Tag Archives: writing advice

Reading Other Writers

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Nobody who wants to be a writer gets by with just writing and never reading anything by anybody else.  It is too easy to devolve into some kind of human mushroom that way, thinking only thoughts a mushroom could think, all fungus-like and having no chlorophyll of their own.  You never learn to decode other people and other people’s thinking if you don’t read other people’s thoughts crystallized in writing.

And not every other writer is Robert Frost.  Or even Jack Frost who thinks he’s  Gene Kelly.  There has to be some interpretation, some digging for understanding.  What did that writer mean when she said political correctness was like a tongue disease?  And what does it mean when a commenting troll calls me a nekkid poofter?  Is that how he spells “exceptional genius”?  I think it is.  Trolls are not smart.

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I know people have to make an effort to understand me.  When I write, I am writing under the delusion that I can produce literary quality off the top of my head.  In fact, I can barely produce hair off the top of my head, and it is gray when I do it.   See what I did there?  It is the kind of joke a surrealist makes, pretending the idiomatic expression you use is to be taken literally when it doesn’t literally make sense.  That kind of nonsense is what my readers have to put up with, and probably also the reason why most of them just look at the pictures.  If you have to think too hard when you read, your brain could over-heat and your hair could catch fire.  I like that kind of purple paisley prose that folds back in on itself and makes you think in curlicues.  But most people don’t.  Most people don’t have fire-proof hair like I do.

20180103_082404 Of course, there is the opposite problem too.  Some writers are not hard to understand at all.  They only use simple sentences.  They only use ideas that lots of other people have used before.  You don’t have to think about what they write.  You only need to react.  They are the reasons that words like “trite”, “hackneyed”, “boring”, and “cliche” exist in English.  But simple, boring writing isn’t written by stupid people.  Hemingway is like that.  Pared down to the basics.  No frills.  Yet able to yield complex thoughts, insights, and relationships.

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Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a word to make the point.  For instance, why, in the picture, is Fluttershy trying to drink out of the toilet in the dollhouse bathroom?  For that matter, why does a doll house even need a bathroom?  Applejack doesn’t even fit in that yellow bathtub.  I know.  I tried to stuff her in there for this picture.  And, as you read this, doesn’t this paragraph tell you a lot about me that you probably didn’t even want to know?

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When I am reading the writing of others, I am looking for a cornucopia of things.  I want to not only understand their ideas, I want to detect the limping footprints across the murder scene of their paragraphs and come to know the deeper things about them as well.  I spent years decoding and trying to understand the writing of preliterate kids in my middle school English classes in order to be able to teach them to write better.   And I learned that no writer is a bad writer as long as they are using readable words.  I also learned that very few writers are James Joyce or Marcel Proust.  Thank God for that!  And given enough time I can read anything by anybody and learn something from it. I read a lot.  And it may not always make me a better writer to read it, but it always has value.  It is always worth doing.

 

 

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Writing Every Day

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Teachers of serious writing will often tell you… or more correctly, give you the Word of God, “You want to be a good writer?  You have to write every single day.”  And having been a teacher of writing at the high school and middle school level, I am committed to passing that on to you also as the inviolable Word of God.  You see, I have long been, well, not a serious writer exactly, more of a dedicated writer with warped notions of reality and a tendency towards goofiness.  You can see by the view of my WordPress insights page that I have steadily, in five years’ time, been noticed and looked at by increasing amounts of thoroughly duped WordPress viewers.

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10,373 visitors have viewed something on my blog 17,383 times in 2017.  And I know that most are looking at the pictures and moving on.  That’s how I get away with writing some of the stupid stuff I post on my blog.  But there’s a secret to that too.  I drew or painted a lot of the pictures I use on this blog myself.  You would think that sooner or later some expert psychologist would trace violence in the streets back to my pictures as the ultimate cause, but that hasn’t happened yet.  I am sure that is mostly because not even the psychologists can muck their way through my paragraphs of purple paisley prose.  You see, I most often use my writing on this blog to commit atrocities of humor and wit.  I only rarely dabble in things intended to be uplifting, spiritual, politically challenging, or sentimental.  I complain on my blog a lot.  It is also a place for expressing my inherent grumpiness and old-man dyspeptic irritations with life.  But viewers tend to take my humor seriously and only laugh at the stuff I am most embarrassed about.

I was supposed to be doing this blog as way to promote my book, Catch a Falling Star, for I-Universe Publishing.  They set it up for me.  But, as they don’t pay me anything for the work I put into it, and it doesn’t really impact sales anyway, I use it now as writing practice.  I have as a personal goal to write 500 words a day.  The blog counts.  So it means that some days, the 500 words I write in my blog are the only words I get written that day.  Though, now that I am retired, 500 words of blog writing plus 500 words of novel writing can get me well past writing 1000 words in a day.  It doesn’t take long at that rate to build up an awful lot of words.   I shudder to think what would happen if the word dam were to suddenly give way, releasing a word-flood of monumental proportions.   Half of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex would drown in Mickian words if that were to happen.

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So, do I think that you should write every day?  Do I think it makes you a better writer?  Do I actually follow my own advice?  Yes!  To all three.  And as I have passed the 500 word mark yet again, I can stop now.

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Giving and Taking Stupid Advice

Let’s begin with some stupid advice. I don’t have time to write a lot today because the Princess is ill and must go see the doctor in Plano.  So the advice is; Set aside time for writing and always allow plenty of time for it.  You will probably notice already that I am giving you advice that I am not taking myself this morning.  So don’t follow that advice.  It is stupid advice.  I have given it to creative writing classes for years and thought I meant it.  But looking back on real life, I realize, it has never been true for me.  My best ideas, my best writing, always seem to come in the middle of the pressure-cooker of daily struggle and strife.  I have battled serious illness for most of my adult life.  I have the luck of a man who tried to avoid letting a black cat cross his path by crashing his bicycle at the top of a hill covered in clover with only three leaves each and then rolling down the hill, under a ladder, and crashing into a doorpost which knocks the horseshoe off the top.  The horseshoe lands on my stupid head with the “U” facing downward so the luck all drains out.  Bad things happen to me all the time.  But it makes for good writing.  Tell me you didn’t at least smile at the picture I just painted in your mind.  You might’ve even been unable to suppress a chuckle.  I am under time pressure and misfortune pressure and the need to rearrange my entire daily schedule.  So it is the perfect time to write.

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This essay, however, is about bad advice.  And I am a perfect person to rely on as a resource for bad advice.  I am full of it.  Of course, I mean I am full of bad advice, not that other thing we think of when someone tells me I am “Full of it!”  So here’s another bit of writing advice that is probably completely wrong and a bad idea to take without a grain of salt, or at least a doctor’s prescription.   You should stop bird-walking in your essay and get to the damn point!

 I know a lot about the subject of depression.  When I was a teenager, I came very close to suicide.  I experienced tidal waves of self-loathing and black-enveloping blankets of depression for reasons that I didn’t understand until I realized later in life that it all came from being a child-victim of sexual assault.  Somehow I muddled through and managed to self-medicate with journal writing and fantasy-fixations, thus avoiding a potentially serious alcohol or drug problem.  This is connected to my main idea, despite the fact that I am obviously not following the no bird-walking advice.  You see, with depression, Bad advice can kill you.  Seriously, people want to tell you to just, “Get over it!  Stop moping about and get on with life.  It isn’t real.  You are just being lazy.”

I have been on the inside of depression and I know for a fact that not taking it seriously can be deadly.  In fact, I have faced suicidal depression not only in myself, but in several former students and even my own children.  I have spent time in emergency rooms, mental hospitals, and therapists offices when I wasn’t myself the depression sufferer.  One of my high school classmates and one of my former students lost their battles and now are no longer among the living.  (Sorry, have to take a moment for tears again.)  But I learned how to help a depression sufferer.  You have to talk to them and make them listen at least to the part where you say, “I have been through this myself.  Don’t give in to it.  You can survive if you fight back.  And whatever you have to do, I will be right here for you.  You can talk to me about anything.  I will listen.  And I won’t try to give you any advice.”  Of course, after you say that to them, you do not leave them alone.  You stay by them and protect them from themselves, or make sure somebody that will do the same for them stays with them.  So far, that last bit of advice has worked for me.  But the fight can be life-long.  And it is a critical battle.

So taking advice from others is always an adventure.  Red pill?  Green pill?  Poison pill?  Which will you take?  I can’t decide for you.  Any advice I give you would probably just be stupid advice.  You have to weigh the evidence and decide for yourself.  What does this stupid essay even mean?  Isn’t it just a pile of stupid advice?  A concluding paragraph should tell you the answer if it can.  But, I fear, there is no answer this time.

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K.I.S.S.

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When learning to write, you have to learn the rules.  And then you start writing, and you learn that you have to break all the rules to do it well.  But what do I know?  You have to be pretty desperate to get your writing advice from a Mickey.  After all, it’s not like Mickey was a writing teacher for over thirty years… oh, wait a minute… yes, he was.

Okay, so I decided to write today about the K.I.S.S. rule of writing.  That’s right, Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Other writing teachers tell me it should be, Keep It Simple, Sweetie, because you can’t say “stupid” to a kid.  Okay, that’s mostly true.  But I use “stupid” when I use the rule myself.  I’m talking to Mickey after all.

So, I better stop “bird-walking” in the middle of this essay, because “bird-walking”, drifting off topic for no purpose, is the opposite of keeping it simple.

I try to write posts of no more than 500 words.  I write an introduction that says something stupid or inane that speaks to the theme I want to talk about.  Then I pile in a few sentences that talk more about the theme and do a good job of irritating the reader to the point that they can’t wait to get to the conclusion.  Finally I finish up with a really pithy and wonderful bit of wisdom to tie a knot in the bow of my essay.  I save that bit for the end as a sort of revenge for all the readers who don’t read all the way to the end, even on a short post like this one.  Of course, I could be wrong about how wonderful and pithy it is.  What does “pithy” even mean?  It can be like the soup in the bottom of the chili pot, thicker and spicier than what came before… or possibly overcooked with burned beans.

That was another bit of “bird-walking”, wasn’t it?  See, you have to break the rules to make it work better.

So, in order to keep it simple, I guess I need to end here for today.  Simple can be the same thing as short, but more often you are trying to achieve “simple and elegant” and pack a lot of meaning and resonance into a few lines.  And I, of course, am totally incapable of doing that with my purple paisley prose.  And there’s the knot in that bow.

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Tenfold…

Once again my computer betrayed me and wiped out three paragraphs in this article, instantly saving the changes so that I had to start over with nothing but the title and a lower case letter “u”.  Soon the danged machine will probably explode scattering my words all around the bedroom and getting random punctuation in my chicken soup.

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I was trying to write a post about the difficulties of becoming an “author” when my computer decided to ironically make it harder.  And this goofy notion that I know anything at all about the topic came about because of a random WordPress comment that appeared on one of my old posts.  I was told by the commentator that I had several posts that were good enough to go viral, and that if I wanted to make that happen and improve my “brand”, then all I had to do was Google “Jemensso’s tricks”.

Challenge accepted.  I know how to Google stuff.  I learned by being a tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy nutcase.  (Did you know that you can not only find numerous well-argued sources that indicate we never actually went to the moon, and only faked the moon landings in Hollywood, but also visual confirmation that we actually did land with high resolution photos of the various landing sites taken from space telescopes this month?  And those photos even show the tracks where the moon buggies traveled through the sands of the moon.)  So, I first discovered that my blog is not the only blog that got this message.  I found a plethora of them, some in the exact same words.  And then I located this informative page HERE.

It would seem to indicate that any benefits you can get will cost you at least some money.  And that is the biggest irony of being a writer who foolishly imagines that he can become something called an “author”.   You end up having to pay money instead of earning it.  Each of my two published novels were done with different publishers.  The first was a squirrelly print-on-demand company that doesn’t charge you to print your novel.  They don’t employ any editors or marketers either.  It is a good way to get student work into book form, and parents will gleefully shell out the money for a copy of their darlings’ writing in book form, but it is no way to get a novel published.  I could have sent them a 200 page manuscript of monkey-typing, and they would have put it in book form.

The second book, Catch a Falling Star, was done with I-Universe, a publisher that is now a branch of Penguin Books.  But it is basically an Indie publisher.  I had to invest my own money in the creation of the book.  I had to pay the editors, proofreaders, and marketers that I got to work with.  I ended up with a product that made me proud, but that I really couldn’t sell.  I am still more than $6,500 short of recouping my investment.  I do not recommend that path, unless, like me, you really crave the experience of working with competent, professional editors.  It was worth it to me to do it once.

But now I am out of money and out of options.  I led with a banner that shows I have four complete and unpublished manuscripts that I want to do something with.  I am busy with three more that are past the 15,000-word threshold… where you have to consider the work for completion because it is, at that point, almost half done.  Where will I go with them?  What will I do with them?  The answers will, I hope, eventually appear here in this goofy blog.  And I am sure they will probably surprise us both.

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Metaphor and Meaning

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In this week’s Paffooney remix, I have pictured the little boy crooner Francois Martin on the main street of Norwall.  Why have I done such a foolish thing?  Why have I drawn a boy singing silently a song that only I can hear in my silly old head?  In fact, why do I label them Cantos instead of Chapters?  Of course, the answer to these rhetorical questions is metaphorical.  I look at my writing as being poetry, or, more accurately, as music rather than mere prose.  It is a metaphor central to my being, writing is putting the inner music of my mind down on paper.

Here is a secret to powerful writing.  Connect ideas with metaphors.  A metaphor is a direct comparison of two unlike things to create an analogy, an echo of an idea that gives resonance to a notion.  Sorry, I’m an English teacher.  It’s in my genes.  But metaphors can serve as the essential connections, as glue to put paragraphs and scenes together.

Let me show you a metaphor.  Here is a short poem, the natural environment where many metaphors live;

                                                The Cookie

Once I had a cookie… But every time I took a bite, It became smaller and smaller…

                With each bite I had less and less cookie left.

But when it was gone, the sweet taste of it…

                Lingered on… as memory.

 

The central metaphor of this poem is comparing the cookie to my life.  I am getting older.  I have six incurable diseases, some of them life threatening.  I have been thinking about mortality a lot lately.  So what is the point of the poem?  That even when the last bite is taken, and there is no more cookie… when I am dead, there is the memory of me.  Not my memory.  The memory of me in the minds of my family, my children, my students, and other people who have come to know me.  That memory makes whatever goodness that is in me worth living for.

Okay, a metaphor explained is kinda like a bug that’s been dissected for a science fair.  Its innards are revealed and labeled.  The beauty is gone.  It’s kinda icky.

What works better, is a metaphor that the readers can readily grasp on their own.  The beauty has to be discovered, not dissected and explained.  Let me try again;

 

                                                The Boy and the Boat

                The boy looked to the horizon where wild and wooly white-caps roiled upon the sea.

                “Lord help me,” he said, “the sea is so large, and my boat is so small…”

 

I can hear what you are thinking.  “That’s too simple and ordinary.  If it’s a metaphor, then it’s a really stupid one.”  Well, I heard someone thinking that, even if it was not you.

Let me add a bit of information to help you connect things as I do.  When I was ten years old, a fifteen-year-old neighbor boy sexually assaulted me.  I told no one.  I was so devasted by the event that I repressed the memory until I reached the age of twenty two.  In high school, my suicidal thoughts and darkest depressions were caused by this event even though I couldn’t even recall.  To this day I have not explained to mother and father what happened.  I can only bring myself to tell you now because my abuser died of heart failure last summer.  It was a life event of overwhelming darkness, pain, and soul scorching.  Now look at “The Boy and the Boat” again.  Has the meaning changed for you the way it does for me?

Now, I know that the last paragraph was a totally unfair use of harsh reality to make a point about metaphor and meaning.  So let me give you one last poem… a sillier one.  You can make of it whatever you will;

 

                                                The Grin

The wrinkly, bewhiskered old man

Had a smile like a plate of moldy spaghetti

In the afternoon sun.

 

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Wrestling with Themes

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I recently was advised by a fellow blogger to offer a few writing tips on my blog as a way to painlessly market my writing.  Okay, I’m a writing teacher, so I can do that.  But in my own writing I have hit a snag.  Yes, there are things much, much bigger than my humble skill as a writer.

My current novel project, the Bicycle-Wheel Genius has grown into a science-fiction monster.  It is not only about a scientist who has secret government connections, but about time travel and people changing into rabbits… or rabbits into people… or boys into girls… dogs and cats living together…   No, that is Ghostbusters. 

But it has reached a point where the most important theme is incredibly clear and difficult to deal with.  The theme I find myself weaving into this story is;  “All men are basically good.”   Gongah!  Wotta theme to try to write!  Do I believe it?  Of course I do.  Can I put the story together in such a way that  I illustrate it to the reader’s satisfaction?  Of course I can’t.  So what do I do?  This story has some of the best villains and evil people in it that I have ever written.  I can’t kill them off to solve the story’s plot problems (Well, I can, but I don’t want to).  I have to show how evil can be redeemed.

My cast of characters include the scientist himself, calmly dealing with time travelers, invading aliens, government assassins, and a group of young boys known as the Norwall Pirates.  There is a time traveler who appeared in a book within a book in my novel Catch a Falling Star.  There is also an alien space navigator who has been shot by a local Iowa Deputy Marshall and stranded on Earth.  Another character is an artificial man, an automaton who has been crafted as a government assassin made from alien technology.  Okay, I know you don’t believe I can make serious science fiction out of such crazy-quilt characters, especially with a primary theme like the one I’ve claimed.  So, I have to confess that it is not serious in any way, shape, or form.  It is a silly fantasy comedy.

So, how do I generate a theme as big and bold and important as the goodness of all men?  Well, here’s a secret recipe;

  1. Take one genius who has lost all the people he loves and has to start over with new friends and, eventually, new family.
  2. Add a brother-in-law with mental health issues and financial dependency.
  3. Add a group of young boys hungry for adventure and new experiences and a little bit short on common sense.
  4. Add a paranoid evil government that has secrets it will kill to protect (the factual part of the story).
  5. Mix well.
  6. Add vinegar.
  7. Boil at 350 degrees for a year.

 

Of course, if you thought I was giving you real writing advice, then SURPRISE!  It turns out I have been making it all up as I go along.  That’s how you do it.  You write and write, knit it all together tenuously, and then edit the heck out of it, hoping to make sense of the whole thing.

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