Monday, June 30, 2014

Don’t forget we have five (and maybe even six)
Whenever I catch a musky whiff of sweet red cedar, I’m instantly transported back over the decades to my early grade school years, when I had a treasured red-cedar pencil box, and the memory brings a smile to my soul.  
I can well remember as a boy climbing up to a shady fork in a green-apple tree with a salt shaker in my pocket, and savoring the pucker-tart taste and squirty crunch of those liberally-salted hard apples, knowing full well I’d likely pay for it later with a killer stomach ache.  
Who can forget the soft thrill of that first kiss?  

And can’t you still hear that favorite song of your high school years?  

Necessarily, most of our fiction writing is visual, but we have at least four other strong senses, and we can call on them all to infuse more power and emotion  into our writing.
Sometimes we can even employ that mythical, magical sixth.  Our protagonist need not always proceed using hard facts, logic, and reason.  She or he might occasionally rely on a hunch, or a gut feeling, or a premonition.  

Because occasionally don’t we all?


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Another adventure

          Just returned yesterday from a five-day job with another captain, moving a fast 50-foot turbocharged motor yacht from Stuart, Florida, to River Dunes, North Carolina (a Grand Banks East Bay 50).  The weather was dicey because of pop-up thunderstorms, which can be vicious in Florida.  We ran the boat up the coast offshore much of the time when the sea wasn’t too rough, bounding along on those cobalt waters at twenty-two knots, spray erupting over the bow rails like handfuls of flung jewels in the sun.  We got caught in a storm and the boat was struck by lightning, a loud flash-crack like a shot from a monster rifle, followed by an eerie sizzle, which was probably the charge dissipating into the sea, because the boat is well grounded.  It popped some breakers, but did no damage we could discern.  
          Rounding Cape Canaveral, we saw a Space X rocket poised on a pad, ready for launch with eight satellites aboard, but the launch was delayed by weather.  Haven’t found out yet if it went.  Space X is a fine private company that has already sent the first private resupply mission to the International Space Station.  Then near Cape Fear, North Carolina, we saw a water spout descend from the flat black base of an impressive massive cloud build-up seven miles off our flank.  The spout churned the sea and changed its writhing shape minute by minute.  It persisted for more than a half hour, and there was dense rain falling near the spout in a heavy gray veil.  In Myrtle Beach there was a nice fireworks display close by where we were tied up for the night at Barefoot Landing.  
          Other sights along the way included porpoises, a large unearthly manta ray, many high-dollar McMansions lining the Intracoastal Waterway, and a young woman texting on her cell phone while driving a jet ski with her other hand.

          Overall, it was yet another excellent adventure, adding to my store of experiences that will probably find their ways into my fiction.


Monday, June 16, 2014

 If it seems too familiar, it is
          As they walked along the shore, the sky above as blue as a robin’s egg and filled with clouds like cotton balls, waves lapping the sand beside them, she slipped her delicate hand in his.  He turned his darkly-handsome head and beamed down upon her like sunshine.  Her lips were like rose petals, and he longed to ravish her right then and there and the devil take the consequences.  She felt faint with desire, and the wise words of her grandfather echoed in her ears: “Remember, my child, the world belongs to the brave at heart, you get what you pay for, and a rolling stone gathers no moss.”

          What’s wrong with this writing?  It reeks with the all-too-familiar phrase, with the worn-out metaphor, with clichés—expressions that were once clever and delightfully fresh but through heavy overuse have become trite or stereotypical.  You know many such worn-out expressions: the silvery path of moonlight on water, bird in the hand, fit the bill, just the ticket, far cry, labor of love, cute as a button, good as gold, old as time, babe in the woods, better late than never, worst nightmare, we need to move forward, take the bull by the horns, the time has come, we are committed, neat as a pin, undying love, quick as lightning, tongue in cheek, ugly as sin, all talk and no action, oh . . . my . . . god.  And how many thousand times have you heard the word awesome used so far this year to describe everything from a double rainbow to a fried Twinkie?

          Travel brochures, company mission statements, news casts, and political speeches are littered with such tattered stuff.  It’s one of the worst symptoms of lazy thinking and lazy writing.
          Many clichés we see so often in bad writing are not even true.  Do gunshots really “ring out”? I’ve never heard a shot do so, and I’ve spent many hours at target ranges firing both long guns and hand guns.   A gunshot is a harsh, percussive, jolting insult to the hearing, like being clapped on both ears by a ninja.  A gunshot does not ring out like a door chime.

          If you want your writing to be fresh and realistic and engaging, invest the time required to study your surroundings until you can describe them in original ways.  Go to the seashore or go outside on a moonlit night and sit and look and listen.  Discard those clichés that come so easily to mind and replace them with your own words, with descriptions you’ve never heard before.  Study people the same way.  Mentally record their features and mannerisms.  Listen to their speech.  This will soon become habitual.  Your writing will improve considerably, and as a pleasantly surprising secondary benefit, you’ll also see the world as you never have before. 
         Years ago, I began to experience the world around me in wonderful new depth and clarity when I began taking photos to accompany my magazine articles, because in order to take quality photos, I had to become aware of light in all its nuances.  I had to begin sensing optimum composition.  I needed to learn how to recognize and capture the most intense and poignant and interesting candid moments in people’s lives.  Observation is a valuable learned skill that I believe has helped enrich both my nonfiction and fiction.  My readers will be the judges.

          There’s a true story that’s instructive.  A writer was once assigned  to interview the great John D. MacDonald  (the late popular author of the Travis McGee series and one of my early idols).   But when the writer came away from the interview, he realized  that MacDonald had actually learned far more about the writer than the writer had learned about the intended interviewee.  One of MacDonald’s honed assets was to ceaselessly study the world around him until he gained fresh perspectives, which showed in his writing and helped earn him a wide and loyal readership.

          So, here’s a cardinal rule: If a phrase feels too familiar, it is.

          Don’t use clichés.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

A grand adventure

          Sunday morning Naomi and I are heading for the Greenbank National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the wilderness of the West Virginia mountains.  (I’m posting early because we’ll be away on Monday.)  We’ll stay at what looks to be a fine bed and breakfast that must do a good business during the ski season but is mostly deserted in the summer.  And we’ll get a glimpse of how radio astronomers are probing the most profound mysteries of the universe, about how they’re looking ever deeper out there through the veils of stardust, almost back to the beginnings of time itself.

          I’ll be gathering information and taking photos with the intent of doingon sheer speculationa magazine article about the place.  This calls to mind many other such ventures I’ve undertaken over the years.  Once, intrigued by the long, sometimes troubled and occasionally lethal history of the World Land Speed Record (LSR), I took eight hundred dollars out of my meager savings and set off in an uncertain vehicle across most of the country, from my home in eastern North Carolina to the otherworldly salt flats of Bonneville, Utah, 2,600 miles distant, again on sheer speculation.  That resulted in a piece about deaf Hollywood stunt woman Kitty O’Neil, who was attempting to set a new women’s LSR.  The article came out in The Saturday Evening Post and was reprinted in Reader’s Digest.  During that trip I also picked up enough research and photos to do a piece on sailing the Great Salt Lake and another about a motorcycle attempt at a speed record, and still another about a Hollywood stunt man.   Another time I bluffed my way into a well-insulated private and prestigious invitational marlin fishing tournament staged out of Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks.  Though I could not even promise them my article would actually be published, the organizers treated me well, setting me up with a different yacht to go out on each tournament day.  The article was published and led to steady work with two boating publications.  And then there was the time I got to ride in a jet-powered show truck called “Shockwave” at well over two hundred miles per hour and did an article about it for Overdrive magazine.

          In each of many such episodes, I’ve done something most other people never get to do.  I’ve met unusual people and experienced wonderful things, largely because in order to write about them well, I’ve had to explore then in uncommon breadth and depth.

          Such impulsive forays have not always resulted in lucrative articles, but they’ve helped gather glimmerings and insights that I’ve often put to use in my fiction.  I’ve never regretted a single such time.

          Each such speculative endeavor has become a fascinating personal chapter in this grand adventure that is the complex, often difficult, sometimes frustratingbut always ultimately rewardingcraft of writing.


Monday, June 2, 2014

What do you mean by that?

          Recently an old friend and I met for a light breakfast early one morning in a local restaurant.  When we sat down with our hot mugs, he told me, “My wife said everything will be fine as long as we don’t have coffee until ten o’clock.”
          I said, “But we’re having coffee now.”
          He said, “What are you talking about?”
          “You just said she doesn’t want you having coffee until sometime after ten o’clock.  I thought you maybe shouldn’t have caffeine right after taking some medicine or other.”
          “No.  I said she doesn’t want us hanging around here arguing politics from now until mid-morning.  She’s got chores for me to do.  Anyway, that’s what I meant.”

          Have you ever tried to assemble a rather complicated new purchase with only an instruction pamphlet written in some obscure dialect faintly resembling English by somebody who obviously doesn’t know a Phillips screwdriver from a swizzle stick?  “Next put big end careful forward into side part (if having model A maybe B but not model C-2) and fasten two three small clip very strongest, please.”  For their own safety, it’s a good thing such writers remain anonymous.

          Or have you ever tried to immerse yourself in a novel only to find it necessary to repeatedly leaf back a number of pages to get straight what the devil is supposed to be going on?  Was it Tom or Harry who shot the gardener imposter back in 1912 for treading on the petunias?  Is it Maude or Mary who’s pregnant?  And who’s the daddy?  Just how many friends and relatives can Jason possibly have, and which one of them is the rich personal-injury lawyer again?  Did it mention somewhere back there who is having the affair with the mayor, or is that supposed to be a plot secret?  Did I really pay fifteen bucks plus tax for this book?
          I began the back-cover blurb for one of my books thusly: “In 1858, soldiers came with bayonets to . . . “  I was only trying to establish the background for a story that takes place entirely in current times.  But of course I witnessed the inevitable occurring during several book signings.  A passing potential buyer looking for a contemporary thriller would pause, glance at that beginning phrase, and understandably assume the book to be an historical novel.  And I’d find myself hastily trying to explain away what, after all, had been my own glaring mistake.

          The first obligation for any writer of anything is clarity.  It’s not always easy.  We know what we mean to say and can’t imagine a reader taking it any other way.  But a good rule to follow is if a phrase or sentence can remotely be interpreted in more than one way, you can safely wager it will be.  (We even require an expensive be-robed Supreme Court, for example, to clarify for us whether legal issues are or are not constitutional.)  

          Rearrange or reconstruct any suspect sentence or phrase until it’s clear. 

          It’s never the fault of the reader when misinterpretation occurs.  And it can cost the writer dearly.