Everywhere you turn this time of year, you are exhorted to set goals. You can look on a writer’s advice website, you can ask Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss, you can ask anybody, you just have to have goals. Much as I’d like to disagree with that sentiment, I’m afraid it’s true: you need to have goals.
Maybe they don’t need to be written down formally, but I find writing them down helps keep them straight as I go along. They don’t need to be in a particular format, but some of the formats and protocols can be very helpful in deciding where you want to go this year, or decade, or lifetime. (Unless you’re like Richard Blaine, and never plan that far ahead, in which case, you’re depressed.)* The true fact is that if you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t ever get anywhere. So, goals.
Maybe you want to sell that first novel this year? Get an article published in The New Yorker? Finish your short story anthology? Finally publish that book you’ve been sitting on? Attend a couple of useful conferences? It doesn’t matter, because it’s your life, and these are your goals, but you need to set them in order to achieve them. You can revise them during the year, but you need to set them in the first place. Okay? Good.
There are books about goal setting, and there are goal setting workshops, and you should check out these, and any other sources of help you can find. I met a major goal last year when I entered a novel in a nationwide contest. This year, I’m going to also enter it in as many regional contests as I can find. Hey, I like it, so it has to be good, right? And edit and polish my current chapter book. And start a new big project while I’m at it, because drafting is the most freewheeling fun part of the process, so I’ll be doing some. I expect to add a couple of goals this month as well, The Las Vegas Writers’ Group meeting is all about goals, and I intend to take advantage of the opportunity.
As should you, my friend. As should you.
*If you don’t get this, I’m sorry. Try googling the name.
The picture is sort of reflective of my topic this week. You could think of it as the German parts of English as they still exist. Crumbling in spots, mossy, but still some solid bits. So it is with English, the language of, well, me. And you, if you’re reading this. I have lately been studying French, which is what sixty percent of English actually amounts to. In the past I have also studied Spanish and German. Spanish is cognate with French, but not a significant ancestor of English. German and French are a different story. Here’s a condensed version.
A thousand years ago, German and English, (Anglisch) were the same language. (The Angles and Saxons were Germans.) And, to this day, English mostly uses German syntax. Which is why talk like Yoda if you want to, you can. In German, they call that “putting the most important idea up front in the sentence.” In English we call it “talking weird,” but we still understand it. English has lost virtually all of its noun and pronoun cases. Modern German hasn’t, but that’s another story. German, like many languages, has two forms of the pronoun for “you.” English has one, except in what is usually thought of as formal, or religious English, when we use Thee, Thy, and Thine. Oddly, those forms are not formal, but rather personal. In German somebody might speak of “dein Hand.” Shakespeare would have said, “thine hand.” Dein, thine, pretty similar. Even in Shakespeare’s day, the various forms of “dein,” such as “deine,” were gone. And after a while even the root word faded away. There are still a few groups of people using that personal pronoun, and it still appears in standard dictionaries, but mostly people just misunderstand how it should be used. The personal “you,” in German today, is Du. In French it is Tu. Maybe those two are just too close to the formal “you” not to be combined with it.
Formal “you” was used on authority figures, religious or secular, and people you didn’t know well. That’s why the bible uses “thine,” because supposedly we all have a personal relationship with a god. But to a king or a priest, you would have used “you” or “your lordship” or similar phrasing.
In 1066 French started moving in on English. By Shakespeare’s day it had taken over a lot of our more common vocabulary. Today, it’s difficult to say anything without using a French word. Anything ending in “tion,” for instance, is French. You may be sitting at a “table,” just like a French person might be. And the word on those eight-sided signs, the red ones? That’s a French word, too. In Latin it was “Estop,” and in France it is “Stop.” Only in Canada do they use “arret” on Stop signs. Well, it’s their country, but Stop is a French word. Oh, and that rule about putting an “e” on the end of a word to make the vowel long? That’s pure French.
French was the language of the (Franco)-English nobility, and even today, the more French form of a word seems to be unconsciously thought to be superior to a simpler form. Ironically, a good way to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about, at least to someone who knows the language, is to use (utilize?) lots of fancy French words when some plain words, French or German, would sound better. Everything can be good between two people, or it can be copacetic. The difference? Trying to sound smarter than you are. (Unfortunately, such phrases have been soaked up by some jargons, so they get used more than they should be.)
As a writer, knowing the mixed history of English can help you to clarify what you’re trying to say. Rather than that old “I after E except after C” rule, that doesn’t work half the time, consider that in German, the letter combination “ei” always sounds like our long I — “eye”. Again, in German, the combination “ie” always sounds like our long E — “eee”. If it isn’t a German word, it’s a French word, and, if sounded as long a “ay”, it’s spelled ei. Originally, all French “ei” words were sounded as A. French “ie” words are borrowed from German, and, well, what do you know? “Aye.”
English is a great language. One of its best features is that there is no institution dedicated to “pure” English or even “proper spelling” as with other languages, most notably French. Now that you know a bit of the history of our fine language, you’ll be better able to manipulate it into the story you want to tell.
Tempusfugitvelutsagittaest, Fugit velut Musa sapientum fixa fructum. Not gonna translate, either. I just read a Twitter feed link about this being Madeline L’Engle’s 100th birthday. Holy cats, huh? Of course, she did manage to start a very good and popular book with “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Brit friends, in this case that period belongs inside the quotation marks.) I have to hand her kudos for that. I’m more like, “It was a dark and stormy night, so I stayed in and watched Netflix.” (Okay, Brit friends, carp about that one all you want. And this one.)
My point this week is persistence. Unaccountably, I am still not famous and rich. Or at least rich. But I persist. I’m about to start shopping a novel yet again. This time for sure! How do I know? Because every successful author I’ve ever met, or listened to, or read advice from, says so. It’s like Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice! (You don’t want to hear me play the violin, by the way.) (Yes, I sort of can.) Honestly, anyone who says I can’t write a good story is just wrong. Too bad for them when I am famous, huh? And, I know it because all my life I have wanted to write and travel and dole out bits of wisdom. I’ve done it a lot, but not for money. Now, though, the world shall see.
Nothing heavy this week. Just persistence. Are you persisting?
Recently I listened to Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. Like most of her poetry, it is about bittersweet relationships, heartache, love, struggle, and a bit of redemption. That’s true of a lot of creative works. In popular music, an amazing number of tunes are breakup songs. Take Breakfast at Tiffany’s for example. “And I said, well that’s one thing we’ve got.” Or Green Day’s famous Good Riddance (Time of Your Life,) which is not, as many high school faculty seem to think, a sincere wish that you enjoyed yourself, but a bitter and snide farewell to someone the singer thinks has wronged them big time. I’ve written one good poem in my life. It was shortly after I broke off a relationship. I remember being surprised that being the dumper was no more pleasant than being the dumpee. It’s tough times, and no mistake. But, outside of that, I’ve just lived a fairly quiet life of great fortune and privilege.
I had cousins at Jamestown, and a direct ancestor who arrived in 1729. The next year he married a girl from Garden City. One of their many sons is also my direct ancestor. He fought with a Connecticut regiment during the American Revolution. Odd, because they were from Philadelphia. Yes, I have direct ancestors who were genuine Philadelphia WASPS. And, of course, I’m a white male with blue eyes born smack in the middle of the twentieth century in Ohio, of all places. White privilege was invented for people like me. One breakup does not a creative career make. I can’t sing the blues; outside of my eyes there’s nothing blue going on here. I can’t write heartfelt song lyrics about loss and deprivation, because, well, haven’t really had any. In college, some friends and I were into the Alice books. Bill was the Carpenter, Ed another character. I was the Mock Turtle. “He hasn’t really any problems, you know.” So true.
Now, your basic African American, there’s somebody with problems. Besides being on the inverse side of privilege, consider their ancestry. Slaves! The lucky bastards! No wonder they invented the blues! No wonder they continue to shine in creative ventures of all kinds. Lucky, lucky, lucky!
But, dammitall, I like to write stories. I’m not sure I’ll ever tug many heartstrings, but I try to entertain. And sometimes, entertainment is all you need, you know?
Not a religious piece, I promise. Instead, I am speculating about how original meanings can be distorted and lost over time. In 2009 one Stephen Mitchell published a book he titled, The Gospel According to Jesus. Yes, he knows that Jesus never wrote a word. The guy was illiterate, a not uncommon condition in his time and place. But it’s a catchy title for a scholarly work.
The story of the book is that the original documents which became the Christian New Testament were subjected to the sort of linguistic analysis that is used when they find what may be a new sonnet form Shakespeare. Word use, spelling, sentence length, style and voice, all are subject to computerized analysis. After doing this, the oldest, and presumably most authentic, bits of the Christian gospel were uncovered. These bits were written probably sometime in the fifties. (Not the nineteen-fifties; the fifties.) The idea being that the authors of these bits may actually have met Jesus, or at least heard him preach. Many parts of the New Testament were written much later, decades, even a century or more. So now we have it: the oldest, presumably most authentic, “Good news about Jesus.”
I’m going to assume you’re familiar with at least some of the story of Jesus’s birth, death, and afterlife. If not, feel free to read a contemporary version of the Christian New Testament after you read this. You’ll be surprised.
This oldest gospel opens with John the Baptist. Then Jesus comes down to the river to be baptized. (This is all in the orthodox bible, of course.) What’s missing is anything preceding baptism. No birth story at all. No magi, no shepherds keeping watch over their flocks, no star, no manger, no Bethlehem. As a matter of fact, the Jesus birth story is amazingly like the story of Buddha’s birth, which precedes Jesus by hundreds of years. The chief difference is that Buddha also rated an earthquake. Somebody saw fit to add that birth story later on. Don’t care why because this isn’t that sort of post. It was done, is my point.
When he hears of John’s arrest, he leaves town. He picks up some posse at Galilee, and proceeds to wander around Judea preaching. He taught at the Synagogue at Capernaum. Here is an excerpt from his preaching in the villages:
And someone asked him, “When will the kingdom of God come?” And he said, “The kingdom of God will not come if you watch for it. Nor will anyone be able to say, ‘It is here’ or ‘It is there.’ For the kingdom of God is within you.”
He wandered Judea for a while, teaching and healing. The crowds got larger. One day he went up a hill and gave what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Most of the beatitudes are there, as is most of the rest of the sermon. What isn’t there is the story of the loaves and fishes. Here is an excerpt that is there:
You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor. But I tell you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and sends rain to the righteous and to the unrighteous.
I had a friend tell me flat out that Jesus never said to love your enemy. In the gospel, the passage above is part of a quotation from Jesus. Maybe you begin to see my point. Just one more quote, again from Jesus’s sermon on the hill:
Be careful not to do your righteous acts in public, in order to be seen. When you give charity, don’t blow a trumpet to announce it, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that people will praise them. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you give charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, and keep your charity a secret; and your Father, who sees what is secret, will reward you.
A couple paragraphs later, he talks about prayer, which he also insists should be a private thing. He offers what the Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer” as an example of what to say to “your father” “in secret.” This is not your grandfather’s Christianity. Nor is it what is mostly heard from today. And there is one more significant thing missing from this oldest, presumably most authentic, gospel. The book ends when, at about three in the afternoon, (Jesus) gave a great cry and died. Full stop. The end. Finito. No burial, no resurrection, no reappearance, nothing. In this, the oldest and presumably most authentic gospel, he, as we all must, died and disappeared from the earth.
I commend the book to your attention. It’s copyrighted, so I can’t just give you a link to read the oldest gospel for yourself. But you can probably find the book at a library if you can’t afford to buy a copy for yourself. My point being that, other than that oldest gospel, the rest of the gospels were written later, by people who had no chance to have ever heard Jesus speak, but who did have various agendas which they were pursuing. Instead of “Love your enemy” and “Pray in private,” we get divisiveness and “thoughts and prayers.” Instead of the liberating “Kingdom is within you,” we get a hierarchy that doles out religious truth as it sees fit. Whether there was an actual Jesus or not is irrelevant. There was certainly an initial book of “Good News About Jesus” that was, over the next few centuries, modified and added on to until the original could barely be seen, although, in truth, it is still in there.
I’m not preaching, nor speculating as to why this is so. Maybe in a later post. For now, I’m just noting how wildly different the meaning of a book can be after enough people add to and reinterpret it. Amazing, isn’t it?
Well, I worry some, because, well, after all, what if I’m wrong? But, in general I worry less than many about the current state of the Nation, Politics, and the Effects on My Creativity. As a public service, since I know many writers tend to be sensitive new-age liberal type people, here is why I’m not overly worried.
For more detail, a lot more, check out the book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1594 to 2069. (The link goes to Amazon.) The authors make a reasonably compelling case that in a free society, history proceeds in a cyclical fashion. It might interest you to know that the book predicts that Boomers will be very conservative these days. No one can predict exact events or behaviors, but a pattern of attitudes and behaviors, especially when dealing with millions of individuals, is solidly predictable. It’s basic probability. The number of Americans is large enough that things truly will chug along the regression line of arithmetic average (mean) in terms of general zeitgeist.
As you can imagine from the title of the book, the history covers a number of total cycles. Not to scoop them, but there are four basic types of generation, two dominant, two, um, not dominant. Boomers are Idealists. The other dominant type is represented by Millennials, who are Civic. In between Civic and Idealist are the Reactives (Generation X,) almost always a cynical bunch (which doesn’t help things much.) In between the Idealist and the Civic are the Adaptives. The upcoming “Generation Z” or whatever they’ll be called is an example, but maybe if you consider the “Silent” generation of the 20th century you’ll understand them better. Think of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, rebelling, but, in the end, wearing his father’s coat. I pity the non-dominant generations. The “Silent” generation fought for, and gained, civil rights legislation, invented rock and roll, changed the very nature of our society, and who gets the credit? (If you’re screaming at that, you’re part of their problem — a Boomer.)
Every generation, of course, thinks that the world is as it seems to them when they come of age. Sigh. You’re a writer. You know better. The world is a lot of things, but not whatever a cohort of 10-year old kids think it is, and that’s for certain.
Now to the point: Every cycle, roughly every 80 years or so, something happens that makes society question its very existence. Something comes up that threatens the very fabric of society, to the extent that survival of the world as we know it is, frankly, not a certainty. And every time, in a free society, what seems afterwards to be an obvious reorganization and realignment of society results in a world that everyone, especially the Civic generation (who take the credit for what the Reactive generation before them actually accomplished,) thinks is a whole lot better than the world as it was before the crisis. So far at least, every time. Some examples of crises would include (this is not an inclusive list) The American Revolution, the Civil War, World War Two, and what is happening, or about to happen, now.
The new world will need stories from the old, stories from the struggle, and stories from the aftermath, and you and I are the ones to tell those stories. You hear that? Harbingers of a new world! Because we’re humans, and that’s how we roll. Sure, politically there has been some damage, maybe. And the planet needs some quick attention or we’ll be up the well known polluted estuary, (thank you Professor Hurst) but we’ll do what we need to do and things will be so much better when it’s over that nobody in their right mind will want to return to those old, dull days.
And that’s why I don’t worry so much as some people.
A quick post this week to let the world know that I am anxious because I am meeting with an agent about my YA romance, I hope this week, and I don’t know if I’m more scared of it being rejected, or of what happens if he likes it. Rejection doesn’t bother me. I used to sell insurance. I used to sell real estate. Most of your interactions result in rejections. I’ve even sent thank-you notes to agents when they sent me a rejection, because that is so much better than the “dropped it down a deep, deep well” response. (That’s no response, if you don’t’ get it.)
But I’ve had very little experience, writing-wise, with acceptance. A few little things, yes, but nothing serious enough to really care about. What if he decides to rep it and nobody wants to buy it? What if I hate what my eventual editor wants to do to it? What if I’m not ready to promote a book the way it needs to be promoted? What if? Huh?
This pitch is different because I already know the agent in other contexts. He’s a good speaker, for instance. It all seems more intense when it involves someone I interact with already. It shouldn’t be. As I said, rejection is no big deal. Which leaves me to worry about acceptance.
So, anyway, I will of course report on the results. Gotta worry about something, huh?
And now, my contribution. I hope you’re enjoying following the Godfrey’s. I also hope you enjoy the occasional article that I repost from Chuck Wendig. A foul-mouthed genius, is the way I think of him. I was going to write about first drafts, and of course, just today, he beat me to it. But, I’m going to do it anyway, because this is important, dammit!
My first drafts are horrible. No, worse than that, they are essentially unreadable. Here, I’ll give you a sample, from a book that will, if there is justice in the world, never see publication. Here are the first two paragraphs:
In those days I was a big company man. By that I mean that I believed in the company, in what we were doing. In those days, if I could have, I’d have told anyone who asked that I was doing really important work keeping the streets and highways safe. So far as I knew at the time, that was the absolute truth. I don’t believe in absolute truth any more. I’m not sure what I believe in, is the truth. But I think I’m better off, if only because at least now I can tell people what I do every day, even if it isn’t much. Back in those days it was a secret thrill to have a job that I couldn’t even tell my own mother about, if I still had a mother that is. I was thrilled, and I was happy to be of service. The company? I’d have told anyone, if I could have told someone, that the company was putting us out into the rush hour traffic to get people to slow down and be careful. As they say, hah! But so long as I believed it, life was good. Let me tell you about a typical afternoon, back in those days.
Never mind where that was going, just look at that thick prose, over-talkish verbiage, poorly written gibberish, etc. That example shows why, except for you, dear readers, nobody ever sees my first drafts. They suck. They truly suck. But, the great thing is that I love writing them. It is such fun slapping words down into a file and watching the story grow, taking the plot from point to point, messing with my characters until sometimes I actually kill one or two. It’s a hoot, and I love those guys, I really do! Which explains why so often I have to delete entire scenes, occasionally a character, add additional characters, and for the love of Aristotle, put in something to make a reader give a damn what happens to those people, whom, by the time I’m done, I totally hate, and would enjoy seeing roasted over a slow fire.
I don’t have doubts during my first draft, like Chuck Wendig does. I have doubts when I read the damn thing over a few weeks after I key in “The End.” Because they suck, every time, and I can’t see, at first, anything that I could possibly do to make the thing into a decent story. I’m telling you, it’s depressing.
But then I start revising, using the bits of my brain that know about character, language, subplots, story arcs, emotions, showing versus telling, all that stuff. And, amazingly, that’s fun, too, even though I don’t get lost in the process in the way I get lost in first drafting. And I take Wendig’s advice every time and trust the process I use. It gets me there. At the end is a good book, and I know that. It works! It’s alive! Bwaaa haaa haaa haaa!
The picture this week is relevant to the topic. Yucca Mountain is politically controversial in Nevada. Google it if you want to know more. Short story is that this is the place where it was decided to store the nation’s low level nuclear waste. Since it’s just 75 miles from downtown Las Vegas, some folks are worried about what might happen. Nevada is an active earthquake state, so you can imagine the sort of scenario that is being proposed. There are counter arguments, also, and frankly, they may be right. I have seen video of various things being tried to break one of the containers that the waste is stored in, and I’m not sure the average earthquake has the energy to do that. But, I’m not arguing a position on Yucca Mountain. I am using both sides as an example of how politics can skew the view of a situation.
“Good God, we’re all gonna die!” True.
“Not from Yucca Mountain because that stuff is safer than you’d think.” Also true.
So, I just managed to slip in my position without saying so, which is the point of this essay. No matter what you believe, no matter what your politics are, YOUR POSITION AND POLITICS ARE GOING TO COME OUT IN WHATEVER YOU WRITE. Mark Twain never gets on the nose with his commentary on racism in Huckleberry Finn. But, he does have Huck volunteer to go to a literal Hell rather than be a racist dick toward his friend Jim. That is a much stronger statement than saying “Racists are ignorant and undeserving of respect.” I doubt that Twain believed that statement in the raw form I’ve presented above. But maybe he did. Either way, Huck volunteering to go to Hell is a lot stronger way to make a statement about racism and social norms than any essay could ever be. So, okay, you say, but you’re writing an essay right now, aren’t you?
Well, yes, but that’s because I have a need to write something at frequent intervals. I just finished the first draft of a middle-grader, and I’m working on structural editing of a YA. Neither of those things involve much writing per se at this point, so I crank out the occasional (every Wednesday, I hope) essay, to keep my “write something” Jones down to a mild roar.
And my point, then, is that, if you, as a writer, are upset about politics on any level, if you truly want to do your bit to make the world a better place, then the thing you should do is write your stories. Maybe you’re like me, and you need to produce a few essays in between editing. Okay, fine. But write that damn story right now! It doesn’t matter what the story is, it will, without you being at all pedantic, be a better illustration of your world view than any essay (or Facebook post) could ever be. I’m serious, bucko! Stop reading this and writing something now!
That conference was a lot of work. But, if you’ll forgive me a quick aside, several years later I ran into Oscar at the ALA Conference when it was held in Vegas. He remembered me, by name, and where we’d met. Then he gave me a free copy of his book, which of course you should buy. I have trouble remembering the name of someone I just met, which may explain why he’s a successful politician, and I’m not.
I have cut back to writing basically just one day a week. That may get expanded, but for the moment that’s the way it is. That day is Tuesday, because for the life of me I can’t manage to get much business as a ride share driver on Tuesdays. I have no idea why not. Other people do it. Today, of course, is Wednesday, and I made about sixteen bucks an hour, which is pretty good for that sort of work. (I meet a lot of interesting people, too.)
On Tuesdays I do the things I resolved to do when I was at the RWA conference in Denver last month. And maybe other stuff as well. I do have an idea for a book, which might be a funny book, but so far that’s all it is. Maybe two projects at one time is enough? We’ll see. But, as I’ve stressed before, I do write. Just yesterday I got some kids through a dangerous situation, people shooting at them even, by using their brains (and running like heck.) It’s the first draft, so it’s fun to write, and no doubt will take three times as long to revise as it did to put down, but that’s okay, ’cause that’s how writing works. Will I have to do it all on Tuesdays? Who knows? But I will do it all, that you can take to the bank.
(It’s gonna be a great book, too. Oo-oo, you’ll like it!)