Notes from the Holidays

notes holidays christmas party
Tis the season! The next three weeks will be tough for many writers. Family, friends, and special events abound. The best first advice is just power through. Protect your writing time and put in your ass-in-chair time no matter how tired, distracted, etc. you are. But if your writing isn’t putting food on the table—or even if you are—that may not be feasible.

 

So here’s plan B. For this limited time, attend to the demands of the season—but mine it for your writing in the new year. Below I’ve listed several typical holiday scenarios and suggested some things about them that might be noteworthy. These are not exhaustive by any means. Don’t focus on length, just write enough to bring the experience back to you in detail and technicolor.
 
notes holidays family dinner
 
After every family gathering take a few minutes to make notes on the emotional tone, with special attention to tensions, unhappiness, and surprises.

 

notes holidays lots presents
After any exchange of gifts make notes on the focus of those gifts. Was there competition regarding who gave or got the most? Was cost a consideration? Did anyone express disappointment—or envy? Were presents more token or substantial? Were any gifts homemade? Did someone give the same gift as always (e.g., a special ornament)?

 

notes holidays office party
For every party make notes on the emotional tone. Did anyone seem reluctant to be there? Did anyone drink too much? Was conversation restrained? Flirtatious? Political? Personal? Did anyone misbehave? How did you feel at the party?

 

notes holidays nutcracker ballet
For any cultural event, such as theater, ballet, musical performance, or special exhibit, start with why you were there. Why were others there? Is attending this event a tradition? A chance to see and be seen? A chore? A pleasure?

 

notes holidays travel
For holiday travel, note who traveled to whom. Was the traveler affected by work or family commitments? Does this happen every year? Is the trip a joy or a pleasure? During this particular trip, what went right? What went wrong? Was weather a factor?

 

Bottom line: Be conscious of how you are experiencing the holidays and prepare to jog your memory in the new year when you need specifics to strengthen your writing. You can do this in a matter of minutes.

 

notes holidays notebook pen
So put aside the guilt, enjoy, and prepare to jump back in!

Let Your Punctuation Speak for You

let punctuation speak writing
 
This is a variation on two themes: show, don’t tell and trust your reader. The point is that the reader will get your meaning without both the punctuation and the accompanying explanation.

 

Quotation marks. Once you’ve put dialogue inside quotation marks, it’s obvious that someone said it. You can skip the she said, he replied, she answered, he responded, etc. Put in an explanation only when you need to indicate how it was said AND you cannot do it with punctuation! For example, “I’m not so sure about that,” she muttered, turning her back on him. Even so, use descriptors like muttered, murmured, cooed, whispered, etc., sparingly. Let the reader get it from the context whenever possible.
 
Exclamations. “It’s Santa!” “Look out!” “I adore it!” Can your reader be in doubt about what’s happening? Your writing will be stronger if you skip such unnecessary add-ons as she exclaimed, he shouted, or (heaven forbid) she enthused. Use an exclamation point to indicate strong emotion.

 

Question marks. Here again, if you end a bit of dialogue with a question mark, you needn’t add he asked, she queried, he inquired, etc. The exception here is needing to identify a specific speaker when more than two are present. Even then, try to avoid the tag-on attribution. For example, Ellen joined the debate. “Who says so?” is stronger in communicating to the reader than “Who says so?” Ellen asked.
 
Commas. Usually commas indicate nonessential information—information which could be dropped without changing the basic meaning of the sentence. For example, “My parents, John and Linda, are coming for Christmas.” (Of course, this assumes one has only two parents!)

 

Other uses of commas include separating a series of items of equal weight to the meaning. For example, Jim packed shirts, pants, ties, underwear, shoes, and socks. Though this entire list might best be summed up as “his clothes”!

 

Dashes. Use a dash instead of a comma to give extra weight to a particular item. For example, John picked up the flowers, the candy—and the diamond solitaire. Also, use a dash to indicate that a speaker was interruptedI’m telling you— would be followed by something like the door banged open or another speaker. You needn’t say that he stopped talking when the door opened or that So-and-So interrupted him.

 

Ellipses.  If you write I’m telling you. . . you are indicating that the speaker trailed off—a whole different meaning from a dash. The use of ellipses to indicate that some material in a quoted passage has been left out is seldom relevant to a novelist, but can be very important in nonfiction.

 

And for heaven’s sake, never use double punctuation at the end of a sentence. For example, Where do you think you’re going?!  If you simply write, Where do you think you’re going! the combination of words and ! convey a question filled with strong emotion.

 

let punctuation speak
When in doubt, rewrite!

James Haddon as a Metaphor for Writers

james haddon metaphor writers
 
James Haddon is a wood carver. He came to my attention as a carver of Santas in particular—which I collect. His work is graceful, and each carving has character. These are characteristics true of good writing as well.
 
But my main point today is variations on a theme.  I was incredibly impressed with the breadth of his imagination when I noticed that he had carved both of these Santas.
Having noticed his range, I started looking for his work. Now that I have several of his pieces, I’m impressed with how his approach to the concept of Santa parallels what a lot of writers do with concepts crucial to them.

 

Many writers and teachers of writing say write what you know, or write your obsessions, or write your shadow (i.e., the dark side you usually hide). So, does that mean you write the same story again and again? Yes and no. Suppose your issue is abandonment—or poverty, crisis of faith, sibling rivalry, fear of failure, sexism, parent/child relationships—whatever. This will come up in your work again and again. The skill is to make it come up in different ways!
james haddon metaphor writers (10)
James Haddon’s concept of Santa is not unilateral! He looks at it from many perspectives. Sometimes, you need to change the entire shape of your presentation. A different genre, perhaps?
james haddon metaphor writers
Sometimes, Haddon just tweaks the externals. For writers, this might mean changing the gender or ethnic heritage of the protagonist. The internal conflicts, concerns, struggles, or aspirations could remain the same but present a new perspective.
james haddon metaphor writers
One can’t really change Santa’s age, but Haddon changes size sometimes, which I say is close enough. The point here for writers is, consider presenting your passion with a much younger or much older protagonist.
 
james haddon metaphor writers
 
Sometime changing the context—putting your character into an unexpected setting—makes the message fresh.  Consider what James Haddon did with these two unusual Santas.
Last but not least, consider going back in time (or forward). These two “old world” Santas are good examples. The concept is still clear!
james haddon metaphor writers
Bottom line: Take James Haddon as inspiration and let your imagination go!

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve taken hundreds of pictures during my time in Portugal and Spain. Below you will find a selection of these pictures, along with a suggested writing prompt. Choose one or more of these pictures, and using the suggested prompt or one of your own, write 1000 words based on it. It doesn’t need to be polished or finished, just do it!

 

vivian lawry picture worth thousand words
Who would have a table setting like this?
balcony divorce
This is called the balcony of the quick divorce. It overlooks a 500’ gorge.
make own juice portugal
How is this to be interpreted?
Bottom line: Draw on visual cues to trigger your creativity.

Check out this writing resource!

Someone recently forwarded this article about effective first-person writing to me. It’s a great resource for writers who are having trouble writing from different points of view. Here’s an excerpt:

A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character’s experience… What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.

This is true first-person: being behind the character’s eyes.

Check it out and leave a comment on the article with your results!

Effective Travel Writing

effective travel writing
 
In my humble opinion, effective travel writing starts with excellent writing—but it needs more!
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to places never visited, activities only dreamed of. The destination could be almost anywhere, foreign or domestic. The activities could be anything not experienced by the masses: eating insects, zip-lining, parasailing, petting dolphins, helping sandbag a levy.
effective travel writing
Taking the reader to a familiar place, seen from a different perspective. For example, airport security from behind the scenes, apple picking from the perspective of a child, a blind person white water rafting with a guide, walking across all the bridges in New York City.

 

Right now, I’m traveling, not writing about it! For more—and better?—advice, just search online for “effective travel writing.”
 
effective travel writing ideas

Use and Abuse of Passive Voice

elements of style william strunk eb white
[Source: Pearson]
Basically, passive voice is when the noun or noun phrase that could be the object of an action becomes the subject. Passive voice permits permits subjects to have something done to them by someone or something. For example, an active sentence would be “Our team won the trophy.” A passive one would be “The trophy was won by our team.”

 

In general, authorities urging good writing advise writers to use the active voice as often as possible. Among other things, in order to convey the same amount of information in the passive voice requires more words. In the example above, the passive voice required 7 words rather than 5. Using the passive voice is often labeled as flabbier, less direct, and wordier writing.
[Source: Andertoons]
But there are several reasons to use the passive voice. As writers, we should use all the tools at hand to achieve our ends.

 

[Source: Amazon]
Bryan A. Garner identifies six ways in which the passive voice is acceptable or even preferred.

 

—When the actor is unimportant or not worth mentioning (in the context). Cheering crowds were barricaded all along the race route.
—When the actor is unknown. Overnight, Thanksgiving food baskets were left on 205 doorsteps in low-income neighborhoods.

 

[Source: Almeida Theatre]
—When you want to hide the actor’s identify. This is the classic: Mistakes were made. When no agent is unidentified, no responsibility is claimed or allotted—passive voice can erase who or what performs an action.  On October 11, Anthony Ekundayo Lennon posted a powerful comment illustrating this aspect of the psychology of language. In part, he said, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”
 
—When you need to put the punch word or drama at the end of the sentence. In this instance, the agent is identified using a by-phrase. “Can you believe it? Earl was beaten up by his own son!”
 
 
—When the focus of the sentence is on the thing being acted on. The abused child was starved nearly to death.

 

Passive voice is not necessarily limp. For example, “. . .all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (U.S. Declaration of Independence, italics added)
 
—When the passive simply sounds better—often because of the modifiers creating long phrasesThe wedding was planned by Heavenly Options, event planners who specialize in weddings, birthdays, funerals, and anniversary dinners with a strong Christian theme.
 
use abuse passive voice
[Source: The Writing Rag]
Bottom line: If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice!

Quirks for Your Characters

quirks characters
This isn’t common wisdom for writers.  It’s my personal bias. But I always appreciate characters who, on some dimension or other, are a bit unusual. In other words, give them some habits that are, if not unique, at least uncommon.

 

I recently wrote about verbal tics. But what I’m talking about here goes beyond repeated words or phrases. I’m talking about behaviors your character consciously engages in repeatedly or ritualistically. Here are some possibilities to get you started.

 

quirks characters toothbrush toothpaste
Standing on one foot and then the other while brushing her/his teeth as a means of improving balance

 

Every time s/he goes into the bathroom, doing push-ups against the vanity as a means of building upper body strength

 

quirks characters bird flying
Taking two handfuls of birdseed to the front of the apartment building morning and night to encourage the pigeons and any other miscellaneous birds—even though neighbors bemoan the droppings

 

Setting aside personal possessions to send for birthdays and holidays because it’s easier than going shopping

 

Eating French fries and green salad with his/her fingers

 

quirks characters french fries ketchup
Wearing sweatpants and t-shirts as pajamas so that s/he can be seen at the mailbox or picking up the newspaper and look dressed for the day

 

Filling the entire patio with pots of herbs (such as basil, dill, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, mint, parsley, tarragon) to support cooking from scratch, having bought local

 

Choosing to drink scotch/bourbon/whatever from a measuring glass marked in both ounces and milliliters

 

A character quirk is NOT the same thing as OCD. An obsessive/compulsive disorder compels the person to do it or suffer extreme anxiety, distress, and/or disability. While compulsions can make for interesting characters, creating an OCD for your protagonist can also produce unintended complications of plot and/or action.

 

Bottom line: Use all the means at your disposal to create interesting, believable characters.

Creativity Cross-Pollinates

yves saint laurent vmfa
From now through August 27, 2017, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is featuring an exhibition of the work of Yves Saint Laurent, a trend-setting couturier who built a body of work unique in creativity and originality.

 

A whole section of the exhibit pays homage to Saint Laurent’s artistic influences, including Piet Mondrian (far right in photo above), ancient Greek vases, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Tom Wessellmann (far left in photo).

 

Artistic cross-pollination is everywhere. A prime example of art to music is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann. Viktor Hartmann was an artist, architect, and designer.
Using photos as story starters for writers is a classic technique. Whole books have been based on that premise.

 

I’ve found the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts a fertile ground for launching stories. Several of my published stories began with VMFA exhibits: Buddha Remote, Not Mechanically Inclined, The Naked Truthand Love Me Tender.
 
Bottom line: Attend to non-written art and often inspiration strikes. Look at photos, art exhibits, paintings and pottery. Listen to the lyrics of songs and the emotions evoked by music. Think cross-pollination!

Consider Uncomfortable Words

Dictionary uncomfortable words
 
I had a high school English teacher who much preferred “it isn’t” to “it’s not” because, she said, the latter sounded too much like “snot.” Apparently snot was an uncomfortable word for her. Decades later, I still say “it isn’t.”

 

But that isn’t to say snot should always be avoided. Snot can be a very useful word for writers. The word has connotations beyond the definition and can imply, among other things, social class—for example, a snot-nosed kid—whether spoken by a character or part of the narrative.

 

The Dictionary of Uncomfortable Words is a collection of words that two men (Andrew Withan and Brian Snyder) label as uncomfortable. In that regard, it is personal opinion. They emphasize that this dictionary does not contain “dirty” words, just words that evoke a response of uneasiness in the listener/reader. Consider the power this gives you, the writer.

 

For example, if a character drops words like masticate, undulate, viscous, flaccid, or engorge into his/her speech, it might make other characters uncomfortable. And if the other character is unfamiliar with the word, such as invaginate would be for most people, then that other character could well feel insulted or offended—which could lead to any number of responses by the speaker.

 

Then there is the issue of whether the character/narrator uses uncomfortable words on purpose—and if so, what purpose?

 

Words like faggot, fairy, dike, gay, and queer are fraught with implications, not completely counteracted by a non-sexual context.

 

What words make you uncomfortable? Identify them and find ways to use them to strengthen your writing.

 

If words like lugubrious or luscious don’t readily come to mind, pick up this dictionary. It’s a treasure!
Dictionary uncomfortable words