Welcome to a special Anniversary Edition of Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing! It was a year ago this week that the first edition of my weekly NWOW was
completely overlooked heralded by Writer’s Digest as “A literary hazard cone…” and by Publisher’s Weekly as “Our measuring stick for excellent writing, if we were on the metric system.” As if that weren’t enough, I received a congratulatory email this morning from The Master of Horror® Stephen King:
I consider myself an expert on corpses, so you can believe me when I say your body of work speaks for itself.”
High praise indeed.
But enough accolades! It’s time to prepare yourself. Why? Because in just a few moments I will push the button on a special remote, releasing balloons and confetti on you! That’s right! While you were sleeping, special crews (most of which were licensed, bonded and documented citizens) were busy installing compartments of spring-loaded balloons and confetti in your ceiling! And you thought it was creepy rats! Haha! So count down with me as we prepare to release balloons and confetti on 3,432 folks, some of whom don’t read this blog regularly and will be totally freaked out!
Here we go:
That’s weird. All the garage doors on my street just opened.
Now they’re all closing. Great. If any of you actually had balloons and confetti dropped on you this morning (and it didn’t involve paying cash to a stranger), please let me know.
But hey! Let’s not allow one little setback ruin the occasion; there will be plenty of other setbacks for that! For those who might be visiting for the first time, I should explain 1) There wasn’t enough time to include you in the balloon-confetti drop, which is no big deal since it didn’t work anyway, and 2) this weekly feature is when I utilize my 15 years as a newspaper columnist to impart writing wisdom that is occasionally mistaken as insightful.
That said, let’s continue with our anniversary celebration of NWOW with a special edition I’m calling:
A Year’s worth of Questionable Writing Advice
This retrospective is a time capsule of sorts, offering snippets from a year’s worth of writing advice all in one post, demonstrating how, with better organization and editing, I could have saved everyone a LOT of time…
When querying editors or publishers, there a few simple truths that will help distinguish your email query from the hundreds of male enhancement offers they receive each day. A couple of things to keep in mind:
1) In the same way emailing your query makes things faster and easier for you, it’s also faster and easier for editors to delete your submission without ever reading it. That’s just part of the trade off. What you gain, of course, is more queries in less time, without the expensive postage.
Why wait weeks for rejection when you can have it within minutes at no extra cost?!?
2) Developing a tough skin isn’t nearly as important as keeping a clear perspective on things. The fact is, even the best query can go unopened by a prospective editor, particularly if the timing is bad, and your query arrives the same morning the feature writer quits after being attacked during an interview with “The Neighborhood Cat Lady.”
It’s for reasons like this that going through long periods without a response shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of your writing ability. Neither is getting multiple rejections.
However, multiple rejections written in all-caps could be cause for concern.
For directions to Rhode Island or more on how to format your email query, click here…
Writers are just like painters or sculptors; they have at their disposal tools to help them create and communicate in ways which — depending on how they use their tools and in what sequence — will resonate their own unique voice. Here are three of the most important tools in establishing a writer’s voice:
Timing. Truthfulness. Relativity.
Timing: In my mind, this is probably the most important and frequently wielded tool for a writer, and the most complex. That’s because so many devices play a role in timing, including punctuation, paragraph structure, word usage and even font choice. As a humor columnist, I often want to take the reader by surprise so that they don’t see the punch line coming, much like a bullfighter who uses his cape to entrance the bull while, simultaneously, hiding the stain in the seat of his tight pants. (See how that works?)
Truthfulness: More than any time in history, readers are astute at recognizing a false tone in writing. Reality TV shows, blogs and instant access to information have, to a certain degree, trained readers to be skeptics, making your job of building a connection with the reader particularly crucial. Being truthful is one of the fastest ways to build that connection. This has less to do revealing things about yourself, and more to do with being honest. That said, if you’re writing about how you dislike making other people’s sandwiches while working at the deli, then Yes — go ahead and reveal that you secretly lick all the mayonaise off the knife between spreads.
Not that I would ever do that.
I’m just saying writing with an element of truth about yourself, or your character, builds trust with the reader and can make an immediate connection, especially if they recognize something in themselves.
Relativity: Even if you are already knowledgeable or experienced on a subject, you will lose your reader if they can’t make it relative to them, i.e., if they can’t relate. This is particularly important when writing about personal experience; if the reader doesn’t feel included, it won’t matter how wacky it is that “Aunt Frita” got loose and trampled the garden if the reader doesn’t know “Aunt Frita” is actually a mule.
I realize that’s a bit of an overstatement, especially since I don’t know “Aunt Frita” either. But without carefully laying the foundation in a way that includes your reader, they will likely sit down and refuse to follow.
For more on this (but not much on Aunt Frita), click here…
When I first started writing in an actual newsroom, my routine consisted of sitting at my desk, staring blankly at the screen and banging on my keys as quickly as possible until it was time to go home, where I would do my actual writing. Why did I do this?
I was intimidated because, on either side of me, journalists were typing feverishly — seemingly non-stop — while I sat waiting for inspiration. My brain was still hardwired for waiting until the kids were asleep before slinking off into the study/laundry room to do my writing, as long as nothing else needed to be done. I was a single parent of two children under the age of 10 at the time, so there was always something else that needed to be done. I realized two things one night sitting in my luxurious study/laundry room:
1) I needed to push myself to establish a new writing routine that fit my lifestyle and commitments, and
2) By putting my daughter’s favorite sweater through the drier, it was now the perfect size for our neighbor’s Chihuahua.
I’ll admit, re-programming yourself into a writing routine takes time and persistence. But your brain will quickly adapt to having a real writing schedule, much in the same way your body adapts to a workout routine. And I say “your body” because mine still hates going to the gym no matter what time it is. I realize not everyone has the luxury of writing full time. However, the same rule applies to anyone who is serious about writing. Married or not, with or without children, full- or part-time job, stay-at-home working or away-at-work parent. In addition to priming your brain to be ready for action at a set time on a regular basis, setting a strict writing routine says to yourself and others that your writing, just like making time for each of your other responsibilities, is just as important.
Whether it’s 30 minutes or three hours, every day or certain days of the week, that time is a commitment you’ve made to yourself, as a writer, to write — without exception, excuse or apology. For more on this (but nothing on actual exercise), click here…
Every writer has his or her own technique when it comes to inspiration, and the Internet is only one part of a much larger equation. While I certainly scan through headlines from the larger Portland and Eugene newspapers in an effort to stay up on cultural trends and world events, once I leave the office restroom I generally refer to a collection of ideas I keep in a folder on my desk. In it, I have clippings, print outs, emails and ideas jotted on pieces of paper.
So how do I decide between good ideas and not-so-good ones?
Before we get to that, I will explain why I don’t believe there are any “bad” ideas. At least when it comes to writing.
Skateboarding down “suicide hill” wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip-flops when I was 10?
But when it comes to cultivating story ideas — good or “bad” — they’re all part of the filtration process. Think of “bad” ideas as corn mash; it isn’t what you’re after when making moonshine, but it’s a by-product of the fermentation process that leads to the end result. The trick is knowing when to dump it even though, like whisky, mash can still get you intoxicated.
On my desk is a folder I have cleverly labeled: Column Ideas. This folder is my “corn mash.” That’s where everything goes to begin the fermentation process. Like a bootlegger, I sift through it regularly, dumping what is no longer usable (because of timeliness or spilled coffee, for example) and adding more in its place. For more on corn mash or distilling story ideas, click here…
The Initial Attack phase is exactly what it sounds like. You have assembled what you need, know your plan of action, and are on-scene with your nozzle wide open, flooding the page with your ideas in a steady stream without interruption. You don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or other grammatical concerns that will slow down your progress in getting thoughts and ideas on the page.
Next comes the not-so-fun, but equally important, phase of the draft process: Overhaul. This is when you take a deep breath and look around to see what the fire has done, what dangers remain, and take care of anything that could flare up again later. As a writer, the same rules apply. Take a look at your pages as if they’re rooms in a house. Go through each page, line by line, and look for obvious errors — typos, misspelling, run-on sentences, improper tense changes, etc.
Give yourself 30 minutes or so to get a fresh set of eyes before beginning the final phase: Clean-up. At this point, you’ve gone through everything twice, corrected the grammatical “dangers” you discovered during Overhaul, and have made revisions to your manuscript that improve upon the original draft. Clean-up is that final walk-through you give before telling residents — or publishers — “Hey, everything has been done to make sure you won’t get burned.” For more on this or other cool firefighting terms, click here…
As a writer, you need to have the ability to do more than simply observe and notate things about people and situations; you have to be able to inhabit them in the same way that, say… Justin Bieber inhabits his role as a skinny caucasian gangster.
Except unlike Justin Bieber, you must be believable.
To do this, you have to be willing — and able — to step outside yourself and literally experience things as someone else in order to formulate reactions and dialogue that ring true. Even as a columnist, I have a few individuals who make appearances from time to time because they allow me to approach a subject more effectively than through simple narrative. One of these individuals is Ima Knowitall, the “self-proclaimed best selling author” behind the novel, Fifty Shades of Time-Traveling Vampire Love.
Confession time: I’m not actually a 30-something, pessimistic female writer who wants so much to believe in her own fame that she constantly projects a facade of celebrity to the point of ludicrousness. If you need a moment to fully process this realization, I understand. My wife was pretty shaken by my big reveal as well, once we took the leap from Match.com to meeting for the first time seven years ago…
Welcome back! (Coincidentally, the same words I used at the beginning of our second date.)
As I was saying, Ima Knowitall is an individual I turn to when I feel that exploring an idea is better suited — and more engaging for readers — if they feel like an active participant in the conversation. That’s where multiple personality disorder comes into play. Even if what you’re writing is an over-the-top character or situation, readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief as long as there is an element of truth. Screenwriters for sci-fi, horror and action movies constantly rely on this element to convince viewers to go along for the ride — and that element is believability.
In order to make an individual like Ima Knowitall work, three things need to happen:
1) What she says and does must stay true to her character
2) My reactions and responses to her must embellish, not contradict her
3) Anyone else we “interact with” must do the same
To pull that off, you have to engage your MPD in order to shift your points of view convincingly from one individual to the next. For novelists, this is the first step in graduating from linear plot-driven writing to richer, character-driven stories. Which brings me to the effectiveness of talking to yourself. First, let me clarify this shouldn’t occur in a room full of strangers or, for example, while making someone’s Cold Cut Combo at Subway.
But when utilized as a tool in the privacy of your own home or office — or even during your morning commute if you pretend to have a Bluetooth — actually verbalizing dialogue is the best way to hear if it rings true. Not only will it identify phrasing that would be too difficult for someone to say (Note: This does not apply to characters written by Aaron Sorkin), it can also be an integral part of “inhabiting” that individual in the same way an actor verbally explores a script to understand delivery and motivation. For more on my MPD or character development and believability, click here repeatedly…
Okay, so this post is already the longest post in the history of my blog, or quite possibly the entire blogosphere…
Yep, I checked; it’s official.
For those who didn’t reached retirement age since starting this post and, as a result, stopped reading to move to Florida, thank you for reading. Especially those who have been coming by each week for the last year leaving great feedback and comments. I hope the last 52 Fridays have added up to at least a nickel’s worth of helpful advice. For those who have recently begun following, I promise my posts aren’t always this long.
Sorry again about the balloon and confetti fail. And if your garage door is open when you get home, you know who to blame.
(Click HERE to visit the full Nickel’s Worth on Writing archives.)