Who is Ed? – Lessons from the Comics

It matters how something is said. We all know that. But it also matters how something is thought to be said. Our lesson from the Comics today is from “Pickles”by Brian Crane. The cartoon is of retired couple Opal and Earl. A recent episode featured Earl jealous of a text he sees on her phone which he believes is a reminder to call “Ed”. Opal explains that it doesn’t say, “call Ed”. It simply says, “called”.
It’s funny in a cartoon but if confusion is in a novel or short story, not so much.

What am I talking about? Not simple reading errors but word placement that causes confusion or maybe a whole different meaning.
For example, “You can hop on the tube and eat lunch at Harrow’s Grill for three dollars.” Someone might think it only costs three dollars for lunch at Harrows when it really costs twelve bucks for the cheapest dish. Should say, “For three dollars you can catch the tube to Harrows Grill and get some lunch.” Whole different point.
Here’s another, “After eating my bird whistles.” Hmm, does that mean someone is eating a bird?
How about, “My favorite foods are fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly and pizza covered with anchovies.” Is that peanut butter and jelly with anchovies?
These are just simple examples of poor word order and missing commas, but you get the idea. I’ve heard the best way to catch these types of mistakes is to read what you write aloud. When you read your writing, if you stumble at speaking it, chances are a reader will stumble at reading it.
In the cartoon, the momentary confusion almost led to a serious issue between Opal and Earl. Hopefully we can avoid even near misses. When my novel gets before an agent or publisher the last thing I want is for even one sentence to leave her scratching her head saying, “What?”
I’m fairly certain that would be followed by a, “Thanks but no thanks.”
Write on but take the time to read aloud!

Cooking / Writing 101 – don’t burn your chances

Some recipes are complicated like eggplant rolitini. There’s the eggplant to prepare, the sauce, the ricotta filling. I’m thinking of the entree from Luigi’s where I used to live. I haven’t made it myself but maybe I should since I miss the Italian food from the northeast so much. There’s nothing like it. I did make a recipe the other day. It wasn’t very complicated : Chorizo in a simple sauce of fire roasted tomatoes, red, yellow and green peppers, a heavy dose of fresh garlic, basil and oregano.
The kitchen smelled amazing. I plated it with linguini and topped it with some Asiago cheese shavings. If there were a good bakery in a thirty mile radius, Italian bread would have been on the side. (Is there a complaint in there?) We had such anticipation of enjoying the savory hot spice of the chorizo with the fresh light sauce. It was going to be a feel good dinner. But that’s not how it went. I put that plate down and my husband took a taste so fast that he burned his tongue terribly. He couldn’t enjoy the rest of the meal. It was so disappointing.
While I prepared the meal, I was thinking of how good it would be. The aroma took over the kitchen. My husband smiled every time he walked past the simmering pot. He kept asking, “What did you put in it?” (Does he not trust me? I haven’t secretly fried up tofu crumble to pass as beef taco for a long time.) I told no secrets but said it was all good but the whole point of the effort was so that the meal would be enjoyed. (Fortunately he was able to, as left overs the next day.)

It kind of reminds me of sending out first pages or a query letter and a moment after or worse yet a day later, reading through it, and finding an error. It never fails! All the work, the build up, the careful typing, reading, re-reading, and still there’s one mistake, one faux pas and it’s ruined.
Well not exactly, there’s always tomorrow. Fix the problem, present the dish again, I mean, the writing and get on with it. Don’t give up! This post is for me, the one who sent out one round of pathetic query letters and has been revising for several months now.

Write on (and cook on, while you’re at it. Writer’s need to eat too!)

What Are You Thinking? The Writer’s Mind.

A writer’s mind is a scary place, unless it’s put down on paper, nice and neat, telling a story. What can be expected from someone who conjures up, and toils over the right words to describe an emotion that is not reflective of their current true state of mind? Inside there has to be the ability to feel every gamut of emotion. It is a cruel thing we do to ourselves, isn’t it? Diving into sometimes deeply dark places in humanity to create suffering, merciless villains, and heartless, betraying friends or up to that place where two people fall in love, a dream comes true, a hero is born. And we do it all in the name of stirring the emotions of the reader so that they experience for the hours it takes to read a novel, a place they’ve never been and person they are not.

So how to get the characters and drama inside the mind out onto the page? Here’s another tip I learned from a writer’s conference: For particularly strong or difficult scenes, set up the atmosphere in your writing area (which may be a laptop and earbuds) with music, aroma, video or pictures that match the emotion or scene you need to write. Sad music even without words can make me cry! Likewise, fast pace rhythmic music will make my heart beat faster. Add the scent of lavender for a calm scene, cinnamon for sharp but warm scene, vinegar for sharp with no warmth, whatever works. As much as is possible submerge in the environment of the scene and then let the words flow.

Have you tried this technique before? How do you create a scene specific environment?

Write on! It won’t be all in your head.

“What’s That Doing Here?” The art of description

It happens every, no I mean really, every year: Candy canes hanging around until at least Easter. Why? Because I have a hard time throwing away perfectly good candy. I have visions of peppermint bark in the middle of the summer or a sprinkle of crushed candy in my natural peppermint tea.
I’ve tried buying less, or buying none at all but invariably Christmas just doesn’t seem complete without a few candy canes hanging around. Not to mention that I wax nostalgic every time I see them since they used to be my son’s favorite. Back in the day if I brought home a box his face would light up like it was treasure. One year I gave him one of those giant candy canes. He was so excited when he unwrapped it. I found it months later rolled under his bed with all kinds of fuzz stuck to it. I think that was the end of the candy cane era for him, erased by peppermint overload.
Why do I make this confession? Because as I look at the bowl of Christmas candy while the weather warms and colors turn pastel everywhere, it is clear to me it is very much out of place. My attention is sharp with the contrast. That my friends is a great tool in writing; the unexpected, the incongruent, objects that elicit an instant understanding or emotion.
For example:
“She saw the bowl of candy canes on the coffee table, the dry, prickly tree festooned with strings of shriveled cranberries and desiccated popcorn but it was the unopened gifts under the tree that broke Anne down to tears.”
I don’t have to say, the room was frozen at Christmas Day. I don’t even have to mention Christmas.
Use something memorable, outrageous, more than Christmas décor in the Spring. For example, the first thing a character sees is a stuffed moose in the living room of her new boyfriend’s parent’s house. What does that say about his family? What does it not say? With a brief description a whole lot of information is conveyed with great word economy. It starts with knowing what you want to convey about the surroundings. In a natural setting, to create peace instead of, “gentle winds, fluffy clouds, birds singing” , “a hillside with the gentle curves of a sleeping baby.” If the intent is danger instead of a “dark stormy sky, scorpions skittering and misty air”, “rising up like a citadel, six foot black rocks, teeth ready to bite.”
In the home of very wealthy people instead of swinging the camera lens around and describing all the paintings, the marble floor, the Persian rugs, find that one thing that is the epitome of wealth and zoom in on that. For example, enter the foyer of an eclectic uber rich indulgent couple:
“A live tree grew straight out of the floor with branches reaching up three floors, on every twig dangled crystals, maybe diamonds. I wanted to stop right there and sit under the dazzling, embrace of this tree and that was just the foyer.”

Full disclaimer, this principle of using dramatic, memorable, but less words is not something I figured out. I was taught this concept at a conference. It was a small conference with no agents or editors! Imagine that, no pitch sessions but a whole lot of teaching. Sometimes leaving behind the rat race to get a publisher’s attention and just focusing on the craft, is the best way to go!

Writing is fun don’t you think? Be challenged! Write on!

And the Owl Says…The Art of Sound

Through the fog sleep came the gentle, almost comical “who, who, who”. I didn’t hear a “t” at the end but in my blurred state of wakefulness, I still knew the morning alarm was an owl. With that recognition, a picture of him was clear.

I’ve seen this owl twice in six years. It is small and as mysteriously graceful and wise looking as any owl can be. I know he is a ‘he’ because his early morning hooting is actually wooing his mate. Although he woke me up an hour before my planned time, no resentment came to my mind. It makes me supremely happy to know this little creature has taken up residence near my home.

So my day has started with happy thoughts just by a sound. That’s a powerful means to create an emotion. You know what that means? Describing a sound is a powerful tool for a writer to have. But it’s not just about words, it’s about the right mix of recognizable phraseology and fresh insightful ways to conjure up a sound from a page instead of a speaker.

Take for example the sound of water dripping in a dark, distant place. Is it the plunk, plunk, plunk echoing in the next room that tells the reader there’s a pool of water nearby? Or is it the dissonant music of water being swallowed up by water one drop at a time that suggests there’s a dark creepy pool of water nearby?

Give it a try. Add your best description of water dripping in a comment or post on your blog and ping back to here to share with the rest of us.

Thanks and have a great day! I’m betting I will thanks to the gentle, knocking on my brain from a wise little owl.

Writing Tips From the “Funnies”

Writing advice is free all around us but there’s no place more fun to get it than the Comics. What a challenge comic strip writers have: tell a story, make it funny and often times also impactful, all in three to five frames. There’s a lot to learn but not just tight story structure.

Take the message in a recent cartoon called “Zits”by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman about sixteen year old teenager Jeremy. His mom asks how his day was and he says, “It started. It ended.” Mom of course wants more and asks for the missing ‘middle’. He tells that part is in ‘on a need’ to know basis.

It’s easy to know where a new novel is going to start, and even we Pansters usually have some general idea of how it will end, but the middle is the stuff that makes or breaks it.

Between “it began” and “it ended” what would Jeremy’s mom really want to know? How he walked to school, opened his locker got out his history book, math book and a beat up pad of paper and then dropped his one and only pen, chased it down the hall, and barely made it to home room where he had to listen to ten minutes of announcements including that chocolate milk will no longer be served in the cafeteria? Would she care to know that Mr Perkins wore a striped shirt again and Joe McGinnis called him a clown to his face and got detention or that the he got spearmint gum stuck on the bottom of his sneaker? No she would not.

The description of his day could be told with literary prowess, amazing accuracy, the best writing ever and still be duller than a tax form. What mom might have wanted to know was that he asked Suzy out and now has a girlfriend. Or that an enormous crack appeared in the gym floor and some kids fell into it. Anything but the well, defined mundane happenings of the day.

Point being, make sure the middle of your story is not bulked up with a lot of great scenes that no one cares about.

There’s another gem hidden in this cartoon. The idea of dispensing information little by little on a ‘need to know’ basis. Mom might need to know there would be no gym for a few months or the school would be shut down for repairs, but she doesn’t need to know about Suzy until it’s prom time and he has to rent a tucks (or a limo).

This is a hard one. I often find myself getting caught in the trap of laying down a framework to build my story on. A critique partner recently hinted at this, pointing out how I had a lot of background information but that she likes to give out only a little explanation and then let the questions and gaps lead the reader to find out more.

It’s good advice. I put that into practice with the newest round of revisions. It’s amazing what a story can do without once you start chopping!

To tie it all up, two simple pieces of writing advice – make sure what’s in the middle is what ‘mom’ would really want to know and don’t give her all the news at once.

Write on and write well!

Follow the Leader – Exploring Character Types

What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you been there? There’s a sign in the conference room (remember those?)that says when a meeting is over all chairs should be pushed in and clean the wipe board.
Your boss finishes a meeting, you start to tidy up and he says, ‘leave it, we have the planning meeting to get to’. What just happened?
A kid watches his father take two free samples of buffalo flavored peanuts, when the sign says, “one per family”. The star athlete, the star dancer, the star drummer, the star brainiac, the star, starts a conversation with, “did you see what that girl was wearing?”
What is going on here? Someone down the line is faced with a choice. Will that employee heed the boss’ instructions to not make the effort to put the room in order? The boss said it’s okay, isn’t that enough? My dad is a good guy, if he says it’s no big deal to swipe two samples then it must be okay right? If my idol at school makes fun of the quirky kid, then I should laugh right?
When leaders take the easy way, make excuses, they give license to all those below them. They confuse those who know the behavior is incongruent with the authority they represent. But how far does that license go? Only as far as the next person allows, chooses, hiding behind the fault of one higher and disclaiming their own choice in their shadow. Or, they prove themselves to be the true leader. The one who faces each crossroad without looking up but looking side to side. How will my actions impact those next to me, with me, far up the road from me.
Explore that thought when developing your characters. A character can be the one who stands out, does it right, or the one who doesn’t and learns later the consequences and is inspired to change (this happens at least once to every parent) or goes on blithely unconcerned.

Childhood Joys – Writing for Readers

Photo by Yan on Pexels.com

It is true, everything in my childhood is not pleasant to talk about but that is not the focus of this post. On the contrary, let me tell you about the joys of my childhood.

The joy of swimming for hours on end in the neighbor’s pool. They didn’t have any kids which makes sense since they were two men. They maintained that pool just for us. We pestered Mom into bringing us to the pool after working the night shift. She sat there baking in the sun, watching us. When our fingers were pickled by chlorine water and our lips turned blue, she had to make us landlubbers again though we thought we could turn into dolphins and swim away.

The joy of sleigh riding down the neighbor’s hill (different neighbor). Every kid in the neighborhood slid down that hill. A retired couple lived there. I have no idea if they cared or not. They never yelled at us. We would stay out until our feet were frost bit and could only warm up in cold water.

The joy of neighborhood games like the Little Rascals, no adults supervising, we organized and played with not one parent in sight.
Buildings forts in the woods. Scrap lumber and sheets of siding were never hanging around for long because some kid was going to haul it off and create a fort. We used to spend all day building, ‘furnishing’ and then sitting in our forts.
Wild strawberries from the field, and gooseberries, blackberries, apples, frost plums plucked from trees.
Ice skating on the frozen pond a couple of miles away and yes, we walked there alone, as children and joined the mob of kids already there. Everyone knew if there was water in sight, don’t go on the ice, stay on the edge where the ice was white. No one died.
Bushels of peaches that my mother bought from the farmer’s market and we could feast on as we liked, we liked them a lot! Can’t forget all things Christmas; decorating, Christmas songs blasting through the house, all the glittery, shiny decorations, the lights, the crafts at school (phone book angels that were spray painted gold!), Christmas Eve, stockings stuffed with goodies. Cookies, cookies, did I mention the cookies?

I could go on and on. With all this good, you would think I could say, I had a great childhood. But that’s not my story, only part of it and I’m deeply grateful for that part.
So what’s the writing connection? Writers are always counseled to keep the action, conflict, tension and terror coming on in good measure. It makes for a page turner or what I like to call ‘a book devour’. Even so, in the midst of the trauma and constant impending doom, there needs to be some moments of good. A quick thought of love, enjoyment of a favorite food, cup of coffee, blue sky, something that gives character and reader an endorphin break. The key is to keep it short and sweet so it is only a pause in the momentum instead of a bunny snooze trail.
Write on people!

Did you see the latest post on EnTylerywords.com? Click the link below and read who Tyler left behind.


Press Pause Please

My home office came into existence March 16, 2020. Before that date, the dining room table worked just fine for the occasional stay at home days. I bought the cheapest monitor from Walmart since a laptop screen is too small for continuous work. I set up a “desk” using two folding camp tables. But work doesn’t go on pause just because a setup is make shift. It was full steam ahead, trying to keep track of files, documents, take video calls, eat lunch, with a crazy set-up.
Since I go into work a few times a week, I had to pack my notebooks and files in my backpack and then take them back and forth. In a very short time I was surrounded by chaos, but still to stop and organize, get the equipment and strategy that would make work easier, wasn’t an option. At the end of every extended day, there isn’t anything left to continue another fifteen or thirty minutes to improve the work environment. Until, my brain said, “stop!” and so I did.
One morning when there were no meetings scheduled I took an hour to clear out everything and start over. I used a vanity desk with drawers and a folding table. I positioned my monitors (added another compliments of the company) toward the window so my view was a tree and the garden instead of the neighbor’s deck. I consolidated files and tossed stuff that I no longer needed. I vacuumed and cleaned and made the bed that crowds the space (it’s a guest room) when all was said and done, I started back to work, behind thirty emails but feeling a lot more sane.
Why am I saying all this? Because there is a parallel with my writing projects. I’m so driven to write that even though I know I really should stop, take some time to plot out where I’m headed or listen to that inner editor that asks if a character really needs to be in a scene, I don’t slow down. Take a break? Spend some time researching if the setting is accurate? Not a chance, I’m red hot I can’t stop or else I’ll never get done. That’s the way it feels, always this sense of urgency. But if I take a lesson from my ‘work at home’ situation, I might realize taking time to employ the tools (books on how to write better), or even find the right tools (software for plotting) or just get my workspace and files organized, will result in better quality the first time. If your project is starting to be a cloud of ‘things I’ll fix later’, it might be time to take a morning off, do some planning, tidying up files, taking advantage of tools and finding out, a short pause is not a waste of time but can turn into the energy and drive to finish well.
Write on!

Nostalgic for Normal?

Not in a Novel

Routines are good. I mean they’re good for something. I don’t like to live in routines. It drives me a little batty. However, there’s a nostalgia about what boring normal used to be. The hum drum I took for granted. I feel it mostly in connection with work. Normal was racing from one conference room to the next, dodging my boss if possible because that would mean at least a twenty minute delay of the prerequisite chit chat before receiving a new task. Save that for one on one meetings, got to get to the restroom before I’m locked in another meeting around a table with people who are so passive aggressive that they say, “I’m just thinking about what’s in the best interest of everyone” and then make dissenters look like devils.If not that then being in a conversation that sounds like a loop in the Matrix. Didn’t we just figure out world peace? Are we really back to why you can’t help but it’s a great idea?
Normal was a cafeteria with so many options cooked by a chef who whipped up restaurant quality dishes even vegetarian that couldn’t be passed up. Let’s not even get started on the pastries, cakes and cookies. I’m telling the truth I did not often take advantage of the deserts but just knowing if I was overcome by the need for decadence, it was right there and I could have it with the swipe of my card.
I look back on that time and can hardly believe it existed. Along with all the other things, like trying to get on the road before the school bus traffic, battling the line up of cars at the light with a turn signal too brief to allow more than three of the eight cars in line to go through, and that only if every driver paid attention, which invariably I was for sure, the only one with foot poised on the gas, ready for forward motion at the first nanosecond of green.
I did not enjoy most of the old normal. It was tiring and relentless but my whole being was tuned into it. Auto-pilot worked at least until three in the afternoon when a booster shot of caffeine could take me to the end of the day.
Now that I’m at the end of this reflection of the old, I’m not feeling so nostalgic for what it was. It’s strange though to look through that window back in time. It’s all changed and even when the pendulum swings back to the middle again, it won’t rest in the same spot. That spot is gone, like the spot before 911. That was then, this is now.
Quick tie into writing. Only in the beginning of a novel and possibly even a non-fiction work, can normal exist in the narrative. The happy or sad hum drum of life is presented in the beginning and then very quickly must be shot to pieces. If you fall in love with your characters you may find yourself tempted to put them in normal life situations just to have them play. If you do, be ready to slash it right out again. Everything after the intro of normal has to be upheaval of one kind or another. That’s just the dynamic of a story that keeps the reader engaged. Writing ‘normal’ otherwise is just about the writer keeping himself or herself engaged. That’s not all bad except if you want to be published.