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

Why teach?

There are a great many reasons why I teach, but I suspect the most important one is that it makes me feel good. I don’t know if that qualifies as weird or not, and frankly, I don’t care.

I don’t teach in the inner city; I’m not some middle-class, suburban saint with a penchant for helping the underprivileged or the disadvantaged. I teach grown-ups. Seniors, mostly, folks who’ve lived a lot, who’ve seen a lot, and who have an abundance of stories to share. Most of them, however, need some help to get those stories told–and told right.

Unlike those instructors who labor in the traditional fields of public and private education, my students have chosen to spend their time in my classes. They’re there because they want to be there. That makes all the difference in the world. They show up because they want to improve their skills. There aren’t any grades. No gold stars. No report cards. Instead, there is camaraderie, and that’s an astonishingly powerful potion.

Imagine telling your story, or parts of it, while a cadre of interested listeners tune in closely to what you have to say. Their responses, typically positive and affirmative, have an almost narcotic effect. My role, pointing out areas needing a tweak or a pruning, doesn’t diminish the goodwill engendered by the class. If anything, it leads to questions and dialog–all of which adds to the value of the experience for everyone. Me, included!

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t know anyone who does. But I’ve been fortunate to learn from a fair number of truly gifted wordsmiths, some famous, some still waiting to be discovered. And I’m pleased to pass along what they’ve shared. Best of all, the lessons come not from theory and certainly not from the supposed wisdom of some greybeard in academia. God spare us more of that! The lessons are based on real-world trial and error–what works, what sells.

We don’t diagram sentences or pretend to know what went on in the heads of the “literary greats.” I couldn’t care less what Proust or Faulkner or Steinbeck were thinking when they drafted their work. What matters, to me, is whether or not they told compelling tales. That’s it. And those are the kinds of stories I want my students to write.

So, the answer to the initial question is pretty simple, really. I teach because I can make a difference, and that’s a reward in and of itself.

–Josh

 

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Why a Christmas book?

Let’s say you’re familiar with the Grinch; you’ve seen Frosty at least a dozen times; you know the names of all nine reindeer, and you’re pretty sure that when it comes to the parts of Christmas kids love most, you’re totally on top of things. Right?

Uh… nope. Sorry.

Now, before you light the torches, round up the neighbors, and hand out the pitchforks, you need to get the latest on what’s afoot at the North Pole. More importantly, you need to know these revelations will, most likely, not damage all the centuries-old tropes about jolly old Saint Nick.

But, let’s face it, we’re well into the 21st Century, and there haven’t been any revelations about how all the Santa stuff we’ve come to know and love really works nowadays.

That’s one of the thoughts that danced in my head recently when pondering what to write about in my third novel of this year (thank you, Covid-19, may you soon shrivel and waste away to nothing more than a dark memory).

It didn’t take long for me to realize that some of the questions I had about the traditional Santa tales had been with me since childhood. Okay, so maybe I was a wee bit precocious and/or my imagination might possibly have been tweaked by my incredibly inventive father. In any event, I had questions way back then, and they popped right back into my head a few months ago.

Questions like:

— Even if some rare strain of reindeer with the ability to fly actually existed, how come only Santa Claus was able to round them up? And why reindeer, when the world is chock full of amazing canines capable of pulling a sled?

— Using “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (ie., “T’was the night before Christmas…”) to establish a timeline, almost 200 years have passed. The population of the Earth has increased to nearly 8 times its size since 1800. How has Santa managed to take care of such an increased load?

— I don’t ever recall receiving something from Santa which appeared to have been made by hand, and I suspect those who did were in a distinct minority. So, how had Santa managed to industrialize the operation? What happened to all those poor elves?

— How did someone so old and so busy ever manage to work his way into the countless millions of homes without chimneys?

There had to be answers to these and many other questions, and therein lay the heart of the story. It was nestled somewhere between a child with a mysterious illness, a shopping mall Santa Claus trying to redefine himself, and the profoundly difficult challenges of delivering gifts to hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, of deserving children.

All I had to do was write it.

Fortunately, I had the assistance of all the pets, and their owners, who live on our street. The result of our combined efforts is a family-friendly Christmas story that supplies all the answers. It’s called A Season Gone to the Dogs.

Consider it my gift to everyone I know and anyone who’d like to find out what’s really happened to Santa’s mission and his secret hideaway after all these years. So, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to you all!

Beginning on Monday, Nov. 2, and continuing through Friday, Nov. 6, you can download the ebook version–for FREE–from Amazon.com. Just click HERE if you’d like to save some time.

For those of you who take advantage of this offer, I would appreciate it very much if you would post your thoughts about the story in an Amazon review. Let’s share this tale far and wide!

Best wishes to everyone, just a little early!

–Josh

Posted in novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ya gotta have heart (Encore)

Though clichéd, it’s true that the building blocks of a good novel are the scenes. I imagine if one looked hard enough it would be possible to find a novel with neither scene nor chapter breaks, but it would definitely be an oddity. Most readers like having a convenient dreamstime_m_17293986-crpdplace to pause, should nature call, for instance. But, if you approach your job as a novelist with the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to force that reader to haul your book along when they trot off to take care of business.

Therein lies the power of the scene, and the real reason for its primacy. Scenes offer a grand opportunity for storytellers to leave audiences hanging. In the oral tradition, because of time constraints and other issues not directly tied to the story, tales are typically single point-of-view affairs. They’re generally told in a linear fashion, too. Novelists, on the other hand, have an unlimited number of scenes at their disposal along with a potential horde of characters to supply a point of view. The opportunities for leaving a reader drooling to find out what happens next are endless. That’s power!

Does every scene need to be an old-time cliffhanger? No, of course not, but an occasional threat to life and limb rarely hurts. At least, not in the realms of fiction. At the most basic level, a scene should offer a bit of information that’s relevant to the plot or a sub-plot. Keeping that in mind will help a writer focus on moving the story forward. Scenes that don’t advance the plot, don’t belong. Go ahead and cut them now before you get too attached. This goes beyond just killing your darlings, which is pretty good advice. This is more like killing your darlings and their families.

I’ve written wonderful scenes which I felt sure would drive my story, then realized they only added length, not depth. They contained nothing new, plot-wise, and the story worked just as well without them. But these were really, really good scenes! So, rather than consign them to the digital dustbin, I squirreled them away for later use. Two, in particular, drove short stories I wrote much later, adding the very depth they couldn’t provide when initially written. (Full disclosure: I had to change names and settings in both. In one case, I even changed the genre. The point is, they weren’t wasted.)

One particular element can make a scene truly worthwhile: suspense.

And how does one do that? Simply by asking a question that isn’t answered. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid the temptation to have the narrator (that’s you, Bubba, no matter what you choose to call yourself) ask the question in some blatantly meat-axed, melodramatic fashion: “Will the gigantic boulder rip loose and crush the girl scouts camped below?”

Instead, you want the reader to pose the question. Your job is to set the scene: happy little campers frolic in the shadow of “Ol’ Man Mose,” an enormous be-prepared-compositeboulder so named because of its peculiar head-like shape. The rain has stopped, and the kiddies are preparing to spend the night, unrolling their sleeping bags amidst giggles and laughter, blissfully unaware of the danger they’re in. Meanwhile, a steady drip of runoff from countless storms has eroded one too many pebbles from beneath the hoary, moon-sized rock they pressed into service for shelter. It shifts a fraction of an inch, a movement that goes completely unnoticed.

At this point, the smart writer will end the scene and move on to some other character or characters in some other situation. The reader, much like the boulder, is left hanging. Will it shift some more? Will the girls be crushed? Can’t they see the danger they’re in?

There’s only one way to find out, and thus the page-turner is born.

So, should you infer from this example that the primary story is about girl scouts and camping? Oh, hell no! It’s about a park ranger, or the scout leader, or a politician in Washington, DC, some 2,000 miles away. Or, more likely, it’s about all three. Is the scene necessary? Yes, provided it gives the reader a tidbit of information that advances the story.

Maybe the scout leader has always camped near Ol’ Mose, despite repeated warnings that the rock is unstable. Perhaps the ranger has a history of chasing campers away from that spot, or [cue evil laughter] luring them to it. Perhaps the politician has blocked the funding that would have allowed the DNR to secure the big, bad boulder. Any or all of these things could be in play. Maybe there’s something hidden under the rock. Maybe….

Knowing when to end a scene is critical. Fortunately, the more scenes you write, the easier finding that sweet spot becomes. Eventually, you’ll be able to feel it. For now, just work toward it, secure in the knowledge that all you need to do is paint enough of the picture to leave the reader wondering. And if possible, worried.

There’s obviously more to writing a novel–or a decent short story–than this, and we’ll examine another major aspect of the craft next time. So stay tuned!

–Josh

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

What you need is… (Encore)

…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 re-writing something you’ve done that you know isn’t up to par. And don’t pretend you don’t have something like that on hand. 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 a 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

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Highs and lows (Encore)

Slow and steady may win some contests, but if that’s how your story moves along, you Grapevinesnail racermight as well take up something else, like gastropod racing. If, on the other hand, you’d like to write stuff that folks might actually want to read, you need to think in terms of different speeds. If your work only has one tempo, your readers won’t last long.

So, what are the options? A story moves at its own pace, doesn’t it? It can, certainly, but writers who want to be read know the value of a change in tempo. And that applies both mechanically and structurally. By “mechanically,” I mean altering sentence length to avoid repetition. The late Gary Provost provided a brilliant example of this in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

By “structurally,” I mean the components of a story, whether it’s fiction, essay, memoir, documentation, prayer, speech, or some other construct that escapes me at the moment. Just as sentences must vary, so must content. A steady stream of tragic reversals, like a steady stream of five-word sentences, will wear a reader down. Cut them some slack! You don’t want your readers to continually slog uphill like Sisyphus, struggling against the gravity of your tale to reach the conclusion.

Readers need breaks, just like writers. The easiest way to do this is to vary your content. If the tension has been high, toss in something light: a humorous anecdote, a lighthearted character or a moment of levity. Surely something pleasant happened at some point in your life. Memoirs can be tedious without the occasional foray into the realms of lighter material–good times, happy times, celebrations, victories.

If you’re writing about a time in your life when someone made you utterly miserable, try to find something in your life–no matter how inconsequential–that will offer some semblance of balance. Surely someone, at some point, smiled at you or made you feel like a real human being. Don’t leave that out! It may not have made much of a difference in your life, but it’ll make a difference in the attitude of your reader. This is obviously much easier to accomplish in fiction, but it absolutely applies to non-fiction, and to memoir in particular.

Okay then, now that you know two of the essential secrets of writing magic, hie thee hence and write something memorable!

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Writers can learn from comic books

Too many adult writers I know denigrate comic books when those very same publications were their favorites when they were younger. That’s a shame because many of those same writers ignore an important difference between illustrated work and their own prose. In short, too many writers make little effort to paint word pictures. And I’m not just talking about setting.

Much like films and stage shows, the setting and action are obvious; the viewer sees it all up front. That allows the writers of those productions to focus on dialog and action in the larger sense–that which advances the plot. If a film character picks something up, the writer doesn’t have to detail the action–it’s obvious. If you’re writing a book, however, that’s not the case. Not to belabor the obvious, but everything readers need to know must come from the text.

Here are some illustrations from a comic about Sabrina, the teenage witch. I think they’ll help to get the point across.

In the very first panel, readers are treated to an image that not only sets the scene but details the action and identifies the point of view character as well. Conveying a similar amount of data in a novel or short story would require a couple of sentences, at least, if not two or three whole paragraphs.

I’m not suggesting that every detail from a cartoon scene like this would need to be included in the prose-only version, but a good bit of it would add some realism.

Following closely on the heels of the opening, the comic dips into the point of view character’s backstory.

And once again we’re treated to details via visual that the writer would have to convey in a word picture. In this case, a subplot has been initiated. Imparting the same level of detail in a prose-only format would require descriptions of both Sabrina and her intended victim. The illustration shows that the fellow about to be tricked is a decent-looking sort, and Sabrina appears to be a pleasant service provider. The panel which clinches the subplot would also need some description if done in a text-only version. I’ll leave the specifics up to you. My point is that this level of detail is often relegated to summary narrative leaving the reader to dream up their own visuals.

Ray Bradbury was known for his ability to paint pictures with his words. Character movements, often as minor as scratching an itch or using a napkin to catch an errant bit of food on a shirt, all provided the quick image-inducing responses that made reading his work enjoyable. It also made translating it to an audio-visual format much easier.  

One of the most ideal places to inject the sort of visualizations I’m talking about is in dialog. Novel characters often chatter on and on with nothing but “he said” and “she said” to differentiate them. Adding details about what they’re doing while conversing gives the writer a chance to identify the speakers without using speech tags. The effect gives readers something to visualize. It’s also a means to further develop characters through mannerisms, tastes, and responses to other stimuli. Good writers never ignore such things; they’re powerful items, and if left unused in a writer’s toolbox, the fault can only lie with one person.

So, the next time you sit down to work on your epic tale of romance, intrigue, or adventure, give some serious thought to how you portray what your characters are doing–not just as plot points–but as part of an on-going campaign to make the overall work more interesting. One might also say, “picturesque.”

Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated!

–Josh

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