The Pajama People vs. the Zombies

Early each morning, bleary-eyed, first cup of coffee in hand, we stumble into our home offices. We are the caffeine-fueled, hygiene-challenged, badly-dressed writers who slave at our computers for hours before finally deciding it’s time to take a shower and put on clean underwear. We are (cue ominous music) the Pajama People.

We work alone, sometimes in the dark while our minions sleep. (I’ve always wanted to say I had minions, but I don’t think my cats really count. They think that I’m their minion.)

Anyhoo, therein lies the real problem. We are alone. While we single-mindedly concentrate our gray matter on finding the perfect descriptor, without us realizing it, dark life forms creep into our workspaces and silently invade our computers. These creatures drain the life out of our writing, insinuating their soul-sucking passive voice. They are—the zombies.

A zombie invasion is a death sentence for us Pajama People, but we can thwart their advance by using an old trick to identify and destroy their lethal passivity. This simple technique is similar to that old favorite of feckless freshmen everywhere, the fortune cookie trick, where at the end of the fortune you tack on the words: in bed. “A lifetime of happiness awaits you—in bed. You will live long and eat many fortune cookies—in bed. You are a poor, pathetic, gullible fool who seeks advice from baked goods in bed.” Though, obviously, this addition is just for yucks, the zombie invasion is deadly serious.

At least it’s deadly to your writing.

Here’s how it works. Look at the following sentence lying there like a big, inviting bowl of brains, just asking to be eaten: “The house was haunted.” If zombies can hijack this sentence and it still makes grammatical sense, it’s passive. “The house was haunted by zombies.” Yes, it’s passive. The soulless brain-eaters have sucked the life from this sentence. But by using the active voice, where by zombies cannot be tacked onto the end, you write a death sentence. “Ghosts haunted the house” is a zombie killer.

Here’s another passive sentence and the easy fix. “The haunted house was opened at midnight by zombies,” can be changed to “The haunted house opened at midnight.”

Even buying goods on the Internet can be passive. “Your order has been placed by zombies.” (They’re probably ordering new shoes. All that foot-dragging takes a toll.) The lifeless passive voice creates a barrier that businesses can hide behind. I mean, who really placed my order? Identify yourself. Would a personal pronoun kill you? Some companies believe that the passive voice makes them sound important and official. I think it makes them sound cold and officious. I’d rather see: “We placed your order.” We meaning real live humans.

So Pajama People, go on the offensive and fight off the attack of the zombies. And remember, in this battle, fuzzy bedroom slippers are optional.

Island of Lost Ideas

Recently I was struck by an essay idea. I reached into my purse for my writing-ideas notebook, and couldn’t find it. Next, I searched my totebag, and still nothing. Then my car, hoping it had spilled out. It hadn’t. Like most of us, our ideas are such a part of who we are, that without them I felt bereft and oddly empty.

That notebook contained the outlines of a dozen new essays, hundreds of thoughts and insights that would one day wheedle their way into my writing. In other words—my literary life. And it was gone. I knew I must have left it at the library, but when I called, they said they hadn’t seen it.

That’s when I went into panic mode. Continue reading “Island of Lost Ideas”

Cook until Done

I’m writing a cookbook and in it I never use that mysterious phrase—Cook Until Done. Those three words always baffled me. What does done mean, anyway? Is it when the brownies no longer jiggle in the middle or when the edges look dry or is it done when the smoke alarm goes off? Over the years, though, I decided that, Done is a range from slightly under-baked to slightly over-baked. My brownies will never be perfect; will never look like they belong on the pages of Bon Appetite. (Spoiler Alert: Magazines use Photoshop.) Sometimes my brownies come out a little too hard on the edges or a little too soft in the middle, but they are still really good and enjoyed by all.

This question of doneness got me thinking. As writers, how do we know when our book is done? A book has no pop-up timer; you can’t stick a fork in it or insert a toothpick to see if it comes out clean. So how do we Write Until Done?

Many writers have a hard time knowing when they’re finished. To them, it’s finished when it’s perfect. And I mean . . . Perfect. They tweek and futz for years, never sending their creation out into the world. Even successful writers don’t know when their book is done. One said, “It’s done when my agents rips it out of my clutched fingers.”

Part of the problem is perception. As little baby writers we start out writing garbage and think it’s good, then we get better and start writing good stuff and think it’s garbage. The better we become, the more we strive for perfection, and as Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” You can polish your book until your chapters shine like the Pieta, but you’ll never finish because it still won’t be perfect. What your unfinished work will be is a drag on your psyche. As Bruce Holland Rogers says in Ten Tips for Psychological Survival in Writing, “Take finished over polished. It’s better to have your story done, imperfect and in the mail than to have a highly polished and fragmentary manuscript in a file drawer.”

Except for a few egotists with a God complex, if writers only submitted their books when they were perfect, library shelves would be very empty and agents would have to find a different line of work. Striving for perfection is the reason so many writers are their own worst enemy. As they sit at their desks flailing themselves, agonizing over what color to call a rock, I want to yell at them, “It’s brown. It doesn’t need to be perfect—it needs to be done.”

“The beautiful thing about writing,” Robert Cormer said, “is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” But after twelve or thirteen drafts, it’s probably not going to get any better. And that’s okay. Really. If you don’t believe me, just ask a reader how she liked the last book she read and you’ll probably hear, “It was a really good book.” And really good, though not perfect, is good enough.









Windy with a Chance of Tartar Sauce

It’s said that March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb, and that’s the perfect metaphor for my writing. March, or a new writing project, begins with blustery confidence, but that bold self-assurance rarely lasts until the words: The End. Somewhere along the voyage I’m blown off course, my sails in tatters from a storm of criticism and self-doubt. That’s when I lose belief in myself and drift away like a whimpering lamb. (Okay, I’ve officially over used the metaphor.)

But why does this scenario happen? Why do I lose my confidence?

Confidence is the foundation of all great success and achievement, yet we as writers often struggle to maintain our conviction in the face of rejection and negative criticism. Motivational writer Zig Ziglar said, “Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you.” What I want to know is: How can we writers cultivate the confidence to bring the tartar sauce?

Continue reading “Windy with a Chance of Tartar Sauce”