Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

I think Milton and I collaborated on this one, before he did Paradise Lost

This past week I’ve been sifting through old, very old and even cobwebbed articles of mine, prompted by a contest requesting an essay-collection submission. The winner will have their collection published, and will probably be knighted in a ceremony involving champagne baths and French horns. (There’s still time to enter if you have hoary archives of your own: check out the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.)

It’s funny to go through old pieces of writing, because it’s like looking at old pictures of yourself: there’s one with a funny haircut, why in God’s name would you wear that, and were you really so fascinated by that dull place? And in the reading, you see that the adamantine habits in your writing that you’ve tried so hard to eliminate—say, using limp qualifiers like “just” or “very” willy nilly—began long ago, and like old scars, are still visible now.

But what really occurred to me in going through this dusty pile of hides in the cellar is that I’ve been doing this for a long time. The contest required between 50,000–60,000 words in the collection, and I had to throw away many candidates—with all the scribbling I’ve done over time, I could have put three collections of published material together. So, I’m lucky that way, because there was a lot of dreck in there, from which to winnow.

Cream Over Pig’s Legs

Looking at some of the material I wrote makes me thankful that a lot of the journals and outlets that published it have properly faded away—the old bones no longer smell. But it’s nice to have a history to sift through, because you can tuck a lot of the pieces that have pig’s legs to the bottom, which means that something—one hopes cream—rises.

It’s also fun—playing the publisher—to arrange the pieces, in some kind of loose thematic scheme: I found an introductory piece that opens up from a colorful memory of a trip to Vegas and it moves into a “what is the American character” flavor, which feels like a good way to gun the engine at the start. The concluding piece supplies a sense of “it’s a shaky cosmos, but we’re all in it together.” As an editor, that was a fun exercise in scaffolding and structure.

Scrivener Makes Them Toe the Line

Speaking of editing, I used Scrivener to pull all the essays together in bulk, and then its wonderful drag-and-drop sorting to instantly move them around. And around and around, since I was working with the first cull of between 50–100 essays, and tossed them all about in the compilation many times, eliminating many, changing some words in a few, fiddling with titles. Then I dumped it all back into Word for final formatting.

So, all of those muscle spasms I’ve had over the years at the keyboard were worth something. I doubt I’ll win the contest, but it was interesting to filter through the perspectives (and use of language) seen in my past pieces, and to see what were constants and what were flirtations. Who knows, I might use the collection as a freebie to induce the innocent to sign up for my email list, so I can torment more readers.

If you’ve been writing for a while, do you ever go back to your old stuff? Do you cringe or do you crow? I saw a fair amount of piffle, but there were some gems too. Enough to keep on writing and see if I can do better.

A Writer’s Workshop: Memories and Memorial Days

Malibu, wondering if I would taste better with a steak sauce

Out and about for the Memorial Day weekend, we seemed to have a wand wave of favorable signs: There was the kite string that led up a rocky hill in a beautiful canyon at Ft. Ord Dunes State Park that I picked up and tugged and lo! a beautiful turtle kite sprung high in the air, heretofore unseen high on the cliff.

And then strolling that pretty beach, the amazement of three hang gliders very slowly moving past us above, so low that we could easily see their expressions. And then later, our first time at the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge (whose title might be bigger than the park), seeing a determined red-wing blackbird harass a big turkey vulture completely out to the park, and then fly back, very close to us, into the wetlands area he was defending. I’d seen small birds annoy hawks, but never one so focused on ushering a vulture to the door.

That seemed like a pretty good day of small wonders, and we settled in with the great Boulevardiers we’d barreled for a month to mellow appeal in our 3-liter barrel and toasted the glory of small things. When our cat brought the small bunny to our door to display her hunting talents, that’s when the wonders went awry, for us at least.

The Goddess of Small Dead Things

Our cat Malibu, who was semi-feral when we adopted her, spends a good deal of her time outside. We are grateful if rueful for the rats and gophers she eviscerates on our outside doormats, and more grateful yet that she seemingly has no talent for doing the same for birds—we don’t see any remains or feathers on the rural property.

But a bunny.

A young bunny, soft gray, its staring eyes knocked into forever, their last sight my cat’s flashing teeth. She’s never brought back a bunny. There’s a moral inequality there, of course, where we sigh over the gophers and forget them an hour later, but feel strong ethical queasiness about a young rabbit. The artificial hierarchy of living things expressed in the quick, unreflective emotion: oh god, she’s killed a bunny!

Writers Try to Capture Quicksilver

So, an interesting day for a writer—that childlike feeling of glee when I saw that kite rise out of nowhere, and the plunging dismay upon seeing my cat’s bloodletting. I have a sharp sense that writers should keep a look out for those instances, the reminders that we are animals as well, subject to those flights and grottoes of emotion, often multiple times in the same day.

To be able to describe how that works with characters in stories is tricky, because it’s easy to resort to a kind of “she felt a stabbing in her heart” kind of writing (if you’re in a close third-person narrative) rather than something that gets closer to those hummingbird wings of something that flashes and then is gone, but perhaps creates a layer that lingers.

And on this Memorial Day, I salute my father, gone now near seven years, who served in the Army Air Forces in WWII and the Air Force in Korea, a waist gunner in a B-17 for many runs in the European Theatre and Korea. Considering the precarious exposure of waist gunners. and how many didn’t come back, he may have been surprised he made it. But my mother, my three siblings and I are happy he did. Thanks, Dad.

Editors Will Pay for Articles that Play

Me, in the outfit I wear when I write first paragraphs

This writing life is serious stuff, with its cold deadlines, its fusty grammar rules and its dense packagings of data. But readers in most corners are showing less of an appetite for data density, and more for the conversational, the playful, the light touch that can still deliver information, but deliver it with some sweet sprinkles on top. Editors seem to have more appetite for sprinkles these days.

Obviously, some publications—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes to mind—don’t care much for sprinkles, and rightly so. But if you’re a freelancer like me, who writes for newspapers, magazines and online business publications, it’s heartening to know that editors are more enthusiastic than ever to accept pieces that weave in some humor with their copy threads.

To demonstrate that I’m not making this up, here are a few opening paragraphs from three pieces of mine for which some bewitched editor paid actual money. All establish a certain tone from the outset, and hopefully would make you want to read further.

5 High-Proof Truths That Whiskey Is the Key to a Better Life
There’s advice everywhere on how to be a better person. Meditate, be nice to children, pat puppies on the head, eat arugula. But those things are so superficial, and some are plain tedious. We have more practical advice: drink Whiskey.

Drinking Whiskey will make you a better person. And it’s much more fun than arugula. Here’s why:

 
That’s the beginning of a blog post for Flaviar, a spirits purveyor that writes about all things booze. Their style is irreverent and somewhat arch, which is fun to do. It gave me the chance to practice that writing trick of jab, jab, punch, with the setup lines and then the punch delivered in the last line of the first paragraph. This piece will come out on their blog sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Trail Mix: An Oahu Hike — Plus Margaritas
I can forgive you, if you’re on Oahu, all excited about taking a shoreline hike. You toss on the shorts, throw a small snack, some binoculars and sunblock into a backpack and — knowing that there are water bottles in the car — drive all the way up the westside toward Ka’ena Point where the road ends, and get out to begin your hike in the sizzling sun. And then you realize that one water bottle is empty and the other half-filled.
I can forgive you, because my girlfriend and I did just that.

 
This intro is a slight variant on the first trick, using the sustained second-person direct address to put the reader in the driver’s seat—and then pull the driver’s seat out from under the writer with the last line. This is from a short piece recently published in the San Jose Mercury News.

How to Properly Diagnose a Failed Email Campaign
As Mark Twain said after his latest marketing promotion, “The reports of the death of the email campaign are greatly exaggerated.” As any marketing maven knows, email lives, with a vengeance, and remains one of the biggest hammers in any marketer’s toolbox.

But as you know all too well, bad email promotions are death warmed over: email done wrong does your promos and your products a lethal turn.

 
This one has to take a more businesslike tack, since it was written for The Content Standard, an all-things-content-marketing publication. But still, anytime you can open a piece with a [fake] Mark Twain quote, you’re in good hands.

All of these writings establish a sportive, impish slant from the first lines, which works in the context of each piece. This isn’t writing for the ages, but it’s fun to do, and if someone will pay me for it, I’ll type it up.

If you can produce this kind of work without it seeming labored or too corny or shallow (and perhaps that’s how these ledes struck you), it could be a good approach to your freelance pieces. As I’ve said before, it’s often useful to pitch an editor with what you foresee as the actual first paragraph or two of a piece, so they can taste what they’d be getting.

Do any of you use this kind of breezy style in your work? (If you do, don’t pitch my editors—they’ll be on to you.)

Writers: Draw Yourself Out of Your Corners

Harold doesn’t quite have Eve’s charms

When I was a little kid, one of the first books that grabbed my imagination was Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. That was just the first in a series of Harold books: Harold later gets to go to the North Pole, into a fairy tale, and on other adventures. The scheme was—and still is, for Harold lives on in my imagination—this: Harold uses his purple crayon to draw objects on the canvas of his life, and they become real.

Thus the post image above, where Harold has drawn himself a bounteous apple tree, but then, worried about someone swiping the apples, he draws a fierce dragon to guard it. But the dragon is a little too fierce, and Harold retreats backward, his dragging crayon accidentally drawing the line of the sea—oops! But luckily, he draws a boat to ride on its waves. And the boat ride leads to …

The books fascinated me as a kid, and still do, because of the freshness of imagination and the openness to possibility. There is a kind of “the world is new again because I draw it new every day” feeling in Harold’s work that is an invitation to snap up the window shade of your imagination, rather than clamp it down. Harold isn’t much for preconceptions or expectations. Or perhaps he’s an alternate definition of “preconception”: he hasn’t conceived—and thus fixed—his mind’s mooring, so it goes places that are unmoored, and exciting ones at that.

Writers Move Through Associative Worlds (and Words)

This is exactly what a writer does (or what a writer experiences—many times it seems there’s less a “doer” than the process of something being done). Most writers are very associative: a single word can magnetize other words in the vicinity; a single image can make for a flip book of cascading images. And if writers just have some glorified form of ADD, I don’t want any medication.

Harold’s purple prosody is also a drawing of the creative process, which can seem as random—and often as productive—as the wandering noodling of his crayon. What the source of creativity is, or what sparks it remains an elusive thing, though scientists have their clipboards ever at the ready for assessing brain-wave readouts and chemicals in spit.

The Beauties of the Brain

The brain is a splendid thing (even if mine commands me to watch bad TV now and then). Sometimes it’s very far off in its assessments, such as when you see a wiggling towel on the road when you’re driving, and your mind paints it into a wounded coyote. Processing error that is, but it’s a creative error, and just having a malleable landscape for creative error is a writer’s boon.

There’s a loveliness in daydreaming, in flipping through the cards of your imagination, putting them in odd combinations, and letting them fall into colorful mosaics on the floor, into patterns or combinations that are there born for the first time.

There’s beauty in the impractical, in things that can’t be immediately applied to solve a problem or that have an immediate return. Beauty in reverie, where the wool that’s gathered might turn into a short story, a paragraph in an essay, or just threads discarded, perhaps taken up again months later.

What this post is really saying is that letting your mind meander is a fine thing for a writer. Harold showed me that you can paint yourself into a corner, but you can crayon the corner over and turn it into a trampoline. Writers, keep meandering. But don’t forget to do the dishes occasionally as well.

Editing Your Work: Very, Very Good Is Very Bad

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the very best thing you could do for your writing is to tighten it up, just a little. Still with me? With apologies to Jane Austen, the first sentence here that clogged your pores is a gasbag, a dirigible without a destination. Why? Because it’s filled with unnecessary words and phrases. It’s filled with air, not substance. But this is air that doesn’t breathe life into your reader’s lungs—it suffocates them.

Consider: any sentence that has a qualification, a dodge, is a sentence that whimpers. Words like “very” and “really,” which seem to be intensifiers, are the opposite. They are diminishers. They are the celery left a year in the cellar: no snap. And a clause or phrase like “It’s a fact …” or “just a little” might seem to refine a sentence, give it some razoring of thoughtful gradation, but instead it hobbles it.

Really, Just Very Bad

Remove some of the fluff, and you get a working-class sentence: “The best thing you can do for your writing is tighten it.” But wield the scalpel again, and you get something crisp: “Tighten your writing.” That sentence, which turns a key in a lock, implies that the tightening will improve the understanding, rather than making it bloatedly explicit.

Of course, if you’re an essayist, a fiction writer, a vaunted creative, you might chafe at the constraints. There are times when sentences need luxuriant branching, elliptical orbits to trace their flight across the heavens. But even then, the “verys,” the “justs,” the “reallys,” the “it’s clear that’s”—those blackguards rob your writing of vigor. Vigor = good. Languor = bad.

All Modifiers Are Not Created Evil

Sometimes modifiers can add nuance to a sentence so their absence is loss, not gain. “He took a few, halting steps, expelled a gust of breath and took a voluptuous fall.” If there is intent behind your diction, your use of “voluptuous” (and even “halting” in this instance) could serve a narrative purpose. At least it’s arguable. But the actually here: “Actually, I couldn’t stand him” actually, factually, does nothing. Same with “quite” and “rather”—something that’s “quite exciting” fails to excite.

I am very guilty of veritable volumes of verys in my writing; for me, “just” is also just a spasmodic touch-type away. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Verily.

Adverbs Under Editing Threat!

There’s been a threadbare-but-broad blanket of denunciation of adverbs and adjectives thrown over prose the last few years, but that’s employing a squinty eye blind to when modifiers can add color and spark to a page. All of those urchin adverbs and adjectives aren’t bad—just the ones that are padding, or those that substitute for strong verbs and nouns. Used with discretion, they are ketchup with fries. (Or sriracha, if you need more kick.)

But when you have expressions like “loud explosion” or “violent vomiting” (or “loud explosion of violent vomiting”), you have redundant words that put a wrapper between you and the reader. Fewer words say more. Or as our lad Twain said (with a wink) in his evisceration of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing: “Eschew surplusage.”

Big Words, Big Deal

One category of surplusage is big words, the pomp-and-circumstance diction that declares that the writer is educated, sophisticated, and a wee bit smarter than the reader. But if you aren’t writing for your reader, you are writing for no one. I am the guiltiest of wordslingers here: I love words, love the chewy ones, love some with peacock flair or sly intimation. Sometimes the right word is the big word, but sometimes when you write fornication, you should write—oh, never mind.

I’ll let some stylists smarter than me put that in perspective:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

— Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

But gosh, is it tempting to gussy up a sentence or two. I can’t always resist.

Tools for Tightening

There are a couple of interesting online tools that can help with your editing: the Hemingway app highlights overly complex sentences, long words, and those cussed adverbs. The Natural Reader is an editing approach from a different angle—your ears. The software reads your work to you aloud, which lets you hear, sometimes painfully, sentences that plod, or wander, or die a slow death from pulling a bulging cart of wayward words.

A useful exercise is to take a 1,000-word piece of your writing and condense it to 700 words. It’s enlightening (and lightening) to take the frosting off your phrasings and get to the actual cake. And then take that same piece down to 500 words: the cake is still spongy and sweet, but denser, deeper. Chasing the “littles” and the “sometimes” and the “oftens” out of sentences—and putting some caffeine in passive-voice phrasings—removes fat and makes muscle.

But the most powerful tool is focus. Inspect your paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of your ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Keep in mind that when you clean up your writing, you’re not scrubbing it of the voice that makes it distinct and delightful. You’re clearing your throat so that voice sings out strong and true.

Five Ways Writers Can Deal with Depression

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

If you see this guy in the neighborhood, tell him to take the day off

A little bit back, the brother of one of my old friends committed suicide. He’d been depressed for a while; I’m uncertain if he’d expressed any dramatic intentions about ending his life before his death. Not long after that, the brother of a woman who works with my girlfriend Alice killed himself. Again, a man who struggled with depression. Most recently, one of Alice’s friends, a woman who has suffered depression and other anxiety issues, was found dead, under puzzling circumstances that are yet to be explained.

That’s a lot of death, and a lot of suffering that preceded it. The people I mention above weren’t writers, but I want to turn the discussion to writers and depression, because it’s a subject that’s been explored by medical professionals and by other writers. There’s some contention with the notion that writers and artists in general are more sensitive to depression and associated conditions, but the list of well-known authorial depressives is broad: Sylvia Plath, Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.K. Rowling, Tennessee Williams, Stephen King, and my shining guide, Mark Twain—and lots more. The famous names suggest that there’s a wider carnival of sad writers, but their lack of fame hasn’t let us peer into their dank mental grottoes.

Writers have a peculiar set of traits that can lend themselves to dark thoughts. Stereotypes can often trip up facts, and exceptions are everywhere, but writers are often inward, reflective sorts. Many are introverted, and spend less time in jolly social engagement than other people. Many are frustrated and thwarted by the impossible demands of language—no piece of writing ever seems good enough. Many are frustrated by the demands and rejections—and right now, the everything-changes-everyday—of the publishing world.

Hey, Isn’t That My Face?
I have known a number of writers that had depressive tendencies, but the one I know best is me. My own mild (and less often, moderate) depression has followed me from adolescence into my adult life. Its face has morphed from “There is no meaning” to “I have no meaning” and back again, over and over. Sometimes the face is just an old photograph in one of my rooms, forgotten until I look, but sometimes it’s the only face I see in the mirror.

When you are depressed, the knowledge that “this will pass” means little. It’s like being softly smothered, or encased in a shell of dullness where sight, hearing and thinking are subdued. Contrarily for me, the state also carries a bit of a malevolent energy—I can feel it coming on, a tingle in the soul. And often it’s not precipitated by any event. However, when you’re in it, the key of “Hey, at a fundamental level, you are OK,” doesn’t fit into any slot of belief.

But I’m grateful that I don’t have full-blown depression, which renders some people near catatonic or incapable of action. I have dark thoughts indeed, and they go places they shouldn’t, but I’ve found that these foul possessions rarely last more than three or four days, a week at most, and then, blessedly, they lift.

There are so many people with tremendously more challenging lives than me, but the depressive state of mind remains a real and a serious thing. I’ve found a few helpful ways to fight it:

Five Anti-Depressants That Don’t Require a Doctor
1. Regular exercise. Even a half-hour walk a day is beneficial. The body moves, the blood circulates, the mind can look at the passing scenery and not fold in on itself.

2. Meditation: I’ve been meditating in the mornings, between 10-20 minutes, for more than a year now. It has been grounding for me; though my mediations can be fitful, because the brain is a spastic ping-pong ball, there is a calming solace in just sitting, breathing and watching the brain ponging.

3. St. John’s Wort: I don’t want to become another one of the pharmaceutical industry’s minions, so I’ve chosen an herbal supplement that many feel offers relief. And many people don’t. For severe depression, prescription anti-depressives can be life-saving, but that route doesn’t feel right to me. But placebo or not, I’ve taken St. John’s Wort on and off for years, and think there is a mild benefit: fewer episodes of depression and fewer episodes of longer-lasting depression. Your mileage may vary.

4. Writing: I often duck, sidestep or back away from my creative writing (hey, all you marketing-writing or editing clients: I always do the work, and with full attention, mopey or not) when I’m feeling low, and that seems to reinforce or exacerbate the soul-drain. Writing anything—essay, fiction, travel piece, haiku—gives the sad face more lift.

5. A person who believes in you: I’m grateful that Alice is around to tell me to stop moping. I don’t stop moping, but I appreciate her efforts. She has watched my struggles in these areas for years, and has stuck around to help. She is a dear creature, even if she has funny hair.

And one I didn’t list as my own, because I’ve yet to try it, but I’m considering it: a SAD therapy lamp. Winters do seem harder for me than other seasons.

And if none of those help, there’s always dropping a little acid. I saw that Tim Ferriss is underwriting (and crowdfunding) a Johns Hopkins study on the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression and PTSD. The initial research is very promising. And the mushrooms might be good in pasta.

Seriously though, the pain of the families that I mentioned above is unimaginable. If you are habitually down, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a way out, get help. There is a way out, and it’s not by taking your life. There’s a National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800 273-8255, and here’s their associated website.

Better days ahead.

Turkeys, Tilted Windmills and Imaginary Writing Enemies

Turks

Yesterday, they conquered my garage. Tomorrow, the Vatican!

There’s a flock of wild turkeys, maybe 20 in all, that has been periodically visiting my neighborhood for the past couple of years. They are expressive birds, and their neck-bobbing, en masse hillside treks, gobbling bursts of flight, and prancing posturing is a pleasure to watch. And to laugh about. Since they frequently pass by my Airstream office when moving through the neighbor’s fields, I have a fine old time seeing close-ups of their antic behavior.

A trio of the males displayed a new move the other morning, when the recycling truck came by on its rounds. It’s a rumblingly loud vehicle, and it descends the narrow road flanking my house with a roar. I was in my yard and three male birds were on the other side of my neighbor’s fence. When the truck began going down the hill above both our houses, I was looking at the birds. When the truck’s clamor hit them, they reared around in unison, facing the truck’s direction. They lined up side-by-side, almost symmetrical, beaks raised and thrusting out, synchronized swimmers on the land.

They froze in this posture, and when the truck passed, they shot their heads forward simultaneously, and as if on signal, together gobbled a furious cry. Then they all ran out to the road, and down toward the truck, which would have taken several hundred turkey soldiers to have taken it down. But these birds were up to the challenge, running in that splaying, hunching, ducking way that large birds do, ready to remove that truck’s transmission and make the world safe for democracy.

Talking (and Thinking) Turkey
Because I often turn these natural neighborhood expressions into writing fodder in my mind, I had a few quick thoughts. One was marveling at turkey bravado—no 6,000-pound truck was going to rumble through their territory without a challenge. The other was to puzzle over turkey thinking: how did these featherbrains come to the conclusion that it was in any way a sound gambit to take on a giant truck armed with three beaks?

That had me musing on the Don Quixote aspect of it all: tilting at windmills, a heroic, impossible—and quite blind—quest. Our birds, no matter the courage tucked in their puffed-out chests, had manufactured an unconquerable enemy where there was none, fabricated a problem out of thin (if noisy) air, and were chasing illusory victories.

Gobble, gobble.

Fewer Writing Turkeys in 2016
I found that colorful scene to be a fine example of how not to treat my writing in 2016. I conjured up a few false enemies of my writing over the past year: treating time as an enemy, writing from a sense of scarcity and not abundance, letting dull doubt overrule my instincts—too many trivial (but in effect, consequential) things to list.

This year, I’m going to work more creatively, not reactively. Not sternly guided by having to write so many words, make this much money, read this many books. But rather, to write at a good pace, without always looking over my shoulder. To write with more feeling. To take energy from idea windmills, rather than joust at them. (And to act less like a turkey.)

How about you?

New Year’s Cake
Feel like getting your writing voice in fine tune? My ebook, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, is reduced from $5.99 to $2.99 until January 11, if you use the coupon code BM85N on Smashwords. Check it out. There are a couple of turkey stories in there, but only ones that help your writing take flight.

Writing Tips, Ticks and Tics

Malibu, tickled that she's tick-free

Malibu, tickled that she’s tick-free

A couple of days ago, my cat came in with a large tick between her shoulder blades. Ticks are things that should never be invited to champagne parties, debutante balls or bar mitzvahs. They are vile things, going from the size of a fairy’s sneeze to a small olive in a few days by gorging mightily on their host’s blood. When I discovered the tick, I immediately did the wrong thing: I Googled “how to remove a tick from a cat.”

Juggling hand grenades would have been safer. Not only did I learn that ticks can give a cat Lyme disease, kitty paralysis and illegible handwriting, but removing them in the wrong way (and all suggested ways were deemed wrong or contradictory in the next link) would leave behind all kinds of tick mouth machinery, plus a toxic squirt of the poisons ticks carry when the tick-removal service (me), in his stress to remove it, inadvertently squeezes the tick.

The Tick (or Tic) of Writing Paralysis

What has this to do with writing? This: Invariably, with writing projects or assignments pending, my brain freezes. “I can’t write about that, I’m not qualified, I don’t know the subject well enough, the editor won’t like it, my keyboard is dirty.” These are the songs in the skull that stop the first word of a story, article or essay. Thus, after thoroughly immersing myself in how to remove a tick, I got to work: for 24 hours, I fretted on the tick’s removal from my skittish cat, which resulted in my tick swelling a third again in size, and tick lobbyists everywhere rejoicing.

Note: this feckless ticking coincided with me not having started two article assignments for which I had the interviews transcribed and the background info recorded. Why hadn’t I started? My keyboard was dirty. Besides, the editors wouldn’t like what I came up with. [Note, I know from years of experience that just starting writing, even if the writing is crackers, gets the story in gear. But why should I listen to writing tips from me?)

When I touched the tick the next morning, its ghastly growth sickened me. I dithered for a bit, then grabbed Malibu (who is quite resistant to more than a moment’s grabbing), got my fingernails under the hairline and twist-yanked him out clean. She took it placidly. Look, 30 hours of shilly-shallying, and with two seconds of work, tick-free!

Or so I thought. I was astonished when I thoroughly ran my hands through Malibu’s fur again, and I found another tick! Much smaller than his engorged ancestor, but head in, and working away. But this time, I didn’t spend any time thinking about the process. Same procedure, same result: Tick in a jar of rubbing alcohol, cat on the floor not acting as though anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Grabbing the Assignment by Its Bloody Neck

Oh, after I removed the ticks, I started (and finished) one of my writing assignments. I started and finished the other today. I KNOW that I have a brain-itching resistance to starting a piece, I know that once I start that the gates of serendipitous writing will open, but yet, I have to dance this same ding-dang dance almost every time. Ticks me off.

Lesson: just start. Start anywhere, start with random words, start with a single sentence. Type and ye shall be free. And you ticks out there—I’m on to you.

Please share your tick-removal tips (no blowtorches) in the comments. Or how you manage to start a writing project without bedeviling yourself. Happy Holidays!

Denying Your Characters. Really, It’s for Their Own Good

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks via Compfight cc


Denying your fictional characters something—even if they are the sweetest of souls—is an effective way to see what they are made of. Holding back something they crave can show their real faces—or at least their faces under stress, and thus show character, or lack of it. We’ll shoot past the given that your characters have to want something in your stories, even at unconscious levels, and sidestep the subtle ways you can introduce those wants. Let’s go to not giving it to them.

I have a character with the sonorous name of Pinky DeVroom, the protagonist of a novel on which I’m collaborating with a pal, Rick. Pinky is a newspaper man in Boston who has high literary ambitions. He’s written a novel that gets him tingling attention from a Boston agent, who secures a publishing contract. The novel being written and the publishing contract were deep desires of old Pinky. The matter of him being sharply smitten with his agent flamed new desires.

Those had to be thwarted.

The Thwartings
Sadly for poor Pinky, he offered his novel to the agent right when the Crash of ’29 happened. The warm handshake of the contract melted into delay and dithering. But at least a friendship with his agent, Elfred, is deepening, yes? No. Pinky can’t have Elfred, because Pinky himself gets in the way: his better instincts are always trodden by his baser ones, so that every moment of their apparent coming together is met by Pinky’s blunders with booze, his miscalculations on what wooing is all about, his flummoxed misinterpretations of Elfred’s attentions.

In other words, he’s a mess. And he’s a mess because Rick and I keep denying him things. His messiness and denied goals keep propelling the story forward, in both funny and frightening ways. Deny your characters and they have higher hills to climb, more veils in front that obscure any clear-sightedness behind, potholes that leave their heart’s tires airless and flat.

Of course, you can’t just create a bumbling caricature of a character, one who never has a fine moment or measured victory—readers will tire of sheer slapstick, of paddling in the shallows of the fictional pool, of defeat’s cold ash. Even a fine myth like Sisyphus loses its weight if we have to push that rock up the hill into infinity along with the poor boy. So it’s helpful to work out—organically, and not as a formula—a two-steps backwards, one-step forward motion, where Pinky gets to taste some sweetness midst the bile, where the sun sometimes warms the cold rooms in which we’ve put him.

He hungers for that relief, and I think readers do too.

Unwrapping the Prize and Seeing Tarnish
That notion of denial and its graces occurred to me because I’ve been denying myself of late. I came back from a recent media trip to Myanmar with a wicked belly bug, necessitating a round of antibiotics. Now I’m a fellow who likes a glass of wine, sometimes two, with dinner. Even more so a nice classic cocktail on the weekends. Antibiotics aren’t the best mixers for booze, so denied I was.

But it was interesting to me to observe my interest in making my sweetheart a cocktail (a Negroni, if you must know) last weekend. I loved to mix, shake and pour the ingredients into the frosted glass, and took a deep sniff. Ahh, very good. Not as good as drinking one though.

And I also went to a party, where I poured some wine for a couple of people, admiring its hue in the glass, catching a whiff of bouquet. So it was with great anticipation that when my antibiotic shackles were thrown, on my birthday no less, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and ordered a glass of wine, ahhh.

No—yuck!

Who Put the Goat Hoof in My Wine?
What was that bitter stuff? And what was the bitter substitute glass that I replaced it with? And the squinched-lip sips I took from two samples of other wines the waitress kindly brought? Either the antibiotics were still biting, or my entire constitution had changed. But that made me think further of fictional situations: what if the thing desired, finally wrought, was wrong?

Have to keep that in mind for Pinky, because that complicated weave has so many more threads than boy-meets-girl, boy loses novel and girl, and boy gets various plummy things. Boy might have no clue what he really wants after he has a taste of it, eh?

I have to say though, that I’m somewhat anxious about what might happen this evening. It’s the first Friday I’ve had being antibiotic free since my bellyaches. What if the Manhattan I’m thinking of mixing up tastes like goat hoof? Oh well, there’s always beer …

Putting Your Pen in the Contest Ring: Writers Saying, “Why Not?”

Startup Stock Photos

image via Startup Stock Photos

There’s a lot to be said for saying “no.” As hard as it can be to put up the stop sign, “no” can save you from taking on projects for which you are ill-suited, going to events that don’t enlarge your life, or drinking that fourth Brandy Alexander when you know that Alexander himself stops at two.

The writing life can be a harried one, particularly if you have a day job, and the only time you have to plot out your nine-book saga on intergalactic love between a sentient vaping pen and a 19-legged Venusian dog is your lunch hour (and for the 30 minutes after dinner before you do the dishes).

But there are some writing opportunities for which saying “Why not?” can deliver an unusual sense of gratification, and sometimes some exotic rewards. I’m talking about writing contests. I’ve written about contests before, but because I’ve had some recent success with a few, I want to write about them again. Getting recognition from a contest—no matter if you are the first-place winner or receive an honorable mention—can give give you some sweet cream of satisfaction. That juice is qualitatively different from that gained from crafting a zingy sentence for your last chapter, or having your beta readers say that your Venusian dog puts them in mind of Cary Grant in his prime.

Contests Give You Warm Gravy
Here’s the kind of thing that placing well in a writing contest can do for you:

  • Validation – Most contests are judged by credible writers. Them saying you are a hot tamale can do wonders for the tender egos of most writers.
  • Exposure – Many publications publish the winning works, and sometimes they have a big print circulation and/or online traffic, so your work can get attention. Publication at many contest venues will include links to your site or other work.
  • Swag – I’ve won all kinds of things from writing contests, including poker chips (nice ones), licorice, and luggage tags. Oh, and money. Sometimes a pretty good chunk. Or the equivalent of money. For instance, last month I was at the Catamaran Writer’s Conference in pretty Pebble Beach, which offered me four days of good writerly cheer and good advice on a work in progress of mine. I won a $750 fellowship to the conference by submitting a short story I’d written a while ago. I didn’t think I’d win anything, but I already had the story: why not?

Have Pen, Will Travel
MarketingProfs had this essay contest going last month, and I won a first-runner-up award, which lets me get into all the conference sessions free and gives me some other goodies, to the tune of $1,800. I don’t know if I can make it out there, because flights and lodging are expensive (and the evil first-place winner took those). But writing a 500-word essay—easy. What was my essay about? How pizza is actually marketing. Yes, being a goofball can pay.

And my latest serving of confectionery, a roundabout way of “winning” a contest: a couple of years ago I entered an unsold travel piece I had languishing on my computer to Dave’s Travel Corner, a popular travel site. I won second place in that contest, which awarded a hundred bucks, some travel books and some other oddities. But it won me some attention from Dave, who later invited me to be a writer for his site for some press trips, one though the Florida Keys and one at a luxury hotel in Vegas.

These trips are all-expenses paid, where the writers get treated to all kinds of amazing scenic/historic/crazy venues, gobble foods at places most couldn’t afford to gobble, and be out and about, goggled-eyed, in this wondrous country of ours. Or in other countries: the latest one I was invited on leaves late this coming Thursday for 9 days in Myanmar. Myanmar! That ain’t the Long Beach, CA suburb I was raised in.

Contesting the Contests
Yes, writing contests often have entry fees, but they often are reasonable: $10–$15 dollars that might win you $500-$1,000, plus some of the perks mentioned above. And you might find contests for which you already have the story or essay written, but never found a home for it. I won $1,000 for paying $15 to enter a National Steinbeck Center fiction contest a long ways back, for a story I’d written in college. I didn’t think I had a prayer to win that contest, but I said “why not?” and entered. That was a good feeling.

Subscribe to Hope Clark’s free (or paid, for more entry opps) newsletter that has lots of good contests. So does Moira’s Allen’s Writing World newsletter. And Poets and Writers magazine has a searchable list of writing contests that you can filter for fees and genres.

Say “why not” to contests. Why not? And if you happen to be in Mandalay in the coming two weeks, let me know.