Arty rules are rubbery

It’s not that I hate saying it; I hate having to say it. Arty rules are rubbery.

When writing, whether for a fiction market or in a memoir, the rules aren’t immutable. They weren’t etched in granite via lightning strike nor by vengeful gremlins nor even by well-meaning bureaucrats with no concept of unintended consequences (as if there were any other kind). You can break the rules anytime you need to. The operative word here is “need.” I’m convinced that the “arty” rule set evolved as the result of countless writers making the same bad choices so often, that some editor somewhere screamed “There oughta be a law!” so loudly and with such anguish, that other editors also took up the call. However, since few had the power to enact legislation, thereby shifting the duty for enforcement to the state, they had to settle for mere rules.

rulesAlas, the landscape is riddled with rules, everywhere for everything, and they’re often wildly different. The rules for golf, for instance, bear no resemblance to the rules for football, or bowling, or fly fishing (or to much of anything else, come to think of it). Try comparing the rules of etiquette with the rules for mud wrestling. And in most cases, there are exceptions to every rule. (To be ruthlessly honest, I’m not sure there are any rules for mud wrestling. Thinking about it did provide the opportunity for me to search for representative images, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I failed to find any suitable for a <cough> family-friendly blog like this one.)

In writing, more so than elsewhere, the exceptions are so common that calling the rules “Rules” is pretty silly. Calling ’em suggestions would be more accurate, but who heeds suggestions? (That business about suggestions is probably something someone should point out to the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee. But I digress.)

Seemingly endless lists of Dos and Don’ts exist for writers. Don’t start your novel with a dream scene; don’t over-do dialect; kill all your darlings, but don’t let your children grow up to be cowboys, etc. One can’t be expected to remember them all. Knowing and understanding most of them, however, is essential. We’re all going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. It’s a learning process after all. No one is expected to ski flawlessly the first time out on the slopes. They are, however, expected to ride the lift chair the same way as everyone else. Obviously there are down sides to ignoring the rules. On the ski slope it could mean breaking a limb. In writing, it could result in having readers laugh at you or your work.

The point of this rant is not that you should ignore the “guidelines,” or whatever the writing world chooses to call them, simply because you can. The idea is to learn the rules so well that when the time comes, you can sidestep them without doing your opus any cheater catharm. And yes, I know it may sound trite. The reality is anything but.

Sometimes my writing students adopt the attitude that the rules are holy writ. They definitely aren’t. But they aren’t arbitrary or capricious, either. In most of the countries of the world, folks drive on the right. That doesn’t mean they can’t swerve left to avoid colliding with something. You have my permission to do the same thing when writing. Just understand what you’re doing when you do it.

There. I feel better now. Don’t you?

–Josh

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Moving ain’t like editing…

…except for one little thing.

Our basement contains a roughly equivalent pile of "stuff."

Our basement contains a roughly equivalent pile of “stuff.”

It occurred to me after spending day after day in my basement dealing with a vast accumulation of stuff — and yes, I’m using stuff in lieu of a much more graphic, though certainly appropriate, word — that I’d seen manuscripts loaded down with smoldering piles of such detritus. The difference, aside from the physical presence of actual stuff, was the volume of it.

I don’t recall anyone ever using the need to move, as in relocate/downsize/bug out, as a metaphor for editing, but as I’m pressed for time, I’m willing to sacrifice erudition <cough> just this once. For reasons I don’t understand, many who are new to the craft of writing feel compelled to write the way they think someone who’s highly educated might write, or possibly speak. Either way, it’s a mistake.

CannibalAnd yet it happens over and over. The need to sound profound usually results in a mishmash of sentences heavily laced with adjectives and adverbs that wander through the wilderness in search of meaning. Picture the Donner party gallivanting through the Sierra Nevada mountains as the snow begins to fall. That ill-fated trip began 170 years ago this month, by the way. If Donner and Company had followed a straighter path, and done a good bit less meandering, they might have completed their journey without having to eat each other to survive the winter. But I digress.

Consider this literary gem:

He wrapped a long, thin finger around the sturdy handle of the shiny black receptacle. Slowly, he hoisted the ceramic vessel to his pale pink lips. The steaming liquid rolled acridly around his sensitive tongue, evoking an involuntary reaction to the South American beverage’s bitter taste. The liquid was a stark black, reflecting the pale glow from the screen of his rectangular computer monitor. His concerned green eyes darted from one serifed letter to another, drinking in each word’s meaning as purposefully as he drank in his coffee. (Sample borrowed from a post by Bob Dole in Answers.com.)

Could you tell this poor schlub is merely drinking coffee while he reads something on his PC? Geez. There’s a reason I cast it in purple. I also deal with the issue of narrative bloat in chapter 39 of Write Naked!  Feel free to peruse the free version on-line.

chamber pot

I know it’s not ceramic, but it *is* a chamber pot, and the warning is classic.

The passage above (in purple) is wrong on so many levels I have difficulty counting them. Let’s start with his “long, thin finger.” Who cares if it’s long and thin? I can say with certainty that most guys don’t. Nor do we attempt to hold a beverage-filled mug with a single digit either. And despite an abundance of descriptors, we still don’t know for sure if he’s drinking from a cup, a mug, or a chamber pot. But again, who cares?

The third sentence is breathtakingly void of useful data, and yet it crawls, travelogue style, to the southern hemisphere in its journey of obfuscation. I’m guessing it’s coffee, but then, what do I know? (As I’m reading, my inner editor screams, “For the love of God, get on with it!” And, not surprisingly, I agree.) Still, there’s a slim chance that it isn’t coffee. It could be tea or possibly even yerba mate. Again, who cares? Let’s plow ahead.

Alas, we can’t move on just yet, we have to ponder the reflection of the rectangular computer monitor in the “stark black” liquid. Someone please tell me who uses a computer monitor that isn’t rectangular. But never mind, we have a more pressing matter: the mystery beverage. We’re still dealing in clues about that. What could it possibly be? And if it’s so vile, why drink it? Is the protagonist crazy?

Probably not, but I’m developing suspicions about the alleged writer.

Finally we reach the last sentence, which suggests our nameless drinker doesn’t read like normal folk. Nay, he must examine each individual letter, dot, and tittle for its typographical pedigree as he digests the text with the same tenacity as he consumes the dreadful concoction from south of the border, whatever the hell it is. Apparently, we’ll never find out.

I actually grieve for the fellow in this tale. But I take comfort knowing I’ll never read another word about him.

Which brings me back to my premise: moving demands that one get rid of the superfluous junk acquired over a period of time. In short, if you don’t need it or love it, lose it. Editing often requires something similar, as demonstrated. Keeping a chamber pot handy whilst editing something like this ain’t such a bad idea.

Movin’ on now.

–Josh

Posted in editing, Memoir, Writing | 1 Comment

Mom’s Day musing

My life seems to consist of one split focus after another. I’m astonished at finishing anything. This past week is a good example. Not only did my bride and I share the desperate need to get our house ready to go on the market, but we both had other things to do: some needed doing, and some just made us happier. My week consisted of writing, editing, teaching, packing and sorting “stuff” into what could be trashed and what could be given away. Oh, and planning for Mother’s Day. That, actually, topped the list.

picnic pic

The memory: something like this.

Knowing that we’d soon embark on yet another strange diet, Paleo this time around, I doubted I could sell my sweetie on the idea of a brunch or a big meal somewhere. And after 45 years with this gal, I know better than to try and cook for her. But there had to be some way to show her the gratitude and attention she’d earned after putting up with me for so long. Thankfully, she came up with the perfect solution: a picnic.

edelweiss

Edelweiss!

But not just any picnic. Nope. This one would be smack in the middle of the lot on which our new home will soon be built. “Remember that romantic picnic we had in Germany, so many years ago? We went to all those little shops to buy wine, fruit, cheese, and bread, then gorged ourselves under a shady tree in the countryside. We even found some edelweiss!” Shades of Julie Andrews and the von Trapps.

Anyway, I did remember, and despite my certainty that our lot contained neither trees nor flowers, it would be a great place for a picnic. So we shopped for the required goodies, packed ’em in the car, and after dropping off a load of stuff at Goodwill, headed for the hills. Or, more specifically, Soleil at Laurel Canyon in Canton, Georgia. (Here’s their website.)

First picnic at Soleil

The reality.

And there we had our feast. Under the bright May sun, on hard-baked clay with hardly a plant or animal anywhere on our absolutely flat, featureless lot, we ate like royalty (only without the servants, castle, and general hubbub that typically accompanies such).

I realized, somewhere between sips of sweet Rhine wine and bites of yummy cheese–Gouda and Cream Havarti–that building a home is a bit like building a story. One starts with a plain blank page and eventually constructs something beautiful and intricate. The trick is being able to imagine the thing before it’s complete. One must ignore the doubts and navigate around the plot holes, manufacture details and a convincing narrative, and ensure that each piece of the puzzle fits seamlessly so that the ending is not only satisfying, but surprising despite the logic that ties it together. “Whoa. I didn’t see that coming. But ya know, it makes sense.”

We'll really be living here!

We’ll really be living here!

The difference now is that we’re relying on others to put this story together. We’ll do our part, to be sure, but I won’t be wielding a hammer this time. The construction will be up to someone else, hopefully much younger.

Our job is to be patient, keep our ultimate objectives in mind, and–of course–to pay the bills. Eventually, probably in late October, the castle walls will be completed; the tapestries will be hung in the great halls, and the new residents will start dragging their stuff into the new domain. Hopefully, we’ll clear away enough of the mess to throw one helluva party!

Elevations_JasperA

Jasper-Floor-Plan

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Editing schmediting

“I’m writing my life story, and no one knows it better then me. So what can an editor do that I can’t do for myself?”

Polar bear OYFor openers, a good editor can help you avoid looking foolish, and that assumes you’re pretty good at the basic stuff like spelling, grammar and punctuation. For most memoir writers, the task is the first long written work they’ve ever done. The assumption that living your life qualifies you to write about it in a way folks will eagerly read is misguided at best. While it certainly helps to have lived the story, that kind of experience doesn’t automatically make you a good writer, though it will undoubtedly help.

Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to cobble something together that reads smoothly, covers the topic, and won’t annoy readers–all good things to strive for. There are endless lists available on the internet which profess to warn the unwary of the “Ten Most Dreadful Mistakes Writers Make” or the “Five Things Keeping You from Becoming a Bestselling Author,” etc.

Many of these sites are more interested in getting your name and email address than they are in helping you patch up a leaky manuscript. They’re eager to sell you more lists and/or software so you can solve your writing problems without investing any effort on your part.

Psst! There’s a special going on–today only. Just two meager payments of $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) will net you a Magic Writing Wand. Simply wave it over your manuscript, and a horde of editors and agents will storm the castle gates with offers too good to believe. Seriously. We’re not kidding. Hurry–don’t delay!

[Cough, wheeze.]

I also have a list of things to look for and/or change, and I suspect it’s not all that different from the other 9 gazillion such lists you can choose from. What most of those lists don’t have, however, is a plan for actually doing the updates. Oh, yeah, and my list is free. I don’t want your name and address, just your attention.

What follows is my Top Ten Fix List for writers of non-fiction (which is similar to but shorter than my list for novelists). Do yourself a favor though, write the best stuff you can, first. Only then should you work your way through the list. Here ’tis:

  1. Replace adverbs with active verbs. Even if you limit your search to words ending in “ly,” you’ll spot the worst of them. It’s easier for a reader to visualize someone jogging or racing than it is to imagine them moving swiftly.
  2. Replace clichés with your own expressions. Why re-use something trite like “dog tired” or “hard as a rock,” when you could bring your text to life with originality. Why not “leg-dragging weary” or “hard as a fanatic’s heart?”
  3. Whack weasel words. Start with “really” and “very,” then hunt down other empty expressions like “rather,” “started to,” “nearly,” “almost” and the rest of their ilk. Why be satisfied with flabby expressions such as “she began to wonder” when you can leave out the fat and simply go with “she wondered.”
  4. This about “that.” The word “that” is almost always unnecessary; delete it whenever you can, and make sure you don’t mean “who” when you’re writing about people.
  5. Break up long, convoluted sentences. Go for a mix of sentence lengths.
  6. Double negatives are double awful. Whether intended or not, double negatives can make your writing seem amateurish.
  7. Beware of “was.” It usually signals passive voice, and you don’t want that. In passive voice, things happen to people. It’s better to show people doing things. Don’t tell me Alonzo was really tired; paint me a word picture of Alonzo dragging himself into bed, too exhausted to undress.
  8. Be specific. A ’48 Ford sans muffler is way more interesting than a “noisy, old car.”
  9. Get rid of pet phrases. We’re often unaware of them until someone points out how repetitious they are, and then it’s too late. Learn to recognize your pet expressions so you can nuke ’em. They’re easier to find when you read your work out loud.
  10. Dialog is your friend. Long paragraphs can be visually daunting. Imagine a page or two with only an occasional indention or two. It looks like a solid mass: frightening. Break it up with dialog, even if it’s internalized speech. Find someone and make them say something!

So, how do you actually use this list? Don’t memorize it and try to find and fix everything in one exhaustive editing session. Take it one item at a time, and check off each one as you complete it. Go through your whole manuscript ten times. Yes, ten! Focus on each of the topics and deal with it exclusively. Then move on to the next.

a-pro-writer-isUnless you have a deadline that actually involves someone’s physical demise, take the time to do the job right. Who cares if it takes an extra day or two? Who cares if it takes an extra month or two? If you cared enough to write it, isn’t it worth the additional time required to make it worth reading? The number of people who’ll read it just because they love you is horribly limited. So write for everyone else, too! Make your story the best it can be. It’ll be around a lot longer than either of us.

–Josh

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A different “take” on audio memoir

The audio part isn’t so hard, but the pix….

In working on my memoir textbook, I reached the section about doing a recorded version of one’s story, which I reasoned wouldn’t be terribly difficult. The content is the same after all, even if the delivery method is completely different. I assumed the biggest problem might stem from the idea that most people haven’t spent much time, if any, doing “dramatic” reading. When our kids outgrew having us read to them, most of us packed away the voices we used to separate the big, bad wolf from the three little porkers.

Dollarphotoclub_33938903 smBaring some unfortunate physical limitation, there’s no reason those voices can’t be unpacked. Reading with feeling isn’t that hard. We’ve all heard voice-overs on television and in movies. We know what an unseen speaker sounds like: they sound the way we’d like to sound if we were telling the story. Only, in most cases, with more feeling. They are all pros, after all.

But that isn’t the point. This is: the most compelling aspect of a recorded memoir is the person reading it. It’s their story, and not just in their own words, but in their own voice!

In order to demonstrate this, I pulled up a tale from my own life, the Barber Shop Story. I cranked up the built-in voice recorder on my discount PC and started reading. The owellesplayback quality wasn’t great, but I couldn’t be sure if it was due to the machine or the voice. In either case, the volume was way too low, and the freebie software didn’t include anything to edit or enhance the recording.

So I abandoned my first effort–coughs, sputters, mispronunciations and all. Instead I downloaded a copy of Audacity (available here) and made a donation to the wonderful folk who make this program available. I also dug up an old microphone. It’s not great, but it has a stand so I could record without actually holding it. (Leaving me free to reach my Manhattan.)

That recording came out better. Far from perfect, but better. Better still, I completed a five-minute recording in less than 30 minutes. Based on my limited experience, crude facilities and inherent laziness, it was enough to convince me that audio memoir has a great future. It’s wonderful! There would be a recording that someone might listen to long after I’m gone. Holy moly–I’d live on!

Alas, I didn’t stop there.

Nope. I started thinking about how much better I could make the recording if I only added images. What I really wanted was a slide show. Not only could I tell my toddler tale of adventure, I could bring it to life with pictures! How cool would that be? Only, the Howdy Doody TV 1953question I should have asked was, how long will that take?

As it turns out, it took too long. Less than twenty hours, but way more than ten. And almost all of that time was spent looking for acceptable illustrations, enough to fill up the five minutes of audio. These included: photos of myself at age three (I found one), photos of my family when I was three (I fudged those), photos of the town where it happened (Lombard, Illinois, in 1953), plus vintage photos of barber shops, elevated train tracks, old Plymouth sedans, and candy from the days of Howdy Doody.

I used slide show creation software called Photo to Movie (available here), with which I was already quite familiar. If I’d had to learn all the software from scratch, the process would have taken even longer. But, I hasten to add, not so long that it would prevent someone from doing an entire memoir this way. One would simply have to budget their time, do a little bit each day, and compile a wonderful and unique life record.

Anyway, here’s a link to that show on YouTube. I didn’t take the time needed to repair damaged photos, nor did I re-do the sound track to repair the obvious glitches. But this will give you a good idea of what I had in mind. I’m sure I’ll go back and make the updates it needs one day, but right now I’ve just got too much on my plate. This, however, qualifies in my mind as a darned good start.

–Josh

 

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What you need is…

…A Time and a Place

49985024_sI’ve often heard people talk about something called “writer’s block,” but the ones doing the talking are rarely writers, by which I mean folks who spend a good deal of time, day-to-day, stringing words together with the aim of publication. The condition, as I understand it, prevents writers from writing. The causes aren’t physical, like writer’s cramp, or writer’s bowel (where one’s digestive tract is too closely aligned with one’s keyboard), or writer’s ass where one has simply been sitting in one spot too long.

Writer’s block is something else. Fortunately, I’ve never suffered from it. I don’t know if this is a genetic thing or not, but I can almost always find something to write about. It may not be worth reading, but that’s a judgment best left for others to make. I’ll continue to spew out words anyway.

What I have suffered from, on occasion, is a lack of desire to write. That’s a whole different critter, and one which I can’t blame on anything else. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing. Maybe I’d rather be drinking, or playing golf, or horsing around with my grandkids. But none of that is writer’s block. It’s writer’s excuse, maybe, or just simply writer’s day off.

The urge to take a break — technically known as “goofing off” (from old Greek, gewph, referring to a slovenly low-life, and middle Teutonic, auf, meaning… uhm, “off”) — is well known and afflicts word merchants, brain surgeons, sanitation engineers, and everyone in between. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It just is. Calling it by some other name doesn’t change anything. I believe writer’s block is closely akin to this malady.

The only way I know to sidestep writer’s block is to park one’s posterior in a chair and resume writing. (If you absolutely can’t think of anything to write about, try writing about not having anything to write about. Sheesh.) It helps immensely to have an actual place where one can do this. It could be a room dedicated to the purpose, but if such grand space isn’t available, one can press a corner into service.

Sadly, even such limited efforts are out of reach to some writers, or would-be writers. In which case, temporary space should be defined. A kitchen or dining room table could be commandeered, for instance. The effectiveness of this technique can be greatly enhanced by establishing a certain regularly scheduled time when the area is reserved for the writer.

20162045_s_txtI’ve known writers who, on a regular basis, lock themselves in their private space be it closet, cubby hole, or tent and refuse to respond to anything but absolute emergencies. The definition of “emergency” is, of course, left entirely to the writer. The one thing such folks aren’t doing is waiting for the muse or some other mystical entity to materialize and whack them upside the head with the brainstorm stick.

If you happen to be living with someone like this, you have my sympathy. My bride, by the way, is one who has such sympathy. Alas, it can’t be helped. Writers must write, after all. This need shouldn’t be held against them; they have no choice. It’s like an itch; it can only be ignored for so long, and then it must be given a hearty scratch.

If you’re tired of scratching, admit it. Don’t blame it on some delusional disease. Seriously, that’s not fair to people who really aren’t well.

–Josh

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My writing partner’s view on our collaboration

Uh, Josh. About that….

There's a reason we didn't argue much....

There’s a reason we didn’t argue much….

I asked my former writing partner, Barbara Galler-Smith, to read and comment on my recent tirade about collaborations. I couldn’t think of anyone more uniquely qualified to add her two cents worth. She was not only kind enough to respond, she blew me away with it. I’m damned lucky to count her as a close friend, and I urge my readers to absorb her advice and counsel; it will serve you well. Here’s what Barb (aka: Barbara and BJ) had to say:

Painting is not my department.

Actually it used to be.  Imagine trying to paint a kitchen with a talented painter. Imagine that kitchen.  Now ask that painter what kind of kitchen is it, because you know it’s important to know whether it’s Grannie’s Bake shop with a wood burning stove, a brass and glass with all the modern big city conveniences, or the kind of galley kitchen you had when you first moved away from home and didn’t know there was any way you could fill up all that storage space in the pressed wood panel cupboards.

And that painter says it’s a kitchen… stove, fridge, sink. Kitchen. And for that painter it’s enough because after all, it’s not about the accoutrements; it’s about the painting. But, you say, the tile on the splash board is orange and brown (yes, 1960s), and he wants to Dollarphotoclub_62241220 txtpaint the wall pink with mauve trim (yes, the 90s and my real kitchen). And somewhere along the line you begin to trust the painter knows how to paint, and he knows you know about colors, and pretty soon he’s slapping on the paint, and you’re changing the paint pot and when he objects, you just argue.

Then something really cool happens.  The painter develops a better eye for color, and you get a better hand at painting.  And violá! You have a fantastic kitchen exactly the way you both like it.

Collaboration is nothing like that.

It’s hard work. But with the right collaborator it’s also a joy.  It’s being a parent.  You birth something in pain and suffering, with love and joy, and feel thrilled and impatient and vindicated, and hurt, and exhilarated and competent, and free, and talented and over your head. And when you’re done, it’s not perfect–what child is–but you love it.

And it was worth it.

I think writing a book is the hardest thing anyone could ever do.  For every hundred who have a book in them, fewer than ten will sit down and start to write it.  And of those ten, probably only one or two will actually finish it.

I agree with Josh that collaborations are harder still.

Barb and me in Ohio CU

Barb displaying patience; Josh displaying bourbon.

They take more patience and tolerance, and require more swallowing of all those things born out of fatigue or frustration for the greater good–the work in progress.  And trust. Without that trust that you can work through every disagreement, from the minuscule to the huge, you will fail. Josh once complimented me on a scene I wrote. I recall he said it was moving and brilliant.  Before the smile could form a home on my face, he also told me the scene had to go–the critical element (a character’s death) happened far too soon in the story, and the way he died wouldn’t work.  Josh made his point well. Sure I argued some, but he was right and with barely a second thought, we dropped it. I was right when I argued the reader can’t wait 18 chapters to get back to Rhonwen in the middle of book two–we needed to write what she’d been up to! He agreed. Trust works both ways.

And to get back to the painting analogy, you really do need complimentary styles. They can be very similar or they can be sufficiently different that you fill in where the other may miss. It’s not a contest–it’s a creation greater than the two writers separately. You let go of your writer-ego, and then you create something only the two of you could make together. The voice of the author is a new, third unique voice.

Writing four novels with Josh were the hardest and most satisfying work I’d ever done, and most of my memories are sweetened with the good stories. He knows what he’s talking about.  I still don’t agree with everything he says, but then that’s what makes novels so fun — there’s something out there for everyone.

And did I forget to mention outlines are essential?  But that’s another whole blog.

By the way, Josh is a pill (unlike me), but he’s one talented pill.  And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Barbara Galler-Smith

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The Druids Saga: Druids, Captives, and Warriors, a historical adventure with a fantasy element, and Under Saint Owain’s Rock, a contemporary romantic comedy.

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