Category Archives: Writing

So Far, So Good

 

Grace Kelly charades

Grace Kelly playing charades aboard an ocean liner en route to Monaco, 1956

I have completed the first month of my 16.5-month plan to write 10 short stories. Oh, the excitement of being 6 percent of the way toward my goal! Some highlights since June 1:

  1. I watched a Writer’s Digest tutorial about how to craft a collection of short fiction. I learned the six key principles to consider in putting together a book of stories. It would be indiscreet of me to divulge those principles here; if we were together in person, however, I would have no qualms about pantomiming them to you. The tutorial’s presenter, Jacob M. Appel, offered to share PDFs of his work. I read his story collection Einstein’s Beach House and highly recommend it.
  2. I decided that two stories I wrote (or partially wrote) for a class a year and a half ago are salvageable, with changes (and endings). I may try to publish these pieces, once revised, as I continue to write the others.
  3. I refined my list of story ideas (now numbering close to 200). The challenge will be figuring out what on earth I meant by some of the shorter entries, such as “birthday,” “maintenance,” and “walk-in.” (Thanks, self.)
  4. I said I was going to limit my reading about writing, but I couldn’t resist buying a book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction. If there’s one thing I want to accomplish with my writing, it’s to engage readers with emotion. Unless that emotion is hatred for my writing.
  5. I ordered a guide for getting stories published; it lists fiction publications, contests, and the like. I had it shipped via snail mail because, well, you can’t publish something that isn’t written yet. When it finally arrived, it was a book about finding a literary agent! The customer service person submitted a replacement order and told me to keep the extra book, with the following advice: “Do whatever you would like with it, be it donation or origami.” I think I’ll keep it, in case I need an agent 15.5 months from now. Plus, I don’t know how to do origami.

twilight zoneThe overall theme of the stories I’d like to write (at least for this current experiment) is a subversion of reality that reveals human nature; accordingly, I have been binge-watching The Twilight Zone on Netflix. Rod Serling, creator of the classic series, said, “Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest.”

And coming up with cool ideas that Serling didn’t already come up with is nearly impossible.

Nerd Alert!

space

Last weekend, I “attended” a writing conference. I put “attended” in quotation marks because the event took place online, so there was nowhere literally to be present. I enjoyed this setup because I got to sit in my kitchen, near the snacks. And I didn’t have to be out among people, a bonus for an introvert.

Put on by Writer’s Digest University, the conference focused on science fiction and fantasy. Unless the sitcom The Big Bang Theory isn’t true to life, fans of these genres have the reputation of being, well, nerdy. So imagine how nerdy the writers must be! Delightfully so. Seven accomplished, award-winning authors presented webinars on various topics, such as worldbuilding, creating suspense, and crafting three-dimensional female characters. Let me tell you, these folks were legit. They didn’t just phone it in (unless the microphone on their computer wasn’t working).

Here are some tidbits, one from each session, that I found interesting, helpful, amusing, or surprising:

  1. Foreign language. Science fiction and fantasy do very well overseas, especially in Germany. Other big markets are France and Russia. In fact, the bulk of income from such works may come from outside the United States. (Michael J. Sullivan)
  2. Fictional universe. Worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy takes place at both the macro and micro levels. Macro relates to the external factors that affect societies and individuals; micro refers to the internal factors that make characters seem believable. On the micro level, one of the most important factors is power, which is the ability to affect or control others. (N. K. Jemisin)
  3. Structure. A mistake to avoid when writing a science fiction or fantasy novel is failing to hit the three major plot points hard enough, causing the story to drag. The first of these revelations (the “tent poles” of your story) occurs 25 percent of the way in, the second at 50 percent (the “midpoint”), and the third at 75 percent. (K.M. Weiland)
  4. Raising the stakes. One way to add suspense to science fiction or fantasy is through the villain. It is more effective for a villain to pose the threat of menace than to be omnipotent. Avoid the “evil overlord syndrome,” opting instead for “less is more”: let the reader wonder what the relentless villain is capable of doing. (Jeff Wheeler)
  5. hatThe past that never was. Steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction, reimagines modern technology as powered by steam, set against a 19th-century backdrop (such as Victorian England). The colorful essentials of steampunk include airships and steam locomotives, “brass works” (such as weapons and armor), goggles, corsets and waistcoats, and bowlers and pith helmets. (Tee Morris)
  6. Human women. In science fiction and fantasy, avoid female characters who are purely objects, exerting no influence in moving the story forward. Other things to avoid: having just one female character in your cast, and making your female characters suffer in order to motivate the males. (Pip Ballantine)
  7. Grabbing and holding. The opening scene of a science fiction or fantasy book should follow the “punch, push, explain” format: punch your reader in the face (first sentence), push him to the floor (first paragraph), and then explain why you did it (next few pages). (Philip Athans)

As for my own nerdiness, I believe that was confirmed when I spent the first weekend of summer indoors, learning about writing.

 

Proofing Your Own Writing

dental careAs a copyeditor, I receive manuscripts in various conditions. On occasion, I can tell that an author has gone back and read what he or she wrote, making some refinements. Such authors are like diligent dental patients, brushing and flossing before reclining in the hygienist’s chair—where torturous tools will be used to get those whites pearly. (I’m the ruthless dental hygienist in this scenario.) More often, I know I am in possession of a true first draft: the author has keyed the content and never looked at it again, perhaps assuming that a professional would follow behind, making the words shine. Such authors have done the equivalent of downing a bag of Cheetos in the dentist’s waiting room. But at least they’re in the right place to get the help they need.

Think of all the writing you do that isn’t reviewed by an editor—e-mails, letters, agendas, reports, blog posts, social media posts, etc. These communications reflect on you, and possibly your company, yet how carefully do you check them? Admittedly, seeing mistakes in your own writing can be difficult—and, while spell-check is a handy tool, it misses things. Comparing your compositions against this brief checklist can save you from a good number of linguistic missteps:

  1. Read what you have written. Make sure you have conveyed your points clearly and succinctly.
  2. Eliminate erroneous capitalization. Generally speaking, capitals are used for the first word after a period and for proper nouns. If you aren’t sure whether a word is a proper noun, consult Merriam-Webster. Here’s a cheat sheet of items that should be lowercase, unless they contain a proper noun: animals, foods, medical conditions, seasons, compass points, and general academic subjects. Capital letters are not used for emphasis. See my earlier post for additional capitalization errors.
  3. Ensure the proper use of tricky homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. You know the ones I mean: your and you’re; their, there, and they’re; to, too, and two. I think it’s easy for your fingers, poised on the keyboard, to “hear” the wrong word as they take dictation from your brain. Here are some additional examples to watch out for: cite, sight, and site; for, fore, and four; rain, reign, and rein; palate, palette, and pallet; peak, peek, and pique; and right, rite, wright, and write.
  4. Delete apostrophes in plurals. Most nouns form their plural by adding or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding es. I know of only one case in which the plural of a noun is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s: for single lowercase letters. For example: “There are two c’s in cupcake.” See my earlier post for more on the subject.
  5. Change two spaces between sentences to a single space. Double-spacing between sentences suggests that you came of age in the era of the manual typewriter. Breaking this lifelong habit can be hard, especially as the life has been so long.

There’s one more thing, and I would consider it a personal favor: in your e-mails, after “Hi,” always use a comma to set off the recipient’s name (for example, “Hi, Thomas.”).

The use of commas to set off nouns of direct address is a sign of a truly refined character.

On Purpose

necklace

My writing talisman

At least one subscriber to this blog has noticed that my posts are always published at the same time: Close to the end of the month. Very close to the end of the month. The last day. Sometimes a few minutes before midnight. Many months, I doubt I will be able to fulfill my self-assignment. Doing so requires that I place as much importance on what I wish to accomplish as on what others expect or need of me. In other words, I have to be as responsible to myself as I am to others.

menuDue to various commitments, it would be a relief to take this month’s post off my plate. Yet if I don’t cobble something together, here’s what will happen: At some point, I will search my blog’s archives, and there will be no entry for March 2016. I won’t get a failing grade, Earth won’t be sucked into a black hole, but I will know I didn’t meet my own minimum writing requirement. (Ironically, I have now completed the second paragraph of a post I didn’t have time to write. Similarly, in junior high, I wrote a poem called “If I Could Write a Poem.”)

Over the last six months, I have completed the first drafts of 2.5 short stories. (One needs an ending, and another needs a new ending—hence, the decimal number.) Next, I would like to take a novel-writing class. But my work projects are too demanding right now. I feel frustrated that I am devoting so much time and energy to activities that have nothing to do with what I perceive as my purpose in life—to share my ideas through writing.

I don’t know how many people ponder their purpose and whether or not they are living according to it. In New Age circles, this inquiry is hugely popular. Two individuals whom I respect recommended the same book to me on the subject, about creating the “great work of your life.” According to Kindle, I made it through 14 percent of it. Ultimately, I don’t believe my purpose is related to what I accomplish in the world—even if that is sharing my ideas through writing.

miami vice

“Miami Vice”: half pina colada, half strawberry daiquiri

In other words, I can still fulfill my purpose if I never publish a book or write one or even edit one. I can fulfill my purpose at the grocery store, on an airplane, or walking my dogs. I do it by being an example of love. Only love is real. To become aware of love’s presence, and to let it shine out through me, I need to let go of my grievances, which attack love. No matter what I seem to be doing—or seem too busy to be doing—I can always practice my real purpose.

Of course, I have found it is easiest not to hold grievances while vacationing in a tropical paradise . . .

 

Is Responsibility the Enemy of Creativity?

fortunes raccoons

Last week, raccoons knocked over one of the trash cans. I had made chicken soup from scratch, and the local nocturnal carnivores couldn’t resist the bones. Among the scattered contents of the clawed-open bag, I came across something intriguing: the little strips of paper from two fortune cookies. There was no sign of the cookies themselves, which I had discarded intact. I imagined the scene that took place the night before: two satiated raccoons leaning back, cracking open the crisp cookies, and comparing the vague prophecies inside.

Who could blame them? It’s hard to resist finding out what a baked good has to say about your life. I dare you not to go to this site and open a virtual fortune cookie for yourself. (It’s gluten-free!) I clicked through a few:

  • “You will be called upon to help a friend in trouble.”
  • “You are cautious in showing your true self to others.”
  • “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
  • “Love comes quickly, whatever you do.” (Thank you, Pet Shop Boys.)

The predictions, observations, recommendations, and aphorisms found in fortune cookies are ingeniously general; they can be interpreted as applying to almost anyone’s life. Even if we don’t take these messages seriously (with the possible exception of those who have played the “lucky numbers” and won), their allure reflects our desire to understand ourselves and to anticipate the future. Some people may seek this kind of insight through more formal divinatory tools, such as astrology, numerology, and the tarot. I recently had a meaningful experience in this regard.

I have written about Jean Haner before. She is an expert in Chinese face reading, an ancient branch of Chinese medicine. She also has the ability to read the patterns in a person’s birthdate. Several weeks ago, I submitted a written question to her monthly call-in show. As I had done for the previous several months, I asked what my date of birth said about being a creative writer. Unlike in previous months, however, she chose my question! Here is her reading, excerpted for brevity:

You’re talking about writing creatively. There’s a huge part of you that will resist that. It [that part] feels overly responsible; it feels like first you have to pay attention to the practicalities and making sure everything’s in order, so it can kind of block the creative juices. I think that a lot of your focus has been on that up until now, and what I want to do is turn your direction into the second major influence in your life, which is an incredibly creative person. I want you to open to that and allow yourself to do that. There’s some perfectionism here, there’s some issues of self-confidence and worry about—you think you’re not creative.

There’s such a creative person here. In order to let that girl come out, you have to be much more light-hearted about it. You have to allow yourself to goof up. You have to allow things to get messy. You have to be more of a free spirit. That’s a big part of who you are, but I think that you’re such a responsible person that you kind of shoved the creative girl to the side and focus on being responsible. We never have to worry about you being responsible. We always have to worry about you having fun. And you’re meant to have fun with your writing, with your life. The creative process in the beginning and for a long time is messy; you don’t know what’s going to come out of that. And you like things nice and tidy. And so you’re going to have to tell that girl to go stand in the corner.

When I played the full reading for my husband, he asked how long Jean and I had been best friends. Indeed, she had accurately framed my current situation as a conflict between the impulses of responsibility and creativity; specifically, my exaggerated sense of duty to various things in my life is keeping me from accomplishing the writing I know I am meant to do. But there’s no point in marveling at amazingly astute advice—you have to act on it.

I haven’t told the responsible girl to go stand in the corner. But I think I’ve engineered a meeting in the middle with the creative girl: a short-story-writing class that starts tomorrow.

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

fire hydrantMy dog Cota regularly pees on a particular fire hydrant during our daily walks. Each time he reenacts the hackneyed image of a pooch relieving himself on the faucet that allows firefighters to tap into the municipal water supply, I shake my head and mutter, “So cliché.” A cliché can be a theme, characterization, or situation—such as man’s best friend urinating on a “Johnny pump”—that appears so often in film, television, literature, or art that it becomes boring.

Another type of cliché, which I encounter frequently in my work as an editor, is a sentence or phrase that conveys a common thought or concept—but that has become stale through overuse. An example would be “man’s best friend” in the previous paragraph. While such expressions may have been clever or compelling when they were introduced, they have long since lost their novelty and impact. Because clichés are dull by definition, I will offer just a sampling for illustration:

  • The whole ball of wax
  • The bee’s knees
  • Break the ice
  • Bury the hatchet
  • The elephant in the room
  • A fly on the wall
  • Jump the gun
  • Know the ropes
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Raining cats and dogs
  • Run circles around
  • Turn on a dime

Like me, you may have rolled your eyes, snickered, or experienced chest pains at the banality of these sayings. But I encourage you to pause and consider them. At one time, these word combinations colorfully and inventively captured ideas.

To demonstrate this point, I have collected clichés from outside the United States. Unfamiliar to us, they sound more exciting than our own clichés. Yet to the people who live in the originating countries, they are undoubtedly corny and tired.

  • Box of fluffy ducks (New Zealand, meaning, “I am fine; I am happy or doing well.”)
  • In fine fettle (Canada, meaning, “in good health” or “in good condition”)
  • Don’t piss on the chips (England, meaning, “Don’t put a damper on things.”)
  • There is no cow on the ice (Sweden, meaning, “There is no need to panic yet.”)
  • A face like a dropped meat pie (Australia, self-explanatory)

You should ditch clichés because they are unoriginal, ineffective, and lifeless—undesirable qualities for written and oral communication. As Oxford Dictionaries explains, “When you’re writing on a more formal level, it’s better to try to avoid using clichés. They tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought.” To me, clichés are instances of imprecise language; as such, they undermine the authority of the author, who appears unable or unwilling to state a point directly. Further, I have in mind the difficulty of translating clichés into other languages (i.e., if the book is enormously successful!), as they may not be understood by other cultures.

There are exceptions. I think clichés are generally acceptable in casual writing and conversation, social media posts, jokes, headlines, book titles, and blog posts about shunning them.

How do you remove a cliché from a business letter, college essay, public speech, work intended for publication, or other piece of formal writing? The first step is to recognize it. Clichés are so ingrained in how we express ourselves that integrating them into what we say is natural. When I identify a cliché in a manuscript, after weeping inwardly, I take the following steps to eradicate it:

  1. I think about the cliché’s meaning.
  2. I think about what the author is trying to say.
  3. If the cliché, despite its imprecision, reflects what the author is trying to say, I “translate” it back into the notion it represents.
  4. I rewrite the content accordingly.

Here are some examples (with clichés and their replacements in bold):

  • Before: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to come out of the woodwork.
  • After: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to appear suddenly or unexpectedly.
  • Before: The new company was in the fast lane and picking up speed.
  • After: The new company was taking aggressive action toward success.
  • Before: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it stopped me in my tracks.
  • After: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it struck me as profound.

At the end of the day, people are sick and tired of clichés. Give the people what they want—a breath of fresh air.

Should Authors Also Be Writers?

Last year, I received an assignment to edit a self-help book. The goal was to prepare the manuscript for acceptance by the publisher that had contracted with the first-time author to write it—although the expectation was that it would come back for further revision. The job included both developmental editing and copyediting. Developmental editing involves modifying a book’s structure and content; copyediting consists of fixing punctuation, spelling, grammar, and style. I introduced extensive changes at both levels, making the organization more reader-friendly and rewriting virtually every sentence.

After the manuscript was submitted to the publisher, I awaited word of its reception. Five months later, having heard nothing, I checked Amazon: the book would be coming out in November 2014. I took satisfaction in the fact that the manuscript had apparently been accepted. I checked back this month and was able to preview parts of the book (which had received all five-star reviews); I was gratified to see that my changes were intact, from the table of contents to the section heads to the text. Not to overinflate my role, but I made the author seem like a capable writer. Ironically, she never knew my name or that I, as a ghost editor, even existed.

Jane AustenThe situation brought to mind some news that emerged in 2010 about Jane Austen—that the words of the revered novelist did not, in fact, come “finished from her pen,” as her brother Henry asserted in 1818. As NPR reported, she “may have simply had a very good editor.” According to Austen authority Kathryn Sutherland, of Oxford University, “The English that she is known for is this polished, printed Johnsonian prose. And it’s not there in the manuscript.” (“Johnsonian” refers to the literary style of distinguished English writer and critic Samuel Johnson, best known for his influential Dictionary of the English Language.)

If Austen was a “sloppy writer” whose books were “heavily edited for publication,” does that mean authors—even beloved ones—don’t have to know how to write well? And it’s the editor’s job, if necessary, to create that illusion? Consider the portrayals of writers in film and literature. They typically experience writer’s block or some other setback related to their writing, become inspired by the struggles in their lives, and triumphantly complete their manuscript. As they type “THE END,” do we think, “Now it’s off to a good editor!”? Rather, we think it’s the end of the story.

We don’t really want to know how the sausage is made.