“You’ll Get An F.”

“What?” I said out loud to nobody, then laughed. “An F? Moi? Can’t be. She must have me mixed up with one of her students who can’t write.”

“I’m your straight-A, remember?” I said to the email, which I had finally received (years ago) from my undergraduate writing teacher on my essay proposal. (We had to send in a proposal of the topic about which we intended to write, before starting our term paper for the class.)

For the perfectionist that I have been since kindergarten, to be threatened with an F was a blow to the chest that took my breath away. She must have made a mistake (though I took an F years later in graduate school for refusing to edit pornography…but that’s another story).

I sat down, ready to write the teacher back and complain that she had the wrong student, but then took a moment to read further into her email, and that’s when I saw the reason for her indictment.

Her reason for giving a straight-A writing student an F for a term-paper topic was explainable in one word. You might say she gave me the F for Focus (or the lack thereof).

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

What was the topic I proposed that she said would bring me an F? Introversion—being an introvert in an extraverted world. She said it was too broad.

She said if I were planning a book-length work on the topic, it might have been acceptable because each chapter could address a different aspect of the issue, but for an article it was much too broad.

Getting Warmer

So after hours of deliberation I came up with a subject more specific: Being an introvert in the typically extravert world of the workplace. I sent it back to her, confident, even smug, satisfied that I’d given her what she wanted, and ready to start on my term paper – until I received her prompt reply: “You’ll still get an F.”

“What? Are you kidding me!” I yelled at the computer. As I read through her email I saw that word again: “Focus. Bring it down to something much more specific,” she wrote. “A specific problem with at least one specific solution.”

I had thought being an introvert in an extraverted world was specific. In my mind, I was zooming in on introverts versus the rest of the world of categories out there into which you can slip almost all the people you encounter, such as being short in a world of tall people, being blond, being overweight, being a vegetarian among carnivores (or vice versa). The list is endless.

Just a Little Bit Closer

So I wrote down my key word: Introverts. Okay, so what’s their problem? Being one myself, I had no shortage of a list of problems, such as: malls, busy restaurants or other public places; parties; networking events; the workplace!

And that’s where I landed. For me, the workplace has always been an office of one type or another or a classroom, with coworkers, office politics, fellow teachers and admin with whom to mix in the break and conference rooms, whether one wanted to or not.

But the more I looked at it, the more I saw that others will have workplaces such as various outdoor settings, factories, and so many other different kinds of backdrops. Widening my thinking and realizing this fact showed me why “introverts in the workplace” was still too general.

After going over the initial research I had done for my introvert proposal, and writing different versions of topics in order to find one that clicked, the title at which I arrived and that she accepted as being focused enough was “How Introverts Can Survive and Thrive in the Office”.

V Is for Vortex

When I think about it now, I view it as an upside-down triangle, an inverted vortex or V, to represent the situation.

At the top of the vortex is the topic at its most general, introversion versus extraversion.

At the bottom is the specific application on which I finally landed, the introvert surviving and thriving the extravert office.

In the middle somewhere is the introvert in the more generalized “workplace”, and so many other aspects of introversion.

In Summary

1. Introvert versus extravert world: Too broad.

2. Introvert in workplace: Still too broad.

3. How an introvert not only gets by, but thrives, in what is considered to be a hostile environment to most introverts—the office, with all its implications: Specific.

Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It…

Other similar approaches might have been: How an introvert spouse survives and thrives an extravert husband or wife, or the best ways to nurture your introverted child in an extraverted school environment.

There are many possibilities along the spectrum, but the narrow point of focus at the bottom of the vortex is the goal. However it gets narrowed on the way down, in the end it reaches as fine an application as possible.

It should be obvious that this idea of focus and the inverted vortex is not just for college papers or grades. This should guide all writers whenever we sit down to approach any given topic.

The Enemy: Generalization

Beware generalization in all its manifestations in writing—not just regarding subject but with every word you commit to paper or screen, within any sentence, paragraph, chapter, book—generalization is always a danger by which to be enticed. I say enticed, because to generalize is to take the easy route.

I will say, I do disagree with my undergrad writing instructor back then on her comment that my general topic might have been okay for a book-length work, though she could have been saying that to lessen the blow of pointing out my bad choice for the proposal. But, depending on the kind of book a writer was proposing, I’d normally tell a student the same thing she told me: Book-length or not, it’s too broad.

One More Thing

In case you were wondering, I wrote the paper using citations from articles and books on the subject, and she must have been happy with my approach and conclusions, because when it was all over, I got an A on the finished paper. (I also learned a few things from my research, being an introvert myself.)

And I thanked the nice lady for her guidance and warnings, instead of just letting me go ahead with my too-general topic and getting the F, breaking my (almost) perfect record.

My Two Cents on a Stephen King Quote

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” 

~Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Pocket Books, 2000.  (Quote taken from Goodreads.)

Let me say up front that aside from a scary movie now and then in the past, before I got squeamish about such things, I am not a fan of the horror-writing  man, or I should say I’m not a fan of the horrors about which he writes; but the man himself, I don’t know well enough to have anything against.

Can I Get A Kickback?

All that aside, unbeknownst to Mr. King (is that his real name?) as a writing instructor, recommended this book to so many of my Let’s Write! students, who actually went out and bought it, that I should rightly get some kind of kickback.  Though I’m nerdy enough that all the kickback I need is my students buying a book I recommended to them (which means they actually listened to me), their reading it (no way!), and then (what?) they actually applied it to their writing?  That’s all more than enough kickback for a weary writing teacher to recommend it all over again to the next class.

Under “I” For Index

This isn’t a book review for On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but I just want to say the book is excellent in its reflections on writing and its teachings, except for the missing index at the back of the book which I keep complaining about, hoping against hope that King might come across one of my posts somewhere and get the idea to put out a new edition with an index, though I know indexes (indices?) are a lot of work, but oh so worthwhile to the writing student or teacher, so couldn’t he have hired someone to do the grunt work?

For example, if I had an index in my copy of the aforementioned book I could look up the aforementioned quote and give you the page number on which it can be found, but no, not even a Table of Contents, much less a index, and flipping and flapping through the pages, I’m sorry, but I haven’t found the page number.  Sheesh!

The Craft of Writing?

 King’s On Writing is a unique combination of important writing “tools” (his metaphor in the book, which he takes one by one from his “toolbox”) and of his own story (the memoir part).  He reveals both the man as writer and the points he’s learned along the way.  (I just wish he could find something on the lighter side to write his novels about, but….)

So today I’m here to talk about the above quote taken from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  Nice title but considering King’s stories, I can’t help but wonder if the title would refer to the craft of writing or (hopefully, not) witchcraft.

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”   

                                                                 ~ Stephen King

Simply put, Mr. King is reminding us not to list everything the narrator sees in our descriptions, but, to, instead, choose a few key details and let the reader’s mind fill in the blanks.

And along these lines, my two cents’ worth is this and King agrees:  What you leave in, as well as what you leave out of your descriptions should characterize a person (a man, a woman, a child), a place (a room, the inside of a car, a city), or a thing (the outside of a house, a computer, a dress).  “Characterize” meaning it tells us something about the person, place or thing which allows the reader to read between the lines, so to speak.

So This Hippie Was Building This Robot….

This idea of drawing pictures with just enough words applies to both fiction and nonfiction and is one I cover in my writing classes often, because how we handle details (or the lack thereof) affects the depth and richness of our writing.

In a book about artificial intelligence you might not think what we’ll call “strategic description” would apply.  Au contraire, the more technical the writing the more important not to bore your reader.  In Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era (by James Barrat, 2013, St. Martin’s Press), the author, Mr. Barrat, does a beautiful job of exactly what Mr. King (and I) recommend:  Give readers enough to go on based on what the narrator sees, and make what you tell readers count, so they can picture the rest.  After all, isn’t that the beauty of reading versus video?

Here’s an excerpt from Our Final Invention where Mr. Barrat, an investigative journalist, is visiting an artificial intelligence expert in order to conduct an interview for the book.  As the writer arrives at the scientist’s house, Barrat says this:

“On a spring morning I found in his yard a weathered trampoline and a Honda minivan so abused it looked as if it had flown through an asteroid belt to get there. It bore the bumper sticker, ‘My child was inmate of the month at County Jail’.” (p.168)

What a perfect example of exactly what Stephen King advises us to do!  Has not Mr. Barrat told us just what we need in order to fill in the  blanks about what kind of scientist it is who works actively every day to create substitutes for human beings?  Barrat then goes on in the paragraph to list a slew of animals that live in the house with the scientist and his daughter (some rabbits, a parrot, and two dogs).

Are we getting a picture of what this robotics guy is like?  Barrat goes on:

“The professor met me at the door, having climbed out of bed at 11 a.m. after spending the night programming.”  Barrat then proceeds to say the artificial intelligence expert looks like “the consummate hippie”. (p.168)

So a few lines and we know not only what the guy looks like, more or less, but we know a lot more about him, and a little about his family and his surroundings—and all in one paragraph.  This is what I mean (and King agrees) by characterizing with your description without going on with long, boring laundry lists of every detail, in an attempt for your readers to get the point.

There Are Angels In The Details.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy about Detail (capitalized because I love it so much)!  Detail is my middle name when it comes to writing of any kind.  But we have to make it work and not let it just sit there being cute.   Description is not an ornament, otherwise known as filler; it should serve a purpose, justify its place in your writing, where every space a word takes up is valuable real estate.

In the above sample by James Barrat, he has started the description of the man he’s about to interview, but we readers will fill in the rest, using our own experiences and points of view as to whether or not we’ll like this guy.

That’s one thing Barrat didn’t tell us.  He didn’t tell us how he feels about hippies or all those animals or Honda minivans or this man who may well be contributing to the destruction of all of us, directly or indirectly, as the title of Barrat’s book suggests (our Last Invention, get it?).  As a reporter, Barrat’s just telling it as he (the narrator) sees it” and leaving it to us readers to make up our minds about the rest of it.

Now in fiction if you’re writing from a character’s point of view it tends to matter more how the character feels about what’s being described.  If the narrator is a part of the story, his or her descriptions of people and things serve to characterize him or her as much as who or what is being described, because readers are seeing through the lens of the character’s own experience and point of view.

And speaking of that, here’s another example of description through narration and the lens of the character’s viewpoint, this time in fiction.  Please pardon me if I use my own writing.

“Read My Book.”

In my novel Two Shores (in the process of being re-titled back to its original of The Archangel of Hamilton Beach), I practiced what I (and Stephen King) preach.  Here are a few lines from the first paragraph of Chapter 2 of my novel, narrated by the main character at age six, just returning from his first day of kindergarten.  The chapter is entitled “Escape to Hamilton Beach”:

“When Michael disappeared from my view, I sat down and ate part of the sandwich he’d made for me and drank some of the milk. The kitchen smelled like cigarettes. The garbage in the pail leaned against the wall and trailed up it. Some flies buzzed around. I wondered if they thought the yellow daisies in the faded wallpaper were real. I also wondered where Teresa—my mother—was, probably asleep in her bedroom, or drunk, or both.”

Now, if I do say so myself, I think Stephen King would be proud of me for my use of just enough detail to describe not only the kitchen through the eyes of this troubled six-year-old boy, but also just enough to tell my readers something of Danny, his life, his brother, his mother—in other words, to characterize all of it without giving every detail of what’s in front of Danny in this scene.  Even if you hadn’t read Chapter 1 before Chapter 2, you’d have some idea of his family situation and his surroundings, and surroundings are important to ground your reader, so to speak (but that’s another post).

Get a Job!

I tell my Let’s Write! students, whatever you put down on the page, tell it to get a job!  What kind of job, you ask?  Well, for one is this characterization I’ve been going on about—using description to help the reader know more about and understand in more depth what you’re looking to convey with your writing.

Moving the story forward is another job of describing people, places, and things in ways that tell readers more than just what they look like.  The above paragraph from my novel moves the story forward in that readers see this boy’s home is unkempt, his brother made him a sandwich and is gone, and mom lurks somewhere nearby, probably not in the best of moods.

And speaking of moods, another  job which description should perform includes setting the mood (the above kitchen?) of the scene or even of the whole story.  I’ll save more talk on the various jobs description should accomplish for another post.

A Dark And Lonely Night

Well, I’ve already gone on too long here or I’d go into the various ways of approaching description to suit Mr. King’s admonition, such as the use of simile, metaphor, dialogue, and others, but I don’t want to lose you (or put you to sleep).

But if you happen to run into Stephen King on a dark and lonely night, please tell him I said to give us a new edition of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, this time with an index? So instead of wasting time searching his book for what we know he said in there somewhere, we writers can use our time more productively searching our imaginations for just the right words to use in our beguiling descriptions, which the readers will then finish in their own  minds.

Link to Guest Post I Did on “Who am I to write a book?” and 9 other creativity-crushing questions!

Vikas Singh who owns the blog Next Is Best where he discusses writing and SEO and other interesting topics, was kind enough to invite me to write a guest post.

Here’s the link to my article entitled, “10 Questions You Might Have if You’re Thinking of Writing a Book”.

As I mention at the beginning of it, I wrote with the focus on nonfiction, but most of it can easily apply to all writing. (At some point I hope to write a similar article focused on fiction or memoir.)

Read my post and get that extra boost you need to start your book!

(PS – I mentioned Vikas of Next Is Best  in my recent post “The KDP Previewer Hates My Paperback” for his review of Sweek, a book publishing/selling alternative to KDP).

 

Blueprint for a Chapter

Hi.  I hope you’ve read my previous post about using a Blueprint for your memoir or fiction story.  (If not, you might click on the link.)

Bones of the Blueprint in Review:

  1. Character’s status quo.
  2. What happens to change or destroy that?
  3. How does the character (you in a memoir) try to fix the new challenge?

(Note:  For this post, I’ll call our sample main character “Jimmy”)

Okay, so now let’s take this Blueprint concept and apply it on a smaller scale.  Instead of the whole story, let’s talk about a blueprint for each chapter within your book-length novel or memoir.

Pull Them In and Don’t Let Them Go!

Let’s say you’ve completed Chapter 1 (rough draft, I presume) where you’ve set up a beginning to your story:  Let’s say Jimmy’s camping (status quo).  He falls over a steep cliff and is hanging on knowing if he falls he could end up in the ICU at best.  This is Jimmy’s status quo: an event that changes Jimmy’s life in some important way which happens immediately—soon enough in Chapter 1 to pull in your readers and keep them interested enough to stick around to find out what happens next.  And Jimmy spends the rest of Chapter 1 trying to figure out how to save himself.

A Real Cliffhanger!

Now you’re on to Chapter 2, which begins with a new status quo inherited from Chapter 1.  Chapter 2 picks up with the new state of things (new status quo), resulting from the cliffhanger (in Jimmy’s case, literal) events with which Chapter 1 ended. 

Now, something else must happen to change that new status quo. (while he’s hanging off the cliff, trying not to let go, an aggressive bird comes by?)

Then, for the rest of Chapter 2 your readers are with your character, chewing their fingernails, wondering how Jimmy will work through this new challenge (that bird, that cliff).  (You could also have a subplot running, such as: he just quit smoking and needs a cigarette, but that’s fodder for another blog post.)

Readers will cringe as they picture Jimmy swinging helplessly while his problem gets worse and worse, the harder he tries to solve it (in trying to dissuade the bird, Jimmy manages to attract the aggressive bird’s larger friends?) before Chapter 2 ends with a new cliffhanger.

Compounded Interest (Your Readers’)

And just as Jimmy thought he had Chapter 2’s problem figured out (while dangling by one hand and fishing in his pocket with the other for a cigarette, he finds that easy-open can of tuna he’d brought along and attempts to throw it to the birds?) here comes a new problem, giving Jimmy something new to figure out, only to become even more perplexed and endangered by Chapter 3’s end, thereby further compounding his problem(s).  

And from there to Chapter 4, which starts with a new status quo, his now compounded problem (the birds are vegetarians?) brought on from Jimmy’s (failed) attempts in Chapter 3, and on from there.  Get the idea?  And yes, I feel sorry for your character, which is the whole point, and your readers will, too. 

Let Their Dinner Burn!

As each new problem leads to another, with each new status quo being changed or destroyed right before the next chapter, your readers can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next, and will therefore burn their dinners because they couldn’t put your book down.  And this is the whole purpose of writing your book—to get otherwise normal, organized people to burn their dinners because they couldn’t put your book down.

Holograms R Us        

Each word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter feeds the larger work.  As you write each chapter of your book, the blueprint for the larger story of your novel or memoir will begin to take shape—the blueprint for each chapter a microcosm of the macrocosm of the whole book. 

Using your blueprint within your chapters, each one will be complete in and of itself with a beginning, middle, and an end.  Like holograms, they are perfect reflections of the larger story as a whole, except that at the end of the last chapter of the book your cliffhanger will finally be resolved…

o

r

n

o

t.

(We’ll miss you, Jimmy).      The End.

Blueprint for Memoir or Fiction (and even some Poetry)

  1. What was the status quo?
  2. What happened to change, or destroy that?
  3. How did your main character (you, in a memoir) attempt to resolve it?
  4. How did his or her trials turn out?
  5. What do you hope the reader will walk away with?

In a book-length work, the same blueprint should also be the backbone of each chapter, which begins with a new status quo, a new problem for the character (you in a memoir) to get through, and a new ending—a cliffhanger to take the reader to the next chapter.

Even some poetry can fit into this blueprint.

Don’t see it as a template or outline, because it’s not.  But if you can’t answer the above questions, either before or after you’ve written the piece, something’s missing.  (Unless it’s “stream of consciousness”, which is just journal writing and not what I’m addressing here).

Beginning, middle, and end.  It’s the first lesson in the most basic writing class.  Even the story of how your day went today would be told as beginning, middle, and how it all ended. Hopefully, with your having gifted the world with one of your stories!

Perfectionism Can Kill…A Blogger

Blogging is to writing as digital photography is to a Brownie camera.  One fast, the other slow(er).   With blogging there’s a great deficit of time in which to ponder the better way to say a thing, much less the best way.  Blogging is the fast(er) way to write many things.

Perfectionism we already know can be a killer, and is.  To start blogging I had to (and still have to daily—I’m working on it) put aside my Perfectionism; otherwise there was no way it could happen.  And being an editor, I can be annoying, including to myself, doing things like editing birthday cards (“Shouldn’t birthday be capitalized?”).  Even my lists of things to do are not safe—vacuum, dust…should it be and/or dust?

So when it comes to writing blogs which by definition should be posted in a timely manner on a regular basis, I freeze.  I can’t possibly write something perfect so fast or so regularly! (should that be and/or regularly?)  Yes, Hemingway said, “The only real writing is rewriting.”  Bless his heart.  I use that particular quote of his in almost every one of my writing classes and my students hate me for it.  But I suppose anything can be overdone. 

(I hope there won’t be any typos in this post).  Any writing teacher or editor knows the fear of typos in everyday correspondence, whether email, text, or social media, especially with students or clients (Should that be and/or clients? Or students/clients.)

Then there’s consistency.  Should I do one or two spaces after each period or question mark?  And whichever I chose, have I done the same for the duration of the article?  Does anybody care?  And isn’t that the real question?  (I went with two spaces.  I hope to be consistent throughout this post.) 

Now, I admit I abhor sloppy work, whether it’s my own or someone else’s.  And everybody knows there’s too much of that around.  In these days of knocking out a few paragraphs and sending it out into the ether without looking back, there can be frightening results which make us would-be-bloggers-if-we-weren’t-perfectionists glad we’re not out there in the arena.

Now, I have relaxed my attitude about it a bit, and my standards.  For example, I don’t ignore everything a blogger (or anyone else) writes because he or she wrote “their tired” anymore.  And no longer will I jump away from a post until I come across at least, say, five or so misspelled words.  But I do maintain some limits.

My greatest fear though, as a perfectionist, even as I write this, is that after I finish this post and proofread it several times, I’ll still miss something that will be caught by someone out there who will say, “See!  Hypocrite!  Your just as sloppy as we are!”  (yes, that typo is intentional, before you get ready to leave me a mean comment).

I remember a student in one of my classes actually squealed and jumped with joy when she apparently caught me in a mistake.  Did I ever say I was perfect?  Feel sorry for editors.  And isn’t that the whole kick of Perfectionism?  I mean, isn’t the meaning of Perfectionism that perfectionists know they’re not perfect (of course, nobody is), but they keep trying to be.  And when it keeps becoming evident that they’re not perfect, and can’t be, they want to quit, or they skip the want-to part, and just quit.  Or worse, they never start.

Of course, Perfectionism can kill all writing, not just blog writing, and all writers, not just bloggers.  And for that reason it’s important to face the beast and scare it off by continuing to write and blog till the cows come home.  We have to learn to appreciate the value and beauty of a rough draft, knowing it won’t stay rough and shouldn’t (most of the time, unless you’re one of those who does polished work the first time around—or one of those who thinks he or she does polished work the first time around.  I’ve known a few of the latter, none of the former).

So here I sit, facing off the beast of Perfectionism and writing anyway, daring to make a fool of myself in the public arena, telling myself it’s more important to write and possibly benefit even one individual out there than it is to stay safe while I cower in the shadow of possible ridicule.

So I blog on, hopeful that all you perfectionists out there don’t proofread this post.  And I haven’t even gotten to Content! (should I have capitalized that?)