Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Secret 10

10. Finish what you started.

Kurt Vonnegut said something about giving the reader as much information as possible as soon as possible. I have taken this to mean I should tell the reader everything. Yes, you are the reader and I am going to tell you everything! If this goes wrong I think we should hold Kurt Vonnegut wholly responsible. Although the advice that you should finish what you started came from Neil Gaiman, who actually said finish what you’re writing, and, reasonably speaking, Kurt Vonnegut then should not alone carry the weight of the failures here. Neil Gaiman must shoulder some of that load as well.

So this is secret secret number ten, you must finish what you started and my telling you everything according to the fearsome dictates of Kurt Vonnegut begins and ends with the troubling truth that I cannot finish it. This is rough draft number six or seven for me. I have experimented with the idea of stopping this mid sentence, mid paragraph (get it?). I wrote all about how I wasn’t going to stop it mid sentence. I discussed Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare at great length but could never work out why. I brought Kurt Vonnegut into it all early, expanded and contracted the Kurt Vonnegut portions but could never quite get rid of him, eventually settled for holding him responsible in a way that I think we can both see won’t stick. And now, sinking into a quicksand death of this essay I find my only solution is to break the fourth wall.

You may be thinking “But in non-fiction there is no fourth wall!” That is not so. There is always a fourth wall because the “camera” is always somewhere. In this case I, writing, am the camera and if we turn the camera (so to speak, I don’t want to put quotes on it anymore) many illusions about the room we are in (this conceptual writing, reading space) are exposed (we also unavoidably create a new fourth wall with the camera that looks at the camera but that gets infinite and makes me queasy.) One illusion is that we (me writing and you reading) exist in the same time-frame. Yes, there is some element of time travel magic where as these words spill from my pen you read them, but there is also the fact that to me you are a future being reading this in any possible way, possessed of strange and mundane future based knowledges I could not possibly know because they haven’t happened yet, whereas I, this writing, it’s form, content and context, am to you an artifact, immutable, defined, and historical. The writing voices in letters and words, on loose pages, books, computery devices or magazines don’t usually talk about this because, besides breaking some useful illusion of absolute unity, it is of limited interest. But I bring it up here because it is necessary to explain how you, by virtue of the fact that you even exist, know that this will be finished, is indeed finished. I don’t.

Except, to my genuine surprise, I find, suddenly, that I am, actually, pretty much finished. Weird. Well, there’s a lesson in here somewhere. I’ll just let you sort it out from here.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Secret 9

9. Have a backup plan.

I understand this sounds pessimistic. It seems to suggest you may not have a successful career as an author. Well, let me tell you, you are going to be extremely famous. You are going to be successful and rich! Unfortunately this may take 80 to 140 years to kick in, thus the need for a backup plan. I’m not saying you can’t make your way off the lay of the land while waiting on the big time, but I am saying without a backup plan you might find yourself poor in a way that adversely affects your ability to write as excellently as possible. Impoverished writers are frequently too cold and hungry to concentrate properly. Should they defy the odds and really get going on something white hot, like a version of Pride And Prejudice, taking place in the future, with some of the characters as dragons, they are going to be easily interrupted by irresistible opportunities like learning that a large lot of only two day post expiration date cheese has been thrown out into the large, unsecured dumpster of their third favorite grocery store’s parking lot. And if, later that same day, sitting in a rickety chair that’s missing one leg with a cracked plate full of cheese, cheese, cheese and cheese sandwiches our impoverished writer does manage to get back to how a future dragon could be pretty much exactly like Darcy in an almost more than Darcy kind of way, they will only be thrown off again when their turn comes to huddle at the one tiny space heater they share with their seven roommates.

If said writer had instead chosen a nice backup plan like “Become Professional Baseball Player” they could sit in a cozy, craftsman style, 11,000 square foot writers study, lulled into a deep concentrative state by typing into the same typewriter John Steinbeck used to type Tortilla Flat (modified to store the typing digitally), all on P. G. Wodehouse’s old mahogany writing desk while the servants, well out of earshot, whisper excitedly to each other “The master is not to be disturbed during writing time!”

Baseball player was a random choice for a backup plan, but it’s a good one and worth seriously considering. It pays well, gives late fall and winters entirely off, and has a retirement age of about 37.  But what if you’re too old for that and not athletic anyway? How about President of the United States? The benefits of the Presidency do not stop at a superbly generous retirement package for as little as four years of work, but also pretty much guarantees a lucrative publishing contract for your first book. Yes, it will have to be about your Presidency, but it’s a foot in the door of an ever more challenging to crack publishing industry. I know the Presidency can be a hard job to get, but being a Governor or Senator can provide many similar benefits and there are loads of Governor and Senator Jobs (150!). Indeed any backup job in what I call the “Fame” line tends to provide a handsome income and wonderful entrees into the publishing world. Don’t think of your backup job as a Prima Ballerina, Rockstar, News Anchor, Movie Director, Fashion Model, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist, or Movie Star as giving up on your dream. Backup plan is really just a shorthand way of saying that you should have a long term plan that takes into account the many subtle things in life that lead us to success as published writers, such as being next door neighbors with the CEO of Random House.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Secret 8

8. The great artists break all the rules, but you must master the rules before you can break them.

You came here for the secrets of writing, not necessarily for anything concerning the rules of writing. That is why I think this is a good time to mention my 14 volume set: The 19,765 Rules For Writing, 3rd Edition which is now also available as an ebook and as a searchable app, which, for those of you used to buying very reasonably priced, often free, apps, will seem amazingly expensive. It also doesn’t work very well and is complicated to install on most devices. But it does have a social connectivity element and most writers you meet at this point will pull out their phone or ipad and say “I have this ‘Rules For Writing’ app that’s actually sort of helpful when it works” in a way that will make you feel like you’d better get it too. So you will, only remembering this paragraph when you fail to get it to work properly, find that it doesn’t work properly, and then finally realize that this is, unbelievably, how it actually does work. But we are not here to discuss technology, we are here to discuss writing!

The fact that there are 19,765 rules of writing that you must master must sound a bit intimidating. Fortunately dozens of these are well known to you already, like “Capitalize the first word of each sentence” or “Do not give two characters in the same story the same name” or “Get a cat.” After these there is a slightly more challenging chunk of rules that you may or may not know, but once you read them through a few dozen times they will seem self evident, like “A prepositional phrase should never modify or refer to a noun that is being acted upon by 2 adverbs, 2 adjectives or 2 verbs unless contained in a subjective clause or in direct service of a traditional Mystery or Romance Genre plot (known as “The Rule of Two”)” Sadly when you get to the hard rules, like the rule where you have to learn Ancient Acadian, you may become distraught. You might decide to see if there isn’t maybe an abridged rules of writing that perhaps you could use instead. Happily there are tons of these. Few writers in history have been able to resist laying down all kinds of helpful rules for writing. You could probably pick your favorite writer ever, put in a little search for their rules of writing, and you’ll be all set with a compact, concise and very well written list of rules for writing. The only downside to this is that it will teach you to write exactly like that writer, except not nearly as good.

My suggestion then, if you refuse to Learn Ancient Acadian, which you really should learn because your cat will love it when you talk to him in Ancient Acadian, is to go ahead and break all the rules, willy nilly. Go for broke and figure that people’s terrible reasoning powers will kick in to your benefit. “Gosh,” Your legions of readers and critics will say “To break this many rules this author must have mastered the hell out of them!”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Secret 7

7. You must revise and revise again.

This means going through your work over and over trying to fix all its little problems until you realize it is impossible and you give up. Here is a little experiment for those of you who are thus far enjoying, or enjoying enough, my essay on the secret secrets of the secrets of writing. If you aren’t enjoying my essay this experiment isn’t really for you, but I do commend you on your tenacity. I don’t think I could stick with this sort of thing as long as this if I wasn’t enjoying it. As a reward I will tell you you can quit now. Really, you don’t have to keep reading. I was just kidding about the secrets of writing. There aren’t any. That’s why I said “secrets” three times. It was to be silly. But thanks for sticking with me so long and for giving me a fair chance.

Okay, so now that I’m here with just the enjoyers I’d like you to all stop reading here and go back to the beginning of this essay (1. Writing is hard work.) and read through to this point, then do it once more. I’ll wait here until you’re done.

Done? Good? Okay, I know you didn’t. I wouldn’t, that’s for sure, but had you actually gone back and read through this essay two more times I am confident you would not be enjoying it so much anymore. Besides being bored by the repetition, the flaws and flimsiness would start leaping out all over the place at your restless reader eyes. Counting from the time where I am writing this sentence fresh, in it’s first version, I have read through some version of this essay maybe fifteen or twenty times, and though that number will only go way up, as it is now the flaws are already leaping out at me in a staccato fashion. This causes me to frantically revise, which causes more rereading, which causes it all to fall apart even faster. So I am saying, yes! revise and revise again! But I am also saying that it is all hopeless and we are all doomed, which is actually a big secret of writing I was hoping to keep under wraps, but I guess it’s too late for that now.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Secret 6

6. Show don’t tell.

A gray drizzle falls on a dense confluence of narrow alleys in Venice. In a closed Japanese restaurant calm figures in a window that overlook a minor canal prepare for a  lunch rush that will not come. It is late February and the normally overcome streets of the city are merely busy and alive. Bundled tourists mill about making their discoveries in free and chilly joy. The Venetians are carefully dressed in fur and leather, the Italian tourists in sleek black leather and snug down, and the Internationals are swaddled in a wide variety of multi coloured hi-tech fabrics. Despite the grey drizzle a glowy Adriatic light manages to enrich the deep colors of wet stone and stucco, water and wood. A vigorous, grey-haired woman’s boot heel slips subtly on a wet, slightly rounded pavement tile and as it twists her lower body to the left she throws her arms wide to seek balance. Her husband of 28 years on that very day, still madly in love with her, manages to catch her around her waist, but in his instinctive action towards her a white paper shopping bag slung loosely on his shoulder slips off and drops. The densely decorated millefiori glass globe in the bag drops too, hits the solid ground with a great ringing noise, but, amazingly, does not break. Instead the giant ornament springs from the bag and from all its elaborate packaging and begins rolling hurriedly towards the Grand Canal. The couple, quickly recovering, shouts and begins pursuit. A gloved hand reaches for the ball as it races by, but it has already become wet and slippery on its dash through the glowing drizzle and along the saturated ground and the hand finds no purchase. The couple narrows on the rolling globe and it seems they might intercept it when a spirited child, running excitedly at the glass from a side street, nearly collides with them, and, though the three of them do a wild dance, none fall. Still, ground is lost in the chase.

A Viennese scholar in a new hat, resting on a stone wall on a Campo on the Grand Canal hears the commotion of a small mob and looks up to see the glass and its pursuers racing towards him. He springs to his feet and looks clear to save the day. Unfortunately, between him and the glass is a small group of pigeons. As the ball hurtles into them they burst explosively towards the scholar. The scholar, a veteran of Venice, is prepared for this, but his new hat is not and slides over his eyes causing him to clutch wildly at it and wobble sideways. The globe rolls neatly between his legs as he flings his right arm out to his bobbling hat, knocking it sharply into the wind which carries it into a roll roughly following the globe.

Mein hut!” He cries, and the Anniversary couple race past him after the globe and hat both. They are terrifically close now, but time appears to be run out on their rescue operation. The woman, who so recently bobbled so clumsily, now comes to a strangely balletic one-legged bouncing stop on the rim of the Grand Canal. The globe, more beautiful now, wet and spinning in the Venice air, than it ever was in the shop, fulfills some inner secret destiny of its own by almost gently tipping into the Grand Canal. The husband, who near the end had his hand just inches from the ball, straightens, attempts his own bouncing halt, but as he realizes he has left it all too late and would rather not risk injury on the embankment, flings himself up and out and, flailing, splashes magnificently into the green water. His wife shrieks, but, as he comes sputtering to the surface, begins slowly to laugh until soon, she can hardly breathe. The scholar’s hat only makes the humor worse by flopping merrily down onto the drenched man’s head. The man laughs now himself as the glass globe, completely unharmed, floats to the surface mere inches from land’s edge. A small crowd on the shore is seized with hysteria and it takes a surprisingly long time, with many relapses of contagious laughter, before the man, the hat, and the millefiori globe are all fished from the cold waters of the Grand Canal.

This little scene above is an example of me violating this cardinal rule and telling you instead of showing you. Ideally what I should have done was flown you to Venice in February and positioned you at an advantageous location on the Campo that in the one direction had a clear view up the street to the Japanese Restaurant near where the globe is first dropped, and in the other an unobstructed line of sight across the Campo to the Grand Canal. I would also politely request that, no matter how tempting, you not scoop up the glass ball even though it will be rolling just a few feet in front of you. Remember, you are here strictly to watch and learn. And what are you learning? Exactly! Show, don’t tell.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Secret 5

5. Don’t be afraid of writing badly.

My understanding, probably based on television shows, is that if you are afraid of spiders and no longer want to be an arachnophobe, you go to see a kind, gentle person who keeps just loads of tarantulas in their spare bedroom. There, in that spider wonderland, you gently acclimate to the spidery presence. Since I am afraid of spiders and have never undergone this delicate cure, the very phrase “Spidery presence” give me the absolute willies. However, supposedly, if I went to this beneficent, saint-like spider herder and spent regular hours with these miraculous eight-legged creatures that I shouldn’t fear because they are our friends and help control the number of nuisance insects in the world, if I hung out closer and closer with these spiders, I would, before long, be letting them crawl all over me while I blithely sipped cappuccinos and made Indiana Jones jokes.

Since this works, theoretically, so well with spiders, I thought I would take it as my model for helping cure my possibly damaging fear of writing badly. The idea would be to carefully jot down just a line or two of terrible prose and then breathe a lot and have warm drinks and tell myself kind things. Unfortunately it turns out that I am incapable of producing bad writing on purpose. No matter how wise and pure my intentions are the moment I sit down to write all my plans dissipate. It’s like a fever that seizes me without warning. I suddenly want to be funny, graceful, expressive, winsome and clear-headed. Yes, when I write, I can be boring, pedantic, egotistical, maniacal, cumbersome and obtuse, but I can’t do it on purpose! It just sort of jumps out at me, like a spider, causing me to shriek and flail and go hide in my room for a couple days trying to soothe myself. If a spider herder professional tried to cure people of their arachnophobia by waiting until they were feeling calm and comfortable and then  flinging spiders at them they would be disbarred from the Arachnophile Professionals Association faster than a black widow spider can eat the head off of her mate.

Coincidentally that’s just about how writing something awful makes me feel, the same way thinking about one spider eating the head off of another spider makes me feel. Nevertheless I do understand that both these things, cannibal spiders and bad writing, are part of the natural order of things. They are the way of the world, they happen, and I should not fear them, but instead should embrace them. Not literally though as I would get web and poisonous oozing spiders all over my shirt.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Secret 4

4. To be a good writer you must read! Read, read, read!

To be a good bartender you should be a heavy drinker. A good Police Officer should definitely knock over a few banks, and if you go into marketing or Public Relations it would be best if you believed everything, all the time, no matter what. If you want to be a writer you have to read; the printing on grocery bags, tags on clothing, peoples’ post-it notes that they’ve just left lying around where anyone can see them. Read license plates and the ads that come in the mailbox. Read missing cat posters in your neighborhood wishing they included more text because it is exactly when you are walking around your neighborhood that you are most likely to suffer from a paucity of the written word. Besides, there is always more to say about a cat who made a run for it! Read your phone, your blender, your espresso machine. Read kids books, mystery novels, door signs, smoke detectors, bumper stickers and food packaging. Read T-shirts and things scratched into walls and trees exploring their subtext if they have any which they don’t, but if you can find a book that goes on and on about how they’re actually loaded with subtext then read it cover to cover, twice.

And why, as a writer, should you read, read, read? Some say it is because to become a better writer you must study how others do it, but no one said anything about studying. No one said anything about studying! I’m reading, not studying! Hemingway said you read so you know what your competition is. I’m comfortable with that mostly. For instance, I am a much better writer than the person who wrote my espresso machine. They couldn’t even formulate words, it’s all just faintly confusing symbols. But the secret secret about this one is that it is no more a should situation than if I were advising you on how to have a really bad cold. If you’re going to have a really bad cold, you should cough, a lot.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Secret 3

3. Make a regular writing time and stick to it.

I am pretty sure I read somewhere that Flannery O’Connor woke up at dawn every day, fed her peahens and then wrote for six hours. Or it could have been someone like Flannery O’Connor and it might have been for five hours or three hours a day on weekdays before eating a large, farmhouse breakfast. The point is that I could easily look it all up on the Internet because research time definitely counts as part of writing time and if I were having my writing time while sitting at the computer right now you would not be reading this. That is because I would almost certainly be researching Flannery O’connor and anything related to her in anyway possible until I should have gone to bed three hours ago, at which point I would have logged so many writing hours that I’d have to take a week or so off, by which time I would have abandoned this project because I could no longer remember what I was going to say. Which just goes to show how you should keep regular hours and stick to them tenaciously like, maybe, Flannery O’connor, who, off the top of my head and going on memories of very old research, had a disease called Lupus, raised Peahens, didn’t think well of John Steinbeck, lived in the South, and was a super good writer if you don’t mind not knowing sometimes if things are supposed to be funny or not.

One final caution here: Counting research as writing time is a lot like counting tax deductions. You can only count what you use. This is why I am trying to develop a writing style that attempts to include, by name and specifically, everything I have seen, watched or read, ever.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Secret 2

2. Keep writing and you will get better and better.

Everyone enjoys the hope that their labors will have a purpose, that practice makes perfect and that, generally speaking, we improve. I particularly dislike wasted effort. If I ruin a perfectly nice sauté of caramelized onions, red peppers and brussels sprouts by tipping in too much salt I am quite capable of spending six agonizing hours in the kitchen throwing in lemons and whole cauliflowers, arugula, olives, turning it into a soup, add potatoes, curry, coconut milk, emptying the larder in the process, transfer to a succession of larger pots, try adding 6 cups of brown basmati rice, rush out to the store while it simmers to get more ginger, some honey and turmeric, and one dozen quart jars to freeze it all in so that I can carefully thaw them out in seven months and then dump it all into the compost bin.

Did this make me a better cook? Absolutely! For months I will be more cautious with salt. I have also learned that gradually adding all the food I own into a large pot with a predetermined amount of salt until it reaches an appropriate salt to food ratio is not a sound culinary endeavor. And so it is with writing. Just because you drift off into some vaguely analogical tangent about cooking a ruined meal doesn’t mean you have to follow that through to the bitter end and come up with some dodgy grand lesson or conclusion from it. And I am now almost certainly the better writer for it.

So clearly it plays out in the world around us. Great writers like Harper Lee encounter so much in a life of writing, mistakes and successes, that though each individual lesson may be small, their wisdom and craft accumulates around them like mighty oaks soaring gradually out of a ragged meadow of damp weeds. To kill a Mockingbird  has certainly moved many, me included, but it will always be the endless graceful charm and profoundly rooted craft of her later work that guides and inspires true writers.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Secret 1

1. Writing is hard work

Well, typing is hard work. I don’t like typing. I particularly despise any letter I have to type with the little finger of my left hand. And I find sometimes double clicking on an icon on my desktop that allows me to write can be excruciating. But since I can do that with my pointer finger that’s less physical and more emotional. Likewise if I’m going to be writing in my spiral notebook retrieving my spiral notebook can be a pretty hard-core chore, like an afternoon of ditch digging condensed into 7 seconds. I dug ditches, so I know what I’m talking about. It Was On Kibbutz Yahel in the early 80s. That is in Israel. Not the 80s but the Kibbutz. Me and Jay worked together digging a very big ditch in sand for a tough, wiry Israeli who was distinctly unimpressed with the amount of work we got done. Jay had curly hair and was a bit dodgy just in general but he certainly seemed to me to be a reasonably diligent shoveler. We smoked a lot of hash once we figured out how to acquire it and got so drunk one night on cheap wine that I could not remember what happened that night. The funny thing is that 30 years later I can remember very few things that happened on any given night back then and so now the one night I cannot remember is one of the nights I remember the best. In fact, I’m pretty sure a lot of stray evening events from that time have just drifted over to conveniently have happened on that night.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, it is writing. Was it hard work? No, it was more like an accident that happened while I was planning to do the excruciatingly hard work of writing. Was anyone hurt in this accident? Only you can say.