Apologies if you haven’t found me. I’ve been hacked!  Just about back together and with a new look.

See you Friday, same time, same place. Thanks for stopping by.

~ Denise

Break These Rules

The written arts, like any art, demand the antithesis of formula. The writer must always consider his options, many of which lie beyond the fences. Break through the barriers, and what is original, brilliant, provocative, controversial, and/or authentic about you and your work has a chance to shine. While it’s important to know what masters of the art say you must or must not do, that doesn’t mean that the rules laid down may not be broken. These, for instance, could stand some bending:

1. Don’t take on taboo subjects.

Politics, religion, money, no-no sex—did I miss any? These are interesting, complicated subjects—why do you think we’ve built up taboos around them?—and an intelligent, artful treatment is a very good thing.

2. Just dash it out: write!

Actually, thinking time is writing time. And it saves time and agony. Of course you’re going to write until your fingers bleed, but think, plan, and test before you do.

3. Write with confidence.

Confidence is a fine quality and your reader expects that you know what you are doing.   As such, phrases like “I think” and “in my opinion” can water down your work and suggest insecurity, so use sparingly, as the rule implies. But too much confidence is just as bad and can make you look arrogant. “Write with a modicum of graciousness” is a better rule to follow. Or “Write with some compassion.” To achieve this, you have to set aside confidence and immerse yourself in the shaky, vulnerable territory of what it means to be human. Write with a respect for that, and your reader will mark you as someone to trust.

4. Eliminate adverbs.

Adverbs cover a lot of territory and tell us manner (how something is), place, time, and degree (“most”  or “some,”  for example).  Why would a writer want to eliminate all this necessary information? A more useful rule is “Use your adverbs well.” Don’t be redundant (“smiled happily”), or litter your text with intensifiers (“very,” “really,” “totally,”  “definitely”), or be sloppy or vague (“clearly, you don’t understand”), or modify attribution (“he spit angrily,” “she said wearily”).  These clunky examples are why the master, Stephen King, has quipped that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” An adverb used well, however, provides something essential.  In the phrase “more useful rule” the  word “more” is essential.   Without it, “useful rule” implies that the other rule is useless. So “more” changes the meaning, which in this application makes it essential. Stick to what’s essential, and you won’t go wrong.

5. A flashy title is everything.

Yes, an eye-popping, irresistible title brings your reader to the page. But if you don’t deliver what you promise, you’ve deceived him. And disappointed, he will run. Once, for example, in a blog by a female on the written arts, I stumbled on a title that read something like “Why I Slept with a Woman.” This intrigued me. What do the written arts have to do with the sexual innuendo the title implied?  Nothing, it turned out. It was just a ho-hum post on how to save money at a conference by sharing a room with another of the attendees.  Cheap shot.  Don’t expect me back.  I’ll be reading where the titles, flashy or not, are honest, and the posts deliver what they promise

6. Be your own best friend.

A case of withered spirits is not going to help a writer produce anything. So, by all means, cheer yourself up, whatever it takes. But you also have to get real. There are inherent difficulties with your chosen work—isolation, rejection, penury, and more. If you’re going to do the work, you have to reconcile the reality to the dream. Otherwise, you’ll be in a constant state of feeling had, which is not fertile grounds for good work.

7. Write about what you know.

Of course, the particulars of your own life will influence what you write. But feel free to reach beyond these boundaries to what you don’t yet know, and bring it back for the rest of us.

8.  Adhere to proper grammar.

The rules say you shouldn’t split infinitives, or end a sentence with a preposition, or begin one with “and,” “but,” or “however,” but loosen up already. The English language is a roomy, conversational, lumpy, elegant, expansive, delicate, nuanced, complicated thing. Explore the outer reaches of it, by all means. Tell your story in 140-character releases on Twitter, if you choose, and forget the grammar police. Want “to boldly go” rather than “to go boldly” where no man has been before? Go for it.

9.  Work every day.

Nonsense. Everyone needs rest.

>  If you’d like to know how other writers size up the dos and don’ts, check out this.

>  And here’s a thoughtful expression of the whole concept of writing reinterpreted to include . . . well, no written expression at all.  How’s that for breaking with convention?

Broken any rules lately? What’s your favorite do or don’t?

Comments listed with first names only, and website, if provided, but not your email. Your privacy protected, so speak your mind, if inclined. I always answer.

Photo credits: bricks, explosion – eyestar, sxc; hammer – ItsMe 1985, sxc. The “hell” quote: King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 118. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

Write through the Back Door

Any path to a writing life is a fine one.

Some people come to it along the mentored path of education, which leads the student from class to class, critique to critique, right to the front door of a party raging, the guests within all satin and heels, all turn of a shirt collar. It’s one way to enter, credentials at the ready, and it has its virtues.

But it is not the only way into the room.

Some find their writing life through another door, the alley entrance. There, amid drain holes and garbage bins, the writer makes his way, naked stories laid out for the taking, things more raw and uncensored than along more refined pathways. The streets become the classrooms, and the critiques that are essential for feedback will come in the mail as responses to his submitted pieces.

Some pieces will be published, some won’t, and in the meantime the self-taught writer continues to read his betters, analyze, and apply what he’s learned to his own humble sentences—and lo and behold, he improves.

This writer hasn’t spent time in the proverbial box, and so he is, by definition, already thinking outside of it. And his ardor—the chief tool of his working day—is what will drive his first-efforts ragged talent.

Trial and error is a very good teacher.

The dedicated writer writes a lot, and through his diligence may well create something terrific, even explosive, to show for his troubles. That his material is capable of evoking such emotion should surprise no one in light of how he came by it, a path highly idiosyncratic, and yet available to anyone willing to work, learn, and work some more.

There are no barriers to entry to a writing life. Front door? Back door? Take your pick, and pick up your pen.

Photo credit: red back door, Simon Cataudo; alley, Tamlyn Rhodes

Working Papers

Something finished comes from something unfinished.

Sketches for the painting. Drafts for the writer.

Once in a while, these things are available for public scrutiny. One writer tells me of his time in the British Museum studying edited manuscripts, Charles Dickens, for example, splayed right before him. It was access to the writer’s thinking—his cross outs, his additions—and in his own hand, which in itself can be revealing.

How’d the master do it? Take a look.

But absent the ability to peruse working papers, a student can still copy as a means of learning.

Some choose Hemingway to better understand the power of a simple sentence. Joan Didion tells of her husband, John Gregory Dunne’s copying out portions of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice to see how the author “worked it out.”

When you stop to look—clinically, curiously—it’s remarkable what you can learn.

Photo credit: Ms page – Beinecke Flickr Laboratory; paparazzi – blog-blond.blogsppot.com.

Blind Man, No Bluff

At a recent party hosted by one of my sons, a guest  told me about his college’s writing program. One teacher stood out, he said. 

A pony-tailed guy (first description),

who accepted everything I wrote (second description),

and who gave me all the time I wanted and taught me how to do it. It’s not empirical, you know. You can’t really measure it like that. He gave me tips and stuff.  I got to write a lot and I loved it, though my piece didn’t get accepted by the journal. It was a mood piece, and the panel didn’t get the mood. But that’s okay because my teacher liked it.  I joined that panel. They need to expand their point of view (big finish).

Now, that’s a teacher.

Later on, the black night settling, the crowd assembled at a bonfire on the beach. Bearing food, I made my way down the slope. It was a little steep, and with tree roots that can easily trip a person up, especially in the dark.  I considered the blindness with which I moved and realized that it’s similar to how I approach my craft.

No fabulous writing teachers at my back, I just write, in the dark, moving as does a blind man with a mixture of wariness and trust. No bluster, no bluff—just a sincere desire to arrive without injury or loss. And trusting instinct, no certain path followed, I show up at the bonfire after all.

Photo credits: Linda DuBose, sxc

Choosing to Write

Did I write in college? No. Middlebury’s English department, studded with black-clad dramatic types and buzzing with an intellectual intensity that was nearly palpable, might well have been the surface of Mars to my twenty-something self. I was terrified, and so I fled to the comparatively tamer moons of history, planted a flag.

And from there, it was law school and more law school.

And when it finally occurred to me that a court of law was too small to tell the whole story of a matter as most of it, and even often the pivotal parts, were considered irrelevant to a judge or jury, frustration grew. “Let’s talk about his mother, your honor,” I might argue in, say, a fraud case, but got nowhere with this, as technically the client’s mother was not involved.

In time, I left the halls of justice to tell the kind of stories that really were the truth and nothing but the truth so help us God. But by now, more education—albeit in the art and craft of the written word—was not what I wanted.

I wanted the café, the fashion show, and a pencil.

Looking back, looking around, I believe there is no right way, no one way, to begin. Whether with a degree in hand or a Starbucks receipt, any way that a person comes to their creative work is a beginning, and all beginnings count.

What matters is that decisive moment of touchdown, the hatch flung open, a leg tossed out uncertainly, and the first authoritative, commandeering, exploratory step taken, and taken as if one means it. It’s not for mankind maybe, or maybe so, but at least it’s decisive for the participant, the actor, the one who has gone from merely thinking of pursuing this kind of work, to overtly choosing it—the one who has planted a flag, come what will.

That person is now a member of the working ranks and should call himself or herself a writer.

Photo credit of astronaut:A. Syed, stock.xchnge.com
Photo credit for “Life on Mars” interpretation: Constantin Jurcut, stock.xchnge.com