Writers Rely on the Kindness of Characters

Stuttgart train system. (Yeah, and this is just the top layer)

I recently returned from a press trip to Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart is a old, old city, with many historic sites, cultural activities and lively districts. The city has a large railway station for local and regional trains, and the system branches widely, with overlapping and criss-crossing routes. Many people ride the trains, but few ride them like me: I got on the wrong train a few times, went past my stops a couple of times, walked the wrong way to my destination a couple of times after taking the right train, and once went entirely in the wrong train direction.

But here is where the kindness of strangers comes in: most Germans, having the benefit of compulsory English-language education when young, speak some English. Many speak it very well, but almost everyone who had to face the confused American spinning around at various train stations was able to point him in the right direction and wish him well on his journey. I’m back home, and the only thing I seemed to have lost is the ability to easily drink a liter of beer in one sitting.

However, because my writerly thoughts often turn towards an odd angle, it occurred to me how simple gestures of kindness can bring disproportionate happiness, or in my case, relief from the anxiety of being lost in an unfamiliar city. That brought me to thinking of a secondary character in a novel I wrote with another author a year ago. (Dang thing is still unpublished, but we’re working on it.)

Massimo Rides a White Horse
There is a character named Massimo Volpedo in the work who serves as a plot tool to inflame the lead character with suspicion, gloom and capricious action, because he suspects that Massimo is trying to steal his girl. I say “plot tool” because we needed the main character—Pinky DeVroom, and yes many of the character names are colorful—to blow up to almost bursting to move one of the central plot lines along.

But Massimo, who is six-foot-six, broad of beam and white of teeth, is also gay, a fact that eludes poor Pinky until he’s deep into the muck he’s made of his relationship with his lady love. And here’s where I get to something resembling my point: one of Massimo’s cellular-level traits is that he’s very kind. He is long-suffering too, but his travails have never altered the course of his decency.

When Rick and I created him, we had a vague idea of where and how his actions would propel (or pull the rug out from under) the novel. But we didn’t map out the blood and bones of his being before we tossed him in the book. His fundamental decency emerged in the writing. And the funny thing about your characters is that their behavior can reward you, the writer (and it’s hoped, the reader as well). Massimo’s goodness—and it’s not a treacly kind of goodness—made me feel better about people. His kindness was a reward of sorts, the way that I was rewarded for the lost compass of my mind so many times in Stuttgart train stations.

It’s such a cynical time that it’s challenging to even consider creating a character of full integrity, or one whose goodness doesn’t have some stripe of irony in it. But in Massimo I think we did create a person who is an ideal of sorts, though he also stumbles, he also bleeds. However, his life always moves to the light, and in some odd way, that is a beacon for me as well.

Oh, if you were one of those several people at a Stuttgart train stop who blessed me with a good direction to go, the liters of beer are on me.

PS Just a few days left to nominate my novel Aftershock for the Kindle Scout program. Any help greatly appreciated!

Living (or Shirking) Your Legend

Photo Credit: Joe Mud via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Joe Mud via Compfight cc


A little bit back, I read a couple of posts from writers I admire, Jonathan Fields and Leo Babauta. They wrote about the sudden death of their friend, Scott Dinsmore, lost while fulfilling a lifetime dream of his hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’d never heard of Mr. Dinsmore, but in reading their grieving, deeply emotional tributes, I recognized that he was a person who impacted many, many lives in powerful ways.

Jonathan and Leo’s accounts of Scott Dinsmore’s life reminded me—because, with the daily routine, it’s so easy to forget—that our lives can have a larger impact than we realize, and that we can even direct our lives to have a larger impact. There’s a bit of the spirit of It’s a Wonderful Life in that thought, where Jimmy Stewart is amazed to find that what he considered his worthless life was filled with meaning and depth. All it took was an angel to point it out to him.

With angels in short supply, it’s easy to find disappointment in our lives, aspirations thwarted or goals deterred. I often have qualms about releasing pieces of writing that even when sweated over feel undercooked, that suggest that I’ve been working on my writing for so long, and yet, is this the best I can do? I fear my own judgements and that of others, even though for the most part, I’m doing work that I love. Still, there’s often a background voice whispering, “You’re a poser; give it up.” That’s a voice where a curt “shut up” is the best response.

Stopping the Woolgathering
It’s pointless (and an odd form of egotism) to mull over and over how you aren’t living up to your potential or your ideals, rather than stopping the woolgathering and continuing the work of exploring those potentials. From reading of Mr. Dinsmore, it seems he didn’t waste most of his time stewing over his potential, but was out living it. And by doing that, left a legacy. Sad to read of the loss of someone so vibrant, but it’s good to be reminded of the fragility of life, and to be nudged into renewing the quest for meaning, and sharing meaning.

Here is Scott’s site: Live Your Legend, and here is his TED talk on the same topic.

And one more example of getting out there and doing it (even when you’re 90).

As Seth Godin says, go out and make a ruckus.

Writer Collaborations: Death Match or Delight?

'Message for you' photo © 2011, Jacob Haddon - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Writers I’ve known (myself prominently among them) often argue with themselves. Should it be that character whose hand is crushed in the tractor? Would a flashback scene in the second chapter be too clichéd? Is the novel best set in Provence, or perhaps Peoria? These might be dodges to procrastinate from the writing (another habit that writers execute with vigor), but it’s more that there are a host of structural and textual decisions to be made in a story’s unfolding, and competing claims are made in an author’s mind when he or she attempts to commit to the page.

Add another writer into the mix? Clash of the Titans!

Or perhaps more accurately, clash of authorial sensibility, which is a broad cloth of past writing experience, favored author influences, writing intent/motivation—those and more, all the way down to critical compositional inclinations, like whether you are a writer that likes a verb to prance merrily away from its subject wearing flounce skirts of subordinate clause, plus taffeta layers of adverb and adjective.

Or one whose verbs are a clean shot. Bang.

Wedded to Another Writer’s Work

Thus, adding another writer into that existing goulash of conscious/subconscious deliberations, false starts and bloodshot-eyed writing jags (contrasted with two weeks of writing drought) seems an invitation to a wedding that’s failed before the vows are cast. Now, I’d never collaborated, nor really considered collaboration on any fiction projects. But I was aware that Johnny Truant and Sean Platt have been writing multiple fiction-series projects together for a while, and doing quite well, both in the writing and the selling of the writing. So, a model.

A little while back I edited an epic novel for a friend, Rick Wilson, The Storytelling Dentist. (He doesn’t call himself that, and deserves a much more eloquent tag that befits both his medical and writing prowess, but that’s all I came up with for the moment.)

Rick’s novel, which has the equally epic title of The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks, is a sweeping story that begins in WWII England and stretches into the 1960s. It’s soaked in brio, heartfelt humanity, sacrifice, skullduggery, romance, cowardice and glory—and all that’s probably just chapter one. So I’m quite familiar with Rick’s style.

In late January, I got this from him:
Hey Tom:
In other news, an old college friend posted a phrase on Facebook, describing a large icicle, that is quite simply a magnificent book title:

“Swirled all the way to the shrub”

I can’t let it go. Here’s a crazy idea: Wanna write a short story together, with that title as the jumping off point? I don’t have a lot of time these days, so I’m not proposing anything at breakneck speed. Could be a hoot though.

“Swirled All the Way to the Shrub”

Rick

Starting the Story’s Engine

Rick, who also has a talent and penchant for vivid character names, supplied some starters, one of which seemed to scream for the page: Pinky DeVroom. We decided to try alternating chapters. Here’s my opening story paragraph:

Pinky DeVroom, in his cups, stared into his brandy. His lips appeared to be having a complex argument, flexing and jutting without a clear rhythm. The argument’s fulcrum was the removal of the characteristic sneer from those lips, but the pivot was coming to rest: the sneer won.

The Shrub, just to keep you from dying of suspense, became the Prohibition-era speakeasy that Pinky, a Boston society-column newspaper man frequents. The era is essential, because the story starts just short of the Crash of ’29, which torques Pinky’s world, along with most of the rest of the world.

Rick is a history enthusiast, so he peppers some of his choice phrasings with interesting elements of the period, all of which cause me to caution him on making sure they serve the story. I’m also the one to try to constrain all the words in the world from escaping the corral: we’re already at 8,500 big bananas, so that’s already an upsized short story (that comes with fries); I’m trying to avoid adding any fatty dessert.

But I do want to ensure there’s a snifter of metaphoric cognac at the finish.

Bringing It Home, While Still Shaking Hands

We’ve rounded the corner on the thing, though at more of a trot than a gallop. It’s not proceeding briskly, because each of us must mull the other’s additions, considering them in light of story tone, character development and the arc of the tale, and how best to move the narrative so it’s both coherent and compelling. And so it doesn’t seem like it’s being written by committee.

So far, so good. It’s a fun story, with playful language but some serious events. And we’ve pushed poor Pinky around so he’s almost at wit’s end—but we can do that: he’s just a character, not a collaborator. With your collaborators, you have to be much more subtle in your manipulations. Right Rick?

Any of you worked with another person in writing a story? Did everybody live?

Bonus: Fiction That Will Make You Quake

I made it to the quarter-finals of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. That doesn’t mean a whole lot, because that means of the 2,000 entrants in my general fiction category, I’m among 100 candidates. But it’s nice to get this far. If you’d like to read the first 13 pages of my new (unpublished) novel, Aftershock, you can download it for Kindle here. It’s set in the San Francisco of the 1989 earthquake. (No, I’m not going to say it’s rockin’ writing.) Reviews welcome!

When the Writing Mentor Becomes the Mentee

Cupertino 450

Cupertino Hernandez Castillo — Storyteller

To speak well in your own language is difficult. To write well in your own language is considerably harder. But to speak and write well in a language not your own is vastly more challenging—it might be many years of work to become truly fluent. But climb another mountain yet: to write stories, to build the structures of setting and plot, to explore the layers of character, to work on conflict and suspense—to do that in a language not native to you—wow! That’s amazing.

So amazed I’ve been every Tuesday over the last seven months at a local literacy center, where I’ve been working as a writing mentor with Cupertino, the smiling man pictured above. He and I have had many discussions on how stories work, how to begin them with intrigue, drive them forward through a story arc, and how to end them so there’s resonance beyond the page. We’ve talked about how many different ways there are to create characters and settings, how to tease your readers with delayed or partial information—how to tell a tale slant, so the reader leans in further.

Because I am a writer myself, I know what a struggle it can be to make a story succeed, to make the characters come alive through language, to make the reader care about what has happened and what’s going to happen.

I don’t have any language skills outside of English, so I’ve been gratified to see how eagerly Cupertino takes up the work of understanding the complexities of English grammar. Part of what I do for my work is edit other people’s work, so I know what a confusing maze English grammar can be—and that’s for native speakers. I pull my own hair out trying to figure out some grammatical tangles sometimes, so I respect his efforts.

We Are All Teachers, We Are All Students
Perhaps the best aspect of working with Cupertino is when I am the listener and he is the teacher. He’s told me many interesting things about his being a taxi driver in the mad streets of Mexico City, and about his being a bull rider, despite his small size. He related one particularly interesting story about observing another always-gregarious bull rider that he knew well, oddly meditating in silence while sitting in the empty bull ring, only to die later that day from being crushed by the bull.

This is a storyteller’s eye: Cupertino recognized that something profound was happening with the rider, something unsettling. There was a kind of prescience on both their parts: this would be a day unlike others. I suggested that that incident was the basis of a story only he could write.

At one of our last sessions, we were talking about secondary characters in stories, and he was relating about how even if you are a pedestrian stopped at a traffic signal, there might be a telling interaction with the stranger stopped next to you. A brief moment that could push another pedal in a story’s accelerator. But from that, he told me about how those little moments where people’s lives brush up against one another are part of how we are all connected, no matter our stations and paths in life.

Storytellers Make Connections
I can’t quite explain it, but I was struck by his sincerity and feeling. It gave me that sense that that’s what storytellers do: make, point out, and describe the connections between people, even when those connections fall apart. And how stories themselves connect people.

That we’ve had many conversations on all kinds of subjects has been a surprising delight of our association, which I feared at first, because I had never been a one-on-one tutor before. But that’s all changed. From our beginning conversation, I recognized that Cupertino is a thoughtful man, and I’m happy to think that we are friends.

I just took a break from tutoring at the center because my girlfriend and I are trying to set up an overseas house-sit for a period, something we’ve done before and anticipate with eagerness (though indeed it will be work as usual—or unusual). But that eagerness is equal to that I have in hoping to resume working with Cupertino when I return.

There are still many stories to be written!

Warm Applause for Writers Who Give Generously

'Writing Home In Calling Lake Alberta' photo (c) 2011, Mennonite Church USA Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

I spend entirely too much time reading about writing and reading about writers rather than writing myself, but when I am reading, I want to be provoked, challenged, stimulated and amused. Over the course of 2013, many writers I read have done these things, and some of them consistently do them all. Here’s a list of writers who through their blogs, podcasts, newsletters and ululating cries from the tops of (non-ivory) towers give generously of their time and talents to the benefit of other writers (and readers of every stripe, of course). To all of you, a hearty thanks!

Carol Tice is a long-time freelancer and author who is the brains behind the great Make a Living Writing blog. She founded the equally great Freelance Writers Den, which is a rich resource for support and education for all levels of freelancers. She knows her stuff—and is willing to share.

Linda Formichelli is the head renegade at the Renegade Writer blog, and one of the helpful “Den Mothers” at the Freelance Writers Den mentioned above. She sends out to her email list daily (and juicy) “Morning Motivations for Writers.” She recently published Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race … and Step Into a Career You Love, which I recommend to those weary of rat-racing.

Ed Gandia is an exemplary freelance copywriter, author, speaker and coach—and a great guy (at least from seeing, reading, and hearing him online). His The High-Income Business Writing podcast hosts informative writers talking on practical freelancing topics. He’s the co-author of the bestselling and award-winning book The Wealthy Freelancer, as well as the founder of the International Freelancers Academy.

Peter Bowerman is another great writer, strong writer’s counselor, and also a great guy, one whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in person. His The Well-Fed Writer and The Well-Fed Self-Publisher are essential books on the freelancing life. Check out his Well-Fed Writer blog.

Joanna Penn is one of the standout voices in the maelstrom that is the publishing world. She provides an always perceptive take on what’s what in publishing, and how to take the reins of your writing career in firm hand. Get her fine counsel at The Creative Penn and check out her novels and nonfiction too.

Jon Morrow is the agent provocateur who regularly kicks writer’s butts with his posts on not just thinking or talking about writing but actually taking risks and getting real writing work done. He was the associate editor of Copyblogger (a marketing/copywriting site I can’t recommend enough), and now throws lightning bolts from his site at Boost Blog Traffic.

Jonathan Fields is a guy who almost seems like a data-delighted high priest of writing, and you’ll often see on his blog a winning blend of logic, science and especially the human touch to plumb and understand the depths of communication. His Good Life Project is a probing, reflective series of interviews with people who have struggled in their work and personal lives and gained great (and instructive) ground in understanding and elaborating on the human condition through work and play. And how to live richly and well within that humanness. Fields is a fine author as well.

Hope Clark has long sent out a writing newsletter that’s been chockablock filled with writing tips, grants and other publishing opportunities for writers. I’ve subscribed for years, and am always delighted, particularly with her thoughtful editorials. She’s also a mystery novelist of some acclaim.

Chris Brogan is an author, entrepreneur, and genial gadabout who runs Human Business Works and other ventures to help other entrepreneurs and businesses make their fully realized and authentic way in the world. His weekly newsletter supplies great motivational tools—and he will answer every reply.

Porter Anderson is one smart cookie, who writes with insight and wry wonder at the crazy minefield of the publishing industry. He blogs seemingly all over the durn place, but prominently at Publishing Perspectives, Jane Friedman’s (see below) site and (see below again, if you dare) Writer Unboxed.

Jane Friedman’s site, magazine and general work examine with an analytical but empathetic eye the windings of many writing roads, from individual authorship to self- and traditional publishing to diverse matters of writing craft and business. She is on top of the latest developments—and offers clear interpretations from that peak.

Writer Unboxed is not a single writer, but a site that hosts daily posts on issues of writing craft, writing business and the vagaries of the writing life. The posters run the range from aspiring writers to authors with decades of experience and decades of publishing success. And the spirit of the site is open, generous and deep. (And they’ve even let me post a few times, despite my hairdo.)

And I wasn’t going to include any of my personal friends in this list because I don’t want you to think I can be bought off (I can, but send fifties), but I’m compelled to salute Joel Canfield, who counsels authors looking to self-publish at his Someday Box site, guiding them from the starting of sentences to the polishings for print (and wiggling electrons too). He’s a mighty nice fellow as well.

Thanks to all these writing stalwarts, and great success to all in 2014!

If Woody Allen Was a Marketing Copywriter

Woody Allen writing
I’m a guy who likes a well-turned aside, the parenthetical phrase. (Admit it—you find the curves on a pair of parentheses sexy too.) One fun example is the elocution that made Jimmy Stewart famous. Many of his movies display his signature mannerism, where another character has declared something outrageous or unanticipated, and Jimmy will be in a kind of reverie where he’ll say something like, “Oh, well, uh, yeess, I suppose that’s so …” then a “What! What did you say?” And the reversal from his mumbles to his mania is priceless.

There’s something so charming about the head-scratching Stewart mumbling and stuttering his asides to the central conversation. But the best kind of sidelong declarations are the kind found in any of Woody Allen’s movies where he is a character. He’ll be in a big-picture situation that is neutral or slightly loaded, but Woody interprets it with an end-of-the-world punchline, often a lesson in comedic writing (and thinking).

Woody, the Reluctant Pitch Artist

Woody’s the antithesis of the marketing copywriter, but it’s fun to look at some of his stuff in a copywriting light:

• Timing the customer funnel. (Know when your buyer is ready. Or nudge them along.)

Allen: “What are you doing Saturday night?” Davila: “Committing suicide.” Allen: “What about Friday night?”

• If you can’t get a customer testimonial, the next best thing is to write one yourself.

“You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”

• Direct, plain-spoken words on personal challenges draw customer empathy. And who doesn’t like to complain about being ripped off?

“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In which case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

• Features and benefits and imparting a sense of urgency

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”

• Know your audience demographics (and don’t be afraid to drop names)

“I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”

• Statistics can sell the story:

“There are two types of people in this world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy the waking hours much more.”

• Communicating the “What’s In It For Me” angle:

“Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go it’s pretty damn good.”

OK, admittedly Woody is weak on calls to action, fuzzy on the features/benefits dance, and rather than solving a problem, he often introduces one. And a little bit of self-loathing can go a long way, but a lot, hmmm. But I do wish he’d take a shot at it—today’s beer commercials are sorely lacking in that winning parenthetical (and existential) touch.

Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing

Tom's Twain Tattoo

Yeah it’s real, and it’s on my bicep. Lucky that cigar isn’t lit.

I’ve discovered the secret of good writing: write about a famous writer, and use his actual words to build all the basic layers—and the frosting—of the essay cake. I don’t even have to attempt to be lamely clever if I can steal the cleverness of others.

There’s a reason why this guy’s face is tattooed on my arm.

Thus, my post at Marketing Profs today: Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing.

Mr. Twain Explains Heaven and Earth

Captain Stormfield's Visit

Note: Book Does Not Include a Map

A month ago, I wrote about the death of my neighbor, and how mutton-headed I’d felt about never having even thought about discussing writing with him, a retired professor of American literature. Recently, my gal pal Alice and I were invited by James’ widow, May, to look though his big book collection to see if there was anything we wanted before she donated the books.

There were many works that I would have greedily grabbed in other days, but as it was, I just selected a few Scott Fitzgeralds, an old volume of Proust’s Swann’s Way and the sweet book you see pictured above. I’d read Captain Stormfield long ago, but hadn’t known it was the last story published before Twain’s death in 1910. The long story was serialized in Harper’s Magazine a year or two before its publication by Harper and Brothers in 1909. It’s a nicely bound volume, in great shape, still with the intact tissue paper before the title page. I didn’t realize it was a first edition until Alice pointed out its copyright page.

Cranberry Famers: Heavenly Experts

So, I get my first first edition of Twain from a Chinese professor of literature who taught on Taiwan. Twain himself would have found that amusing. The work is nothing short of amusing, much of it a conversation in heaven between the good captain and a cranberry farmer, who disabuses Stormfield of those quaint notions that heaven was all piety and angelic song. It’s a nice counterpoint to Twain’s Letters From the Earth, which was published posthumously by Twain’s estate, when the world was perhaps more prepared for some its hot-pepper views on religion. Here’s Satan speaking about man from one of the letters, and also on God’s view of man.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.
He took a pride in man; man was his finest invention; man was his pet, after the housefly . . . .

It pleases me to think that James left behind that slim volume of Twain’s, and that it’s now moved into my hands, an unexpected neighborly connection where my long-dead favorite author makes the link live. I do hope that whatever version of heaven James moved to doesn’t have a lot of off-key singing.

PS George Jones, RIP

In consideration of people who could probably only get into heaven if they snuck in in the back of a potato truck (and would surely then make vodka out of the potatoes), George Jones died the other day. I’m more inclined to rock and roll for my daily diet of noise (and in country, more toward Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson), but you can hear more angel and devil in George’s songs than pretty much any singer. Jones probably never saw a drink he didn’t like, but he made some music that had a whole lotta soul. Here’s looking at you, George.

How Herons and Frogs Bring Zing to Your Writing

Pajaro Heron

 Careful—this lawn jockey can bite

Last week a cousin of the fellow above flew into my neighbor’s field. It’s not that unusual to see herons in the general neighborhood—after all, I took the photo of this sharp-beaked beauty just a few miles from my house. But he was near a watercourse, where there are all kinds of wiggly things for him to eat. My neighbor’s field is weedy, scraggly land where no fish worth its saltwater would venture. So, seeing the heron fly onto the property and strike one of those heraldic heron poses was noteworthy.

Any excuse to abandon my work, I scuttled over to the window nearest the bird in my old Airstream office to watch him work. If you’ve ever watched herons at play in the fields of creation, they’re often pretty deliberate about their doings. They might neck-jut a few feet or so into some shallow water, and then fix that acute-angle head for minutes at a time, undoubtedly trying to come up with some heron haiku. This featherhead did his kind proud by freezing in place.

But then he chicken-footed forward toward our wire fence and started doing a fascinating bob and weave, his long neck shimmying from side to side, cobra-style, while he simultaneously ducked up and down. I thought for a moment that he was sick, and was about to collapse in the field. Not quite. On one of his swinging swayings, he shot that head forward to the base of the fence and came up with a big lizard in his beak. I didn’t have time to even gasp before he flipped his head a bit and swallowed him whole.

Galvanizing Readers with Electric Characters

That moment was shocking and unexpected—I was agog. The bird sauntered out of sight of the Airstream—probably to see if there were any armadillos around to play poker with—and when I came out a few minutes later to check on him, he had vamoosed.

Now, you’re going to think that I’m bending a stiff bird to make a point, but honestly, after my head had returned to my body after watching that lizard slurping, I immediately thought that the bird’s behavior was a good illustration of an approach to working with characters in stories. You can give your reader a good clap on their forehead by making a character do something astonishing once in a while.

You have to be careful here: I’m not talking about having a character spontaneously speak Swahili when they were raised in Brooklyn. I’m referring to having a character do something that’s possible (and that indeed might be integral to that character’s nature), but that’s not probable, that breaks boundaries. Something that expands the character’s potential or place in the reader’s imagination. That kind of developmental concussion can push a story, or shape it in new ways.

The Frogs Are Not What They Seem

The second nature lesson—and one that again relates to writing—is something I’d learned earlier, but was reminded of again because it’s the beginning of croaking season. By that I mean that this time of year, the frogs that do their philosophizing near our water garden start to do it more boisterously. And they are loud.

When I first heard this resonant chorus years ago, my city-boy background prompted me to think it was the loud-mouthing of some large toads, maybe even bullfrogs. I’d look all over the place for the source of the croak-storm, but I could never see the buggers. It took me many searches to finally spot one. No wonder: Pacific tree frogs, the wide-mouthed worthies that comprise this orchestra, are only a few centimeters long. But when they are soliloquizing about their romantic talents to any lady frogs in the vicinity, they give it their all. They are Danny DeVito with an aggressive hangover.

As with the heron, the frogs nudged me in a writerly direction as well: work with characters that aren’t quite what they seem. You might have a scrawny, wiry guy who turns out to have extraordinary strength, or a reserved little sister who later turns out to wail skronking bebop sax in a secret band. Stick some herons and some tree frogs in your writing—it will give it a stronger pulse. And this isn’t just for fiction: God knows that business writing could use an phrase that’s on fire or a trapdoor opening and swallowing up the beautiful bride. Wake the audience up.

Oh, you probably should stick a swallowed lizard in there every once in a while too; some characters turn out to be the eaten, not the eaters.

Any animals making mischief in your writer’s mind?

PS Psst! If you’re looking to compel your customers, I write blog posts for businesses as well.

How Writers (and Cicadas) Work

I’ve been rereading Annie Dillard’s fine Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for the third or fourth time. It’s a marvelous work, almost like drinking in the molten stuff of imagination itself, for the language of the book is a series of fireworks, pinwheels of whirling thought, cascades of explosive insight, and then soft candles of introspection.

Dillard gets her nose right into nature, flopping face down on the ground and opening her eyes wide, and—with her alchemy of observation forged into words—tells us what she sees and how to see it, in a way that makes pages breathe. Among the many things that struck me in this reading was a passage about how cicadas go about their business:

“In the South, the periodical cicada has a breeding cycle of thirteen years, instead of seventeen years in the North. That a live creature spends thirteen consecutive years scrabbling around in the root systems of trees in the dark and damp – thirteen years! – is amply boggling for me. Four more years – or four less – wouldn’t alter the picture a jot. In the dark of an April night the nymphs emerge, all at once, as many as eighty-four of them digging into the air from every square foot of ground. They inch up trees and bushes, shed their skin, and begin that hollow, shrill grind that lasts all summer.”

Now, that passage is much less poetic than countless others in the book, but the thought of those burly insects biding their time, working the years, establishing and refining all things cicada threw me into considering how long as writers we might be buried, mere potential, waiting for wings to harden. It’s always amusing when there’s a new writing sensation, some breakout author who’s touted as the newly crowned best and brightest, and you learn that they also have three other novels that never made a stir, and four that they abandoned or are still gestating. Loud (and potentially annoying) as those cicadas might be, they earned their shrill grind. The long seasons of work are often invisible to outside eyes, buried to all except the worker.

Words Have Sound, as Well as Shape and Sense

Sometimes writing work is a shrill grind. Yesterday I started reading my newly completed novel aloud, in order to hear the rhythm of the words, to see if the sentences made music. I’d already edited it on screen, but putting voice to the page let me hear the places where the saxophone squawked rather than soared. In the space of twenty-five pages, I made at least seventy-five corrections, sometimes just transposing two words, sometimes shifting a phrase from sentence middle to end. It reminded me of when I’ve been given something to edit by a writer who thinks it’s near done, and I return it to them dripping the blood of the red pen—the horror!

So, more than 200 more pages to go—a bit tedious, but it’s cicada work: something buried will burst forth. I’ll be happy if the damn thing crawls, much less takes wing. Let’s end this with another passage from Dillard’s work, this time from another book I highly recommend, The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Open your safes, writers. Whether you let the silver lie thirteen years or seventeen, you must let it go. Otherwise, it will tarnish. (Besides, you might be able to make the latest sale on quill pens at Walmart.)