Sunday, July 29, 2012

Writing beginnings:

Whether you are beginning a magazine article, a short story, or a book, the beginning must be superb.  A reader’s interest is captured within the first three pages of a novel.  If the author has lost her interest in those first three pages, the reader will, most likely, not continue reading.

1.  The length of every beginning is relative to the length of the whole piece.  A short story that contains a thousand words might have a beginning of 250 words or less.  An article for a magazine would have just a paragraph.  A lengthy novel might have half a chapter that serves as a beginning.

2.  A beginning snags the reader by its interest.  Lure the reader into your work with your enchanting beginning.  Write for the highest interest possible.

3.  What comprises a high-interest beginning?

            a.  A vivid description of a character or setting.  Think about local color, especially if your characters are folksy or belong to a particular cultural or community group, such as the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch.  For setting: the Alpine region, a rainforest, a beach, a desert, a jungle, an everyday living room wherein something or someone unique is planning, devising, beginning some kind of master plan.  And describe the setting using all of the senses: sight, hearing, smelling, touching. 

            b. Action/adventure “in media res.”  Put the reader right into the middle of a murder, a rescue, thoughts about suicide, an event of some kind, such as a wedding, a funeral, a telephone call with urgent news.  Make your action immediate and so interesting the reader will be unable to resist putting down your story.

            c.  Avoid philosophical thinking, analysis, passive thought, monotonous dwelling on an issue, lecturing, proselytizing of any kind.  Avoid any issues that are inherently boring or that would annoy a reader. 

            d.  Above all: be real.  Use real, every day language.  If using verbiage of a particular group, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, write with some dialect to the conversations.  Narrative paragraphs should sound way different from spoken words.  Even particular people within a book may speak differently and use particular accents or expressions.  Incorporate dialect, accents, and habits of speech into a character’s direct quotes. 
            Avoiding cursing just for its own sake will make your work sound hollow and unreal.  People in dire and dangerous situations swear, and there’s never a good way for good writers to get around this.  Saying “Gosh!” when it’s more believable to say “God!” is fake and phony.  Never be a phony with your reader, or you will lose her.  Don’t sugar-coat words like the “F” word—just say them when appropriate and when no other word will do.  Sometimes beginnings, because they are intense, focused, action-packed, will need some cussing.

Coming next week: How to build a believable character.

Writing for Detail and Rhythm:

Take a look at the two writing samples that follow.  The seond is a better version of the first.  Can you tell why?

First sample:

“The old, wizened man walked merrily down the gravel driveway.  He was the town dwarf and was known to everyone in the neighborhood as the go-to guy.  When anyone had a problem, James would lend a helping hand, whether it be a bit of cash or sage advice.  All the townsfolk loved James McCabe, and he loved them.  But he didn’t like me.”

Here’s the same example re-written for detail and rhythm:

“James McCabe, the wrinkled dwarf of Mysteria, Wisconsin, whistled Lady Gaga songs and nodded to each passing weary widow, texting teen, and amorous adult.  To mothers consoling crowd-weary babies, he tossed tootsie roll pops.  To beggars in restless sleep at the town’s bandshell, he stashed a five dollar bill between their fingers.  To me, however, he offered nothing but scorn.  McCabe hated me.

1.  Edit out unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.  Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, particularly adverbs ending in “ly.”

2. Use good, descriptive nouns, not abstract nouns that do not allow the reader to “see” pictures: “James McCabe, wrinkled dwarf, Mysteria, WI, Lady Gaga, widow, mothers, tootsie roll pops.”

3.  Write of  local color and culture: “Lady Gaga songs,  texting teens.”

4.  Use good active verbs, and avoid using forms of “to be,” such as “am, is, are, was, were, had been, have been,” etc.  In this example, I used “whistled, nodded, passed, tossed, stashed, offered, hated.”

5.  Edit out clich├ęs and worn-out expressions: “go-to guy, sage advice.”

5.  Create adjectives using a hyphen and describing two states, like “crowd-weary.”  This makes writing compact. Powerful, and poetic.

6. Use figures of speech, like metaphor, similes, alliteration, etc.  Know what a figure of speech is, first.  Alliteration in “weary widows, texting teens, and amorous adults.”

For rhythmic prose:

1. Vary sentence structure.  Know what a simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence is and use each one so that your prose has a musical quality.

2.  Use short simple sentences for being rigid, shocking, funny, and abrupt. Use compound for narrating.  Use complex for combining several thoughts or actions in which one action should be subordinated or made lesser than the main action.

3.  Use repetition to enforce a point.  Notice the sentences beginning with “To” in the example above.

4.  Be conscious of the rhythm of your prose.  Vary sentence length and type and choose your sentence structure according to points of emphasis and importance.  Pace your writing, and make it have a “beat,” as in a musical beat.

5. Use qualifiers when writing: ‘however, on the other hand, by the way, nevertheless, etc.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How to Write: Jump In!

            After years of teaching freshman college English and writing books, I know a thing or two about the writing process.  I consider myself rather an authority on the subject, but I’m not too full of myself to think that differing opinions from mine are incorrect.  I do, however, know what works for most students when it comes to composing coherently-written thoughts.  And I certainly know what works for me. 

Here’s a bit of my own take on the writing process:

1.  No right or wrong way exists to the approach of and during the process of writing.
            Many scholars of writing composition believe that students must begin by slogging through pre-writing activities: brain-storming, outlining, jogging the thought process by word associations, word association trees, and journaling, to name just a few.    They insist writers start with pre-writing, as though they need to warm-up--stretch their pens and computers—before beginning the actual creation.  For some students, however, this could be a larger barrier than the writing itself.  I, myself, envision these exercises as more taxing, even annoying, than the writing because, to me, pre-writing is a waste of time and thinking. 
            Other instructors of writing will insist that each essay or story be outlined in detail, and only after an outline is accomplished should the student begin to write the meat of the story.  Some instructors will encourage students to write by long-hand first and correct sentences for structure, detail, and punctuation right on the spot.  For some students this advice will be helpful; for others it is dead wrong advice.
            No one way of creating is the end-all and the be-all of written creation.  Why?  Because each person has his own way of writing, and no one way is the correct way, and no one way is the wrong way.  Writing is as individual as are preferences for ice cream flavors,

2.  “Git ‘er done!”
            Perhaps I’m making my advice here too simplistic, but I can’t help it because of observing my own writing process.  My motto is, simply, like that of Larry the Cable Guy: “Git ‘er done!”  That’s the easiest way for me to get words on paper: by just starting—jumping in the lake cold and warming up to it.  I encourage my writing students to do the same.   I don’t want to agonize over pre-writing activities, though if writers need to engage in these activities for a jump start on a paper or article, they surely should if they feel it’s helpful.    
            So, in order to “Git ‘er done!” I recommend writers face their raw, vacant computer screen, piece of paper, or typewriter paper (yes, some writers prefer to write on a manual typewriter), grit their teeth at that blankness, hunker down, begin thinking of the most shocking, interesting way to get at their topic and JUST JUMP IN. 

And now I’m going to change to second person in order to get more personal:

BEGIN WRITING.  Let the consciousness take care of itself; allow the movie screen in one’s mind to dictate the words describing the scenes on that screen; see it, and write down what is happening.  Just “Git ‘er done!”  Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, types of sentences, or any of that little technical stuff. 
            Get the big picture down on paper first.  Go with the flow; create; let it roll out of your mind.  If one must, just use what some very famous authors have used: the stream-of-consciousness technique—few sentences, just all thoughts that blend and blur together.  As long as you get the idea, the thought, the gist, down, despite how awkwardly put, you can go back later and clean, tighten, and brighten it up so that the reader can better understand and see the “movie” from your perspective.

3.  “Clean ‘er up”:
            Delete unnecessaries and edit for detail and correctness.
            All writing is meant to be read, or it wouldn’t be written, right?  So, you must keep your reader in mind during editing, as well.  You should, once you’ve “got ‘er done,” attend to coherence and unity of effect so that your audience easily gets the perfect picture and tone—never ask a reader to struggle over your writing, neither in trying to understand your ideas nor your sentences.  If he has a hard time understanding or feels he  could be misunderstanding your intent, he will become frustrated and abandon you. 
            To insure this doesn’t happen, you should go back over the “mind-flow” with a correcting and deleting pen.  Delete anything that does not contribute to the unified effect you’re trying to accomplish.  Choose fewer words to say the same thing.  Edit out unnecessary words, details that don’t contribute to the overall effect.  And, then, after deleting the extraneous, think smaller, more technical, and attack and fix sentence structure, punctuation and grammar errors.

4.  Edit for the musical effect.
             See that your writing has a musical effect, much like ocean waves.  Writing-- even prose--has rhythm.  Punctuation and qualifiers, such as “by the way,” ”on the other hand,” ‘rather,” etc. (find them in an old grammar book) create suspense in writing just by creating a pause.  For that microsecond of a pause that a semicolon makes, for example, (“for example” is also a qualifier) the reader subconsciously awaits the final thought of that sentence with some kind of micro-anticipation.  And that is fun for the reader.

5.  Edit for grammar and punctuation.
            I have the ability, honed from much self-discipline during my college days when professors failed compositions for incorrect punctuation, to work the punctuation into my larger thoughts.  You may or may not be as adept; however, (another qualifier) if you are  not proficient in using all the marks of punctuation, you need to make yourself an expert.  You need to find an old-fashioned grammar book with the rules of punctuation and sit down and learn the rules and grammatical structures that command punctuation.  And—yes—you need to memorize them and then be able to use them.  Nothing is more distracting to a reader than having to plow through writing that is poorly punctuated.  Incidentally, you should not be placing commas wherever you feel you need to pause or take a breath.  Attacking punctuation in this way is by hit-or-miss, and for a reader, reading such slush is a thrill-killer.

**** The above is my advice, not the final word, on how go about the writing process.  Other instructors may take exception; however, I know what works for me and what has worked for my students of writing.  Think large first; “git ‘er done,” and, then,  clean ‘er up.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Faster than a Speeding Fly

I had just stepped out of the shower the other day and was drying off when I heard the buzz of a very large fly.  "Oh, no!" I thought.  "I sure don't want that loud thing bouncing off the walls of the bedroom all night."

I wrung my towel tight in a futile effort to snap it at him as he zoomed by, but I couldn't even follow his Airbus 350 body with my eyes, so quick and agile was he, let alone take him down with a towel.    As though high on Mountain Dew, the huge fly zoomed from one light to another, hitting the mirror, and I soon decided I could never target him with my damp towel.  He was just too lively.

My cat, Evie, sat on the floor, her eyes following the loud blowfly as he flew into the wall like a kamikaze, dashed to the next light, and sped, roaring, past my head.

"Get him, Evie," I said, standing back.

Suddenly the fly made a fatal mistake.  Oblivious, he tore a path right past Evie.  I saw a paw as a blurred swipe, and, then, she pinned the pest to the floor with both paws.  I giggled into my towel.  Next, she hunkered down, carefully opening her paws, her face right over them, and sucked him into her mouth.

"Chomp, . . . chomp, . . . chomp."  Evie gulped twice, and the big and, apparently, fairly juicy snack disappeared down herSpeeding Fly feline hatch.  I cheered, and she just looked at me, nonplussed.

The moral of this story is "Cats are quick, and humans are very slow."

The Centered Moth

Do you see the little "heart" in the center of my front door?

It is a moth.

When I came down the steps and saw this moth aligned so perfectly in the middle of that pane of glass, I truly marveled at the tiny creature.  I think he put himself there deliberately, intentionally, organizationally--right in the center in order to attract my attention.  He may even have been thinking and acting artistically, dare I say?

Whatever his motives or intentions, however, the sight of this centeredness of a moth struck me in a way that not much else ever does.  Could an insect with lesss than a pea brain possess enough self-consciousness to position him or herself just so on this window?  Was he trying to disguise himself from possible predators by looking deliberately placed, as though he were a part of the whole door and not a creature that could be swallowed up by a spider or bird?

Beats the hell out of me.

One thing I know: seeing the moth so strategically placed on the outside of my doorway made me appreciate the possibility of a moth having more than a brain the size of a pencil tip.  As well, I realized that art arises in so many different ways.  Yes, I do consider this finding a work of art--by Nature.  Others may not even have noticed the creature on my door, but I perceived its presence in so many different ways, another one of them being the possibility of a spirit of, possibly, my dead grandmother or grandparents, visiting me.  I know that's far-fetched, and I'm not really into spiritual happenings of this kind, but, after all, the moth does look like a heart, doesn't it?  My grandma Eckensberger would try to contact me in this way--through nature.

Just thought I'd share this strange occurrence.

Our world never ceases to amaze.