Tag Archives: writers

Writing Is Art, Too

You know all those posts you see this time of year about how important it is to support artists and local artisans?

I have no quarrel with that. Artists and artisans need and deserve our support. Most of them contribute to the local economy and many are barely squeaking by.

But let’s also give some love and support to the writers. Writing, after all, is an art, too.

Let’s take painting as an example of an art. How, you ask, is writing like painting?

First of all, writing, like painting, takes practice, at least if you want to get better at it. Painters create works that they know they can never – don’t even want to – sell, especially when they are just starting. One thing they can do with these beginning pieces, though, is analyze them. What could I have done better? That section of the painting is muddy? What could I do to adjust the colors next time? That hand doesn’t look realistic. I need to work on painting people’s hands. I can’t just hide them in every painting.

Painters are often influenced by famous painters whose works they admire. They study these paintings. Some even try to paint in the same style or using the same color palette or the same type of subject matter. They may experiment with cubism, pointillism, art nouveau, impressionism, photorealism, or all of the above. They may imitate the style of Monet, Hopper, Cassatt, or O’Keefe. They’re not being copycats or attempted art forgers. They are acknowledging the greats and learning from those who came before them.

Writers, too, must study and practice, if they are to improve, and especially if they want to produce work that is saleable. Most writers have favorite authors and analyze what it is about those authors they admire. Does one a novelist write elegant description? Does a mystery writer use tight plots and exciting dialogue? Does a short story writer pack a wallop in a small space? These are qualities that can be learned and practiced. One writer of my acquaintance pores through her favorite authors’ works and highlights dialogue tags, for example, or sensory descriptions, or foreshadowing.

The next step for many writers is also to imitate the greats. A mystery writer may try to emulate Sue Grafton. An aspiring fantasy writer may study George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien. A neophyte poet may be drawn to confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton or to sonneteers like Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

When it comes to supporting local artists, you can often find their work at local art festivals and craft fairs. Some conventions, such as science fiction conventions have art rooms with paintings and drawings for sale or auction and general merchandise rooms that feature handmade jewelry, glass blowing, and other arts and crafts.

But where do you find the work of local writers? It’s not like anyone’s selling poems door-to-door. Well, just as there are local art fairs, there are also local or regional book fairs, where writers rent tables and try to entice passersby with their works. Frequently, when you buy directly from the author at one of these events, most of the money is likely to go to the author and not to a far-off publishing company.

Readings at bookstores and even libraries are other places to meet local or regional authors and get a sense of their work before you purchase. If you like the writer’s books, but are unable to purchase one, call your local libraries and ask them to stock that title. An author is thrilled to make a sale to a public library and by encouraging that, you are helping that writer.

There are other things you can do to support writers as well. Leaving a review on Amazon – even a two word “Liked it” – is import to writers. Amazon really cares about the number of reviews a book gets. Goodreads is another excellent place to write reviews.

Most of all, show love for your local authors by talking about them. Word-of-mouth sales are still important, even in this digital age. It’s the same with local painters and other artists. The more you spread the word about how good they are, the more you are helping talented community members make a living so they can keep doing what they do best – making art.

What the Client Wants, the Client Gets

It should be a truism that you always give the client what he or she wants, but sometimes it’s extra-difficult. Not to say that clients are picky, but, well, let’s just say that clients are picky.

Although sometimes vendors can be, too. As a case in point, I remember a magazine that I worked on that needed an illustration of a slice of pizza. Not a difficult thing to draw, and there are reference materials everywhere if one suddenly does not remember what pizza looks like. And we would have taken any kind of pizza – supreme, pepperoni, veggie, ham and pineapple, spinach and feta, double anchovies – whatever.

But the illustrator we often worked with came back a few days later, no illustration in portfolio, and informed us that he couldn’t do the assignment because he was a vegan, or some brand of vegetarian that would have nothing to do with milk products, and couldn’t bring himself to draw cheese.

We were miffed. First, that he hadn’t told us sooner about his cheese-drawing aversion. There were any number of professional illustrators in the area who had no such qualms. Second, because we weren’t asking him to eat pizza or buy pizza or something else that might reasonably have caused him qualms by supporting the pizza industry. Just a simple black-line drawing of a slice of pizza. You couldn’t even see the cheese, really. You just knew it was there. But apparently even that was too much for him. But we knew what we wanted. We wanted cheese on our pizza.

Sometimes you do have to wrestle with your conscience to fulfill certain jobs. I edited for a religious client for many years, whose religion I did not espouse. I came to terms with it. As far as I could see, I didn’t have to believe the beliefs I was writing about; I just had to respect them, understand them, and make them intelligible and appealing to the readers. Whatever else I believe, I believe that religious publishing companies should not restrict themselves to only like-minded believers in their hiring. And yes, I wrote for them too, on non-doctrinal topics like charity and more official ones like prayer services.

Many freelance writers and editors and even the occasional illustrator must make these decisions – whether what the client wants is something you feel comfortable giving. In general, my advice is to suck it up and do what the client wants.

To use a trivial example, I stand firmly behind the Oxford comma, but if my client’s style guide doesn’t, out it goes, no matter how much it pains me. In those cases, the style guide wins. And the client.

Writing for children can be the most difficult assignment of all. Clients who assign writing that will go into textbooks are the worst. They specify not just story length, but also reading levels (there are programs that calculate this in any number of systems – use whichever your client likes),  grammatical forms (e.g., dental preterites), and even phonics examples (two words per paragraph with diphthongs, for example). Then try to make the writing creative and engaging.

One set of children’s stories I worked on was a doozy. Instead of word count, the client wanted 15,000 characters-plus-spaces (a measure I had never heard of, but fortunately Microsoft Word has). Then there were nine separate characters, each of whom had to play a role in every story. There were other requirements, too. An abstract. Pull-out quotes. Illustration descriptions. Not to mention specific topics. And a schedule that required a story every five days. And I did it all, thankful for the work.

I have blogged about writing children’s stories before (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-cD). One of the things I said was:

I believe that requiring writers to abide by rigid rules makes it less likely that the story will be appealing. And if the story isn’t appealing, I believe it is less likely that the children who read it (or are supposed to read it) will get anything from it.

But that’s not my call. It’s the client’s.

What’s So Funny About Ohio?

If you’re a 3rd grader the funny thing about Ohio is that it’s the state that’s round on both ends and high in the middle.

If you’re near Columbus the funny thing about Ohio is the field of concrete corn that stands majestically by the roadside.

"CornhengeDublinOhio". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CornhengeDublinOhio.jpg#/media/File:CornhengeDublinOhio.jpg
“CornhengeDublinOhio”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

If you’re in Cincinnati the funny thing about Ohio is the Flying Pig statues, marathon, and assorted paraphernalia.

If you’re near Hamilton, Ohio, the funny thing about Ohio is the statue formerly known as Big Butter Jesus. (1)

King of Kings (aka Big Butter Jesus)

King of Kings (aka Big Butter Jesus)
Photo by Cindy Funk

There are undoubtedly other oddities and roadside attractions in Ohio that can be found in various books and websites about the peculiar and amusing sites to be found in various states.

The really funny thing about Ohio, however, is that the state has produced some of the best humor writers ever.

The one that all Ohioans study in school is James Thurber. I was surprised to learn that outside of Ohio he is not as well known. At the very least, Ohio students read “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Catbird Seat.” (2) His loopy, scrawling cartoons of men, women, and dogs are classics not so much for their artistic merit but for the captions. My favorite is a man and woman in a lobby and the man says, “You wait here and I’ll bring the etchings down.” For some reason that always slays me.

Thurber managed to be funny despite his failing eyesight and rampant misanthropy.(3) He also wrote a series of essays on grammar – a parody of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – that is enormously amusing to those of us who are amused by that kind of thing. In particular his piece on the subjunctive and sex is worth the price of admission. (4)

The high points of Thurber’s work have been collected in an anthology called The Thurber Carnival. I highly recommend it.

The other native Ohioan who has made her mark in humorous writing is Erma Bombeck.(5) Beginning as a writer for the Dayton Daily News, Bombeck turned her suburban trials and tribulations into comic fodder for such national bestsellers as If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?

She is much more widely known than Thurber because of the near-universal appeal of her books and the fact that nobody makes schoolchildren read her.

Every two years there is an Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop held in her memory at the University of Dayton. Attendees work on humor writing, memoirs, and other forms of expression. There are events called “Pitchapalooza” and “Speed Dating for Writers,”(6) a writing contest, and even a showcase for stand-up comedians.

This year the faculty includes Jenny Lawson, the Bloggess; Kathy Kinney, “Mimi” from The Drew Carey Show; multi-talented writer Sharon Short; as well as other authors, speakers, agents, and literary mavens.

I will be there too, as an attendee.(7)  I hope that after this experience, which occurs at the beginning of April, I can use the knowledge, practice, and advice I receive to improve this blog.

Erma Bombeck and James Thurber set a high standard, but those of us who aspire to write need people of outstanding talent to inspire and instruct us. As well as flying pigs and rows of concrete corn to entertain us.

 

(1) Also known as “Touchdown Jesus.” I always called it “Kris Kristofferson Jesus.” Unfortunately that statue was hit by lightning and replaced by another statue of Jesus made from exactly the same materials. And that’s pretty funny too. I call it “Jesus-Needs-a-Hug Jesus.”

"Lux Mundi"
“Lux Mundi”

(2)”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is another well-known work. But the Danny Kaye movie of it has too much Kaye and not enough Thurber.

(3) Often mistaken for misogyny. But by the end of his life, he couldn’t stand anyone.

(4) You can find it online at http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/whichthurber.htm, but hardly anywhere else.

(5) After whom my armadillo purse, Erma (duh), is named.

(6) Not actually a venue for making dates, this consists of time-limited one-on-ones for aspiring authors to ask questions of pros.

(7) I was lucky to register in time – the workshop sold out in under six hours from the time registration opened. There is a FB page and the website is humorwriters.org.