Stephen King’s On Writing… A Memoir Of The Craft

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 November 2012 01:04 Written by Mike Cottmeyer Tuesday, 29 December 2009 02:04

My wife always tells me that I am really hard to buy for. Why? Because I tend to go out and get the things that I want or need… and when I don’t, I am pretty particular about what I want… things like make, model, and color matter to me. She had all but given up when a year ago I decided I had to have a Kindle book reader. I told her that it wasn’t something that I’d buy for myself, at least not yet, and that it might be a good thing to get me for Christmas (wink, wink).

Well, she came through and I haven’t been able to get my nose out of it for the past four days. It was well worth the wait. The first book I downloaded was Stephen King’s On Writing. I used to be a huge Stephen King fan but haven’t read any of his stuff in years. To be honest, I am not even sure how I found On Writing, but given the fact I am embarking on a rather large book project this year, the title caught my attention. The book is an interesting mix of autobiography, personal retrospective, and tips on how to become a more effective writer.

If you are the least bit interested in writing… I think this one is a must read.

While the book is not long, and it isn’t deep when it comes to advice, there was one key takeaway that I want to share with you guys. Toward the end of the book, after we got through King’s opinions on passive voice and the overuse of adverbs, he talked about how he tries to cut the first draft of his books in 3 months. 3 months! Have you ever read a Stephen King book? Most of them are really, really long. How could you do an entire first draft of a novel in only 3 months?

The general idea is that he spends those three months focusing on telling the story. He doesn’t get hung up on plot or symbolism. He doesn’t worry about dangling characters and making sure the dialog is exactly right. King wants to tell the story while it is fresh in his mind and while he feels a strong connection to the characters. The second draft he goes back and tightens everything up. He’ll look at how the plot emerged and reinforce it. He’ll look for the symbols that emerged and reinforce them too.

The idea is that the first draft is about telling the story, the second draft is about making sure it is an internally consistent, well written book. Funny… sometimes all you need is a little permission to start. When I look back toward the end of 2010 and Dennis and I have pounded out 150,000 words… we might very well owe Mr. King a credit for helping me get out the first 5000. Again… it was a great book for any aspiring writer… it almost had me wanting to go off and write some fiction… it was that good.

So… the Kindle was a hit… very inspiring… and I am very thankful for my wife getting it for me. Thanks Kimi!

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Why Blog?

Last Updated on Friday, 16 November 2012 12:51 Written by Mike Cottmeyer Friday, 7 August 2009 05:55

Anybody who pays attention to this blog knows… that for the most part… I write a lot. Its a pretty big commitment… and while I have gotten better over the past few years… I still sometimes spend 2-3 hours on a single post. So… one question I ask myself periodically is why I am doing this… and does it add value?
I wanted to share with you guys my thoughts around the reasons I’ve made a commitment to blogging:
I want to help others get better…
Somewhere along the way I missed my calling to be a high-school math teacher. Leaving high school… that is what I wanted to do… and really only decided not to teach because teachers overall are so poorly paid. Its somewhat entertaining to me that in my late teens I decided not to get a teaching degree and some 20 years later I have started a small private school and teach software methodology for a living. I think that I have that gene in me somewhere that loves to see the expression on someone’s face when they finally ‘get it’.
One of the things I consider a hallmark of my writing is that I always try to blend ideas and figure out how to make complicated things simple. I love trying to better understand stuff and present it to others in a way that is straightforward and direct.
I want to learn things for myself…

Most of what I write about is either directly or indirectly related to experiences I’ve had with clients or stuff I am talking about with folks in the community. Much of what I have been exploring the past few months has come out of my collaboration with Dennis Stevens and my attempt to apply some of those concepts in the wild. At the end of the day I am a problem solver… I need to know why things work. I need to understand where conventional thinking breaks down… and when it is time for something new.
I try to not to write about stuff that is half-baked… but there is definitely an element of noodling around and figuring stuff out as I go. If you see me get stuck on a topic… you can bet I have a real life problem I am trying to solve or looking for a way to better communicate something. I call those ‘series’ ;-)
I want to get better at communicating ideas…
As I am figuring stuff out… writing about it helps me get really clear about what I am trying to say. Some of what I am writing about now are ideas that I have been applying for years… I just didn’t always have the language to explain what I was doing to other people. The nature of my job requires that I am clear and articulate about ideas that can oftentimes be very difficult to explain. The act of writing forces me to clarify my thinking and develop language to express my thoughts.
By writing I gain a better understanding of what I am trying to say. I can’t tell you how many times I get asked a question where I fall back to language and ideas directly from some post on my blog. Hopefully all this thinking and writing and exploring helps others understand better as well.
I want to promote myself and my company…
While this isn’t the primary reason I blog… I am definitely focused on promoting VersionOne as a company and myself as a thought leader in the agile community. I would be lying if I said I didn’t care about my Google Analytics and my FeedBurner subscribers. I am very interested in my Page Rank and my Technorati authority. It’s definitely cool to see how my writing impacts the community… what gets re-tweeted… what gets shared on DZone. Along the way… I’ve learned a lot about when to post… how to post… and what activities will influence traffic and interest.
Regardless of that though… I think I would write no matter who was paying attention. It’s funny how doing this just kinda becomes a part of you. Blogging has become part of how I process information and form new ideas. I sincerely appreciate that you guys are along for the ride!
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7 Tips to Get Started Blog Writing

Last Updated on Friday, 16 November 2012 12:51 Written by Mike Cottmeyer Tuesday, 7 July 2009 03:02

Man… time sure does fly. I was looking over some old posts and realized that I started writing this blog almost two years ago. That got me thinking a little bit about blog writing and how my writing has changed over the past few years. I thought I’d take a moment to explore what I’ve learned and maybe share a few experiences.

The first six months or so this blog was in existence I was too busy to do much writing… I had a day job… I had a family to raise… there was just no time to sit down for hours on end to write. I wanted to write… I just didn’t make it happen. I generated something like 3 posts in those first few months. When I look back on it… if I am really honest with myself… I was really just concerned about looking stupid in public.
It took weeks to write a post because I wanted everything to be perfect… I couldn’t let anything go.

The guy I was working for at the time gave me the best advice ever… he told me to get over it. That’s easier said that done… but you know what… that is just what I did. I got over it and started writing. It helped that I changed jobs and got out of the daily grind of project management. It also helped that I have the support of VersionOne and a bigger platform to share my ideas. Even with all that… it took some time to get good at generating content without spending hours and hours doing it.

Writing is a skill that can be learned… there are processes you can follow and you can get better. You can get better capturing ideas… you can get better writing quality content… and you can get better getting those ideas on your blog faster. After some 150 posts, several whitepapers, and a couple of longer reports… I feel like I have learned a few things about the process of writing…. at least blog writing. I want to share a few tips with all you would-be bloggers to help you get started.

1. Keep an idea inventory

I am always on the lookout for good blog ideas. Not many areas of my life are really off limits. As you might imagine, most of my ideas come from interactions with clients and other folks out in the agile community. A lot of my posts though are influenced by my family… my involvement in Boy Scouts… and by my friends at church. Whenever you get a good idea… actually, any idea… write it down.

2. Set a fixed amount of time to write

Try to limit your writing to two hours. When you are just getting started, this bit of advice might be hard to follow. The idea is that you want to set limits and create a little pressure to perform. It is easier to sit down and write when you can allocate a set amount of time and know you won’t be interrupted. It’s also helpful to know that you can’t just sit there forever staring at a blank page… you’ve got to write something!

3. Write down your key point

There is nothing worse that reading a rambling post where the author doesn’t know what he wants to say. Start writing your post by jotting down a sentence or two that helps you stay focused on the significant point you want to get across. Also… as you start writing… plan to communicate your key point in the first paragraph or so. Personally, I lose interest if I am not sure where you going. You’re writing a blog post… not a suspense novel.

4. Start brainstorming content

Once you know your key point… start writing down ideas that support your key point. At this stage, don’t worry about sentence structure, grammar, sequence or flow. You just want to get the ideas out of your head. More often than not it’s the formality of the language that is preventing you from getting your ideas down on paper. If you can just get the ideas written down… after a paragraph or two… you’ll probably find that the structure of the post will start taking shape in your head.

5. Actually write the post

Now that you know your key idea and have some supporting content… start actually writing your post. The focus at this step is to organize your thoughts and begin getting the ideas into a coherent sequence and paragraph structure. You are telling a story… it should have a beginning, middle, and end. Spend some time cutting and pasting the ideas around to make sure you’ve got the right story in the right order. Start roughing in your ideas using actual sentences. The post does not need to be perfect… but you should begin to have a pretty good idea of how you are going to make your point and how the post is going to flow.

6. Proof-read and proof-read again

After you have all your ideas in sentence and paragraph structure… go back and reread it to make sure it is all making sense. Sometimes when you are working on the parts of the post, it is easy to lose sight of the whole story. At this step you are fine tuning the order of ideas, sentence structure, paragraph breaks, headings, spelling and punctuation. Focus on flow, clarity, and final presentation.

7. Publish your post

Try to find some sort of interesting graphic that supports the key idea behind the post and makes the article a little more visually appealing. Now just load your post into your publishing tool … preview the post… make any final formatting changes. Now you are ready to post.

Good luck and let me know how it goes!
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