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.

Trolling the Thesaurus: Timely Tool or Woeful Crutch?

Thesaurus Lopper

Trimming Words Is More Dangerous Than You Might Imagine

Yesterday, I snapped the handle on this lovely old set of loppers by cranking too hard on a branch bigger than what the tool was intended for. That’s not my first inappropriate use of tools—once I tried to boot-bust a board angled on some steps and it snapped up and sliced my face like a cold cut. A colorful reminder that genius doesn’t run in the Bentley handyperson’s gene. But mangling the loppers made me think of twisting tools from their intended use, and being the metaphorical sort, the thesaurus came to mind.

Relying on a thesaurus to write an article or story can be like using a bazooka to clean a bit of dust from your cabinets—instead of blowing away the dust, you’ve blown out the wall. Here’s the trouble: You may have crafted a sentence with perfectly good words, but then writer’s anxiety sets in. Couldn’t this sentence have more kick? Doesn’t it need an alligator belt and lizard-skin shoes to really speak its piece? How can anyone sense the weight of my words if a few of them aren’t blacksmith’s anvils?

When a Crossbow Becomes a Crash of Syllables
Thus, the unwary writer might fall into a quagmire along these lines: She writes a fine sentence for an article on crossbow collecting:

The shrewd crossbow collector will seek multiple opinions before buying a 4th-century Greek crossbow.

But then she fidgets and thinks, Hmm, couldn’t I give that sentence a little more oomph by substituting a few synonyms? After all, I did say “crossbow” twice.

The transmogrified results go like this:

The perspicacious crossbow accumulator will solicit manifold perspectives before procuring an antiquarian armament.

Add Seltzer, Not a Grenade
Beautiful, eh? Now, inject a little embalming fluid in that sentence, and you can consign it to its rightful grave. But that’s just a brute force example of how to kill a sentence with good intentions (and bad language). For me, the occasional, judicious use of the thesaurus is not only useful, but fun. Using one can be like adding some seltzer to a piece, not a grenade. Take this sentence:

When she heard the rustle in the grass, she jumped to the other side of the path.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but what if it’s not what you, the writer, is hearing in that grass, the thing that makes you and the character jump? What if “rustle” doesn’t have the sense of threat or menace that you seek, but another word doesn’t surface? Then you can go to the candy store of the thesaurus, because when you want a Kit Kat, and you only have a Snickers, you won’t be satisfied.

Checking out my electronic candy store (the thesaurus that accompanies the Mac OS dictionary), I see swish, whoosh, swoosh, whisper, sigh. Leaning my ear to that secret in the grass, I sense that “whisper” is the winner. Now you might think that’s adding artificial flavors to your writing, but not when you use the flavoring in this way: you are using the promptings of the synonym suggestions to season the sentence how you most accurately sense it. And like I said, this isn’t something you’d do to torture all of your sentences. Just the ones where you know there’s a better word, the word that makes your sentence intention glow. The thesaurus is just a light source—you direct it.

Tickled by Thesauri
So, a few ways that thesauri (gotta love the plural, something that sounds like it frolics in the ancient swamp with the diplodocus) can poke some quiescent writing:

  • Scanning synonyms for a single word change can often stimulate your thinking about a setting, character, conflict. Perhaps a full new paragraph, contributive to the work, might emerge.
  • The new word can refine a sentence, rather than burden it, or refine your thinking about how the sentence works in its larger setting.
  • And if you plain-out like words, it’s good fun to muck about in them. Take a word like “bungle.” Traipse around its synonyms and you play footsie with things like “botch,” “muff,” “fluff,” “flub,” and “make a hash of.” Tasty hash indeed.

Of course, you shouldn’t do much thesaurus trolling when you’re in the flow of your draft—let the words roll, and edit later. And don’t ever go into synonym rapture, where your sentences are so larded with fifty-cent words that they move like soggy dough. That ain’t writing—that’s bad architecture, where a story collapses of its own weak weight.

From my view, you’re no loser if you try to selectively fine-tune your writing by dipping into the thesaurus. Done with care, you’re still writing in your own voice; you’re listening to yourself with both ears pricked.

By the way, I’m going to see if I can get those loppers fixed. Good tools deserve a good long life.

Shakespeare Didn’t Use Scrivener—Why Should I?

A short story, zygote phase

Well, let’s dispatch with the title question first: I’m not Shakespeare. No, no, don’t try to soothe my oozing writer’s wounds, I can take it. Aside from that ounce of obviousness, there’s this: no coders had the sense to put together Scrivener in Shakespeare’s day—in fact, his choices of apps (basically a quill pen and maybe some foolscap) were pretty bare bones. He didn’t do too badly with them, though.

But I think if good Will had access to the program, he would have found lots to like in its flexibility in shifting and sorting blocks of text, storing character descriptions and synopses, organizing scenes into relationships, and having a repository of reference materials like links and images. Willie would probably like being able to export to ebook formats too: King Lear would make a Kindle’s screen crack with its stormy scenes.

I’ve only been using the program a couple of days (and no, I’m not pimping any affiliate marketing here), so I won’t go deeply into its considerable feature package. But just in playing with it a bit, let’s look at it from a benefits standpoint: When you are composing long or complex documents, many are the times you want to bring up a specific section of  text for comparison and verification with another—say to ensure that you had a character’s age set in an early phase of an novel, and wanted to confirm that correct age in a later instance. It’s a cinch to bring up disparate parts of a long document side-by-side in Scrivener.

Speaking of characters, if you’re the kind of writer who builds a detailed profile of a character in a background document, the database structure of Scrivener means you can bring up a character study in a moment to review it against how you’ve rendered a character’s behavior in a scene. You can change the character’s profile, or change the scene or both. The Reference areas of the application lend themselves to the storage of URLs, images and data snippets relevant to the project. And if you were midway through a project started in another word processor or text editor, importing is easy, as is exporting back out, including some nifty formatting tools.

Why Now, Oh Scrivener?

I’ve written a couple of novels and a book of short stories without bothering to use a tool like Scrivener—why now? A couple of reasons: first, I’d heard great word-of-mouth report from writers who delighted in the program. But are those the ravings of people who just want to geek out with slick software, and not pointed to the ultimate outcome, the writing itself? I’ll find out.

I moved to the software because the new novel I’m going to work on will be an interconnected series of short stories, all intended to have a thematic coherency. A program like Scrivener, which lets you jump back and forth through long skeins of text, move and merge elements around in a jiffy, and organize and edit lots of contributive character and scene data is perfect for the work I envision. If only it would do the writing for me.

But the seed of the story that’s caught in the image above isn’t part of that novel. It’s a short story that I’ve thought about writing for a while, and I finally figured out the point-of-view and voice of the piece, and decided that I want to jump back and forth from past to present through the story. Those jumps and scene snatchings will be a perfect test for a longer Scrivener project.

So, any Scrivener users among you wordsmiths out there? Thoughts? And as for that Shakespeare guy: Mac or PC?

Mixing Martinis, Grammar, the Past and the Future

Dry Martini

As Magritte might have said, this is not a martini. This is the future.

My parents offered me a sip of a martini when I was seven or eight years old. I recall recoiling in disgust from its sharp, medicinal tang: “How can you drink that? It’s terrible!” Yet a crisp, cold martini on a Friday at five now seems the ideal reward for a week’s labor.

It is always amusing to remember the heated declarations you make in earlier days—”When I get outta this house I’m never going to cut my hair, ever!—and to consider the cooling of those declarations when they’re set out for a stretch on time’s countertop. That’s why I had to laugh when I saw the term “Future in the Past” in a grammar book the other day. Let’s relate it to the martini: who wants to read a grammar book for pleasure? Think of squirming away from grammar lessons in grade school; it would have been a difficult decision to determine whether you’d rather have a toothache or listen to someone prattle on about grammar.

Grammar: It’s Funnier Than it Tastes

But I’ve been in the writing trade for a while, and I think it’s good (and even fun) to continue to sharpen your tools. So, I’ve been reading Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide To Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar and Punctuation. Yes, you’re right, I’m a riot at parties. Anyway, in one of the sections on tenses (stay with me, people), there’s a discussion of some tense variants that are little used, and the one that seemed delightful to me was “future in the past,” described as expressing the idea that an an earlier time point, there had been an expectation that something would later happen.

Dig that! So, if you say, “I had a feeling that you were going to bloat like a dirigible if you ate that entire cheesecake,” you are using the future in the past tense. I also liked the further explanation that it doesn’t matter if your future/pasting was correct or not. So, we can all shoot to be soothsayers, but if that doesn’t work out, we can go into accounting.

Yeah, I guess you had to be there. But just to push it further: over time, with different editions of yourself, you learn a bit more of who you are. That kid who spat out that martini would never have dreamed that something in a grammar book would delight him years later. He might have said, “I knew that Tom was going to hate martinis and grammar when he grew up.” And he would have been wrong, but he would have crafted a fine future-in-the-past utterance. You live, you learn.

And continuing to learn: that’s a crisp, cold martini to me. I’ll take two.

PS
Anchor Distilling’s Junipero Gin—delicious!

Writing Tools and Writing Fools

I love the word cacography. And that affection is amplified because it has an obverse term, calligraphy. I say the obverse, because the two words aren’t precise opposites of one another, but rather counterparts. But your fervid brain is saying, “Why Tom, why do you love cacography?” Because the word has an almost rude sound, a yanking of the earlobe, that works well for me—I have wretched handwriting, and “cacography” serves to describe it in sound and fury.

But the real direction of this post isn’t toward ear-twistings. I mentioned cacography because I wanted to talk about writing tools, and one of the most natural—though less enamored of keyboard clatterers today—is the pen. However, because my handwriting is such a cruelty to the eye, no matter if I painstakingly slow the cursive motion or speed it up, or ply it with bourbon, it always comes out as sadistic scratchings, the Caligula of cacography.

However, I do still take notes by hand when I’m mulling over an article or story, or sometimes just single words which are designed to later prompt an image or situation. Sad are the times when I’ve gone back to my notes and read “Xdz?mph” or some other transmogrification.

Does This Macbook Make Me Look Fat?
So, my writing tool in the broadest sense is my Macbook Pro, which has been my companionable computer for a couple of years. The specific applications I use to wrest words from the ether are Microsoft Word or TextEdit, Apple’s built-in word-processor. (Ah, “word processor”—think blender experiments that render smoothies of beef tongue, lightbulbs and turn-signal lamps.) Many people decry, and with good reason, the tyranny and arbitrary nature of Word, but I have been using it for so long that it’s second nature to me, unnatural nature that it is. But when I just want to write notes without the overhead of a bells-and-hellacious-whistles word-churner like Word, I use TextEdit. Which is what hosts this post this very moment.

However, because I’ve been working on a novel lately, I’m probably going to start using an enhanced writing tool like Scrivener, which is a database-style application that lets you arrange, search and manipulate documents, text snippets, outlines, images and more without opening a rack of individual documents. Because I’ve been saving the novel chapters as individual files, I keep going back and opening them separately to remember some earlier details about a character or situation, and that’s clumsy. Almost cacographous. A tool like Scrivener lets you poke around in a bunch of associated documents and find which one has the red socks and which one the blue, without going through the drawers one by one. And it lets you color-coordinate.

Make Something Great of the Blank Slate
One thing I’m doing more of (with a nod to Leo Babauta) is to try and close out my full desktop of overlapping applications and just have a single naked document onscreen, so that it gets full attention. Thus I’m less tempted to jump to the browser to search for pancake recipes or to my email to see if the pope has written back. Some people use the most bare bones of word processors, without any pallettes or menus showing, in order to crystalize focus, but I’m not distracted by menus. Except in restaurants.

I had a nice device called a Neo a while back, which was a dedicated word processor of sorts. Neos have a built-in keyboard, boot up in a heartbeat, run forever on rechargeable batteries, and could also be used to hammer in loose nails on the deck. I wish I still had it for taking on trips, for those times when a full computer is overkill, but I sold it a while back to buy additions to my twig collection, or something like that. But long before that, I had a magnificent Underwood typewriter, which required brisk workouts with free weights to pound the keys, and which would have produced a seismic reading of 6.5 if dropped out of a plane. Those were the days.

So, which writing tools strike your fancy?