Tag Archive for writing tips

Writing Tips from the Guys at Orange Country Choppers

Paul and Paul Jr. over at “Orange County Choppers” have had some fierce arguments over the years. But nothing gets these hot heads going quite like a debate about the writing process.

At least, according to this meme.

Paul Sr. seems to favor an instinctive approach to writing, along the lines of Jack Kerouac, distrustful of the rational mind’s tendency to over-polish and refine; he wants the full truth of the unconstructed soul to pour forth in all its messy glory. However, Paul Jr. believes that the very essence of writing is revising, that the first draft is only the raw material that needs to be worked, revisited, laboured over, buffed and shined.

Bizarrely, the argument takes a stunning twist at the end when a seemingly ambivalent Paul Sr. screams, “Kill your darlings!” which is clearly a call for cold, heartless revision. What’s up with that, Paul Sr.? No wonder Paul Jr. is always flinging down his cap in frustration. His father wants it both ways! But how much revision is too much? And where’s the line? Nobody knows at Orange County Choppers, that’s for damn sure. I’ll say this: they are passionate about good writing, and that’s a great place to start.

We don’t really have any answers here at James Preller Dot Com, either. We’re just making it up as we go. Fifty-seven years and counting.

The Writing Process: Think Harder, and Allow Time to Do Its Work

At a winter reading by the great George Saunders at SUNY Albany, he quoted Albert Einstein, who said:

“No problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.”

Which means, to me:

You cannot figure out the entirety of a story on the day you first conceive it. Layers must accumulate. Questions raised, pathways explored, dead-ends endured.

The writing of a story takes time, pure and simple. But more importantly, as Einstein said, it takes MOVEMENT from the original place of conception. Where you begin, the place you thought you were at, cannot be where the answers are found.

Keep writing. Keep moving.

Lois Lowry & Me

I’ve never met Lois Lowry and I doubt she has any idea how terrific I am. But for my money time, she writes one of the few truly excellent blogs out there by authors. I mean to say, it’s not all self-obsessed twaddle. Maybe it’s because she’s already successful; Lois doesn’t feel compelled to relentlessly beat the drum of  self-promotion. But actually I think it’s because her interests range far beyond her own self, and the blog reflects that. So I make it a point to swing by from time to time.

Lois Lowry, right (she’s the one in the turtleneck).

I recently commented on one of her posts, “Do I ever work?” In it, Lois took a rare moment to discuss her writing, offered up some thoughts on transitions, and was mildly critical of another writer’s work. (Note: Lois admits to  mostly reading books for adults. I can relate to that.)

Anyway, Lois used my comment as fodder for today’s blog post, provocatively titled, “Put clothes on him. But not too many.” It’s about including details — without going overboard. You should read it.

When I ask my daughter, Maggie (age 9), to describe a movie she’s seen, she’ll go into excruciating, mind-numbing detail. Well, she’ll begin, warming to the topic, this happened, then this, then this, then this . . . until warm blood starts trickling from my ears. “For the love of all that is good and holy,” I’ll cry, “get to the point!”

That’s when I learn she’s only on the previews.

Maggie, you see, is at that stage in her development where she can’t quite separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s all important, and therefore, of course, nothing matters. I’ll beg, “Please, dear heart, just give us the highlights.”

It’s a basic mistake for many young writers. Too many details, too many dreary facts, most of them meaningless. As authors, we must seek the telling detail, not bury our characters under mountains of fact.

Anyway: I feel like the radio talk show caller who’s been on hold for the past half hour. Suddenly he’s gotten through and can’t quite believe it. “I’m on the air? Really? Lois, is that you? I thought you’d be taller.”

Suggestions & Cautionary Hints: Rereading “The Elements of Style”

The slim book does not need my praise, so I’ll refrain from making a testimonial. But every once in a while I’ll remember that it exists, usually by virtue of keeping the physical object in plain sight. Lately it’s been on my desk, and I’ll sometimes page through it in a disorganized way.

My 1962 edition of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White is a lean 71 pages (each revised edition gets longer, alack) with generous open spaces at head, foot, and margins. A paradigm of economy, readability, and clarity.

For the purpose of this blog, and for you, Dear Reader, as well as for my own edification, I decided to put down here the list of 21 reminders featured in Chapter V: An Approach to Style.

Before we get to that, I liked this prefatory passage:

Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.

In the following, I’ll retype Strunk & White’s reminders accompanied by a salient line or two from the relevant text. For fuller context and clarifications, you’ll need to pick up the book.

1. Place yourself in the background.

“. . . to achieve style, begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style.”

2. Write in a way that comes naturally.

“The use of language begins with imitation . . . it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains to admire what is good.”

3. Work from a suitable design.

“You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into.”

4. Write with nouns and verbs.

“In general . . . it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.”

5. Revise and rewrite.

“Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”

6. Do not overwrite.

“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

7. Do not overstate.

“A single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer’s enthusiasm.”

8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.

Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

9. Do not affect a breezy manner.

“The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that pops into his head is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.”

10. Use orthodox spelling.

“The language manages somehow to keep pace with events.”

11. Do not explain too much.

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after ‘he said,’ ‘she replied,’ and the like . . . Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs, they load their attributives with explanatory verbs, sometimes even with transitive verbs used intransitively; he consoled, she congratulated. They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word ‘said’ is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.”

12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.

“Do not dress words up by adding ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.”

13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.

“Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is.”

14. Avoid fancy words.

“Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

“Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.”

15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.

“The best dialect writers, by and large, are economical of their talents; they use the minimum, not the maximum, of deviation from the norm, thus sparing the reader as well as convincing him.”

16. Be clear.

“When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

17. Do not inject opinion.

“Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the tempation to toss them in is great . . . Opinions scattered indiscriminately about leave the mark of egotism on a work.”

18. Use figures of speech sparingly.

“The reader needs time to catch his breath; he can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight.”

19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.

“The longest way round is usually the shortest way home, and the one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and sure-footed, to carry the reader on his way.”

20. Avoid foreign languages.

“Write in English.”

21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.

“The young writer should learn to spot them — words that at first glance seem freighted with delicious meaning, but that soon burst in air, leaving nothing but a memory of bright sound.”

“‘But,’ the student may ask, ‘what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?’ Answer: then be one.

And lastly, from the book’s penultimate paragraph:

The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.

Big Picture Revision

Essentially, revision comes in two stages: 1) What I think of as “Big Picture” Revision; and 2) All the little details, which is really better understood as “copyediting.”

I think kids groan whenever revision is discussed for many reasons, and probably the most basic is that they want to be done; revision translates into “more work.” Who wouldn’t groan at that? But also it’s the work itself, because for so many revision overwhelmingly represents the second stage, all the boring little details; the fun is definitely over. These kids want to splash bright, bold colors on a wall . . .

. . . and we’re asking them to paint the trim. Nothing wrong with that — you’ve got to paint the trim — but I sympathize with the groans.

Sometimes when I meet with students, and we talk about revision, I remind them of the root meaning of the word, re/vision. Literally to see, again.

It’s why so many writers talk about needing to step away from the work, like a painter backing from the canvas, in order to see the work from a new perspective.

How can the story be funnier? More exciting? Of course, the essential element is that you’ve got to care, you’ve got to take pride in your work. Not every student has that feeling about his writing — and I’m not at all sure you can teach that — but I’m certain that revision is a hopeless process without pride in one’s finished product. Which is equally true for house painters.

Back in the day when I was a copywriter, I’d often send out these thirty-page packets to as many as fifteen different readers. They were all invited to make comments, criticisms, suggestions. Then I’d get all those packets returned, many covered with heart-breaking scribbles, unfriendly remarks, sentences crossed out, hacked at, sometimes improved, sometimes ruined. I’d take all those comments and have to consider each one . . . and revise.

The mental trick I learned was to intentionally try to save energy for that stage, even to the point of holding something back in the first draft; because once you think it’s perfect,  once you think you are done, after you’ve given 100% and all the creative energy is spent, then all those comments will crush you. So it’s important to understand the process — to know from the very beginning that, toward the end, you are going to have to paint the trim.

One quick example I like to give kids, because it always generates lively discussion when I ask them to revise with me: I tell them how I once wrote a scene in a Jigsaw Jones book, where he’s in the art room and needs to search someone’s desk. I wrote the chapter and it was okay enough, though maybe a little flat. In revision, at my editor’s suggestion, I tried to think of how I could make it funnier. It was a scene set in an art room. Did I have any memories of funny things that happened in school? Did I know someone who had a funny memory? And what about an art room, anyway? There’s glue!

Glue is funny. And there’s paint — paint that can spill or splatter. The comic possibilities unfurl. The paint spills on whom? Jigsaw? Big Maloney? Maybe the teacher! See: We’ve circled back, we’re brainstorming; we’re throwing around paint again.

In the end, my revision to that scene was minor, and not really hysterical; it just added an extra beat to the rhythm. But the thinking process behind the revision was fun. I enjoyed it. How do you make a scene more scary? Or move it along faster? How do you make this thing . . . better? That’s the heart of revision, an opening up of possibilities, before that final narrow focus of copyediting.

NOTE: I’m going away for a few days to visit friends. Maybe we’ll even take pictures!