Things to be Avoided

Books written by ‘BIG NAME’ with ‘little name’—cause you know ‘big name’ had little to nothing to do with it. I’ve never not been disappointed;

Clothes with ‘dry clean only’ tags—unnecessary pain in the ass;

Bottled ‘natural spring’ water—fancy way of saying tap water. Only more expensive. Exception: in a foreign country where the local tap water is sketchy. Then, bring on the imported tap water, please;

Squash—the vegetable, not the sport;

Uncomfortable shoes—it doesn’t matter how cute they are;

Vending machine apples—I don’t know, it just seems wrong somehow.

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Graphite and Ink

Elementary school was all about the pencil. When it wasn’t about the crayon, that is. In that stage of learning the technical fine points of printing and cursive writing, the ability to erase was crucial. But somewhere along the way, in junior high or high school, the pencil became inferior to the pen. Erasers were for wussies. Much cooler to put up with the noxious fumes of whiteout for those (few) mistakes.

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The Power of the Notebook

When I say notebook, I am referring to the paper kind not the PC or Mac kind.

Notebook

I have a friend, also a writer, who I get together with from time to time to write with, chat, share creativity, etc. We were supposed to get together today actually, but I’m sick and wimped out (sorry Cate, we will get together again soon, promise). Anyway, whenever we get together, I drag along my laptop while Cate is much more partial to pen and paper.

I type faster than I can write by hand, my hand writing is borderline illegible, and my ideas don’t always come out in chronological order so I’m a big cut-and-paste user. It’s so easy to go back, do a quick fix, then pick up where I left off. And herein lies the problem. As I’ve alluded to in the past, my quick fixes tend to turn into an endless cycle of touching up and rewriting. This often leads to losing the thread of an idea before I get to the end of it.

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Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury–a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author–and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But here’s a confession: With the exception of A Sound of Thunder (great story), I’d never read Ray Bradbury.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong).

Luckily, the professor spent so much time telling us what we were supposed to think about these narratives, rather than encouraging anything in the way of original thought (not sure if he was like this with all students or just had a low opinion of his unmotivated engineering students) that all I had to do come exam time was regurgitate what I could remember from the hours of class I was actually awake for. That was enough to come out of it with a C (possibly one of my better marks that semester) without cracking a single book from the assigned pile. Well, that’s not quite true. I read the first page or two of A Clockwork Orange before giving up. Tricky linguistics is not my strong suit.

I digress.

Recently I was in the bookstore, browsing the sci-fi section. I came across Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man. I decided it was time to fill this gap in my literary repertoire.

Most of the stories in The Illustrated Man highlight societal trends and norms of the time most of them were published ( around 1951), often exploring the darker side of these trends. The stories don’t all end in doom and gloom, but there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending either. I like that about them.

Normally, when I’m reading for fun, I try not to analyse what I’m reading. It’s a good way to ruin a good story and start overly obsessing about how my own writing compares. However, since I went into Bradbury’s collection knowing someone had already compared my story style with his, it was hard to avoid this time.

I found myself comparing his writing to the various writing to-do’s and not-to-do’s I’ve come across since I started learning the craft. I made some observations that I think are worth sharing with the aspiring-writer community, particularly while reading The Highway.

Quick summary: The Highway is told from the perspective of a Mexican man who lives on a highway leading to the US border. First he observes that there is an unusual lull in the traffic, and suspects something is up. This is followed by a deluge of cars going by, all in the same direction, with panicked-looking passengers. One of the vehicles stops in need of water for an overheating radiator. The protagonist, Hernando, learns from the passengers that the atom war, and the end of the world, has finally come. When the truck leaves, Hernando goes back to working his field as if nothing of significance has happened. I guess this shows how differently the threat of nuclear war was perceived by cultures not directly involved in it, or how the concept of ‘the world’ differed outside the USA?—In the last line Hernando says to himself: “What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

Back to the to-do’s and not-to-do’s. From various sources, I have read writing tips warning against the following:

1) Trying to establish a character’s foreign origins by throwing a few words of their native tongue into dialogue of otherwise perfect English, particularly using the simplest words, which would be the first English words any foreigner would learn. ‘Sí’ and ‘Señor’ are given as specific examples to be avoided.

In The Highway, Hernando’s English has a few grammatical flaws, but nothing that screams ‘Spanish accent’. His first language is identified by his use of Spanish words. And the only Spanish words used in the entire story are, you guessed it, ‘Si’ and ‘Señor’.

2) In dialogue, using speech tags other than ‘said’. More often than not, avoid other speech tags—screeched, divulged, questioned, pontificated, etc—as the familiarity of ‘said’ will allow most readers to gloss over it and focus on the dialogue itself. Also, don’t weigh down speech tags with redundant adverbs, adverbial phrases, or unnecessary adjectives. In fact, avoid these in general, in dialogue or otherwise.

Quote from The Highway: “Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid.” An exclamation mark, a descriptive speech tag, and follow-on clarification of her tone of voice. I’d say it’s more than clear that this girl is freaked out.

3) Scenes/stories where nothing actually happens. Example: An entire story going on in the head of a protagonist sitting on the bus. What characters are thinking and observing certainly matters, but for the most part the reader is interested in what is happening to the protagonist and what they are actually doing about it.

In The Highway, the entire story consists of the protagonist becoming aware of a situation–the ‘atom war’ has started. Then the story is over. Short stories do have some leeway compared to novels when it comes to what is considered a complete story arc, but the entire emotional impact of The Highway seems to depend on the statement: “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” having a significant effect on the reader without any description of what this end-of-days actually looks like.

I suspect in 1951, when the story was first published, the hint alone of atomic war was enough to give readers chills. However, even though have as good an idea as the next person what the implications of dropping a nuclear bomb are, from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in 50s USA, convinced a bomb was going to fall on me at any moment (I know, lots of countries have nuclear weapons and it’s possible they will use them, but I don’t spend much of my day worrying about it), this particular story didn’t resonate with me all that much.

None of these observations are intended to paint Ray Bradbury as a bad writer. He was a great writer. It says something that A Sound of Thunder has stuck in my head (in a good way) since I read it in high school. And there’s a reason people are still reading his stuff.

My point is, he was making all the same ‘mistakes’ the rest of us do. Given his stories are still in print decades after they were written, I find that encouraging. There’s hope for aspiring writers yet. A good story can overcome a few imperfections, and perfect writing doesn’t make for a good story.

The Ticking Clock

Every aspiring writer (or anyone with a personal goal of any kind for that matter) has the same problem. I don’t mean that all of our problems are the same, of course they are not, but with the potential exception of the fully-actualized human being (if such a creature exists) we all share one problem in common. You know the one.

We feel the urge to procrastinate, and the longer we do it the worse the feeling gets. All the while the clock ticks. Before you know it, it’s supper time. Oops, where’d the day go?

We comb books and blogs (and there are a ton of them on the subject) for quick fixes. We look for that technique that, if we could only find it and master it, would solve the problem. Though we know that no such thing exists, we keep looking and over time find puzzle pieces here and there that add to the picture of our own individual ‘block’ and what works for us to overcome it.

A puzzle piece fell into place for me while reading a particular passage, from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, called We’re All Pros Already.

The War of Art looks at the urge to procrastinate (he refers to it as ‘Resistance’, an apt name) and how to deal with it from many different angles. This particular passage is a reminder that not only do you have the skills you need to push through the but-I-really-don’t-want-to feeling, but if you’ve ever had a job, or any responsibility for that matter, you already know how to use them.

I am very glad that a friend handed this book to me (thank you C.E.). It’s one of those rare finds where I knew from the first page that it was worth my while. Whether reading it when I should be writing actually counts as ‘Resistance’…well, I won’t go there.

It occurred to me that back when I had what some would consider a ‘real job’ I was not defeated by procrastination the way I am now. Not that I didn’t procrastinate, I did. But when it came down to it, not only did the work always get done, I was even efficient. Whereas now I struggle to complete a to-do list full of tasks I really want to do, back then I was actually one of those people capable of handing in a project before the deadline—even though I might abhor the task set before me. Discounting my first two years of university that is, which brings be to my next point.

Sometimes we have to relearn lessons. If you don’t use it, you lose it. After reflecting on the differences between my approach to work then and my approach now, I came up with the following list of changes, or backslides, in my attitude.

One

Now: But I like writing (running, swimming, french, piano, insert self-improvement activity here) it shouldn’t be this painful. Maybe it’ll be easier tomorrow (on the weekend, after the holidays, when the weather improves etc, etc).

Then: If it sucks now it’ll still suck later, just get it over with; then at least I can stop agonizing over it (I know it sounds cynical, but it’s also accurate).

Lesson: It’s ok to be uncomfortable. Yeah, nine years in the military and I still had to relearn this, sheesh. Possibly I forgot this one on purpose. Anyway…though the ultimate goal for us all may be to attain a psychological state where getting started on a task isn’t painful or scary—a state I believe you can get closer and closer to, but never actually reach—in the meantime it will be uncomfortable. Suck it up. It won’t kill you (if it will, disregard and rethink your course of action) and you might even feel good afterwards. Or during, I’ve often been surprised by how much I can enjoy just about any task once I’m on a roll.

Two

Now: Staring at task A. I should be doing B by now. I should have started this sooner. Maybe if I just got C out of the way. No, C will take too long. Maybe I don’t have time to do all of these before X. I’m hungry. What time is it? Crap! It’s been half an hour already.

Then: Make list (in head, on paper, doesn’t matter). Pick item. Do it. Maybe I don’t have time to do all of this before X; at least this one will be done (half done, outlined, anything is better than nothing).

Lesson: Focus on this task for as long as you are doing it. Then move on to the next one and keep plugging. There are various ways to approach this: 1) Priorities: If I could only get one thing done today what would it be? Do it first. 2) It will take as long as it takes: I’d rather get one thing done today than start five things. Conversely, 3) Pick a time: I will work on A until (5min from now, an hour from now, 5:30pm at which time I must get in the shower if I’m to be ready to go out on time). Take note, set a timer, whatever you need to do. Now relax, you don’t have to think about it again until the deadline arrives. Then move on to the next thing. Not finished? So what?

Three

Now: Not sure how to do this, I might screw it up….stuck.

Then: Not sure how to do this, I might screw it up. Ok. If I screw up then I’ll know better for next time.

Lesson: It won’t be perfect; do it anyway. Once it’s out there in the world you can learn from the feedback. If you finish with time to spare, even better. Your brain will continue to chew on it while you do other things. The brain is cool like that, give it the time and likely it will formulate improvements you couldn’t see while looking too closely. If you can’t finish early, that’s ok too. Better to have a finished product with room for improvement than ten never-finished-because-they-weren’t-perfect products.

Four

This takes a lot of practice. It is one that I have learned, forgotten, relearned, and forgotten again… and again…and again…

Lesson: What’s done is done, relax and get over it (closely linked to the above mentioned “you’ll know better for next time”). This generally works best if you have a time of day when you mentally shift gears and let all the crap go. This could be when you walk in the door in the evening, when you’re in the shower, yoga class, anything that works for you. The important thing is to practice it regularly. Note that I said ‘relax’ then ‘let it go’, not the other way around. I think that what a lot of people don’t realise is that the relaxing comes first. Not after the novel is finished, or the kitchen is renovated, or everyone’s had some time to forget how much I screwed up X, Y, or Z. Relax first and the letting it go part will come naturally.

You may be thinking wait a sec I thought we were talking about procrastination, not meditation. How many times, whilst procrastinating, have you found yourself thinking of your past failures? Or how disappointed you are with how long your current project is taking you and the road bumps you’ve hit with it so far?

That’s what I thought.

I am currently relearning all of these lessons and many more. Feel free to join me.