Archive for the ‘Toolbox’ category

omne trium perfectum

January 30, 2019

Like a dog worrying an old sock, I sometimes just can’t let go of an idea. That can be a good thing, of course, or it may be a bad thing, or it may just be an inconsequential thing.

I mentioned in this recent post about what I believed was the genesis of my use of “threes” in my writing. I’m reading a Joseph Conrad novel now — a rippin’ yarn about a sailing crew on a long and dangerous journey that carries some implied and overt lessons about racism, including Conrad’s own perhaps — which makes me think about those “threes” again.*

And it turns out that use of threes is actually commonplace as a rhetorical device. This Wikipedia entry goes into some detail (with the added links) about not only the device in its various forms but examples of it across ages and cultures.

I don’t know if knowing this is humbling or exalting for my ego and writing aspirations. I like to think that I came by it honestly, that I absorbed it by osmosis from reading or that it is part of human hardwiring. But as I’ve said here many times, I don’t really want to know too much about my creative process lest I slay it with consciousness. I suspect that I’m going to be extra aware in the weeks and months ahead, either deliberately choosing to use the device or questioning/doubting when I do so unconsciously and then recognize it later. (And I realize that with these kinds of things, less is generally more. More or less.)

Also, I wonder if this is the reason I am a strong advocate of the Oxford comma.


*This copy of the novel has about forty pages of foreword and analysis about the novel and Conrad’s writing in general, including a reference (maybe even a gibe) to his use of threes.

Also, the title of this post is supposed to be set in italics, and I have used the proper HTML to do that, but it keeps getting dropped.

Always the first person

May 19, 2010

“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained;
that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not
remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking”

from the “Economy” chapter of Walden
Henry David Thoreau

Obviously, I’m not the first person to make this observation!

I’ve noted here before that, ultimately, all narration is done in the first person. Someone is telling us the story that we read. And I’ve asserted here as well that the narrator of our fiction must be as much a character, at least in our own minds, as every other character in our story, even if the narrator is not a participant in but only an observer of the story. The narrator’s personality may be subsumed in the telling, or it may emerge as important to the telling. But as writers, we must make this decision consciously. Who is our ambassador to the reader?

When we sit down to read a book, we sit across the table or the campfire from the person telling us the story. Even if the story is written with a third-person narrator, there is a narrator who is speaking.

*   *   *   *

The quotation above from Walden goes on in the very next sentence to deliver one of the more famous aphorisms of the book:

“I should not talk so much about myself
if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” alert

April 10, 2010

Some time ago in one of my Toolbox posts, I provided a list of sites that might be useful for finding magazines and ezines for your short stories. One of them was for

Until I hear otherwise from the site, I’ve broken that link. It’s coming up as an “attack site” in my security software. Whether that means it has been subject to an attack by some malware or that it was deliberately set up to attack users or some other reason I cannot say.

If anyone knows anything and would care to enlighten me, I’d appreciate hearing it. Otherwise I’m going to leave it dark.

Motivated Grammar

February 23, 2010

Finally, an antidote to all of the simpering entreaties on the web that creative writers must follow the “rules” of grammar if they are to succeed! Treat yourself and your creative genius to a gander at the Motivated Grammar blog.

Scoffing at the “prescriptivists” who preach (sometimes with embarrassing inaccuracy) the rules of grammar, this blog often delves into the origins of a given rule, which, in turn, offers insights for when the rule truly applies, when it might only possibly apply, and when it can be quite correctly dispensed with altogether. It also looks at perceived grammar or usage errors and identifies them as being incorrect in many cases. And it generally sticks a pin in the self-important, hyper-inflated blowhards who think that the few writing “rules” they happen to know are the alpha and omega of creative writing.

There are few writers who actually follow the grammar rules to the letter. A careful reading of good writers in just about every genre will show this. And creative writers have a license to dispense with them as they need to. It’s our job to evolve the language! The Motivated Grammar blog shows how we’ve been doing that for centuries.

You won’t go to it finding a catalog of discussions about this or that grammar rule, though I suppose you could find specifics in it if you searched. Rather, this is more like shop talk among serious, thoughtful folks. It is a blessed respite from the nincompoops and grammar Nazis, it’s a good read, and it’s a much needed breath of fresh air in the blogsphere.

The seduction of rules

January 20, 2010

“There are three rules for writing the novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

W. Somerset Maugham

I see this a lot: a writer must know the rules of grammar before breaking them in any creative writing. That is a non sequitor.  I certainly don’t believe that is true.

If you’re like me, you probably know a capable and successful adult (in whatever field) who never went to college. Such people achieve through practice and drive, not through the acquisition of formal rules about how to be an adult or how to “succeed.”

The same is the case, I think, with creative writing. We learn good writing from reading and writing. A good creative writer may never have heard of a “dangling participle” or a “squinting modifier” yet turn out wonderful work. A good writer doesn’t need to know the rules before breaking them, but it may be true that knowing the “rules” can keep a writer from ever being truly good. Anguishing over the rules of grammar can prevent a writer from composing an effective sentence, merely allowing a “correct” sentence. Creative writing needs to be liberated from the rules.

S.S. Van Dine once wrote a list of twenty rules for writing mystery novels. Among these rules is the famous admonition that a mystery story must involve a murder, since 300 pages is too long for a reader to bother with anything less. (Also listed is that the killer cannot be a household servant because he or she is not a “worth-while” person.) Despite the fact that virtually all crimes in the real world do not adhere to Van Dine’s views of how they should take place, and despite my suspicion that Van Dine intended his rules as a joke, I know that many mystery writers consider his rules to be hidebound absolutes and write their mystery stories with their guidance.

Similarly, many writers cleave with unquestioning loyalty to Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing, including its infamous “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” (This specific rule has been attributed to several people.) Hemingway may have approved of Leonard’s rules, but we would be without most of the rich, enduring classics of Western literature if serious writers took these rules seriously. And yet I see appeals to such authority in blog posts and comments all the time. Lesser writers, better known for their sales than their styles, make similar pronouncements and many aspiring writers feel as though they have thus been delivered from the wilderness.

And that, I suspect, is why such rules are so readily grasped and defended.

What we do is terrifyingly subjective. Most of the time we are working in the fog, uncertain of our progress or even of our goal. Does this sentence work? Does my character seem credible? Have I strayed from my theme? Can I even state my theme? Is this the right word? We stumble in the dark, wearing bad shoes, not even sure where we want to go. We question ourselves and then doubt our own answers.*

Thus I can understand the seduction of what seem to be clear, simple rules that tell us what will make our writing work, what should be avoided, and, if the rules are simplistic enough, what we don’t even have to think about at all.

Any given writing rule, whether it deals with plotting or grammar or metaphor or whatever, gives us the short path out of the fog of our doubt, even though that path may lead us to a far less interesting or accomplished or worthwhile work. The rule about only tagging dialogue with the word “said”, for example, actually seems counterproductive to creative writing. Here is a chance to use a stronger verb — something regularly advocated by writing instructors — yet many defend using the anemic “said” even though it is against their best creative interests. And simply because someone somewhere has given them a rule to save them from worry.

Such rules spare us the hard work of thinking for ourselves, of making our stories exactly right within their own context, in part because it removes their own context. The rules say one size fits all.

The goal of creative writing isn’t adherence to the rules. The goal is communication. The rules are merely tools, information about common conventions but not standards for well done writing.

*For another view of this, go to this post. You can see some of my more recent fuming about this little matter in this post.


November 5, 2009

I received a couple of comments from the folks over at LitList inviting me to take a look at their new layout. You can check it out here.

There’s apparently more to it than just a pretty face. I understand there have been some improvements to the coding and platform as well.

The number of listings (for short stories and poetry) is still comparatively small (compared to Duotrope’s Digest, that is). They’re still broken down between print and online publications (and I don’t see the point of that), and sorted alphabetically, but now you can specify whether you want only listings for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art, or other.

The blog has also had some recent entries, and they’re eager for user input.

You might want to give them a look. The way I see it, if you find only one publication there that you hadn’t elsewhere, everyone wins.

Writer’s block

October 13, 2009

I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced writer’s block (and I hope I never do), but I don’t know the exact definition of the term, so maybe I am plagued with it and just keep writing because I don’t know any better. This Wikipedia article seems to do a good job of defining and describing the condition.

I say that I haven’t experienced writer’s block, but maybe I have. I can think of a couple of times in my writing efforts when the words didn’t come, and being “blocked” sounds a lot better than being “lazy.”

As part of a college program more than two decades ago, when I was a callow youth (is that redundant?), I undertook to write a whole novel in one semester. It was a young adult novel, and I still have fond memories of it (even if I no longer have a physical copy of it). But I do remember coming to a point where I didn’t know what to do next in the story telling. As I look back with my more experienced eyes I think it was a problem of not having “imagined” my story sufficiently at the time. I think I may have set my characters loose in a rough framework of a plot and then run into some problems filling out that plot. (I realize that some writers work this way — often work with even less structure and planning — but it sure doesn’t work for me!) I think it may also have been that I wasn’t sufficiently disciplined yet as a writer to muscle through the hard parts of writing. Perhaps, then, I truly was suffering from writer’s block, but I’ll leave that for you to diagnose.

In any case, I came up with a technique that helped me get over my block. I took all of my characters (from my young adult novel in progress) and wrote them as characters in a short story set in the American Old West; I made them cowboys and cowgirls. I didn’t magically transport modern characters to an “exotic” setting through some time travel device to watch them cope with a strange setting. I simply tried to write them as though they were characters of that time and place. Born, raised, and living there, as much a part of it as every other character inhabiting it. I’m not sure where this idea came from; I’d like to think I thought of it myself. (Let’s say I did, okay?) What it did for me, though, was to give me a fresh perspective about each character. I saw how they would react and behave in a different setting, and it seemed to energize my approach to them in the novel where I wanted them to be. That got me through the writer’s block and on my way again.

The second “incident” I suffered lasted many years. This is the one I attribute to laziness rather than creative failure. As I noted in an earlier post, about fifteen years had passed between the publication of my first short story and my second. I continued writing, though it was almost exclusively nonfiction. During that time I had more than sixty feature articles published in various newspapers and magazines, as a free lance. It was a heady time in my writing life, filled with the pride of accomplishment, and I was actually paid for some of it (!). What I wasn’t doing much of, however, was fiction writing. I think I may have poked around with some short stories that went nowhere (like the story that eventually became my novel-in-progress, The Sleep of Reason), and I may have even submitted a few, but I can clearly remember thinking “when I write my novel” and “I should write a story about that” and such. I was thinking about writing a lot more than I was actually writing. Was I blocked or was I lazy? (Or was I also a husband and father with young children and a mortgage and other responsibilities? This may be a large part of it since I am writing fiction furiously fast and frequently now and the nest happens to be empty.)

As I said at the start of this rambling post, I don’t seem to suffer much from writer’s block. I have so many stories in my head and in my notes that I’ll never lack for subject matter. And I think I have developed sufficient discipline to keep myself before the keyboard to do the sometimes tedious work of actually writing. And I think further, in some undefinable sense, my creative self has matured sufficiently to allow me to see my way through my fiction to get it done.