NVDT #40 – Clam Digging

The Prompt – Your top 5 writing mistakes and/or the ones that make you cringe

1 – Loop-de-loop paragraphs. I learned to beat this. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  I call them “pinball paragraphs” where one minute we’re a backstory line, the next we’re a set descriptive, the next we’re in a head, and that goes ’round in a circle. There are examples of opening paragraphs written this way in this very room.

2 – Words and phrases strung together that sound like writing. I encountered this in the music business as well. Rather than play an entire solo or phrase we called the punch-ins when they rolled by. Art in that process is elbow grease on the seams. Unfortunately, in writing there’s no way to fix people writing what they think sounds like what they want to say regardless of how illogical or supercilious it sounds. Similar to this is a paragraph of undeveloped scenes or thesis statements strung together. This and this and this and this. Whoa. Start with the first one, develop it, logically, next.

3 – Obvious backstory triggers. Mirrors, photographs. Please. Backstory dumps are SPEED BUMPS and corrupt story flow. Following on the heels of cliche triggers is cliche backstory. Lunch with the wise old wizard, the ex-boxer turned private detective with retired or active cop friends and the magic fireplace/doorway/portal are stale. Wise old wizards who might be geezer horse farmers, okay. But the long cloaks and Love Potion #9? We can do better. Drop backstory into dialog or in pieces. Or at least dress it up in a clever way like Helen Simonton. Hackneyed photograph or staring at the fields backstory is exposed by an interruption or an intrusion by a third party. A formula that makes the dump situational and part of something. I’m sure she read the formula somewhere but she does it well. Better yet, let the characters tell us who they are by what they say and how they behave.

4 – Inside out sentences. I am guilty of this in draft mode. It can sound erudite, or stupid, or pontificating. None are as effective as straight ahead. An example would be the dreaded -ing simultaneous action. Putting on the goggles he walked out the door. Sounds like amateur writing night. Jackson put on the goggles as he walked out the door.

Inside out Example  – Jackson slammed the door behind him as he put on the goggles and walked out. You know sometimes it takes a dead eye to see that junk because when we read it, from ourselves or others, our brain fixes it. Slammed was the last, not the first thing, but we make sense out of it because it goes together. Sort of. I see this all the time.

5 – Echoes. Not just words but thoughts, behaviors, descriptions. Saying the same thing twice in different ways. Holy crap. My first time out I had an editor draw red lines through paragraphs with the note “you already said this two paragraphs ago. No need to reiterate, we got it.” That’s writerly ‘splaining. We want to be sure the reader got it so we do it again. I see that a lot in head time, not just narrative. An event happens, we see the characters’ reactions in the scene and then somebody has to take a stroll and explain it all over again for us in their head time.

6 – C’mon, it’s an even number and it’s perfect for this topic – Not knowing when to stop. Wanting to write that last line or two when it was done two lines ago. That’s another sort of ‘splaining I suppose, but I see it in chapter endings all the time. And it’s one of the things I have to go back and whack. When it’s done, it’s done. Example – “And then they packed up and went home” is nothing but extraneous BS word count. Hell, “then” is extraneous word count.

Expanded list – Selling philosophy/religion/agenda via dystopia or straight-up ‘fiction’ just flat pisses me off. If someone writes to sell me something they should mention it on the flap.

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NVDT #39 – If Not Now, When?

The Prompt – How soon is too soon to include an actual event in a fictional story

The average attention span is around 8 seconds. Down from 12 in 2000.

Which screws up content-based marketing. I have Addy’s for 29.5 (30 second) commercials. One had 36 cues. Bip Bam Boom. One was a gauzy, dreamy Mother’s Day ad for a chain of jewelry stores. I wonder if anyone ever heard the tag? Why bother with 29.5s? Because TV stations can’t stay alive selling 7-second ads.

That’s what, 4 ads in the space of 1 with some extra fade time? “FORDS! WE GOT ‘EM!” “FURNITURE! COME GET IT!” “FAT GUY PLUMBERS, ON TIME!” “HOT WINGS! CARRYOUT OR DELIVERY!”

Extend that content thought out to writing a new novel (which explains the plethora of plot holes and unexplained Red Herrings lately). My new book, please review – “Zombies. Lots of them. Fear. Chase. Blood and guts. More blood and guts. Screaming. Sex. More fear. Everyone dies. The end.

Our attention spans are so short we’ve blown off Covid 19 as a death sentence that hasn’t gone away, in favor of making sure we can get haircuts. And nachos. And exercise together in sweaty groups in closed rooms.

My answer – Whenever it suits you. Now is fine for whenever whatever happened or is happening.

Which begs the question – At what point or measure of time from an event does pop-culture fiction become historical fiction? A generation? Five years? Twenty years? When everyone who experienced it is dead? When kids weren’t born when it happened?

The old saying, roughly, is ‘wisdom is the distance from an experience to its understanding.’ Some events take longer than others to grasp their full magnitude, but is it a prerequisite that we understand a current event to use it for a tortilla to wrap around our story burrito?

The 7-second rule says “Nah.” You couldn’t write a YA about the Twin Towers because most of them wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about. And you might offend some terrorists. Maybe YA’s know about Taylor Swift’s boob job or Demi Lovato’s latest overdose. Maybe. Don’t count on it, because some celebutante just tweeted about how she loves her new custom painted high top Converses. What was I saying?

Quick. What happened 7 seconds ago?

Gotcha.

 

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NVDT – Writerly Concerns #38

Hukt Awn Foniks Werkt Fur Mee

The prompt was – What are your pet peeves as regards grammar and spelling?

Do I have any? Definately. The little red lines under words are their for a reason.

Grammar (as word usage) and spelling should always be correct outside of dialog.

Possessives and plural’s like ladys and ladies except when convention has negated the rules as in mens room since it would be gender inequality for men to get the apostrophe and ladies not to. Or is would that be ladys? Or… Is it correct to say “Excuse me, I’m off to the men ( or women) room? Is that why there are so many nongender synonym workarounds for potty?

All that other punctuation stuff? Is it the week we put punctuation outside of quotes or not? I refuse to believe the first three words of every sentence are an introductory clause. Grammarly disagrees. Imagine that. I use commas for phrasing and timing like rests in music, not “correctly.” It drives English Professor types nuts. Two bad – because —

I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. – Elmore Leonard

I also believe the following true.

Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. – Kurt Vonnegut

1) If it doesn’t work, even if it’s correct, rewrite or eliminate it.

2) If it needs a semicolon or some other oddball punctuation, re-write it. Use a period. Two short sentences do not make the author look stupid. Neither does whacking a couple of words here and there from two windy clauses that could be one good one. There is no sin in the simplicity of ‘Jim kicks Bill.’

Dialog is the exception. I said that already. Why? Good God y’all, people can and do talk some stoopid shit. The cops and crooks on true detective shows? The people newscasters interview who lived through a tornado in Oklahoma? Eyed put up an example but we’d be here all day.

You can’t have characters speaking perfectly but you also can’t cop out and have them speaking pidgin English like bad movie pirates. Dialect and patois, okay, to a point. But there is no reason to have characters speak like extras in Captain Blood. 

The point – Proper usage, conjugation, logical continuity, spelling should all be mandatory when committing writerly narrative to the page. Commas and that semicolon, em dashes (and their usage), ellipses (and the spaces before or after)…even quotation marks, are style choices. (As far as I’m concerned)

Why? Punctuation is something even the Grammar Nazis can’t agree on.

Yeah. Spelling, proper usage, and content – Definately.

Joke. What do divorces and tornados have in common in Oklahoma?

It’s for sure somebody’s gonna lose a double-wide.

 

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RANDOM NVDT – When One Word Will Do

“Look it up and you’ll find your picture.”

So I did. And…

Futilitarian – a person given to useless or worthless pursuits.
— Daniel Lyons’ American Dictionary of the English Language, 1897

So much more descriptive, in a less derogatory way, than poser or poseur. A Futilitarian might be sincere, albeit misguided, ill-equipped, or suffering from cognitive dissonance as regards their ability.

Expanded one could also find uses for this as a religion, a philosophy, an “artistic lifestyle,” a club or organization

Is it a noun, an adjective, or — He was a writer from the Futilitarian school. His writing was Futilitarian. He was a fervent Futilitarian. His platform appeared ambitious but was Futilitarianism exemplified. The doomsayers and soothsayers, pundits and conspiracy theorists, the chicken or egg people, Futilitarians all. This section of highway maintained by the Collin County Order of Futilitarians. Feast Day of Beto O’Rourke, Patron Saint of Democratic Futilitarians. For him, finishing a book is a futilitarian undertaking.

Is an exercise in futility the same as a futilitarian undertaking?

 

NVDT #37 JUNQUE – Here, There, Anywhere

The prompt was – Are Your Settings Real or Entirely Imaginary

I don’t do dystopia or sci fi. Syfy? Siffy? I admire writers of those genres who can make me believe in Foonblat 109. Kurt Vonnegut is magnificent at making real places on the map swirl into his vision. David Foster Wallace can build a place you can believe in, where it isn’t. As can Jennifer Eagan who can put a castle on a hill and make you suspend disbelief. One of my favorites is PD James – she admits to building a fictional English village right on top of an existing one, for location purposes. Like Mexico City on top of that pyramid.

What I do is adapt real places to fit the need. Los Angeles is Los Angeles, Vegas is Vegas, Oklahoma is Oklahoma, Texas is Texas, et al. As Elmore Leonard states, it’s not necessary to go into great detail about places and things, or even people. In Touch, Leonard uses a brewery sign, references to decay, an apartment on a golf course and a run down print shop and that’s about all he says about Cleveland. His point is that readers will fill in all the detail they need. Something often the “author” part of us wants not to believe. Lawrence Block, however, adds the caveat that if you put someone on a bus in NYC there better be a bus line there.

I have characters in an office building that doesn’t exist in Oklahoma, a not there recording studio in Westlake, but fictional office buildings, apartments, houses seem to be exempt from Block’s caveat as those places are generic. There IS a Lowe’s with a Wendy’s in the parking lot every fourth or fifth exit in every major city in America. So to me a recording studio in Westlake, a dance studio in West Hollywood, a shotgun 8-plex on 4th in Long Beach, a high rise condo in San Diego or Santa Monica, they’re all things that are easily “there.”

I’m also a big fan of lines like ‘the gritty air, the smell of diesel on a still day in London…’ That’s all you really need. If more detail is needed, about a shop off Picadilly, dial some in.

Which brings me to one of my pet peeves – descriptive overkill. Lush subtropical vegetation in varying sizes is all I need to know. Maybe some colorful adjectives. What I don’t need is a botanist’s litany of everything green in Louisiana, or to keep a botanist’s handbook handy to read a formula detective novel. Paint the location in broad strokes, fill it with story. Too much junque and I’m out. Unless the ‘tween junque is damn good.

I have a serial running on my site at the moment where I dropped an imaginary town right on top of Lipscomb, Texas. Because I can’t very well insult the sheriff and blow up the bank in Lipscomb. However the feed store I blew a hole in and the Holiday Inn Express in Shamrock, are there. I guess it depends on what you can get away with as to how close you call it.

BTW aside – I have a character who spends three years in Cambridge. Never been. Been to Oxford, but I have Google. If anyone attended Cambridge in the early 80s and wants to talk, send me a note!

I’m interested to see how others handle this one.

 

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The Wrong Person to Ask

The prompt was – What are your favorite blogging tools?

First of all, WordPress or any blogging is no more or less than a wordy FaceBook. Full of the same self-aggrandizement, poor poor me, and sales scams as FaceBook. Or LinkedIn. Or Twitter et al. Blogging is synonymous with marketing. Which was a sad awakening.

I started blogging to give myself a virtual venue and timeline. Write something, throw it up on the big screen, take it apart. Not unlike my old job. If it’s close, find all the speed bumps, all the clams I possibly can and buff them out. Maybe a movement from adagio to allegro is a jump. Should it be abrupt, or does the allegro need an accelerando passage?

That’s what I do with my blog, for me. And save for a few “okay, let’s play” excursions into capricios and scherzos, maybe a 4 part sonata, that’s been it. What am I writing, as directed by the cosmic radio, followed by how did I do?

So much for musical analogies.

I didn’t show up to market, I showed up to write. To encounter writers who genuinely wanted to be better than they were. I won’t go off into my opinions on all things blogging and the failure of community and a plethora of scam artists other than to agree with Kurt Vonnegut, who said: “If you can do a half-assed job of anything you are a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.” Welcome to blogging.

Now to offer the one tool every author who writes needs for blogging or otherwise (Aside from ‘pay attention to those little red squiggles under words’).

That tool is – Revising Prose by Richard A. Lanham

The second best tool is content. What gets editors, publishers, and other people’s attention is content they don’t have to read through or around or deal with. They want it consumable, and in the can.

We can brag and bullshit and interview and do cover reveals and trade meaningless stellar reviews with whoever, pump ourselves out there every day and if our content is marginal, sloppy, illogical, boring – if a paragraph is overwritten and can’t follow a straight line then it doesn’t matter. Trust me, at the end of the day all the energy expended on “Buy my book or I’ll shoot this dog”? What suffers most is content. I can say that because over the years I have been handed a bookshelf full of slick “demo” and “promo” CDs with great covers and headshots and competently executed, packaging wise, paperbacks by “compelling authors”. Some are marginal, some worse, some are close but no cigar. Had they edited their material with the meticulousness of the packaging?

Let me tell you something – a recording from a phone set on the floor in a room with people who know what they’re doing opens way more doors than a slick half-assed wannabe demo. Content. 

Even if we’re doing this for “fun” or “fulfillment” our stories and our presentation deserve our very best. Unless we’re simply stringing words together that sound writerly and calling ourselves authors, in which case, step inside hello, we’ve a most amazing show – Blogging!

 

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What Do You Wanna Be When You Grow Up?

Well, I didn’t want to grow up to be a grown up, for damn sure. Seriously. Who wants to be one of those?

“A professional electronic instrument and audio clinician is simply a clueless punk kid who didn’t quit.” – Phil Huston (paraphrased from Richard Bach)

My first real “I wanna be” was cartoonist. Maybe a cartoonist who was a Forest Ranger. I could sit in the fire towers and draw cartoons of my animal friends. Or a football player. Forget that. Or a piano player. Then girls came along. I got a cool, garage band Vox organ, I was going to be Paul Revere and the Raiders, by myself, tri-corn hat and all and the girls would swoon like they did on Where the Action Is every afternoon. It’s good to dream when you’re young, even if you’re clueless.

When I sat down at the piano to play a tune I could hear the entire arrangement in my head, tried to beat it out of the piano. It drove my father, the part time cornet player in a big band in college, crazy. Save that image of me.

The cartoonist thing moved into art. Pen and ink, mostly, and I had a thirst for books and writing. I had gathered enough credit hours to surf through my senior year in high school, but instead I took three English classes. Senior English, Great Books and Literary Criticism. The last one being not at all about criticism in the usual sense but in dissecting lit. Like Great Books only deeper and with a sharper scalpel. Taught by a professor from OU. In the meantime, I won ribbons for “art” that my teacher submitted to all the local shows. I never understood it. You don’t get ribbons for not working hard, and I never worked at it. I busted ass for a while on piano and never got squat but a plastic bust of Beethoven. And that was for showing up, not playing. Mom liked the art ribbons, though.

That was all background noise. What I really wanted to be from 16 was a player. A “cool guy.” Juggling four girlfriends at different schools and trying to keep my Camaro shiny and shag as many spares as possible in my free time while not getting arrested or shot or beat up by an angry other boyfriend or a big brother. Then, as all good things must –

Just before my 19th birthday I ran face first into misogyny, racism, classism, weaponized sex…a moral tarpit operating under the guise of the university frat/sorority system. I had pledged, and I liked girls. A lot. One afternoon my moral center was challenged to its core. I had to choose between belonging, and wrong. I made the choice and rescued a very drunk girl from ending up as system sanctioned rape bait by dragging her out of the frat house away from the dudes who were waiting for her in the back and across the street into the arms of her sorority sisters. Over the next week I gave everything I thought I should have been for 19 years the finger. The frat, the wannabe future Country Club Hostess of the month girlfriends, the Camaro, pre-law, whatever the hell that was…all of it.

I wandered aimless and lonely for a while, until one night I decided I wanted to be Keith Emerson. Actually I wanted to be ELP.

That riff is documented in the link. What I ended up wanting to be after 11/23/1973, and didn’t know it at the time, was a synthesist. But it dawned on me soon enough and I knew I wanted to be an honest to God, avant garde sonic arteest. Electronic music hit all the checkboxes I’d stumbled though in life. Art, music, sound, the ability to make those arrangements I heard in my head in a whole other realm of sonic reality. While everyone else went to college to become whatevers, I stayed up late learning to use an instrument I couldn’t even read the manual for when I bought it. I had an insatiable appetite for it. To learn it, to understand it. Because it spoke strange, fascinating things to me I’d never heard before, and I wanted to make it speak for me. Bear in mind you couldn’t walk into your local four-year university or strip mall music store and get a degree or lessons in electronic music back then. I was on my own in Oklahoma, Moog in hand, starving, playing space fart “head” music anywhere I could. Libraries, planetariums, art in the park weekends. I played for modern dancers, ballet dancers, mimes, hypnotists, strippers…in four years I got pretty good at it. I had to get the hell out of Oklahoma, though, or starve.

Save the ‘tween here and there stories, the one-man Tangerine Dream in a yuppie fern bar and soundtrack for industrial, promotional, advertising and training movie stories and skip ahead to San Jose 1982 when I got hired by the premier synth company of the time as one of the three global sales/demo/sound design guys. Companies come and companies go but I stayed in that tier of the music business for thirty years as clinician, rep, artist relations manager, product manager. I learned more about sound and music and artists and art than I could have imagined or even begun to understand back in ’74. And I got paid for it. Still do, occasionally.

In 2015 I decided to write again. Not owner’s manuals or “how to” articles but stories. I had stories burning a hole in me. Not tales out of school from the music biz either, buy Zappa’s book for that, but stories about “women’s lib” and women’s struggles. About bank robbers and a kid from Louisiana who looks a lot like a modern Tom Sawyer if you look hard enough. Stories with a Rock n Roll sensibility. And a sense of moral center in the face of “those people.” The people I ran away from becoming.

So here I am. I got paid to do what I wanted to do, and from what I can tell, what I’ve heard from friends of my youth, is that it doesn’t get any better than that. Would I have rather (insert music biz escapades here) than been an oil land man, petro-chemical lawyer, regardless of the money and the big house(s), ranches, cars? Are you kidding? How many land men get to sit on a piano bench, trade simple tone clusters and talk piano sounds with Herbie Hancock? Drink wine and talk smack with Keith Emerson?

Did I see any of that coming, starving in OKC? No. I just kept hammering away at getting good at what I was doing. And here’s a truth – I try to apply all the “close isn’t good enough” expectations of a professional clinician to my writing. Which many would say makes me a turd polisher. Which many would also say makes want to take some of the paragraphs that people have published and say “are you fucking kidding me?”

I used this quote the other day, but it applies here.

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

 

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