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!

How to Successfully Write Like a Turkey

Turkeys

Not the best shot, but they were running around like, well, like turkeys

For the last couple of months, around 20 wild turkeys have been strolling their gobbling paths through the open fields of my neighborhood. It’s amazing when they cruise by the field close to my Airstream office, because they are startlingly big birds, and in their turkeyness, quite odd-looking ones too.

Since spring is just a snapped window-shade opening away, lately the male birds have begun to whip up their tail feather tuxedo, to give the ladies a peek at the splendid side. If you don’t spend a lot of time looking at a turkey’s backside, you might never have seen their flashdance, where they fan those tail feathers in a broad semicircle, displaying the the bright bands of color at feather’s end.

It’s an eye-catching sight, and an impressive one too. One of the reason it impresses is that the birds don’t do it constantly, so that the amazement threshold dims; instead, they putter and poke around, grubbing in the fields in their civilian clothes. It’s only when some kind of unseen “Showtime!” signal occurs that they feel the need to fan out their deck of face cards, and then quickly put them away.

Just a Flash, and No More

The flash of color, of intrigue, of insight—I think that’s what we should do with our writing. No one likes heavy writing, that draws attention to itself by pounding you in the face, then in the gut, then the face again. But what if in what you’re reading, a curtain quickly opens and you see something intriguing, only to have it close again? Wouldn’t you read a bit further to see what’s behind the curtain?

Though there are many ways to insert elements in your writing that might be considered revelations—surprise, your lead character was actually a lovestruck alien from the 25th century!—here I’m just talking about interesting turns of phrase, vivid language used with sparing care. Flashes in writing are momentary: they offer a promise, provoke intrigue, suggest something more. It harkens to the same psychological mechanism of the slot machines: there are small payoffs (and they are loud and colorful) in between stretches of quiet. It’s a mechanism you can use to send a flare of interest, no matter if you are writing business copy or a novel.

Words Take Wing

I’m a word guy first, so I gravitate toward language to put the trot in my turkeys. Be conscious of flat turns of phrase in your work, whether you type for business or for tale. Give flat phrases a face by filling in their features: stronger verbs, interesting syntax, varying sentence rhythms. Let’s look at a standard sentence turkey, followed by one flashing his charms:

He walked unsteadily through the crowd.

He careened, he lurched, he staggered, he chugged—we see his tripping traipsings with more vigor, more clarity, more delight.

Rearranging how your words fall can make them rise:

Dullard: Benjie was besotted, and his head lolled on his sloped shoulders.

Benjie, Better: Shoulders sloped, head lolling, see besotted Benjie.

Even being conscious of the sound of words (and how they sound strung together) can give your writing resonance:

Barely a Sound: He drove the taxi for hours through the dark streets of the suburban neighborhood.

More Music: He drove, the taxi’s sharp lights sniffing out the darkened curbs, the dull patches of suburban lawn grey-green in the bleak light.

Don’t Troll the Thesaurus

I’m not suggesting here that you become a thesaurus troll, someone picking canned words from a list—that will only make your words listless. Many are the sentences that are best served with solid Anglo-Saxon words. I’m also not talking about using unusual words just for the sake of novelty. Look not to pad your sentences, but to spice them, with language that is your own—but perhaps your own language after additional caffeine. This kind of word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence vigilance might seem wearying, but more wearying is reading writing that has no spark.

Putting Some Mustard on the Turkey

If you’ve every watched a turkey fly, you know it can look like someone tossed a large, unbalanced sack of feathers into the air. They are ungainly, awkward flyers, but they get the job done. And as I mentioned above, with their neck-stretching pecking-and-lunging walk, they can look peculiar on the ground too. But with that feather flash, they perform a magic trick: they turn their turkey trot into a show of style.

Yeah, I know—who wants to be identified as a turkey? But learning how to successfully write like a turkey has its benefits. As the old saying goes (with some editing), every turkey has its day.  Show your tail feathers.

Licking the Cat and Other Writing Tips

Drunk Kitty

Poor cat had a midnight deadline—had to hit the hootch hard afterwards

Scuttlebutt had it that Barbara Cartland, the doyenne of romance writers, did much of her early writing at the piano, stark naked. However that strains credibility, everyone’s heard of writers who insist they can’t write without their ancient manual typewriters with the missing keys, or their favorite fountain pens (or maybe even a stylus and hot wax). Writers can be a peculiar lot, and it’s not surprising that their composing methods can be all over the map.

You would think that the map for business writers would have to be a bit more restrictive, at least in terms of how they approach deadline destinations, but it ain’t necessarily so. I’ll peek here at some variegated methods that freelance writers use to get to the same place—the delivery of deadline material. Since I am a freelance writer (mostly for the tech industry), perforce my attentions will focus on my own methods. However, since I have kept the company of fellow miscreant scriveners in the tech-writing world, I’ll toss in a couple of contrasting approaches.

One sidestep I’ll take is taking on the startup mentality: though you can still hear of Silicon Valley employees working 15-hour shifts, the sleeping bag rolled at the ready under the desk, with maniacal managers patrolling cubicle fields exhorting the troops to donate their iron-poor blood to the cause of one more development deadline, that’s no path to writing productivity. At least qualitatively.

Writing in Bursts (of Bourbon)

My distaste for those fervid accounts is personal (and relevant to this account, thank god). My general view is that even with business writing, even with pressing deadlines, the stacking of ever-tottering hours of effort just results in a diminished return: your stack will topple (and so will you). This view is prejudiced by my own writing methods: I think writing is best crafted in short bursts, somewhat like synaptic patterns, the mind sending out a sheaf of arrows that hit targets, and then reloading. I recognize that sometimes you absolutely must grind out time at the keyboard (or on your papyrus), if you know that tomorrow’s brochure needs an eighth page and you’ve only got seven, or if you’re inputting “final” edits for the 10th time on a print-ready book project at 1am, but those are times when prayer or bourbon (or both) might ease you through.

What I’m addressing is where you have writing requirements for which the scope is pretty clear: this many words on this subject gets you this check. I know writers who can just bang out a first draft by sitting down and getting up hours later. For me, taking mini-breaks is the breathing of the mind after exercise: sprint through a paragraph, get up and wander to the front window to see if anyone is undressing in the neighbor’s house, sprint through another paragraph, pay the invoice for that fountain pen you regret buying, sprint through .…

These writing tips tilt favorably as well for so-called “creative” writing, corralled in quotes here because I believe that business writing can be quite creative. I finally realized that I couldn’t wait for inspiration, a muse whose answering machine is all I get when I call. Often, I can only work on a fictional piece in half-hour or one-hour bursts, then need to read a magazine article or wipe grime off the stove knobs or use my hair to apply polish to my shoes. Then, when I go back to the work, the windows open again for fresh writing air. Contrary to those tech-industry beliefs, dawdling is an integral component of productivity.

Forget the Beach—Bathe Your Brain Instead

It’s a laugh to have seen so many ads in tech magazines past of people at the beach with their laptops, or writing on their decks in the blazing sun (“Stay Connected All The Time With Our Wireless You-Don’t-Know-How-Asinine-You-Look-At-The-Beach-Now High-Speed Modem), as though that was incredible freedom. Nah, freedom is when your brain does the work for you while, away from the keyboard, you peel an orange: “Ah, the hollow-but-compelling marketing phrase I was looking for just appeared in my mind—a miracle!”

So, whether you need to lean back between writing jaunts and listen to Hendrix playing Purple Haze at bleeding-ear volume, or choose to give the cat a good five-minute grooming (whether with a brush or your tongue), consider it all part of the writing process. Whether you decide to bill your client for that “passive concentration” time is a matter for you, your accountant and your conscience, you conscientious scribe, you.