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.

Cranky in Hawaii? Tree Yourself/Free Yourself

Yeah, this tree's big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Yeah, this tree’s big, but you shoulda seen the one that got away

Who’s got the skills to be cranky, virtually anywhere? Paris, Bali—maybe even in Hawaii, in those isles of warm, fragrant breezes and aloha? Yeah, baby. I can become pettily petulant, no matter what cushion of clouds. Not that trivial confessions might be of use to you, but that their lessons can have an impact on your writing.

The stage: I’ll be house-sitting at the very tippy-top of the Big Island with my girlfriend for the next month. It is not ugly here. If you’ve spent much time in Hawaii, you know it’s like having a mild massage (those tropical trade winds exchange strain for ease) at all times. Add in some rum, and it’s hard to even muster a credible curse about the government.

But because we just arrived, and had to get some clue as to where we were, what was there, and how to get to other promising theres, the fact that we got stuck with a clunker of an under-the-table car rental (one that threatened to leave us in-between theres without ever starting again) was a blood-pressure pumper.

So we had to jaunt over from the northern nape of the island to Hilo, across the magic mountains to the east. And then fuss at length over the oft-confusing details of where to meet to exchange the car, which car to get in exchange and when—details that changed multiple times over the course of a couple of hours. So instead of being happy in Hilo, with its beautiful bay and good people-watching, we were sweaty, frustrated and most un-Hawaiian.

Enter Banyan, Stage Center
However, small-minded humans are no match for nature. Waiting for our dithering car-rental person to finally show up at one of the multiple times/places we were supposed to meet her, we saw across the way from us a big public park, with astonishing trees. One of them is the “geeez, how big will I be when I really grow up” banyan tree pictured above. Under it we sat. Applied those tropical warm breezes in its sweet shade. Breathed.

Oooh, good medicine. That fixed it—really. The wait for our rental didn’t seem like a big deal anymore; neither did the fact that we had to roll back over those mountains—fantastic views!—on the dazzling Saddle Road without having much chance to stop, because we had to return home to free our house-sit dog from its crate, before it could phone its owner about our abuse.

Get to the Writing Already
This is a lesson I already know, but because my mind is a damp, leaky thing, I forget: when your brain is boiling with internal argument and naysaying, take it outside. When I am frustrated with my writing work, clutching the keyboard all the tighter has never worked. You can squeeze a sentence’s throat so hard that no emergency syntax attendants can ever revive it.

Take the writing for a walk. Find a banyan tree. Heck, if you’re not in Hawaii, a nice oak will do. Plunk your bottom down and rock in the arms of some sweet breeze. Cranky in Hawaii (or in Poughkeepsie) no more. Finding a way out of your writing is the best way I know to find your way back in. (That is, until I forget again.)

Gravity Can’t Defeat Us (But My Handwriting Might)

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

In celebration of twaddle and inflamed sentences

If you’re an old crustacean like me, you might remember the heady days of Tang, the drink of the astronauts. Who cares if it was sugared vitamin water—John Glenn drank it! So did I, and I was often given to flights of fancy. That’s why when I first heard of the Fisher Space Pen in the 70s (a few orbits after their first manufacture), I wanted one. The astronauts used them!

And how could one not crave something that used gravity-defeating “thixotropic ink-semisolid …pressurized with nitrogen”? But I didn’t own a Fisher until sometime in the 90s, and slippery little capsule that it was, it disappeared on me. Probably floated off with some pixie dust from a passing comet.

But I finally have another, seen in the image above. They’ve fancied it up a bit since the original days, putting on an anti-gravity clip, but its ink still flows freely, space-bound or not. I’m combining it with another historical item, my first Moleskine notebook, on which I inscribed its first page a couple of writerly quotations. (Picasso and Hemingway scribbled in them; I can too.)

Flight from the Mainland
What’s prompted these new treasures? Flight from the mainland! My gal pal Alice and I are heading to the Big Island of Hawaii in two days, where we’ll be house-sitting in a little home at the very northern tip of the island. I haven’t done a lot of travel writing lately about new places, so I’m thrilled to get a chance to get to know an island that’s actively spewing hot gases and chunks, like many writers I admire.

One of those paradoxes: I very much like the physical act of writing, the texture of paper, the angling of the pen (or pencil), the variances of pressure from the hand and fingers, the roll of ink across the page. I love writing instruments, paper, bound volumes, calligraphy. But I have forever loathed the crimped, jagged splotchings of my own handwriting—no matter how slowly or carefully I try to form letters and words, they come out as an intestinal product, something that looks as though it should be covered up.

However, I’m delighted to think that I’ll have new promptings of sea, sky and soul to scrawl on about, so I’m looking forward to taking notes of island ventures. And I won’t have to wear any bulky helmet or pressurized suit.

About Those Quotes
Again, I did as best I could with penning those bits from esteemed writers to inaugurate my Moleskine, but you might not be able to read them. They are thus:

“Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”
— Katherine Mansfield

“With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs.”
— James Thurber

OK, off to the island. If I’m lucky, no coconut will drop on my noggin while I’m trying to think of the perfect metaphor for the big, blue Pacific.

With Your Help, We’ve Got It Covered

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So, it’s pretty picture time! Well, I hope at least one is a pretty picture. Here are four comps for the cover of my book. As I’d mentioned before, the book is about how to recognize—nay, invoke your writing voice, and how to see stories everywhere. And how to net those elusive butterflies and imprint them on the page, whether that page carries fiction or non. I’d love for the book cover design to grab your writer’s eye.

Here are the chapter titles:

  • Chapter One: Don’t Muzzle or Muffle Your Writing Voice
  • Chapter Two: A Writer’s Eyes Are Always Open
  • Chapter Three: Slipping Through Various Writing Fences [writing across genres and disciplines]
  • Chapter Four: Writing Structures: Words, Sentences, Punctuation Marks, Oh My!
  • Chapter Five: Writing Distractions, and All Their Discontents
  • Chapter Six: Practical Matters [writing resources, links]

I’ll provide a closer look at the book’s content when I’m rounding the last corner on its publication. To push me to that corner faster, I need your help. Can you look over these four cover examples, and consider them for their design and title? You can see there are a few title variants that I’m mulling here, such as:

Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: A Guidebook to Go from Perception to Page
Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: A Guidebook from Perception to Page
Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: Go from Perception to Page
Opening Your Writer’s Eyes: How to Go from Perception to Page

 

The other questions are which type treatment is most appealing, which images and arrangement, and which background color. But it’s probably easiest for you to simply choose which of these works best for you. Let’s call top-left #1, top-right #2, bottom-left #3, and bottom-right #4

I’d appreciate hearing from you on your selection and/or any of the elements in question. I’ll normally don’t overlap my blog posts with my newsletter, but I sent this out to the newsletter audience as well, to get a broader sampling. I greatly appreciate your help.

Thoughts?
Let me know what strikes you most soundly in your writerly solar plexus. (Or your gut, if we can be that intimate.) Please email me at bentguy@charter.net if you’d like to cast your vote. Or if you just want my recipe for rhubarb whiskey.

Big thanks!

Contort Your Characters: Trip Their Expectations

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 Our Crib on Kosrae: We Never Did Get That Yard Raked

When I lived on the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae, my girlfriend and I took morning walks, pretty much daily. We walked on the main road, not long after the sun came up, when the weather was merely remarkably hot and humid, rather than paralyzingly hot and humid. Kosraeans were up early too, and we often saw our neighbors and other people active in their yards. Coconut palms were everywhere on the island, and it was a regular sight to see a native woman raking the big palm leaves off the grounds surrounding the house.

This never made a lot of sense to us, because Kosrae has regular trade winds and frequent torrential rains, so that daily raking was a bit like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill, only to see it roll back down again—rolling down the hallways of forever, forever. But it wasn’t exactly that our neighbors were fastidious. Not a palm leaf might be seen in some raked grounds, yet soft-drink cans might pepper the yard like, well, like unraked palm leaves. Many yards with food wrappers, too, and broken toys and all manner of other discarded miscellany.

We only received half a clue when one of our Kosraean friends scoffed at us for all of the palm leaves that littered our lawn. (Though nary a can was to be found.) Why didn’t we clean up our yard? Later, some other ex-pats suggested that leaving the cans and other things in their yards was a visible sign of prosperity for people on a poor island where easy cash was a scarce commodity. True or not, that memory makes me consider how expectations work, and how they can work in stories.

Cultures clashing seems a more raked-and-dried example of differing perceptions and expectations—one person’s troublesome palm leaves are another’s organic ambience. But in stories, there are more subtle expressions of expectations dashed that can work well to heighten drama. One brother in a family might always toe the line when it comes to decorum, the law, polite social mores; another might never see a law he wouldn’t scoffingly break. The brother with the halo might experience befuddlement, shame, or even an unbecoming rage at his brother’s “inexplicable” behavior. His expectations of propriety aren’t his brother’s, and a story’s plot might be impelled forward by the rift.

Not Even Spock Is Clean
We often remark upon the behavior of others—why did they do that, that’s not rational, what could have prompted that—when we know that no one is truly objective, not even our dear departed Spock. There are all kinds of psychological and critical-thinking categories that break out formal examples of things like cognitive dissonance and hasty generalizations, sharing some sets of behaviors: in the lofty tower of our higher thinking, the particular (and peculiar) way we’ve assembled our way of looking at the world presumes that others look at it in the same way, that others are motivated by the same desires and outcomes.

Stories can bank on such unrealistic expectations: a character will get angry or frustrated or resentful when his or her fellows “misbehave” by acting contrary to the character’s presumptions of how the world works. Why did that “nice” high school girl spurn her friendly classmate? What prompted the sullen office mate to start bringing treats for everyone in the office? Why did the ever-stingy uncle bequeath his lavish estate to the nephew he’d spoken with twice? These kind of plot twists can be disruptive and perplexing for both other characters in the work, and—if convincingly rendered—perplexing in a stimulating way for the reader.

I’ve owned a number of odd vintage automobiles, most of which had the ill manners to need extended (and expensive) consultations with mechanics over most of my ownership. Most people who buy old cars are tinkerers, but my best uses of wrenches have been as paperweights. You might expect, after having owned many old cars, I’d either stop buying them (because I can never afford the repairs) or I’d learn how to repair them. Nope. Expectations be dashed: I am looking for another one right now. Some itches can never be fully scratched.

However, my yard is very nicely raked.