Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Week 7 Winner and Week 8 Prompt

Week 7 of the Tales of Whoa / Potato Chip Math Flash Fiction Challenge is in the books. We only had one entry this week  and it was the same lone entry as week 5 and the winner from week 6 as well. We're going to have to rename this contest to the  jmcpike01 Flash Fiction Challenge. You can read the entry here.

We're going to keep at this for one more week so make your way over to Tales of Whoa where you'll find this week's prompt and challenge rules.

~ Andrew

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rules Be Damned

I saw this app/program on the internet that points out, in the nicest possible way, how terrible your writing is. It's name is Hemingway and you paste a bunch of text into it and it advises you of the following:
  • Hard to read sentences
  • Very hard to read sentences
  • Undesirable use of adverbs
  • Words or phrases that can be simpler 
  • Use of passive voice
  • Readability (i.e. lowest education level needed to understand your text) 
Why these?

For starters, length matters. While we all want to wax poetic with flowery prose the best advice is KISS: Keep ISimple, Stupid. I thought the first two would be a cinch to identify but as it turns out, a sentence that I think is longish Hemingway will flag as long (highlighting it in yellow). If I think a sentence is long then Hemingway makes quick work of highlighting it red, telling me that one needs a do over and I'd best take its advice lest I lose the reader down a rabbit hole never to have them return.

As for adverbs, a friend once told me, "Adverbs are your enemy." While they may be fine for the spoken word, on the page they are just the opposite. Use sparingly.

Similar to length being a factor, using straightforward words and phrases are a good way to manage the readability of your text. Simpler words will have less chance of discombobulating the reader.

The passive voice is something I struggle with a lot. I think it's frustrating because I'm Canadian and feel the need to be polite and apologize for everything. I'm sorry, but it's true. The problem with this is that when we write in the passive voice the reader will be disengaged. Engage the reader. Show them action!

Readability is also important, unless you're writing a research paper or other academic rigmarole. Don't limit your audience by requiring them to book office hours with their English prof just so they can finish your book.

I was discussing this program with a few other writers and the general consensus was that it was quite helpful. One experienced and successful writer noted that thinking about rules will stifle creativity. As we all know, it's the creativity that makes the story. As a writer who also dabbles with singing and photography I couldn't agree more. I know that the more rules that I'm told to follow the less likely I am to get in that creative zone.

That said, if you don't follow a few core rules you won't get far. In singing if you don't have good posture and breathe you won't be rattling the rafters any time soon. In photography, if you overexpose your picture you ruin it. You can always bring out detail in a darker photograph, but you can recreate that detail if you wash it out with too much light.

In writing, there are so many damn rules that you could spend all day just making sure you're following them all, but if you had to pick a few to stick with I'd say that Hemingway highlights the big ones. It's also no surprise that these are the ones people abuse the most often. I know I do.

For fun I put the first draft of this post into Hemingway and here's what it spat out:
  • Paragraphs: 5
  • Sentences: 19
  • Words: 322
  • Characters: 1458
  • Readability: Grade 9
  • 0 of 19 sentences are hard to read.
  • 3 of 19 sentences are very hard to read.
  • 8 adverbs. Aim for 2 or fewer.
  • 3 words or phrases can be simpler.
  • 4 uses of passive voice. Aim for 4 or fewer.
To be fair to myself, what you read above is quite different from the original. I rewrote it so that the readability came down to grade 6 and the only offending item was the word "very" (which I had to use because it was quoting their own damn site). What did I think about it when compared to the original? In three words: it was better. In another two it was: tighter, cleaner.

It was also less... fun. Less fun to write and I'm guessing it would have been less fun to read as well. So, I went and changed it all to be a little tongue-in-cheek and a little more relaxed. I happen to like the way it reads now, but since I am using my blog to get some words written every week and (hopefully) hone my craft, I think I'm going to start using Hemingway (next week) to hammer home some of those fundamentals that I never picked up in high school English class (I'm so sorry Ms. Nowak!)

Speaking of which, all those "rules" that Hemingway targets? Well, I don't even have any recollection of them being taught in school, let alone how to write with them in mind. There could be any number of reasons for this, with the most likely being me not paying attention in class.

Looking at my steadily increasing monthly readership I think it's turned out alright for me and my little blog, so rules be damned (most of them, anyway).



~ Andrew

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge #7

Gordon will be posting the week 6 winner on Thursday this week. So head on over to Gordon's Blog in about 24 hours to check it out.

Now, onto week 7!

The rules are very simple: we give you a prompt and you write 500 words or less.

You can write in any style that you wish just be sure to use the prompt as your inspiration, keep it under 500 words, write it in English, and ensure it's completely made up (this is a flash fiction challenge after all).

Next week Gordon and I will post links to the pieces we liked the best and will probably do a shout out on Twitter to those folks if they so desire. After a few months we'll compile a list of our favourites and we'll get the Internet to vote. The winner will win stuff (to be determined, but we're sure they'll love it).

Now, without further ado we present this week's prompt. I'm taking a page out of Gordon's book and using a picture as the prompt:



Use the comments below to submit your work. You can submit anonymously, but if you don't leave us an email address or Twitter handle you can't win.

Have fun!

~ Andrew & Gordon

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Heavy Petting

This post should have been titled "The Magical Healing Powers of Domesticated Animals" but it just didn't have the same Zing! to it so I apologize for using the snappier clickbait title that's sure to illicit page views from horny teenagers who just aren't quite ready to take their relationships to the next step.

The bartender from the kids' ski lessons, Brianna (who factored into the post So I Stopped Wearing Socks almost a year ago) suggested the topic for this week and after my fat cat ripped open my finger with one of his claws I've decided to run with it.

In spite of all the blood drawn "playing" with their owners, pets of all kinds seem to have magical healing powers for their humans that cure of all sorts of ailments, particularly depression. Now, this isn't a paper for a scientific journal or even a topic I've done any particular research for but it is somewhat interesting because I will swear up and down that I hate cats - but I'm not completely sure I do.

A little back story:

I never had a pet growing up but in my latter high school years my dad finally caved and allowed the family to get a dog. He was the cutest little red cocker spaniel and we named him Chester. In terms of intelligence, well, let's just say he was the cutest little red cocker spaniel you've ever seen. I was only home for a couple years before leaving for university and my pet days were over. Fast forward to the early days of marriage and my wife really wanted a cat. Through a strange sequence of events we ended up keeping a couple cats that we were only supposed to be watching for a couple months. Through other events I won't get into one of those cats is no longer with us, and after moving 6 hours away from home we ended up at the Humane Society picking up Oliver to keep the one cat we had left "from being lonely in the new house".

Oliver had a giant scratch on his eyeball when we bought him and while that may have made some of us feel sorry for him. What it should have done was make it clear as day that this little bugger was a scrapper. Nevertheless we have had Oliver since 2006 and most of our furniture and carpet is still in tact.

In 2011, having gone through countless Bandaids for fingers, toes, and feet that Oliver had "playfully attacked" I suffered a pretty serious concussion. So serious, in fact, that my doctors told me that the next head injury could be my last one. In spite of my desire to behave normally I still got to spend weeks on the couch staring at nothing but a blank wall in a darkened room.

There is one day in particular that I remember vividly (one of the very few vivid memories I have of that time) and it ended up being a good day, thanks to my vicious claw ninja cat. There I was staring at my wall for the umpteenth day in a row and I was feeling pretty depressed about the whole thing. The traumatic brain injury was taking its toll and my emotions were becoming more and more difficult to control. It was scary, and I didn't know when it would get better, if it ever would.

At that moment, just as the tears started to flow and blur the clock on the beige living room wall, my fat cat Oliver hopped up on to the couch; walked between my feet; stepped on my crotch - twice; kneaded my torso with his razor sharp talons; spun in two complete circles; plopped his hefty frame down with his little furry chin and smells-like-ass cat breath inches from face; closed his eyes; and started to purr. Suffice it to say this was not a common occurrence. In fact, in the 5+ years in which we had owned this cat he had never once shown me this much affection - and it was just what the doctor ordered.

It's funny how that seems to work out, and I don't mean funny "ha ha" or funny "strange" so much as I mean funny "interesting". For all the levels of intellectual complexity that humans possess, when it comes to empathy our little feline and canine friends have us beat a thousand times over. This is an area that has been studied many times over and the results are clear: having a pet is good for your health.

Having a dog was nice when I didn't have any responsibilities and there was my parents and siblings to look after it. As an adult I think it's just one big hassle. As for cats, I've never been a fan of their attitude or having to clean up their damn litter boxes. That being said, when the world looks like it's working against you both of those creatures will be by your side, no questions asked, and that can't be a bad thing.

Now, some two and a half years after that post-concussion afternoon, The Fat One waits patiently on the couch for my laptop to get put away and an episode of Breaking Bad to begin so he can assume his rightful position lying on my chest, purring. I only wish it weren't a coin toss over which end of his I preferred to have facing me.

~ Andrew

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Week 5 Winner & Flash Fiction Challenge #6

Week 5 of the Tales of Whoa / Potato Chip Math Flash Fiction Challenge is in the books. We only had one entry this week (what are we, married?) so our winner is jmcpike01 and you can read the entry here.

We're going to keep at this for a while longer and give people a chance to win actual prizes soon so keep coming back!



Now, let's get on with Flash Fiction Challenge #6!

This week it's Gordon's turn to host the challenge so if you'll all please make your way over to Tales of Whoa you'll find this week's prompt and challenge rules.

~ Andrew

Sunday, February 9, 2014

To Create or Not to Create? There is No Question.

Last night I went out to see The Monuments Men with my wife (good movie that could/should have been amazing) and I drove the babysitter home it dawned on me that I was without a post topic for this week, so I asked the sitter for her thoughts.

We bantered around a couple ideas when finally she said to me, "Do you listen to the radio?"

Anyone who read last week's post about the radio promo I disagreed with knows that I listen to the radio now and then so I replied honestly with, "On occasion, yes."

What she said next intrigued me (but given her upbringing I was not surprised). She said, "You could do your post on why it is that most artists that seem to be popular on the radio today aren't very good."

Now this isn't simply a case of an old fart like me complaining about the music (or art in general) of the kids today. This is a very intelligent, well adjusted, popular, 15 year old girl saying that what's popular today in the music department is coming up drastically short. I happen to think she's right, and I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing.

One woman wrecking machine.

Since the dawn of time there has always been debate over the quality of art. This is not a new thing, and every medium or genre sees its share of great and not-so-great artists over the years. A couple hundred years ago it's entirely possible that fans of an up-and-coming Mozart thought that J.S. Bach was a hack.

So after hearing the babysitter's suggestion, and fresh out of the movie theatre where I spent 90 minutes watching men risk, and sacrifice, their lives for great works of art, I got to thinking:

If the Nazis sought out to destroy the "Wrecking Ball" video, every copy of Twilight, and the movie Jersey Girl, would anyone care?

I can imagine that Miley Cyrus, Stephenie Meyer, and Kevin Smith would care; though from what I've heard from Kevin he might be willing to let that one go.

More importantly, I think a great many other people would care as well, myself included. As much as I think Miley is nothing more than an overproduced PR stunt; as much as reading a few chapters of Twilight to my daughter made me want to re-take high school English; and as much as watching Jersey Girl made me question my man-crush for Kevin Smith; these are all just personal opinions based on limited knowledge.

All the "bad" art has just as much place in the world as the "great" art. Yes, it only took one person to write the song "Bohemian Rhapsody" (as performed by Queen) and something like five to write "Baby" (as performed by Justin Bieber), but when it's all said and done, what we're left with is more art. As individuals we can always choose to vote with our wallets, our page views, our downloads, and our 'likes'.
"Like"

Thankfully, we're not all programmed to appreciate the same things and while I'd rather poke my eyes out with a salad fork than watch another Rebecca Black video the reality is that not every musician can be Freddy Mercury, not every painter can be Claude Monet, not every poet can be Edgar Allan Poe, and not every novelist can be J.K. Rowling.

The Nazis wanted it all and when they realized that wasn't possible they set out to destroy it. The good news is The Monuments Men and hundreds of other conscientious civilians saved a lot of it, and would have saved the rest had they been given the chance. What really struck me was they didn't just save the "classics" (though it is understandable why that was the focus).

Matt Damon is shown returning an ordinary portrait to the home of a Jewish family that had long since left Paris. Whether that's true to the actual story or not, the sentiment is the same: art matters, and the absolute worst thing we can do is destroy it.

Coming in a close second would be if we stop creating it in the first place.




~ Andrew

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge #5

First things first. Take a look over at Gordon's Blog for the week 4 winner.

Now, onto week 5!

The rules are very simple: we give you a prompt and you write 500 words or less.

You can write in any style that you wish; just be sure to use the prompt, keep it under 500 words, write it in English, and ensure it's completely made up (this is a flash fiction challenge after all).

Next week Gordon and I will post links to the pieces we liked the best and will probably do a shout out on Twitter to those folks if they so desire. After a few months we'll compile a list of our favourites and we'll get the Internet to vote. The winner will win stuff (to be determined, but we're sure they'll love it).

Now, without further ado we present this week's prompt (be sure to use it in your submission):

"Look, officer, I swear when I left the bar I was wearing pants."

Use the comments below to submit your work. You can submit anonymously, but if you don't leave us an email address or something you can't win.

Have fun!

~ Andrew & Gordon

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why Is Everyone Clapping?

If you want to skip all this and go straight to the awesome update at the end of the post you can click here.



Some people will say,  "You're overreacting."

Some people will say, "It's part of the game."

Some people will say, "It's all in good fun." 

I will tell every one of them that they're wrong.

As some long-time readers of this blog will know I suffered my fourth severe concussion a few years ago (to add on to the pile of other "less severe" head injuries, you know, the ones where I didn't get knocked completely unconscious). I was off work for several months and it took me more than six months to get back to a level of function comparable to what I had before the accident. 

As my friends know I am against the idea of fighting in hockey at any level and whenever I take one of my kids to a Kitchener Rangers hockey game and a fight breaks out on the ice it makes by blood boil. There is absolutely no place for fighting in hockey, let alone junior hockey, where a vast number of the players are under the age of 18. 

So, I guess what you are about to read is the inevitable reaction of a father and hockey fan who has finally had enough with the glorification of two athletes assaulting each other in front of thousands of adoring fans.

You could say the moment I snapped was one Saturday morning when I heard a promotion on 105.3 Kool FM for a contest they were running in association with the Kitchener Rangers and sponsored by Forbes Automotive. It's a good promotion and I considered entering the contest... right up until I heard the line, "the hits... the fights..."

I wasn't actually sure I had heard it correctly so I just filed it away until the next time it was aired. Sure enough, the next time I was listening and they played the promo I heard the line again, "the hits... the fights..." Suffice it to say I was nothing short of shocked. Were they actually promoting hockey fights? Were they actually promoting fights that involve kids under the age of 18?

First order of business: Twitter and Facebook in hopes I would get some reply. To date I have received none, and having heard the promotional spot countless times since it has come to this. I have resorted to the most extreme measure that an irate Canadian can possibly use.

I have written a letter.



To: 
Jay Nijhuis, Promotions and Marketing Manager, 105.3 Kool FM
Murrary Hiebert, General Manager, Kitchener Rangers 

Cc:

Jason Stainton, General Manager, Forbes Waterloo Mazda (sponsor)
David E. Branch, Commissioner, Ontario Hockey League  
Letters to the Editor, The Kitchener Record
Brain Injury Association of Canada

Subject:

Fight Club

Mr. Nijhuis and Mr. Hiebert,


I am writing to request the recent Kitchener Rangers "KooLest Seats in the House" radio promotion be taken out of advertising rotation immediately, or at a minimum, the voice over changed to something more appropriate. 

The rationale for this request is quite simple. I believe the wording promotes violence, specifically violence by, and toward, teenagers.  

I am an avid listener of 105.3 Kool FM and I attend anywhere between 8 and 10 Kitchener Rangers hockey games each season and I take my 11 year old daughter or my 7 year old son to most of the games. Now, it is possible that my previous experiences with concussions have made me more sensitive to the issues of head trauma in hockey (I've had at least 4 concussions) but I don't think I'm out of line in admonishing Kool FM and the Kitchener Rangers for airing a promotion that highlights the fights that we can look forward to the next time we attend a hockey game.

The last two games I attended with my children there were fights in first five minutes of the game. On the one occasion my son, who is just starting to understand some of the rules, asked me why everyone was clapping after the fight. On the other occasion my daughter had to look away because the sight of two teenage boys punching each other in the face upset her (as it should, would you not agree?) 

Let's not forget that these hockey players are also kids! In case you haven't counted there are currently 12 players on the Kitchener Rangers roster that are under the age of 18. I'm left to wonder how it is you can justify promoting fights between underage hockey players? 

An even better question: 
How do you think the parents of the younger players feel about you encouraging the public to come out and pay to see their 16 year old's get into a fight and risk their future as hockey players as well as possible brain injuries?

Suffice it to say that, at best, the promotion as it currently stands highlights a terrible error in judgement by the marketing and promotions staff involved. At its worst it is a call for people to not just witness, but enjoy, teenage violence that doesn't belong - on or off the ice.

The promotion could have easily been worded, "The hits... the goals..." instead of "The hits... the fights..." and as such I ask that you re-think the words chosen for this promotion or pull it from the radio outright. 

I further encourage everyone involved to issue an on-air apology to the players and fans and make a donation to the Brain Injury Association of Canada or other applicable not-for-profit organization. 


Respectfully,

Andrew F. Butters


Update!

Within a couple hours of sending my email and posting this I have received several emails from Kool FM and the Kitchener Rangers!

First, Kool FM informs me the script would be revisited tomorrow:

Click image to read

Then, I received an email from the COO of the Kitchener Rangers indicating he would be following up tomorrow as well, and reiterating his commitment, and the commitment of the OHL and CHL to reducing fighting in their games:

Click image to read

Finally, I received an email from the Program Director at Kool FM (after I replied to their original reply) informing me that neither Forbes Automotive nor the Kitchener Rangers were involved in the wording and approval of the script (good on Kool for owning up!) and that it has been re-written and will be re-voiced and produced on Monday:

Click image to read

If all this isn't a whole pile of win I don't know what is. Naturally, there are a few douchecanoes over at Reddit /r/hockey that are downvoting the link to this post but what's a guy to do? One step at a time.

~ Andrew