How Being Short Can Take You a Long Way

Being short, you’ll never have to worry about seeing all of that guck that’s on the top of your refrigerator. Me being the long, lanky type, so shamed am I when I spot that accretion of grime that I have to stop the speechwriting I do for the American Graham Cracker Collection Society, and clean it immediately. But here I’m referring to length, not height, where bigger isn’t necessarily better—in writing.

There’s a situation that brings this to mind: I’m going to the Writer’s Digest West writing conference in LA in late October, and there I’m going to engage in a frolicsome thing called a pitch slam. A pitch slam isn’t where you test your curveball to see if you can strike out Albert Pujols; it’s where a hoard of peevish, underfed literary agents listen to your strangled proposal for your book, and then press a button that puts you in a trash compactor, while you hear the waning sounds of their maniacal laughter.

The slam part is this: you have 90 seconds to pitch your book. Ninety seconds: that’s easily enough time for me sit in front of the agent, swallow my tongue, fall to the floor and writhe spasmodically. I have scanned the agents who are available for this particularly torture, and I see that I will have at least five chances to pitch—a fit—in front of them. Thus my writing exercise for the next month will be to put the novel I’ve just finished into a readily digestible pill: sweet, vivid and utterly condensed.

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie

I’ve written before on how challenging (yet oddly freeing) it can be to be forced to write with brevity. It’s refreshing, like ice in your underwear. For ballast, I’ll be checking out some information on pitching and synopses from the Guide to Literary Agents blog, where I’ve gleaned good information before.

Writing short is a useful art. A couple of months ago, I won a great MediaBistro Literary Festival conference pass just by tweeting what I judged to be the best sentence I’d ever written. (Never mind, with counting the hashtag, that my first three choices were longer than Twitter’s character count allows). As Dorothy Parker said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” Thus, to display my lingerie, I just entered the Gotham Writer’s Workshop 91-word memoir contest, where you are supposed to deliver your biography in 91 words. Here’s my first half:

A Cardboard Fort, Conquered by Language
At six, long backyard hours in cardboard refrigerator-box fort, alone with clock, dinosaur books and languid time. At twelve, graduating to Hesse, Twain, Steinbeck, and hearing the sweet siren call of language. At twenty-four, English-degreed, writing crabbed copy for catalogs, questing.

You’ll just have to wait for the rest; I don’t want to reveal the part about my secret marriage to Doris Duke while the contest is pending. Have to run—have to figure out how to squeeze my multi-points-of-view tragicomic opus into 90 seconds, without including all the sighs, cries and lies.

(And hey, if any of you agents happen to read this, I don’t really think you are peevish or underfed. I will remember all your children’s birthdays forever.)

Bonus Material! Missing Teeth, Dangerous Drugs and an Unsober Man

And for a little comic relief, of the not-so-short variety, take a look at my guest post on the charming aspects of hysteria experienced in the dentist’s office. That minor play of neuroses is courtesy of Dr. Richard Wilson’s Bite Point blog; Doc Wilson is the author of many a toothsome tale, including the forthcoming epic, The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks.

How to Find (and Go With) Your Flow

I recently entered a travel-writing contest. Normally, I’m pretty balanced about deadlines and details, but I’d let some things pile up, so I only had one day to write the contest entry. I did know the direction I wanted the piece to go, so I dove in. For some people, deadline demand is keyboard caffeine: it’s only when the threat of a editor’s talons or a manager’s teeth is near that production ramps up. I’m better when I have a more measured command of the deadline, when I can pool-cue ideas around to see in which pockets they sink, when I can return to a work in progress and let its established path move me forward.

Instead, lunatic typing to meet this deadline. When I judged I was about one-third of the way through the piece, I revisited the submission site to make sure I had all the facts straight. Nope. The contest had a 1,200-word restriction; I was already at 1,100 words. Gack! My first thought was to abandon this contest—I needed WAY more space to develop the ideas in this piece. And I knew how hard it would be to condense those ideas, as well as re-work the existing material to fit in the smaller space. My thoughts, in essence: “Ugh!”

But I was already at the keyboard, so …. For the next couple of hours, I worked that story, snipping where snipping was due, expanding where there was a loose fold in the lines. The upshot is that I was able to put together a credible entry. But the uppitiest upshot was that in that phase of cutting and crafting, I was really lost in the work. I rarely get in that state of flow—as it’s so compellingly elucidated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—that I felt its appealing allure. [Note: C’s name can be used to stop crimes in progress: just shout it at the perpetrators at the top of your lungs.]

The Goldilocks Challenge: It Ain’t About Hair Products

As Daniel Pink so convincingly explains in Drive, his great book on motivation, we need the Goldilocks challenge: something not too easy, but not too hard: something that challenges us just right. And when we get those challenges, our reward is intrinsic—the task is its own reward. Lately, I’ve spent some time considering narrowing my range of services, and I had been considering removing book-length editing (I edit both nonfiction work and fiction) from the list, thinking it secondary to my copywriting work.

But I realized from my travel-essay edit how trying to make sure that every word counts, and nurturing a budding idea through its page-length life is fun. For me, it’s a source of flow. I’ll be editing a science fiction novel late this summer, and one from the bubbling cauldron of Rick Wilson’s mind. I was leaning toward shutting down that end of my business, but I’m leaning back. It’s all in flow.

Look for those moments in your work that also feel like play, where both your mind and your mouth might be humming, where Poirot’s “little grey cells” are singing in chorus. That’s the work you’ll do best, and the best work you’ll do.

But man, the next contest I enter, I’m going to get the details straight.

Free Your Stories—Put Them in Cages

I futzed away on a tiny short story today for the Esquire Short Short Fiction contest, which honors the magazine’s 78th birthday with a contest for stories of 78 words. Mandated word counts are an interesting exercise: they are both constrained and liberating. Constrained, because if you go 79 words here, you’re out. Also because they force you to examine every branch of your story’s tree, and to see that a careful pruning can open up the air and the light in a tale (as well as a tree).

Word cages are liberating because knowing a story’s boundaries allows you to map it all the more clearly. You chop that subordinate clause there because it droops too heavily with verbiage. You might even have to chop out a subordinate character for the very same reason. (Note: you cannot do this with your relatives.)

Shaping Stories by Word-Slicing
Thus, being told by a child “Tell me a story” can be so much more challenging than “tell me a story with a princess who bets on the horses and ends up becoming a big-wave rider in Hawaii.” Riding the waves is easier when you can see their definition. Also, there is an almost surgical sense of control when it’s evident that you can change a sentence’s flavor just by excising some sagging skin. Even the whisking away of a “that” or an “a” can put more pepper in a phrase.

Which reminds me of the Twain quote: “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.”

War AND Peace? Please Choose
Sometimes writing to a theme and a word count is just plain fun. I have a piece coming out in the Nov/Dec issue of Writer’s Digest, for their “Reject a Hit” page. The challenge is to act as though you were the cruel, benighted editor that turned away a literary classic, and you must do such in 300 words. Like for that handicapping, wave-sailing princess, the theme constrains and liberates. Here’s mine:

Mr. Tolstoy: Re: your “War and Peace” query—my God man, one word: editing! Readers today are busy counting the serfs, polishing their mazurkas and dusting their Pushkin collections. They haven’t the stomach to digest a twelve-room dacha of a work. Think a brightly lit (but slight) tea garden of literature for today’s busy readers, or at most an airy drawing room. And let’s be reasonable—War AND Peace? Confine it to one, and save 350 pages.

Now, some specifics: Instead of the original Petersburg setting, it’s best to confine the whole thing in a tiny village, eschewing all those dreary travel scenes. If I had to read again about the boorish behaviors of a panoply of grubby roadside characters, I’ll scream! Keeping it to a village makes it more like a tidy play. In fact, perhaps this WOULD make a fine play—study your Chekov for pointers.

And let’s avoid all that violence and mayhem; we can’t found literary works on sensationalism, you know. And any drinking scenes have to go—that’s a fusty Russian stereotype that could use refreshing. Perhaps all the villains could be low-level clerks? Everyone hates a clerk. 

You do show some promise with character, though must you go on so? No more interminable sighs for the women, or long-winded hortatory oaths from the men; think clean, declarative, adjective-free sentences. It should go without saying that no women should die in childbirth, ugh! And really—including the French, even if the portrait is unflattering, in a popular novel? No. No French.

In summary, the work shows no small promise—but it’s TOO LARGE! Tighten its belt, shave its unshorn soldiers, pare 10 peasants for every one saved, remove all those fluffy word-curtains and showy emotive splashes and you might have something here. In fact, this might make a perfect piece of flash-fiction. Cut it down to 500 words and re-submit.

You can see it how it will be printed in the magazine here. And if you really want to put some tight wraps on your writing, hie on over to Smith Magazine, home of the Six-Word Memoir project. Every day lots of folks work on putting their words on a diet by posting six-word stories. (Dirty trick: use hyphenated compounds and cheat!) The editors even collect some of the entry categories for publication in books. So get cracking, but remember: six words is a story, seven is a stultifying bore.

To Thrill a Mockingbird: Stories Are a Writer’s Engine

Book cover for Flowering, by Tom Bentley

Every morning for the past week or so, a mockingbird has risen with winged purpose to the top of the telephone pole nearest our house. From there, he releases an unbridled enthusiasm of trills, tweets and thrilling cascades of notable notes, seemingly of endless variation. I have read that a mockingbird can sing more than 400 different songs; I like to think that my mockingbird is Sinatra in feathers—400 songs is just a morning’s work, and the evening calls for 400 more.

But what I really like to think is that the mockingbird is unleashing a torrent of stories, rapid-fire, almost like a stand-up comedian. They are all colorful and antic: “Hey, do you remember the time I dated a bluejay? That ended so badly that every time I see a bird dressed in blue I head south for the winter.” And that story is then followed by a quick tale of why warblers make the best therapists and on.

Stories are fascinating; well-told, they pull a listener forward, with a “And then what happened? No way!” or “Don’t tell me anymore, that’s too sad. But did she die?” When a story clicks, all the elements—place, plot, character, mood—coalesce into a miniature world, a world where you feel the light breezes, and cower from the heavy storms.

Can My Tales Carry a Tune?
I have a collection of short stories that is going to be released by a small publisher, AuthorMike Ink, either late this year or in early 2012. Working with the company’s editor over the past couple of months has been interesting, because many of the stories are older pieces, written in the 80s and 90s. Revisiting them is like perching on a telephone pole from quite a ways off—the writer that sang those stories isn’t quite the writer I know now, though many a turn of phrase still fits in the ear. There are some new pieces in there too, but the bulk of them are from some time back.

What’s been particularly intriguing in the edit was that for a couple of stories I was requested to make modest-yet-significant changes to the endings. I had considered those stories fixed, but in working on them again, I see they are more like songs: stretching a note, slowing the cadence, pushing the melody—a change in rhythm is a change in meaning. Most gratifying is that I think the editor made good suggestions and that the work has been improved.

Anyway, that’s the working cover for the book up above. I had a number of the stories in full on the site, but I’ve removed all but one, which will serve as a teaser for the publication. I left that one because it won the National Steinbeck Center’s 1999 Short Story contest (and a thousand bucks)—they already paid for it, so it’s free to you. (And yeah, it’s got a couple of holes in it—the newly edited version is better.)

I understand that the male mockingbird sings his springtime stories to attract a mate; if my girlfriend asks, tell her I’m only doing the book to please my mother.

The Editing and Style Guide Doffs Its Swaddling Clothes

As I threatened you with earlier, I’ve written a 55-page Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide that will make the world safe for clean copy and sterling style. The guide (whose handsome bookish face you can see—and click on!—to your right) is a collection of editing tips and advice for anyone who needs to spruce up the written word. Or at least ensure that their written words don’t have that telltale trace of toilet paper on their shoes when they emerge into society. You can try before you buy with this 8-page sampler.

As I explain on the landing page, the guide holds these within its happy walls:

• Best Practices in Editing—Learn how editing is critical to effective communication
• Editing Tools—How to use all editing tools to maximum effect
• Types of and Approaches to Editing—Harness the power of every editing stage
• Proofreading Methods and Examples—Don’t let typos tangle your efforts
• Editing Checklists—Perfect your documents, step-by-step
• Editing Resources—In-context URLs providing expanded editing knowledge
• Style Guide Covering Numbers, Possessives, Semicolons and More!
• A Pocketful of General Usage Tips

And, as the saying goes, much more! Oh yeah—it costs money. But not much, and it’s worth its weight in chocolate electrons if it saves you from the humiliation I felt
years ago, when as the copyeditor of a big software company I let the annual product guide go out with the incorrect 800 number on the order page—a number I’d seen approximately 101,000 times.

Oh yeah—the guide’s kinda funny too.

What Does Editing Have to Do with Potatoes?

Let’s consider a nice serving of mashed potatoes, hot and buttery. Most cooks probably don’t think too much about preparing their potatoes, so it’s often a rote task, hurried through to get to the entree. But what if those potatoes were served with panache, with some kind of style point or spicy twist? Say you were served potatoes with a tiny derby hat on them. You’d remember those spuds, wouldn’t you?

You’d probably remember them even more, if under the tiny derby was a clump of hair. Wouldn’t that drag an interesting expression of creativity into an unappetizing corner? The reason I bring up potatoes, derby hats and unwanted hair is a point I want to make about editing. Competent editors are able to shape the standard serving of potatoes so that it’s without lumps, smooth and palatable. Good potatoes, but still just potatoes.

Better editors recognize when a piece of writing has a derby hat in it—they would never take that hat out, robbing the writer of a unique angle or voice. They’d find a way to allow the hat to fit snugly in its potato surroundings, fully expressive of its quirk and charm, without it seeming unnatural or foreign. And of course, a good editor would remove that hair—typos, kludgy expressions, dully passive voice, et al—posthaste.

Seeing What’s Missing from the Plate
Another skill possessed by a good editor is recognizing when something’s missing. If you don’t provide the reader with a fork, they can’t fully enjoy those potatoes. Some pieces of writing are strong, but they might have gaps in logic, or need to be buttressed by a few more starchy facts. Good editors notice if the writing meal is missing ingredients, and they know how to persuasively suggest adding them so that the writer chefs promptly step back up to the stove.

Of course, editors should always recognize when that potato serving is too big. I remember one of my first copywriting jobs out of college, writing catalog copy for an outdoor equipment retailer that sold a lot of camping goods. One of our products was the Backpacker’s Bible, which was a tiny book that gathered some of the most powerful/popular Bible verses (no “begats” allowed). My first round of copy for it had the line “The best of The Book with all the deadwood cut away.” [Note: for some odd reason they didn’t use my copy.]

And editors recognize when something’s just off. If you’re serving your potatoes to Lady Gaga, you don’t want her wearing her octopus-tentacle bra tinted some neutral shade of grey, do you? It cries out to be Day-Glo puce! If writing has a certain rhythm established, and the rhythm, without context, goes awry, a good editor will re-establish that rhythm. And the proper bra color.

You Don’t Mean He’s Trying to Sell Us Something?
Why is he going on like this, about potatoes and bras? Easy. I’m getting ready to unleash The Write Word’s Easy Editing and Spiffy Style Guide on the world, perhaps as soon as this week. It’s a 55-page ebook chockablock with editing potatoes and other good stuff. And unlike my first couple of ebooks—available here for free—I’m going to charge money for it. But it’s worth it, because it will keep the hair out of your potatoes, while preserving the stylish hats. The guide is filled with editing tips, so that you don’t have to pay me to be the potato masher. Look for its buttery goodness soon.