Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Killing Your Genius with Big Words (Pace)

Ernest Hemingway gained critical acclaim by crafting wonderful stories with lifelike characters by using common language. He avoided flowery vocabulary that might impress English professors or earn admiration from society's gentile crowd. Instead, he opted for simple, clear words--basic language that got the job done. For that reason, ordinary people enjoyed his characters and plots.

Reference books . . . for pleasure reading?

Is there a modern lesson in Hemingway's approach to writing? JK Rowling, Tom Clancy, and that writer who attracts enormous criticism from literary critics, Stephenie Meyer of Twilight fame . . . they all became successful using words average people understand. Readers inject themselves into stories, and if undistracted by dictionary visits, they experience the full impact of the writing. Shakespeare did the same thing. Sure, his plays sound odd by today's American English standards, but, back in his era, commoners raved about his pithy themes and every-day dialog.

Don't we writers all want the same thing? We hope our stories entertain readers, and maybe, just maybe, they'll become fans of both our stories and our writing styles. How can our word choices help this reader-to-fan metamorphosis?

Writers actually pick an audience when they select words. If your intended readers are college-educated professionals who demand literary eloquence, then, by all means, dust off the thesaurus and engage in the synonym dance. But, if the planned-for reader is a typical person, someone who works all week and wants a little escapism during their cherished weekends, then the author's writing should match readers' needs. We should write to the audience, not to our English professor!

In my personal experience, even highly educated people like doctors and lawyers want to relax when they pick up a book for pleasure reading. They're not much interested in passing the GRE exam's writing section . . . yet again. If a simple word gets the job done, then why complicate things with a five-syllable alternative? Sure, there are times when a word like anthropomorphism must be chosen for just the right meaning, but more often than not, a simpler word will be effective and easier to read. Pace in a story is a carefully constructed flow that carries a reader from one important scene to next. Correct pace depends on ease of reading.

Can it be overdone; perhaps too simplistic? Certainly. And, that's a fine line writers must walk. The old acronym, K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid), works in fishing, building a porch, assembling a child's bike and most any other task in life. It's no different for writing.

Don't kill your genius by forcing readers to keep a dictionary close by. Awesome mental images and dynamic dialog wilt under interruptions by visits to a thesaurus. Great stories rely on pace, or more accurately, carefully planned variances in pace, to unfold their plots. They engage a reader's imagination and run effectively as long as there are no distractions. Avoid the curse of big-word-itis, and let your story's pace flow naturally. If it was good enough for get the rest.

Now, where did I put my thesaurus? I need to edit this post. lol.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Death of a Salesman – Me!

The famous play by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, always confounded me. I don’t understand the entertainment value in watching a tormented man eventually commit suicide? Yet, to some extent, I have walked a few miles in the main character’s shoes. I understand him. For a while, I was Willy.

My youthful dreams included subatomic particle research in nuclear physics and an ambitious plan to solve Einstein’s enduring problems with his beloved Unified Field Theory. Despite such high aspirations, I ended up a lowly insurance salesman--a Willy. It doesn’t matter how it happened, it just did. Intellectual failure reminded me of that Broadway play. I feared becoming that main character. Fortunately, fate stepped in.

What changed me?

Fishing. Tournament bass fishing became an obsession. I loved competition and I enjoyed my fellow anglers. Bass fishing saved me when it provided that friendly port in the proverbial storm called the insurance business. And, it wasn't just fishing. An unexpected side gig grew in the form of writing fishing articles for Inside Line magazine. Life became enjoyable. I found peace of mind. Then, the happiness ended abruptly. Vertigo struck so strongly that I could not even walk. Hope for a meaningful life ended. I was becoming Willy, trapped in the never ending negativity of sales.

Looking back on that first vertigo attack, I now realize it was one of the best career changers that ever happened to me. Strange how life closes one path but reveals another in the process.

During those years of competitive fishing, I had filled hundreds of boring hours in motel rooms with writing. Initially, I wrote fishing articles, but I quickly expanded into novels that ended up stuffed in file drawers when I got home. Ironically, it took a violent seizure from vertigo to open my eyes. Life intended me to be a writer, not a physicist, or pro bass fisherman, and certainly not an insurance broker . . . a writer.

Manuscripts, manuscripts, manuscripts...where do I start today?

In 2008, my science fiction book, Space Chronicles: The Last Human War, became a reality. I now have multiple manuscripts in process and one currently being sold by my New York literary agent, Marisa Corvisiero. I finally know what it means to find one’s calling in life. It’s thrilling to wake up each morning and be excited about which novel I will tackle this day.

The monotonous hell of sales will soon die, yes, by my own hand. But, unlike Willy in Death of a Salesman, I choose story-telling as the method of extinction for the salesman in me. I sincerely hope anyone reading this blog will enjoy an epiphany such as I did. You’ll know instantly when it happens; when you find your calling. And, if it turns out to be writing, then I hope to be one of your best fans. Good writing, my friend.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Growing Potatoes – The “Eyes” Have It!

(How to salvage unfinished stories.)

I remember when I was a kid and mom asked me to get some potatoes out for dinner. One of them had roots all over it. I asked her if it was any good. She snapped the roots off and assured me the spud was perfectly fine to eat. She explained that each potato has many “eyes,” and, if an eye was planted, it will grow another potato plant, producing more potatoes on its roots.

Does that sound like a challenge to you? It did to an eleven year old boy.

That night, I liberated a couple potatoes from mom’s supply and hid them under my bed. I checked every day and soon they had whitish roots hanging off each spud. Following mom’s theory, I cut the potatoes into small pieces with a root centered in each section. I planted those sprouts in a plot of ground at the back of our yard, and they grew into bushy potato plants--not at all attractive plants, but healthy, nevertheless.

Every book contains the seeds for other stories.

Time passed. I got a bit too excited and ruined the first crop by digging them up too soon. Lesson learned. A month later, I returned mom’s stolen potatoes several times over from my secret garden. It was amazing! A couple potatoes generated ten times that amount in only a few months. Mom admitted wondering where her potatoes had gone, but was happy to have the fresh supply.

Writing is a lot like planting potatoes. Each story may contain a bunch of “eyes,” that when nurtured, will grow into many more stories. It seems like written ideas are self-generating, much like the potato. The more you write, the more you discover to write about.

Perhaps the faithful old advice, “never stop writing,” works well because of the potato phenomenon. Every story, even an incomplete wannabe story, carries its own set of potato-eyes, each capable of spinning off another yarn, if planted in fertile literary soil and given basic rhetorical weeding. It’s an amazing truth about writing.

Next time you find yourself struggling for a new storyline, look into your literary potato-bin for the most gnarly looking, root-encrusted unfinished story. Examine it for “eyes” and shoots. Hidden storylines are right there inside that previous work. While it may have fizzled out as a finished product, many possible storylines could still exist in that unfinished work. Those stories wait like hopeful orphans, begging to be discovered and released into literary existence.

So, don’t ever toss out an abandoned storyline. Instead, toss it under your literary sink for a few months. Let it ripen. Then, when you ultimately bring it into the light again, you may see fresh new possibilities to be exploited and brought to life. Good writing!