Eat Your Pie and Listen

It’s Christmas and most people have some time off work, except we writers, who are always on the job—even more so at the holidays. But this is not as hard as it sounds if you follow my easy method. At your holiday gatherings with family and friends, load your plate with a few thousand calories, settle back in a comfy chair—and listen to Uncle Fred’s stories. It’s that simple.

Every family has an Uncle Fred, the gregarious guy with the Spanx-tight memory who loves to go on and on about the old days. Well, let him. And give yourself permission to shamelessly mine his stories for new material, let him dredge up the long-buried family embarrassments that will make your writing come to life.

The holidays make people nostalgic, and with enough rum-spiked eggnog you’ll finally get the truth behind the rumor that Aunt Ruth is really Uncle Charlie’s second wife and why we never ever mention wife number one. Continue reading “Eat Your Pie and Listen”

It’s Alive

Every Halloween, after I’ve handed out the last of the candy—okay, I save a few Kit-Kats for myself—I turn out the lights, curl up on my sofa and watch Young Frankenstein starring the sorely-missed Gene Wilder. The script, co-written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, is brilliant. I’ve seen it so many times I can recite the dialogue. I even know when to whinny like a frightened horse when someone says, “Frau Blücher.” I love the scene where Dr. Frankenstein reanimates the creature, who has mistakenly been given the brain of someone named Abbey Normal. While a huge storm rages, the white-coated doctor, with his mad scientist eyes and his wind-ravaged hair, looks up to the dark, menacing sky and shouts, “It’s alive!”

Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with writing, but stay with me. I really do have a point. Continue reading “It’s Alive”

The Art of Procrastination

Judy Tenuta once said, “My parents told me I’d never amount to anything because I procrastinated too much. I told them, ‘Just you wait.’”

Procrastination is a skill that takes decades to properly master. A childish amateur might miss a deadline and attempt the old cliché, “I tried to do it, but the dog ate my homework.” But it takes a really skilled writer to bring procrastination up to the level of a fine art form. As Roy Peter Clark says in his book, Writing Tools, “Never write today what you can put off until tomorrow.” With that mantra, I’m surprised he ever finished his book. Harold Ross of The New Yorker said, “Like many people, I started blogging out of an urgent need to procrastinate.”

The word procrastination is derived from the Latin cras—meaning “Tomorrow.” This tomorrow does not have the same hopeful, uplifting message Little Orphan Annie belts out with her show-stopping song. Many famous writers suffer from procrastination and have taken the word tomorrow to literally mean tomorrow. Mañana. The day after today. Or maybe the next.

Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame says, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” On missing a deadline, Dorothy Parker remarked, “Somebody was using the pencil.” Robert Benchley said, “Anyone can do any amount of work providing it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean not only confessed to being a procrastinator, at the recent Long Beach Literary Women Conference, she gave a few tips on how to do it at home. Her first tip was to organize your bookshelves by color, then to move on to your clothes closet. Her theory being, “I’m organizing, I’m accomplishing, so how can I be a procrastinator?”

Continue reading “The Art of Procrastination”

Literary Conference Wisdom

 At this year’s Literary Orange, I learned many tidbits to help inspire writers. Did you know that only 4% of people who start to write a book ever finish it? So if you have finished a book, congratulations, you are in rarefied territory.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the conference:

  • We write to make sense of the world.
  • We don’t know how strong we are until we need to be.
  • If you don’t work on your dream, someone else will hire you to work on their dream.
  • Stubborn writers make it.
  • If you write books about yourself, you have enough for one novel and three poems.
  • Nothing in fiction actually happens, but it’s all true—emotionally.
  • In a book you only have to give instructions to a kid once.
  • Everyone experiences a family differently. You and your siblings have the same parents, and yet you don’t.
  • Torture your characters without forsaking them.
  • Failure is the key to success.

I also learned to never give up. That seemed to be a running theme of the conference. Best-selling author Jonathan Evison, who was wearing a T-shirt that said: “Careful or You’ll Wind Up in My Book,” never did. He wrote eight books before being published, and continued writing despite a major setback– his agent quit to go to clown school. Mr. Evison was so desperate that he asked his agent if he could still represent him when he wasn’t studying pratfalls.

Keynote speaker Fannie Flagg had her own never-give-up story. She started by revealing that her real name is Patricia Neal, Patsy for short. (She had to change her name because the Screen Actor’s Guild doesn’t allow two actors to have the same name, and Patricia Neal was already taken.) Ms. Flagg then told this anecdote. Someone once said of her, “She writes those feel-good books.”

She smiled, but a friend told her, “I don’t think that’s a compliment.”

Continue reading “Literary Conference Wisdom”

Do You Know the Way to Cupertino?

 I just watched the National Spelling Bee and was mesmerized, no, the correct word is shamed, by the contest’s youngest-ever entrant, six-year-old Edith. She and her bouncy, blonde curls made it all the way to round three before being eliminated.

At our grade-school spelling bee I was always eliminated in the first round. I could never remember which letters were doubled or if it was supposed to be “intro” or “intra.” And to this day I still have to recite, “I before E except after C.” That’s why I rely so heavily on my computer’s Spell Checker to correct my spelling before my words go out into the world and embarrass me. Which, ironically, is one of those words I can’t spell. When I use Spell Check—that magical I-won’t-let-you-look-like-an-idiot feature, I only have to type in a close approximation of a troublesome word and a box comes up with alternate suggestions. And strangely, looking at the choices, I can tell which one is spelled right.

Spell Check became my best friend. But it also became my worst enemy when, one day, it said, “I’m tired of fixing your stupid-ass mistakes. Let’s have some fun.”

Continue reading “Do You Know the Way to Cupertino?”

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”