Category Archives: Writing

Palahniuk and Pound on Showing, Not Telling

Chuck Palahniuk

While marinating ideas for my next writing project, I’ve been scrounging the web for articles on improving my prose, and I wanted to share one I thought was particularly good. It’s from bad boy Chuck Palahniuk, who’s on the warpath against what he dismisses as abstract “thought” verbs:

These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include: Loves and Hates.

And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Of all the arts, I think writing tends to veer toward the abstract and away from the concrete. After all, we’re working with words, which are abstract representations of ideas, emotions, and our experiences in the real world. Little wonder that so many generations of writers have risen up and declared war on encroaching fuzziness in both poetry and prose.

The Imagist Poets of the early 20th century vowed “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.”

Here’s an example from another bad boy of literature, Ezra Pound, from his “Cathay Translations,” his interpretation of the Chinese poet Rihaku:

The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

Pound offered the following explanation:

Note.—Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain, of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

It’s a pleasure to read and re-read this short poem to discover the richness of the images and the emotional responses they trigger. Master poets know how to energize language to evoke a bounteous experience in a condensed space. Similarly, a good prose writer packs more punch when he sheds clutter and focuses on the concrete.

How being pessimistic about writing can make you a better writer

Here’s some counter-intuitive but sound advice from an accomplished author.

Yet Another Crime Book Blog

Positive thinking is all over the place and for one good reason – it sells. Telling someone that they can control their own good fortune by simply deciding to think positively is a beautiful idea. And you know what? You think positive – you feel positive. It works, we’ve all experienced it, but isn’t that a little like saying, if you imagine the colour blue you will see the colour blue?

More and more, the evidence is stacking up. Positive thinking can make you happy for a short time, but it can also stop you from reaching achievable goals too.

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Positive thinking alone won’t secure you the job you want that was otherwise unattainable or save a failing relationship. Positive thinking can make you appear to others as a confident and outgoing person, but most jobs and relationships soon dissolve that illusion, leaving positive thinkers in a worse position than…

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Hitting that Submit Button

Hitting that Submit Button

Posting has been light lately, but it’s because I’ve been busy with my latest manuscript. For me, getting that first draft down is tough. However, I love revising. (Weird, huh?) I really think I could revise a piece forever, continuously getting charged up from finding boo-boos here and tightening up my prose there.

My wife, who is also a strict critic and proofreader, recently suggested the real reason might be more than the pleasure of “getting the words right,” as Hemingway described the process of revision — it might also be fear of taking that frightening leap of submitting my work.

Yikes! She’s probably on to something. I’ll admit it IS scary to hit that submit button. For me, it’s at least as terrifying as that first backward jump in rappelling, or seeing the earth vanish from under your feet when you launch yourself hang gliding. And I’ll also admit to still being touchy about rejection even though intellectually, I know that’s part of the game. Hey, it hurts to offer your heart and have it pushed aside. But again, that’s the nature of the beast.

Here’s a no-nonsense reminder of that cardinal rule of the writer’s life, from alto at Matters of the Art:

You will be rejected. Often. Get over it early, because it never really goes away. Though realize you are not alone. In the course of my MFA, while researching for an assignment, I stumbled upon an article about author rejections. The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Fiddlehead, and every other high end lit rag has rejected every single famous writer out there countless times. It doesn’t matter who you are. Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, all know the sting of rejection.

If misery loves company, I guess knowing you have some high-caliber company eases the hurt just a bit.

BTW, I heartily recommend alto’s article. It’s sound advice I wish I’d read decades ago, not just on dealing with rejection, but on other vital truths about writing.

Anyway, I finally let go and hit that “Submit” button. My latest wip is out there, swimming upstream in a digital slush pile.

Dr. Isaac Asimov and the Art and Science of Writing

Dr. Isaac Asimov

I recently read two articles I thoroughly enjoyed and found inspiring. One is on Isaac Asimov’s approach to writing, and the other is “The Five-Step Manufacturing Process That Could Make You A Better Writer,” by Julian Bass, a Lecturer in Software Engineering at the University of Salford. Asimov, who had a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University, would’ve been intrigued by Bass’s engineering approach to writing.

These articles cross-pollinate, and should be read in their entirety. I’ll just give you a taste here.

I was particularly impressed with Bass’s approach, having once worked in the insurance industry as a methods analyst for continuous workflow improvement. Bass summarizes his approach to writing in five principles aimed at minimizing waste and increasing productivity. They evolved from the “Lean” engineering techniques based on Japanese manufacturing methods. Here are Bass’s writing principles:

Flow means to create a regular cycle of back-to-back creativity, a rhythm of finished writing projects.

Value: Good writing will communicate important ideas so that people want to absorb and enjoy them. So, you should try to write in a way that communicates your ideas and makes your audience feel excited, informed or entertained (or all three).

Waste: Finding the value is one thing, but how many projects have you started that ended up sitting on your desk or computer, ignored or forgotten about? That is exactly the kind of waste lean tries to avoid: partially finished work, half-formed ideas and wasted energy.

Pull: You should think of writing, much like manufacturing, as pulling a product towards completion. This means the highest priority writing projects are those nearest to being finished.

Perfection: My writing never achieves perfection, as you can probably tell. But I always trying to aim for quality improvement.

Compare that process to Isaac Asimov’s advice to writers:

Never stop learning – Read widely. Follow your curiosity. Never stop investing in yourself.

Don’t fight getting stuck – By stepping aside, finding other projects, and actively ignoring something, our subconscious creates space for ideas to grow.

Beware the resistance – Self-doubt is the mind-killer.

Lower your standards – Asimov was fully against the pursuit of perfectionism. Trying to get everything right the first time, he says, is a big mistake.

Make MORE stuff – Interestingly, Asimov also recommends making MORE things as a cure for perfectionism.

The secret sauce – A struggling writer friend of Asimov’s once asked him, “Where do you get your ideas?” Asimov replied, “By thinking and thinking and thinking till I’m ready to kill myself.”

It’s always fascinating to get a glimpse of how great minds work, and Isaac Asimov was truly one of the greats. Every piece Asimov wrote, fiction and non-fiction, displays his intellect, his boundless curiosity, and big heart.

Do we still need gatekeepers?

Jill Schoolman

Literary Hub has published Kerri Arsenault’s Interview With A Gatekeeper. The featured gatekeeper is Jill Schoolman, the founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

The title echoes the ongoing (and sometimes noisy) dispute about the future of publishing. (Check out this online brawl, for example.) “Gatekeeper” is a noun full of baggage, often used derisively by those who insist the rise of self-publishing has made traditional publishing obsolete. But that would mean people such as Jill Schoolman no longer have anything of value for either readers or writers.

The Literary Hub interview highlights the unique and well-suited skills and insights Schoolman brings to her job. She studied film and literature in college, learned three languages, has lived and worked in three continents, and has done freelance film work.

All of which adds up to a good foundation for an editor, which requires both the specialist’s skill and the generalist’s grasp of a variety of subjects — but as the interview reveals early on, it takes much, much more:

KA: How does one learn to be an editor?

JS: You have to be a good reader, a good writer, and have a good ear. I think you also need to be a good listener. You have to listen to the writer’s voice and not impose your own voice on a text. Being a good translator is a similar craft: to be able to feel the spirit of the text and see what the writer is trying to do. When you start out editing, there’s a tendency to over-edit, to be a bit heavy-handed. But the more you edit, the more you grow to respect the text. You can also feel very quickly if you are not adept at it. It’s not for everyone.

Sound like someone you’d like to read and edit your work? I would. Even in this age of CreateSpace and other self-publishing venues, gatekeepers like Schoolman still fulfill a much-needed role for both the reader and writer. Here’s an excerpt from author Tina Ann Forkner’s article 5 Reasons You Should Still Pursue a Traditional Book Contract:

Vetting is important. Having a traditional novel proves your book has been vetted by the industry and that your writing has been found worthy. When it comes to bookstores carrying your books, being traditionally published is still the best proof that your book is professional, well-edited, and has a great story that readers will want to read. You can be vetted in other ways if you are self-published, but it isn’t easy. Having a traditional publisher is still the best route if you want a wider readership.

The traditional submission process makes your novel better. Sure, you are going to get rejected. I’ve been rejected my fair share, and so have J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, but if I had to go through all of that rejection again, I would do it. The great thing about the traditional submission process is that every time you are rejected, you have to revisit your manuscript and make it better before sending it out again. Revision is a great teacher, and I’ve learned a ton from editors who have rejected my work. If you still decide to go the self-publication route someday, you will be glad that your manuscript was read, critiqued, and rejected by editors who knew what they were doing.

Being traditionally published is a VIP Pass. If you manage to get traditionally published, it will be good for the rest of your career. Even if you self-publish or go with a small publisher later, as I have, you’ll be able to say that you were previously published by a large traditional publisher.

Forkner’s point is that there’s much writers can learn from traditional publishing. Don’t get me wrong — I think the rise of self-publishing is a big plus for writers. In fact, self-publishing is a rebirth of the way authors got their work out to a mass audience in the early days of the printing press. Who could argue against the independence and opportunity for greater earnings now available to writers? Plus, as James Scott Bell has pointed out, a writerpreneur who publishes some works traditionally AND self-publishes enjoys more income than those who exclusively self-publish. And, as in other artistic endeavors, greater income affords greater freedom of expression.

The takeaway of this debate is that great publishing freedom requires even greater pre-publication self-discipline.

Quote of the day

Jim Jarmusch

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” – Jim Jarmusch