I’ll have a “MAC memoir” (Encore)

memoir burgerOkay, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not talking about a manuscript and some rabbit food on a sesame seed bun. What I’m referring to are the basic building blocks of any good story, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. The acronym for this magic formula is MAC, and it stands for Motive, Action, and Consequence.

Think about it. Good stories hold a reader’s attention through action–things happen, they happen for a reason, and there’s some sort of outcome, good or bad. (Indifferent outcomes don’t generate any appeal, so they aren’t a good option.) How is any of this different from life experiences?

Little Lord Fahrquar wanted to join the swim team (motive). He begged Lord and Lady Fahrquar to let him participate (action). They gave in; he attended his first competition swim compositeand was not just beaten but humiliated (consequence). This could be fiction or biography, couldn’t it? Of course. Now, how does little Lord Loser react? Does he man up, attend practice, work hard, maybe even learn how to swim and dive, then enter another race? Maybe. That would provide an easy application of the MAC formula. Or perhaps Lord and Lady Fahrquar pay off the judges to disqualify the other competitors so that their little lamb won’t have his widdle ego bruised anymore. Of course, that only leads to the little Lordling morphing into a whiny, toad-like approximation of a human, one who can’t stand up for himself. OR, maybe LLF takes an even lower road–maybe he uses his wealth to sabotage the efforts of those he must compete against? There’s another motive-action-consequence wheel a’ spinnin’….

Obviously, it’s easier to spin the MAC wheel when writing fiction; it’s all made up! Sticking to a script dictated by life and circumstance requires a different approach, one that examines the underpinnings of our past to find the motives. Sometimes it isn’t easy.

That’s all well and good you say, but *my* life just didn’t work that way. See, I had to work from the time I was, oh I dunno, sixteen maybe, until I turned 65. And….

I get it; I really do. *Your* life was different! There weren’t any motivations at all. You got up, presumably because you had to; you went to work, every day for about fifty years, presumably because there weren’t any other options (friends, hobbies, vacations, love affairs, illnesses, accidents–good and bad–birthdays, weddings, celebrations, or anything else). And now you’ve reached a point in your life where you want to talk about it. Right?

young man with finger in his nose at a crowded placeOkay, let me get this straight, ’cause it’s at the heart of this whole business. You want to write about your life even though there were no motivations, no resultant actions, and no consequences to speak of. Is that about it?

If the answer is “Yes,” then I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Bubba, but you don’t have much to write about. In fact, I covered it all–in depth–just a couple paragraphs back. My guess, however, is that if you give it a little more thought, you might just find a motivation or two in there somewhere. Dig for it!

You had to go to work at 16? Why? Because you wanted to, or because you had to? Because you needed money for a guitar, or a car, or college tuition? C’mon! If it weren’t for a near-constant stream of motivations none of us would survive infancy. Things happen for a reason–it’s simple cause and effect. Whether or not the reason is readily apparent doesn’t matter. What does matter, profoundly, is how we respond to the consequences.

I’m tempted to sign this rant “Captain Obvious,” except that I know some folks who can’t or won’t assign motives–real ones, anyway–to some of the most profound actions they take. The thing is, once you make the decision to ferret out those hidden or perhaps repressed motives, the real story appears, and those are the ones that probably need telling more than all the rest.

–Josh

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Why you need “good” bad guys. (Encore)

If you don’t take your bad guys seriously, how can you expect your readers to feel any differently? We’re talking about villains here, and for most adult fiction, two dimensional bad guys likSnidelye Snidely Whiplash rate no better than what they are: cartoons. Real villains ought to be capable of inducing nightmares.

In comedic films, a bungling bad guy might be worth a laugh or two. The film “Home Alone” demonstrated how two complete idiots could provide slapstick humor for about 60 seconds of a 90-minute feature. Try that in an adult novel, and your readers will dispose of your work like bad sushi. Worse, they’ll remember your name, and when it shows up again, they’ll treat you like a hitchhiker with a chainsaw. How’s that for irony? What you took all too lightly, they’ll take quite seriously.

So, no paper tigers, okay? If you’re going to put a villain in your book, make sure he’s worthy of the designation. Allow him to do despicable things. You have to be mindful of your target audience, obviously. Darth Vader didn’t run around cutting the heads of puppies, but no one ever doubted he’d be capable of it. For the most part, the bad things he did were visited upon his subordinates. Sure, he loped off Luke Skywalker’s hand, but he cauterized the wound, and Luke was fitted with a prosthesis anyone would be proud to have. Contrast that with what Peter Pan did to Captain Hook. Who’s the bad guy now?

Sorry. ‘Nuther cartoon reference. But at least Hook isn’t two-dimensional. He’s a “real” bad guy. Seriously, if a villain makes little kids walk the plank, how can he not automatically qualify as nasty? C’mon! Geez.

Assuming you’re working on a novel rather than a cartoon, you’re probably going to need to spend some time figuring out why your bad guy is so rotten. Was he born that way? It’s possible, but unlikely. Without getting into the whole environment vs evolution issue, writers will do themselves–and their readers–a valuable service by investing enough time in their characters to understand the driving forces behind them. This absolutely includes bad guys.

Nowadays, looking at the news, we can’t help but laugh at the idiots who rob stores while wearing uniforms with name tags. “Hi! I’m Jerry, and I’m here to steal your stuff.” Siren. Blue lights. Click of handcuffs. Clang of cell door. Crack of gavel. “See ya in ten years, Jerry baby.” If you put that crap in your novel–as anything other than a humorous aside–you’re begging your readers to quit reading. They don’t have to invest time or money to hear about idiots. The world provides a never-ending parade of morons who can’t think through a crime any further than “Gimme the cash!”

Then they run off down the street with the blinky lights on their Wal-Mart sneakers marking their passage. “Yo! Follow me to my secret hideout!”

I dunno, officer. Distinguishing marks? Like... where? On his face?

I dunno, officer. Distinguishing marks? Like… where? On his face?

Oy.

Please, don’t let your bad guys be stupid. They don’t have to be evil geniuses, but they ought to have enough smarts to intrigue a reader. Let them figure out how to avoid the easy mistakes, at least.

And give them something to make them different. Stereotypical bad guys are as tedious as it gets. We’ve all seen ’em: the doughnut-munching cop who takes payoffs, pimps (who, no matter what, are all the same), spoiled rich kids (male or female, doesn’t matter), dirty politicians, etc. We expect certain behaviors from these characters, and any significant deviation makes us instantly suspicious. Why not use that suspicion to our advantage? Maybe the stereotype is merely a cover for something that’s worse?

chicks and chainsaws‘Course, then there are the stereotypical differences: terrorist, serial killer, demonic possession. There are many others, so picking the one thing that differentiates your bad guy from all the rest won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll have to devote some serious thought to how your beauty pageant winner turned to chainsaw mayhem or how your Sunday School Teacher of the Year somehow turned into a kidnapper and a cannibal. But just think how much fun writing those stories will be!

Above all else, have fun. Bad guys should be a lot more interesting to write about. They can get away with anything, at least for a while.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Editing Apps Can Make Our Stuff Perfect!

Bullsh Uh, make that, “No.” For proof, look no further than the “auto-correct” option on your (alleged) smartphone, a function that’s generated more embarrassment than all the unintended pregnancies on record.

I’ll admit, technology can improve our work. Word processors alone easily prove that, but we’re crazy if we expect some sort of techno-wizardry to do more than help us get our stuff to the “okay” level. The brutal truth is, no matter how snazzy the software looks or how lofty the claims are, we still have to do the heavy lifting. That’s we, meaning you and me.

But the technology sellers are still peddlin’ this stuff, and writers are still buyin’ it, so it only seems right that someone discusses it.

Four programs for making writer’s lives easier and more error-free dominate the market. The first is Microsoft Word which has been around, it seems, since… well, since forever. In fact, the first version of Word actually came out in 1983, which in terms of personal computing *is* forever. Nobody actually cares how many versions (sub-versions, revisions, and re-revisions) of this venerable program exist, but the number has to be stratospheric. Most of the really useful stuff in Word has been in the product since the mid-1990s, although that hasn’t kept the software giant from constantly tinkering with it, adding so many bells and whistles that its primary function — word processing, remember? — is almost hidden. That said, the good stuff is still in there, and two of Word’s earliest enhancements can actually help you write better: spell checking and grammar checking.

It only helps if you actually use it.

Stop yawning! I’ll admit, neither function is flashy, but both are reliable within certain limits, which isn’t surprising when you consider they’ve been tested by a zillion users for a couple decades. That wasn’t a tyop; I really did say decades. I rely on Word’s spell checker, because I’m a lousy speller. (And my handwriting isn’t going to win any awards either.) As for the grammar checker, I’m not a huge fan. That’s not because Word’s grammar checker does a bad job; it does what it can, but I can do it better. Still, I don’t turn it off, because there’s always the chance I’ll miss something. What could it hurt?

I’m more likely to break a rule of grammar intentionally than accidentally. Since none of the grammar checkers on the market are good enough to know which is which, I rely on my own judgment. You should, too, even if your grammar skills are a bit on the sketchy side. So, review the flags Word (or the other programs I’ll mention) raise. If the issue merits a change, make it. If not, ignore it. But don’t assume you’re done. You still need someone with a critical eye to examine your work, especially if your eye isn’t critical enough. Just because something is grammatically correct doesn’t mean it’s worth reading. Ever slogged through a really boring book? I have. Too many, in fact, and I absolutely refuse to write one. You should, too.

In addition to Word, there are several other programs available to check your work for spelling and grammar gaffes. The biggies are Ginger, Grammarly, and After The Deadline (all of which offer free versions). They all work pretty well, considering the price, and among the free ones, they’re getting the most attention. They’re all clean and spiffy and promise to deliver what you want. Alas, if you write fiction, that’s not gonna happen.

They’ll spot clearly misspelled words, and claim to pick up on contextual spelling errors — like improper usage of they’re, there, and their. God help you if you type hots instead of host, or plumb instead of plump. (Just for fun, see what funky paragraphs you can come up with using those four mis-wordings, or whatever they’re called. A free copy of Write Naked! to whoever <whomever?> supplies the best one.)

I’m disappointed that these programs don’t learn from their users. Seriously, whatever happened to “artificial intelligence?” If I’m writing a novel (which quite honestly, I’d rather be doing right now), and I run it through a program whose writing rules were meant for scientific papers or software documentation, the results will be ugly. NotDollarphotoclub_49017186 sm only will they be massively discouraging, but they’ll also mostly be wrong. Shouldn’t the program be able to figure out I need a different set of rules? I see it as an unnecessary burden on creativity.

If I feel the need to dangle a modifier, I’ll dangle one. I don’t need the blessing of some knuckle-rapping robot. The same goes for run-on sentences, which can often be quite effective. The occasional incomplete sentence works the same way, as do split infinitives, passive voice, contractions and colloquialisms. It’s art, folks, not engineering. If the goal was to make every writer produce the same stuff, there would be no need for more than one writer.

 ‘Nuff said.

–Josh

PS: With any luck I’ll post my thoughts on ProWritingAid, a tool like those discussed above, but one which comes with a helfty price tag. Is it better? Is it worth it? Tune in next week and find out.

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gettin’ lazy ’round Christmas time….

It’s been a strange holiday season for everyone. I’m not complaining, just stating a fact. Okay, call it an excuse. We’re going to spend a wee bit more time with friends and family, either live or via the Internet, but either way, we’re going to bathe in the Christmas spirit, at least as much as possible. So, with that, I’ll leave you with good tidings for the coming year. It couldn’t possibly be worse than the last one.

I’m also going to repost the audio from last week in case you missed it. Here’s the graphic that accompanied the story when I first posted it last year. When I finally get around to publishing the audio version, I suspect this bit of artwork will make up most of the cover.

I’m also going to revert to the original title, “The Crone and the Crown.”

As I’m still trying to get a handle on this whole narration thing, I’d love to hear what you think of this first effort.

Happy New Year!

–Josh

 

Posted in audio, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Ahem. [tap, tap] Is This Thing On? [breath]

As if the list of things writers must do, other than actually write, wasn’t long enough, now I understand we need to make our work available in audio form. I won’t go into why so many people prefer to hear a book rather than read it. Their reasoning is sound, I’m sure. No pun intended. And the market for audiobooks is growing at a prodigious rate.

The prospect of having audio versions of my books puts me immediately in mind of the folks who listened–by the millions–to live radio shows. TV put an end to that, but not before making stars out of a load of folks, many of whom went on to lucrative careers in movies and television.

Still, there’s a certain appeal in the idea of having someone with a pleasant voice narrate a tale to keep you awake during otherwise boring or sleep-inducing chores, like driving long distances, or surviving a daily commute, or washing dishes for a few thousand people. Such “distractions” can be invaluable.

Knowing this, and little else about producing my own audiobooks, I dove right into the deep end, purchased a decent microphone, downloaded a program called Audacity, and enlisted the aid of Derek Doepker to put me on the right track and keep me there. Did I feel like the reincarnation of Orson Welles?

Not even a little bit.

I found the whole thing intimidating. There was a lot to learn, but mostly how to make Audacity work for me. I’m happy to report that I’ve made some progress. (A great deal of volunteer effort has gone into the development of this amazing shareware program, and the producers need support. So, if you’re thinking of doing some recording with this superb application, please make a donation to help maintain it.)

Many of those old radio programs I’d been thinking of featured multiple performers and extensive technical support. As a one-man show, I had to make do with a less than sophisticated setup. Turning my work area into a studio required the use of a patio umbrella which I spread over my desk and draped with a blanket. Not exactly world-class, but it would do the trick.

Having a place to record wasn’t enough, however. I had to convince myself that my voice was worth listening to. James Earl Jones, I ain’t. Darn few everyday humans have a voice of that quality. I had hoped there would be a way for Audacity to convert my tenor into a more pleasing bass, but so far that magic bullet remains hidden.

Fortunately, I’ve had some experience with “dramatic” reading. It’s a technique I urge my writing students to adopt. Reading their work out loud, and hamming it up as they go, forces them to slow down their mental processes and actually see every word on the page. Reading silently allows their brains to hide the booboos. I’m often asked to read out loud for them, thus giving me ample opportunity to play the role of audio performer.

As a complete newbie in the recording business, I opted to start out small. My first project was a short story rather than a novel. The piece I chose is entitled “Attitude Adjustments” and runs for just under 32 minutes. It’s a tale I posted on this blog last year under a different title: “The Crone and the Crown.” (It may not be suitable for young listeners.)

I’m presenting the story again, only this time in audio. While it isn’t a holiday story, I think you’ll find it entertaining.

If you listen to it, please do me a favor and let me know what you think, both of the story and the sound quality. Any suggestions for improvement you may have will be sincerely appreciated. Just know that I feel a bit like the guy who strapped homemade wings on his back and prepared to leap from a cliff. [Gulp] I’m praying for a happy landing.

Please consider this tale as my Christmas gift to you. Thanks for dropping by!

–Josh

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The flip side of the ho-hum holiday issue… (Encore)

Based on some of the feedback I got in response to my last post–which I opted not to show in the comments–and some second thoughts of my own, I’m rethinking the holiday happenstance issue because of an important component I overlooked: comic relief. And, since I consider myself something of a humorist, the failing hits me pretty hard.

Some memoirs deal with multiple life traumas, and a recitation of these difficult times can take a toll on readers. In such cases, relating an occasional light running with idiotsmoment is not only appropriate, it makes great sense. Good storytelling provides both high and low points, moments of tension and moments of levity, touches of sadness and touches of joy.

Humor can provide a change in tempo as well. More often than not, life issues build slowly over time until they reach a point where they can no longer be ignored. We’re all guilty of this to one extent or another. A smile at the right moment can make those difficult moments more bearable, at least in the retelling of them.

BlenderFinding ways to sneak these giggle packets into a memoir can be tricky, but it’s certainly not impossible. Be creative. Take advantage of your photo editor. With only a modest degree of effort, you can transform photos with a bit of text, add elements you wish were in the original or delete those that actually were. We’ll discuss such techniques in a separate post (probably several). For now, recognizing the sorts of things you’d like to change will have to do. Actually doing them will depend on how much effort you’re willing to expend and how much imagination you have.

bwSometimes just telling the story is enough. Christmas may not have been all that great after you moved to a smaller house, but watching Uncle Flapdoodle trip over the dog and spill his bourbon-laced eggnog on teetotaling Aunt Treacle just about made the downsizing worthwhile. And while you’re at it, you could add a photo of Uncle F on the job as Santa at Gumpert’s department store. Some things are just too good not to share.

Happy holidays, y’all. I hope the New Year delivers for you as I know it will for me.

More soon,

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Ho… ho… hum? For memoir writers (Encore)

Hang on now, before you unload your holiday blunderbuss at me; I’m really not trying to play Scrooge here. All I’m hoping to do is save you some time developing your memoir, so hear me out.

The holidays, obviously, are a source of memories from all across the emotional spectrum. Hopefully, the positive ones outweigh the negatives, but for many of us, the holidays we remember are the traumatic ones. Someone’s missing, something’s lost, or we’ve somehow forgotten something which seemed important at the time. Do such occasions deserve a place in your memoir? You’re the only one who can decide that, but my guess is in most cases, the holidays don’t hold too many memories worth presenting in memoir form, no matter how tempted we are to dwell on them.

Stop and think about it; most of the major events in our lives, good and bad, don’t usually come as surprises. Some do, of course, and they’re typically grim events that strike from out of the blue, and they’re thankfully rare around holidays. Those things surely deserve inclusion in your life story, but unless you can find a larger context for Aunt Mabel dropping the Christmas turkey in the litter box or Grampa Grundy squishing Junior’s hamster with the motorized scooter he got for his birthday, you may want to just skip over those things.

On the other hand, if little Doober, your annoying nephew on your half-brother’s side, picked up the violin he got for preschool graduation and started playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35, you’ve probably got a bona fide story to tell, especially if you gaveDollarphotoclub_94465407 small him the instrument. (Handy link to an audio of Itzhak Perlman’s rendition.) The point is, you have to make a decision about the interest value of every anecdote you include. Please don’t blow this idea off; it’s important, and it’ll have more impact than anything else you do: pick and choose what you put in your memoir with care. Make sure it’s relevant.

Here’s a thought: if your life consisted largely of misadventures, make them the pivots around which your stories turn.

If you intend to focus on one aspect of your life, be it career, hobby, family, politics, a life of crime, or anything else, you must do what you have to do to keep your goal in mind. Delve into holiday tales only if they contribute something meaningful to the overall story. Winning the local radio station’s contest for sound-alike rock stars doesn’t have anything to do with your career as a brain surgeon. Unless you can tie it into the main topic, let it go. No one cares. I really hate being the bearer of such bad news, but someone has to do it. <sigh> I guess it’s me.

Dollarphotoclub_29453389 txtIF, on the other hand, you had a habit of singing rock tunes by that one particular artist while you dug into some poor schlep’s brain, then by all means, include it! See how easy this is?

Life stories are rich with options, but it’s surprising how many memoir writers miss the obvious in favor of the obscure. It’s most likely a failing you won’t be able to avoid completely, so don’t be overly concerned. Instead, find a good editor, or at the very least, a trusted friend, who’ll read your work and offer constructive criticism. More on that elsewhere.

For now, rely on your own good judgment. Don’t let the holidays take over your memoir. If something happened which is truly worthy of mention, write it as if your life depended on it. If it didn’t, give some thought to leaving it out.

More soon,

–Josh

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It’s all about words (Encore)

As a writer, it’s quite natural that I have an interest in words. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m familiar with quite a few of ’em. Which is not to say that I don’t use a Josh stocks CUthesaurus or a dictionary from time to time. But I’ve yet to see a thesaurus offer up one particular kind of word–the sincerely obscure variety.

And that’s a tragedy, because many so-called obsolete words are still perfectly good. Granted, not many folks will understand them, at least not right off the bat, but with continued usage, such familiarity could grow. And, I submit, it should be allowed to.

Here’s one: anonymoncle. This lovely noun, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED for the highbrow set, refers to a “small-time writer.” It is derived from “anonymous” and the Latin word, “homunculus,” meaning little man. As I’m a good six feet tall, and a bit <cough> portly, I hardly qualify as a “little” man. In one sense, anyway.

terpsichoreanAlthough size might have something to do with my lack of grace when it comes to things terpsichorean, a word one can find in dictionaries as common as Webster’s, it’s the rare reader who will understand when I lament that I don’t waltz, I balter. (It’s dancing, yes, but done clumsily.) Paradoxically, I seem to move about on a dance floor somewhat less catastrophically if I’ve been consuming adult beverages. I’m told there are photos which prove this, but they’re under lock and key. With any luck, they’ll remain so.

Paulsen for presWho among us doesn’t know of someone afflicted with empleomania. This charming noun refers to someone with an insatiable desire to hold public office. Lyndon LaRouche and Harold Stassen come readily to mind, but younger voters may not recognize their names. My favorite, Pat Paulsen, made presidential candidacy something of a career. And, considering some of the folks who’ve held the office since he first offered himself up for the post in 1968, he might have been a better choice.

I ran across an extremely useful word some time back that I’ve often been tempted to use in polite company. Thus far, I have resisted. The only dictionaries I’ve found which support this verbal gem are of the on-line only variety. The word is ignoranus. I mention this simply as a means to introduce a synonym of older vintage. To whit: bayard (n.), a person who sallies forth with the unquenchable confidence that can only come from profound ignorance. Seriously, how could we have let this word fall into disuse? It’s appalling, really.Belfrey cartoon

Much as I’d like to continue pushing the envelop of obsolete words, I’ve probably come to a good stopping point. So I’ll close with but one more, which I hope is so clearly useful that no one could object to its use. The verb in question is fard, and it means to cover blemishes with cosmetics. I’ve known quite a few folks who regularly fard in public, often while driving. I’ve even seen a few farding at formal affairs.

More soon; I promise!

–Josh

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Edit? You mean I’m not done yet? (Encore)

Whoa. Edit my own book? Where would I even start?

Dollarphotoclub_87054689 txtFor most writers, especially those who haven’t already completed at least a couple full-length novels, you need to let your work cool off before you do anything. Why? Because your brain believes your brand-spanking-new manuscript is flawless, and it will prevent you from seeing errors.

While your latest work is still steaming from its trip through your cerebral cortex, you won’t be able to do much with it. You must let it cool down; it’s critical that you put some distance between you and your baby. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see the difference between the bits you think are cute and cuddly, and the ones everyone else will see as just downright, no-doubt-about-it ugly.

Editing requires a dispassionate mind, the ability to see what’s wrong, and the willingness to make corrections. It’s virtually impossible to achieve that state of mind when you’re looking at something you just finished writing. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. So, wait a while; work on something else. Get your mind on another project.

If you’re writing a memoir, the easiest way to do this is to start working on another chapter. Let the last one rest. In fact, consider building up a “reservoir” of chapters (or related essays). Don’t go back and edit the first one until you’ve written two, three, or even four more. That way, the earlier material will have cooled off, and you’ll be in a better frame of mind to make corrections. And corrections will be required. They always are.

Dollarphotoclub_64220823 revAssuming you’ve achieved the appropriate mental state (far short of nirvana), it’s time to look for the editorial equivalent of low-hanging fruit: weasel words, stative verbs, adverbs, and clichés.

I’ve addressed all these topics separately, so I won’t go into great detail here. Just know that these four issues are responsible for damaging more potentially good stories than anything else.

Start with weasel words–they’re legion, and they’re sneaky, so look hard. Most of them are empty qualifiers like “almost,” “rather,” “sort of,” “nearly” and “about.” Such words tell the reader you aren’t sure what you’re trying to say. Don’t let Samantha be “rather” pretty or “almost” perfect. Why hedge your bet? Hang it out there. If Samantha is a knock-out, say so! If she’s not, then figure out why and say that. “Samantha could have been a runway model if only she knew how to walk without falling down.” Or “Jeptha had it all, except a clue about what he was doing working in a shoe store.”

Next come stative verbs. For our purposes, these can be reduced to one little word: “was.” Use the FIND feature in your word processor to highlight every instance of “was.” (If your word processor doesn’t offer this feature, find one that does. If you can’t afford anything, download one of the freebies. Apache Open Office, for instance, is a great product with all the bells and whistles in MS-Word.) Now, look at every sentence which contains the word “was.” Look, too, at how often it appears on any given page. Treat the word as a warning flag and ask yourself: Is this the best way to show what’s happening? Take the time to think about better ways of saying the same thing. See if you can’t find a real verb to carry the load. Remember: active verbs “show,” passive verbs (including all forms of “to be”) “tell.”

F’rinstance, which tells you more: “Nell was pretty,” or “Heads turned when Nell walked by.” One might even elaborate on the effect Nell’s presence had on males in the immediate locale: breathing slowed, stomachs tightened, mouths went dry, etc. On the other hand, it might be more fun to make observations about the female reactions to her passage. Sure, it might be a bit of a challenge, but it’ll make your work so much more enjoyable to read.

Adverbs suckUse the FIND feature again to locate words that end in the letters “ly.” For  our purposes, consider any such words adverbs. Just as with “was,” adverbs tell rather than show.

Examples: 1) Mary walked hurriedly to the store. Does that form a picture in your mind? Okay, maybe. But if you said: Mary raced to the store, or dashed, or stumbled, or waltzed, or skippedthen you’d be painting a picture. 2) Joel watched happily as his daughter danced. [Yawn.] For the love of God, give poor Joel a transfusion! Pump some life into him. Let him grin, laugh, giggle, or howl as he watches his baby girl dance. Let him stick out his chest, or poke a neighboring parent and point to his offspring. Make him say something: “That’s my little Daisy–right there. Look at her twirl!” Don’t let adverbs take the place of words that actually paint a picture.

Finally, read your work out loud in your best dramatic voice, and pay attention! Are there phrases in there that sound overly familiar? I’m talking about phrases like: “sharp as a tack,” “fast as lightning,” “down and out,” and “blew me away.” These are clichés, and they’ll drain the vitality from your work just as profoundly as “was” and any member of the street gang of adverbs.

Take the time to rewrite them. Find a way to put the exact same idea into your own words. In many cases, it won’t be easy but work at it anyway. The problem with clichés is that they become invisible. A reader’s eye will skip past them without slowing down, and they could miss something important. Clichés are almost universally ignored; they just don’t stand out. They become part of the white noise that populates our world. Find a fresh way to say the same thing. Your goal should be to come up with something everyone else will wish they’d said. Let them turn your words into a cliché. Now that would be something to be proud of.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

You want me to do *what?* (Encore)

I’ve been editing a pair of memoirs for the past several weeks, and the process reminded me of a time a few years back when students in one of my memoir-writing classes gave me grief about not writing my own remembered exploits. The following is my answer to a descriptive writing assignment “featuring a place or thing with great personal meaning.”

I Can’t Forget My First Car, Damn It

18 and oh so wise

Hard to be humble when you’re 18 and know everything.

The day I bought my first car was somewhat less than exciting. I had just celebrated my 18th birthday and thought pretty highly of myself. After all, I’d worked a couple jobs and saved some money. As a senior in high school, I managed to put most of the hard classes behind me. College lay ahead, somewhere, somehow, but the prospect didn’t interest me all that much. What I wanted was transportation of my own.

My folks had been pretty good about letting me use one of their cars, to get to work mostly and occasionally for dates. But I still had to ask for permission to use it. Independence demanded the ability to go from one place to another without anyone’s approval.

I needed wheels.

And I eventually got some.

Sorta.

My first car, a 1956 Ford, was only a few years younger than me, but it showed a great deal more wear and tear. The original two-tone paint job remained largely intact and consisted of a white that had faded to cadaver gray and a blue-green color that didn’t appear in nature. Peppered here and there in varying sizes were rust spots, dents, scratches, and dirt. Lots of dirt.

How my car looked to me.

How my car looked to me.

The interior looked even worse. Cigarette burns in the cloth seats could not be hidden by the stains from whatever the previous owners had spilled. Clean up seemed not to have been on any of their agendas. Nor did air fresheners. Rather than sporting a new car smell, my Ford’s aroma was more reminiscent of vagrants and wet dogs.

Boiled down to its essence, the only thing my car had in its favor was the fact I was the sole owner. I paid cash, $450 as I recall, plus the towing fee to haul it to my address where it hunkered down in a corner of the driveway and continued to decompose.

After a few nervous weeks I became resigned to the idea that the “friends” who swore to help me restore the vehicle were loathsome liars, utterly feckless fiends undeserving of my trust, to say nothing of my remaining assets, paltry though they were. The aging Ford was mine, and mine alone–leaky oil pan, “Baldini Supreme” racing slicks, and vile vinyl interior included. I knew, with complete certainty, I was on my own. The cavalry wasn’t going to appear over the hill, at the last moment, to rescue me from my folly. Life sucked.

Ditto, the Ford.

56 Ford ugly 2

How my car looked to everyone else.

“Pride goeth before the fall” ‘tis said, but I had no idea it would make a beeline to the JC Whitney catalog, where parts were available for virtually anything that ever sported wheels or laid claim to the description “automotive transport.”

Ah, but what the catalog also contained was a wealth of accoutrements which would make my terminally arthritic auto uber-appealing to prospective buyers. I had my choice of an endless supply of racing pillows, flags, shiny hubcaps, and more chrome “doodadery” than the adolescent mind could possibly comprehend. Naturally, I wanted all of it: every last, glittery, pointless, impractical, preposterous, nonsensical piece of car-related crap I could get my hands on.

vintage auto accessory ad

Why buy tires when you can get tail lights like this?

I wasted none of my precious funds on carburetors, tires with actual treads, mufflers, spark plugs, windshield wipers or dipsticks. Heaven forfend! I wanted a skull-shaped gear shift knob, glow-in-the-dark dice hanging from my review mirror (or, at least the spot from whence a mirror once hung), a chrome steering wheel knob for hard, possibly life-threatening turns, and rear window speakers for the AM-only radio. An antenna would have made more sense, but geez, rear window speakers. Come on!

I even bought a gallon of paint-restoring auto wax, guaranteed to generate a showroom shine. It never dawned on me that getting rust to shine might be tricky.

I ended up with the finest looking pile of fecal Ford that ever graced a driveway. My parents were less than pleased. My alleged vehicle had two tires which actually held air. The other two were disturbingly flat on one side.

“How’s the spare?” Dad asked.

“Spare?” Head scratch. “There’s supposed to be a spare?”

I learned a lot.

None of it good.

With my permission, Dad had the shiny pile of automotive excrement hauled away. He got $200 for it which he gave me in a bank deposit envelope, minus twenty bucks which he claimed as a storage fee.

Sometimes, growing up is hard. Sometimes it’s expensive. The alternative, however, is infinitely worse.

And so that’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments