On Handedness and The Opposed Thumb

I recently had surgery on my right (dominant) hand. It is healing nicely and I expect a full recovery, with much less pain and discomfort than I had before. But for the last two weeks, in the process of healing, my thumb has been immobilized and wrapped to the tip. So for two weeks I have had no opposable thumb on my right hand.

Not having a thumb on your dominant hand is a big deal. Maybe the scientists are right, that humans are superior to apes because of our opposed thumb. I should add I don’t think we are superior—just smarter. But I digress.

Without the use of my right thumb I am stupider. Every little thing is a big deal. Scientist, and pickpockets for that matter, have shown that we humans do a poor job of multitasking. In fact, we can only keep track of a few things at one time. I believe that the unusual concentration I need to do simple things without a right thumb, slows down my thinking for everything else.

Maybe it was when I learned to type, or by habit later, but I always use my right thumb to hit the space bar. I can’t now. I can use my left thumb for the space bar, but it is a deliberate act, not something that happens automatically at the end of a word or sentence. I find it is faster and more natural to hit the space with my right (dominant) index finger than my left thumb.

I tried writing, i.e., printing, with my left hand, but that was a disaster. I am very right handed. I can slowly make letters composed of straight lines with my left hand and they are almost legible. Lower case letters, though, are another matter. For example, I find that I tend to make small letters that you normally make in one motion, like “e” and “r”, backwards. I think that says something about the way our brains work.

Even door knobs were a surprise. With my right hand I turn doorknobs clockwise. (Remember the right hand rule from math classes?) With my left hand, if I don’t think about it, I turn knobs counterclockwise. Likewise with a computer mouse, finding and clicking an object with my left hand is a jagged, herky-jerky process. Scientist claim there is no such thing as muscle memory, but there sure seems to be some sort of firmware in the nervous system that resists change.

This thinking led me to do a little research on our close cousins the apes. 10 out of 12 gorillas are right handed, which is close to the 85% to 90% right handedness in humans. But gibbons and orangutans tended to be left handed. And, in spite of what some scientists have said, many apes and other animals have nearly opposable thumbs, although they may not be able to contact the fleshy pads of the thumb to the fingers. I will hazard a guess that the idea of human superiority being due to the opposed thumb was a theory cooked up to prove that humans were superior, indeed apart and above all other animals. But we don’t believe that do we.

So, where does this leave me with my disabled right thumb? In a few days the splint will come off and I will again have a usable right thumb. In the meantime I can type—slowly and clumsily with many mistakes. And back to our kin the apes. Left alone (by us) they seem to get along fine with their less dexterous thumbs. And, if you watch the news at all, you might even question their inferiority to us humans.

I Gotta’ Get Organized

How did my life get so cluttered? I’m sitting at my laptop, a Writers Market, festooned with Post-it flags, lies open on my left, along with two notebooks, one for writing and one for everything else. On a small shelf above the printer is a brochure for a writer’s conference and a discount flyer for auto maintenance. To my right is a conference table with two peanut butter jars of change, one for quarters and one for smaller coins, two Seymour Duncan guitar pickups I mean to sell on eBay; an espresso can full of pens, pencils, a pocket flashlight, an Exacto knife, a dull pair of scissors and a small screwdriver; a battered Webster’s pocket dictionary, a 30-foot measuring tape, a stapler, a frame of cubby holes sorted into – stuff, a folder for next years taxes I mean to put away, a draft of a story, two utility bills and a stack of guitar instruction books I plan to get to. On the wall are bracketed shelves sagging with the weight of magazines, novels, references, computer software, equipment manuals, and the gift brass sextant from my wife from two birthdays ago I intend to polish. My favorite guitar is on a stand besides the table, with the amp on the floor, and a black spray painted milk crate that says “Property of Creamland Dairy” below the conference table that I keep there for – I don’t remember what I keep it there for, but I must have had plans for it. Behind me is a woodworking bench my son found and gave to me, with a loose-leaf folder full of music on it. A folding tables in front of that holds another music folder opened to “So Many Stars.”

What IS all this stuff? Why haven’t I put the pickups back in the drawer in an old filing cabinet in the garage with the other guitar parts, and put the measuring tape back in my toolbox while I’m at it? Why haven’t I walked the tax folder back to the cabinet a full 15 feet away? When I graduated from college in Missouri and drove to my first job in California, I carried everything I owned in a ’56 Pontiac and I had enough room left over to sleep on the back seat. Now I’m a tiny, backwards, underdeveloped country.

In a previous life I was in the business world and would read articles on how to be organized and how to best use your time. And, on occasion, I have admired those people with clean desks, and it would be assumed clear minds–though secretly I believe they must be quite dull. Am I really that scattered, or just lazy? I’m not creative enough to justify this sort of chaos. Yes, I stay busy. So do ants, but they are much more orderly.

It’s Spring. Surely, I will soon get myself together and put some of this stuff away. And clean the garage, which is a worse disaster than my office, while I’m at it. Before that, though, I should probably check the news on the internet and pay a couple of credit card bills. But first I need another cup of coffee.

Cat Humor

Cats have a sense of humor. You may scoff, but I am convinced it’s so. First let me say that there may be reasons our cats might seek revenge. For example, there was a time that I shot a paper bag our cat Bossa was playing in, with a rubber band. I’m sure it didn’t hurt her, but it did make a satisfying whap! She exploded from the bag and hid in the garage for nearly an hour. And there was a time I thought that vacuuming our cat Azul (she was blue as a kitten) would be more efficient than combing her. But those events were many years ago; surely they have forgotten. Besides, the incident I’m about to recall was a joint venture.

Several years ago, after brushing my teeth, and taking my morning dose of multi-vitamins, fish oil, and low-dose aspirin, which the pundits said would keep me healthy–at least for that week, I went to retrieve my jeans hanging on a hook on the side of my dresser. I put the hooks on years ago as a convenient place to hang jeans, shirts and shorts still in use. We all know that adults clothes are good for several wearings unless they have been sweat in, or used for cleaning chimneys, working on cars or digging in the dirt. That day I found both of our cats atop the dresser, looking back and forth between me and down at my jeans. I thought the cats posture and attitude odd, but it would not have been the first time I found our cats doing something wacky. I don’t know where they get it.

I slipped on my jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and a pair of shoes, and headed down the half flight of stairs to the kitchen to make coffee. The cats followed me, but that was not unusual. The first task after brewing the coffee is to feed the cats. They were, perhaps, a little more attentive than usual. Before I got to the coffee maker, I felt something in the leg of my jeans–one of the anti-static sheets from the dryer, I thought. But when I shook my leg, half of a dead mouse tumbled out onto the kitchen floor. You might imagine the impact of this on my still drowsy, caffeine-starved brain. I left both the dead mouse and my jeans on the bricks and went back upstairs for a shower.

On occasion, for effect, I will use one of those words that my wife objects to. They’re not oaths, but words that she finds, well, disgusting. Afterward I check, out of the corner of my eye, to see if it has registered. It has, of course; she never misses anything. A casual observer might notice no change in her expression or demeanor, but I do. I note the recognition and see the gears turning, planning for future retribution.

As with my wife I’ve also become adept at reading the cats expressions. It is true this event could have been an accident, happenstance, serendipity. But I don’t believe it, not for an instant. Only guilt could have produced such twin, blank looks of nonchalant innocence.

Humor: The Difference between Men and Women. “The Ring”

Men and women are different. Of course, you say. But I am thinking of a clear example. When my son was nine months old he had a rubber clown on a suction cup that would stick to the tray of his high chair. One evening, in an vain attempt to entertain him, I stuck it to my forehead. I poked out my tongue and made faces while shaking my head to make the clown wiggle. Rather than being entertained, he seemed embarrassed for me.

The next morning, there was a perfectly round hickey, the diameter of a cola can, in the middle of my forehead. I didn’t want to go to work that way, but go to work I must. The solution my wife found was to cover it up with make-up. I thought it was a good idea, and she did a fine job. The shade coordinated nicely with my hair and skin tones, I thought.

By keeping my head down while walking into the office and working diligently at my desk, I managed to avoid encounters for a good half an hour before my friend, Gary, recently now my boss, showed up.

“Hi E. H,” he said.

I said “Hi Gary,” continuing to look down.

“How’re you doing?”

“Good,” I said, still intently hovering over my work.

“Look at me.”

“Huh?” I said, head down.

“Let me see your head!”

I looked up at him and went into a defensive and overly detailed explanation of what had happened and the chosen remedy.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what,” said Gary. “I’m going to let this pass. But if you come in here with lipstick on, there’s going to be real trouble.” Gary had a good, if sometimes cruel, sense of humor.

After a later retelling of this story, another friend told me that when he did the clown trick, albeit without the makeup, the first person he saw the next day said “Your son has one of those suction cup clowns doesn’t he.” A month or so later another co-worker came to work with the clown mark. My mother told me that her favorite weatherman in St. Louis showed up on television one morning similarly branded. There must be thousands of us. Do we need to form a support group? We could call ourselves “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Should we try to have it declared a bona fide disease so we can disclaim responsibility?

The question that most interests me, though, is why I have not heard of a woman with the affliction. I don’t mean to launch into a debate about the war of the sexes, Frankly, I don’t believe in it. As far as the aphorisms about our differences–men are obsessed with their toys–women can’t drive. They sometimes provide weak humor, but we all know they are not, in general, true. What then explains this particular disparity between male and female behavior?

Is it because women have no senses of humor? Anyone who has seen Lilly Tomlin or read Erma Bombeck knows that’s not true. Do women lack imagination? Georgia O’Keeffe, Barbara Kingsolver – no, that’s not it. Do women lack a craving for adventure? Amelia Earhart among others shows this false. Is it a weakness or failing on the part of men? Surely not.

Now I see that, in the Northeast, yet another boy has frozen his tongue to a flag pole. A boy … never a girl.

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This piece appeared in The Mountain View Telegraph, a weekly newspaper serving the East Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2010.

What Works for Me in Writing, Part 4: Odds and Ends, and Resources

This is the last installment of “What Works for Me in Writing,” at least for now. It’s a small assortment of discoveries that help, or hinder, my writing.

  Research

Most likely you will need to do research. I know many writers spend months, maybe years, researching before they begin writing. I don’t. Many of the things I research I don’t know I need until I am writing: what is a hand (a measurement of the size of a horse), what is a stone (body weight), how many miles (or leagues) can a horse and rider cover in a day, what natural medicines would go into a treatment for menstrual pains? But I recommend you separate your research and your writing—at least during your first draft. Writing and research are different skills and require different mind sets. If you determine there is something you need to know as you are writing, make a note of it and keep writing. You can come back to it later. I’m not particularly disciplined. If I stop writing to research something, I usually get distracted into looking up something else. Two hours (of not writing) later and I am frustrated and angry with myself.

When editing, however, after the bones of the story are in place, I find I am less easily distracted and can sometimes check a fact on line and return to the work.

 Reading

You need to read … a lot. Don’t just read in your genre. Read fiction and non-fiction. But read good books by good writers. Some have suggested that you read bad books by bad writers, to learn how not to write. That’s whacky! Don’t do it! You absorb what you see, hear and read. You want the good stuff. Besides, there are more good, even great, books than you will ever have time to read. Why bother with the bad ones?

Always Rest at the Top

I have been hiking in mountains for decades. A long time ago I found that the place to rest is at the top of a hill, not at the bottom, in a gully. It’s easier to start out again on a flat section or downhill rather than looking at a steep climb. The same is true for writing. Don’t end your writing session at the end of a chapter or scene. Start the next scene, with an outline or a theme, or with a sentence or even the beginning of a sentence. The next time you set down to write you aren’t looking up a steep hill. That’s not to say I don’t get stumped now and again, but if I have just a thematic idea about what a scene is about, I can almost always write something. I must add that I believe this but don’t always practice it.

About Writer’s Block”

 We all get stuck—but don’t buy in to writer’s block. Once you’ve named it, it is too easy to use it as an excuse.

 Finding Inspiration away from the Keyboard

I never take a walk or a hike that I don’t come up with at least one idea: a plot or a plot twist, a quality of a character, a piece of dialog. The same is not true while driving a car or riding my bicycle. Go figure.

Further, you need to get away from the keyboard regularly. Hike, ride a bike, walk the neighborhood, go to the gym–weights, treadmill, spin, aerobics, Jazercise, Zumba! It will make you feel better and, I believe, make you write better. Part of it is psychological, I’m sure. But I believe part of it is simply increasing circulation and getting blood and oxygen to your brain.

 Fonts

I read a lot about fonts some time ago. Some writers believe that certain fonts are better for certain genres. There may be something to that, but until you have better advice use Times New Roman. It’s attractive and it’s a serif font, which is believed to be faster to read.

Recommended Books on Writing

Here are some of the books on writing I have read and thought were worthwhile. The order is somewhat in the order that I value what they had to say, tempered by the time I needed to invest. Since there is considerable repetition, the ranking might also relate to the order in which I read them. You’ll notice that the first two are short, I like books that get to the point. There are lots of good books on writing that aren’t on this list.

  1. The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. Start with this small, 85-page book. Memorize it. Though somewhat dated, there is little here that anyone will disagree with.

  2. On Writing” by Stephen King. This book is a gem. It’s full of practical, usable, no-bull tools and ideas. Part of the reason I value this book is that the second section, which is the part about writing, is only a little over one hundred twenty pages.

  3. Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King. A good all-around book on writing and editing.

  4. Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein. Sol Stein is of the literature school, and somewhat disparaging of commercial writers. None the less, there is a lot of worthwhile information here.

  5. Plot and Structure” by James Scott Bell. This was one of the first writing books I read. There is lots of emphasis on keeping things moving, building suspense, confrontation and the like. It is aimed at the modern writer of fast-paced fiction. 

Other Resources

There are a number of useful resources that are readily available on the internet–for free!

  1. The Snowflake Method,” by Randy Ingermanson. This is a planning approach that I use. You can find it on line at www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php. It’s a systematic approach that leads stepwise from a one-sentence summary of your novel to a complete scene-by-scene plan. There are a number of other similar systems, but this one works for me. Ignore the title unless you are a math geek into fractals.

  2. Master Class” by Ken Follett. Can be downloaded at KenFollett.com. This is short, but I found it worthwhile. Two key ideas are covered. First is his method of extensive novel planning that involves getting input from your agent and publisher at each stage of the plan. Note that a publisher will not invest the time to do this unless you are already established and well-known, i.e., highly profitable. But there is still good stuff here that doesn’t involve dedicated agents and publishers. The second idea I will quote. “There is a rule which says that the story should turn about every four to six pages. A story turn is anything that changes the basic dramatic situation. It can change it in a little way or change it in a big way. A small turn creates a problem that must be solved. A large turn forces a total change in direction. You can’t go longer than about six pages without a story turn, otherwise the reader will get bored. But if you’ve got two story turns in four pages, you are going too fast and are not drawing the full drama and emotion out of each scene.”

  3. yWriter is a novel writing program written by Simon Hayes, author of the Hal Spacejock book series. I have used it to prepare and write the drafts of the last four or so novels I have started. It is designed to allow you to write scenes, within chapters, and rearrange and reorder later. The program makes it easy to keep track of scene descriptions, notes, characters, settings, time and dates, items and much more. It also allows the author to identify the status (outline, draft, first edit, and so on), humor and tension of each scene. It is generously offered for free by Mr. Hayes at HalSpacejock.com. He does accept contributions. Check out his writing notes, too.

What Works for Me in Writing – Part 3: The Writing Life

Continuing with this writer’s opinions on the craft. 

First an apology. I am a month late with this post. I had been editing the comments from first readers into my novel, when, in the span of six days, I broke my left fibula and my wife broke her arm. It’s a matter of priorities.

And then a confession. I have no idea what The Writing Life is, any more than The Plumbing Life, or The Software Engineering Life, or The Bike Messaging Life.

Do you remember that first job you had – as a server, or car hop, or a grocery bagger? The one you got when you handed your paper route over to your younger brother. The reason you got it was to earn some cash. Maybe you wanted to buy a car or a guitar or to start saving for college or maybe just to have some money in your pocket. But the value of that first job was something else. It taught you the fundamental principles of all employment: Show up on time every day. Work hard. Do a good job. They are the same principles needed for all jobs. You needed them when you moved on to a larger restaurant that paid more, when you started playing gigs with a band, when you worked construction in the summer to pay for college, and when you graduated and took a job as an engineer.

Show up on time. Work hard. Do a good job. Those are the key principles of The Writing Life. If you have read established author’s views on writing, you don’t need me to tell you this. You will read about B ITCH (Butt In The Chair). You might find Stephen King’s quote, “If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well.”

But, what about the muse? Writing is an art and a craft and a job. If you want to be a writer you have to write—all the time, not just when the muse smiles on you. You will find more inspiration when you are writing than when you are wool gathering.

But writers are artists, you need to cut them some slack. Na’, c’mon. Writing is a profession. It’s for grownups. Margaret Atwood says, “Writing is work. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.” Be a professional. Meet deadlines. Honor commitments—even to yourself.

Yes, there’s a bottom line: it’s not about you, it’s about the story and your readers. Show up on time, Work hard, Do a good job.

Now that I have that off my chest let’s move on to other things.

 Write Whatever is on Your Mind as Fast as You Can?”

In your writing studies you may find recommendations that you simply set down and write anything that comes into your head as fast as you can. “Keep your hand moving.“ I have tried it and it doesn’t work for me. I ended up with the mindless babble one would expect if they thought about it. Writing is an intellectual process. Not in the sense of being smart, but in the sense of thinking about what you are doing.

“Write for the Market, or Write What you Want?”

 This is another well-worn argument. If you are already a successful novelist, you probably, at least in some sense, write for your market. But if you are a successful novelist, you already know what works for you. You aren’t here listening to me. If you are not a successful novelist, I recommend that, within reason, you write what you want. Write the story you would want to read. The market changes, sometimes quickly. If you write what is in vogue, by the time you have written a story what was in vogue won’t be. I think most of us are best off writing what we care about and believe is true

 “All Modern Books must be Fast Paced”

You will find books on writing fiction that will tell you that every scene and every chapter must end with a cliff hanger – a pulse thumping, heart-in-the-throat menace that compels you to read on.

I looked at a number of the adventure/thrillers I had recently read and, though they certainly had lots of action, confrontation and conflict, they weren’t always moving at a break-neck speed. I agree more with Stephen King, who says “There is a kind of unspoken belief in publishing circles that most commercially successful stories and novels are fast paced. This idea is mostly bullshit.”

I will take it farther. I find I am no longer interested in most of the novels showing up at Costco. I have tired of the “end every chapter with a cliff hanger” school. I can see the wires the hero is hanging from when he jumps from the building to the helicopter. There are a number of modern thriller authors, I believe, that have read about the heart-thumping approach and have become caricatures of themselves.

I would love to have a novel sold at Costco, of course.

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The next “What Works for Me in Writing” post will be on Odds & Ends & Resources. I promise it will be more positive than this one.

What Works for Me in Writing, Part 2:

This week I will continue to unabashedly tout my opinions on the craft.

Write in Chapters or Scenes?

I often hear writers say they try to write a chapter or more a day, or that they will write until they finish a chapter. To me the key element is the scene not the chapter. Few of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books have chapters. In Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone books, every scene is a chapter, some less than a page long.

I write scene after scene then sort and sometimes reorder the scenes into chapters when the first draft is complete.

 Writing Stories vs. Writing Literature

Writing literature does not work for me, presuming I am even capable of writing literature, which I doubt. I want to write compelling stories that people want to read. You will find books on writing that trash many of the successful contemporary writers. I won’t argue that John Grisham writes great literature, but I find he writes good stories that I enjoy reading.

 Vocabulary

I like words, even big and elaborate words. Were I Cormac McCarthy, I might use “gryke” in a rock rather than “slot” or “cleft.” I don’t mind reading Umberto Eco with a dictionary at hand. But, though I like the feel of rare words, I prefer to use those I can find in my battered, paperback Webster’s. “Prefer the simple to the ornate.” (See Strunk and White.)

 Writing with Pen and Paper vs. Writing on a Computer

Many writers like writing with pen or pencil. Neal Stephenson writes his first draft and does his first edit with fountain pens in different colors of ink. Steinbeck and Hemingway preferred pencils. I like the feeling of writing with pen on paper. A fountain pen, better yet. The ceremony of filling and cleaning, much like when I smoked a pipe in an earlier life, the carefully formed letters, the slow loving movement shaping the words, the clean, stained line following the nib across the page …. That’s not writing it’s calligraphy! It’s too slow. I need to get the words down. So, though I like to write with pen on paper, unless caught without a computer I write at the keyboard.

That said, I carry a spiral-bound notebook for notes, observations, ideas, and, on occasion, the odd scene. I like the 6×9 inch size. The larger ones are, well, too big and the smaller ones don’t have enough space to write seriously. And as much as I like fountain pens, away from home they’re too fussy and messy so I carry a ballpoint. Ballpoints are a modern miracle. Even the cheap ones given away as advertising last a long time. And, of course, I always carry a spare – either another pen or a pencil.

I should add that I do later edits in hard copy. Seeing the words on paper gives me a different perspective that I think is closer to the reader’s experience, and make it easier for me to spot editorial mistakes or words used too often. I read the entire piece out loud at least once.

 Get Together with Friends to Write

I enjoy getting together with friends. And I think it is worthwhile to talk to other writers, especially to work around problems you might be struggling with. But getting together with others to write strikes me as a dumb idea. Writing requires pretty much my complete attention. It’s a solitary activity, like going to the toilet. This is not to say that writing produces the same outcome as going to the toilet – necessarily.

 Writing in Restaurants, Coffee Shops, Bus Stations?

Not me. I write at home. I have a comfortable house, with much deferred maintenance, in the mountain foothills of central New Mexico. It’s a nice place to be. I write on a laptop at any number of places in the house. I could probably write in a Starbucks, but why? Though I will, on occasion, hang out in a restaurant or coffee shop surreptitiously watching people, noting down looks and mannerisms. Which leads to:

 Must You Have the Perfect Writing Environment?

There are those that argue that they must have the perfect space to write, the correct time of day, with the appropriate muses in their designated places and listening to the right kind of music. (Write kind of music?) I don’t need it. My writing space is my laptop. I usually write at home: at my desk, the dining room table, near the wood stove in cold weather, even in the large comfortable chair in the living room while my wife watches television. I have written at airports and in my car. When I have my head right, I can write nearly anywhere.

I usually write without background music. I like jazz. If the music is something I like I get into the music, not the writing. If the music is something I don’t like it annoys me and distracts me from writing. I will concede that for certain types of writing and certain scenes, a particular kind of music might help. Shit-kicking country might help to write a bar scene, for example, but I have not tried it.

 Next week: “The Writing Life”

Writing- What Works for Me: Part 1, To Plot or Not?

This will be the first of several posts on what writing approaches work for me. Yes, me, a thus-far unpublished author. And what business have I giving opinions on writing? As much business as I have trying to write fiction in the first place, I guess. After all, it takes a certain audacity to make stuff up, write it down, and hope other people will read it.

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Once a year the Gods of writing assemble and choose the writers that have it all worked out – have it “just right.”  As a reward they send them a plaque. It’s quite nice – brass with a mahogany backing. Do you know what it says?

Ah, you didn’t get one either.

This story was much funnier in its original form where it was, of course, about sex.

Is there a point to this? Certainly. Think about all the authors you have read: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, J. K. Rowling, Robert B. Parker, Terry Pratchett, Dan Brown and Salman Rushdie, and all the others. (I intentionally put Dan Brown and Salman Rushdie together in that sentence. Snerk.) You quickly see there is no one way to write a book. There are more bad ways than good ways, but there are many ways.

When I decided to pursue writing seriously I read, even studied, a number of books on writing written by experts. I found each had something worthwhile to offer and each had something with which I disagreed. Yes, even as a beginner, I dared to take on the Gods. More importantly, I found they often disagreed with one another.

But let’s back up. There are some things that most experts agree on, and you should know them before you proceed. You should know the rules of grammar and how to use them. Steven King says, “Unless he is certain of doing well, the writer will probably do best by following the rules.” Start with “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White. If you’re a poor speller, like me, you should know to use a spell checker and the places where a spell checker fails. You should know to avoid adverbs.

You should know to show not tell. You should know that a key to fiction is placing your characters in difficult situations and letting them struggle to overcome them. You should know that your heroes must have flaws and your villains must have some redeeming, or at least interesting, qualities. There are many more,and nearly all are found in any good book on fiction writing. These are rules on which all writers agree. You should know them. If you don’t, go off and study them and come back to this article. It will still be here.

But the meat of this piece and the ones that will follow is about those things on which the experts do not agree and on which I have formed my own opinions.

 Plotters vs. Pantsers

Should you lay out the plan for your book beforehand, or come up with a setting and a few characters and see what happens? Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, says “work from a suitable plan.” But Steven king distrusts plot. In On Writing he says, “I want to put a group of characters in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.” Ken Follett plans and plots extensively before he begins to write, He reviews his plans with his agent and publisher as he develops it. By the time he is ready to start writing, he has 30 to 50 pages of notes.

I am a plotter. Or possibly a plodder. After all, my characters are variations of me and I’m lazy. If I left it to my protagonist to do something he would tell me “Writing this book was your idea, not mine. So you go write your book. I’m going to take a nap.” You need to put your characters to work. That means to give them a bunch of crap do deal with. That’s plot.

Another reason I’m a plotter is, with my background as an engineer, I don’t trust my creativity. I trust logic and planning. I don’t trust my instincts to come up with compelling ideas on the spot. I trust myself to be able to develop a plan of action and to follow it. Maybe experience will teach me otherwise.

But if you are a plotter, like me, does it mean that you ignore any ideas that come to you as you write? Of course not. Ideas will come to you as you write. Follow them.

I once sat out to write a one-page synopsis of a book I had just completed the draft of. I had used the Snowflake Method which I will discuss in a later post. I reasoned that step three in the Snowflake Method should be very nearly a one-page synopsis of the story. But I could only use the first third. Once my story found its legs, it went off in its own direction – much like our children. Yet, it was not a waste of time to plan. Had I not, I wouldn’t have gotten very far on the book.

That is not quite a thousand words and where I will stop for this post. But I promise to continue this next week.

 

About Character and Setting Development

Most books on writing advise us to construct complete, detailed descriptions of our major characters before we begin writing. This is worthwhile, but I believe it is easy to overdo. Yes, I put together character sketches in advance. The protagonist in my fantasy novel is a wizard and a dwarf, and I definitely needed to know that in advance. But my beginning character descriptions are not  extensive. If I go into too much detail, they are often wrong and must be rewritten or, worse yet, constrain my character and limit his behavior.

Consider a friend who wants to introduce you to someone, say a potential employee or even a blind date.  They might start with a description of him – height, hair, eye color, and build, where he is from. Do you know him? No. Well, suppose they expand on his resume – include his education, experience, what he does for a living. You still don’t know him. Your friend might even add that he is a great dancer and makes all of his own clothes. You know something about him but you still don’t know him.

It’s not until you meet a person and see how she walks and moves and uses her hands that you begin to get a sense of the person. Do her eyes meet yours or keep sliding off to the side or to the floor? Does she continue to look around the room to find someone more interesting – or to see who is looking at her? Can she tell a joke? Can she get a joke? How does she treat the server? Now you begin to know the person.

The same is true with your characters. You can go into an extensive description but you, and your reader, don’t begin to know a character until you see him in action and relating to others and the setting. If you want to really see what your character is like, give him something to do. Better yet, give him some crap to deal with. Let us see the worn tips of his shoes kicking out from under the tattered hem of his wizard’s robe with each short, quick stride as he rushes to a house call. Then your readers, and you, will begin to know your character.

The same holds for setting. It has been argued, after all, that settings are really characters. You can build a detailed description of a region, or town, or living room, but you don’t really know it until you are there.

In a previous life I interviewed for a job in Seattle, Washington. I did some research beforehand, of course. I knew something of the economy, climate and geography. I had heard all of the stories about the “constant” rain. But it wasn’t until I saw snow-capped Mt. Rainier reflected in Lake Washington that I knew I wanted to live there. And even after being there years I was still discovering more of it’s temperament and personality.

So let your readers discover settings through your character’s eyes. They will discover the nature and disposition of the wharf as your character strides there to meet a  friend for an ale or to treat an injured prostitute. Through your character they will hear the creak of the hulls rubbing their fenders against the dock, see the skeleton of the ship’s rigging through the fog, hear the call of gulls and the laughs and arguments coming from the taverns, taste the salt in the damp air and smell the tangy scent of tar and rotting fish.

Why is this so? Because I don’t want to expound my story from a lectern. I want to be, at most, a guide as the reader and I explore the tale together. Because writing fiction is not a process of invention but a venture of discovery.

Get Your Words Worth

The following article was published in the January issues of the Southwest Sage, the monthly newsletter for Southwest Writers.

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“Grandpa, I think you have scurvy.” The three-year old we met, waiting for our table at the Range Cafe, had heard the word on the television the day before and was diagnosing everyone with it, her mother said. It’s easy for me to understand how a child can become enchanted with a new and different word, especially a word like scurvy, that feels so good squirting out of the corner of your mouth, between tooth and cheek. It’s got a strong “r” in it, like a pirate word, and sounds exotic enough that you might just be getting away with something.

I was hooked on words before I became a writer and have never gotten over it. There are still words that I overuse and often probably misuse because I like the feel of them in my mouth and my ear. Accoutrements is one. Fumfer is another. A decade ago a radio host used fumfer to express her stumbling in trying to get her point across. You won’t find it in a dictionary but it’s a perfectly functional word, and, in context, there was no doubt as to what she meant.

I like the word skookum, a Chinook word I learned in Seattle, meaning good or hearty or strong or brave. Bumbershoot, canoodling, perspicacity, loquacious, – all fun, rhythmic, nearly musical words.

But the strength of words, and most of the fun, is in their use. Questing for the right word is an adventure. What words are best to inspire a child, welcome a friend, inform a colleague, threaten your protagonist, seduce a lover? What word catches the light just so and casts the best shadows on the narrative and on those words before and after? Is there one word that will replace three? Sometimes the apt word glows from within, illuminating the page. The right word must provide the right function at the right time – propelling ideas when needed, reining in when the pace has become too quick, or pushing off in a new direction. Propel and push are the chosen words here but, in another mood or context, thrust or drive might be better. Yes, they hint at sexuality.

How does the word fit with its neighbors? Does it stand too tall and dominating, drawing attention to itself rather than conveying meaning? Is it so timid that it hides, embarrassed, begging to be replaced or deleted?

And it’s the power and vitality of words that are important, not their splendor. Clarity is more important than eloquence. So, though I like the feel of rare words, I prefer to use those I can find in my battered, paperback Webster’s.

 Words are ecological. They can be used and used again, even overused, but never be used up. They can be consumed by the reader yet they remain.

 And they’re democratic. They’re free! The same words are available to you and me as to J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett – well, mostly, they are British. The vocabulary that built the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution belongs to all of us. The parts and pieces needed to construct the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the works of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, James Thurber and T. H. White, and the diatribes of the TV pundits for that matter, are there in our toy box, ours to use as we want. Or misuse. Part of freedom is the right to be wrong.

Words! We love them. So, fellow writers, get out your kit of words and build a story. Have fun. But choose your words carefully.