SHORT 250 WORD COURSE ON WRITING

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Paraphrasing 1Corinthians 13:13:
These three remain: Craft, Story, and Voice and the greatest of these is Voice.
Craft can be taught and learned. It is the rules, conventions, and guidelines that cover everything from POV, to grammar, formatting, narrative position (close, distant) etc. There are a million books, blogs, and courses available for this stuff. More importantly, Craft is remediable.
Story telling is a skill. I do not know if it can be taught. Some people can tell a story, some people can’t. I think it can be learned, but I don’t know. I know there are books which claim it can be taught. I don’t know if they work. Anyway, stories, if they have good bones, can be fixed.
Voice is the sound in your reader’s head when he/she reads your book. I don’t think it can be taught. I believe it can be learned. It takes enormous patience to develop a voice that is uniquely yours. Most new writers do not have patience which explains the enormous crap pile in the Indie publishing world. (The traditional pub business also creates its fair share of crap [50 Shades, etc.] of course but the Indie world is dominated by it.)
Voice is vocabulary− which words you select and then how you string them together. It’s about placement, and cadence. You develop a voice by reading outside your genre, outside your comfort zone. and by listening to others.
If the story works, it is Voice that sells the book.

3. I’m an Artist. I’m an Author. No you’re not!

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“I am an author. Really? Who says so?
The big Six (or is it Five now?) sold out literacy for dollars decades ago, so being traditionally published by them means nothing more than that some wonk in the marketing department saw sales that should produce a profit. The work in question might, or it might not have some genuine literary value. It has passed through some filter−an agent, an acquisition editor, someone. It’s literary merit will be left to reviewers and their particular prejudices. So, whether it does or not is at best, a peripheral consideration. So scratch that as a criterion for certification as an Author. (This is not necessarily true with smaller presses, BTW. Many still screen for craft and story). At any rate, having the imprimatur of a publishing house on your work doesn’t mean what it once did. Sorry about that.
Back In my salad days, a very long time ago, I had the opportunity to work in a hobby shop. It was a typical store of its type at the time. We sold models−all kinds, the difficult to build ones which required great manual dexterity and patience, and the easy ones that required only a tube of glue. We also sold model trains, planes− even the radio controlled ones, and art supplies. The latter is important because at the time we were not the only local store to do so. Up the street was an artists’ supply store – a real one−you know the kind with shelves of gessoed canvasses, badger brushes that cost as much as a new sofa and so on. The difference between what we sold and what they sold was mostly price and quality. If you wanted really good paints, brushes, or canvases, you bought from them. Our stock looked like theirs but you’d be hard pressed to find a badger brush or the good oil paints. We had kits and paint sets and, yep− paint by numbers kits in various sizes and degrees of difficulty (Smaller area and more numbers), all of which should tell you something about the makeup of our artistic clientele.
Oh, and we sold tile. Back than (perhaps today as well, I haven’t kept up) a favorite craft/art project was to do mosaics using small (1/2 inch) tiles. They would be glued to coffee tables and so on in patterns that could be purchased or done as original concepts.
So, on one occasion I happened to be manning the tile counter. Now the tiles we sold came in sheets. That is tiles were arranged 12 X 12 and permanently affixed to a mesh. I believe they still sell them that way at home decorating and kitchen/bath stores. We also sold odd lots and single tiles. You may not know this, but the red tiles and the ones with gold streaks cost more than the others. They are made with real gold, you see. So, the rule was: try to flog the red and gold. Anyway, I was manning the tile counter when a woman presented herself requesting to see some tiles. She intended “to do” a large coffee table with a display of the solar system. She had an illustration from an elementary school science book that she intended to use as her pattern. It was in color.
Her task was to match tiles on our tile chart to the colors in the picture. My task was to convince her that the gold accented and red tiles would work wonderfully well in her mosaic. I had some success with that. Mars was very red and the deep space in the background a dark blue. I told her it worked better with streaks of gold. Finally she had selected all her tiles except a greenish−lime (for Jupiter, if memory serves). She struggled with the tile chart for several minutes with no success. When I realized she might need some help, I pointed to a greenish-lime tile somewhere near the bottom of the chart. It was a near perfect match. She was stunned.
“I am an artist,” she said, “and I didn’t see that, while you (meaning me, the lout behind the counter) did!”
Amazing. I rang up the sale and off she went.
Now here’s the thing. She declared herself and artist−proudly, I might add. Was she? Did missing an obvious color on the chart disqualify her? I don’t know. The question is larger than that. For years, anyone with some brushes, gessoed boards (or not) and some paints could happily daub away and declare themselves “an artist.” Few people objected. It was not clear what artists who were serious about their work, who sold, or who had work in juried shows, and won awards, felt about that. Would Jackson Pollack have agreed with my tile lady that she was an artist? He might, as he probably had a generous spirit. But was she? When can one fairly claim to be an artist and not just a dauber, a dilettante, a hobbyist?
Authorship has undergone a similar transformation. Not that long ago, to be an author meant you had submitted your work to the scrutiny of agents, editors, and publishers. It meant you had somehow produced something worthy of a publisher risking their capital to pay you an advance, manufacture your book, and distribute it. When that happened you were … ta da … an author. Before that happened, you were a writer. There was a difference. Now, with the advent, indeed the explosion, of self published books, anyone can be an author. Just as the lady in the hobby shop could be an artist. You dab some paint, charcoal, pastel, on a surface et violá, you are an artist. You upload your memoir, thriller, cozy mystery, whatever, and you are an author.
No, you’re not. Sorry about that.
I know, I know, in era begun with self-actualization as a mantra and the seduction by the Self Esteem paradigm, it has become heresy to suggest that you are not what you say you are, just because you say so. Think positive thoughts; love yourself, “name it and claim it” and all the other self congratulatory stuff we say to ourselves. But, alas, the world doesn’t work that way. You may believe anything about yourself, but the proof lies in who and how many other people will accept your self-declaration.
I knew a guy who said he called himself a Christian even as he denied the existence of God. My response was that he could call himself an Oldsmobile if he chose, but once they threw him up on the grease rack, he wasn’t going to fool anyone.
You see how it is. Who we are, in the end, depends on other people. Like it or lump it, the acceptance of our claim to be an artist or an author depends on factors beyond us and beyond our control. When does a dauber become an artist? I don’t know. There are some extraordinary painters whose works will never sell or hang in galleries. Five star reviews on Amazon are nice but they carry no more weight than a single star. I don’t know how being a Recognized Author is determined anymore, it just happens. Similarly, you move from artist to Artist in the minds of whoever it is who decides those things. I suppose somehow, in the same manner, you graduate to Author. It is an honorific bestowed on you but it is no longer clear how or by whom. But clearly not by you.
The sad truth is: you are what someone else says you are, no more and no less. You are an artist/author when enough people (not your friends and relatives) say so.
Here’s what I think. If you’re serious about writing, you shouldn’t care. Writers write. They do it whether anyone wants to read their stuff or not. They don’t care if they are a “recognized author” or not. All they care about is the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next chapter … the finished piece. They spend as much time honing their craft as they do practicing it. They are only happy when they feel that this new piece is better than the last and can tell you why. Yes, they want to see the stuff in print. They want to get paid, sure. They want the acceptance, absolutely. But, it is the writing that drives them. And when their publisher drops them and /or the e-books won’t move even if offered for free, they keep writing. It is an end in itself.
For me, I am a writer, not and author. I may qualify for the latter descriptor, but I prefer the former. It says what I do, not what status I may, or may not, have acquired. Being a writer is hard. Being an author is easy.

REMEMBER:
In the world of mules, there are no rules ….Ogden Nash

The Myth of Writer’s Block

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Newly minted writers sometimes ask me how I deal with “writer’s block.” I tell them there is no such thing. They are not happy. I assume that is because they are experiencing some level of frustration in their writing and can’t seem to overcome it. They have “writer’s block” and they are seeking the solution. To be told that there is no such thing is not what they want to hear. They want the formula, the trick that writers use to break through. There is no trick because “writers block” does not exist.

Nonsense, you might say. It does and I have experienced it—so there.

If you say so, it is so. I, on the other hand deny it exists and therefore it doesn’t.

You see where we are going here? When I run into a time when the words will not come, I do not shackle myself with writer’s block. I am stuck, I am on the wrong track, I am temporarily out of inspiration. I am not blocked. If I am stuck, I can get unstuck.  If I am on the wrong track with relation to my story, I can go back and straighten out the line. If I am temporally lacking inspiration, I focus on the temporary part. It is all about how you talk to yourself. At one of those dreadful pep talks we all get dragged to every now and again, a motivational speaker once declared “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.” Well, there is something to that. It’s all about positive head talk, you see.

Too many of my acquaintances tell me they have Writer’s Block like they have an incurable disease. See, that’s how it works …. I am diseased. It is beyond me. Send the medicine. Sorry, no medicine available because it is: a.) Not a disease with a cure, b.) temporary, not permanent, c.) easily remediable. For way too many, “Writer’s Block” is an excuse for lack of performance. Stop excusing yourself . If you have a story to tell, tell it. If not, take up pottery. There is no such thing as “Pottery block.”

Now, let’s assume you are stuck (not blocked). You are for one of several possible reasons.

1.)    This one obviously does not include you, the reader, because you are a real writer, not some dilettante. However, on the oft chance you are one of those people who believes you were chosen by some deity to write the next Great American Novel and have sailed into you writing with the expectation that the words would be delivered to you by the Story Fairy (cousin to the Tooth Fairy) under your pillow and onto the page.

I doesn’t work that way. Yes, some of us are “Pantsers.” That is we just sit down and write−usually without benefit of outlines. But, that does not mean we don’t have a story in mind when we start. You, who are “being creative” by free-writing−well good luck with that. I have no palliative for your inertia. First rule of storytelling−You have to have a story, Dummy.

2.)    For the rest of you. Maybe you are writing too fast and you sailed past a plot point and missed a critical turn. Now you are staring at the blue sky and ocean a mile from the turn that would have taken you in the right (write) direction. Reverse and go back to the point you missed when the majesty of your prose took you far, far away. Delete the stuff that took you away, and continue on.

3.)    Maybe you believe you believe you are a “pantser” and you aren’t. Maybe you really need to outline what you had in mind after all. I assume people with outlines are stuck less that those who don’t. I don’t know that for a fact as I do not outline, but I would think so. So, try outlining−at least the broad scope of the story.

4.)    You are a “pantser” and you know the story but, because you haven’t outlined, are not sure what comes next. Hint: what comes next is what you write next. Come on … it’s called cut and paste. Just write something. You can fix it later.

Or, you might try outlining the next two or three chapters. It can be your secret. It may get you unstuck.

5.)    You are stuck because you are distracted by a scene you plan to write in a later part of the book and it is on your mind to the exclusion of what you are doing now.

This one is easy. Write that scene and get it over with. Tuck it away on the hard drive and pull it up when you need it. (Cut and Paste−remember?)

6.)    The story is tumbling around in your head and you can’t keep all the parts straight. So, write it out of sequence. With word processing, you can riffle-shuffle whole chapters like a deck of cards. Yield to the technology. I once wrote a book front to back and back to front simultaneously and passed myself in the middle. I had to change some dates and times, but it worked. I wanted a story that lasted three days and it came out to five. Well, shoot.

7.)    You are sick and tired of the damned thing. Every time you think you have it worked out a character misbehaves.

You need a vacation.

8.)    Being stuck, you know, is like having a car mired in mud. Sometimes you can wait it out−the mud dries and away you go. Sometimes you can dig yourself out. Certainly you should try. It’s character building. Sometime, you need a friend to give you a push− to read your pages and see where the difficulty is. And sometimes you will need a tow truck. Take the pages to a conference, to a group and get some heave duty lifting done.

9.)    If all else fails, pause and go do something else. Read someone else’s book. Ride a bike. Open a bottle of cheap red. Write a short story, a non-fiction piece. Or, God forbid,  maybe a blog.

Remember: NO RULES!

 

 

Oh no, not another writing blog!

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Ogden Nash, writing the accompanying notes for Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, lined, for the Wild Ass (donkey)

In the world of mules, there are no rules.

The blogosphere is chock-a-block with writing tips, instruction, suggestions, and maunderings from writers of note and people with one self published book to their credit and who are “building a platform” whatever that means. All of these well intentioned people are under the illusion that writing has rules that, if followed will lead to success–or something akin to that. Now, I am not one to spoil anyone’s fun, but after knocking out a fair bunch of traditionally published books (okay they’re genre fiction not real books, I know) I am here to tell you that with writing, as with Nash’s mules, there are no rules. This blog, when I remember to post, will explore the way people write, don’t write, and tackle the creative process generally.

Why do I do it?

Because I have come to the conclusion that much good writing is stifled by the strict adherence to other people’s notions of correctness and the creative process functions best in  an environment defined by freedom.

Okay. Next time: The myth of writer’s block.