Custom Search
*/ body { margin:0px; padding:0px; background:#f6f6f6; color:#000000; font-size: small; } #outer-wrapper { font:normal normal 100% 'Trebuchet MS',Trebuchet,Verdana,Sans-Serif; } a { color:#DE7008; } a:hover { color:#9E5205; } a img { border-width: 0; } #content-wrapper { padding-top: 0; padding-right: 1em; padding-bottom: 0; padding-left: 1em; } @media all { div#main { float:right; width:66%; padding-top:30px; padding-right:0; padding-bottom:10px; padding-left:1em; border-left:dotted 1px #e0ad12; word-wrap: break-word; /* fix for long text breaking sidebar float in IE */ overflow: hidden; /* fix for long non-text content breaking IE sidebar float */ } div#sidebar { margin-top:20px; margin-right:0px; margin-bottom:0px; margin-left:0; padding:0px; text-align:left; float: left; width: 31%; word-wrap: break-word; /* fix for long text breaking sidebar float in IE */ overflow: hidden; /* fix for long non-text content breaking IE sidebar float */ } } @media handheld { div#main { float:none; width:90%; } div#sidebar { padding-top:30px; padding-right:7%; padding-bottom:10px; padding-left:3%; } } #header { padding-top:0px; padding-right:0px; padding-bottom:0px; padding-left:0px; margin-top:0px; margin-right:0px; margin-bottom:0px; margin-left:0px; border-bottom:dotted 1px #e0ad12; background:#F5E39e; } h1 a:link { text-decoration:none; color:#F5DEB3 } h1 a:visited { text-decoration:none; color:#F5DEB3 } h1,h2,h3 { margin: 0; } h1 { padding-top:25px; padding-right:0px; padding-bottom:10px; padding-left:5%; color:#F5DEB3; background:#DE7008; font:normal bold 300% Verdana,Sans-Serif; letter-spacing:-2px; } { color:#9E5205; font:normal bold 160% Verdana,Sans-Serif; letter-spacing:-1px; } a, a:visited { color: #9E5205; } { margin-top:10px; margin-right:0px; margin-bottom:0px; margin-left:0px; color:#777777; font: normal bold 105% 'Trebuchet MS',Trebuchet,Verdana,Sans-serif; } h4 { color:#aa0033; } #sidebar h2 { color:#B8A80D; margin:0px; padding:0px; font:normal bold 150% Verdana,Sans-serif; } #sidebar .widget { margin-top:0px; margin-right:0px; margin-bottom:33px; margin-left:0px; padding-top:0px; padding-right:0px; padding-bottom:0px; padding-left:0px; font-size:95%; } #sidebar ul { list-style-type:none; padding-left: 0; margin-top: 0; } #sidebar li { margin-top:0px; margin-right:0px; margin-bottom:0px; margin-left:0px; padding-top:0px; padding-right:0px; padding-bottom:0px; padding-left:0px; list-style-type:none; font-size:95%; } .description { padding:0px; margin-top:7px; margin-right:12%; margin-bottom:7px; margin-left:5%; color:#9E5205; background:transparent; font:bold 100% Verdana,Sans-Serif; } .post { margin-top:0px; margin-right:0px; margin-bottom:30px; margin-left:0px; } .post strong { color:#000000; font-weight:bold; } pre,code { color:#999999; } strike { color:#999999; } .post-footer { padding:0px; margin:0px; color:#444444; font-size:80%; } .post-footer a { border:none; color:#968a0a; text-decoration:none; } .post-footer a:hover { text-decoration:underline; } #comments { padding:0px; font-size:110%; font-weight:bold; } .comment-author { margin-top: 10px; } .comment-body { font-size:100%; font-weight:normal; color:black; } .comment-footer { padding-bottom:20px; color:#444444; font-size:80%; font-weight:normal; display:inline; margin-right:10px } .deleted-comment { font-style:italic; color:gray; } .comment-link { margin-left:.6em; } .profile-textblock { clear: both; margin-left: 0; } .profile-img { float: left; margin-top: 0; margin-right: 5px; margin-bottom: 5px; margin-left: 0; border: 2px solid #DE7008; } #sidebar a:link { color:#999999; text-decoration:none; } #sidebar a:active { color:#ff0000; text-decoration:none; } #sidebar a:visited { color:sidebarlinkcolor; text-decoration:none; } #sidebar a:hover { color:#B8A80D; text-decoration:none; } .feed-links { clear: both; line-height: 2.5em; } #blog-pager-newer-link { float: left; } #blog-pager-older-link { float: right; } #blog-pager { text-align: center; } .clear { clear: both; } .widget-content { margin-top: 0.5em; } /** Tweaks for layout editor preview */ body#layout #outer-wrapper { margin-top: 0; } body#layout #main, body#layout #sidebar { margin-top: 10px; padding-top: 0; } -->

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Business of Writing?

Writing is one thing. Making money from writing is another thing entirely.

In most occupations, those who do the best work and the most work also make the most money. But that isn't how it works in the writing business. Ask any renowned poet about her earnings from writing poetry if you want to test my premise. Poets seldom make significant money from publishing their poetry. Poetry readings, workshops, grants and fellowships often prove lucrative, but publishing poetry seldom pays well.

The story is similar for most literary writers. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes speculates that only a few thousand American writers earn a full-time livings from writing. Worse than that, the pay is poor: 90% of those who write for pay earn less than the average American income from their writing.

To compound the problem, some of the best writers earn little while a few mediocre writers earn enormous sums. That makes writing a cruel business as well as a tough one. But my purpose is not to discourage you from writing -- only to hold up a mirror to the financial reality of the writing business.

If the only reward offered by writing were money, I would advise you to pick another pursuit. For me, however, there are at least four good reasons to write that have nothing to do with money.

First, I can't help myself. I must write. My father was a gardener who couldn't help himself. In the spring, he could not resist breaking the ground, planting things and watching them grow. Writing creates a similar compulsion for me.

Second, I write to learn what I think. When I write I discover what I think. The writing process itself reveals things that research and pondering do not produce. Sometimes, I think that writing and thinking are not two separate things but the same thing.

Third, I must tell stories that only I can tell. There are family stories that will die if I do not write them. I know some stories that no one else knows. Even the stories I share in common with others are unique because of my perspective and voice.

Fourth, writing is an emotional necessity. I write to understand my feelings. Without writing, I am simply confused by my emotions. While writing doesn't always help me sort things out, it usually helps.

Of course, you have your own reasons for writing. And those are the reasons you should pursue your writing. If you never make a dime, it still a good investment. However, if you are fortunate enough to make a living from writing, bless you and everything you write.

DB Dewer

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Kennedy Center Honors

I’m inhaling the Kennedy Center Honors. Tonight the Kennedy Center honors Robert DeNiro, Dave Brubeck, Mel Brooks, Grace Bumbry and Bruce Springsteen. I hope you watched this two hours of pure pleasure.

We celebrate our performing artists once a year. And guess what? We manage this gala in the midst of collegiate bowl fever.

For me and other who love the arts, the Kennedy Center honors are a bigger deal than any sporting event. The annual honoring of American artists is one of the finest things we do as a country. We who call ourselves artists can be proud that we devote our time, energy and creativity to the arts.

DB Dewer

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do You Know Julia Cameron?

If not, you should. She is one of the greatest cheerleaders for writers and artist on today's scene. Julia Cameron has writing credentials anyone would envy. However, if you know about her, it is probably because her book The Artist's Way. If you haven't read it, I recommend it highly.

One of the most useful tools championed by Cameron is Morning Pages. She urges all artists to start the day with Morning Pages. Write three pages of stream-of-consciousness before your day "begins." This allows you to stretch your writing muscles, get your juices flowing and deal with a multitude of personal and professional issues. This is one of the best ways to stay grounded and maintain your creativity as a writer.

There are no limits to what can show up in your Morning Pages. And the editor with the blue pencil will never read these pages. These pages are for your eyes only, and their purpose is to promote and protect your mental/creative health. If you have a hard time getting started on your creative work early in the day, Morning Pages is a great way to kick start things. Consider giving them a try.

DB Dewer

Monday, December 28, 2009

What to Do When You Don't Feel Like Writing

I feel terrible, coughing, sneezing and aching in every joint. I’ve felt this way for a couple of days and it’s getting worse. I’m calling it a cold because I managed to get all my flu shots. Still, my hair hurts, and I’ve always regarded that as a sure indicator of the flu.

My laptop makes it possible to write and post a blog today. And what better topic for today’s blog than writing when you don’t feel up to it? When you commit yourself to writing a blog, you pretty much have to write something every day.

Writer’s Delight provides me a structure for writing when inspiration is absent. My daily blog entries range from 150 words to 300 words. My knowledge of and enthusiasm for the day’s topic influences the length of the blog. But more important is a structure to work within and the commitment to get it done.

There. I've finished today’s post.

DB Dewer

Sunday, December 27, 2009

You Guessed It: Terry Gross

My favorite interviewer is Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, produced by WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. Although she is a radio journalist, her approach to interviewing would work extremely well for a writer.

Gross prepares for her interviews thoroughly. If a guest has written a book, she reads it. For actors, she sees their latest films and usually some earlier ones as well. She is known for asking off-beat questions that elicits enlightening responses. Her guests list is diverse, encompassing the worlds of the arts, entertainment and politics. Typically hard on politicians, Gross gives leeway to artists and musicians.

For all of her success as an interviewer, she has presided over several notorious interviews in which the guests balked or walked out. Her conflicts with rocker Gene Simmons and Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly are legendary.

If you are not familiar with her work, I suggest that you catch an episode of Fresh Air on NPR. I promise that you learn something unexpected.

DB Dewer

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Skilled Interviewer

As a writer you need to develop your interviewing skills. If you are a journalist, the need to conduct interviews is obvious. However, the fiction writer also finds interviews useful. If one of your characters is a collection agent, you will find it useful to interview some real, live debt collectors. Similarly, if one of your characters is a young soldier about to ship out to Afghanistan, perhaps you should talk to some soldiers going to and coming home from that war. Put people in your articles and stories, and your work will move, breathe and live.

When I think about conducting an interview, three interviewers come to mind: Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters and Larry King. Mike Wallace is famous for his ambush interview style. He asks the toughest questions designed to show that the interviewee is a crook of one sort or another. Wallace usually makes his point, and he always makes exciting television.

Barbara Walters takes a softer approach, starting with easy questions that build rapport and let us learn something about the interviewee. Late in her interviews, Walters asks tough questions with significant emotional impact. Frequently, her interviewees cry as they disclose things they did not intend to reveal.

Larry King displays the most low-keyed style of the three. King neither asks tough questions nor spends much time preparing for his interviews. Nonetheless, he manages to get people to reveal a great deal about themselves.

All three interviewers deliver the goods, despite their different interviewing approaches. As a writer, you should develop a style that fits both your personality and your writing objectives.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about my favorite interviewer. Guess who?

DB Dewer

Friday, December 25, 2009

Write on Christmas Day?

You bet. You should write on Christmas day. You should write on your birthday, the Fourth of July and your anniversary. You should write every day. How do I know? Because Frederick Pohl told me so.

Frederick Pohl, science fiction writer and editor extraordinaire, believed in writing 600 words every day. If you refuse to skip a day, never will you experience a dry spell or writer’s block. Equally important, a daily output of 600 (new) words will make you a prolific writer. Do the arithmetic. That would be 600 x 365 = 219,000 words, which equals equals two fat books a year, plus several articles.

Pohl also argued that you should complete every writing project you begin. If you commit to completing every project, no matter how unpromising, you will never abandon a promising project just because it is difficult.

So, quit whining and write something.

DB Dewer

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Quill, Pen or Keyboard?

Each writer has her own preferences when it comes to putting words on the page. Some like the feel of a pen flowing across a sheet of paper as the wet words emerge. Others prefer the authoritative drumming of a typewriter or the demur click of a keyboard.

Some writers compose longhand and then pass the manuscript to a typist. Another type of writer switches modes as the manuscript develops. I am such a writer. When my ideas are unformed or tentative, I like to write longhand in 8” x 10” spiral notebooks with wide-ruled lines. Spiral notesbooks claim the virtues of being portable, durable and unpretentious.

I write on every other line, starting with the top line. Skipping lines gives me space for rewriting and editing. When I finish a draft in my notebook, I move to the keyboard, type the draft into the computer and print a copy. After marking up the printed copy, I rewrite on the computer screen, adding or deleting words, sentences and whole sections. I continue printing out versions, correcting them by hand, and fixing them in the computer until I can no longer improve (or bear to look at) the manuscript.

Unfortunately, I am not systematic about keeping the drafts as I go along. My intermediate drafts seldom survive, but that is not a problem. In the end, I may have only my first handwritten draft and my final draft. But that is enough.

DB Dewer

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thinking on Paper

One of my friends in graduate school turned in a draft of her thesis, hoping she had finished her work. Her major professor, Dr. Sam Schulman, wrote, “Edit and fatten” on the front cover. Obviously, a great deal of work lay ahead. Since the feedback said “fatten” as well as “edit,” she needed to rewrite, not simply edit the manuscript.

Writing a complex paper is holistic and recursive, but the task is easier to understand when separated into steps. Writers think their articles into existence, but that thinking requires action as well as pondering. Thinking on paper requires originating ideas, conducting research, interviewing people, observing situations, roughing out ideas in a first draft, rewriting the first draft, rewriting subsequent drafts and editing.

As describe above, writing seems a sequential, step-by-step procedure. My description suggests that you complete step one before starting step two and so forth. But few writers work that way, however. For example, developing an idea for an article shapes the required research and suggests a list of potential interviewees. But unexpected findings from the research may cause the writer to re-think her original idea. This same learning, re-thinking and re-doing happens at all stages of writing.

Usually, your article improves most during rewriting. Early rewrites let you develop big ideas that shape the whole of the article. Later, you focus on cutting digressions and making your main points clearer. At some point in a rewrite, you may decide to interview another source or conduct more research. However, the changes generally become smaller during the later rewrites.

Much later, in the editing stage, you try to remove flabby writing and to select the perfect word to convey your intended meaning. You work to smooth the transitions between sentences and make certain that the paragraphs are in the best sequence. In late edits you remove small imperfections that detract from the flow and impact of your article.

We divide writing into various steps – drafting; research; rewriting; editing – to help us think through the process. However, it is all writing, it usually happens recursively and each part makes its contribution to the final article.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Do You Read Too Much?

Do you love to read? Most writers do. They can’t seem to help themselves. They can’t help picking up newspapers, books and magazines. When nothing else is available, they read advertisements and the backs of cereal boxes. I’m that kind of reader and I suspect you are as well.

Voracious reader learn early that others do not necessarily share their obsessions with words, stories, books and reading. How many times has someone told you that "you read too much?" Pay them no mind. They don't understand that reading is as beneficial to a writer as exercise is to an athlete.

Lots of reading frequently leads to writing. Reading puts the patterns of writing in our heads. By osmosis readers learn style, pacing, grammar and word choice. Avid readers learn how writers plot their stories. Genre readers are actually aficionados of a particular type of plot. When the reader begins to think about becoming a writer, she starts to pay more attention to how writers do their work.

Early attempts at writing usually imitate the writers or genres we love. As a school boy Stephen King wrote an imitation of the Fall of the House of Usher, photocopied it, and sold it to classmates. His friends bought it eagerly. Many other successful genre authors began writing the kind of books they loved. It is a logical, natural progression.

Every book you read offers something to you as a writer. Even a bad book teaches you how not to proceed. Reading widely, you learn to distinguish among a variety of voices. By suffusing yourself in many voices, you are more likely to find your own distinct voice. Reading widely introduces you to how difference writers go about solving a particular problem. Reading is the post-graduate education of a writer.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Reading: The Second Most Important Task for a Writer

An author hones her writing skills by reading as well as writing. As a reader, the writer opens herself to new ideas, approaches and possibilities. Ordinary readers enjoy a good story, profit from new information and learn something new. Writers automatically analyze the techniques of everyone they read. And in this way, writers improve their craft by reading.
First, read deeply in your own subject or genre. By reading in your specialty, you add to your knowledge and expertise. Reading a variety of writers in a single genre, you will become familiar with the typical approach and style of each writer. This exposure to other writers will help you develop your own approach and style.
Second, read broadly beyond your own specialty. Go to the library and read a magazine you typically would avoid. Pick a book at random from the library and read it. Reading outside your own field allows you to encounter new theories, information and ideas. This unforeseen input stimulates thinking outside of the box. Most creative solutions come from combining two familiar things in unusual ways.
Third, read for pleasure. Most writers don’t need much encouragement to read. In addition to the pleasure of reading, writers find other benefits as well. While reading for pleasure, your subconscious continues to wrestle with unsolved problems and incubating potential solutions. While your subconscious may not always deliver a usable solution when you return to your writing table, it frequently does.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Extra Writing Dividends from Research

Research obviously serves the writer of non-fiction. More research leads to higher quality articles, and that’s reason enough do the research. However, research pays other dividends that are not limited to just non-fiction writers.
Research fills a writer up with information, ideas and possibilities. If you are brimming with information, it is easier to put words on the page. More information creates more options for you as a writer. If you are writing a story – fiction or non-fiction -- about an undertaker in Dallas, Texas, you may need to learn some things to make the story work.
What is the weather like in Dallas in February? How big is Dallas? How does Dallas differ from Fort Worth, Houston or El Paso? Are morticians, undertakers and funeral directors all the same? What is the nature of the funeral industry? Does your undertaker work for a mom and pop funeral parlor or one of the big industry chains? How much money does an undertaker make? What is the social status of an undertaker? Is the status of a funeral director different? What training does it take to become an undertaker?
After doing the research to answer the questions posed above, the blank page will hold less trepidation for you. Instead of worrying about having nothing to say, you will bubble over with ideas and possibilities. Your words will pour out on the page.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Are You a Writer?

Many hesitate to claim the title of writer. It seems presumptuous, perhaps, to include yourself in a group that includes Jane Austin, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison. You may insist that you do not write well enough to call yourself a writer. But that sets the bar too high.
If you put works on paper, you are a writer. This is a simple but useful definition. Consider the following definitions. Anyone who builds something of wood is a carpenter. A person who gets behind the wheel of a car is a driver. Anyone who runs is a runner. These definitions have a couple of things in common. First, simply participating in the activity allows the person to claim the title. Second, claiming the title does not say anything about the proficiency of performance. A person who runs a 15-minute mile is just as much a runner as is the person who runs a 4-minute mile. Similarly, the person who writes one simple story is as much a writer as a Pulitzer Prize winner.
If you write, proudly call yourself a writer. Don’t worry that you may need to improve the quality of your writing, because that is true of every writer, even the most acclaimed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fear of the Blank Page

The blank page intimidates most writers. Unfortunately, that intimidation doesn’t necessarily go away with time or experience. Left unchecked the fear of starting with a blank page can turn into full-blown writer’s block. While there is no perfect solution, I do have some tips that may help.
First, downplay the importance of the writing process. Robert Golembiewski, a prolific academic writer, wrote his first drafts in long hand on the backs of old student hand-outs plucked for the recycling bin. How important could anything scribbled on the back of a hand-out be? When writing by long hand, I use a one-subject, spiral notebook. It’s cheap and unpretentious. If you compose on a computer, insert the word DRAFT in large letters in the header and footer of the page.
Second, give yourself permission to write a lousy first draft. Realize that you are going to repeatedly replace the words in your first draft. Since your first draft will not survive, you do not have to fear how bad it is. After you have rewritten your first draft, you can delete it, shred it, burn it – whatever suits you.
Third, never start with a blank page at the beginning of the day. When you stop writing for the day, leave a page unfinished. On that page, leave you last sentence unfinished. This habit will ensure that you never have to face a blank page at the beginning of your writing session.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Where Do You Find Story Ideas?

A woman falls into a hole and has to figure out how to climb out. That's a basic story. Almost all stories are a variant of this basic story. With a protagonist and a problem, you have a story.

Any time you encounter an interesting person, you have the beginnings of a story. If you discover a conflict or a problem, you have the beginnings of a story. The bigger the problem or conflict the more potential your story has. The more appealing, appalling or unusual your protagonist, the more potential your story has.

Story ideas can come from anywhere. Perhaps you ride in an elevator with a very elegantly dressed Middle Eastern man. The children riding with him are blonde and fair. Is there a story there? Probably. A beautiful woman seldom has more than three dates with a man before the relationship sours. Do you have a story to tell? I think so. You read a newspaper article about an accident. A 42-year-old man kills an 11-year-old girl who darts from between parked cars into the path of his speeding car. Yes, we definitely have a story in this case. Your father is extremely critical of your choices in life. According to him, you picked the wrong schools, the wrong career and the wrong mate. Do I have to tell you that there is a story here?

Story ideas are everywhere. Begin to make notes about interesting people and difficult situations. Before long, you will have more than enough story ideas to keep busy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

After the Rejection Slip

Published writers get rejected. Rejection slips are part of the game, and eventually you'll get used to it. However, the rejections slips won't stop hurting.

It doesn't matter what you do the day you get a rejection slip. Cry. Swear. Get drunk. It doesn't matter. However, what you do the next day does matter.

Within 24 hours of getting that rejection slip, mail your manuscript to another outlet. Regardless of how you feel, write the cover letter, lick the stamp and get the package in the mail. That small act of courage removes your manuscript from your "rejected" pile to your "submitted" pile.

You may be tempted to rewrite your rejected manuscript. Go ahead, rewrite it. But do your rewrite while another publisher is evaluating the original manuscript. Who knows, you may get an acceptance before you complete your revision. Now that's a good problem to have.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Had Any Good Rejections Lately?

Beginning writers, particularly those not yet published, tend to have thin skins. Minor criticisms hurt, and rejections crush them. Seasoned writers develop thick skins early. Those who can't toughen up quit writing -- or at least quit trying to publish.

You should wear your rejections as badges of honor. Some of the world's most critically and commercially successful writers had difficulty landing agents and publishers. James Joyce's The Dubliners was rejected 22 times. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind struck out with 38 publishers, and the manuscript for Chicken Soup for the Soul was turned down 140 times.

Your rejection slips put you in some pretty good company. Personally, my most scornful rejection letter offered me the following advice: "Jack up the title and run a real article in under it." That's exactly what I did, and the article was published (eventually).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Revision: Where the Fun Begins

My favorite part of writing – next to seeing my just published article in a magazine – is revision. The blank page and the first draft are painful. When I put a sentence on the page, I know it won't work. I’m certain it will require revision, but that’s O.K. New sentences always need fixing. As writers that’s what we do. Revision is fun, but that’s a trade secret seldom revealed to outsiders.

The first draft gets words on the page. We ask nothing more of it. The initial draft is messy, and the resulting sentences are not pretty. As you begin to revise, cross out stray or redundant sentences. Improve your remaining sentences by cutting unnecessary words and phrases. Next, check for subject/verb agreement and rewrite to remove the passive voice. Now replace long words with short words and trade vague words for precise ones.

Look at your paragraphs. Did you arrange your sentences in the order that best makes your point? Sometimes you'll find your topic sentence at the end of the paragraph. In that case, simply move the last sentence to the beginning of the paragraph. Also, you may find that interchanging a couple of sentences makes the whole paragraph read better. Next, check to see if you arranged your paragraphs in the most effective sequence. Finally, read your first and last paragraphs to confirm that you tied them together.

Repeat this rewriting procedure as many times as needed. You can quit revising when you can no longer make improvements.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dialogue: Not What It Seems

You’ve probably heard that you should write like you speak. That may or may not be good guidance in general. However, it is terrible advice when it comes to writing dialogue. Actual conversation transcribed to the page doesn’t work.

Speech is disjointed, repetitive and hesitant. When I have a conversation with my wife, we talk on top of and past each other. I pretend to listen, and she usually catches me at it. We leave incomplete thoughts hanging, and our words sometimes just trail off. None of this makes for good reading.

To work on the page, only the most telling bits of a conversation should appear. Repartee is cleverer, putdowns more devastating and comebacks more pointed.

For reading ease, the writer needs to underplay accents and dialects on the page, even if they are important for developing a character. Also, a practiced writer controls the pace of the story with dialogue. More dialogue quickens the pace. More description slows the pace, allowing the reader to catch her breath.

A skilled writer uses dialogue to develop characters. If a character is stupid, or corrupt or compassionate, it shows in the dialogue. Emotions and motives spring to life in the dialogue. For the writer, dialogue is the place to discover the quirks, flaws and foibles of the characters. None of this happens if the writer behaves merely as a stenographer. When it comes to dialogue, good writers muster their best craft and cunning.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Don't You Dare Write a Tom Swifty

Tom Swift was the hero in a series of juvenile science fiction books for boys. Tom solved mysteries and foiled bad guys using his own clever inventions. Typical titles included Tom Swift and His Airship, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, and Tom Swift and His Sky Racer.

The books featured an odd quirk, called a Tom Swifty, which is a pun linking dialogue and adverbs. Here are some examples:

"Hurry up and get to the back of the ship," Tom said sternly.

"Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.

"That's the last time I'll stick my arm in a lion's mouth," the lion-tamer said off-handedly.

"Would you like to ride in my new ambulance?" asked Tom hospitably.

Tom’s adverbs telegraph the emotions the writer hopes to evoke. Although used to humorous effect in the Tom Swift books, overusing adverbs usually reveals lame writing.

Let your nouns and verbs show the reader what’s happening. If you use nouns and verbs skillfully, you will have little need for adjectives and adverbs. Your readers are clever enough to figure out how to react emotionally.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Write Anyway

Do you require special conditions to write? When you write, do you sit in a special room; use a certain type of paper or special pen? Many writers have rituals that they must follow if they are to write. Such eccentricities are fine when you are playing at being a writer. However, for those desperate to write, they will find a way to write in unimaginably harsh situations. The next time you can’t get anything done because something in the environment is not quite right, please recall a few of the incidents below.

Stephen King wrote Carrie on a TV tray in the hallway of the trailer he lived in with his wife.

Chicago novelist Scott Turow wrote his first novels on yellow legal pads while commuting by train to his job as a Prosecutor for the Justice Department.

John Cheever would dress in a suit in the morning, ride the elevator to the boiler room in the basement of his building, take his suit off, hang it up and write in his underwear. At the end of the day, he would put his suit on and ride back upstairs.

Ray Bradbury wrote many of his best stories and novels in the UCLA library, feeding quarters into the coin box that collected hourly rent for access to the IBM Selectric typewriters bolted to the tables.

John Wray, author of Low Boy, wrote up to six hours a day on a laptop while riding aimlessly on New York subway trains.

Before becoming a novelist, Charles Dickens worked in a textile mill, monitoring long rows of weaving machines. He walked the rows all day long, stopping only long enough to write a single sentence when he came to the end of the row. He walked those rows more than a hundred times a day.

You may not have perfect writing conditions, but that doesn’t have to become an excuse. Find a way.

Ambition Comes in All Sizes

Admit your ambitions. You want to be not only a writer but an author. Authors exude prestige while writers simply perspire. I suspect your ambition drives your efforts to write and to gain fame as an author. Ambition motivates, which means it is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, note the difference between Ambition and ambition. If you have ambition with a capital “A,” you probably aspire to write “The Great American Novel” or at least a bestseller that knocks Dan Brown off his perch.

You and I are more likely to admit to more modest ambitions. Currently, I am writing stories about my childhood that may be of interest to other family members. These “gifts of memory” can be valued family legacies and most people can write them successfully. A little higher up the modest ambitions scale is the desire to see your byline in a national magazine. National publication requires a lot of work and a little luck, but for those who study the writing craft, it's possible.

Perhaps your ambition is to make some money as a writer. You are unlikely to rack up royalties that match J. K. Rowlings’s millions. However, you may, as one published author put it, earn at least as much the guys who hang drywall.

Whether modest or out-sized, your ambitions will spur you to work harder and produce more. As for the results, only a fool predicts other people's failure. Don’t be deterred from your ambitious goals. Dream then; achieve them.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Of Book Titles and Such

Often, I buy a book based on its title alone. Sometimes, I just can’t help myself. A great title helps any book, but when a great title graces the cover of an excellent book, the publisher has a bestseller in the making.

Let’s look at some great books and the terrible titles almost assigned to them.

George Orwell’s 1984 went to the publisher with the title of The Last Man in Europe.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island started its life as The Sea-Cook.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men had a working title of Something that Happened.

Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools was almost titled Promised Land.

And at one point, Tolstoy considered calling his greatest novel by the cheerful title of All’s Well that Ends Well instead of the appropriately solemn War and Peace.

As you can see, titles make a difference. Pick your title with care but be ready to drop your original title if a better on comes along.

First Person Point of View

When beginning a story, a writer must pick a point of view. First person? Second person? Third person? Multiple points of view? Sometimes it’s a tough choice.

Most beginning writers gravitate to the first person point of view. This is understandable since their early stories tend toward autobiography. Developing writers manage the first person more easily. Also, some genres, such as the memoir and the hard-boiled detective story, favor the first person point of view.

First person stories are usually simple, direct and straightforward, creating fewer pitfalls for the novice. Readers identify more closely with a first person narrator, allowing the writer to create intimacy and emotional tension more quickly.

The advantages of the first person narration must be balanced against its drawbacks. The first person narrator:

• Can report only what she has seen, heard, done, experienced or felt,
• Cannot directly access the thoughts or feelings of other characters, and
• Has difficulty recounting events that happen simultaneously.

Each point of view serves a different purpose. When writing your story, pick the point of view that matches your story and your skill level.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Elmore's Rules

Elmore Leonard is one of the most popular writers of crime fiction working today. If you love vernacular dialogue, delight in unique characters and aren’t squeamish about rough language, you need to read Leonard.

Some of his better known books are Freaky Deaky, Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Gold Coast. If you think these sound like movie titles as well as book titles, you would be right. Hollywood turned many of his books into films.

His advice to writers shows up in one of the world’s shortest books: Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a word other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the word “said” . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patios, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

There it is, simple as can be.

Write as Fast as You Can

Want to write more? Of course, you do. Then, write your first draft as fast as you can.

The first draft is about one thing: Getting words on paper. The more words you have on the page the better. It doesn’t matter that the first draft is lousy. The first draft is always lousy. It’s supposed to be.

Your enemy is the blank page – all white space and no words. Your job is to put some words in the middle of all that useless white space. The best way to get that done is to write with abandon. Write as fast as you can. Don’t stop to pick a better word. Don’t bother with your spelling, grammar or syntax. Forget punctuation. None of that matters in a first draft. All that matters is how quickly you get words – a lot of words -- on the page.

In his book Ghostwriter, Philip Roth described the work day of a writer as putting sentences together in the morning and turning them around in the afternoon. I like that approach. Try it and see if it works for you.

Monday, December 7, 2009

How Would Anne Lamott Get It Done?

Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, inspires me when I am about to get bogged down. In Bird by Bird, Lamott concentrates on encouraging writers who have trouble sustaining their momentum during big projects. The length of a novel or the complexity of an article for a major magazine often overwhelms the writer.

She suggests that you can complete almost any writing project by focusing on the task immediately before you. Then focus on the next task that contributes to the project. And so forth. Here's an analogy Lamott borrowed from E. L. Doctorow that I particularly like. You can drive hundreds of miles in the dark using headlights that illuminate only a few hundred feet of highway at a time. The same principle applies to writing. You may only be able to see your way to the end of the current paragraph, but that is enough. You will see the shape of the next paragraph when you finish the one you are writing now. That's enough to get you to the end of the chapter and to the end of the book.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Writers Hear Voices in Their Heads

Did you ever hear your mother’s voice in your head? I’ll bet you can repeat some of her conversations verbatim. In certain situations, you know exactly what she would say. Amy Tan comes immediately to mind when thinking about books inspired by the ongoing internal dialogue between mother and child. These voices are not restricted to parental figures. Any important figure in your life may show up and engage you in an internal dialogue.

No doubt you have other voices that come to speak to you, whether invited or not. Usually, these voices are of people who have a strong emotional impact on you. Sitting at my writing desk, I find my thoughts interrupted occasionally by Brother Tackett, a “Hell’s fire and brimstone” preacher from childhood. When he speaks, I listen. Brother Tackett has a distinct Southern accent and expresses a wonderfully antiquated view of the world that is working well in more than one of my fiction projects.

When they speak, you care what they say, particularly when they are saying things you don’t want to hear or believe. Instead of treating these voices as intrusions or impediments to your writing, begin to listen to these voices and write down what they have to say. Some of your richest material as a writer hides within those emotionally charged internal dialogues. Pay attention to these voices and profit as a writer.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What's the Big Idea, Anyway?

Caroline Sharp, author of A Writer’s Workbook, suggests using a large three ring binder as an Idea Book for collecting your brainstorms, bits of overheard conversations, story plots, hunches, clippings, short descriptions, sketches, photographs – anything. Tip: tape or staple those bright idea napkins to a sheet of notebook paper and file them in your idea book. Better yet, start carrying 3” x 5” index cards for jotting your ideas.

Your Idea Book follows no rules but your own. Put it together as you please. If want your Idea Book causal and messy, that’s your business. If you are the more organized type, you can organize your book with color-coded page dividers and retype those scribbles from scraps of paper. It’s up to you. Since your Idea Book is a working document, organize it any way that works for you.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Waiting for the Muse

For centuries, writers praised the Muse or lamented her absence. In the Muse’s presence, words poured forth in abundance and without effort. When the Muse flees, the right words are as hard to find as an oasis in the desert. While some of history’s greatest writers believed literally in the Muse, most regarded her as a metaphor for a state of inspired creativity.

Still today, some writers idle away the hours waiting for the Muse to arrive. However, most of the prolific writers I know would tell you that the Muse is more likely to show up when you are already typing. Also, I’ve heard rumors that the Muse does not have a Starbucks card.

A Good Time to Write

As I write this, the house is dark and quiet. It’s also early morning and the stresses of the day haven’t arrived yet. A good time to write. Yes, yes it is, and I'm taking advantage of it. However . . .

I will manage to write some more during the hectic hours of the day ahead. I have an appointment at 10:00 A.M. and another one at 11. The 10 o’clock should run 30 – 40 minutes and it will take me about five minutes to walk to my 11:00 A.M. meeting. The 15- to 20-minute break between meetings is a chance to put a few words on the page. It' a tiny block of time, but I’ll get some words on the page. Guaranteed.

I know I’ll put words on the page because I’ve left myself an unfinished sentence to kick start my micro-writing session. I relish those tiny blocks of time to get a little bit of writing done.

By the way, that’s how James Patterson got started. Why do you think his chapters are so short?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Write to Remember

Much of my writing involves memoir or personal essays. Obviously, these forms rely heavily on memory. Unfortunately, memory is not what it used to be. However, you can strengthen specific memories and enrich your personal reflections as a consequence. Let me give you an example.

During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, a friend and I hitchhiked from Northern California to Yuma, Arizona, and back. Some memories are clear, such as the ride in the back of a police cruiser just outside of San Diego. Other memories, such as how long we went without eating after we ran out of money, are less vivid.

Fortunately, I can telephone my high school buddy, Mike, and ask him to help me recall the details. I can also talk with Mike's older sister about the trip. We showed up on her doorstep in Yuma on a hot day in the middle of July as unexpected and uninvited guests. She remembers the incident very clearly. My memory is also helped by looking at a big roadmap of California and Arizona. California and Arizona newspapers from that summer also help stimulate memories. Looking at a picture of a Studebaker Hawk also conjures up images of my youth and that particular summer, but that's another story.

Just this brief sampling of memory joggers show how fading memories can be revived and enhanced. The resulting essay, story or memoir gains more depth and richness.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Don't Feel Like Writing Today?

Writing is hard work. Many days I would rather clean the mold out of the grout in my shower than write. In fact, today was one of those days. So was yesterday, and I expect the same will be true tomorrow. Maybe you are having that kind of day too.

As with many writers, you and I may have a case of the "don't feel like writing today blues." It's going around, I hear. But here's a surefire way to beat those blues: Write anyway.

The only way to get work done is to do it. If you worked in a coal mine, you might not feel like going to work. In fact, I can almost guarantee it. However, you would still go work if that were your job.

Writing is your job. You chose it (or maybe it chose you). Now, do your job and put some words on the page -- particularly if you don't feel like it. After you have put one word after another for awhile you will start to feel better.

I promise.


Have You Written Your Journal Pages Today?

I stretch my writing muscles every day by writing in my journal. The journal is personal, meaning that I don't share what I write there with anyone on a routine basis. My journal allows me to limber up and get prepared for the more organized writing I will do that day.

Almost anything might show up in my journal. Overheard bits of conversation show up there. Ideas for articles, books and stories find their way there. My journal contains a number of rants that I hope never see the light of day anywhere else. I track my progress on my writing goals in the journal, noting religiously how many words I wrote yesterday. (The words written in the journal don't count toward my daily total.)

If you haven't written your journal pages today, get to it.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

50 Reasons to Write

If you entertain exalted ideas about why you should write, I want to challenge your assumptions. Of course, there are high-minded reasons to write, there are low-down reasons as well. Let's celebrate writing and encourage writers, regardless of motives. So, with apologies to Paul Simon, here are 50 Reason to Write:

1. To inform.

2. To persuade.

3. To learn.

4. To outrage.

5. To feel better.

6. To document.

7. To maintain sanity.

8. To motivate yourself.

9. To amuse others.

10. To amuse yourself.

11. To insult.

12. To woo.

13. To fool.

14. To sell.

15. To get famous.

16. To make money.

17. To tell a story.

18. To impress.

19. To ask for a job.

20. To praise.

21. To propagandize.

22. To swear loyalty.

23. To pledge eternal love.

24. To tell a joke.

25. To cause sexual arousal.

26. To give directions.

27. To remind ourselves.

28. To pay tribute to.

29. To bring a tear.

30. To roast.

31. To worship.

33. To reveal evil.

34. To celebrate accomplishment.

35. To call a meeting.

36 To say "I'm sorry."

37. To become a fan.

38. To resign from a job.

39. To win a grant.

40. To complete an assignment.

41. To express an opinion.

42. To make create pleasing sounds to be read aloud.

42. To rebut.

43. To defend.

44. To attack.

45. To remember what to get at the store.

46. To agree to a contract.

47. To create a song.

49. To express grief.

50. To say "I love you."

We write for noble reasons, base reasons and no reasons at all. Now get busy stringing some words together.