Monday, January 26, 2015

Writerly wisdom

Excellent  advice from various pros:

From William Safire (author of the New York Times Magazine column “On Language”)
Tips in which he cleverly commits the very sins he warns about:

1. Remember to never split an infinitive.
2. The passive voice should never be used.
3. Do not put statements in the negative form.
4. Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
5. Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
6. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
7. A writer must not shift your point of view.
8. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
9. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!! (I never use any!)
10. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
11. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
12. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
13. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
14. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
15. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
16. Always pick on the correct idiom.
17. The adverb always follows the verb.
18. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

A few more nuggets:

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”  George Orwell

“Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods.  If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong.  Then take the other road.”  Margaret Atwood

“Write first and always.  Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”  Henry Miller

“Never use a verb other than said to carry dialog. “ Elmore Leonard

And my favorite:     “Write.”  Neil Gaiman


Monday, January 19, 2015

Instigating inspiration

For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can.  Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.”       Ernest Hemingway

          I’ve learned you can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to magically descend upon you like an invisible cloak out of a fair-weather cumulus cloud that resembles Tinker Bell.  Or for your muse to whisper excellent plotting suggestions and lyrical phraseology in your ear as you sleep, perchance to dream.  Try that philosophy and you could be hanging around taking up space for years, not getting anything at all written.

          There is such a phenomenon as inspirational magic, though, and when it happens it’s a fine experience.

          For some years I played fiddle with a group (violin is the same instrument, only it’s played in more sophisticated circles).  We got together weekly in a drafty garage and worked up a play list of classic country stolen from Nelson, Jennings, Harris, Colter, Gosdin, and Zevon, along with popular favorites from Buffett, Seger, Santana, Madonna, and Kristofferson.  We played at small receptions, at big charity affairs, out on the deck of a hotel/marina, at posh and not-so-posh private parties, once even in a dewy field on a cold night during a deer-hunting contest barbecue.  Our fingers kept going numb, and a couple of our members were surreptitiously sipping high-octane moonshine to ward off the chill.

          When you play in public for a client, you have to begin at an appointed time, no matter whether you feel particularly musical just then or not, and you have to keep at it for an agreed-upon interval of from one to several hours.  It’s not always the thing you’d most like to be doing.  Sometimes it was a real struggle for all six of us to keep correct and steady time, get all our amplified volumes balanced, start and stop each tune together, and sync the harmony.  But there’s no alternative except to keep flailing away at it, at least if you want to get paid at the end of the gig.

          Then there are those rare and wonderful times. Like one night in a smoky bar in the military town of Jacksonville, NC, where the crowd was well-lubricated and boisterous, singing along and giving us excessive ovations.  Around eleven o’clock, my fiddle began almost playing itself, the tones sweeter, the pitch perfect, the gliding bow vibrating the strings without effort.  I could feel all of us playing flawlessly together, far better than we had in months.  It was magical, and the crowd seemed to sense it.  The gig was supposed to be from eight to midnight.  We didn’t reluctantly quit until two.

          A similar magic can happen in writing, when the words seem to be floating in out of nowhere and fitting together seamlessly, emotively, powerfully.  The feeling is exceptional.

          But the only way to have any hope of achieving that wonderful magic, I believe, is to plug away at our writing as best we can hour after dogged hour and every possible day.  Until, one day, we happily find ourselves writing better than we can.


Monday, January 5, 2015


             In 2013, I decided to finally  realize a lifelong dream, despite the considerable cost and logistics.  I flew all night long at eighty percent of the speed of sound to Santiago, Chile, where I joined a group on a fantastical trek along the Ruta de las Estrellas. 
             The Route of the Stars. 
From an arid mountaintop high in the bone-dry Atacama Desert, where it has not rained since 1973,  where there is no light pollution, negligible air pollution, and insignificant atmospheric moisture, I saw a night sky few others are privileged to see these days.  Many who live out their lives in heavily populated urban areas have not the slightest idea what the universe actually looks like. 
          It was spellbinding.  The planet Venus was casting my shadow onto the barren mountaintop, and the elusive zodiacal light softly tinted the night.  The Pleiadesthose ancient Seven Sisterswere stunning, with their own scattering of jewel-like attendant lesser stars I’d never been able to see with only my eyes.  The sprawling Milky Way was heart-breaking in its riverine splendor.  The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the beautiful Southern Cross were boldly prominent.  From my yard back home, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula had never been more than faint smudges on the clearest of nights.  From the Atacama they seemed almost touchable.  I lay on my back for hours with a pair of binoculars, utterly enthralled. 
          Our small group also got to scrutinize the incredible panoply in detail over two nights through large telescopes, which burst 47 Tucanae into a dense cluster of more than a billion suns; and quickened the heart by plucking out an astonishing super-giant blood-red star; and resolved Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us (other than our own sun) into a diamond-hard disc that beckoned the wanderlust human spirit.
          The experience filled up my whole being, and I’ve never been so glad I decided to actually carry out a dreamed adventure.  The price was insignificant when weighed against the benefits to my soul.  In fact, in retrospect, it would have been worth almost any cost to me.
          A number of people have told me they want to write a book someday.
          For those and for others who harbor longed-for achievements and adventures in their hearts, as we set out on the year 2015, please bear in mind two of my own rediscovered life guidelines:

          Each of us has only a brief time to be alive and aware on this beautiful borrowed planet.

          And, near the end of those allotted days, not a thousand sad Shouldas will begin to equal a solitary Didit.