In my post on “Using Obscenity,” I discussed different ways to handle obscene language. Here’s a new one, with Gail Collins’s typical comic understatement:
“Plus, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas says that when he thanked Boehner for standing up to King, Boehner responded, ‘What an ass.’ I’m editing, but you get the idea.” New York Times, 2-8-2014, A17.
In my post on “Using Obscenity,” I discussed different ways to handle obscene language. Here’s a new one, with Gail Collins’s typical comic understatement:
Last week, I coached a writer who thought she needed a transition between every paragraph and the next one. Wrong. She also thought that subheads aren’t transitions. Wrong again. Let’s talk about transitions.
MIND THE GAP
Transitions (Latin across + go) move readers from one unit to the next. Readers make a decision whether to continue reading or not at each boundary, especially between sections. Transitions form bridges that lead your readers through your piece.
Let’s assume you’re writing in the traditional explanation model: a beginning and an ending that frame sections:
The beginning briefs readers on the journey they’re about to take through what you have to say, with you as a reliable guide. Then you orient them as you move from section to section by reminding them of the plan.
Suppose your sections are about (1) animals that walk, (2) animals that swim, and (3) animals that fly. As you move from part one, you might start part two with a transition like this: “Animals that live in water can use feet or flippers or fins to swim.” This sentence shows readers they’re in section two, on swimmers, as you predicted. Your reader feels guided, and keeps reading. Notice that this kind of transition does not come between the units, but starting the next one.
Of course, transitions can come between the units, and could be a paragraph or several paragraphs, especially in complex, formal documents.
SUBHEADS LIKE THIS ONE
Subheads divide the units, but draw readers across the gap between them. As people read, in their peripheral vision, they see a subhead coming toward them, and it influences their decision to continue. Subheads point forward, deeper into the text. Short and bright subheads have more pull on the reader. So minimum subheads might be: “WALKERS,” SWIMMERS,” and “FLIERS.” Or “IT WALKS LIKE A DUCK,” “IT SWIMS LIKE A DUCK,” and “IT FLIES LIKE A DUCK.”
IT SOUNDS LIKE A BRIDGE
You can also achieve transitions by form alone, by manipulating the rhythm and tone of endings and beginnings of sections. You write the end of a section to sound like an ending, and the start of the next section to sound like a beginning, like this:
….In fact, almost all animals can swim, no matter what appendages they have.
Flying, on the other hand, requires a special set: wings….
REACHING THE END
Finally, the transition from the last section to the ending should signal readers that the ending has started, perhaps like this: “In summary, ….”
Or this: “All these animals are superbly equipped to get from here to there in their own way, but we human beings….”
The word “finally” that began this section showed you that my ending had just started.
[How do you write transitions?]
In David Lodge’s Thinks… (New York: Viking, 2001) 62, the novelist character Helen Reed muses on the ideal reader: “… ‘the reader’ – who is not Mr Cleverdick the reviewer, or Ms Sycophant the publicist, or your fond mother, or your jealous rival, but some kind of ideal reader, shrewd, intelligent, demanding but fair, whose persona you try to adopt as you read and re-read your own work in the process of composition.”
A fine definition of the ideal reader, but notice the position of the reviewer, publicist, mother, rival, and ideal. They’re all receivers, and they’re all pictured as judging the work and the author. And the fictional author Helen puts herself in their position: “…whose persona you try to adopt as you read and re-read your own work in the process of composition.”
As a writing coach, I find that writers who think about readers as judges fail to write up to their potential. For starters, they’re thinking about judgment when they’re trying to write, rather than about what they’re trying to say. Then the immediate reader, the ultimate judge, their Internal Critic, starts tearing their confidence to shreds.
So who is the ideal reader? We might take a cue from Holden Caulfield: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Here the reader wants to become the author’s friend, in a lasting relationship. Many successful writers create just this sort of friendship through their works, and enhance it through social media. By reading them, we join their club.
My ideal reader is more like a dance partner. I lead, and she follows, and we talk as we twirl. I’m actually not a very good dancer, but she’s right with me anyway, forgiving and always ready for my next move.
[Who's your ideal reader?]
This blog has run for three years, as I used it to create a book on how to write your way instead of the way you were taught. The idea is to match and enhance your strengths, not somebody else’s. And it shows you how to create your own voice to match your new writing process.
Last year, I extracted 145 posts from the blog and rearranged them into book order, instead of the catch-as-catch-can order of blogs. I wrote a few bridging passages, created new front matter, and added apparatus: bibliography, credits, etc. Then I rewrote the entire typescript four times to change the focus from journalistic techniques to general professional writing practices.
I was helped by my tough agent, Liv Blumer, and my editor at Writer’s Digest, Scott Francis, who kept pressuring me toward reframing that made the book more accessible to general readers. Thank you, Liv and Scott.
Here’s the cover:
(I like the way this cover captures the gadgety spirit of the book; do you?)
I posted this tweet this morning: “Don’t feel like writing today? Type a placeholder sentence, and revise it, and you’re writing.”
This method works because the words enmesh you. We writers think of ourselves as controlling our words, and we do. But merely putting words on paper or a screen changes what you’re thinking, and in this case, your mood.
You can experience this effect when writing dialogue. For example, this morning I was drafting a scene in a novel about two boys trying to live in the woods according to a book their father brought back from World War II: How to Survive on Land and Sea. They discover they already know most of what the book says.
“We could have written this book ourselves, Donny. Whenever we look things up in it, we’re usually already doing it.”
“What a great idea, Eddy. When we get rescued, we’ll write our own survival book for boys like us. But we’ll need a zippy title.”
And off they go brainstorming potential titles. I didn’t plan that, but once they started, I just turned them loose. How did that happen? I had struggled through last fall trying to come up with a title for my new book, Writing Your Way, forthcoming from Writers’s Digest on March 13. So once the boys came up with their book idea, it was an easy leap to their needing a title.
Such happy accidents can unnerve a control freak, which is a bad thing to be if you’re a writer. But if you don’t like what the characters do or say, you can just erase it.
(Ever had your characters take over, or your words divert you?)
My agent, Liv Blumer, asked me what’s involved when journalists change genres, such as beginning to write fiction or a memoir. Specifically, she asked if “journalism training makes it hard to make up a story, and … to write luxuriously, i.e., with descriptions that add texture to a book.”
Yes, it does, and it usually first happens when news reporters become columnists. They’ve spent their entire career up until then keeping themselves out of their writing. Merely mentioning themselves or expressing an opinion or using the first-person pronoun “I” feels like a betrayal of professional values. The secret is to create a new persona, not Janey the ace reporter, but Jane the personal columnist. Jane has permission to use those apparently “unobjective” techniques.
Their second problem is language. The wording of newspapers is deliberately flat, an attempt to sound objective by not using colorful terms. Journalists copied this technique from scientists in the nineteenth century, and escape it only in sports writing or light features. If a columnist sounds like a scientist, readers will not read the column. Even newspaper economists don’t sound like economists.
The last problem is form. Journalists learn to write in the Inverted Pyramid, stacking information in declining order of importance and interest. Readers pass out from boredom after three paragraphs, if the writer is lucky enough to get them to read that far. Most new columnists realize they have to escape the Infernal Pyramid, so they fall back on their high school English training and write essays. But columns are not essays, which generally get to the point at the bottom. Effective columns tell readers early what they’re about, and develop that.
Liv’s question was about shifting to fiction or memoir, not columns. The principles are the same. You give yourself permission to have opinions in public and to talk about yourself. You abandon the voice of the newspaper and create your own that fits how you think and feel, and want to sound. And you leave behind journalistic forms and learn new ones, usually by studying the genres you want to write in. In other words, converting journalists have to abandon the techniques that create the illusion of objectivity.
All of this is discussed in some form in my forthcoming book, Writing Your Way (Writer’s Digest, March 13, 2012).
[Care to share your experiences in changing genres?]
I’ve just finished Louis de Bernières, Birds without Wings (New York: Knopf, 2004), a terrifying novel about Turkey in World War I. He describes a potter named Iskander, as he begins a new piece: “He frequently did not know what he was going to make until he had started to make it. This was a kind of courtesy to his material, which seemed often to have preconceived ideas about what it wanted to become. Sometimes it would wobble about, or collapse, if he tried to make a bowl out of clay that wanted to be a pot, or vice versa, and it was best just to mould it in the fingers for a short while, get the feel of it and then watch it grow into something. ‘Take your time,’ he would say to himself, ‘if the cat’s in a hurry, she has peculiar kittens,’” (p. 286).
This passage reminds me of a startling discovery I made some years ago, when I first began to write fiction. I was trained as a devoted planner, one who figured out the whole piece before writing a word, then produced an outline, and followed it closely.
Then I heard the playwright August Wilson describe his composing method, which went something like this: write a sentence, write another sentence, keep writing sentences until you perceive two voices. Then assign the sentences to two voices, and keep writing and assigning sentences until you notice a third voice. Six months later, he had a three-act play.
“Weird,” thought I. But then I recognized that I pictured disconnected scenes in my head. So I started writing them down, and they eventually resolved into a narrative and then a plot and a novel. I’m now halfway through my fourth novel written without planning.
What does this have to do with Iskander the Potter?
If you have narrative materials in your head, let the writing staff in your brain write what they want to say, rather than forcing yourself on them. Just relax and type, and let it flow.
It works like this. Two characters are talking, and suddenly they’re digressing into things you hadn’t planned or imagined. I’m writing about two boys, 8 and 7, camping in the woods. They get into an argument about equipment they did or did not bring, which leads to deciding what you need to carry versus what you make on the spot. Their parents get lost in a park near their house, and slide sideways into discovering they’re terrified by the park, despite the fact that they bought their house to live near it. Later the boys find a .30-calibre machine gun in the woods.
None of this was planned. I just got the “feel of it and then watched it grow into something.”
Iskander the Potter finds it works “best just to mould it in the fingers for a short while.” The writing equivalent is an extreme form of drafting. Just type sentences, and watch what comes out. Don’t ask why the characters are saying and doing things, just let them act. As the text accumulates, the plot emerges.
Now I know this sounds like nonsense to you writers who are planners, and for you, it is. But if you’re a plunger, one who types to discover what you want to say, it might work for you. You might find that your story has “preconceived ideas about what it wanted to become.”
[Let me know if you have experiences similar to mine.]
[I will be speaking at the F+W Writer’s Digest Conference at the Sheraton New York Hotel on January 21, 10:00-10:50, on how to escape your writing teachers.]
Sometimes writer’s block transcends wood pulp.
A local newspaper (The Nelson County Times) recently ran a feature story on a woodworker, Debbie Ballowe of Nellysford, Virginia, who makes scrollsawed ornaments out of local hardwoods. She complained that “I sometimes get writer’s block, where I have a pattern I want to do, but I can’t find the piece of wood I like. I feel like my artistry is in the cutting and finishing, but also trying to find the right wood for the right pattern…. I’m not painting it, so I can’t get things exactly where I want, but there are times where you see a knot just where it should be.”
Her secret is to have faith in her woodpile, which eventually reveals the right piece. For writers, it’s having faith that your toolbox of techniques and forms will tell you what to do and how, eventually.
[Know any other forms of writer’s block, and how to solve them?]
I’ve just returned from teaching writing workshops on a three-week Caribbean cruise. I found myself surrounded by memoirists who somehow couldn’t start their memoirs. They seemed to have a memoir hovering somewhere in their future plans, but nobody was writing one.
Writers in my sessions asked me to add a section on memoirs. I asked my fellow voyagers in table conversations why they weren’t writing memoirs, and kept getting the same answer: “I’m not important.” Notice the wording: “I’m not important,” not “I’m not that important.” And the people saying it were mostly accomplished professionals.
I did some informal interviewing to find out what they meant. Most of the men said they didn’t have time. But the women, without exception, said they had been carefully taught not to take themselves seriously, never to think of themselves as important or even interesting. One quoted the Russian proverb: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
One of my favorite writer friends, Jim Nicholson, used to write a daily 18-inch feature obituary on an ordinary person chosen at random. I asked him, “If you pick subjects at random, how often do you fail?” “Never,” he replied. “Everybody’s interesting.”
“Everybody’s interesting” became the motto of the workshops, conversations, and coaching sessions. So I taught them how to write memoirs, starting on the cruise. Here’s what I said:.
First, you have to overcome a disparity in scale: little bitty you against a book-length writing job. Writing a memoir can seem like scaling the Matterhorn, especially for someone who hasn’t written anything since leaving school. So I told them to write just one anecdote, preferably a funny one from their early lives. Some said they couldn’t, so I asked them to tell me one. And they did, and then they wrote it, and others liked it, and they were launched. Writing little anecdotes is fun, like telling jokes, and contagious.
Second, you have to lower your standards. Your first attempts at anything don’t have to be good. You’ll learn more if they aren’t. Beginners have a license to write badly. More importantly, they can ask for help. And the help they need is a friend asking them “What works?” and “What needs work?”
Third, you just get it down, without worrying about spelling or usage or correctness. There’s no teacher and no grading when you write for yourself. And you can get it right later, after it says what you want to say.
Fourth, you have to shut out imagined reactions from your family. I warned everyone that inevitably, something you write in a memoir will piss off somebody, probably a relative, especially your mother. As you write anything, never think about what others will say; you have to shut up that voice in your head that makes you timid. I manage my demon by telling myself after every sentence, “This’s just a draft, Don.”
Finally, as my pal Roy Peter Clark says, you get started by putting your butt in your chair and moving your fingers on the keys.
That’s it. It’s that easy. Forget about yourself to write about yourself.
[If you’re writing a memoir, how did you start?]
In my previous post, I talked about epiphanies, sudden realization of something you knew but didn’t know. You can make them happen. I learned this technique from Chip Scanlan at the Poynter Institute, who used it for a different purpose and in a different form.
You need four sheets of paper and a pencil. You write a partial prompting sentence at the top, such as “My Z made me Y…” or “I didn’t know that X….” Then you fill in the blanks (Z and Y, or X), and continue to write without raising the pencil. You scribble at top speed, never backing up, never correcting, never reading, never worrying about spelling or grammar or sense. You keep this up until you run out of steam, usually halfway down the page. Then you stop, stand up, walk around, shake your bootie, and sit down again.
Then, without reading what you wrote, you repeat the whole process, starting with the same partial sentence with blanks, and scribbling non-stop, borderline mindless, until you run out again. Then, without reading, you repeat the process twice more, or until you write to the bottom of the page. Then and only then, you read what you’ve written on the final page.
When I first tried this technique, I discovered I’d written, “I’m glad my father died.” I didn’t know that until that moment. Yesterday, I led a stuck writer through this process, and she discovered what she was failing to say was not at all what she wanted to say. It’s a quick and dirty coaching technique.
You can direct your epiphany a little by slanting your opening sentence fragment. Lately, I’ve wondered why I could never sing as an adult. (I can’t even hum!) So my opener could be something like this: “I sang as a child until ….”
N.B. Sometimes this magic doesn’t work.
[Ever experience an epiphany by writing?]