Category Archives: writing teacher

Doing the Necessary Work

Yes, I am a writer.

I write poems.

I write novels.

I write and draw comics and comic-book-style stories.

And that isn’t me in the first picture of this post. Although it is pretty close.

But today, I am once again merely sitting down to the keyboard to monkey around and tap out something in writing to get the old writing practice over with.

There is no over-arching plan to follow, no theme already in mind… just little old me sitting down and working at it to get ideas on paper.

And soon, unless the school district I applied to rejects my application for no foreseeable reason, I will be doing the work of a substitute teacher. Of course, that’s not me in the fuzzed up background of the picture. That is not even a real classroom. No classroom contains that many left-hand raisers. And if you could find one, no real classroom has that many hand raisers without having asked the question, “Who wants ice cream?” And a mere sub cannot possibly afford to ask that expensive question.

But that isn’t even the kind of work I meant when I lamely wrote that title. Lamely writing a title is work I have to force myself to do. And that is even harder when you write it first while having no earthly idea what you are even going to write about in the essay.

I always told writing classes (the ones who actually never raise either hand about anything) that the best way to do it is to leave writing the title til last so you will already know what you wrote about and what to call it. But forcing yourself to follow through on a title you just pulled out of the air is one way to force yourself to get the necessary work done.

Another thing you can do to force yourself to get the work done when you need to write something, is put the writing aside and read a book.  As Sagan suggests, books are magical things that let you channel the mind of another author, preferably one who is smarter and a better writer than you are.  I can write fake Twain and fake Dickens like nobody’s business because I soaked in Twain’s magical way of writing down what people said in the weird way the individual talker actually sounded during my college years, and I absorbed Dickens’ knack for creating weird but lovable characters with distinctive personalities and motivations when I was even younger than that.  But channeling is not the same as plagiarizing, so you can get away with it much easier than most other literary crimes you are fully capable of committing as an author.  You can easily steal style and ideas from whatever book you are reading, and that helps you do the necessary work.

Of course, when you are done procrastinating and wasting time by reading somebody else’s book, you can then turn to another helpful tactic to do the work that needs to be done.  You can pick a book to re-read.

That’s right.  When I recently re-read Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, I was better able to see and admire the structure of that book, a hero’s quest-type story that narrates the episodic adventures of a ragtag group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world as they are on a quest for a lost book, one that is being written as the reader reads it.

This particular author is quite good at Quixotic Quest Stories, and understanding how he has put his story together is marvelously instructive.  He has written a blue-print for a kind of story you can easily apply to the structure of your own story.

I am doing something very similar now as I re-read my own story, The Bicycle-Wheel Genius and follow the eccentric characters on a very similar quest to find a story in pre-apocalyptic Iowa in the 80’s and 90’s.

So, what is the theme that I can wrap this warped wooden bowl of advice-fish up in so that you can take it home and feed it to your children (by which I mean your own writing)?  Well, my best advice is to never take advice from Mickey.  He is sarcastic and ironic and usually joking, so he rarely means whatever he says.  After all, he wrote one of the best essays of his life yesterday, and practically nobody has read it yet. But I am also saying you don’t have to go it alone.  There is a whole world of us out there, and even the dead ones count.  Use what you learn from others to help you get the necessary work done.  So, find that unused steam engine, fire it up, and start chugging away at the next surprise best seller, or at least the book that most pleases you yourself to write.

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Spinning Wheels of Thought

Picture borrowed from; https://www.townsends.us/products/colonial-spinning-wheel-sp378-p-874

I start today with nothing in my head to write about. I guess I can say that with regularity most days of the writing week. Sundays in particular are filled with no useful ideas of any kind. But I have a certain talent for spinning. As Rumpelstiltskin had a talent for spinning straw into gold, I take the simple threads of ideas leaking out of my ears and spin them into yarns that become whole stories-full of something to say. And it is not something out of mere nothing. There is magic in spinning wheels. They take something ordinary and incomplete, and turn it into substantial threads useful for further weaving.

Of course the spinning wheel is just a metaphor here for the craft of writing. And it is a craft, requiring definable skills that go well beyond merely knowing some words and how to spell them.

My own original illustration.

The first skill is, of course, idea generation. You have to come up with the central notion to concoct the potion. In this case today, that is, of course, the metaphor of using the writing process as a spinning wheel for turning straw into gold. But once that is wound onto the spindle, you begin to spin yarn only if you follow the correct procedure. Structuring the essay or story is the next critical skill.

Since this is a didactic essay about the writing process I opened it with a strong lead that defined the purpose of the essay and explained the central metaphor. Then I proceeded to break down the basic skills for writing an essay with orderly explanations of them, laced with distracting images to keep you from dying of boredom while reading this, a very real danger that may actually have killed a large number of the students in my writing classes over the years (although they still appeared to be alive on the outside).

My mother’s spinning wheel, used to make threads for use in porcelain doll-making, and as a prop for displaying dolls.

As I proceed through the essay, I am stopping constantly to revise and edit, makeing sure to correct errors and grammar, as well as spending fifteen minutes searching for the picture of my mother’s spinning wheel used directly above. Notice, too, I deliberately left the spelling-error typo of “making” to emphasize the idea that revising and proof-reading are two different things that often occur at the same time, though they are very different skills.

And as I reach the conclusion, it may be obvious that my spinning wheel of thought today spun out some pure gold. Or, more likely, it may have spun out useless and boring drehk. Or boring average stuff. But I used the spinning wheel correctly regardless of your opinion of the sparkle of my gold.

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Learning from Bad Writing

So, I just finished reading this book from my leftover pile of classroom reading books that represent my time as a public school reading teacher.

This is book six in the best-selling Charlie Bone series. I didn’t read the previous five books. I have a copy of book one somewhere, but this one is one I picked up for my reading fix last week.

Let me begin by saying, as an obvious Harry Potter imitation, it is a very inventive and enjoyable story.

I read the whole book even though I had difficulty with several things that I have come to recognize as glaring, reader-tripping problems.

Now, to be completely honest about my assessments, Jenny Nimmo, the author of the Charley Bone books, has an impressive resume. She has not only been an English teacher, but she worked for the BBC as well as an editor, director, and other creative endeavors. And her books, unlike mine, are best-seller enough to be picked up by Scholastic Books, a major publisher. She has undoubtedly made a lot more money with her books than I have with mine. And, I confess, I find the story entertaining.

But the story is guilty of writing sins that I am familiar with by having overcome them in my own writing.

Most noticeable is the lack of a sense of a focus character. It is done as a third-person omniscient narrative that goes in and out of different characters’ heads telling what they think and feel. It will go from Charlie Bone’s main-character-thoughts to his nemesis Dagbert Endless’s feelings to the thoughts of the dog that lives in the school and then veers into the bird that is actually Emma, one of Charlie’s female friends with special “gifts of magic” handed down from their common ancestor, the Red King. You end up, as a reader, trying to keep things separate in your awareness about too many characters with too many mental reveals to keep straight. And who all knows what about whom? In one scene a character seems to know already what another character said and did in a previous scene that the knowing character wasn’t present for and hasn’t been told about.

This focus problem is compounded by having too many characters with too little development in the current story. I get it that we are supposed to have met the characters in previous books in the series. But it has to have a more stand-alone quality about it to even work as a separate book. The writer has to keep in mind that readers won’t know everything about every character in previous books because they have either forgotten, or the author has only assumed they would know without being told.

And the scenes and chapters in this book are way too ranging and free-form. A scene that begins in the end of chapter two rambles across to the beginning of chapter three without really concluding and then morphs into another scene entirely when the narrative follows a single character from the conversation in one room into an encounter in the next room. There is a lack of chapter structure to rationalize why those words belong in that chapter rather than the next.

And numerous plot lines are just left hanging at the end of the book, seemingly forgotten rather than set up for the probable sequel. The book does not end with a sense that it is the final end of the saga.

So it is a book that both Hemingway and Dickens would’ve cringed to have written. Never-the-less, I did like this book. The old uncritical critic, you know. I would’ve neither finished reading it, nor written this essay about it if I didn’t find merit in the story. I learned things by reading it. Things to avoid, things to correct when I find them in my own stories, and things that make me go, “Hmmm… I’d like to try that myself.”

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Reading Bag of Bones

This is not a book review. I did finish reading this book in a 3-hour-end-of-the-book reading orgy, spending an hour last night, and two more early in the morning before the rest of my family was awake.

This is certainly not a book review. But I did read a Stephen King book, 1998’s Bag of Bones, which I picked up from the dollar sale shelves at Half Price Books. And I did love the story.

………………………………………………………………………This is not a book review. Instead, I want to talk about what a novelist can learn and reflect on by meta-cogitating over what this book reveals about King’s work habits and style and author’s voice.

Mike Noonan, the protagonist, is a novelist who writes books that routinely land in the numbers 10 through 15 slots in the New York Times Bestseller List. Obviously, this first-person narrative is coming directly out of King’s own writing experience. But, remember, this is not a book review. I am discussing what I have learned about how King puts a story together.

King sets a back-story for this novel that digs deep into the geographica and historica of the city in Maine where the story is set. The literal bag of bones revealed in the book’s climax is almost a hundred years old. And he takes a compellingly realistic tour back in time to the turn of the Twentieth Century more than once to reveal who the undead characters are and why they do what they do. One thing that makes a writer, a novelist, truly solid is his ability to set the scene, to grow the story out of the background in the most organic and realistic way possible. But this is not a book review. I am saying that King always does this with his books. And if you wish to write at that level, you must do that too. I know I am sincerely trying.

At the end of the story, he clearly tells the reader that he learned from Thomas Hardy that “the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones”. So, he is definitely aware that a character is a construct that has to be crafted from raw materials. It takes a master craftsman to build one with the right words to make it live and breathe on the page. He does it masterfully in this book with several characters. The protagonist, the beautiful young love interest, the love interest’s charming three-year-old daughter who is nearly slain in a horrific manner at the end of the book… The living villain is a well-crafted bag of bones, as is the ghost, the actual bag of bones in the story. But this is not a book review. Most of his books, at least the ones I have read, have the same sort of masterful characters.

There is so much more to be learned about novel writing from this book. He literally shows you how ideas are captured, how they are developed into stories, how you overcome “writer’s block”, and Noonan’s book he is writing within this book is even used as an example of how to poetically advance the plot. But this is not a book review. You should read this book. It is a very good and scary piece of work. But you should read it because it shows us how to write and do it like a master.

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Blogging Advice

The only advice I am actually qualified to give here is… don’t take any blogging advice from me as worth more than diddly-squoot.

Life is like moose bowling because… In order to knock down all the pins, you have to learn how to throw a moose.

That being said, my blog views are gradually going up year after year.  I am followed by readers all over the world, and some of them actually read my blog regularly, rather than just looking at the pictures and occasionally hitting the like button.

I have not yet, however, learned to throw the moose.  I started this blog in order to promote my published writing.  I now have seven published books available on Amazon.  I made $2.60 in royalties during 2018 so far.  So, as a marketing ploy, it has been a total failure.

But as a tool in my writing life, here are some things I definitely count as benefits;

Writing a blog post every day makes the ideas flow more easily and does away with any threat of writer’s block. 

Writing every day is practice and it makes me a better writer.

I have learned how to engage with an actual audience.

I am able to try out various writing ideas without worrying about success or failure.

So, all of these things add value and keep me at this blogging thing which didn’t exist in my early life when I was planning for becoming a writer when I left teaching.

If you are tempted to make the huge mistake of following my advice and emulating me, I would warn you, I do not make a living as a writer, and I never will.  I am a writer in the same way I am a diabetic.  I can’t help it.  I wouldn’t change it even if it were possible.  I have a body of work that I intend to continue to build on until I am no more.  The creation of it is a necessity of my existence.  And I certainly don’t regret a single syllable, though what happens to it when I am gone is not important to me in any way that matters.  I hope my children will keep it as a legacy, but I only do it because it shapes the story of my life.

And so, I continue to throw meese (or mooses… or moosi… or whatever the hell the funniest plural of “moose” is) and continue not to knock down any pins.

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What to Write When Your Head is Empty

meeth

Sometimes when my health is poor and too many things are already on my mind, it is hard to think of a subject for the daily essay.  I don’t let that stop me.  Yes, indeed, I can write with a completely empty head.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not a stupid man.  But sometimes life’s demands can empty your mind of idea seeds, and the garden of your mind might be slow in providing new blossoms and palatable fruit.  But some people do a lot of writing with empty heads.  Some are toxic to read because there is no substance to what they say.  And some can spin out a tale or a logic trail that fascinates even though the idea furnaces are initially cold and not ready to cook.

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So maybe I have an idea to write about today already.

Maybe I can say something about how I get ideas out of my stupid little head.

But my head is completely empty today.

Oh, well… I already re-blogged something else anyway.

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500 Words

oliverwendellholmessr1

When I started this whole blogging-every-day thing, I decided the rule had to be 500 words written in a day.  And I meant to hold myself to writing 500 words somewhere in the writing day, whether it was my blog post or the novel I was working on, or a combination of both.  I followed that rule religiously through more than 1,500 blog posts and five first draft novels.  I found it easier and easier to surpass 500 words on a daily basis.  There are all sorts of bits of time available and I collect ideas faster than a rich kid generates empty candy wrappers.  The more I call on the well of words for more words, the more words are available.  Now, it seems, writing only 500 words is the trick.

I suppose I have become an Old Man of Words.  I know both the rules and the exceptions.

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Knowing that I can write more than 500 words easily, then the question becomes, why don’t I?  Well, the cardinal rule is “Say it short.  Say it simple. And say it sweet.”  That rule can generate a lot of wonderful writing, full of juicy ideas that splash with flavor when you bite into them.  Ernest Hemingway knew that rule.  Every poet knows it.  Readers generally prefer the easily accessible idea expressed with elegance.

Now, I also have to admit a guilty pleasure in perpetrating purple paisley prose.  That is the style of writing in which I generally write convoluted sentences with complex ideas that fold back in on themselves and over-use alliteration to criminal degrees.  Charles Dickens liked to do that with descriptive details.  Paragraphs about the boarding schools of London, the streets filled with child chimney sweeps and flower girls, and dingy mind-dulling workhouses could take up two or three pages per paragraph.  And two pages further on, he layers more details on the same setting.  Piles and piles of words and wordplay fill the pages of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.  And if you haven’t read at least something from each of those gentlemen, you will never know what you are missing.  But you can prune your paragraphs like a greenhouse master florist with limited space will do to his orchids, and you can actually end up fitting great beauty and powerful content into something even more limited than a 500-word essay.  In fact, if you take your ideas and distill them, and keep distilling them, over and over, you will eventually have pared the words down into poetry.

So, there you have it.  The reason my essays are about 500 words.  This one is four hundred and forty one words.

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