Celebrating a year of somewhat questionable writing advice

image 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:
Three..!
Two..!
One..!

Ka-CHOW!

That’s weird. All the garage doors on my street just opened.

*tap tap*

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…

Getting started as a columnist (or why I avoid Rhode Island)

image 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

Finding your writing ‘voice’ (unless you’re William Hung)

Typewriter at micWriters 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

Like exercise, regular writing can shape your (literary) thighs

Bike typewriter copy 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

Learn to distill story ideas like a moonshiner

Moonshine books copy 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?

Bad idea.

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…

Do you feel a draft? It’s time to revise your manuscript

Do you feel a draft? As I’ve mentioned before, in addition to being a columnist, I’m also a firefighter. When you get down to it, putting out a structure fire is like the a manuscript’s three-draft process:

Initial Attack
Overhaul
Clean-up

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…

Writers who don’t talk to themselves scare me

image 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.)

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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63 thoughts on “Celebrating a year of somewhat questionable writing advice

  1. WHOA. confetti fell and there is a playgirl pin up of…YOU over my bed. WHAT THE NED?

    had i known…..ida been throwing confetti a long time ago…..

    wait…..wait….hahahaha…that was anderson. anderson cooper!
    I knew there was a resemblence. woot!

  2. Ned, it’s not only your longest post in blog history but I think it’s your best. I believe what holds me back the most is writer’s guilt, which causes writer’s block. I have learned that people really prefer to read inspirational posts. I feel a since of (self-inflicted) obligation to deliver the goods, but sometimes what I want to write isn’t inspirational or uplifting.

  3. Yay! Happy One Year NWOW. I’m sure that’s a national holiday somewhere, right?
    This is a post that I’ll come back to frequently as a really great reference. Reading some of the snippets for a second time was a great refresher AND you’ve single handedly helped me with techniques in editing, voice and establishing a writing schedule. So much so that if I don’t get my “daily write” in at 5 a.m. I have a morphine twitch all day and don’t play well with others. (Today was one such day!)
    I also read the other responses and just must say (and Victoria would agree) that “self-indulgent” is absolutely the last way people would describe you. NWOW is engaging, funny and relevant/helpful to us all. I look forward to it every Friday. Thank you!
    Now..would you PLEASE come clean the confetti and balloons out of my office. I have company coming tonight for goodness sakes!

    • Well, my NWOW anniversary isn’t a national holiday yet, but I’m working on getting it recognized as NWOW Awareness Day next year. Ironically the same time as Brain Awareness Week.

      I am so glad to hear about you establishing a writing schedule and that, without it, you get twitchy. That’s a good sign. As long as it doesn’t happen while you’re on the riding mower. And thanks for the kind words; I’m very glad and proud to know I’ve contributed something to help you and other talented writers in some way.

      By the way, I’ll be by shortly with my Duster Buster to get that confetti cleaned up. You should probably check your garage door anyway, just to be safe 😉

  4. “if they feel like an active participant in the conversation. That’s where multiple personality disorder comes into play.” HaHa Priceless.
    Your comment box makes me uneasy. Of course confetti falling from my ceiling would have confirmed said unease.

  5. I woke up when a pile of coins fell on me from the ceiling. As I looked at them, I found that they were nickels, but Thomas Jefferson on them suddenly had facial hair (and looked totally different, by the way) and was holding what appeared to be a press ID. I collected about fifty of these strange coins, and I was trying to figure out what the hell happened, I read this post. So NWOW, I mean, now, it all finally makes sense.

  6. Happy NWOW anniversary. I’ll back your NWOW awareness day application. That would be an observance worth its weight in nickel.
    I enjoy these pieces. Here’s to another year!

  7. I should have known, the confetti and balloons weren’t for me – my anniversary is on the 17th. Ms. Ima Knowitall usurps my moment of – awww, Ned remembered! Awww….. Oh well, I guess I will have to skip to plan B and bathe in green beer and cavort with little men in green velvet suits. Might even come up with a limerick or two..

    Great, great advice Ned, and I’m glad I wouldn’t scare you with my uni-conversations, but I do get a lot of reaction from people when I’m writing (aka yakking to myself) in aisle 7 at the grocery store, or browsing through Home Depot.

  8. Thanks Ned for the writing tips – I’m a new subscriber and haven’t had the pleasure of reading the collected works of NWOW. I also haven’t had any formal training in writing and find your analysis helpful. However, if you want to get to know Aunt Frita better, I can help there. Oddly enough (and I think it may be genetic) my retired cousin has a farm outside Toronto where she takes in abused mules and Donkeys. She’s the go-to person for the local SPCA when there are farm animals seized from abusers. Last I checked she had 13 mules and donkeys and will adopt them out if you pass her screening and she is comfortable that you will give her mule a good home. So, remember, if you ever need a mule, I’m your man – I can hook you up with a looker ( they tend to be a bit obstinate, however).

  9. Pingback: Spotlight[Living]: Ned's Blog - BlogDogIt

  10. No confetti. No coins. Perhaps they don’t travel over water.
    Regardless, congrats on a whole year and thank you for the gem that is the highlights of NWOW.
    I will select and adhere to a regular time of day to write.
    Could you send me a reminder though Ned, something always seems to crop up….

    • Many thanks, RW. As a token of my appreciation, and since none fell from your ceiling, I have hired someone to come to your home and throw confetti at you, then say “Get to writing!” at 7 p.m. each night. Let me know how that goes…;)

  11. Congratulations, Ned!
    Long may you reign as the king of completely useful and logical advice.
    (You have no idea how many times I typed that sentence while my body involuntarily shook with… well, i don’t want to say laughter, but…)

  12. Neddie-boy! In Canada, we celebrated this anniversary 5 weeks ago (a Canadian year is about 0.90 American years)…surprised you didn’t hear the geese honking and the beaver clapping. So, belated well done, sir!

    (BTW, it is the year 2237 up here and I just wanted to congratulate you on the recent election of President George XYZ Bush…oh and sorry about that whole Minnesota-Wisconsin-Michigan annexation thing back in 2178…but hey, we let you keep Old Milwaukee)

    • Wow, I realllly need to update my Google calendar. By the way, I did hear the geese honks. I just thought it was my flatulent children.

      And as for the annexation thing, we’ll have the last laugh once Justin Bieber was relocated to Detroit in a few months.

      (And… Thanks for everything, Randall 😉 )

  13. Happy Anniversary and the confetti totally worked! I’m still picking it out of my hair. Seriously, your posts are so helpful. I get something out of every one of them and then I swear I’ll never write another post as long as I live. But I eventually do, and try to incorporate what I learned from you. Your posts also always always always make me laugh. Yay Ned! Looking forward to the next year of your wisdom and comedy : )

    • I’m so glad it worked at your place, Molly! As you continue to pick confetti out of things for the next several months — possibly years — I it will be a reminder of my appreciation for you, your writing and your wonderful presence in the blogosphere 😉

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