The picture above was taken in the Spring. That’s how it goes back where I grew up. Here in the desert, no so much, I think it hit ninety degrees yesterday. Hot stuff!
A short post just to say that I’m thinking of trying to write a picture book. My wife, of course, thinks that because I’m good with doggerel it would be easy. Actually, it’s just shy of being actual poetry. Sort of a novel in haiku if you will. But, it should be interesting. As a start, I’m going to read a mess of picture books to see what’s hot these days. Heck, if Pence’s pet rabbit can get a book (two if you count the parody from John Oliver) maybe there’s hope.
People ask about inspiration, where you get your muse, where do you get your ideas, that sort of thing. Fair enough. I hope I get known enough for my writing to get tired of answering that one, but for now, I’d have to say it all comes out of my own experience and imagination. Leaving aside the question of whether tough emotional times may make for more creativity, I have a peculiarity in my tastes in music. I’m not sure what it means, but it has to be pretty well infused throughout my sense of self. I like breakup songs.
There are a lot of them, too. For instance, Southern Cross by Stephen Stills. Or, one of my favorites because of how it’s often used, Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) from Green Day. Don’t the people who pick songs for graduations and such ever listen to the lyrics? Or read the titles? Crimony! Good Riddance, indeed. And, one of my favorites from away back is The Last Thing on My Mind by Tom Paxton. I started what was to be a comprehensive list of breakup songs I like, but I can’t find it, other than that I know it’s on my Surface Pro somewhere. Might be out on my cloud drive. I’ve searched, I haven’t found it.
But that is an odd thing, isn’t it? Or is it normal? Is it like humor, and I like it because it isn’t happening to me? They aren’t funny (usually) are they?
Heck, you tell me. Should I be worried because I enjoy songs about breaking up? Should I?
Following politics is probably not the best way to stimulate your muse. Too jarring, too much faux importance assigned to trivia, too many arguments. I, for one, am tempted to ignore all things political, you know, turn off the TV, never look at a news site, block all news sites from my Facebook and Twitter feeds. But, even if that would work (a debatable point,) I’m not sure that’s a good idea. For several reasons.
First, some of the best art is produced under emotional stress. I’ve written exactly one decent poem in my life. It was shortly after I broke it off with a steady. My wife has some amazing art from Communist Poland, advertising Shakespeare plays and such. The regime didn’t like art for art’s sake, but was fine with Shakespeare’s plays, apparently. So, the artists did some incredibly creative work hawking theater tickets. Stressful? You bet!
And there is the fact that, deep down inside, I want to influence my readers (4th & 5th graders, primarily) to think well, and to live with some compassion for their fellow humans. No, I never get pedantic. I never go on the nose, because that makes for lousy stories. But everything I believe in will come out, sooner or later, in my stories. (I may have mentioned this before?) Which means that it might be a good idea to follow the news even when it is upsetting, in order for my emotions to stay authentic. Makes sense to me!
What I can, and do, do (I said do do heh heh) is not argue with people. In fact, most of the time, what I repost, or occasionally post if I see an article about which I haven’t seen anything, is funny stuff, because, after all, I am a comic, and have been for years. (My classmates thought I was the class clown. I never thought of myself that way. I should have.) As far as arguing with people, I imagine that you can count on the fingers of zero hands the number of times a Facebook post has converted anyone to a different point of view. So, I don’t try. With the exception of some trollbots, everybody is probably sincere, and everybody probably has good reasons. Let ’em have ’em.
I’m too busy trying to decide how a group of fifth-graders is going to rescue a couple of FBI agents. (‘Cause chapter books are a form of fantasy, too.)
I’ve written exactly one decent poem in my life. I’d post it, but it’s been lost for a long time. Too bad, too, because I am unlikely ever to be quite that distraught again, or at least I hope so. The thing is, poetry is difficult, because each word must carry a great load of meaning. You could put a novel in a phrase, if you’re good at it. As some people, of course, are. Eliot, Pound, Shakespeare, Dylan (first and last name, same to me,) and others. And then there are the rest of us. I suspect that anyone could write good poetry if they were sufficiently motivated. Unfortunately, as poetry rarely pays the bills (Williams Carlos Williams was a physician. Bob Dylan a folk/rock/pop star, to name a couple examples) very few people are motivated by the simple thrill of writing poetry. Even Shakespeare wrote his stuff to pack the house and get juicy roles for himself and his friends. So maybe poetry isn’t such a lucrative career choice, at lest per se?
Well, then, consider picture books. If anything, a picture book is worse than a poem. You have maybe 27 words, maybe a few more or less, to tell a complete story. The stories may seem simple at first glance, but consider the cadence and rhyme of Goodnight Moon. It’s beautiful, and at the end, you know a great deal about the person going to sleep, a great deal about the world that person lives in, and you’ve enjoyed some beautiful words in the learning. It’s right up there with, “I could write a book. I have a word processor” if you think you can just pound out a picture book. (And this ignores the importance of the pictures as well.)
And now consider the full-length novel. Twain wrote that The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening. Do you suppose he checked every word in every book to ensure that each one conveyed just what he meant it to convey? Oh, heck yes he did! And his books have proved to be enduringly popular for a century and a half, so far. He wrote long form prose with the same eye for detail as one needs to write a picture book, or a poem.
How many languages do you know? Well, I’ve got one down pretty well, that being the one in which you are reading. Then there’s some Spanish that I know, which comes in handy once in a while (and I know how to order eggs over easy if I need to,) I also know some German, er, Deutsch. And even, this surprises even me, some French beyond what a tourists needs to get by in France. And just now I’m studying Portugese.
My friends Leslie and Andrew are, you know if you follow this blog, circumnavigating the planet in a 30-foot sailboat. Yesterday Leslie and I were texting, and the conversation turned to language. Leslie told me that she thinks that she and Andrew should invent a code based upon the 25 words they know in who knows how many different languages. Wouldn’t that be cool? Nobody would ever know what you said to each other! That, and the fact that studying foreign languages has become sort of a hobby of mine, led me to think about the effect of knowing a foreign language on writing in English.
For one thing, I have a book, which may never see the light of day for various reasons, but it exists, which includes some Spanish dialogue. And, it’s accurate. So, there’s that. But mostly, I don’t use foreign words (beyond the sixty percent French infestation into English, that is.) So how do foreign languages help? I can think of a couple or more ways.
First, things like the subjunctive, or any of the multifarious perfect tenses. (My favorite example being Yul Brenner as the King of Siam saying, “I am thinking that your Moses shall have been a fool!” You tell ’em, Yul!) Before my first formal Spanish course, I had managed to get all through public school and not know what the heck subjunctive and perfect tense even were. Because, in English, if you really don’t want to use them, you don’t really have to. Besides, some times they’re so easy that you don’t even notice. I think this shall still have been the case all along when you read this sentence.
Second, as English actually is about sixty percent Romance language, learning a 99 percent, or even 90 percent Romance language can help in understanding quite a few English words. And it can certainly help with English spelling if one studies both a Romance language (Spanish is the easiest, so far as I know) and German. Take the word thief, for instance. You know how to pronounce it and you know what it means. In German, you pronounce it exactly the same way and it means just what you think it does. Same with belief, grief, and (ahem) brief. The (ahem) is because only lawyers use brief the way it’s used in German. That is, it’s a letter. A lawyer might write a letter to the court (brief) in order to plead a case. In fact, they all do, and all the time. For the rest of us, the meaning of “sum it up as fast as possible” prevails. You know, be brief. (Be careful, though. Chief, for instance, has shortened itself to Chef in German. There again, though, you see where the meaning of “in charge of the kitchen” comes from. The Chef is, in fact, the chief.)
That “or when sounded as “A” thing? French. Neighbo(u)r. Unless you mean the word “their,” which is a possessive used about “them,” which of course opens up a whole can of spelling worms, so we’ll pretend we don’t know about it. In German, “ie” is pronounced like a long E. This also explains some seemingly odd spellings in English. But most of the spelling rules you learned? Such as adding an e to the end of a word makes the vowel long, or the second vowel in a row makes the first vowel long? French. Pure French. But our syntax? Pure German. Talk like Yoda we do not so much is the only significant difference in syntax between English and German. You’ll notice that the preceding sentence makes perfectly good sense, except that nobody would say it that way. Except if they’re speaking German.
Well, I find knowing a few other languages, at least a bit of them, makes English easier to deal with. After all, our mother tongue is basically German with a boat load of French dumped onto it, spelled however the heck it works out in translation.
We’ve all read the quote from Mark Twain. That one about how the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening. Herein, I propose to illustrate the Master’s point. Not with a lecture, but with a few examples. From music and advertising, mostly.
An early example of advertising using songs wrong didn’t involve lyrics, but the title of the song. The owner of the pizza joint where I was employed put out a radio spot that used the theme from M*A*S*H as background music. Do you know the title of that piece? He didn’t. It is Suicide is Painless. Nice ad for a Saturday night pie, don’tcha think?
More recently, there was an ad featuring the Crosby, Stills & Nash song Our House. Here’s the relevant verse:
Our house is a very very very fine house,
With two cats in the yard,
Life used to be so hard . . .
The commercial, right at the “Two cats” point, showed a couple of rabbits. Rabbits are nice. Awwww, cute, soft widdle bunnies! But, they are not cats! That was jarring, to anyone paying attention. The commercial did not air for long.
And, my favorite example is a commercial for Windex(tm) that aired quite a while ago. It used the song I Can See Clearly Now. You may recall the line from the original song, It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day! That song was hugely popular, and more than one artist covered it, so it was stuck firmly in people’s minds at the time the commercial aired. And it would have worked, except that they changed the words to be bright, bright Windex type day. Eeeeew. Wrong! Stop! What the hell have you done to my favorite song? (So to speak.) Not sure that spot lasted three days.
All three of these examples, and there are many more, are what happens when somebody doesn’t pay attention to words. That M*A*S*H tune is pretty, for sure, but anyone who knew the title probably got delivery from the competition. And those bunnies, while cute, were not cats! For the love of lyrics, a couple of cute kittens would’ve still given the awwwww factor, but kittens are, you ready for this, cats!
And, Windex, old buddy, that was just stupid is all, just stupid.
Now, it may well be that in all three of my examples, somebody who knew nothing of wordsmithing, say, a Pizza shop owner, or some executive at Windex, was actually responsible for those gaffes. I like to think so, because advertising is one way for creative people to cash in on American capitalism. But for writers like us, there is absolutely no excuse for such poor word choices. And cats, for Roget’s sake, CATS!
Your writing, I mean. Every day it’s getting better and better. You do write often, don’t you? Heck, I’m writing as I write this. It isn’t that difficult. What I mean is, you must keep writing, keep getting your work reviewed critically, and keep learning from your mistakes. Sooner or later you’ll be able to sell some of your work, and that’s when the fun begins, right? The fancy cars, sexy dates, big houses in several European countries? Damn skippy it does!
Or, maybe you just enjoy knowing that people are paying for the privilege of reading what you’ve written. That’s kind of cool, huh? In my case, my wife, toughest critic in the known universe, had to exclaim that I’d gotten a lot better since last she read anything I’d written. And, she’s right. And, I knew that already. Somehow, ultimately, you need to read your own work as if you hadn’t written it, which is a lot easier to write than to do. But it can be done; I’ve done it; I knew my work had gotten much better. And so will yours! Because, selling a book is a lot like getting to Carnegie Hall:
Yesterday I ranted about discourse, and listening to each other, and about not presenting arguments in a way that can’t be argued against. Then I promised that I’d talk today about how writers can help make the situation better. And we can. But, I hear you say, what about the dictum of not deliberately trying to teach your readers? What about not being pedantic and boring? What about concentrating on telling a great story and letting your beliefs come out naturally?
Yes, what about all that? Did you think I was kidding in the past when I’ve said those things? Mais non! (French sounds so classy, don’t it?) The fact is, that is exactly what writers can do to make the larger society nicer and easier to live in. For instance, if you read yesterday’s post, you may have noticed that I’m a bit touchy about the incident reported. Pissed, that is. But, you’ll also notice that I didn’t give any details about who the other parties were, or where one could go look at their posts, or anything else that would get people worked up over what is, in fact, nothing. I tell stories. Stories help people see themselves, and help people to work out their problems. That’s true. So, all you have to do is tell your stories. And don’t go into a critique group sure that your story is wonderful the way it is, either, because likely as not it isn’t. Just the fact that writers use critique groups is an indication that we’re not like the closed-off ideologues we see on TV every day. We help each other to be better at being ourselves.
So, the way for a writer to make the world a better place is to keep on writing, keep on improving, and keep on being a good person. The inmates have always been in charge of the asylum around here, and storytellers have always been the ones to let the truth in via the back door. Good job, writer! We couldn’t be here without you!
I belong to several writers’ groups. One is the Romance Writers of America, which has a very excellent convention every summer. One is the Las Vegas Writers’ Group (see us on Facebook and Meetup) of which I am coordinator. And one is Writers of Southern Nevada, where I am on the board. There are other groups, and plenty of them, but there is only one of me.
My question is, are all of the many groups out there really necessary? The question is occasioned because the other day I was invited to a meeting of some “literary leaders” in Las Vegas, at Books or Books, a fine store on Sunset Road. The owner of Books or Books is starting a non-profit called “Books Bringing People Together.” One of the attendees seemed threatened by that, although, in general, writers don’t compete with other writers. The pie is, after all, seemingly infinitely expandable. But, really, it is a valid question.
We at WSN are (check our mission statement) devoted to helping all writers, and all writers’ groups. I’m looking for suggestions from anyone with an interest in writing as to what we could do to make that happen. You can comment here (I’ll have to approve it to read it, but I will,) you can comment on our Facebook page, or since it’s me, through the Las Vegas Writers’ Group Meetup page (link is above.) I’m thinking that someone should try to bring some coordinated effort to the Las Vegas literary scene before we all get lost in a hopeless maze. And that somebody should remind us all that we’re all in it together while they’re at it.
They don’t use those sails for much, but they look pretty. So.
Every so often I like to say something about reference materials for writers. Not that they change all that much, but still, it’s good to refresh one’s memory from time to time. So, what follows are mercifully short reviews of some of my favorites.
First, in the spirit of knowing the rules in order to break them, is The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. If I need to say more, are you sure you want to be a writer?
I like humor, both as something to produce, and as a topic. As an introduction to how to be funny, I recommend The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even if You’re Not by John Voorhaus. The title says it all. I wish some of the bosses I’ve had over the years had read this. (Do bosses read, anyway?)
For an overview of developing your skills and becoming a writer, I recommend On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King. I think Stephen and I attended the same Writers’ Workshop at different places and different times. It’s also quite well written, as you’d expect.
Finally, one I haven’t read yet, but intend to because I like his stories, is Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig. I’ll review it after I read it. Look for me on Amazon, per usual.
The links in each paragraph are to the book in question for sale on Amazon.com. You may buy any of them wherever fine books are sold.