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BY ELLEN MEISTER
When my adult writing students confess their struggles with self-doubt, they usually look panicked. I can’t possibly be a real writer, their eyes seem to say. I’m just never sure what I’m doing is right.
That’s when I explain that self-doubt is the fuel that drives us forward. Show me a writer with unshakable confidence, I tell them, and I’ll show you a lousy writer.
No one proves this more than Dorothy Parker. Though arguably the greatest literary wit of the twentieth century, she battled those demons of doubt every day.
In 1956, when interviewed by Paris Review and asked about the period in which she wrote poems, Parker replied, “My verses. I cannot say poems. Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers. My verses are no damn good. Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.”
No damn good? I beg to differ. Dorothy Parker’s poetry still resonates with freshness and wit. Even her darkest verses, such as Resumé, have legions of modern fans.
But her self-deprecation didn’t stop there. In a 1945 telegram to her publisher at Viking she wrote: ALL I HAVE IS A PILE OF PAPER COVERED WITH WRONG WORDS. CAN ONLY KEEP AT IT AND HOPE TO HEAVEN TO GET IT DONE. DONT KNOW WHY IT IS SO TERRIBLY DIFFICULT OR I SO TERRIBLY INCOMPETENT.
The telegram referred to an introduction she had agreed to write for a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. And it followed on the heels of an even more painful period of inertia, as she had been unable to fulfill her contract to write a novel. This was a lifelong thorn in her heart. Parker wanted desperately to write a novel, but couldn’t seem to get out of her own way. Her perfectionism may have been the culprit, as she was a relentless self-editor. In that same Paris Review interview she explained that it took her six months to write a short story, saying, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
Clearly, she found the process more filled with despair than joy. It’s no wonder then, that she offered up the following advice: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
If that gives you pause, consider an even more famous quote from Parker: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Even if your feelings aren’t quite that extreme, the message is clear—the doubt isn’t going anywhere, so you may as well put away the panic and get to work.
Ellen Meister is a novelist, essayist, public speaker and creative writing instructor at Hofstra University (Hempstead, NY). She runs a popular Dorothy Parker page on Facebook that has almost150,000 followers.Add a Comment
|Illustration by Sarah Watts|
This is a recurring column called “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their careers can talk about writing advice and instruction — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journeys that they wish they knew at the beginning. This is installment is from Eric Smith, author of The Geek’s Guide to Dating and the young adult novel, Inked.
1. Editing? Cut the Parts You Find Yourself Skipping. When I’m finished writing something, and it doesn’t matter what it is, a chapter in a book, a new essay, a blog post, whatever… I like reading and re-reading it, often times, reading out loud. And almost always the same thing happens. I find myself skipping over parts because I’m a.) way too excited to get to the next paragraph or b.) find that I’m tired of that particular section.
Usually, that means it’s time to make some cuts.
If you can’t even get excited about a bit of writing you’re working on, if you’re tired of that passage already… there’s a solid chance your reader will be too. You should be excited about everything you’re hammering down on the page. Leave no room for skipping. Unless, of course, it’s a victory skip in your backyard. Then, by all means, go forth and frolic. You earned it.
2. It’s Okay to Take a Break. When I wrapped up the rough manuscript of Inked, I immediately dove into working on a sequel idea while researching agents. Immediately. I got lucky, signed with a fantastic agent (hi Dawn!), and shortly after, the opportunity to work on The Geek’s Guide to Dating came up at my publisher. I worked on that book, and when that was done, went back to the sequel concept, worked on some essays, and started adfjdfgdfgsdfkl CRASH.
Burned. The. Hell. Out.
With one manuscript being shopped around and another on its way to publication, I took a breath. I went on a vacation. Not any place special. A little place called Tamriel. Lush wilderness, rushing streams, and tons of dragons. Oh, Tamriel is a place in a video game called Skyrim. I was on my couch. It was great.
Listen: It’s okay to take a break. Whether you’ve got something on submission, a book on its way to publication, or you’re just working on a bunch of fun ideas and drafts. Don’t burn yourself out. You’re no good for anyone like that. Plus, you need your energy for all that dragon slaying, Dovohkiin.
3. Save Your Darlings. I say this a lot, but when you’re busy editing and cutting, whether you’re making cuts on your own, with your peers, with your editor… save those darlings. Avoid that “kill your darlings” cliché, and open up a Word .doc, and stash those little gems off to the side.
Look, you might never use them. They might be the bits you cut out because they were boring you (remember #1?). Those couple of pages you sliced out of that manuscript, you probably cut them out for a good reason. Your agent, your editor, your writer friends… they’re a smart bunch, otherwise you wouldn’t be working with them, right? But down the line, when you’re working on a new story or idea, click on over. See what’s in the scraps. You might find something that sparks an idea, which you might have otherwise deleted.
And if not, whatever. How much space does a Word document take up? Like, a gig? Maybe? Who cares how many gigs? You have lots of gigs.
4. If You Must Read the Reviews, Learn From Them. I have a sign on my desk at work and at home that says “Don’t Read the Comments” in big bold letters. I bought it on Etsy in a fancy frame, because in my mind, an artisanal frame made out of reclaimed wood would make it work.
I never listen to it. No one does.
Look, if you’re going to read the reviews (you’re gonna), don’t lash out, don’t get upset, don’t get angry. Instead, see what you can learn from them. I love book bloggers. Love them. I follow tons of them on Twitter, read a lot of their blogs, and go out of my way to say hi to my favorites at conventions at BEA.
Because they are book lovers. They are my people.
And yes, when they write about my books, I read their reviews, the good and the bad. Why? Because these are the smartest consumers of books out there, and you can actually read what they think about your book! Your book! And if they care enough about your book to talk about it, that’s freaking awesome.
Reading reviews isn’t for everyone. Even I’m aware that I shouldn’t do it. I KNOW I shouldn’t do it. But I do. And when I do, I see what there is to learn. And I’m grateful that someone took the time to actually read my wild button mashing in the first place.
5. Find Your Soundtrack. I have a lot of friends who go running and hit the gym, and when they are busy doing this thing called exercising, they often rock out to music that gets them in the mood. Pumps them up. Gets them excited for the work they are about to do. Because hey, working out? That’s work. And so is writing. It’s just a different kind of work, with an equal amount of tears.
Writing at home? Find your soundtrack. For me, it depends on the kind of work I’m doing. Fussing over a Young Adult novel idea? I turn on the music of my youth, lots of pop-punk, power chords, and acoustic guitars, music by New Found Glory, Fall Out Boy, Punchline, Something Corporate, Saves the Day. An essay? Something that’ll calm me down. The Fray, Dashboard Confessional, Sherwood, Gin Blossoms.
Please note, I listen to my pop punk and emo on a regular basis too. Sing it, Motion City Soundtrack!
6. Find Your Peers Online As Well As Off. Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I’ve met more authors I admire and adore than… well I’m not quite sure how to finish that sentence. I’ve met so many. And the great thing about the online literary community (or “bookernet”), is that everyone supports one another. Be genuine, be kind, be excited. Find the authors who write books you deeply care for, find the writers you yourself admire. Connect with them on Twitter. Celebrate their success. You’ll learn so much from them. I absolutely have, and wish I’d been more active in seeking out writerly peers earlier on.
7. Surround Yourself With Supportive Friends. Team! Team, team, team, team, team. I even love saying the word, “team.” Having an awesome team backing you up is so very important, and I’m not just talking about professionally. Close friends that can network you, will blast your message out there… those friends are awesome, don’t get me wrong. But friends that will give that crappy rough manuscript a looks over, who will join you for coffee and listen to you ramble about an idea you haven’t quite thought out yet, friends that will look over your under-construction author website full of Geocities era animated .gifs… those are the supportive friends you need around you at all times.
Real friends. The friends that will give you a kick in the pants when you’re down and troll you a little bit when you’re doing too well. Who will keep you level. Surround yourself with those kind of friends, and it’ll certainly help your writing career.
Eric Smith is the author of The Geek’s Guide to Dating (December 2013), which was an Amazon Best Book of the Year in Humor and has sold into five languages. His debut young adult novel, Inked, comes out January 2015 with Bloomsbury’s digital imprint, Bloomsbury Spark. He is represented by Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary. He can be found blogging for BookRiot and The Huffington Post, and when he isn’t busy writing, he can be found tweeting and marketing at Quirk Books. Visit Eric’s website to learn more, and follow him on Twitter (@ericsmithrocks).Add a Comment
I love January, but my sweet homeschool kiddos don’t seem to love it quite as much. Thus, a blues poem for my girls and all the students who wish they were still on Christmas vacation… School is in session Equations are flying Students are moaning Brain cells are frying Reading and painting Dividing and…Display Comments Add a Comment
Here's a fun illustration I did to go with one of my favourite quotes: "A Journey of 1000 miles begins with one step", attributed to Confucious.
I'm offering it as the first free printable for 2015, to the subscribers of the Floating Lemons monthly newsletter. Last year I managed, by some minor miracle, to create an illustrated affirmation a month for those who signed up - despite the huge changes going on in my life. I was determined to keep my promise and I did it. Yay me.
This year, however, I'm going to be a bit more sensible as I know I'll be moving house again, and I will have assignments to complete for college ... so I'll illustrate favourite quotes whenever I can, and offer those as free printables, as well as intersperse that with a few giveaways throughout the year for all you wonderful friends who have signed up. A bit less stress and pressure until I find someplace to settle down in, eventually.
If you'd like to join in and receive a surprise gift or illustrated quote once a month, please do sign up, HERE.
Hope you're having a wonderful start to 2015. Wishing you infinite possibilities for the year ahead. Cheers.
We talk a lot about the importance of writing characters that readers like or can relate to—and by “we” I mean anyone who feels strongly about books, regardless of profession. It’s nice to know when the good guy is good and when the bad guy is bad. That’s what you expect from a story. You want a hero, right?
Nope. Not this reader.
I love unlikable characters. It’s fair to say that if there’s a no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel in the lead, I am 100 percent on board. But it seems incongruous, doesn’t it, that a character who is wholly unappealing—repulsive, even—should be something readers might seek out. And one step further, it seems counterintuitive to recommend that you write characters that readers will rightfully dislike. And here, I think, is where unlikable and uninteresting are confused.
Be they bad apples or good eggs, a character needs to exhibit enough agency to earn a reader’s attention—regardless of whether that attention is positive or negative. And herein lies the key: You can make your protagonist as low-down and dirty or as mindful and generous as you please, but she has to be the engineer of her own conflict to earn readers’ interest. A character—good or bad—must be an active participant in her own story. And if you want a character with a built-in conflict machine, you should go low-down and dirty.
Some characters are difficult to connect to simply because they do little to engage a reader. A character who lets the world act upon her and doesn’t influence a change in her situation could be unlikable or lovable, but either way she’s uninteresting. She’s too passive to warrant concern. You can’t care about this character, and as a result you can’t care about her story. You’ll lay the book aside and tell your reader-friends that the character is unlikable. But a more accurate sentiment might be that the character isn’t interesting or compelling—all things that even a good-girl character needs to be if she wants readers to care about her enough to finish the story.
But the opposite—a character who sets himself up for conflict and consequences through the dastardliness of his doing—is surely unlikable, yes, but also magnetic. You want to watch him ruin his life. He repulses you in the same way a car accident is simultaneously disturbing and hard to look away from. This character is a train wreck, and it is glorious to behold. Every time he does something unwholesome, immoral, felonious or just, like, super-rude, he creates a conflict. The anticipation and delivery of that consequence is deeply satisfying for a reader, and by their very nature, not-nice characters create these conflicts almost constantly. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “The suspense is terrible; I hope it will last.”
One of the most important steps to writing a book is crafting characters that pull readers into the story. From concept and naming to choosing point of view and writing convincing dialogue, it takes skill to write characters that come to life on the page. Creating Characters collects the best instruction on how to write a novel with compelling and significant characters. The featured essays and articles compiled by Writer’s Digest editors will help you make the right choices when building characters for your stories.
Think about this: You have an idea for a novel. You’ve been working on it for quite a while now, but something isn’t clicking. Your protagonist is a woman who’s down on her luck. She is now in a bind and needs some help. She’s lost everything: her boyfriend, her house, her job. Even her cat disappeared. Man, what a mess.
In Scenario A, your protagonist asks her parents for money, but they can’t give her that. So Instead, they let her stay in their home until she can get back on her feet. Maybe she doesn’t love living with her mother. Maybe she never finds a job. Maybe she’s camping out in the basement for so long that her parents leave and tell her to keep the house. Win-win, and your character is still a nice girl. That was easy, right? Yep, and honestly, pretty boring.
In Scenario B, no one can (or will) help her out. Your protagonist is living in her car and yet no one is there to lend a hand. Why not?, you’re asking. Good question. If she’s a good person and her circumstances truly are outside of her control, then surely someone can give this nice lady a hand. But lets pretend she’s not a nice lady. Maybe she kicks puppies on her lunch break. Cheats on her taxes. Kidnaps kids for ransom. Kills her boss in a fit of rage and frames her coworker (the nice guy, of course). What if we find out, for example, that her house and boyfriend and even her cat are gone because she’s a manipulative sociopath who tied the guy to the bed and then burned the place down so he couldn’t leave her? That is much more interesting than a girl who needs to sofa-surf at Mom’s until that next job interview.
The character from Scenario A may well be the sweetest, kindest woman who ever existed in print. In fact, I’d put money on it. Poor girl just had a bad week. But the protagonist from Scenario B is going to be infamous, and even if we hate her (and we will, that murderous wretch), we’ll still think about her after the book is back on the shelf. (Both Senarios were made up on the fly as I typed this; if they resemble actual works of fiction, my apologies. If not, those ideas are free to use.)
Let’s look at some fictional characters who are generally considered unlikable.
Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and its sequels, is a (slightly) less sadistic character who manages to ruin the lives of every woman he meets. And as often as he isn’t doing the hard work of being gainfully employed or staying faithful to his wife, Rabbit is no slouch when it comes to creating an avalanche of consequences for himself. He’s an aimless, unkind, jealous cheat, and watching him scramble to avoid the falling walls of his life is as entertaining as a story gets.
Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert is a monster by every definition, a “detestable, abominable, criminal fraud” according to his wife (and Dolores’ mother), and a “vain and cruel wretch” in Nabokov’s own words. The reader understands that he’s both human and inhumane, and because he chooses to give in to his baser instincts, he earns both the consequences of such and the dislike of readers.
Frank and April Wheeler, the lead characters in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road are unbearable, conniving snobs. Their shortcomings and pettiness and self-righteousness and backstabbing create every major plot point in the story. Yates’ debut novel remains among my favorite because I’d never want to know them, but it’s not very difficult to imagine the Wheelers living next door, driving each other insane.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl features two of the most despicable characters to ever grace the page. I stayed awake reading through the night to find out who I was supposed to be rooting for, and in the end I hated Nick and Amy Dunne equally and fully and I loved every word of it. Unlikable? Absolutely. Uninteresting? Not for a second. The novel could accurately be retitled Two Cats, One Bag.
The compelling unlikable character exists in every medium. Books, film, TV, plays, you name it. Add Joffrey Lannister (Game of Thrones), Javert (Les Miserables), Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Orange Is the New Black), Alonso Harris (Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day), Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces), the Narrator in Fight Club (or more broadly, possibly every character in every Palahniuk novel), Holden Caulfield, Jack Torrance … there’s no end to this list.
But in every case, the unlikable character who earns our attention is generating problems that require resolution—problems that carry the plot forward in a logical, organic way. The unlikable character is a one-man plot-building machine, and I wholeheartedly encourage you all to try it at least once.
Adrienne Crezo is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine and a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @a_crezo.
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I have noticed that many of my acquaintances misuse the phrases a dry sense of humor and a quiet sense of humor. Some people can tell a joke with a straight face, but, as a rule, they do it intentionally; their performance is studied and has little to do with “dryness.” A quiet sense of humor is an even murkier concept. What is it: an ability to chuckle to oneself? Smiling complacently when everybody else is roaring with laughter? Being funny but inoffensive? Sometimes readers detect humor where it probably does not exist.
For example, in the Scandinavian myth of the final catastrophe, the great medieval scholar Snorri Sturluson noted that the lower jaw of the wolf, the creature destined to swallow the whole world, touched the ground, while the upper jaw reached to the sky. If the wolf, he added, could open its mouth wider, it would have done so. For at least two hundred years scholars have been admiring Snorri’s dry sense of humor, though there is no certainly that Snorri had any sense of humor at all. What we read in his text is an accurate statement of fact, a description of a monster with a mouth open to its full extent.
In Europe, if we disregard the situation known form Ancient Greece and Rome, the modern sense of humor, which, first and foremost, presupposes laughter at verbal rather than at practical jokes, hardly existed before the Renaissance. (Practical jokes seldom thrill us.) The likes of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde would not have had an appreciative audience in the Middle Ages. A look at the words pertaining to laughter may not be out of place here. The verb laugh has nothing to do with amusement. Its most ancient form sounded as khlakhkhyan (kh, which, as the above transcription shows, was long, stands for ch in Scots loch and in the family name MacLauchlan). If this word had currency before the formation of the system of Germanic consonants, its root was klak, which belongs with cluck, clack, click, clock, and other similar sound-imitative formations. The most primitive word for “laugh” seems to have designated a “guttural gesture,” akin to coughing or clearing one’s throat. Chuckle, a frequentative form of chuck, is a cousin of cackle. Giggle, another onomatopoeic verb, is a next-door neighbor of chuckle. The origin of Latin ridere (“to laugh”: compare ridiculous, deride, and risible) is unknown.
Nowadays, few words turn up in our speech more often than fun. Fun is the greatest attraction of everything. On campus, after the most timid souls get out of the math anxiety course, they are assured that math will be fun. A popular instructor is called a fun professor; students wish one another a fun class. Fun is the backbone of our education, and yet the word fun surfaced in texts only in the seventeenth century, and, like many nouns and verbs belonging to this semantic sphere, was probably a borrowing by the Standard from slang. Its etymology is disputable; perhaps fun is related to fond, and fond meant “stupid.” Joke, contemporaneous with fun, despite its source in Latin, also arose as slang.
We seldom think of the inner form of the word witty. Yet it is an obvious derivative of wit. One could expect witty to mean “wise, sagacious,” the opposite of witless (compare also unwitting), and before Shakespeare it did mean “clever, ingenious.” In German, the situation is similar. Geistreich (Geist + reich) suggests “rich in spirit (mind)” but corresponds to Engl. “witty.” Likewise, jest had little to do with amusement. Latin gesta (plural) meant “doings, deeds” and is familiar from the titles of innumerable Latin books (for example, Gesta danorum “The Deeds of the Danes”). Apparently, in the absence of the concept we associate with wit speakers had to endow the existing material with a meaning that suddenly gained in importance or surfaced for the first time. “The street,” where slang flourished, reveled in low entertainment and supplied names for it. Sometimes the learned also felt a need for what we call fun but were “lost for words” and used Latin nouns in contexts alien to them.
Jest is by far not the only example of this process. Hoax, which originally meant “to poke fun at,” is an eighteenth-century verb (at first only a verb) derived from Latin hocus, as in hocus-pocus. By an incredible coincidence, Old English had hux “mockery,” a metathesized variant of husc, a word with a solid etymology, but in the remote past it may have meant “noise.” When the history of the verbs for “laugh” comes to light, it often yields the sense “noise.” Such is Swedish skratta (with near identical cognates in Norwegian and Danish). People, as rituals and books inform us, laughed on various occasions: to promote fertility (a subject I cannot discuss here), to express their triumph over a vanquished enemy, or to show that they were happy. Noise sometimes constituted part of their reaction. None of that had anything to do with our sense of humor.
German Scherz “joke” first denoted “a merry jump.” Its synonym Spaß reached German from Italian (spasso; in the seventeenth century, like so many words being discussed here), but German did not remain a debtor. It “lent” Scherz to Italian, which returned it to the European languages as Scherzo, a musical term. The origin of Dutch grap “joke” is uncertain (so probably slang). Almost the entire English vocabulary of laughter and mockery is late: either the words were coined about four hundred year ago, or new meanings of old words arose. It is as though a revolution in attitudes toward laughter (or at least one aspect of it) occurred during and soon after the Renaissance. People felt a need for new terms expressing what we take for eternal impulses and began to promote slang and borrow right and left.
Below I will list a few verbs with their dates and some indication of their origin. The roman numbers refer to the centuries.
Only scoff and scorn are considerably older, though both also came from abroad. To be sure, the picture presented above is too simple; it does not take into account the history of people. New words were borrowed, while old ones fell into desuetude. The formula “of unknown origin” does not mean that no suggestions about their etymology exist. They do, but none is fully convincing.
Our ancestors laughed as much as we do, but we have added a new dimension to this process: we can laugh at a witty saying (when they spoke their native languages, this was, apparently, a closed art to them). Strangely, the educated “barbarians” enjoyed Roman comedies, but laughing at Latin witticisms taught them nothing and did not become a transferable skill. The Europeans who descended from those “barbarians” needed a long time to catch up with their teachers. A study of laughter is not only a window to the development of European mentality. It also sheds light on popular culture. We observe how the slang of the past gained respectability and became part of the neutral style. Here etymologists can make themselves useful to everyone who is interested in how we have become what we are. Enjoy yourselves, friends, but don’t be always the last to laugh.Add a Comment
BY LIZ CRAIN
GIVEAWAY: Liz is excited to give away a free copy of the second edition of her just released book, Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in the US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.
The summers that I was 6 and 7 years old in early ’80s, I went to a day camp in the woods maybe 30 minutes or so from the suburbs of Cincinnati where I grew up. There were a lot of memorable things about that camp, as there tend to be, but without a doubt the most memorable was Mr. Brady—the camp nature guide whose office was the old barn across the way from the open-air dining hall—and his resident alligators. The seven or eight alligators ranging in age from a couple years to several years lived in a large, maybe 10-foot diameter, round metal trough topped with a piece of plywood.
One day, every summer, Mr. Brady would take the youngest, or maybe just the most docile, alligator out of the trough, put it in the bed of his old beat-up blue pick-up truck and drive it down the hill behind the barn to the creek, where 15 or so of us would be waiting with our counselor. What happened next is not a dream. I am still friends with one of the campers and can verify that Mr. Brady—longish white beard, rubber pants and suspenders, boots—would then spend the next 40 minutes or so of our nature session wrestling with the alligator in the murky creek. Our task: watch. And in the process scream, laugh and hug each other tightly.
I’m sure there were some teachable moments that I’m missing that occurred during the alligator wrestling. There might have been words about habitat and behavior in the wild and maybe even a little bit about how humans are not typically a part of the alligator diet. Of course, all I remember, and all I am sure that most campers remember, is an old man wrestling an alligator in the creek. By choice. He seemed to have no fear, and he seemed to genuinely love doing it.
Although I have changed the names and some identifying details of the alligators what follows is my own story of wrestling with alligators, except that the alligators are humans and the wrestling is being done with writing.
When I first started freelance food writing shortly after moving to Portland, Oregon, in my mid-20s, I said yes to just about anything work-wise that came my way, including waiting tables, nannying and working in a Montessori after-school program. I also covered a lot of writing territory. I wrote a corporate fitness manual without ever having worked in an office, smoking cigarettes and drinking most nights of the week and never setting foot in a gym. Clearly I was an expert. I also wrote website copy for a few hotel and hospitality companies, health and fitness articles for a smaller circulation magazine in Arizona and movie reviews for an online art and culture startup in New York.
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I tried my hand at a lot of different types of writing and, in doing so, did the opposite of what most writing manuals tell you to do—write what you know. Instead, apropos of an ambitious 20-something-year-old, I wrote more often what I did not know.
I always brought my limited life experience and subjectivity to the page, of course, and I researched and dug as deep as my usually too-fast-approaching deadline would allow, but let’s just say I was in all of these writing endeavors far from an expert. And that lack of expertise led directly to lack of confidence. That first year of freelancing I spent a lot of time researching and educating myself, but my primary motivator was a little off. I wanted to know the right things that, in my 20-something year old mind, translated to all of the things that would make me not sound stupid.
Nobody likes a snoop and that’s exactly what I was that first year of freelancing. My regular gig was ghostwriting food and drink pieces for AOL Online. For that, I’d visit restaurants, bars, clubs and markets in and around Portland and then write short profiles of each. I took copious amounts of notes about menus, inventory, décor and service in my tiny black refillable notebook, and if I ever caught whiff that someone was on to me I’d commit the remaining visit to memory as best I could sacrificing any more documentation to save face.
I would only ask one or two questions per visit, and then only if I thought I could get away with it without revealing anything personal. I’d avoid eye contact. My heart would race and my palms would sweat as I took ridiculous notes under the table about things such as the microgreens topping my scallops (“What are the little purpley-green spade-like micros? Mustard?”). If you kicked all that fear-built subterfuge down, I wasn’t being Ruth Reichl-like, in disguise in order to maintain journalistic integrity. I just didn’t want to have a real conversation with anyone that might reveal all that I did not know. Instead, I would go home after dinner and suffer through mind-numbing Google searches of microgreens until I settled on the variety that looked the most similar before ultimately deciding not to use it in the profile anyway. No time wasted at all!
On those rare occasions when I did find myself face-to-face and engaged with folks who I was interviewing or meeting with for some sort of professional reason, I showcased what I knew as best I could and tried to hide what I didn’t know. In other words, I was a bit like 20-year-old Ira Glass in his early interviews with members of the cast of MASH, which he talks about on the “Cringe” episode of This American Life. The worst is when Glass asks Harry Morgan, who played Colonel Potter, a series of needling questions about why he’s never been the lead on any show. So painful.
This sort of bravado is inherently juvenile, but we’ve all done it. Here’s how I got rid of being scared of not knowing: I stopped using my tiny black notebook to take notes in in public and I got a big notebook. I stopped sneaking away to the bathroom to take notes—I’m sure that a few waiters had me pegged as incontinent—and started writing them openly. I stopped muzzling my curiosity and ended more sentences with question marks. I had more and more face-to-face interviews that I needed to conduct for seasonal food stories with weekly deadlines that I was writing—more projects in general. I no longer had time to digest the latest study just enough so that I’d sound smart, to make obscure references that were only tenuously related to the subject at hand (references I’d secretly hope no one would actually try to turn into a real conversation). All of these things that we do from time to time to puff our feathers when we feel intimidated or unconfident, and as a result, hide our truer selves.
After a year of freelancing, I was too busy with assignments to keep up appearances anymore. The real, vulnerable, curious and often ignorant me stepped out into plain view. It turns out that first year of freelancing I’d wasted a whole lot of time getting in my own way. I simply got out of my way and the decade since I’ve been more than willing to often be the fool or even, from time to time, when it seems helpful to the interview and subject at hand, play the fool.
In general, people love to be asked questions—personally and professionally. Ask away. Be brazenly curious. Be proud of not knowing. The less you know means the more you have to learn and that’s a big part of what’s most fulfilling, fun and interesting about writing—the learning. Don’t be a bore and always try to prove yourself and outwit others. No one is impressed and it’s tiresome. Show how ignorant you are—we all are!—and you’ll have a lot more fun and be a much better writer as a result. The best writers are the most curious risk-takers who want to burn and learn and live
life to the fullest. Stop being scared and be one of them. In other words, wrestle those alligators in the creek. By choice. See, I knew I could bring it back to the alligators.
*No alligators were harmed in the writing of this essay.
Liz Crain is a fiction writer as well as the author of Food Lover’s Guide to Portland and Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. A longtime writer on Pacific Northwest food and drink, her writing has appeared in Cooking Light, Budget Travel, VIA Magazine, The Sun Magazine, The Progressive, The Guardian and The Oregonian. She is also editor and publicity director at Hawthorne Books as well as co-organizer of the annual Portland Fermentation Festival.Add a Comment
Hi, folks! This month I'm calling the series Uplift. The idea of uplift is to improve socially, culturally, morally, spiritually, etc. We are all hungry, our hearts beating, struggling for contentment and a sweet spot to thrive. This part of my journey for uplift.
Short and sweet, this week, folks. I have to say that my imagination is my biggest gift. It bubbles around inside me. It is the best part of myself. I had a fun conversation with an imaginary friend this week, and bonus it was not my imaginary friend but Sam Garton's imaginary friend. Sam is the otter keeper of Otter. You might want to check out this blog: I am Otter.
I followed Otter this week. You can too:
Here is our conversation.
A busy place with no door but when you enter you still use your buzzer.
Then back again from flower to flower, collecting the pollen that gives you power.
It’s home again, little bundles carried to feed the Queen
Justice is a matter of belief that fairness has won the day, that truth and honesty has prevailed …
This is the first year my 3-year-old has really gotten Halloween, so we’ve spent October seeking out any excuse for him to wear his costume and spend the day yelling “Boo!” As a result, at an array of fall festivals, we’ve collected a countertop full of pumpkins of assorted shapes and sizes; a small glow-in-the-dark bucket of unhealthy snacks; and, for the writer in the household (that would be me), one great reminder about developing characters.
The lesson came at a children’s Halloween parade at a local park. Costumed kids and their parents congregated by the gazebo waiting for the festivities to start. An announcement was made that the kids were to march behind a giant basketball character named “Hoopster” (how or why Hoopster became the recipient of this honor remains unclear) into the center of town, where storefronts were offering trick or treating.
We were surrounded by princesses and Power Rangers, scarecrows and jungle animals. Many of the costumes were homemade, some looking a little haggard or missing accessories, but the kids wearing them were playing their parts. The ballerinas twirled and curtseyed. The transformers stomped and zoomed. The superheroes posed, karate chopped and kicked. My little guy beamed at all of them, his fire chief’s hat on his head and bullhorn in his hand, ready to come to the rescue at the first sign of smoke or a cat stuck in a tree.
And then, at last, the moment we’d been waiting for: Hoopster appeared.
The parade couldn’t start yet, though. The ball portion of his costume was still deflated, and he stood off to the side fiddling with the thing while the kids milled around restlessly. Hoopster couldn’t get his inflating tool to work, and began tapping parents on their shoulders asking if anyone had a coin to help get the thing going. Apparently Hoopster had not done a practice run before game time.
Finally, the giant basketball took its place at the front of the pack, and the children fell into line, excited for the parade. Then, my son looked up at me, frowning for the first time all day. He seemed skeptical.
“Basketballs don’t have legs,” he said.
“True,” I said slowly, looking around. What else was there to say? It hadn’t bothered him that transformers don’t wear sneakers or lions don’t carry blankies or scarecrows don’t lick lollypops. So what had changed?
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Hoopster wasn’t really selling his costume, was he? He’d spent a pretty penny on an outfit that was actually a lot more over-the-top than anyone else’s. He’d probably felt like that was enough. But it wasn’t.
The problem wasn’t so much that Hoopster was having issues—most costumes have issues at some point, right? If he’d made a wisecrack about being left in the garage too long or even half-heartedly called out, “Oh no, how will I bounce now?” he probably could have saved face. But by letting the kids see that he was just a guy who couldn’t figure out how to direct the airflow into a big nylon sphere, he was inhibiting their ability to suspend their disbelief. His legs didn’t kill the authenticity; his lack of commitment to his character did.
What does this teach us about how to develop character? Well, a lot. Your character needs to be comfortable in his outfit from the very first scene. He needs to know how it fits, how it works, and who it makes him look like to everyone around him. And in order for him to pull that off, we as our characters’ creators need to know who they are, inside and out, from Page 1. We can’t let our own voices show through where we’re supposed to be writing as our characters. We need to commit to them, fully. We need them to commit to the story, fully. And only then can our readers commit fully, too.
Whether you’re writing a first draft or revising a complete story, as you work through scene by scene, make sure that your superhero has her mask tied tightly into place. Chapter 1 can’t show her off-kilter to the point that she hasn’t yet figured out that trick to keeping her cape from coming untied. And Chapter 10 can’t catch your cowboy without his hat or spurs because he got tired of messing with them and tossed them aside somewhere along the way.
You don’t want to let readers arrive for the parade to find that you haven’t yet fully inflated your lead characters. Make your characters sell the reality behind those costumes, however flawed they may be. If your characters truly believe that they are princesses, and behave as such, then your readers will be a lot less likely to notice—or care—that they’re wearing the wrong shoes or have lost the rhinestones out of their tiaras.
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1. “So where do the ideas—the salable ideas—come from? They come from my nightmares. Not the night-time variety, as a rule, but the ones that hide just beyond the doorway that separates the conscious from the unconscious.”
—Stephen King, “The Horror Writer Market and the Ten Bears,” November 1973, WD
2. “The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do everyday. There are two reasons for this rule: Getting the work done and connecting with your unconscious mind.”
3. “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.”
4. “When one is writing a novel in the first person, one must be that person.”
—Daphne du Maurier
5. “When I write, I try to think back to what I was afraid of or what was scary to me, and try to put those feelings into books.”
6. “[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
7. “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem.”
—Edgar Allan Poe
8. “I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.”
9. “Writing is writing, and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and nonfiction. And even there, who can be sure?”
10. “I always wanted to be in the world of entertainment. I just love the idea of an audience being happy with what I am doing. Writing is showbusiness for shy people. That’s how I see it.”
11. “I don’t think there is enough respect in general for the time it takes to write consistently good fiction. Too many people think they will master writing overnight, or that they are as good as they will ever be.”
12. “What I love about the thriller form is that it makes you write a story. You can’t get lost in your own genius, which is a dangerous place for writers. You don’t want to ever get complacent. If a book starts going too well, I usually know there’s a problem. I need to struggle. I need that self-doubt. I need to think it’s not the best thing ever.”
—Harlan Coben, WD Interview, January 2011
13. “My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature.”
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Writers are notorious procrastinators, and the trend is not limited to hobbyists or young, aspiring authors. We talk a lot about procrastination indirectly—setting personal deadlines, how to schedule writing time around life and family, how to write a draft—and fast!, how to write an outline for anything.
We also discuss wasting time rather frankly in our forum, and occasionally offer assistance to writers who don’t want to work, necessarily, but in a productive way. Sometimes we give direct examples of how to not procrastinate.
Famous time-wasters tend to fall into two camps: There’s the hedonistic band of enthusiastic lollygaggers, and there’s the anti-dillydallying brigade of outputters. The logic follows that non-famous writers follow the same pattern. For both sides, here are some thoughts and advice from the greats on the art and craft of wasting time—or not.
Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
Marthe Troly-Curtain: “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
Rita Mae Brown: “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”
Herodotus: “Some men give up their designs when they have almost reached the goal, while others, on the contrary, obtain a victory by exerting, at the last moment, more vigorous efforts than ever before.”
Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. Especially the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”
Ellen Degeneres: “Procrastination isn’t the problem. It’s the solution. It’s the universe’s way of saying stop, slow down, you move too fast.”
Dorothy Parker: “Live, drink, be merry, love the reeling midnight through, For tomorrow ye may die, but alas we never do.”
Jerome K. Jerome: “Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.”
Susan Orlean: I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done.”
Auguste Rodin: “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.”
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Pablo Picasso: “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
Benjamin Franklin: “You may delay, but time will not.”
Charles Dickens: “Procrastination is the thief of time; collar him.”
Abraham Lincoln: “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
George Bernard Shaw: “If you take too long in deciding what to do with your life, you’ll find you’ve done it.”
Oscar Wilde: “Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old.”
Victor Hugo: “Short as life is, we make it still shorter by the careless waste of time.”
J.R.R. Tolkien: “It’s a job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.: “How soon ‘not now’ become ‘never.’”
Henry Ford: “It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.”
Which camp do you fall into? For myself, I’ll only say that this post was supposed to run yesterday.
Adrienne Crezo is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. Follow her on Twitter @a_crezo.
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What’s on my mind?
Indigenous peoples and their worry about being over run by other populations I guess could sum it up.
I suppose if cougars, wolves, elephants and such learned to shoot guns or band together better they would kick out the human populations who have transgressed on their land but as people go I believe we need to understand the reason for others unlawfully entering areas already overpopulated.
Overpopulation where they come from, economic despair, greed, the making of money into a God and the lust for power over others seem to be good places to start .
Seems to me that as people from a planet with finite resources we need to try to make all places a good place to live so people want to stay where they are. Make everywhere a good place to be.
Sharing with others does not have to mean give away my happiness but it could mean helping you gain yours. I hope I can do that with more than one other and if we all did it for just two other people it would cure the problem in my mind at least.
Poet, playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde was born October 16, 1854 in Dublin. While his most famous works, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, live on, Wilde is most frequently remembered for his wit. Here are 15 of his best quotes for writers, readers and artists in honor of his 160th birthday.
1. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
2. I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
3. If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.
4. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.
5. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
6. An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.
7. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.
8. I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.
9. A poet can survive everything but a misprint.
10. Actions are the first tragedy in life, words are the second. Words are perhaps the worst. Words are merciless.
11. In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.
12. I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
13. With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?
14. The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.
15. A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.
If yours isn’t listed, share your favorite Wilde bon mot in the comments!
Adrienne Crezo is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. Follow her on Twitter @a_crezo.
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Inspired by Kenn Nesbitt’s, “My Brother’s not a Werewolf”. Hope you enjoy. Tale of the WeirdoWolfBy Donna Earnhardt He transformed in the daytimeavoiding moonlit nightsHe cringed at his own shadow,fear brought him no delight He was a vegetarian.He loved to draw and paint.And when he howled,No one was cowed*,Except for him… He’d faint. …Display Comments Add a Comment
Aussie kids love stickers, and I’ve pulled together a collection of sticker books to delight all ages. And the best thing? They’ve all been selected from the Boomerang Books Australia’s Top 1000 Bestselling Books list, which means you save 20% off the RRP. Great stuff, hey? First up is from the increasingly popular character, Peppa Pig in Peppa […]Add a Comment
Do you ever have those days when nothing goes right? When everything you try does not work? That was my day today, accompanied by a doozer of a headache. Photoshop just quit on me. I could not open CS5 or CS6. Finally at the end of the day the Adobe Twitter Support came through! Hooray! It works!!
While I was waiting for support to write me back I was able to begin writing my stories for Burt ad Briley, my new characters. Their conversations made me smile. All’s well that ends well. I will post another picture soon.