Brevity

twitter-execution

Silk’s Post #156 — Has there ever, in the long history of the written word, been a more diminishing, devaluing trend than the imposition of the 140-character tweet as the arbitrary standard for social media discourse?

Has written expression been stripped of all its depth and nuance, and reduced in the Twitterverse to simplistic word belches? Slogans. Headlines. Blurts. Clichés. Inanities masquerading as deep thoughts. Rabble rousing provocations. Nyah nyah nyah taunts. (I’m looking at you, Donald Trump).

Anything worth saying requires more than 140 characters, doesn’t it? Is the world’s written expression in danger of being reduced to captions and emoticons? Is the richness and beauty of wordcraft being abandoned by an impatient audience trained to salivate for the next thing instead of the real thing? Is the literary sky falling?

Brevity is the soul of wit has become the watchword of tweeters, bloggers, copywriters, politicians, pundits, comedians, and others who use words as their professional currency since The Bard assigned that line to Polonius in Hamlet. Was Shakespeare wrong, or was he prescient?

As is often the case, Shakespeare’s subtleties tend to get lost when cherry-picked phrases are appropriated to serve a modern purpose. A little context: these ironic lines spoken by the foolish chatterbox Polonius, who thinks himself the smartest guy in the room, couch news of Hamlet’s madness to his parents, the King and Queen, in a gust of unnecessary and self-aggrandizing claptrap which demonstrates the speaker’s inability to take his own advice on brevity:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad …

Yet, no matter how ironically delivered, the truth of the gem hidden in an almost throw-away clause lives on in proverb. And there’s good reason for that.

Brevity is hard to achieve.

Writing short is much harder than writing long. Doing it well – that is to say achieving brevity while conveying meaning, beauty, truth, in short: wit – is the hardest of all.

I have a confession to make. I used to be an advertising copywriter. I don’t mean I did it in between more noble gigs or bouts of unemployment – I did it for decades. It was my career. And if you can separate what I learned from its commercial context, the gem of truth in that experience is that writing great advertising – with its rigid, Twitter-like restrictions on length and format – is hellishly difficult.

Want to know why there’s so much truly horrible, cringe-worthy, throw-your-shoe-at-the-TV advertising? That’s why. It’s hard. Only truly talented writers – people who can understand a human desire, capture a resonant thought, and stir a genuine emotion using a minimum of powerful words and imagery – are capable of creating great ads. And these writers, as even a casual acquaintance with the media makes perfectly clear, are rare.

At the risk of turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, look at poetry as another example of the challenge – and power – of brevity. Who has ever written a haiku? I see a lot of hands going up. Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class, or been a bookish teenager in love, has probably written a haiku.

Now the punchline: who has ever written a good haiku? I realize it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a good haiku and a lame one (which should be a clue in itself). Yes, the exotic format does tend to make all haiku poems seem profound. But they’re not. Many of them are nonsense. (You can probably see by now how I’m working my way back to Twitter.)

I asked at the beginning whether the corrupting influence of tweets – essentially packaged word snacks – are killing our hunger for, and skill at preparing, full-course word meals. Are we dumbing down our communications in a way that risks dumbing down our ability to think, to use our full array of synapses to understand complex ideas and appreciate subtle nuances in written expression?

Scary question.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. More words don’t necessarily translate into more meaningful words. Maybe the existential challenge still is learning to convey more meaning using less words.

Brevity is the soul of wit – “wit” in Shakespeare’s context meaning intelligence, wisdom, perspective (with appreciation, in dramatic terms, for life as simultaneously both a tragedy and a comedy). In just 26 characters, he nails the writer’s challenge of capturing the “soul” – the essence of the conflict-laden human condition – in the most concentrated, evocative language possible.

It’s an art so difficult to truly master that it remains a rare commodity. I believe it’s a skill that needs to be cultivated and practised by all writers, whether they turn their hand to poetry, essays, short stories, novels, speeches, or, yes, even the modern vernacular of advertising and social media.

Can you write well? Good! Can you write short? If you tweet, that question answers itself.

Now try conveying a page of meaning in a single paragraph. Or a sentence. It’s fantastic mental and creative exercise. It might even turn you into a poet, and help keep the literary sky from falling.

Origin of phrases and quotes

Karalee’s Post # 26 — I’ve often wondered where sayings come from and this is a great opportunity to have some fun.The references below can entertain you for hours if you have an inclination for trivia. Think of your favorite sayings or phrases and look them up. Their origins will often be surprising.

  1. The meaning of proverbs             http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/proverbs.html
  2. Phrases with the word  ‘silly’       http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/silly-phrases.html
  3. Meanings and origins of English phrases      http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/index.html
  4. Famous last words          http://www.phrases.org.uk/quotes/last-words/index.html
  5. Notable suicide notes    http://www.phrases.org.uk/quotes/last-words/suicide-notes.html
  6. Phrase Thesaurus            http://www.phrasefinder.co.uk/index.html
  7. Foreign Phrases from a great writing blog             http://www.dailywritingtips.com/225-foreign-phrases-to-inspire-you/
  8. Foreign Expressions from the same great writing blog    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/150-foreign-expressions-to-inspire-you/

If these often humorous sayings and phrases don’t cheer you up or get you out of your writing slump and you still feel despondent and wonder why you keep plugging away, read daily inspirations on positive thinking and positive actions that you can take:  http://www.marcandangel.com/about/

But if you continue to be stubborn like many writers are and stare at your computer for hours (or minutes that seem like hours) without  any progress to speak of, jump-start your creativity by going back to http://www.dailywritingtips.com/ and browse the Categories or Popular Articles.

Empty nest

Empty nest

And if you are like me and hitting this stage in life, you will have all the time in the world to write more or read all of the above. Or at least watch the video below.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swfclip_id=9479342&server=vimeo.com&show_title=0&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1

Happy writing.

Book buying

books and books

Joe’s post #18 — How do you buy books? By genre? By authors? By recommendations from friends? By the pretty picture on the cover?

Ok, but let’s be more specific. How do you decide to buy a book by a new author, by someone you’ve never read before?

That’s a challenge for all of us new writers. How do we stand out? How do we get the attention of an agent, of a publisher, of millions of readers?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I can look to how I buy a book by an author I’ve never read before.

1) Genre. It’s my first filter. New or old, I go to a section that I love to read. Mystery. Thriller. Fantasy. As new writers, we don’t have much of a choice where our books get put, but we can help agents and publishers by delineating where we think our books belong. My latest book, YA fantasy. One day, I hope to be able to move out of that genre and into mainstream. Sort of like moving out of my mobile home and into a spacious condo overlooking the city of Vancouver.

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireCover and Title: Yes, it matters. At least to me. If the cover has a bare-chested man with a half-naked women pressed up against him, I won’t care that there’s a dragon in the background. But show me something like what’s on the latest Game of Thrones, and you got yourself a sale. Have a cool title like “The Bone Collector?” Even better.

So, writers, make sure you have a cool title.

Any recommendations: Has it won awards? Does GRR Martin recommend it? Oprah? Are there any quotes from famous authors, like “Best book I’ve read since my book” or “I’m going to kill this bastard for writing such a great story.”

I can tell you one thing, if I ever get published, I will shamelessly pester all my published writer friends to write something nice about my story.

The Flap: Ok, I made that word up. It’s the ‘blurb’, or the synopsis or why the hell should I buy this book?  So now I’m standing in a ‘section’, trying to look cool, and I’ve picked up a book with an interesting cover and a neat title (and maybe with a nifty recommendation.) Now, I read the back (or, in the case of the hardcover, the promo inside the dust jacket.) It has to wow me. I’m sorry, it does. If I read ‘bored housewife…’ I put the book back. If I read something that might interest me, then I move to the last filter.

The First Pages.   You can fool me with a nifty cover – I’m easily distracted by pretty colors and half-dressed women on dragons. You can fool me with recommendations – Writers have been known to get together at comicons or mystery writers at wine tasting nights and agree to endorse each other’s books. You can fool me with a cleverly written blurb – Hey, they have entire marketing departments working on this in-between martinis. But it’s harder to be fooled by someone’s actual writing. So I read the first pages, a few paragraphs somewhere in the middle, and then I make a decision.

As new writers, I think we need to remember this. Words matter. Voice matters. Style matters. How a story starts… matters.

The Way Around It All: Frankly, the way I usually buy books by authors I haven’t read is that I’ve been told it’s awesome by a friend I trust. Any time I get a text like “OMFG you have to read this!!!!!!!” I will give it a try, despite the number of exclamation seanpoints. If someone brings a book to a coffee chat and the first thing they say, after telling me how handsome I look, is “I have just read the most amazing book of amazingness ever!” then I’ll give that book a try. I mean, why not, they’ve done all the work and all I have to do is look up that author?

Like this one. Check it out. It’s a FANTASTIC book.  !!!!!!!

But no matter what your own personal filters are, give a new author a try.

We need all the help we can get.

On a roll … or not?

on-a-roll

Silk’s post #17 — Why is rolling the dice like writing a novel? There are several ways of answering that, especially for the metaphorically inclined. The analogy for me – at this particular stage of the game – is quite specific.

We play a favourite dice game with friends that’s variously called 10,000, Farkel, Cosmic Wimpout, Greed, Hot Dice, Squelch, Zilch, Zonk or Darsh. I just Wikipedia’ed that and, as a writer always looking for the right word, was stunned at the variety of cool names. We’ve always just called it The Dice Game, but that moniker obviously needs a rewrite.

The often frustrating junctures in this game are the beginning and the ending. In our version, each player rolls five dice which are scored in a particular manner and the object is to reach a total score of 10,000 first. However, you can’t get ‘on the board’ and begin to score until you’ve rolled at least 1,000 points in a single turn. And you can’t ‘go out’ and win unless you hit the score of 10,000 points precisely. What that means is that you can take many, many turns before starting to score. Sometimes everyone around the table is galloping along with 6,000 or 8,000 points before you have your first point on the scoresheet. But the hare doesn’t always win the race. You can also run through turn after turn with 9,900 points on the board, but overshoot the winning 10,000 number every time – while someone else sneaks up from far behind and hits it on the nose.

I’ve experienced both of these hellish inertia points in dice.  And in writing.

Beginnings and endings. Since we writers seem to love nothing more than writing about writing, many thousands of words have been devoted to the frustrations and challenges of these two critical points in the plot.

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“The last thing one settles in writing is book is what one should put in first.”
— Blaise Pascal

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Orson Welles

“I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before I was satisfied.”
— Ernest Hemingway

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
Louis L’Amour

“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”
Lewis Carroll

Indeed.

tickingOver the weekend, we began the one-month countdown to the end of our 5writers5novels5months challenge. Tick tick tick. At this point, we should all be breezing through, or more likely wrestling with, our endings. In Joe’s heroic case (even after his heart-stopping computer debacle) it’s time for polishing his already-finished first draft.

But as I look at the scoresheet, at least one of us is still closer to the beginning than the ending. That would be me.

I got off to a promising start. I actually knew the story I wanted to tell from start to finish. Oh, not all the details of course, but I had the basic story arc, the three acts, the premise and theme, and the main characters all firmly in mind. As it turned out, that was like knowing how to roll the dice … but not how to make them come up with the desired score.

I lost a lot of time trying to roll that first 1,000 points to get in the game. There were false starts, diversions, rewrites, runaway research, and time spent on other ‘worthwhile accomplishments’, which was therefore not devoted to getting the book ‘on the board’.

Blog posts, for example. I haven’t missed a turn. I spent the first week in our challenge designing and setting up our blog. It was fun. It was exciting. But it meant I spent my first gush of enthusiasm on the blog instead of on the book.

What have I learned from this? Writing a blog is a lot easier than writing a book. (I know, I know: Well, duh!). I’ve also enjoyed it as a creative form of procrastination that has allowed me to feel somewhat virtuous even as I’ve fallen behinder and behinder. Hey, at least I’m writing something.

For an A-type who’s competitive to my bones, I’m surprisingly okay with being behind. Why? I’m happy with the book I’m writing. I care about my characters. I’m having fun with it. I know where I’m going with the plot, but it’s still throwing me some surprising turns, and that makes the storytelling exciting. If I felt dead-ended with my book, I’d probably be slitting my wrists, or perhaps taking up something less challenging – like rocket science. But I’m on a writer’s journey of my choosing, and loving it.

It isn’t a game to win or lose.

So as the clock ticks loudly down to the ending, I confess that the likelihood of me hitting the magic 10,000 – of finishing the game in our allotted time – is diminishing fast. My beginning took far too long, and I haven’t even started to wrestle with the ending – though I may jump past the middle and write the end ahead of time, as some revered authors like to do.

But what will I send to my 5 Writers friends on February 5th? Half a book? A beginning and an end? A Coles Notes version? A plea for more time? A bouquet of flowers?

Or will I really get on a roll and make the deadline after all?

As Nobel prizewinner for literature John Galsworthy put it so aptly, “The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy.”

 

Tasty morsels from the masters

Helga’s Post # 14 — Maybe it’s the start of a new year that comes with the usual resolutions for improvement of one’s body and mind. Maybe it’s because the days are getting longer, or whatever. I feel a renewed energy in my writing, and a new focus. A subtle shift from writing primarily to a deadline, to writing a good story. (I tried to do both, but found I could only serve one master). With that in mind, I dug up some quotes from famous authors and tutors on the craft of writing. You are likely familiar with some, but collectively they are tongue-in-cheek fun. Enjoy the wisdom of these masters as we stand on their shoulders.

“It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written”. ―Robert Hass

IMG_1568

Pablo Neruda’s bench in Valparaiso

“While I’m writing, I’m far away;and when I come back, I’ve gone.” ― Pablo Neruda

“You know what I did after I wrote my first novel? I shut up and wrote twenty-three more.” ― Michael Connelly

“I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.” ― Nora Roberts

“A blank page is no empty space. It is brimming with potential… It is a masterpiece in waiting — yours.” ― A.A. Patawaran

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.” ― Stephen King

“I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”
Ernest Hemingway

“The business of the novelist is not to relate great events, but to make small ones interesting.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer

“You need three things to become a successful novelist: talent, luck and discipline. Discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.” ― Michael Chabon

“Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.”
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

“You are always naked when you start writing; you are always as if you had never written anything before; you are always a beginner. Shakespeare wrote without knowing he would become Shakespeare.” ― Erica Jong

“If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep anyone else up either.”
James M. Cain

“Humility is an essential quality in writers who want to write well.”
Margaret Jean Langstaff

“There are many rules of good writing, but the best way to find them is to be a good reader.”
Stephen E. Ambrose

“I always tell my writing students that every good piece of writing begins with both a mystery and a love story. And that every single sentence must be a poem. And that economy is the key to all good writing. And that every character has to have a secret.”
Silas House

“Remember that you don’t write a story because you have an idea but because you have a believable character.” ― Flannery O’Connor

“Storytellers don’t show, they tell. I’m sticking with that.” ― Ashly Lorenzana

“All good writers write [terrible first drafts.] This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. . . I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.” ―Anne Lamott

“I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it.”
P.G. Wodehouse

“You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer.”
Margaret Atwood

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.” ― George Orwell, Why I Write

“And what about those [writers’ workshop] critiques, by the way? How valuable are they? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. I love the feeling of Peter’s story, someone may say. It had something… a sense of I don’t know… there’s a loving kind of you know… I can’t exactly describe it….
It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can’t describe, you might just be, I don’t know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class.” ― Stephen King, On Writing

The King

And on that note, Happy New Year and awesome writing that will knock their socks off!

Words to kick-start the New Year

gears

Andy Dingley image

Silk’s Post #16 – I have this steampunk-inspired vision of what must happen this evening as the clock strikes midnight and the New Year comes into being.

A cosmic mechanical system of epic proportions groans into action, massive cogs aligning with each other, as the ponderous gears of time ratchet the universe forward one more click into 2013. Kaaah-klunck. Time moves forward and 2012 becomes the past, never to recur in this eternity.

The book of 2012 will close.

The year’s unfulfilled opportunities will forever remain blank pages. Its glories will become part of history’s recorded march toward enlightenment, and its iniquities will always be preserved in dark-stained chapters. A new book will open, its snowy pages inviting the world to fill them with more of the former and less of the latter.

Such an awesome and unstoppable force as the passage of time certainly requires a bit of ceremonial observance. We rise to the occasion with the spirited ritual of the New Year’s Eve Bacchanalia, followed by the sober ritual of the New Year’s Resolution. Writers are, it seems, enthusiastic participants in both.

At the risk of reprising a number of well-published chestnuts, I begin my list of favourite literary New Year’s quotes for your contemplation with a bit of ancient wisdom …

“A thing is never too often repeated which is never sufficiently learned.”   — Seneca the Younger

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”   — T. S. Eliot

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.”   — Ellen Goodman

“I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and moulding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.”   — Anais Nin

“Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins, it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.”   — Thomas Mann

“New Year’s Day – Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”   — Mark Twain

“Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”   — Oscar Wilde

“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbours, and let each new year find you a better man.”   — Benjamin Franklin

“Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right.”   — Oprah Winfrey

“No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.”   — Charles Lamb

“Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one.”   — Brad Paisley

“One resolution I have made, and try always to keep, is this: To rise above the little things.” — John Burroughs

“I shall stick to my resolution of writing always what I think no matter whom it offends.”   — Julia Ward Howe

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”   — Albert Einstein

“Gimme one more chance.”   — Madonna, “One More Chance”

“Oh baby, give me one more chance.”   Jackson Five, “I Want You Back”

“Oh baby, baby, baby gimme one more chance.”   — John Lennon, “What You Got”

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something … Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.”   — Neil Gaiman

“Write faster.”   — Silk Questo

To all my writing friends: may your gears mesh with brave ideas and your blank pages fill with beautiful words in the New Year.