Writerly Stuff: Words on Originality

I have heard time and again that there are no original tales to tell.  That may be true.  If you click on the tab “On Stories” above, you will find brief reads on competition plots, internal and external journey plots and relationship plots.  They are all basic plots, by no means comprehensive or all encompassing, but with a simple look you can see how the same basic plots have been used over and over again in story after story.  For example, how many versions of Beauty and the Beast can you think of?

Then there are characters.  While it is true that no two human beings are alike, we all share so much in common it is hard to distinguish one from the crowd.  We all know love, hate, fear, hope, and we share being born, aging and death.  It may be that along with stories there are no original characters.  Even the space aliens in science fiction and the fantastic creatures in fantasies share human characteristics – which is good because otherwise the reader would never be able to relate.

I was thinking of this the other day and remembered something worth sharing:  Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.  Naturally, I forget where I heard that.

It came to me about the same time as the quote that what makes a work original is all in the telling.  This is where the unique nature of the human species speaks.  No two of us will see the same story in the same way.  No two of us will see the same character from the same angle.  What makes a story original is not the plot or characters or even the setting.  It is the unique combination of these and the angle of presentation and voice of the teller.

Given that, it is a wonder to me that any writer or would-be writer cannot “think of what to write.”  Take a plot, any plot, fill it with people and tell it in your own way.  Take Beauty and the Beast.  Who is your beauty, and what makes them beautiful?  Who is your beast and what makes them beastly?  How is it that they come into contact?  What stands between them?  What must they overcome to be together?  Do they succeed or fail?  You know the basic story.  Tell your version, your story in your way and it will be original.  That is about as original as anyone can get, and remember, you heard it here first.

Writerly Stuff: How to Title

How do you pick a title for a story or that novel you slaved over or are presently creating?  Do you pick something that sound marketable or eye catching?  Do you roll the dice between options or pick a card, any card.  May I make a couple of recommendations?  Mind you, I am not saying mine is the only way, the best way, or even necessarily the right way.  I am only offering these thought as something to consider.

1.         My strongest recommendation would be to boil the story or novel down to the essence of what it is about.  I have heard it said that if an author is not able to say what the story is about in a sentence or two (especially for novels) they are not ready to market the work.  My thought here is when you get to those couple of sentences, keep boiling.  What we want is a few or a couple of words that allude to the essence of the story.

What is your book about?  Pride and Prejudice.  It’s about Great Expectations.  It’s about Mice and Men, an Odyssey, The Sound of Music or To Kill a Mockingbird.  Okay, the last two are a bit of a stretch and a bit esoteric, but I think the idea here is clear.  If a story can be boiled enough to get to the essence in a few short words, that may be the best title.

2.         Failing that (recognizing that not all stories are so easily boiled) my second recommendation would be to consider the key motivation for the story.  What drives this plot?  What is the key and can it be named? 

What is your book about?  It is called The Scarlet Letter.  It’s called Moby Dick.  It’s called The Pearl, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, Murder on the Orient Express, The Time Machine.  It is called The Lord of the Rings.  Okay, the last one refers more to a character, though it mentions the rings, but the character idea will have to wait.

3.         Before turning to character names, I would suggest looking at the setting.  This may work best when the setting is unusual or unique.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a great example, as is The War of the Worlds.  Here, you have Jungle Book, The House at Pooh Corner, Casablanca.  With these titles, the potential reader has no introduction to what the story is about or what the motivation for the characters might be, but it can intrigue, as I said, if the setting is different and maybe mysterious or suggestive.  Thus we have a Tale of Two Cities, The Ox bow Incident, The Lost Horizons, The Old Man and the Sea and more recently, The Road or The Shack.

I have had a story in the back of my mind for years.  It is a Noah’s Ark story as it might play out on another world with an alien species.  For years I called it Prem after what I imagined would be the name of the main character.  This year I have begun to work on the novel, and as I have started, I stepped up the ladder in naming.  I have turned from the character name to look at the setting.  The current working title is “Not This Earth.”

4.         When all else fails, I suggest looking at the characters themselves, and unless there is an imperative to do otherwise (perhaps as in Moby Dick), really only the main characters should be considered.  Thus we have Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, Oliver, Robinson Crusoe, Dracula and Frankenstein.  Note that all of these names are unusual enough to stand out from the crowd.  That does not mean a common name won’t work just as well, though when using a common name I recommend enhancing that name in some way.  Consider The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

This use of names in the naming process need not be confined to a single character when the group may do.  Swiss Family Robinson comes to mind as does The Three Musketeers.  Likewise, the actual name of the character need not be center stage.  I mentioned Lord of the Rings.  Consider also Lord of the Flies, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Last of the Mohicans. 

Finally, you might try enhancing the name with some indication of story direction if possible, such as Gulliver’s Travels or Pathfinder.  Generally, though, I feel it is not the best option to simply use the name of the main character for your title since it gives the reader the least clues about what they can expect and so it is the least likely to draw people into the story.  This is true even if your character is named Ebenezer Scrooge – and you will notice, Dickens did not name the story with that name.

Of course, not all titles fit neatly into these four ideas.  One of the best might satisfy the first (essence) and last (name) ideas at the same time.  That would be “Psycho.”  So, how do you name your stories and books?  I hope these thoughts help.

Time Off from the Trenches of Life

This is Lent, a season for giving something up and spending time with the Lord – for those who are traditional Christians. 

For non-Christians and even atheists it is not a bad idea to set aside a time to try and get a little more control over some bad habits; like deciding on a season to seriously work on quitting smoking as opposed to making some New year’s resolution guaranteed to fall flat by January second. 

For everyone, it is a good idea to take a season to let go of some of the pulls and tugs of this rapid paced world and relax.  Like set down the cell phone, stay off the internet, avoid the multi-media attractions of our age and spend time in the real world.  How about give up the news for a whole week and spend that week camping and communing with nature.

Whatever you decide, for me, it is Lent and the Lord, and the thing I have (mostly) given up is blogging.  (Like a person trying to diet, this blog is me falling off the wagon).  Yes, I continue to post the stories of the Traveler on my Storyteller blog, but that is because they are already written.  Yes, I continue to post Lectionary Reflections on my Word & Spirit blog, but that is because Sundays happen, even in Lent.  But for the rest of it, I have let it go for a time.

Why?  Because unless you are the type to just sit and ramble (and many are), blogging takes a great deal of effort of the heart and mind.  It can also be very time consuming – time I can spend on other writing, fiction and non-fiction, or time I can spend (in my case) with the Lord and in his Word.  Time off also gives me a chance to reflect on just what this blogging business is all about, and that is something that is hard to do when I am in the midst of it.

Like most bloggers, I want to be able to reach people, to interest them in my words and world and begin to build an audience for both my stories and my ministry of the Word and Spirit, but I wonder how effective daily blogging really is.  I feel for now it is more work than return, which is effort and time I could be spending on other venues.

Thus, I think I am going to stop trying to blog three days per week on each blog (which is six days per week or the equivalent of a daily blog).  Instead, I am going to try twice a week each.

Sunday/Monday

Storyteller:  On writing, telling stories and writerly stuff like wise words for writers.

Word & Spirit: On ministry, meditations and common sense teachings and reflections.

Thursday/Friday

Storyteller:  Avalon, the Series, season 1 – weekly, just like the old movie serials where several parts make a full episode.

Word & Spirit: Lectionary Reflections for the coming Sunday.

What do you think?

-Michael

Wise Words for Writers: Legacy and Benjamin Franklin

Writers are known for having vision.  All of the new and unpublished writers I have ever know are no exception.  Generally, though, the new writers in particular have a shared vision which is  something like this:  A number one best seller followed by a string of successes and a continuous following for generations into the future.  You might call it the Jane Austin syndrome.

Sadly, few if any will achieve that goal – if indeed it is a goal and not just an idle dream.

Still, it suggests the question:  “How would you like to be remembered?”

One friend said, “I would like to BE remembered.”  Another suggested this:  “What would you have them carve on your tombstone?”  Think about it.  Final words.

Famous author?  Saint?  Nobody in particular?

Personally, I am leaning toward the phrase, “Finally Thinking Inside the Box.”

But you know, there are two ways to be remembered.  One of my favorite people of all time captured that thought very well.

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.  –Benjamin Franklin

Of course, he did both.  Not a bad legacy.  We are living in it.

I might add only this idea to what Franklin said:  Find someone who did things worth writing about and write about those things.  Then again, this world could use more doing in certain quarters, but that is all I am going to say about that. 

Instead, let me end where I began.  Writers are known for having vision, but many writers might better be described as those who dream dreams.  That’s okay.  That is Biblical:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit on all People.  Your sons and daughters will prophecy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. (Acts 2:17, NIV).

There is nothing wrong with visions and dreams, only here is my suggestion and the reason for bringing it up in the first place:  Don’t spend your time and energy dreaming.  Spend it instead pursuing the dream.  Don’t waste your life with idle thoughts about the future.  Focus on the present and what you are doing whether that is doing or writing about doing. 

I believe if you truly strive to accomplish your dream/vision/goal, the legacy will take care of itself.  Then all you have to decide is what to have them carve on your tombstone.

Writerly Stuff: The Dreaded Query Letter, my 2 cents.

So, you have written the Great American Novel (or something like that).  Only one word: great!  But now you have to bring it to someone’s attention or it will never get further than your own back yard.  The book, the writing, the story must sell itself in the long run, but in the short run there are major barriers to publication.

Publishers, those few that still have an active slush pile and accept works over the transom from unknowns, need a cover letter interesting enough to entice them to read the book.  Agents need a query letter of the same quality.  Even if you plan to self-publish, you will need a short, intriguing book summary or “blurb” to turn shoppers into buyers.

The heart of this “blurb” is what the story is about and the key to a successful one is the word, reduce.  Somehow, it means taking a 100,000 word masterpiece and boiling it down to the essence – a few sentences, that’s all.  A friend of mine suggests that if you can’t tell what your book is about in a sentence, you are not ready to market your work.  I might not go that far, but certainly it needs to be expressed in a short paragraph or two, and these are the elements I feel are imperative.

1.         The hook.  The whole description should be a hook.  I don’t mean ending with a cliff-hanger like some movie serial from the thirties in the hope that the person will want to see how it turns out.  I also don’t mean a sales pitch.  I mean the whole description should interest, entice, intrigue enough so the publisher/agent/buyer wants to read the work.  It should be bold, new, different, fascinating, real, focused, or whatever word you want to use.  Your story is unique.  You want to describe it in a way that makes it stand out from the crowd and literally “hooks” the person into wanting to take a look at it.

2.         The Main Character and their dilemma.  Forget the sub-plots, the complexities of characterization and relationships, secondary characters and all that.  Focus on who and what.  For the most part, you want to save the how and why for the story. 

Killers in Eden is about a man who corrupts the innocent people of another world.  In order to save them he has to teach them about war, betrayal, revenge and how to kill.

Guardian Angel is about a woman who struggles to protect the trillions of parallel earths from invasion by people who are ambivalent about other worlds, and some who are hostile and some who are hardly human.

A Place for the Magic is about a thirteen-year-old girl who finds a magic wand that actually works.

3.         Your Style.  Whatever you include beyond the main character and their dilemma should reinforce the hook and at the same time it should show something of your writing, your voice, your narrative (whatever you want to call it).  You want the publisher/agent/buyer to get some idea of what they may be getting into by reading the book.  This is tricky, but doable in a sentence or three.  And it is imperative.  Brilliant story ideas have been conceived by people who cannot write, and sad to say in this present world publishers and agents do not have the time to do massive edits or teach writing.

Thus it is important that the book be complete and as perfect as you can make it before you begin the query process.  There are ways to do this which I won’t detail here, only remember, the query is simply to get the book read.  The book must then do the selling.  No great query ever sold a bad book, but many a poor query stood in the way of many a good book.

Once you have the story in hand and it is as hook as you can make it, the rest of the letter is a business letter – not a chatty letter to a friend, not cute, not humorous or self-promoting.  The business is not you, but the book.  Keep it strictly business.  That is the kind of relationship you should be seeking in an agent/publisher.  Yes, it may grow into something more than that over time, but up front remember this is business.

These are the things I recommend including (not necessarily in this order):

1.         Reason for selecting agent.  We met at a conference.  I know your sister.  Writer X recommended you.  I read your sales list and believe my work is a good fit.  Indicate in some small way that you have done your homework and are not just a stabbing in the dark.

2.         My qualifications: I work for NASA, I am an aerospace engineer, I did my doctorate in mythology and folklore.  I have been published in The New Yorker.  Qualifications are less important for fiction than non-fiction, especially for a first time author.  It is most often better to say nothing.

3.         The book is finished.

4.         Genre = what shelf it will go on at Barnes & Noble.  Don’t confuse the issue with humor elements, horror elements, mysterious, romantic etc.  They will see all that when they read the work, and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.

5.         Number of words = how thick the book will be.  (some publishers, like DAW prefer over 80,000 words, but your agent can worry about that).

Thank you for your time and attention.

That is all you need.

Story Prompt: my once per year e-mail from a friend post.

I got this in my e-mail from a friend.  There is no telling how far around the internet these have gone.  I thought I would share these with you because there must be a story in here somewhere, only who would believe it?

STELLA  AWARDS:

It’s time again for the annual ‘Stella Awards’! For those unfamiliar with these awards, they are named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued the McDonald’s in New Mexico, where she purchased coffee. You remember, she took the lid off the coffee and put it between her knees while she was driving. Who would ever think one could get burned doing that, right? That’s right; these are awards for the most outlandish lawsuits and verdicts in the U.S. You know, the kinds of cases that make you scratch your head. So keep your head scratcher handy.

Here are the Stellas for this past year  —  2010:

*SEVENTH PLACE*

Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas was awarded $80,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The store owners were understandably surprised by the verdict, considering the running toddler was her own son

* SIXTH PLACE *

Carl Truman, 19, of Los Angeles , California won $74,000 plus medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Truman apparently didn’t notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he was trying to steal his neighbor’s hubcaps.

* FIFTH PLACE *

Terrence Dickson, of Bristol , Pennsylvania , who was leaving a house he had just burglarized by way of the garage. Unfortunately for Dickson, the automatic garage door opener malfunctioned and he could not get the garage door to open. Worse, he couldn’t re-enter the house because the door connecting the garage to the house locked when Dickson pulled it shut. Forced to sit for eight, count ’em, EIGHT days and survive on a case of Pepsi and a large bag of dry dog food, he sued the homeowner’s insurance company claiming undue mental Anguish. Amazingly, the jury said the insurance company must pay Dickson $500,000 for his anguish. We should all have this kind of anguish.

*FOURTH PLACE*

Jerry Williams, of Little Rock, Arkansas, garnered 4th Place in the Stella’s when he was awarded $14,500 plus medical expenses after being bitten on the butt by his next door neighbor’s beagle – even though the beagle was on a chain in its owner’s fenced yard. Williams did not get as much as he asked for because the jury believed the beagle might have been provoked at the time of the butt bite because Williams had climbed over the fence into the yard and repeatedly shot the dog with a pellet gun.  

* THIRD PLACE *

Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania because a jury ordered a Philadelphia restaurant to pay her $113,500 after she slipped on a spilled soft drink and broke her tailbone. The reason the soft drink was on the floor: Ms. Carson had thrown it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument. Whatever happened to people being responsible for their own actions?

*SECOND PLACE*

Kara Walton, of Claymont , Delaware sued the owner of a night club in a nearby city because she fell from the bathroom window to the floor, knocking out her two front teeth. Even though Ms. Walton was trying to sneak through the ladies room window to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge, the jury said the night club had to pay her $12,000….oh, yeah, plus dental expenses. Go figure.  

* FIRST PLACE * 

This year’s runaway First Place Stella Award winner was: Mrs. Merv Grazinski, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, who purchased new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On her first trip home, from an OU football game, having driven on to the freeway, she set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the driver’s seat to go to the back of the Winnebago to make herself a sandwich. Not surprisingly, the motor home left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Also not surprisingly, Mrs. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not putting in the owner’s manual that she couldn’t actually leave the driver’s seat while the cruise control was set. The Oklahoma jury awarded her, are you sitting down? $1,750,000 PLUS a new motor home. Winnebago actually changed their manuals as a result of this suit, just in case Mrs. Grazinski has any relatives who might also buy a motor home.

And notice, I did not say truth is stranger than fiction…oh shoot, I said it.

Wise Words for Writers: Orwell & Sincerity

There is one thing (of many I have noticed) that is rarely talked about when one talks or reads about writing.  The reason is because it is unquantifiable.  It is subjective, — elusive.  At the same time, though, it is imperative for any piece of writing to be successful in the mind of a reader.  I have chosen the word “Sincerity.”  It is not the only possible word choice.

By sincerity I mean the writer, particularly in works of fiction, must be absolutely convinced that this is what really happened.  That is how the book, any book must be written, no matter how far-fetched the premise.  Does that mean the fiction writer needs to be a skillful liar?  Absolutely not.  It means that given event X happening to person Y the writer is completely convinced the result will be Z.  That sincerity will show on the page and convince the reader that what they are reading is “real.”  Maybe it can’t be quantified, but it must be there.

The minute the writer thinks, well, this is just a bit of fiction after all, then all is lost and the reader will know it.  We must always remember that readers are like dogs and children – they can sniff out a fake in a heartbeat.

What came to my mind as an example was George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  Yes, there are some people who might insist that animals cannot talk and therefore the whole thing is bunk.  But assuming you don’t have that particular mental problem, the minute you start reading you will be captivated by the “reality” of the piece.  Orwell never lets up.  Each event follows reasonably, down to the emotional responses.  He is utterly sincere throughout, and it works.

My feeling is when writers start thinking of their own piece as fiction, when they start telling themselves they are just making it all up, they are in trouble.  My advice (as always worth what you pay for it) is to step back and ask, okay but what REALLY happened?  How did this person (not character) honestly respond to this situation?  How do these two people really feel about each other?  Do you see?

I once wrote about a knight – a heroic figure, who came to face a dragon.  I wanted him to stand up at one point and chase off the dragon, but sincerity forced me to portray him cowering in the corner and almost eaten.  He had to spend the next two hundred pages seeking redemption.  It was a much better story once I asked what really would happen or even what really happened.

Truth is a good thing.  Honestly matters and researching your subject to portray things accurately is important.  But if the story is not told in all sincerity, it won’t be worth telling.  Orwell himself said it very well: 

For a creative writer possession of the “truth” is less important than emotional sincerity.

–George Orwell

I could not agree more.

Writerly Stuff: Critiques and Submissions

Critiques

One person I know used to have the problem of believing everything she was told in critiques and not believing in herself at all.  If someone told her to change something, she did.  After all, they should know.  Shouldn’t they?

But that was then.

After a time she asked herself why?  When she answered that question the pendulum swung.  Now she wonders why she asks for critiques at all because all she does is argue with the people.  They also wonder why she asks for their opinion if she has no interest in their advice.  She answers because their advice is stupid.

Generally, what I have found is there are two forms of critique and we need to be very careful about distinguishing them because one is helpful and the other is not. 

First, is the kind of critique that an editor might do. 

If there are basic grammatical mistakes, typos and the like, we appreciate them being pointed out.  We are especially grateful when our eye has sped over that same passage a hundred times and never saw the tree for the forest.  If there is a place where we are being repetitively redundant, that might be good to know.  A friend of mine had six different editors go over his manuscript.  (Not on purpose.  He changed publishers in mid-stream).  When the book went to print, several readers pointed out several things.  They were corrected for the second edition. 

A continuity critique can be a great help as well.  We don’t want the character we killed off on page thirty-seven showing up again on page two hundred and seven.  We don’t want our character putting their foot down on an issue only to change their mind a hundred pages later and do or say the opposite without showing some transitional process in the interim pages.  A continuity reading can be a great help at times.

But then, second, there are what I call the opinion critiques.    

One such critique is the kind that tries to reword our sentences, sometimes paragraphs or whole sections of the work.  Most often I have found that such critiques come from people who cannot see past the end of their own nose.  They invariably are trying to rework YOUR work into a piece they would write (make it their work, in a sense).  They are trying to get you to abandon YOUR style for theirs.  To heck with that!

Then there are the critiques that want to change the storyline or characters.  They think Hamlet would be better if he lived at the end.  They think Hamlet is too morose and should be portrayed as a lively sort.  They hit you with the manipulative words: It didn’t attract me.  I could not sympathize with your characters.  I was disappointed with the ending.  Well, I’m sorry, but that leads into the next note:

Submissions: 

The truth that no one will admit is reading is purely a subjective enterprise.  What one agent/editor/publisher (or critique partner) hates, another may love.  It may have more to do with what side of the bed the person got up on than whether the work is good or not.  If the reader just got dumped, even brilliance might be thumbs down (and people can always rationalize why).  If the person just got engaged and is floating somewhere near space, the lousy work might just see print.  Who knows?

The truth is some critiques are helpful.  The first kind is worth considering.  The second kind is not to be rejected out-of-hand, but carefully thought through.  There may be a valid point in there somewhere.  But otherwise, recognize the truth about readership.  Even professionals: agents, editors, publishers, English professors are subjective, not gospel.  That is why I have followed the advice of Ricki Nelson from long ago:

“You can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.” 

Now, if a publisher offered a million bucks to make Macbeth likeable, I would think about it.  Otherwise…

Writerly Stuff: Writing Sharks

A friend of mine recently lamented. 

Why are writers meat?

You don’t see hordes of jackals preying on sculptors or violinists.  Writers are seen as a herd of ruminants to be pulled down and stripped of their money for daring to have dreams and stupidity.  I get SO sick of this.

And of writers playing into it.  Somebody asks about writing and gets told to buy a bunch of books. 

 (Now you can get your) “get started writing kit.”  For under $500 you can actually write something!!! 

(Then) I see webinars…on how to sell books.  Of course, she has never DONE that, has she?  But for money, she’ll tell you how. 

Just two little bits that caught my eye a minute ago, but the whole damn industry is like that.  Are writers stupider than other artists?  I KNOW we don’t have more money.  But everybody is trying to take what we have away from us.

It sucks.  But writers flock to it and cheer about it. 

My Response? 

Nice Rant.

Yes there are vultures in the writing biz.  But we are not alone.  If you want to be taken total advantage of and be treated like a piece of meat besides, try acting. 

Yes, anyone after kindergarten can slap some paint on a canvass, but that does not make one a painter.  The art schools are not all shams, but some are and there are certainly plenty of vultures in the art world.  Still, the phrase “studied under the masters” is not just propaganda.  Rare is the Grandma Moses who found unexpected success or the Vincent Van Gogh who could not give away a painting in his lifetime.  Most struggle for years, learning.

Of all the so-called arts, music is probably the most measurable.  You study under a teacher.  You practice every day, and in the end you either get work with the symphony or you will always have a nice hobby.  It is harder to be a vulture in the music biz, but they exist for sure.  I know some in the recording industry, well, more than some.

Writing, music, art, acting.  None of these are entirely natural phenomenon.  All require learning different techniques, styles and practice, practice, practice.  And all are subject to scams and shams.  But most people understand stringing words together after learning the basics in the first grade does not make one a writer.  Most understand the need to learn and practice. 

Yes, we may see the vultures best in our chosen field and may be frustrated, even angry at them for taking advantage of the vulnerable.  But believe me, the world is full of con-men and women, but why that should be is a question for the philosophers and theologians, not necessarily us.  About all we can do is try to avoid the vulture circling around our own lives and work and maybe point them out when we identify them.

Of course, he could not let it go at that. 

Actually that’s what makes vulturing in writing more ironic.  There is such a low correlation between study and success. 

I know we keep hearing how if we keep buying more books, go to more seminars, study more we’ll eventually succeed.

But that is BS.  The ones still doing that are the ones who haven’t succeeded.  MANY great writers just sat down one day and cooked out a big book.

The only field I’d compare writing with for jackals is modeling. 

So, want to be smarter than a model? is the question.

My response?

I would rather be smarter than a fifth grader.  They pay money.

Writerly Stuff: Lean and Sparse Writing Blogging

I am developing a bad habit.  Particularly for fiction, it is hard to limit the number of words in a blog post.  I understand, too long a post and some people simply won’t read it.  But to compensate, my naturally inventive sub-conscious has driven me to revert to the mistakes of a new or inexperienced writer.  In short, I am telling rather than showing.  This is especially true when dealing with the thoughts and feelings of a particular character.

I recently wrote: “He felt afraid to talk to her.”  There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but I could have written:

”He wanted to talk to her, but every time he tried his mouth went dry, his palms began to sweat and his tongue swelled up like he had just come from some Novocain happy dentist.”

I recently wrote:  “He looked up from the dinner table and his mother smiled at him.  “It will all work out,” she said, but that triggered Tommy’s feelings of anger and upset.  No one ever listened to him.  No one ever believed him.”  Again, there is nothing wrong with saying it that way, but I could have written:

“He looked up from the dinner table and saw that fake, plastic grin his mother so often wore.  He heard the condescension.  “It will all work out.”  He made no verbal response.  He simply put his elbow on the table, wrinkled his cheek in the palm of his hand, picked up his fork and stabbed his baked potato three or four times.”

I have written about blogging and writing before – that they are not necessarily the same thing.  (Under the tab Writing Secrets above you might want to look at tip #6).  This is one more example why.

Writing that is sparse and lean appears to be the norm in our day.  We might call it Hemingway’s legacy.  By contrast, most of the classics are filled with long stretches of rich description.  Would Moby Dick even be published today?  Who can say?  I am reminded of Dickens who got paid by the word.  He could take 2000 words just to say it was snowing and cold outside.  Of course, he did that brilliantly so he got away with it back then, but in our day, it would be very difficult to break up Great Expectations into digestible blog posts.

Today, publishing fiction on line for one reason or another is commonplace.  Writers need to be careful, though.  In order to keep it to an attractive length (so someone might actually invest the time to read it) beware the short cuts.  There is nothing wrong with telling (per se) but showing is still generally better.