it’s a trip . . .

tips, quotes, insights, and lessons about writing and publishing learned the hard way

Archive for October, 2008

The Big Five from George Orwell

the big five

the big five

This year I was a presenter in the Greater Reading Literary Festival. I did a workshop on how to write flash fiction for campus community members who attended over their lunch hours, or in the case of some students, whose teachers sent them there, who were easy to spot–they were the ones sleeping in the back.

I was looking for some pithy advice to share with workshopees and found these tenets by George Orwell, which I now post for you.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Out of the entire Serengeti of writing advice available on the Internet, I thought these were five predators worth pursuing. (Just so you know, I could have said “pantheon of writing advice,” but then I would violating number one of the big five, so I tried to go for something fresher since I violated number four in saying “were worth pursuing”.)

If we could write or at least edit our work adhering to these five rules, our writing would improve in elephantine proportions.

I’m inclined to use too many words, too many big words, and not to work hard enough to come up with an original figure of speech.

How about you, dear readers? Are you stalked by any of these big five ?

Literary Festival pearls

pearls of wisdom

pearl of wisdom -- no E-Z pass to publication

This month, the university where I work is hosting a literary festival. Two of the presenters this week, both published authors, impressed me, and I came away from their presentations with a few pearls to share with “It’s a Trip” readers.

Author and Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo spoke to a crowd of 100+ Tuesday night. He is a man of good writing habits, setting aside time to write every day. Okay, he’s a full time writer. But anyone can carve out some time to write every day or every other day. And if you can’t or if I can’t–I think I am talking to myself here–I don’t know how I can expect to have success as a fiction writer.

Russo also read a story, which illustrated that some people look at things and find them funny and some don’t, and that he gravitates to the humorous in any situation. But that doesn’t make his take on life any less valuable than a serious person’s vantage point. I certainly am drawn to humorous, so I felt validated by his assertion that good writers can be funny, too, that they are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes I try too hard to be funny–I’ll concede that–but I do feel as though my writing has been  unfairly discounted because it’s funny. The judge in my long-running fiction contest over the last several months discounted my pieces as less worthy because they were funny.

Russo’s sharing his own vantage point he comes by naturally was validation for me to keep on being me.

The other writer/presenter who impressed me was Rachel Pastan. Rachel also is a creature of good writing habits despite having two school-age children who provide many distractions. Rachel’s publishing career is also a testament to perseverance. She wrote two novels which were never published, but she kept at it and finally published THIS SIDE OF MARRIED in 2003. Then she had to work hard to get a publisher to pick up her next novel, LADY OF THE SNAKES, in 2008. Rachel even suggested that it’s harder for a novelist to publish the second time around, that authors lose that luster of newness. I always thought it was hardest to get published the first time around. Hmmm.

She has impeccable credentials, including an MFA from U of Iowa’s Writing Workshop, the finest creative writing program in the country. But she still had to work for her success and is committed to working hard for her career.

Yes, as if we didn’t know as much, there’s no E-Z Pass to publishing success. I just like to remind myself of that from time to time.

Lessons learned from friends — Rachel Greenaway

home of Canada's next great mystery author

home of Canada's next great mystery writer

Rachel Greenaway (aka Zoe) is a Canadian writer. (But we won’t hold that against her.) She’s actually become a treasured writing partner. I talked her into joining an online workshop and by the end of the summer only Rachel and I were left standing. Everyone else had bailed out.

Rachel is even-tempered, kind, and also has a good sense of humor. She’s generous with her praise and thorough and constructive in her critiques. She’s been writing police procedurals for ten years now and has a whole passel of them completed–I’m in awe. So yes, I certainly have learned from Rachel that there’s no substitute for effort or perseverance.

But the thing I want to talk about in this post is Rachel’s fresh figurative language. She pairs verbs with nouns, often personifying inanimate objects in novel and appealing ways. Let me share some of her phrasing with you, to illustrate:

  • “For the third time Holden cranked the key and pumped the gas.  The car rumbled awake again…”
  • “Dion gazed from his capsule outward, at fields alive with bugs and birds, a broad sky hazy with heat and dust, a lot of frothy silver-green trees in the far distance, slowly swelling.”
  • “She sat still, hands on the wheel, looking up at stark poplar branches chopping the clouded sky into dark grey wedges.”
  • “Evangline lounged on the sofa in a gauzy, pastel-green dress shot through with metallic threads.”

Every chapter evidences this kind of care and ingenuity in description. It’s just one of the things that makes her writing a pleasure to read.

And she’s set the bar high in terms of freshness that I’m working harder to even come close. You can read more about Rachel and her work at her nifty writer’s website, Mystery North.

Trite but true

I’m a very excitable person–a classic “P” in the Myers-Briggs model. I love to be bitten by the muse, believe that she bites regularly, and get overly excited when I come up with a new idea for a story or a theme or a title. I’m also not a particularly patient person. Now, none of these qualities make me evil, of course. They won’t keep me out of heaven if I feel as though I’ve earned a berth there; they won’t send me to hell either. They don’t even make me a lesser person.

I get so excited...

I get so excited...

They might, however, make me a less successful writer. And that’s what I thought I’d write about today, each lesson framed by its own cliche. Let’s start with mini-lesson numero uno:

Haste makes waste

Beware the hasty. The publishing world, even publishing success, is more likely to elude the hasty than those who are deliberate and those who persevere. Sometimes I get so excited with a possible submission that I rush too much and send something out before it’s ready or before I’ve done a sufficient amount of research. For instance, I wanted to submit a humorous essay today to a national publication. I wrote it for my ongoing writing contest and it fared well. I posted it on my favorite online writers’ site and got really strong reviews. So I decided to see if it had legs elsewhere in the publishing arena. I also had to run to work right in the middle of the afternoon and wanted desperately to shoot it off to the publication I had in mind before I left for work. I read it and re-read it and polished it and wordsmithed it a bit and pulled the plug on sending it.  Aspects of the piece thrilled me but I realized I needed to check the title against recent essays, to make sure it didn’t sound just like something else recently published.  The publication is important and it’s also selective. It will do me no good to be hasty whereas the payoff, at least in terms of exposure, would be fabulous were my piece to be chosen. I might have wasted my opportunity to contend for a column with this piece had I sent it off in haste.

When in doubt, cop out

When I was an undergraduate student, this was my English teacher’s favorite maxim: When in doubt, cop out. Simple to remember. Even easier to apply. Not sure how to spell something.  Don’t use it. Not certain if a word can be used in a certain context–substitute a word you know how to use.  This simple rhyming cliche can save you from embarrassing mistakes. Now, I’m not going to say I have been wise enough to follow this all the time.  It can apply to everything, but it certainly makes lots of sense for writers. I’m fond of trying out new recipes on guests. No harm done really–I can salvage almost any dish. But sometimes in publishing, you only get one chance with an audience. If you are not completely confident in your choices–words, spellings, punctuation, facts, figures–just DON’t use them. My trying to use new words and using them incorrectly has gotten me into more trouble as a writer.  “When will I ever learn? (Sing along with me.) When will I ev-er-er learn.”

Can cliches stink up your writing? Absolutely. Can cliches be illustrative? I hope they were helpful in this post. There are lessons everywhere if you have ears to hear and eyes to see.

the ‘deadly competitive spirit’: avoiding Miss Trunchbulls

avoiding Miss Trunchbull

avoiding Miss Trunchbull

Recently, I ordered a book online called The Portable MFA, which offers readers the essential lessons that can be obtained in most MFA programs (as purported by its clever authors) for a mere $16.99. The text is divided into segments–just like an MFA program, too: fiction, creative non-fiction, magazine writing, playwriting, poetry.

Since I write mostly fiction, I read the fiction part immediately and found it to be helpful, definitely worth the small outlay of cash and the few hours spent reading it. You’ll have to buy it yourself to read Tim Tomlinson’s totally hilarious summation of everything he learned in his MFA program in eight paper-thin insights such as, “There are kinds of stories.” It reminded me of one of the communications professors in my graduate program who told a class of very sharp adult students that “Libraries have books.”

Just this week, recovering from the flu (sorry, that’s why I didn’t post Wednesday), I began the non-fiction/memoir segment of The Portable MFA and stumbled across this phrase of Peter Bricklebank’s: “the deadly competitive spirit” in referring to the intensified competitive experience among students in MFA programs like his own.

I’ve met this killer spirit. I first encountered it (in this case, a female Trunchbull) in a workshop in 2007. It was the first time I witnessed such an unbridled ruthlessness toward another writer’s work and my own work. It made me sick and caused me a lot of distress. I ended up leaving a workshop I was invited to join because I couldn’t stomach this spirit-killing critic.

I was introduced to this deadly spirit again when I foolishly joined a high-profile online writer’s group I’ll call The Virtual Chokie.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that most writers at that site were competitive to the “nth” degree. Without saying as much, few wanted anyone to do better than themselves. And newbies? Forget it. You got shredded. The site regulars would as soon as step on your neck with heavy boot as give you any kind of helpful advice or mentoring. Of course, their criticism was spoonfed to newbies like the worst medicine you’ve ever tasted–this is going to hurt me more than it is you. And if you didn’t turn around and kiss their asses in response: “Thank you for making me feel incompetent and worthless and for ruthlessly tearing apart my work,” then the alpha dogs would write diatribes about your lack of gratitude for the pearls they deigned to toss your way.

All of which was just bullshit. And to make matters worse, once one of the alpha-dog authors on the site tore your work apart, everyone else just lined up for their turn like spineless vultures. No one would speak out on my or anyone else’s behalf, not even to say, “Hey, you’re being overly harsh and unfair to this person.”

Very, very twisted vibe.

The best way that I can describe it is this: “I can only be up  by putting you down.”  And to think, I actually paid good money to be so patronized.

Well, they can keep my annual membership fee. Maybe they can put it toward some counseling for e-bullying.

Yes, there’s needs to be a requisite hide thickness to succeed in publishing. Most gatekeepers are going to reject your work. If you can’t deal with that or accept that, you’ll be forced to abandon your writing, which is the number one reason why most people are never published: they are too thin-skinned and simply give up.

But there’s no reason why you or I have to subject ourselves to these deadly competitive types, the Miss Trunchbulls of would-be authors. I’m sure Mr. Bricklebank didn’t use the word “deadly” for nothing.  The bad apple always spoils the rest. The bad performer always pulls the rest of the team down. If you get a whiff of a deadly sort of environment in an online or in-person group or in a class, run. Run away as far and as fast as you can to a group with a more constructive vibe.

It may look like a cool, happening place teeming with talent, but it’s a chokie, pure and simple.

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  • my author bio . . .

    I began writing creatively three years ago, fueled by midlife and a Curves' addiction. Since then, I have published short work in The Christian Science Monitor and Sirens Magazine in the same year. How's that for versatility!
    Sirens Magazine

    Sirens Magazine

    Also the Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, The Giggle Water Review, Alighted, Wet Ink Press, America's Funniest Humor, Brilliant!, Laughter Loaf, Flash-Flooding, and the Greensilk Journal where my short story, "How I Boinked John Cusack" won editor's pick.
    The Greensilk Journal

    The Greensilk Journal

    My newest novel, THE SHAKER PROPOSAL, has received numerous accolades, the latest a fifth-place in the 2008 annual NWA (National Writing Association) Novel Contest.
    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    I am a marketing professional by vocation (but not by choice). My husband and I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the sounds, sites, smells, and flavors of which are a never-ending source of literary inspiration.