Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

Slashdot, the portal site that bills itself as “News for nerds. Stuff that matters” has a strong hold on technical people’s imaginations and ambitions. For this reason, I’m often asked how to get a story mentioned on the site. They assume that, because I sell most of my articles to Linux.com, a web site that, like Slashdot, is run by SourceForge, that I have inside knowledge about how Slashdot’s inner workings. But the truth is, Linux.com and Slashdot are run so independently of each other that I have no idea how to interest the Slashdot staff. Nor do I have any better luck than anyone else at getting contributions accepted. That means that, when I do get a story on Slashdot, I’m as pleased as any outsider.

The first times I had stories on Slashdot, I wasn’t using my own name. Instead, I was ghosting, first for Stormix Technologies, and then for Ian Murdock at Progeny Linux Systems. Each time, I was pleased, but retained a sneaking suspicion that the link wasn’t so much anything that I had done so much as the interest that Stormix commanded as a new distribution and Ian as founder of Debian GNU/Linux.

For this reason, the first time I got on Slashdot under my own name was a heady experience. It was on March 2, 2005, with a review of OpenOffice.org 2.0. At the time, I was more than a little unsure how to react. I wrote ruefully in my journal that day:

My reaction is a little mixed. On the one hand, I like the increased visibility. On the other hand, when I see that several hundred comments have been posted, I feel that, should I ever be eaten by piranhas, then I’ll have a sense of deja vu.

Very little of my reaction has changed since. Like any writer, I like the idea of a larger audience for what I do Yet Slashdot is such a free-for-all that reading the comments can be a strain – not simply because some people disagree with me, but because I often get the feeling that people haven’t read the story at all and reacting as much to things in their mind as anything they can see on the screen.

Still, that doesn’t mean that I was displeased. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I could pretend that I was simply glad that an important subject was becoming widely known, but, although that would be partly true, I would hypocritical if I tried to dodge the fact that much of my reaction was sheer ego.

Since then, I’ve had a trickle of articles on Slashdot. Usually, they are just enough to keep me going, while being just uncertain enough that the novelty never wears off. It doesn’t hurt, either, that I receive a small bonus whenever one of my Datamation stories hits Slashdot.

My best month for Slashdot was September 2006 – but through no virtue of my own. That was a period when Linux.com had an employee whose job was to submit likely stories to sites like Slashdot and Digg. Still, that run of luck made me feel that I had arrived as a journalist.

A week later, when I attended my first high school reunion, I felt like I didn’t have to take apologize for what I’d been doing with my time. I had proof of my success, even if few non-geeks understood exactly what it meant.

I’ve never equaled that tally, or come anywhere near it since. But I have seen links to my work on Slashdot on two successive New Years’ Eves – again, not because of anything I could boast about so much as the fact that the last days of the year are slow for news and I’m usually still laboring to meet my monthly quota then. Both times, I enjoyed a quiet moment of satisfaction.

Getting on Slashdot isn’t the only mark of success for someone who writes about free software. I’m pleased to get something on the front page of Digg, and, just this morning, my first article made Techdirt provoked a cry of triumph as I sat at my computer (much to the surprise of the parrot who was on my shoulder at the time). But, given Slashdot’s status in the sub-culture in which I work, I don’t suppose I’ll ever tire of this momentary mark of distinction – all the more so because, like everyone else, I’m never sure when it will arrive.

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The poet and novelist Robert Graves once said, that, if asked on his death bed, he would say that the secret to writing poetry is to control your “s” sounds. I’m not in his league, but if I were to give any death-bed secrets about writing prose, mine would be to learn all you can about structure.

Turns of phrases are easy. From my years of teaching first year composition at university, I’m convinced that most people of average intelligence can learn to write a literate sentence. With a little extra effort, many can produce wit. If they’re stuck, reading their favorite writer – or, better yet, typing out a page or two from their favorite work – will influence them into efforts beyond their usual range.

Structure, though, is another matter. The typical high school model of an essay with an introduction and conclusion and three points in between isn’t nearly enough. Then, just to make matters worse, we don’t have a vocabulary that describes different ways to open or conclude a story or to deal with opposing views in an essay. As a result, most writers begin to work almost blind to structure, and without the words to think about it consciously.

For some writers, these conditions aren’t a problem. They learn about structure on an unconscious level through trial and error – that is, many drafts – and are happy. However, for most writers, these conditions mean uncertainty and wasted effort, especially when they are just learning their trade.

If you are one of the majority, you have only two ways to move beyond such uncertainty and waste: Constant practice, and at least a temporary obsession with structure.

The practice part is easy enough if you’re disciplined. Write every day and after a few hundred thousand words or seventy or eighty pieces of prose, and you are likely to arrive at a point where the necessary structure becomes clear to you as soon as you have your main idea or plot.

Meanwhile, though, you are apt to become frustrated. What’s worse, if you miss a few days of writing, you may lose your sense of structure to a degree and need to build it up again.

A more solid approach is to study structure consciously, so you get in the habit of thinking about it. That means, whenever you read a novel or an essay, spending some time thinking about the structure. You may even want to create a diagram, summarizing not only the main plot developments or points, but how they relate to the rest of the work.

Works that you especially like or dislike are especially useful, because you have the motivation of trying to understand why you have the reaction that you do. However, you can also work with stories that leave you relatively unmoved one way or the other, trying to create a new or alternative structure for them.

For any work that you spend time on, you can also experiment with how reordering them affects the result. If the work is really successful, you’ll find that you can’t change the structure without changing the plot or the argument. If you can rearrange the parts, then the work is likely flawed (or, possibly, you’ve misunderstood it).

This sort of study is difficult. You have to do it without support and very few resources outside of your own powers of observation. Moreover, for a time, you may be uneasily aware of reading everything you encounter on two levels: First, as a reader, and second as a writer-in-training who wants to dissect the structure. But keep on with the study, and you’ll soon start to build a repertoire of structural strategies you can apply to your own work. You’ll start to have the sense of the different ways you can put a work together, and even, at times, of when there’s a gap in the structure of what you have written.

Difficult? Of course. But if you really want to write well, you have little choice. Either you discover structure on your own, or you learn the craft from other writers – there are really no other choices.

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