…not. Don’t you love it when people give you advice?
I don’t. Unsolicited advice, I mean. There are times when looking for a good doctor or dentist, you might ask who your friends are happy with. But I hope you also check out medical websites for the practice’s reputation and the hallmarks of a good professional.
I was a professional, and a darned good one, too. I can say that because (1) I devoted my life (and my income) to it, and (2) I no longer live where I practiced my profession, so there’s no one to contradict me. :>) An elementary grade specialist with three university degrees, I served as master teacher to student teachers, and participated in a university program exploring creative approaches to teaching.
So, several years ago, when my husband was referred to a specialist, I kept abreast of the latest information in the field. At one appointment, we went in with my research on his medication, what seemed to be side effects he was exhibiting, and possible alternatives. This doctor was, I soon learned, accustomed to giving unquestioned advice. When I finished explaining what I’d learned, he swiveled from attending my husband, glared at me and demanded, “And, so you’re a doctor?”
“No,” I replied, “but I’m educated, observant, open-minded, and I’m proactive when it comes to health issues. Or any other issues, for that matter.” (You may use that line. in fact, you should. It’s a very good piece of unsolicited advice.)
So, back to the title. Most writing advice must be taken with a grain of…aspirin. Or a glass of wine. Why? Because what works best for them, might not necessarily work for you.
TIMING: Writers often tell you that you must write first thing in the morning, “preferably when you’re not quite awake” one recently said. Really? Wake me before 8 a.m., and we have the beginning of a Stephen King novel. Murder (or at least attempted) by any available means.
I am a night owl. My muse is rarely ready to work before 7 p.m. What writer doesn’t have a job, family needs to see to, or medical issues to deal with? Or houses and cars and appliances falling apart? Ants in the sugar? Mice scratching in the walls at night? Who? Oh, right. The twenty-five-year-old guy still writing in his mom’s basement apartment.
PLACE: Often we’re told to go out to a coffee shop or a fast food place and write because a change of location sparks the gray matter. Doesn’t work for me. Oh, I do have favorite places where I make notes on mannerisms, and eavesdrop on conversations, especially the loud-enough-for-everyone-to-hear cell phone calls. I have fun figuring out what the caller’s side of the conversation is like. But write with all the distraction? Not for me. I write best when only my muse is talking.
WHAT: Writing what you know is great. Sometimes a brief glimpse, phrase or anecdote from your youth turns out to be perfectly suited to your character. Or you can fictionalize the creep who bullied you on the playground. Great revenge. Just change his/her name.
Writing what you don’t know requires research, or travel to the area you intend to use for the setting. A short story or novella might do well with research alone; a novel or series would do better with in-depth exposure travel affords.
With a shorter piece I’m writing now, I spent a couple hours reading about the Dead Sea and looking for the closest town to it. There’s only one. Madaba. This information will appear in only one paragraph of my story, but will lend authenticity to it.
In a sentence, keep the aspirin or wine handy when you read articles on how to write.
Better yet, spend more time writing.
… Or go anything else you choose, for that matter! See, I was sitting here thinking that with all the s—- (stuff) that life has dumped on me for weeks on end, my mind is frozen for something to write about except the stuff that’s been dumped on me, and you don’t want to hear that. Not with all the dumping going on in the world. Not even if it would make you feel better. Sorry.
Frozen? Yes. Mentally and physically. I woke up to 34 degrees in unsunny, overcast Florida, with a wisp of a hope of the temperature here rising to a Vermont summer heat wave of 60 degrees! I had slept to the white noise of the combination AC/heat pump barely taking a breath in its huffing and puffing to keep the house at a somewhat comfortable 72 degrees. And in my slightly wacky way, I imagined the AC part of the schizophrenic unit laughing at the heat pump, and saying, “Man up, Hot Stuff! Now you know what I go through the other 360 days of the year!”
Still, Hot Stuff’s efforts had no effect at floor level. Have you any idea what my tile floor feels like? Yes. Like walking barefoot with the polar bears—in their neighborhood! My feet hastily hustled me to the closet where I hauled down and dusted off a box with a fading label: Blue Slippers. I hauled out what I call my early-spring-morning-sky-blue suede slippers and caressed their lambs-wool lining. I was thinking that in a way, it was nice to be reacquainted since we’ve met socially perhaps three times in fifteen years since they came to live in my closet.
My feet, however, were unimpressed with my reminiscing to the point of the envy and crankiness I feel on a sugar-detox diet. To paraphrase a wise old philosopher, “If my feet aint happy, aint no part of me happy!” Once my feet and slippers were reunited, I got thinking how wonderful COLD really was. It had so aggravated me, I swung right into another of my Andy Rooney gripes—er—essays.
So, yeah, COLD is a great story starter. All you need to work it into satire or an essay is a bit of creativity—which every “very stable genius” has. And you’ll find some warm comfort in using your genius for something that makes the audience laugh with joy (or at least snicker) rather than cry in misery.
I challenge you to take a word, any word—honor, hippopotamus, truth, tricycle, courage, watermelon, love—and write something that will bring a smile or a belly laugh to someone in need of it! The world needs your talent.
1.) I had to enter that sales-pitch drawing; you know, the one that says I’m about to win $15,000,000?
2.) My eyes hurt. I’ve been staring at Facebook for two hours straight. But that’s important. It’s today’s link to the outside world, right? When it works.
3.) I was filling out marketing postcards for my next book, which will come out…soon…I hope.
4.) I checked into Dictionary.com and got distracted. I love etymology! It’s like word DNA.
5.) I had to file reports for my writers’ organization and that took too much time.
6.) Then I needed a break to read the comics. Everybody needs to laugh, right? Don’t bug me.
7.) I get aggravated and can’t write when I’m under pressure.
8.) I need to follow the news so I can scribble a bunch of snarky slogans.
9.) I had to clean out my desk, and that filled up the trash can, so…
10.) I had to empty the trash. I can’t concentrate with a full trash can staring me in the face.
11.) The mail came. A catalog had 20% off a blouse I really want. And shoes. Maybe I’d better look a little closer. I may have missed something.
12.) I don’t write well in the morning. Just slogans. After I watch the news. I need coffee. And half a bagel.
13.) It’s too noisy outside. What are my neighbors doing now?
14.) It’s too quiet inside. I wonder what the dog’s doing now?
15.) I can’t forget to use my Dunkin’ Donuts coupon. It expires today.
16.) I need to drop stuff off at Goodwill. And maybe I’ll check out Publix for BOGOs.
17.) I must check the newspaper before I recycle it. Maybe there’s another BOGO I missed.
18.) Found a list of upcoming events at Sunrise Theater. Oh, I need to sign up for some of these! Where’s the phone? Where are my credit cards? In my purse. Where’s my purse?
19.) Emptied the coffee pot. Ran the clean cycle.
20.) Reheated last cup of coffee. Decided “What the heck,” and had the last half-bagel.
21.) I can’t write while eating and drinking.
22.) I can’t stand having a dirty cup and plate on my desk.
23.) Had to empty clean dishes from the washer so I could put the dirty ones in.
24.) Can’t stand clutter. Had to put the clean tableware where it belonged.
25.) Now I’ve had too much caffeine. I can’t sit still at the computer.
And, dear Muse, if that’s not enough reasons, TRUST ME…. Oh, now there’s a good one for a snarky slogan. BELIEVE ME… that’s another. Boy, I’m on a roll now. Hey, Six-, ten-, twelve-word slogans–that counts as writing, no? How about that? I was writing all the time!
…or maybe not. You know me, right? The title was a clever way (if I do say so myself) of warning you as to what I am about to expound on. Short Fiction.
A woman once waved me off, saying, “I never read short stories. I like to get lost in a novel.” So I told her to get lost. Had she given my work a moment’s consideration, she might have reconsidered. Or, I could have sold her a first draft edition of my short stories with a guarantee she’d get lost in them. I often do. But that’s why first drafts are followed by second, third, and as many drafts as necessary to cut and polish a rough stone into a sparkling gem.
Another thing. There are times and places that make it nearly impossible to get lost in a novel. The bathroom, for instance. Enough said about that. Offices of doctors, dentists, lawyers—bank and supermarket lines all are examples of great short story reading areas. You can’t get lost in the novel because you’re always wondering if you’re going to be called next and if you’ll have enough time to get your stuff together without looking like a klutz. I’ve tried that. I fumble my book or glasses or pens or everything, and end up (literally) picking them off the floor. Later, under no pressure, I reread the chapter. Carrying a short story anthology with you is more efficient, beneficial and potentially less embarrassing. Sure, carrying a Kindle is cool, but real readers know that an old-fashioned book won’t run out of battery power at the height of passion, leaving you—uh—let down.
Short Fiction is fun. It’s sort of like religion. Every time you turn around, there’s a new one. Or a freakier, funnier, or more intriguing spinoff than the last. For example, you can neither pin down the exact nature and number of angels, nor get a solid word count for what a short story is. The genre’s arguably-accepted word count ranges from 1,000 to 20,000. Always check the guidelines for the contest or periodical you intend to enter or query. Their number of angels on the head of a pin may differ from yours.
Fewer than 1,000 words is called short short story or flash fiction. “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn,” created a wrenching story image attributed to Ernest Hemingway. However, in 1921, a columnist wrote that a classified ad, “Baby Carriage for sale, never used,” exemplified the plot of a story, and his example, it is believed, may have given rise to the Hemingway tale.
Sometimes the challenge comes in a number of sentences or lines. Here’s an old five-sentence story I entered in an online challenge:
(Five Sentence Fiction) Virginia Nygard 6/23/15
I sit in the dust outside Mabel’s Beauty Parlor while Mama sits inside getting a Marcel wave.
She come out so beautiful I bet the stars will hide in shame tonight…just like me.
Picking her way ‘cross the wooden sidewalk, she pats my head, kisses my cheek and then sashays to the shiny Ford Model A, just panting at the curb for her.
Mr. James Windsor Whitehorn don’t never come ‘cross the tracks unless he come to pick up Mama for doing the town like he say.
I know what you be doing, my eyes say whilst I wave them away into the night.
So, writers, stretch your mental muscle and play with various kinds of short fiction while you’re working on The Great American Novel. It could be your bread-and-butter while you’re waiting for the Great Ka-ching!
And you out there afflicted with Short-Attention Span Syndrome, Short Fiction might be the short fix you’re seeking!
It’s raining on the Treasure Coast in Florida! If you live in Seattle, you can’t imagine why that’s news. It would be just another ho-hum day for you. I get it. But, down here in Too-Sunny Florida, too often we don’t get it—rain, I mean. There are other things we don’t get, either, like the fact that your rights end where my nose begins, but right now, it’s rain.
In our PUD (Planned Urban Development), we have what are given the grandiose designation of lakes, but are, in fact, piddling, pint-sized preservation ponds. We do have some bragging rights though: ours is the largest of the PPPPs. The pond that usually snuggles up to within twelve feet of my patio, now has me overlooking a Saharan scene with an oasis at the far end, unless it’s a mirage. I suppose if we wanted to sell, this would be the opportune time. The property would easily pass for beachfront rather than mere waterfront property. In fact, I have room to set up a concession stand where my lawn ends and the seared savanna begins. My neighbors, a bit closer to the water, could rent out floats and paddle boats.
Watching the water wane, I’ve lost count of how many months it’s been since we’ve had a truly satisfying, sigh-worthy downpour. We endured Old Man Sky’s grumbling and rumbling about his problem, and tolerated a few and dribbles and drops here and there, but he passed nothing substantial in that time. I think it’s been a celestial prostate problem that Dr. Luke has remedied with either a hefty dose of diuretic or that new PAE (Prostate Artery Embolization) procedure. I’m also grateful the Mr. Sky didn’t have difficulty passing solids. Had he excreted hailstones, I’d have been forced to pose an even less pleasant personification picture. I’m sure some scientist somewhere has a perfectly plausible explanation for the drought. I really don’t care. It’s raining!
And that got me to thinking how physically relieving oneself is like writing. (A silly simile to evoke a smile.) But think about it. What have you learned? Good point. But other than my overly-fond use of alliteration, what have you learned?
Here’s what I learned from me. (I learn a lot by talking to myself.) You can stand at (or sit on) the bowl all day waiting for inspiration without results. You can avoid the computer with other chores. Neither inaction will squeeze out a drop or scribe a word.
To prime the former, drink lots of water. To prime the latter, tie yourself to the chair at the computer. (One arm, or you won’t reach the keys.) Type something. Anything. A word or two. Let your imagination go. What rhymes with it or begins like it? What are its synonyms or antonyms? What images does it bring to mind? This exercise can act like a mental diuretic, and. . .down it comes! Sure, this drizzily draft will require some mopping up, but soon you’ll have manna to the eye and ear just like rain is drink to the earth!
Enthused? Inspired? Go for it! Empty your genius on us.
The comics section is my favorite part of any newspaper. Oh, yes, I keep up with local, national, and world reports in other media. By the time the newspaper covers a story, I’ve already been there, done that. But the comics is where I go to detox from the sad state of reality. Or swallow it with a bit of satire and strong coffee.
When the alarm clock rings, I tumble out of bed, into the “Jumble.” No, that’s not a Tai-Chi routine to force my limbs into some semblance of proper functioning. “Jumble” is Hoyt’s and Knurek’s word scramble that yields clues to solve the incomplete sentence posed by the cartoon.
Since playing with words is my business, I usually sail through the first clues in a few seconds then focus on unscrambling the answer to the picture clues. There, thanks to my punny sense of humor being on par with that of the strip’s creators, the answer is often immediately apparent. However, if the final clue involves sports, forget it. I don’t speak “sports.” Not since the Dodgers left Brooklyn and “sports” management became as morally suspect as Machiavelli’s The Prince, or The Art of Certain Deals.
On Sundays, from the “Jumble” I flip to the visual acuity tests. In one, you must find the six differences between two seemingly different scenes. In another, you pick the one scene that differs from the other two, and move on to help Slylock Fox solve a woodlands crime. Yes, these are ostensibly for kids, but since I am in my second childhood (never really left it) I feel a retrospective sense of peace. It’s 1950-something, Mom and Dad are downstairs in the kitchen, and all’s right with the world.
And, while fun, such acuity tests are a reminder that things are not always what they seem. You cannot look at anything with someone else’s eyes. You MUST dig for the truth yourself, or the world will fall into a sorry state. Oh, wait. Right. We’re already there, but it’s not too late to redeem ourselves!
“Aren’t many comic strips often vehicles for political satire?” Sure, and done with a little humor (okay, sarcasm, maybe) they bring a chuckle or a groan. They make you think. Or they should. But at least comics aren’t as acerbic or poisonous as what comes from a political campaign. Except for a certain ugly duck ‘toon character I’d gladly roast and serve a l’orange, along with his ham of a creator.
“There are other programs to improve mental functioning, yes?” Of course, there are many sophisticated mental gymnastics to which one can subscribe. I’m not saying that moving up a notch is meritless, but why not make it a morning routine to digest brain food with ham and eggs?
You’re about to ask what this has to do with writing! (Gotcha!) Consider how you solved visual puzzles. Metaphorically speaking, turn your work upside down or on its sides to reveal another perspective. Put it aside and return with a clearer point of view. Read it aloud to others. Are they hearing what you intended? Do you need to rewrite for clarity?
What about word jumble puzzles? When they don’t work at first glance, I write the letters on scrap paper, tear them apart and put all the vowels in the middle, surrounded by consonants. Then I work from outside in and inside out until the A-ha! moment strikes. You can do this with sentences, paragraphs, and whole scenes in your writing.
A scene that’s going nowhere? Maybe the sequence of events is fine, but it needs a twist. Turn it upside down, left-to-right, backward. Use “What if. . .” scenarios. What if Jane marries Frank? What if she just lives with him? What if she cheats on him, or he cheats on her? Where does your story go from there? Remember choose-your-own-ending stories so popular with kids before the electronics boom? Those stories taught children there was more than one way a problem might work out. (Congress, are you listening?)
Still stuck? Bring your baby to your critique group for a different perspective. (You DO belong to one, yes?) Listen to their often Solomon-like wisdom. They’ll be happy to help you to “. . .train up your child in the way (s)he should grow. . . ” and get you to your A-ha! moment.
And dig into the comics. It’s fun.