Help—AI Algorithms Stole My Keyboard!

I have seen the future of writing. And it might not include me, but I can always clean up stray punctuation.

We all know automation is threaded through today’s workforce, from Amazon robots picking your favorite paper towels off shelves in a galaxy far, far away, to artificial intelligence (AI) reading your x-rays with a precision that many radiologists can’t approach.

But we writers thought that soulless machines, bland blocks of code, couldn’t invade the field of creatives. Our work takes a unique combination of insight and awareness, experiment and structure, flash and incubation not afforded to the canned collection of inputs that machine learning extracted from countless texts. Doesn’t it?

Not so fast, me hearties. You may have heard of GPT-3, a language-prediction AI that has devoured mountains of text, fiction and non, so that when fed some kind of text anew, it can draw upon its wide database of how particulars of expression are built, and spit out some new material relevant to the initial input.

This is substantively more clever—and repeatable—than those legendary monkeys finally typing a Shakespeare play after eons of gibberish. But surely the unseen hand here is just dry bones wielding a dull brush, not a vibrant painter of imagery and language? Not exactly. Not Margaret Atwood yet, but if Margaret were a four-year-old today, she might get into weaving as a backup profession.

I had a chance to try a beta of Sudowrite, a creative writing tool based on GPT-3. And the results were intriguing, if not unsettling.

I wrote a couple of goofy paragraphs for Sudo AI to get cooking:

The ogre was moody today. Every one of his horns felt itchy. His mother hadn’t called him in two weeks. His oldest child lit a village on fire yesterday, trying to cook some marshmallows.
But the worst was his painting! All his ideas, bright in the mind, came out derivative and dull. He needed a change.

 
I asked the Wormhole function (which then gives you five paragraphs of distinctly different elaborations on your prompt, trying to harmonize tone, characters and voice) of the software to provide me with some more story strides; I chose one of the five:

Ogre turned to his advisor and asked, “What do you see in my painting?”
The advisor paused in the middle of feeding himself from the tub of acid.
“I see…darkness,” he said, eyes flashing deep within his skull. “I see a tribe of cowards making a garden in a forest. A tribe of cowards—no, it’s actually a tribe of cows. But belligerent cows, with nasty attitudes. I think they are protesting the price of Netflix subscriptions for bovines.

 
I accepted the AI’s first three Wormhole sentences, but then meddled: Sudo gave me a tribe of cowards, but I decided that wasn’t as fanciful as a tribe of belligerent cows, which I edited in. Then I put forth:

The ogre pondered. “Yes, but what does that have to do with me?”

 
My advisor, abandoning caution through the Wormhole, let loose:

The advisor stood on a stool, letting the acid eat from his ripped robe and slippers down to the bone. “You are the darkness in their garden, the anger behind the bovine protest. You are the beast at the doorstep, the teacher that will teach us all lessons. But above all—you are the ooze that will devour this section of the canvas, because no one has made anything creative in ages, and the old ideas stink.”

 
Always good to ponder the words of someone on acid, or someone with acid on them. I agreed and offered my advisor a 10% raise in the story.

The program then suggested that the ogre should fight his oldest child. Here’s part of that:

“Is that wise?” the advisor gagged. “He’s got horns like a gazelle. A merciless killer.”
“If you want me to paint anything worthwhile, I’ll have to win this battle,” the ogre stated.
“Don’t forget my raise.”

 
I should have advised that ogre to never make personnel promises you can’t keep, but too late on the raise.

What if you get bogged down at some plot point? Sudo AI dodges bogs by giving you the Twist function, which supplies you with a number of varying paths. Here are some small excerpts of some twists (the full excerpts are too long for the post):

• The ogre discovers that he’s not an ogre at all; he’s a Tcho-Tcho, a race of dwarves who’ve been living underground the whole time.
• The advisor is the brother, who thinks he is the ogre.
• The king’s brother is really the king’s long-lost son; the advisor is really a demon sent by his father to con the king out of his fortune [Sudo seems to have decided the ogre is a king]

Or left wanting for some piquant spicing, you could choose a word and use the Describe function to elaborate on the selected term. I chose “advisor” here:

• Advisor is a tall man with a tousled beard and approachable smile. His eyes look like a dragon’s—he’s pasty white and jaundiced.
• His breath even carries the smell of old parchment, the stale odor of a library that’s been locked up for decades.

or, with gusto (and a pileus):

• He was a little old man covered in ash and soot, with a wrinkled, crinkled face and skin as taut as a drum. He had a beard of celery, callused hands, and a pileus made of vegetable leaves. He wore plaid clothing from the chest up and straw sandals from the waist down.

If you read the Joanna Penn Sudowrite article linked above, you can see the AI software offers other intriguing story-building functions. That article also looks at some of the broader ramifications and applications of such software. Since the company’s founder is the interviewee, he is judicious with disclaimers about such software “replacing” writers or it being used to flood markets—or at least Amazon—with haphazardly written self-published novels and stories.

I’m agnostic about those matters for now, but in seeing how the program rapidly produced variant story developments and characters in my frothy tale, I sensed both danger and delight. I see how a stuck writer could become unglued by seeing provocative hints on pushing a story forward, or become beguiled by a character trait or behavior they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And use the suggestions, with modifications. Or none?

Many of the suggestions from software functions were clumsily worded or simply “off,” but many did give me pause to think, “Now that’s a [phrase, character, development, etc.] I wouldn’t have come up with,” or wouldn’t have taken to that degree or style. I should have taken the time to try to write something other than this fanciful tale to see where “serious” writing would go, but my beta ran out before I tried.

Check the software out, if you’re interested. Let me know if this is a great new notion or the downfall of existence. I can fall back on being a bartender if this writing thing doesn’t work out (though I hear that robot bartenders are on the ascendance).

[Author’s Note: All of the manipulated electrons in this post are the handiwork of the writer, other than the specified AI entries. But how can you be sure? Check your pileus.]

How to Effectively XXXX in Your Writing

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

If you use Google Analytics to check out what queens and prime ministers (and bandit-eyed raccoons sniffing the trash) have visited your site, you can discover all manner of stats telling you who found your posts crunchy or crappy, how much time they spent musing over your genius, and if they come back often because you give out free drinks at happy hour.

When you have Google’s tracking code on your site, they also bless you with an emailed monthly report that lets you know that the blog where you posted pictures of the Kardashians mud-wrestling got 1000x more views than the one where you did a mash-up—with you playing all instruments and doing all the voices—of “We Are The World” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.”  There is no accounting for taste.

There’s also no accounting for why a post of mine from 10 years ago regularly gets the most hits on my site. Now my site isn’t like Target when there’s a 3-for-1 sale on toilet paper: I don’t get all that many stampedes here. One issue is that I haven’t been blogging regularly, forgetting to remind people that I’m an avid typist who enjoys almost all the keys (though the circumflex is a bit much). I am going to write more often.

But I’m going to write less often about moaning in your writing. Or my writing. That 10-year-old graybeard of a post I mentioned was titled “How to Effectively Moan in Your Writing.” I didn’t put that as the headline of this post, because I didn’t want yet more queries like “how to write moaning,” and “how to type moans” and “how to describe moaning in writing” to appear as the top searches in my monthly Google tracking, as did last month’s (and the month before, and my goodness on and on). Many other intriguing moan-quest variants grace those reports as well.

Now that infamous post, which is here, probably left these searchers unsatisfied, because it was about my trying to write in a post-surgical murk. For all the thrill-seekers who for 10 years now have been desperately seeking a way to moan in their writing, here:

Uhhhh!
Ooohhhh!
Ahhhhh!
Uh-uh-ohhh!
Eeeehh!

For those alliterative songwriting types, why not try “Eee-eye-eee-eye-ohh”?

I suppose I could start some traffic building by writing posts with headlines like “How to Effectively Shriek When Your Dog Eats Your Wedding Ring in Your Writing,” but that would be pandering. For all those pornographers—er, creative writers—who have sought out my old moan post for clarity on these issues, forgive me. May your moans be answered elsewhere.

Though perhaps I could just put lines like “how to write moans” in every post, and I’d have them lining up at my electronic door. Though it would be more accurate in my case to have “how to moan while you’re writing,” because I do plenty of that.

And yeah, I could just change the subject line on that original post and be done with it, but then I’d be cutting out a colorful selection of my readership, who probably just look at the post and moan, because it’s not what they are looking for. But I do appreciate them stopping by.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Scuba Volunteers Still There for Monterey Bay Aquarium Animals Amid COVID

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a long history of dedicated volunteerism. The COVID crisis has closed it to the public since last March, but the multitude of animals still need care. See how the dive staff and volunteers keep the lights on. Published in February 2021 by Scuba Diving magazine.

Spirits Of French Lick: Tasting History In The Whiskey

Fascinating interview with an Indiana distiller who is a warehouse’s worth of information on distilling history and practices. For instance, he hunts out old yeasts from long-defunct distilleries to add punch to his whiskies. Published in February 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Trail Mix: San Juan Bautista hike and lunch — distanced but delightful

Goldurnit, traveling is tough these days—lucky there are some places nearby that still hold intrigue. My piece on a hike on a historic trail and lunch and street-hopping in the equally historic Mission town of San Juan Bautista. Published in January 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

Woodstock it wasn’t. But they did drop LSD from the sky (with predictable results). My addle-brained account of an infamous 1970 Southern California “Christmas Happening” concert. Published by An Idea on Medium, January 2021.

Other People’s Posts

This 12-Second Trick Trains Your Brain to Be More Positive

“To do this, spend at least 12 seconds recalling a positive memory, image or relationship. Sit with it. Think about all the reasons your brain classifies this memory, image or relationship as something good. Continue to do this any time you feel stressed out or find yourself veering into negative territory. Over time, your brain will train itself to look on the bright side, rather than giving into the negativity of the moment.”

How to be lucky

“You might think of serendipity as passive luck that just happens to you, when actually it’s an active process of spotting and connecting the dots. It is about seeing bridges where others see gaps, and then taking initiative and action(s) to create smart luck.”

How to Create More Clarity in Your Life

“Clarity is a powerful sorting mechanism. It allows us to quickly dismiss that which is irrelevant or harmful.

It’s difficult to become addicted to your social feed when you’re clear about your intentions. It’s difficult to become overwhelmed by media and options when you’re clear about what you’re looking for.”

Stateless

“But there’s another way to approach this: you just do what’s in front of you right now, in the moment. If you’re creating art, you work with what’s in front of you on the canvas, in your heart and mind, and create the art right then. This doesn’t have to be about all art that came before it, and everything else you need to do. It’s just you and this canvas and paint, right now.”

First Paragraphs Crack the Dam, Releasing a Flood of Words

Photo Credit: awebbMHAcad Flickr via Compfight cc

Steven Pressfield has pointedly dubbed it “The Resistance”—that jumble of fear, miscast self-protection and paralysis that prevents us from stepping out of artificial boundaries. Where we tell ourselves, “No, I could never take an acting class, I’m too shy; no, I can’t do math, I’m bad with numbers; no, I can’t apply for that job or ask that person out—that’s out of my league.”

The status quo, even if it’s the drabbest of miserly things, is known—it’s safe, even if that safety is delusional, and doesn’t ask for you to reach, to explore your actual capabilities.

The key to smothering Resistance is getting that first paragraph written.

Well, it might not be the key to landing that part on Broadway, but I have to come at it from the writer’s point of view. When I have a writing assignment, no matter that I’ve been writing pieces for publications for 30 years, I still fret, fuss and dither.

I will begin writing—but only after I clean up that old paint spill near the garage, only after I make sure all the clocks in the house are set to the exact time, only after lunch. Which becomes dinner. Which becomes tomorrow.

But, get the first paragraph down—whoosh!

Avoidance, Anxiety—and Then Flow

For me, all the avoidance of the first few sentences of an article is a concentrated anxiety. So that when I finally get rid of all my old paint stains and my neighbor’s down the street, and set down to type, glory happens.

The dam breaks. Words, supple and galloping. This is not to say that that first paragraph might not be completely changed in the submitted draft, might not be the right words at all, but that getting that one chunk done, that is liberation.

The first paragraph is a tree in the clearing, a map, an open hand.

I experienced this just this past Friday, when I FINALLY began an article that I’d avoided for 10 days. I’d let the Resistance really dig in its heels because the deadline for submission was loose. Where are those paint stains?

But I wrote the initial first two paragraphs on Friday, felt good about them, and Saturday the next 1,000 words came out to completion (with minor editing later, of course). I knew how this would work all along, but still, my fears that the piece wouldn’t come out well, my writing would sag, I’ll never be able to buy a cup of fancy coffee again, those demons whisper yet.

You can beat the Resistance, my friends. Just write that first paragraph.

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Walking on the Wild(er) Side in Santa Cruz—Plus Beer!
Taking a stroll above the dramatic cliffside ocean-wave carvings at historic Wilder Ranch State Park and heading north to a brewpub with great grub and beer. Part of my Trail Mix series. Published in January 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

In Search of Henry Miller’s Bohemian Legacy in Big Sur
Big Sur has many charms, not least of which is the Henry Miller Library, which is neither a library, nor a bookstore, but more of a cultural experience. Weirdos encouraged, as Mr. Miller encouraged them long ago. Published in January 2020 in Discovery magazine, the in-flight mag for Cathay Pacific airlines.

11 Mental Tricks to Stop Overthinking Everything
“When we don’t know something, we tend to fill in the blanks, often with garbage assumptions. Why? Many of us would rather be unhappy than uncertain.” Some mind tricks that seem simple, but actually implementing them could make a sea change.

Persistence Pays the Persevering Writer

My own shiny beauty. I lost my first one on the road (it might be in space now)

I keep a running list of article queries that haven’t landed a published home. Some of them are many years old, but I still like many of the ideas, and know that even an old query can still shake the right editor hand if the pitch is well-timed and properly directed. I didn’t quite realize just how wobbly-kneed the oldest of those queries is until I got an editorial yes on one that was several years old.

Today I breezed through the entire list, and saw that the geezer at file bottom was a pitch for a review on the best Palm OS-based exercise software. For those of you that exist in this world, Palm hasn’t produced one of its PDAs (a term as hoary as my pitch) since 2010, but people stopped buying them well before that, and my pitch predated 2010 by some years. By the way, if you’re wondering, PDAs have essentially been replaced by a device dubbed a “smartphone.” Who knows—they might catch on.

I’m amused by the fact that the file name of my query list is called “New Queries.” On reflection, “New and Essentially Deceased Queries” has more ring, but I’ll leave that for now. What I did want to emphasize is that if an article idea grabbed you once, grab it back, and send it out on its rounds now and then. The piece that was just accepted, by Wired UK, is about the history of the Fisher Space Pen, which wrote its way into history by its gravity-defying ink, first used in space in 1968, on the Apollo 7 mission.

The Space Pen just had its 50th anniversary (and continues to make its presence on all manned U.S. space flights), so perhaps it was newsworthy again. I’ve sent that query out to between 10–15 publications over the last three or four years, and finally got a hit.

Persistence pays, grasshopper. (Don’t think the Palm pitch will be exercising any editors now though.)

Free Circles

I’ve made the Kindle version of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, free on Amazon and at other online booksellers. Circles is a lively story about a couple of high-school doofuses who hitchhike across Canada, getting their eyes widened due to their naiveté about the ways of the road. Wise guys they are, but wisdom is in short supply. Check it out—won’t cost you a thin dime.

Trimming the Shrub

And a request for anyone who has bought my newest novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. If you didn’t bite, it’s a Prohibition-era piece about a sozzled society reporter and would-be author who blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Crash Boston. If you have read it, please consider an online review at Amazon, or Goodreads or any other online book vendor. Reviews help a great deal with a book’s success. Thanks!

This Is Your Brain on Writing

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

I wrote a newsletter post last month about the weird compost-heap-of-the-mind phenomenon that happens with writers: you witness some event—and it might seem trivial at the time—in your past, put it on ice in the frosted back fridge of your brain for years, and one day you’re eating your pickled rutabagas for lunch and it happens: the event resurfaces, and you think: Why, that’s a story, that is!

And sometimes the prompt might even be something you’d read long ago, and even if you don’t dredge up the adjectives and adverbs, the tingling verb of the original story touches you: Why, I could make a story out of that story! Heck, it might even happen to you when you’re listening to a Paul Simon song and you think, Man, that guy’s short. No, I mean, you think: That song puts me in mind of a story.

You don’t even have to eat rutabagas for that to happen.

The Benefits of the Fermenting Brain

OK, that wonderful thing that is the fermenting brain does do some remarkable work, particularly when you just let it simmer for a bit. Case in point: in the article I referenced above, the idea for the story air-mailed itself into my mind like the cat grabbing for that live tuna you mistakenly left in your lap.

So I did write the story, with my usual hemming and hawing, delay and diversion. But I didn’t have an ending. Endings are a fine way to end a story, and I didn’t have one. But my sweetheart Alice gave me an ending opening: not the ending, just a suggestion for the vocations of some ancillary characters who come to visit my main character. Yeah, yeah, that’s good, that will add something.

It did: it added the ending. Just in the way that stories drop from the sky onto a writer’s addled pate, such did an ending for the story screech up in a taxi. And when I say that, I mean truly: this was a case of the entire ending, involving a full scene with all the story’s characters, coming into the brain like an injection. There’s something wonderful, scary and bizarre about how that happens.

Ponder and Incubate

I have read of many breakthroughs, often in science, where the scientist puzzles furiously over some insoluble problem for a week, then shuts the door on the problem while she relaxedly takes a bath—and zounds! The solution appears, a rabbit out of the hat. (Like all of you, I too wear a hat when I bathe.)

Here’s a short article, with a short video on this process, called The Four Stages of Creativity. It’s clear that you do have to engage the problem, in this case the ending of a story, before your story yeast is going to rise. There must be incubation. (Sorry I’m mixing cooking and gestation metaphors here, but the burners are on.) But the miracle of this is always so unexpected when an idea becomes bread, in an instant.

I don’t quite understand how it works, but I’m grateful. Now, whether the story is any good or not, that’s a different issue. I’m sending it out to see if anyone agrees. Have you had these hit-by-lightning story moments?

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.