something the professor said about the life cycle of stars.

So don’t worry too much about the books and the grades. Focus on your writing.

(Oh, and a teacher once pointed out to me that education IS important for writers because you need to learn spelling and grammar. And you know what? That stuff IS important. But guess what? If you can’t spell or put together a sentence by the time you hit high school, odds are you’re not gonna be a writer anyway. Sorry, but it’s true. You either care about that stuff or you don’t and people who don’t usually don’t have what it takes. If you can’t put together a decent sentence and you want to be a writer, then, yeah — you better study your ass off and learn some grammar.)

 


 

When I originally posted the above blog on MySpace, I was hit with a flood of people who violently disagreed. So I responded a couple of weeks later with the following: 

 


 

Some folks didn’t like what I had to say about education last time. They seem to think I was saying that writers don’t NEED an education, that writers should just forget about school and write instead.

I said nothing of the sort.

What I said was this: There is no education that is REQUIRED for one to be a writer. It’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer or an architect or an engineer, where you HAVE to take certain classes and learn certain subjects in order to progress in your chosen field.

In order to be a writer, you only need to know one thing, and that’s how to write damn well.

Here’s the thing, though: For most of us, we learn how to write by going to school. Why? Because school is one of the few places in the world where you are FORCED to read AND write on a regular basis. And reading and writing like a fiend is pretty much the best way to learn how to write. You read other people’s work and you learn what does or doesn’t work. You write your own stuff and you write those million bad words and you learn how to employ those ideas and strategies you learned by reading other people’s work. You keep writing and you develop your own voice and your own style.

Lots of famous and beloved authors never went to college. My favorite example is Alan Moore, considered by most comic book readers to be THE greatest comic book/graphic novel author in the history of the medium. He never went to college, though. He DID, however, read voraciously, educating HIMSELF in the art and science of writing.

Some folks brought up grammar and spelling, pointing out that it’s important to know such things as a writer. Well, of COURSE it is! That’s all part of “writing well.” By its very definition, “writing well” includes proper spelling and grammar.

Writing is all about having an idea and then communicating it with words in a way such that other people can see the idea, too. If you can’t spell or put together a sentence, well, good luck reaching that goal!

I’m not anti-education. As I pointed out in my last post on this topic, I was an A student in high school and an English major at Yale. I LOVE education!

But I think many, MANY young writers think, “I HAVE to take this writing workshop if I want to be a writer.” Or, “I MUST get an MFA if I want to be a writer.” Or, “I’d better major in English, otherwise I’ll never be a writer.”

No, no, and a thousand times, NO.

Study whatever you want. Travel the world. See things. Meet people. Do what works for you. The great thing about writing is this: If you have a terrific idea AND the ability to communicate it, you can succeed.

Studying great literature, going to an Ivy League college, taking writing classes… These things can all help you. There’s no question about it. But they aren’t mandatory.

What is mandatory is this: Write it well. Know how to spell and how to put together sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Quite honestly, if you graduate from high school without those basic abilities, well, there’s something wrong with your high school and you should enroll in a community college program of some sort to LEARN these things.

But don’t let anyone tell you that you need special classes or a special kind of education in order to be a writer. You don’t. You need your own talent, your own experiences, some basic knowledge of the language, and then a nice dose of luck.

And luck will be the topic of a future entry all its own…

Goth Girl Rising Trailer Contest

UPDATE 2: The contest is now CLOSED! Thanks for all the cool trailers, guys! I’ll be getting in touch with people soon to get addresses. Everyone who entered gets a Kyra Minimate! Plus, I’ll choose the winner VERY soon, probably by the end of the week. Thanks again! 

UPDATE: I’ve decided to extend the contest deadline to August 31. Have fun!

It’s contest time!

As far as contests go, this one requires a little bit of work, but it should be lots of fun. And everyone who enters wins!

Be sure to spread the word about this to your friends. The more people who enter, the more fun it will be!

Here you go:

1) Fire up your creative engines and create a book trailer for any of my four books (yes, that includes Wolverine: Worst Day Ever!). Whether you love Fanboy, Josh, Kross, or Eric Mattias (Nowhere Boy!), go ahead and create a cool trailer for that book. If you want to make a trailer for more than one book, that’s totally cool.

2) Post your video online. Stick it on YouTube or on your MySpace page or wherever you usually post your videos.

3) Now this is the important part! Use the contact form to send me a link to your video!

4) I will link to your video for the world to see!

5) The deadline is July August 31.

6) Everyone who posts a video and sends me the link will win SOMETHING. A signed book. A t-shirt. A cool prize pack from my publisher. SOMETHING.

7) One lucky winner will get a signed ADVANCE copy of Goth Girl Rising…so that he or she can make the official book trailer for the new book!

So start up your cameras or your animation software or whatever and get going! Good luck!

Writing Advice #2: How to Tell When It’s Not Crap

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!


OK, if you were here for the last blog, you know what I’m talking about. If not, go read it right here.

Back? Great.

So, the question you probably have is: If I’m writing a million bad words, how do I know when I’m done? I don’t have to count every single one, do I?

The answer is actually really simple, but it takes some explanation and some detours. At the end, there’s even a tiny bit of magic involved, which is always nice.

First of all, look, let’s be honest — if you’re reading this blog then odds are you’re still deep, DEEP in the thick of those million bad words. You’re not going to be writing anything decent for a while, so just don’t worry about it. Just keep churning out the crap day in and day out. It’ll all pay off eventually.

But let’s say you’re getting towards the end of those million bad words. How do you know? Because remember what I said in the previous blog: There will come a time when you think you’ve written something good, but you’re probably wrong. So how the hell can you tell?

Well, you need some friends.

You need to find one or two people whose opinions you trust. And I don’t mean your mom, who always loves everything you write. I mean people who will flat-out tell you when you’ve written a piece of shit.

You test them this way: You take that story you wrote a few months ago. You know it — the one you THOUGHT was terrific, but now you realize isn’t all that good. You give it to someone who’s willing to read your work and you say, “Give me your honest opinion.”

Most people will recognize it for the crap it is. They’ll hesitate and then they’ll say very noncommittal things like, “It was pretty good!” or “I liked it” or “Not bad, man!” They’ll avoid specifics. They’re trying not to hurt your feelings and that’s fine. No one likes having their feelings hurt, right?

Put those people on your Christmas card list — they’re nice and we like nice, but they’re not going to help your writing.

No, what you need is one or two people who look at that piece of crap and say things like, “It’s not working for me,” or “I know what you’re trying to do, but it’s not coming across.”

Despite what I said a few paragraphs ago, you don’t want someone just to say, “This is a piece of shit.” You need someone who can articulate WHY it’s a piece of shit. “Your characters don’t make any sense.” “Your dialogue is all messed up.” “You keep shifting tenses on me and it’s got me all confused.”

Stuff like that. They may even, on occasion, say something like, “Hey, this line here — it’s pretty good.” Or “The story is weak, but I loved the sister character. She cracked me up.”

See how that works? That’s called constructive criticism. And people who can give it to you are as good as gold.

You want people who can steer you in the right direction. Now, don’t get me wrong — it’s not their job to fix your story! That’s YOUR job and you can’t wuss out on it. It’s just their job to tell you that you’ve screwed up; then you can keep fixing it until they tell you it’s NOT screwed up any more.

Most writers who make a living at it (like me) have one or two people like this in their lives, people they trust. In my case, I have a good friend who is a terrific writer. She sees everything I write before I send it to my agent and she tells me if it’s shit or not. If she says it’s shit, guess what? I don’t send it to my agent. I keep working on it.

Best part? I do the same for her.

And that’s REALLY cool. Because when you have a give-and-take like that, you learn a lot. It’s tough to spot flaws in your own writing, but it’s EASY to spot them in someone else’s. And then…

And THEN magic happens. Because one day you’re reading your friend’s story and you think, “Jesus, why does he always use that terrible cliche…?” And then you realize that YOU DO THE SAME THING!

Reading and improving someone else’s work has just helped you improve your own.

It’s pretty damn awesome when it happens.

This back-and-forth makes it possible for you to power through those million bad words. And it makes it possible for you to see the flaws in your own writing and figure out how to fix them.

So.

Where do you find these magical people to help you? It’s not tough.

You find them in your writing class at school. At the local bookstore. In the local writer’s group. (Don’t ask me how to find a writer’s group! Just go to your local library or bookstore and look for fliers — trust me, someone’s advertising!) You go to a writer’s conference and meet people there. (Again, don’t ask me “which conference and where?” Just Google “writer’s conference” and start looking for stuff in your area.) You find ’em in coffee shops and at the local community college.

It might take some time to find the RIGHT person. But once you do, it can be a great relationship. I’ve had my “writing buddy” for seven years now. We both landed our agents at the same conference. We signed book deals eight months apart. Writing is a solitary profession, so it’s great to have a friend who understands what you’re going through.

OK, one final secret about detecting crap…

Hemingway once said that every writer needed a foolproof internal bullshit detector. Here’s the thing: Keep writing, keep plugging away, and keep BEING HONEST WITH YOURSELF and you’ll develop that detector. Once you get to the point where you realize and admit that what you’re writing is crap, something magical happens: You begin to notice when something ISN’T crap. A word, a sentence, a paragraph at a time. You start to detect these things. At first it’s just little bits here and there. Eventually it’s entire stories that aren’t crap.

I’ve mentioned in the previous post that I wrote a lot of really bad garbage before I wrote The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl. But almost the MINUTE I started writing that book, I could tell something was different. It was like all those years, I had been writing with weights attached to my fingers…and now those weights were off and my fingers were just FLYING over the keyboard.

It was the difference between playing the piano with your teacher looking over your shoulder…and improvising with a jazz band.

Keep at it. It can take YEARS, but eventually… Eventually, the weights come off. And even though you’ll still need to show your work to a trusted friend/confidant before you go any further with it, you’ll know. You’ll KNOW when you’ve exorcised those million bad words.

It’s like magic. It’s amazing.

NEXT: Next time, we’ll talk about inspiration. “Where do you get your ideas?” people ask. Well, we’ll talk about it.

Q&A: YA POV Change!

Today’s Q: What YA novel would you like to see re-told from the POV of someone other than the main character? Who and why?