Finding Your Readers

Needle in a haystack.

Around 100,000 books are published each year by the Big 6 publishers in New York. That does not also account for the indie explosion and the e-reader boom. So do you still think that all you have to do is write your book and it will be read simply on the strength of your talent?

It has been said many times lately that writers today are small business owners. This means you are in charge of your own marketing and publicity. Think of any other business. They go out of their way to bring customers to them.

Down With Demographics

Ask most writers who their readers are, you might get something like, “women 35-45 whose husbands earn more than $80,000 per year,” or “urban teens usually from broken homes.” This type of broad marketing is as dead as the do-do.

Not everybody is going to buy a Ford or shop as Sears. Similarly, not every reader will buy you book. You need to find that one reader who will read your book and market to him or her. Consequently, you will find other like-minded readers. This type of marketing is the difference between creating readers and fans.

The Million Dollar Challenge

What if someone were to offer you a million dollars if you could sell 20 copies of your book in a day? The stipulations are that you cannot sell to family, friends, or anyone you already know. It must be 20 strangers. Also, you cannot mention the million-dollar challenge to anyone you are trying to sell your book to. You can’t make any deals on the price, in fact, the price is doubled. You have to sell you book merely from the strength of your book and your ability to make it appealing to 20 other people.

Where would you look? Where could you go? Something tells me you will not be looking for all of the women 35-45 whose husbands earn more than $80,000. You also wouldn’t stand on the street corner and try to talk to everybody. You would try to identify who would be the kind of person most likely to enjoy your book and you would go to them.

Once you have identified that person, now you need to find out how to get in touch with your reader. You might consider several options:

  • Is your reader affiliated with any specific organizations?
  • Does your reader hang out in any particular place?
  • Are there certain events your reader attends?
  • Does you reader like to read blogs, and which ones?

Once you’ve figured out how to find your reader, the million dollars seem within reach. The fact is there is no million-dollar challenge, but a challenge still exists. The best part is, you determine if it’s millions of dollars or thousands of readers of hundreds of new friends. The kind of challenge is for you to decide, but now you know where to find your readers, so go get them!

You probably know plenty of writers who would find this article as valuable as I hope you have. If so, share it with them. The secret is that so few writers have a clue about how to find readers, this information will put any writer well head of the majority of writers out there today.

It is not your reader’s job to find you, but your job to find your readers

 

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Make Something Happen

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As writers, we want to do a good job. The problem is that sometimes we want to get it perfect on the first draft. The end result is that we are greatly slowed down or blocked altogether. When perfection doesn’t pop right out, we get frustrated and stop all writing until suitability resumes, and it doesn’t, so we do nothing. The answer is simple: put something down and move on. Here are a few tricks I use to keep the writing ongoing.

A Car Does Something Down The Street

When I get stuck for a single word, it’s usually for a verb. I’ll write a sentence with a verb that is not quite strong enough, and my little pre-editor says, “Find a better word.” This is where I get stuck if nothing manifests itself within fifteen seconds. So I put an absolutely non-sense word and go on. That way I keep on writing and leave something behind I cannot miss in re-writes.

For example, if I write, “the car drives down the road,” and I want to replace “drives” with something better, I might make it read “the car lollipops down the road,” or “the car fishwifes down the road.” There is no way that will get passed me the second time.

A Dog Barks

Sometimes we need some activity, but our minds are stumped as to what kind and where. I once heard that when you are locked for some action, simply write, “somewhere a dog barks,” and this will be the clue for you in re-writes to put in some action.

I have a bad habit of writing longer bits of dialogue that reads like a screenplay. All talk, no action. I know this, and it might as well be a script for a radio show. So what I do is that I write the dialogue straight through. Then when I am done, I go through it and break up the conversation with “a dog barks” every several exchanges. In re-writes I put in activity that makes the words come alive with real people talking and doing things.

A Man Walks Into The Room With A Gun

Sometimes your scene slugs and you need something almost out of the blue to happen to make your people react. I once read that Raymond Carver used to write “A man walks into the room with a gun,” whenever he got stuck like this.

Try this trick. Write down between a dozen to twenty phrases like Carver’s. When you get in a spot, pull three of them out at random. Pick one and write it in. Make your people react.

I have pulled three of my own phrases out and here is what we got. “A ball bounces and stops at his feet.” “A bird flies into the glass door.” “From overhead, water drips on his head through the ceiling.”

This makes you write something creative that will probably be bad but may be ingenious. Either way, you keep on writing. And have fun with these phrases. I have one involving a sudden appearance by Darth Vader and another with the Doctor coming out of his Tardis, so you can do anything with these.

Remember, keep on writing and don’t get hung up. It easier to continue when you use a few tricks that help you get over the need to write flawless first drafts. Give your self permission to fix things. Just keep on writing.

 

What trick do you use to get over the hitch? I would love to hear about them. Tell me about them in the Comment section below. And please Like and Share this article with other Creative Writers.

 

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Dream The Impossible Dream

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If you’re like me, you have confusing aspirations. There is something you want to do, and it seems impossible. So what do you do? What do I do? Do we try to find some way to make this aspiration possible, or do we give up and keep our heads down?

Our Focus

I’ll bet that upon closer examination, that to which we aspire is not impossible, but just very difficult. Maybe we have known that all along. It’s easier to give up on something that we think can’t be done than something that we know will take a lot of hard work to accomplish. Perhaps the thing we need to look at is not our aspirations, but ourselves.

Obstacles may stifle us, but rewards will encourage us. We may worry about how we will do it, or we can anticipate how great it will feel to accomplish it. Where we set our gaze has everything to do with how we set our feet. When we feel ourselves shrinking back by fear, we should repeat this mantra: Don’t focus on the Leap, but rather on the Landing.

 

A Scriptural Example

Consider an illustration from the Bible. Even if you’re not a Christian, it is still an interesting angle to consider. The 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews is known as Faith’s Hall of Fame. It details several Old Testament heroes who overcame various obstacles because of their faith.

From there we come to the 12th chapter, which begins, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” It’s as if we as runners who have entered a large coliseum filled with spectators, faith’s heroes mentioned in the previous chapter. By their example they are cheering us on as we run the race that is our life.

If life is a race, then it is a marathon and not a sprint. So what do long distance runners think about during the big race? Do they think about how thirsty they are? Do they worry about how sore they feel? Do they focus on how weary they have become? No, they think of only one thing: the finish line.

That brings us to the second verse in Hebrews 12. It says, “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” We, too, look to our finish line, and Jesus is holding the ribbon.

Jesus’s obstacles were more severe than any we will ever face. He was willing to endure the cross and despise its shame because of “the joy that was set before Him,” which was the prerogative to sit down at the right hand of the throne of God afterward. Said differently, Jesus did not focus on the Leap, but rather on the Landing.

No Easy Guarantees

Just because we take the Leap does not mean the Landing will go smoothly. We may not get the job. Our new business may fail. The girl of your dreams may turn you down. We may fall short, but there is something to be said for the person who has the courage to try, because even when he or she must lift themselves up from dismality, that type of person will have the courage to try again.

I would much rather be the one who took the Leap even though the Landing was hard than be the person who never had their knuckles scraped and bloodied by life. I would much prefer to be made miserable by my tremendous catastrophes than spend my life sulking about how my life never turned out the way I imagined it. I want to be the one who will dream the impossible dream and fight the unbeatable foe regardless of the outcome rather than the one who kept himself clean and safe, who clucks his tongue and says, “I told you it wouldn’t work.”

Also, I want You to be carried by your dreams beyond the visible horizons of the aspirationless. Write down your dreams, and then make lists on how you will carry them out. You may see that your Impossible Dream is not just Possible, but with passion and hard work, who knows but it may be yours.

Remember, Don’t focus on the Leap, but rather on the Landing.

 

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The Wide World of Writing

wws

One of the fond memories from my youth is the voice of Jim McKay introducing this week’s Wide World of Sports on ABC. “Scanning the Globe to bring you the constant variety Of Sports. The Thrill of Victory, and The Agony of Defeat. The Human Drama of Athletic Competition.”

I looked forward to it every Saturday afternoon. My favorites were anything with Muhammad Ali or the Harlem Globetrotters. I also enjoyed each week watching the ski jumper fall down.

Jim McKay’s opening call is an indelible part of Americana. Not only the words, but the timbre of his voice gave a special uniqueness to the brand if such a wonderful show. His opening anthem is beautiful and so deep, it has applications that seem unreal until you reach them. Believe it or not, it works on Creative Writing.

Scanning The Globe

Of all the writers that I call great, most of them write about a very limited setting. Faulkner wrote about northern Mississippi and Fitzgerald wrote about the Jazz Age flappers in New England. Hemingway had a bit of variety, but it was still only places he had been.

We live in a big world and we have many places to set our stories. They don’t all have to be in our backyards. I’ve written eight novels and I am now editing a my ninth and tenth, and all of them are set all over the place. My first novel is set in turn of the century Sicily, my second in 1850s Weatherford, Texas, and my third in 21stcentury Los Angeles. My novella’s main story take place in current Abilene, Texas, but has back story that goes from the 1920s to our time through New York, Dublin, Barcelona, Nairobi, and the Ural steppes. I have three novels set during the Depression set in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Florida. My last novel is set in a futuristic Republic of Texas. I’m editing two drafts set in Russia and New Orleans.

Living in the age of the internet makes it easier to research these places and times. In fact, this dedication to research is necessary if you write in a place you haven’t lived. Paris in the 1920s was not a Wi-Fi hotspot. Maybe this is why the Lost Generation writers whom I admire so were so limited about their settings. Yet by the internet I was able to read accounts from Harpers’ Bazaar recording the accounts of Garibaldi’s 1870 liberation of Palermo.

The Constant Variety Of Sports

There is only one story, and that is the story of what it means to live as a human being. But there are myriad cases of what this really means. Your writings will have consistent tones and themes, but don’t be a broken record. All of my heroes so far have had to struggle between what he wants to do and what he ought to do. But I have different types of conflicts in mind for other stories.

People are different. Some are heroic like Hamlet and others not so much like Prufrock. You can write of people who succeed because they do the right thing, but you can also write of people who fail because they did the wrong thing. They may be well intentioned but ignorant like Parzival or just weak in doing what they know to be right like Viktor Komarovsky.

The Thrill Of Victory

I have been accused of writing stories with sad endings, even though in my three complete and my one work in progress the heroes have all ended up doing what is right. I see that as a success more than what the consequences may be. my fist hero saved the life of his brother-in-law who has sworn to kill him. My second put his newborn son in a shoebox and rode him across the Red River and handed him to a cousin of his wife whom he lost in childbirth. My third said a tearful good-bye to the love of his life so that he can save a small dairy in a small town even though his life is threatened for so doing. Are these not successes, and thrilling ones at that? I sure hope they are, but I’ll let the reader decide for himself.

Success is not always winning, but enduring. That I why stories like The Sound And The Fury have happy endings to me. Miss Quinten gets away from the Compson family and her uncle Jason particularly, and with the money he stole from her. That is a happy ending. Success doesn’t always have to be getting what you want, but learning to cope with failure. Holden Caulfield, who only wants to stop the clock, is satisfied with his sister riding a carousel, which is the closest he will ever get to arresting time.

The Agony Of Defeat

Sometimes a failure destroys a main character. He cannot cope with loss or failure. Sometimes this failure leads to his own death or the death of others, as with Jay Gatsby. For those who survive, their lives may spiral down into the deepest of dispairs, as with Dick Diver. Maybe the worst of all failures is when the protagonist realizes that life goes on for them and everyone else as if their loss didn’t matter at all, as in the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes. And other times the calamity is that others have to live with the mess made by the main character, like all those stained by Thomas Supten.

The Human Drama Of Athletic Competition

All sports are based upon competition. Where it’s Muhammad Ali boxing Joe Frazier or the Harlem Globetrotters running up the score on the Washington Generals, two parties want something and both of them cannot get it. This competition in literature is called conflict, and it is the sizzle to the steak of a good story.

Why does any novel exist? Because someone wants something and someone or something wants the same thing or something else, but both parties cannot be satisfied. We all have studied the man versus nature, man versus man, man versus self stuff, but what I mean involves that but goes far beyond.

Captain Ahab wants the White Whale. The Whale does not want him to succeed, his crew does not want him to succeed, the forces of nature do not want him to succeed, and worst of all, it seems God doesn’t want him to succeed. And still the Captain goes on. This is how conflict makes a great story.

What makes sports so wonderful and entertaining is what makes great literature so enduring. Both give us a glimpse into the notion of what it means to live as a human being. The best stories have characters that are individual, but also identifiable. We see their struggles as our own, or at least in the same ballpark.

 

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The Battle Of Show Me, Don’t Tell Me: Verbs vs. Adverbs

tug

I known more than a few authors who tell me that the notion of Show, Don’t Tell is somewhat confusing. I have found that the best explanation comes down to the use of verbs over adverbs. If you learn this secret, then the eternal struggle between showing and telling resolves itself much easier. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying it become easy, just more readily understandable.

Strong Verbs

A writer best shows his work by great verbs. By verbs, I mean specifically verbs and not all that fall into the family of predicates. That would broaden the scope to include participles, infinities, and yes, even adverbs. Verbs are great showers because they contain action. It is the action in your story, the things your characters do in your narrative, that people can actually see. If the can see it, you can bet it’s good action.

Please note that I mentioned strong verbs. People might think weak verbs would be various being verbs, forms of “I am.” That is true, but here I mean that plus more. A car can drive and a person can walk, but is that the best we can do? Drive and walk are so broad. The best showing involves the most specific action. Have your car speed, skid, linger, bounce down the road. I’ll bet you can come up with better ones on your own. A man can walk, or he can march, stomp, amble, skip, or stride. Specifically, how your car drives and your people walk says something very particular about that action of driving and walking, and thus, something about the people doing the action.

Weak Modifiers

In strong contrast to the action of great verbs, adverbs are notorious tellers. An adverb merely modifies the verb. This means it describes the action. If something is described, it is told, which means it is not seen. Some have told me that they can see adverbs. I disagree. They see the action of the verb. Maybe a good way to clarify this is to say the action of a verb is like seeing a movie. The action is continuous. Anything that modifies the action at best can be seen merely as a still photo. Adverbs never show, they only tell.

I am not saying a one should never use adverbs, but use them sparingly and with great wisdom. Sometimes adverbs add to the music of the narrative voice. My favorite example is Fitzgerald and his use of a car that drives triumphantly with packages in the back. That adverb really tells you nothing at all about the car or the drive. But you get a picture in your mind, that’s for sure. Also, it sounds tremendous. This is one he got away with. If you can do a well as this, then you can use your adverbs.

What Does This Mean?

One rule I learned in my Creative Writing classes is one I still use. If we workshopped a story in class, and we came across an adverb, the professor would ask, “What does this mean?” Sometimes he would ask, “What does this look like?” Let’s say I wrote that a man entered the room happily. The professor would make me describe how a man can enter a room happily. After I have given my description, always with action, he would say, “Write that.”

A cat slowly approaches his bowl of milk, or a cat sets down one paw with great stealth and waits. Only when he is sure no one has noticed does he proceed with another paw. I could go on, but you see where I’m going. Approaching slowly shows me nothing. Describing how he approaches slowly is always better writing. Great verbs are the core of superior Creative Writing. It separates the professionals and the artists from the hacks and the wannabes. You decide for yourself how you want to be viewed, and truth, how you want to be. The great struggle between verbs and adverbs is decided by you, the Creative Writer.

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More Digging In The Details

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Last year I wrote an article about the details that should and shouldn’t be in your narrative. If you want to see that article, you can click here. I’ve reread that and have been thinking a bit more on that, so I have a few more ideas I’d like to add. And if I repeat myself a bit, forgive me.

No Laundry List

Some writers feel the need to fully describe every object, scene, and person. In truth, it makes for tedious reading. Who cares if the heroine is blonde or if her boyfriend in 6’2”? These details should be added if in some way they help tell the story. The problem often is that writers are too close to their stories and think things are vital that readers don’t care for. This is one of the many reasons beta readers are vital.

To tell the truth, I see the appeal, from the prospective of the writer, for including every detail of how things look. I was that way a long time ago. I felt that including every possible detail made me seem as a better writer, like I come across as more observant, maybe more keen or clever than other writers. In truth, it comes across as amateurish. Excessive details flood the reader with tidbits they really don’t want to know. And when you describe everything down to the molecule, you rob the reader of using their imagination. Let them fill in the blanks with their own creativity.

Notice Details Others Usually Miss

No one is saying that writers should use details, certainly not me. Just use the right ones and in the right manner. Everyone describes the face, or more specifically, the eyes and smile. Give someone a long pointy nose, or one so small it’s almost invisible. It’s different, but make it mean something, too. A long, pointy nose may make someone look like a witch.

Now you’re halfway to making readers think that so all you have to do is add witchy behavior. Describe ordinary behavior with specific verbs. For example, you can have a character walk from here to there, or they can march, amble, stumble, stride, glide, slide, and more than a few others I have not mentioned. The same can be said for a car, which can do much more than just drive. Try contracting a noun into a verb for some real punch to your text. I had a scene in my third novel, Prince, where an Italian sports car driven by a teen dives quickly in a residential neighborhood. I wanted something other than the car speeds down the street. If you buy a copy of Prince (and why not?), you will read how this car triumphed through the residential roads. I’ll let you decide if it worked. Either way, it’s different.

Unusual Is Interesting

Everyone is different, which means everyone acts different. Some people are downright unique. I once say someone lick an apple before biting into it. I thought then it’s going in a book (it made it into a short story, good enough). Everything that is unusual grabs and keeps the readers attention. Moreover, it makes the character that more specific, and specific is good.

One place you can really stretch and pull on a character to make him or her as individualistic as possible is in their speech. You can really show the inner person by speech. Every character needs to sound like that character, and not just like the author. Give one character a stutter, and have another speak without contractions. You would be surprised how little differences make a difference in how a character comes across. Just make sure that these speech details are purposeful and deliberate, and more than anything else, something that contributes to the character or the story.

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Truce – a Christmas story

truce

Every day above earth is a good day.” (Earnest Hemingway)

The 17th Caledonian Regiment of His Royal Majesty’s Army dug their grave-like trenches through the cabbage patches of Southern Belgium at the start of the Great War. They kept the Germans from advancing further, but they also were unable to gain ground. They called the middle ground between the two lines of trenches No Man’s Land, but that’s a lie. It was everyone’s land. Anyone was welcome there, and the accustomed hospitality was a sudden conveyance to endless summers or burning sulfurs, whichever best suited the man.

When December drove the unbearable conditions beyond tolerable standards, the inward stress pressed down on the soul of each man with even greater cruelty. On a particular ferocious evening, the wind sounded louder than distant bombs. The stout men of the 17th Caledonian did their best to fortify themselves and each other. The delivery of rations had been delayed, so there was no meat and no bread. For two days they foraged near the back outside of the trench for nuts and leaves, and on these fed the athletes of England and Scotland.

The British High Command, in order to improve morale, ordered a massive push for the 19th of December. The thought was that a grand victory against the enemy Hun would lift the spirits. In the trenches before the fight, garbed in uniforms of penitence, the only thing in greater shortage than food was priests. The offensive was a tremendous failure and it had the opposite effect on troop morale than the High Command anticipated.

By the evening of the 19th, less than half of the 17th Caledonians were still alive. Few were wounded. Almost all touched by the fighting were killed, it seemed to many, mercifully. That evening the enlisted men sat about a small fire trying to warm their bodies and their spirits. None of these enlisted men survived into the next winter, so they will remain nameless here as a courtesy.

“I didn’t sign up for this.”

“Nor did I.”

“We were promised that this would all be over long before Christmas.”

“That’s not going to happen, mate.”

“I remember there was almost a carnival atmosphere at the beginning.”

“I’m afraid now the winter is a bigger enemy than, well, our enemy.”

“We’ve lost as many to frostbite and gangrene as we have to the Germans.”

As so was the night, as many before and to follow. As Christmas approached, all 300,000 British soldiers received a gift from Princess Mary. Moreover, most received parcels from home that contained trinkets and food and cigarettes and most importantly letters from loved ones. Men would reread their letters and then swap them about and everyone read everyone else’s letters from home. This added another rasp to the sinking homesickness that rubbed a rash on the inside of the men already there from the realization that they would each be missing Christmas at home that year, and possibly for years to come.

On Christmas Eve, no one said a word. Each kept to himself in his own misery. A slight dusting of snow began about 8:00PM. Soon after that, the men heard a noise coming from across the No Man’s Land. Every man strained to hear it.

“They’re singing!” said one man.

They words were indistinguishable, but they tune was plainly O, Holy Night. When it finished, a few of the British soldiers sang it back to them in English. The Germans sang O Tannenbaum and the English sang O Little Town Of Bethlehem. The highlight of the evening was when one German tenor who sang as if he could have performed Tristan or Siegfried at Bayreuth performed a solo.

Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

 

Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Jesus in deiner Geburt!

Jesus in deiner Geburt!

He sang six stanzas altogether. No one sang for some time afterwards. Eventually the caroling resumed, both sides singing simultaneously in their own languages. The performances were more solemn than festive, but it did improve the moods of all men, if not for one evening.

The snow continued for the night and the men awoke to a White Christmas, but not at all like they were accustomed. They sky was a single canopy of a dirty silver and the snow on No Man’s Land looked like pewter-iron. They drank dirt coffee and finished off their rations of powdered eggs.

“I had a dream last night,” said one soldier, “I dreamed that this morning was bright and beautiful. And I looked out into No Man’s Land and a fella ran through waving a telegraph in his hand. And he gave it to me and I read it. It said, War’s off, go home, George Rex. But there’s no telegraph this morning.”

Soon after that, a man shouted that someone was climbing out of the trench on the other side. The commanding officer, Jack Drummond, ran out his billet and to where the man spotted the ascender. Drummond was flanked by his two German Sheppards, Burton and Speake.

“Fire, man, fire!” said Drummond.

“I’m not sure that I can.”

“Why not?”

“He’s got a Christmas tree with him, sir.”

Drummond looked through his field glasses and saw a young German enlistee holding nothing more than a twig with a few branches. But each small end had a lit candle and there was no mistake what he carried.

“I can’t shoot a man carrying a Christmas tree, sir.”

Heads usually kept under cover peeked out to see. When the German was a fair distance from his trench, he held up his Tannenbaum and even across the expanse everyone could see his smiled.

Fröhliche Weihnachten!”

One British soldier climbed out of the trench. Drummond called him back, but he went on. It was not long before a few more on each side came out and stood in the middle of No Man’s Land just staring at one another. Eventually, the first two out shook hands and then the rest. There was a bit of reticence as would be expected, but soon a comfortableness and even a familiarity settled in, as if all were old friends. When Drummond saw the German officer climb out, he made his way to the middle as well. All enlisted men on both sides parted like the Red Sea for Moses as they approached. The German officer stuck out his hand.

“Kapitan Anton Kutchner.”

“Captain Jack Drummond.”

They shook hands and all the British soldiers shouted in unison Captain Jack! Drummond’s two dog leapt out and flanked him. Kutchner looked down at the pair.

“They’re here to translate,” said Drummond.

Kutchner was not sure if he should be offended or amused, so to cover both contingencies he laughed and smacked Drummond on the shoulder but with quite a bit of strength. Drummond also laughed and all men joined in the mirth.

It was somehow assumed that every German knew every person in Germany just as every Brit knew everyone who lived in England. One German asked a man from Brighton if he knew his cousin living in York. And to be fair, these British soldiers asked this Saxon regiment if they were aware of people living in Prussia, Bremen, and Hamburg.

“Any of you from London familiar with Belgravia?” said one German.

“I’m from there.”

“My uncle is a barber. He has a shop on the end of Buford Street.”

“My father and grandfather are tailors there. In fact, I think your uncle is right next door to them.”

“Yes! He bought many suits from them. Fine suits.”

“I spent as much time as I could while growing up in their little shop. And I know I’ve had not a few haircuts next door.”

One young British private whispered to his fellow Brit, “These are Germans? They look just like us.”

“Of course, they do.”

“They aren’t monsters.”

“What’s that?”

“I was told they were monsters. Pictures in King & Country showed them with fangs and claws and that. I heard Germans went around killing nuns and children. I’d wager not a one of them had ever killed a nun.”

“Fair account.”

“Excuse me,” shouted the private, “any of you Jerrys ever murder a nun?”

After a stunned pause, they all laughed and the British soldiers joined them. To be sure, the Germans were definitely told just as villainous lies about the English people. Both sides exchanged some of their profit from Princess Mary and home. It was agreed that the Germans had better chocolates but the British had better tobacco, probably because it was American. It was further agreed that German chocolates were preferable to English tobacco.

It was not long before it was lunch and both sides shared rations. As pleasant as the day had been going, it was soon obvious although unsaid that there was a bit of unpleasant business that needed tended. No Man’s Land was littered with frozen corpses. They took the time to bury their dead and the dead of the other side. Echoes of the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm in both German and English swelled over the shovels and upturned dirt.

When the digging was done, both sides rested and talked some more. In time a worn leather football made its way onto the field. They played a proper game with both Captains as officials. Burton and Speake ran after the ball, but could never get it before someone passed it to a teammate. Three of the Germans played for their home eleven, and it showed in their play. The German scored three goals before the British scored their first. The 17th Caledonians had more Scots than Brits by two-to-one. The British wore proper trousers, but the old highlanders wore kilts, even in the winter. When a Scot scored the first British goal, all of the Scots turned around and hoisted their kilts and smacked their rear ends toward the German. These Saxons had never seen this particular Celtic taunt and each man laughed at the impropriety of gaining an impudent glace at a Scottish posterior. The Germans lead 6-2 when the ball struck some barbed wire from an errant kick, and the test ended just that quickly.

For the remainder of the day, they sat about and sang carols, but in the full company of each other. The German tenor sang a few solos. As the sun set, both Captains ordered their men back into the trenches. Everyone shook hands and returned. The last two balancing No Man’s Land were Drummond and Kirchner.

“We’re being replaced by Bavarians after the new year,” said Kutchner.

The Captains shook hands.

“Give them hell for us,” said Kirchner, “we hate the Bavarians.”

The men saluted and returned to their trenches. Burton and Speake leapt down before Drummonds could descend the old wooden ladder. Drummond removed his sidepiece. From across the way, the 17th Caledonian regiment heard three gunshots.

Bang, bang, bang!

Drummond raised his pistol and fired thrice.

Bang, bang, – bang!

Ha paused before his final shot because he knew it would officially end the Christmas Truce they enjoyed that day. There was no such Truce the next year, nor the next. This was a singular even in the time of the Great War. And even then, it was not all along the Western Front, but just in rare pockets where this terrible treason was agreed upon. Many part of the Front saw fighting just as any other day. And occasionally, one side sought some seasonal armistice only to be shot dead by the other side.

While most people think the 20th century began with 1901, some argue it began in 1914, and the Truce is the faultline between two different worlds. I can’t help but wonder if soldiers on both sides didn’t look back during Christmas of 1915 or 1916 and think Why can’t we stop fighting again? What did we have then that we don’t have now?

And now as we stand at the front of the 21st century, we can look back over the distance covered on that battle-pocked field. We can consider what could have been with the Truce. We can contemplate the Wasteland of the 20th century that followed it and everything that the Great War wrought. We all know now that the Western Front was just the beginning of it all. And now things are mended, and we can come together and shake hands, but No Man’s Land is still there.

 

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Art Is What You Can Get Away With

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One of my current projects is a small book on Creative Writing advice. I call it advice because I really didn’t want to call them rules. I didn’t want to sound self-important, as if I am the sole arbitrator of good writing. The items in this book are bits of advice I have been given that I feel is worth passing on. But that doesn’t mean there are not rules. I’ve read some authors who either never took the time to learn the rules of good writing or they have decided to ignore them. They remind us that rules are made for breaking. Try that in court and you’ll see how silly that really is.

Learn The Rules Before You Break Them

If there ever were an artist who broke the rules, it would be Pablo Picasso. He once famously said about that how he took twenty years to learn the rules before he could break them. Rules are rules for a reason. This is true for fiction and for painting. By learning the rules of Creative Writing, you learn the basics and get yourself grounded in the fundamentals.

I grew up hearing you have learn to dribble before you can slam dunk. A pitcher will never learn to throw an effective curveball if he has never learned how to throw a fastball. A scientist will never be able to split the atom until he has learned basic physics and some advanced math. And an author will never be able merely by natural talent alone to compose the next Great American Novel. I don’t care how wonderful your momma or your Sophomore English teacher said you were, you have to learn how to do anything before you can ever be good at it.

Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the trumpet and become the next great jazz artist. He needs to learn embouchure and how to play his scales before he can ever improvise. Think of a Creative Writer who wants to break the rules as a jazz solo. If you cannot even play the trumpet properly with a solid understanding of music, you can never raise the people to their feet when you perform. Your “rule-breaking” novel will never get pages turned if you never even learned the rules before you broke them.

Don’t Break The Rules As Much As Modify Them

The idea of breaking rules, at least to me, has the connotation of ignoring the rules. A Creative Writer should never really do that. The only times we defy the guidance from the greats, it should be occasional and not perpetual. And on the occasion we go against what we have learned, we have a really good reason for it. And when I say reason, I mean an artistic reason and not some personal preference.

For example, Fitzgerald shows us how going against the rules sometimes works. One of the rules is that we need to avoid modifiers, and adverbs in particular. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote how a car drove “triumphantly” down the road with gifts and packages in the back. Yes, he used the dreaded adverb, but it adds to the music of the text. And moments like this contributes to his voice, which is one of the most unique and spectacular voices in all of fiction.

In Tender Is The Night, Fitzgerald makes the “mistake” of using a weak verb – were. But the sentence it wonderful. “The hotel and the tan prayer rug of a beach were one.” The end of the sentence needs to be weak so it doesn’t take away from the best part, that spectacular simile about the tan prayer rug of a beach. And still, Fitzgerald followed the rules about avoiding adverbs and using strong verbs. He didn’t break or avoid the rules, he just modified them, and only when the art was improved by these modifications.

Some Rules Should Never Be Broken

The remote modifier or being verb will not ruin your writing. But there are some things that are fictional sacrosanct. The most elevated of writing rules is Show, don’t tell. To tell is to engage in the weakest of writing and should always be avoided. I could write a chapter with all telling, and at best, when I’m stuck with is a treatment of what the chapter should be if I write it properly, with the strong action of interesting characters. Telling is boring, and boring is the unpardonable sin for any artist.

Another firm rule is Writing is re-writing. A manuscript is not done when the author types THE END on the last page. In a sense, the work has only begun. Now starts a long series of edits. No one should ever think everything that can be said has been said and in the best way when the first draft is finished. There’s a good reason why the first draft is also called the rough draft. And no manuscript we present to the public should ever contain anything rough.

The plot points need to be learned and observed. Every story, and every scene, needs to have its setting, a conflict, and rising action that leads to a climax, followed by the declining action that trails to and end to the story or the scene. Even when you read some avent guarde work, if it is written well, it will still have the plot points. Consider James Joyce and his stream-of-consciousness style. There are many rules he negotiates around, but he always has the basic elements of the story. Not just the city of Dublin, but different parts of the town, both public and private. There is something the main character of the scene wants, can’t get it immediately, but eventually does – or doesn’t. Either way, it’s a scene with elements of plot.

In The Natural, Roy Hobbs’ father tells him, “You’ve got a gift, Roy. But it’s not enough. You’ve got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift, then you’ll fail.” It was true for him and it is true for us. I have read a lot of stuff from people who were told how naturally talented they were and they never took the time to seriously study the craft of composition. It’s all bad. They willingly flaunt the idea of rules in the name of art. They try to write the way Picasso painted. His work is genius, and theirs is a rotten mess. Art truly is what you can get away with, but that doesn’t mean the rules are frivolous. more than a few authors what written with no regard for the rules, and in the end, they haven’t “gotten away” with a single thing.

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Symbolism In The Godfather: Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Banana?

gf

In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, he uses the moon as one of the symbols for the love shared between Gatsby and Daisy. In this way, the reader can learn something about their relationship, how crazy it truly is. One might say – lunacy. In this, it’s clear why he would choose such an emblem as a symbol. That having been said, anything can be a symbol of anything, as long as it is well written and the symbolism works. For example, oranges are symbolic of danger and death in the 1972 movie, The Godfather.

Examples

The two clearest examples involve the Godfather himself, Vito Corleone. The first is how he buys a sack of oranges from a street vendor just before he’s shot. The shooters even knock over a basket of oranges as they run up to fire on the Don. The second is how he plays with an orange with his grandson before he has a heart attack. He puts a slice in his mouth and pretends to be a monster and scares his grandchild. From the strength of these alone, it would be hard to establish how oranges are a symbol, but there is more.

The film director Jack Woltz has a bowl full of oranges on his dinner table when he eats with Tom Hagen. When the camera shoots down the table towards Woltz, the orange is prominently in the center of the table. He awakens the morning to find the head of his prize horse in his bed. Threat taken. At the bank meeting of the Dons, a bowl of fruit sets before Don Barzini. An orange is on top right under his head. This could be a portend of his own death at the hands of Al Neri, or symbolize how he is the real threat, and not Don Tattaglia. At the wedding feast, Sal Tessio reaches at his table for an orange. This is not just s symbol, but a portend of his death at the end of the movie. In fact, the get the fruit he crosses over the Don’s wife and two of her grandchildren. Sal literally crosses the Corleones, which he did at the end to set up his death.

You see the same in the second movie. In the flashback portion, Don Ciccio eats an orange as he walks down the street towards his apartment. Vito meets him at his door and shoots him. At the party for Anthony’s first Eucharist, Johnny Ola gives Michael Corleone an orange as a gift from Hyman Roth from Miami. That night, assassins fail to kill Michael and is family in his home. The orders were given by Roth. Near the end of the movie, Michael eats an orange with Hagen and Rocco Lampone while discussing the hit he has just ordered to be put on Roth.

Lessons

While creating symbolism is never easy, there are some that make more sense to both author and reader, such as the moon for lunacy to describe the love between Gatsby and Daisy. Any small space can symbolize a prison, or for that matter, any restrictive system, or the other way around. But when you as a writer work on your symbolism, don’t always go for the low hanging fruit (even if it’s the orange).

An orange is not an obvious representative of danger and threats of death. But here it works because Puzo and Copella use them consistently. It’s true that anything can represent anything, and that a symbol can work even if it’s used just once, but not oranges for danger. At any time, a single tree can stand for the cross, a snake for temptation, or a mirror for introspection (okay, I wrote this on Sunday). But when you use a symbol that in itself it not obvious, you need to use it more than once. Not just that, but whenever you can.

When creating symbolism, you almost have to over-do it. Don’t be afraid it coming across as too much. What seems as too many of a symbol to you will not be noticed to many readers. Let your beta-readers tell you if it’s too much, and maybe ask them to look for it. But if you want, a rake can symbolize hope, a skillet can stand for justice, or an owl can represent unrequited love. It’s all how you use them. Symbolism makes your storytelling richer, and we should not neglect them. As Creative Writers we make our words dance, we manipulate them like puppets on a string. Work symbolism into your tales, and your readers will cherish you or your skills and advanced craft.

 

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The Devil Is In The Details

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Most fiction written today is boring. It all reads the same. No one is distinctive from another. This is not just a failure to find the author’s voice, but it is also a failure in the use of the details within a given tale. They are overdone, underdone, or done poorly, if not all three.

Make stuff happen.

We need constant action. The scene from The Last Tycoon with Stahr and Boxley where the tycoon gives a writing lesson to the writer is a good point to remember here (that scene was in an article I posted on Show, Don’t Tell. You can read it if you click here). Great writing is more than anything else a recording of action. I’ve often described great fiction as interesting people doing interesting things. And this bends back to the absolute rule of Show me, don’t tell me.

When I’m reading a book, I don’t want to read the personal rantings of the author as if he has crossed over into philosopher. And I don’t care what’s in the mind of the character. Show me what he’s thinking by his actions. Moreover, don’t tell me a certain person is feeling this or that. Display that emotion with actions.

What reads better? A person was angry, or they crumbled the letter in two white-knuckled fists, closed their eyes so tightly that it made the eyes hurt, and his red face shook until he screamed. The second shows anger with action and the first is the dreaded adjective that is the most empty calorie of words in literature.

Take Notes

The best writers are not so much creative as they are observant. Watch life around you and take notes of everything. I have a notepad function on my phone, and of course, I have my phone with me at all time. Whenever I see or hear something interesting, I think, That’s going in a book. I can’t remember them all regardless of how interesting they are, so I have to write them down if I’m going to use them. Even if I do not have any work in progress that would accommodate a particular statement or action, I may in the future, so I’ll saved the unused in a file.

It’s these little gems that add flare to the text and make your characters more interesting. We need to do all we can to make the text interesting or people will not read our stuff. Elmore Leonard famously said that he tries to leave out the stuff people skip through. Good advice for us. But not only leave out the dull parts, make sure to fill our pages with interesting stuff.

Speaking Of Interesting Stuff

Start with your own life, then go to extremes. Remember, “All fiction is biography, and al biography is fiction.” Hemingway and Shakespeare and Homer all wrote from what they knew from their own lives, independent from whatever story they were telling. That is, if such things can truly be independent from ourselves and our writing. All we encounter shapes us, which means it shapes our creativity.

So when you write form your own life, what you have done and what you have seen, use the things that are different, even outlandish. The things we all do may be worth noting as it is action, but the unusual things people do are the things worth noting in our lists and worth adding to our stories. For example, I once saw a woman lick the skin of an apple before she took a bite. I took note immediately and it found its way in my next short story. And who knows, but I may want to put it into a novel some day.

Notice details others usually miss. Unusual is interesting. But don’t make your narrative a laundry list of details. Use only those details that help tell the story, just make them spectacular. Some people think of details as the particulars of physical description as opposed to the details of people’s actions. I don’t want to know every bit of how a room looks. I only use any detail of physical description when it helps tell the story. This can be a detail about the scenery or how a person looks. We need these details, but not every cotton-pickin’ one of them.

You may have seen before the bit about the blue curtains in the novel, and some English professor goes on about the symbolism of the blue curtains, but the only thing in the author’s mind is that the curtains are blue. I don’t like that. If that’s the case, that means some author is wasting details that have nothing to do with the story. Any detail about a person or the scene can by symbolic, or a metaphor, or possibly a portend. If you use a description, make it useful. To try otherwise is lazy and ineffective writing. When it comes to great writing, the devil is indeed in the details. We need to use them, use them carefully, and use them deliberately.

 

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