Tag Archives: writing

Beating the Rejection Slip

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Writers fear them, yet they are inevitable: rejection slips. I’ve seen many a one in my life as a writer. (That’s what good about blogs. You never have to send yourself a rejection slip.) They can be cruel. They can be perfunctory, mass-produced and not even signed by a human being. An actual rejection slip may never arrive at all, leaving a writer to wait in anxious hope forever.

Rejection slips can be devastating. They can be empowering, too, in a strange sort of way. I’ve known writers who’ve defiantly papered their walls with rejection slips until they got a book contract. Once in a while a rejection slip comes that makes it clear the editor or agent has actually read the proposal or sample chapters. He or she may even provide helpful comments that can lead to improving your writing. Or the editor may say that your writing is good, although the book is just not for them. Those desperate for validation (most writers) treasure the first half of the evaluation.

Short story and nonfiction article writers and certainly poets get rejection slips, too. But the book rejection slip can be the most devastating because you may have spent literally years preparing your manuscript.

But here is a tale that may give you hope: I just beat the rejection slip. I have been offered an author contract.

How did I do it? I followed the rules. I gave up. Then I got lucky.

Since my book was a memoir (non-fiction), I knew that I had to prepare a proposal with sample chapters. (Fiction requires a completed manuscript, not just a proposal.)

Then I combed the Internet for agents that were accepting new clients and publishers that would accept proposals directly from authors. I sent out my query letters or proposals. I was very careful to send each recipient what they preferred and to make it meet their specs: query only, proposal only, proposal with three sample chapters, or ten pages, or whatever. I attached my proposal or pasted it into the email, whichever they wanted.

I tried to be at least a little sensible. I looked for people who wanted the kind of writing I was doing – nonfiction or memoir or mental health. I looked over their websites to see if there was one particular agent/editor who was more interested in my genre and addressed my query to that person. I never sent a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” query.

I did this dozens of times. I kept a list of where I sent each and crossed them off when the rejections came.

And after a number of years and rejections, I gave up. I decided to abandon my book (by that time it was completely written) and move on to another book-length project in another genre.

While I was struggling with that manuscript, however (I still am), I noticed a new independent publisher who was looking for nonfiction books on mental health issues. So I said, what the hell? I was pretty much inured to rejection by then. I sent a query letter.

And I got a reply, within days. Did I have a proposal or a completed manuscript? Encouraged, I said that I had both. They asked to see the manuscript. And within a week, I had an offer. Given the length of my rejection list, I jumped at the chance.

I was a little wary of throwing in my lot with an indie publisher, and a start-up at that. But the founder was someone I had heard of, someone who was a noted expert and activist in the field of mental health. It was not a vanity press.

And now I have signed my author contract and been assigned an editor (I look forward to many fruitful conversations with him). They also introduced me to the intern who had picked my manuscript out of the slush pile, to whom I am eternally grateful.

I’m not a novice at writing. In addition to these blog posts, I have written and published nonfiction articles and children’s stories. But being a BOOK author is the best! The day I get my 25 printed copies I will indeed squee, long and hard.

Say hello to the next author from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – me!

 

The Death of Humor?

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When I was younger and Saturday Night Live was just getting its start, I thought that the show marked the death of humor in America.

Yes, it was funny and yes, it introduced lots of fine new comedians who went on to brilliant careers.

But what bothered me was that as it filtered down to the general public, all people seemed to be doing were reciting lines and discussing skits from the show, not making humor on their own.

I’m pleased to say that I was wrong. Mostly. There is now the phenomenon of people passing along funny memes on Facebook, seldom taking the time to make their own. These floating bits of humor make their pervasive way into all our feeds, but our reaction to most of them is a snicker, a groan, and a click on the share button.

(Who makes all those memes anyway? If you look closely at who originated them, sometimes the answer is a radio station you never heard of. These businesses are trying to increase their interaction numbers by “click-farming.” Having a very responsive audience means more advertisers, which means more money. Simple as that.)

But truly, SNL marked the renaissance of comedy in America. Comedy clubs and ensemble comedy teams like Second City grew from humble beginnings into forces to be reckoned with. Stand-up comedians got their own Broadway shows and movies and HBO specials. Improv comedy became a thing. From this flowering of talent and innovation we got Whoopi Goldberg (remember when she was a comedian?) and Ellen Degeneres and Drew Carey, movies like Airplane! and TV shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” books like Christopher Moore’s Lamb and David Sedaris’s works, cartoons like The Simpsons and King of the Hill and (for those who liked that sort of thing) South Park. Even MAD magazine and The National Lampoon added to the mix. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and John Oliver and Samantha Bee became late-night staples.

But where, you may ask, is local humor, from people that you know personally? Local people, not Hollywood’s cream of the crop?

Just look around. Plenty of bars and comedy clubs have open mike nights that welcome not just singer-songwriters, but comedians as well.

And what about those singer-songwriters? Plenty take after Weird Al and make comedy music. Oddly, one place to find them is at science fiction and fantasy conventions. There they practice a style of music called “filk” (yes, it was once a typo, but now it’s not). Although many of the songs are about space travel and such, plenty of songs are humorous, such as Michael Longcor’s “Kitchen Junk Drawer” and Tom Smith’s “Talk Like a Pirate Day” (the official song of a yearly celebration made famous by humorist Dave Barry).

And written humor? You have only to look at past and present attendees of the Erma Bombeck’s Writers’ Workshop. There’s a book of essays by various participants called Laugh Out Loud (see http://humorwriters.org/2018/03/05/lol-2/). Past attendees have written and published books, including If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse? by Gina Barreca, Who Stole My Spandex? by Marcia Kester Doyle, Are You Still Kidding Me? by Stacey Gustafson, and Linda M. Au’s Secret Agent Manny. Their books are available on Amazon, even if they don’t yet have the following that their patron saint Erma had.

Even I have attempted humor at times. (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-Gc, https://wp.me/p4e9wS-5I, https://wp.me/p4e9wS-8W, https://wp.me/p4e9wS-7E, https://wp.me/p4e9wS-yn). I bet you can too, if you give it a try.

My specialty, though, is puns. Once when having breakfast with a friend I almost got thrown out a window. She had complained that her Eggs Benedict was taking an awfully long time.

“They probably had to go out and find a hubcap to serve it on,” I said.

“I know I’m going to hate myself for asking,” she said, “but why?”

“Because there’s no plate like chrome for the hollandaise.”

Okay, I didn’t make that one up, but I knew the perfect setup for it when I heard it. They say that in comedy, timing is everything.

Even if she had thrown me out the window, it would have been worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Artist and the Art

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How much do we owe the artist for creating art? And when I say art, I mean not just paintings and sculptures, but music and lyrics and books and films and podcasts and TV shows and more – you know, the things we can’t live without, according to a recent meme. What do we owe the people who create?

Respect. First, we should acknowledge that what they do is worthwhile. Life would be a lot less interesting – and meaningful – without all those things I just mentioned. And I’m not just talking Art with a capital A here. I’m including people who write trashy novels and sing pop songs and paint sad clowns. There are people who like those things and enjoy them. Who am I to judge? (I don’t include people who script so-called “reality” TV. Those people aren’t artists, even if their audiences love them. So I guess I do judge, some.)

Money. Making art takes time and as we all know, time is money. Making art takes skill, and we pay for that too. Making art takes practice, which is another expenditure of time.

Too many people try to cheap out on art. They try to haggle over price, or claim that they (or a monkey) could do it as well (then why don’t they?) or offer to “collaborate” and split the proceeds with the artist who does the work. Do you haggle with your plumber? That takes time and skill and practice too and makes your life more liveable.

Funding. Sadly, few people make a living making art. (I am lucky to know a few who do.) For the rest, there are few sources of income, other than a “day job,” which saps one’s energy and the time needed to make art. There are some sources of funding, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and not-for-profit outlets like National Public Radio and PBS. But when budget cuts need to be made, these public- and government-funded efforts are usually the first to be gutted. Let’s acknowledge that they serve an important purpose and need our support, even if pledge drives are annoying.

Absolution? Here’s the question. Do we owe an artist our attention if he or she has a quality or does something in personal life of which we don’t approve?

Of course, for example, if you don’t approve of swearing, you can choose not to give your money to novelists or filmmakers or comedians who sprinkle f-bombs liberally in what they create. You don’t enjoy that and that’s cool.

But what if you disagree with an artist politically, socially, or religiously? Does that make their art any less valid? Some of the people who make glorious, memorable art have done vile things or hold beliefs repugnant to some. How do we measure that against their art?

If an artist indulges in hate speech or racism or homophobia, that’s a perfectly valid reason to dislike him or her. But is it a reason to say that the person’s work no longer has value? Should a person’s vile behavior toward women or gay people (to use but two examples) end his or her career? Maybe. But does it devalue the work already done? There are certainly differing opinions and of course we must make our own choices about whom to support with our money or votes.

But is left-wing or right-wing ideology enough to make us boycott a person’s art? Do you go to see a film that has a person in it who disagrees with you politically?

Personally, I can no longer view the movie M*A*S*H with the enjoyment I once did because of the infamous shower scene, and I even squick at certain scenes in Young Frankenstein, one of my favorite films, because they make light of rape. But I can’t deny that they are great films and I don’t boycott the works of their creators.

What should we think about the flawed artist? Do we call them out for racism or sexism, for example, or continue to enjoy their art? Or somehow manage to do both? Perhaps we can no longer enter into that person’s art with the joy that we once did, or perhaps we might prefer not to expose children to such ideas (though they will surely encounter them in real life). But do we give a pass to someone whose work means a lot to us? Or do we hold everyone to the same ideal standards?

I think that it’s good that we are reexamining and discussing our attitudes about art and artists in the larger world, and examining our feelings about their behavior. But I still think that local, regional, and unknown artists deserve our support. We generally know nothing of their private lives and can’t judge them that way. Does the guy who plays guitar so well at open mike night cheat on his wife? Does the local food blogger sneer at her trans neighbor? Our communities don’t have the power of Hollywood’s searchlight. All we usually know of local creators is their art and whether we find it great, good, mediocre, or bad.

Even the making of mediocre or bad art is worthwhile. One can always get better with practice. And sometimes people can become better human beings with practice. Not often, perhaps, but I’ve seen it happen.

 

Retirement: Small Change for a Freelancer

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When I retire – very soon now – it will make very little change in my life as a freelancer.

I’ll still be able to write my blogs and articles for support groups, which pay nothing, but allow me to stretch my writing muscles and speak about issues that I care about.

Nor will it be “small change” in the sense of being very little money. I worked enough years in Corporate America (editing, writing, and proofing) with freelance writing as my side gig to have made my 35 years of higher income. Even my first dozen years as a full-time freelancer went well enough to make a contribution to my accumulated earnings. The amount I’ll be receiving will be enough to pay the mortgage. My husband’s income will pay the other bills if we’re careful. (And don’t think he isn’t jealous that I can retire soon and he has to wait a few more years.)

No, the small change will be that I will have a steady income while still pursuing freelance work. And that will be sweet.

For while freelance work has fallen off for me of late, it hasn’t disappeared completely. I still write occasional articles or stories for paying markets and am working on a novel and a memoir. (Who isn’t?) And I’ve recently picked up a gig as a transcriptionist and proofreader.

The point is, I’ll still be able to do freelance work – up to approximately $17,000 a year – without reducing my Social Security benefits. For me at least, that total will be a healthy sum. Not a stunning one, but healthy. (And if my mystery novel takes off, who knows?)

So what is the small change I mentioned in the title? A steady income. We all know the ups and downs of freelance life and lately I’ve come to hate them. It’s not an adventure, I don’t know where the next check is coming from, and at this point in my life I need to. A steady income combined with the ability to keep freelancing will bring some much-needed balance into my life.

It’s kind of like when I worked 9-5 and freelanced as a side-gig. The difference is that the steady income will come not from work that I’m doing, but from work that I’ve already done. That Social Security money is mine. It was merely lent to the government to invest in whatever they wanted and to pay for things I don’t necessarily approve of.

Now they have to give it back. (At least until and unless they gut the fund to do away with Social Security or do something else I won’t like. Then I’ll get to be the boomer version of a Gray Panther and write in protest of their actions.)

And with that steady money coming back to me, I will have a cushion and an opportunity to concentrate more on my freelance writing (transcribing, editing, proofing, blogging, writing my novel, whatever) – the freedom of the freelance life without many of the hassles.

I’ve checked with my accountant and we concur. Even my husband agrees.

I’d be a fool not to do it.

 

Why I Wear Plaid Flannel to Work

If you guessed that I’m a lumberjack, you’re wrong.

Photo by Kelly

I am a writer, editor, and proofreader, and I work at home. In my pajamas.

It’s great. My commute to work is from upstairs in the bed to downstairs at my desk. I have a coffee maker in my study and a box of cold cereal under my desk. That takes care of everything from breakfast to my mid-morning break. Lunch is only a kitchen away and the sofa is in the next room for TV watching. Then voilà, I’m all ready for bed again.

Of course, there are other choices than plaid flannel, but I like to stick with the basics. (And, hey, lumberjacks can be beefy and hunky and… stop that, Janet, get back to work! Try to think of Sheldon Cooper instead.)

Personally, I buy men’s flannel pajamas, as women’s have the curse of all women’s clothing – no pockets. At least men’s pajamas have a pocket or two where I can stash my cell phone or a snack for later. And I like my pajamas loose and comfortable. If you can’t be comfortable, there’s no sense in working in your pajamas.

In the summer, I prefer nighties that are basically long t-shirts for comfort and clever sayings and graphics (I ❤ My Bed, It’s Meow or Never, a kitten in an astronaut helmet). Or plain men’s big-n-tall t-shirts, again because of the comfort and the pocket.

It’s true that my study is on the first floor, and has a window that faces the street. Fortunately, there is a strategic shrub in front of it and a set of blinds so that I can keep my pajama-clad work habits to myself. But I live on a little-traveled cul-de-sac and my neighbors already think I’m weird, so it’s really not that much of a problem.

Another problem I don’t have is business meetings. Most are handled by telephone conference calls, so there’s no problem there. But even if I must Skype, all I have to do is keep a respectable top in my study (and not allow the cats to sit on it). No one will ever notice – or even see – my pajama-clad legs. (Or bare legs in the summer.) It gives me a nice rebel feeling too, like I’m getting away with something, which of course I am.

On-site business meetings are something I can well do without. Suit or dress, pantyhose (if anyone still wears those), shoes (instead of fuzzy slippers, part of my usual ensemble), coiffed ‘do (did I mention I can have bedhead or at most a simple ponytail at work?).

To tell the truth, I’ve even worked in my underwear on really hot summer days. You can conduct a phone interview in your delicates (especially if you have plaid panties) with no one the wiser (except maybe the neighbors, see above). Just imagine you have a suit on; people can hear it in your voice. They really can.

Of course, there is one drawback to working at home in your pajamas – cats. Besides sitting on your one respectable blouse, they may try to sit on your lap, keyboard, or papers; or nuzzle your screen; or try to capture your mouse. You can shut the door if you have one, but that will only lead to a lot of meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. (What happens if you have kids, I don’t know. Probably more meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. Plus the kids are likely to want to go to school in their pajamas, citing parental precedent.)

By the way, men can join the work-from-home-in-your-pajamas club too, but since I wear men’s pjs, I think it only fair that they wear women’s.

 

This post was inspired by a comment thread in the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop (EBWW) attendees Facebook page.

 

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

Real Crime and Fake Crime

I am a fan of both kinds.

Perhaps I should say that I am a fan of writing about both kinds. Better known as true crime and mysteries, the two types of writing have made up a large percentage of my reading for many years – as well as science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction that deals with science, nature, adventure travel, and more. (Think Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and you’re in the right area.)

I first got hooked on mysteries when we were visiting my grandmother and I dipped into her collection of Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts. I can’t remember when I first latched onto true crime books, but it may have been around the time of Jeffrey McDonald’s Fatal Vision.

Nevertheless, the two are decidedly not the same and no one should – or could – confuse the two.

Let’s get the really fictional crime fiction out of the way first: cozy mysteries and animal mysteries. Cozy mysteries are the sort with no blood and guts and no actual detective (except perhaps as a minor character to be out-thought by the intrepid librarian, gallery owner, or suburban mom). There is no way to confuse these novels with real life. Sorry, but bed and breakfast owners, golfers, and caterers do not solve crimes (though they certainly can be the victims of them), and the CIA doesn’t recruit grandmothers (though I like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series because they contain little travelogues and are soothing when you’re in bed with a cold). In real life, talking animals do not solve crimes either, though dogs may occasionally dig up a bone and thus start an investigation.

The crime fiction that comes the closest to real life is the subgenre called “police procedurals.” They don’t seem to be as popular lately as the police-or-private-detective-identifies-serial-killer-murderer-and-gets-to-be-a-target-as-well ones. But there are definite gems. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, is perhaps the best and the epitome of police procedurals. The main characters are police officers and the plots bear at least a slight resemblance to, well, police procedure.

In true crime, however, there is no tidy plot, nor a single detective (with or without civilian sidekick). Most real crime investigations involve dozens, if not hundreds of officers – unless they’re “cold cases,” when they might feature at least a handful. In crime fiction, the crime is solved neatly, with no or few loose ends unless a series of books is planned with a continuing arc for the criminal.

What happens in real life is nothing like that. There are crimes that are never solved. There are questions that will never be answered. There are “plot twists” that no editor would approve. In one true crime book I read, the serial killer was caught because he was stopped by a low-ranking police officer for a traffic infraction and was caught with a dead body in the back of his pick-up truck. That would be a crappy ending for a novel, but worked just fine in real life.

Of course, there are other crime-type books that are of interest. There are true-crime works like The Green River Killer (Jeff Jensen) that follow a complex investigation from beginning to end and Ann Rule’s books which read almost, but not quite, like fiction. And there are forensics-based fictionals like those by Kathy Reichs (which are nothing like the Bones TV show supposedly based on them), as well as forensics-based fact books like Teasing Secrets From the Dead by Emily Craig. Legal thrillers like the John Grisham novels also have wide appeal. Again, there are real-life legal cases that are comparable and have the added advantage of being true – Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi being the most famous.

I don’t watch much TV, but there are comparable forms of crime fact and fiction available there as well. Squeezing the cases into a scant hour may be preferable for people with short attention spans, but I always figure that they could, if they chose, read a book for an hour at a time and stretch out the fascination.

On the other hand, if you prefer cookbooks to “plucky baker solves crime” books, there’s plenty out there for you as well.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.

 

 

 

Is Today a Pants Day?

Believe it or not, there is a holiday on which people walk around with no pants. (This year it’s celebrated on May 4 – the first Friday in May.) There are no official rules, other than not wearing pants and pretending that nothing is out of the ordinary. For the shy men, skirts or kilts may be worn. The traditional way to celebrate No-Pants Day is to ride the subway, but we don’t have one around here, so the idea hasn’t really caught on.

(It is a day, I suppose, to work out those dreams you have when you show up at work with no pants on. My problem is that I dream about showing up naked AND NO ONE NOTICES.)

Having a day to celebrate no pants is all well and wonderful. But what about people who wear no pants year-round? People like me.

As a freelance writer and editor, whose only commute is from upstairs to downstairs, I don’t really have to worry about pants. Other writers I know like to wear pants (or skirts) because it gives them a feeling of being at work officially, even if they’re doing that work in the privacy of their own home.

Not me. I relish the freedom of being a work-from-home person and I almost never wear pants while I work. Oh, in the winter I break out the Sheldon-esque plaid flannel jammies and work wearing those. But when the weather is warmer, I settle for a nightshirt or a t-shirt, sans pants.

Really, I could work in even less, except my study is on the ground floor and there’s a window. There’s a shrub in front of it, but still, I find it best not to encourage the neighbor boys.

I find nightshirts soothing and relaxing and completely conducive to work. They also make it easier for me to take naps in the middle of the day, which is one of the other perks of being a freelancer.

But there’s another aspect of the pants vs. no pants dilemma to be considered. A friend of mine and I refer to days when we actually have the energy to go outside and run errands or be social as “pants days,” because we have to put on pants to do so. He’s a writer too and has as much right to work in his bathrobe as I do.

Plus, both of us are given to spells of depression when we can scarcely get out of bed, much less out-of-doors. So we report, “I’ve had three pants days this week” or “I finally had a pants day yesterday,” and congratulate ourselves and each other for having the stamina to insert legs and zip.

I suppose I could wear a skirt or a dress and call it a pants day, but if I do go out, I almost always wear jeans – unless I’m going to a job interview or a meeting with the IRS. I’d be much more relaxed in pajama pants, but there you are. Society has dumb rules. And please don’t tell me that there are things called pajama jeans. That’s cheating.

And by the way, in case you wondered, for me, no-pants days are also no-bra days – but that’s a subject for another time. (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-c8)

 

 

Editing: How to Cut Your Golden Prose

Sometimes it’s necessary to cut your copy. Say you’re entering a contest, but your piece is over the word limit. Or you’re repurposing an article for a different market, which requires a lower word count. What do you do?

You cut, no matter how painful it is. It will still be quicker than writing entirely new copy. And you’ll actually improve your writing as you do it.

I offer a few examples from pieces I’ve had to rework, one about a cat that went from 936 to 586 words; and one on bipolar disorder which needed to get from 1624 words to under 1000.

Here are two techniques for shortening a piece of writing. (Likely they will lead you to some rearrangement as well.)

The Surgical Method 

Clip and snip unnecessary words. Tighten up the writing, which is always a good thing. Say it succinctly.

Take this sentence:

The cat froze, waiting to see what came next.

Now tighten it up:

The cat froze, waiting.

You’ll never miss those extra words. Or how about this:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek tri-colored fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds that spoke of invitation.

It becomes:

If she allowed the human a glimpse of her bright eyes and sleek fur, she might also listen to the low, comforting sounds of invitation.

Earlier in the piece it was established that the cat was a calico, so “tri-colored” is unnecessary. “That spoke of” may sound nice, but do you need those words? Out they go.

Here’s one rewritten paragraph that saved 20 words:

“Calicos are almost always female. They need two X chromosomes to get that color pattern.” I knew I was being pedantic, but I wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. Our big gray and white cat Django had died not long before, and I wasn’t ready to give my heart to another feline companion.

became:

“Calicos are almost always female.” She wanted to keep the conversation out of emotional realms. The big gray and white cat had died not long before, and she wasn’t ready to give her heart to another.

Admittedly, surgical cuts gain you only a few words. But enough of them can make a difference, especially when combined with the next technique.

The Samurai Method

This involves cutting whole sentences and even whole paragraphs. Look closely at the first and last paragraphs. Is there a punchier beginning a paragraph in? Did you stop when you should have? In this piece on bipolar disorder, I cut three paragraphs at the end. They represented nothing more than fumbling for a pseudo-profound conclusion.

Or take this monster paragraph:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication, to say the least. My envy lasted through her ambitious plans to make identical green velvet Christmas dresses for her three daughters. And vanished when I saw her tear them apart, recut them, start over, change her mind multiple times. You can write the ending to this one. There were no dresses, not by Christmas and not ever. Kate was riding the roller coaster – perhaps the most common metaphor for bipolar disorder – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end.

And look how much tidier it became:

Then I met Kate, who was bipolar – and not well controlled on medication. Kate was riding the roller coaster – the peaks and troughs, swooping crashes, anticipatory climbs, stomach-clenching vertigo, and, for some, an abrupt stop at the end. With all that, Kate never got anything done.

Yes, I lost a nice anecdote. But was it essential? Not when I had to lose more than 600 words.

This paragraph disappeared entirely:

I had heard how in the 1950s electroshock was used as a way to punish or control unruly, uncooperative, nonconforming women. And of course everyone knew about the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Snake Pit. As far as I was concerned, electroshock was right up (or down) there with icepick lobotomy, the frighteningly efficient epitome of former psychiatric treatments.

It was off the topic.

Here’s another case of too many details:

Those years are mostly a blur to me now. I remember sleeping a lot. I remember sitting on the sofa watching “reality” shows so I could see people whose lives were train wrecks worse than mine. I recall not having the wherewithal to add water and nuke a cup of macaroni and cheese. Not bathing. Not feeding the pets. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

This is much tighter and just as effective.

Those years are mostly a blur now and were immobilizing then. I remember sleeping a lot. Not bathing. Not eating. Not paying bills. Not reading. Not caring.

 

Cutting your own prose is seldom fun. But sometimes you just have to – and sometimes you even want to. Even famous books could have stood a little trimming. Just read some Victor Hugo or the first chapters of Ivanhoe if you don’t believe me.