Tuesday, December 19, 2017



An Art or A Job?

Too many people starting off to become writers take on a very unrealistic view of themselves as artists (spelled with a capital 'A'). They wander around their cities or towns, a notebook under their arm, pen in their pocket, waiting for the elusive inspiration to fall from the sky. Inspiration to them is a divine thing sent down as a whole cloth with nothing lacking but their own precious name under the title.

Maybe this works a time or two, but eventually the muse will abandon them. They tear at their hair, they blame the quality of their pen, or the mundane nature of the world they live in, or the company they keep. Truth be told, the muse packed it in because he/she/it realized that they were doing all the heavy lifting. They didn't abandon John Q. Smith, Genius. They went looking for a partner in the endeavor. Someone who was willing to put in the W-O-R-K!

That's what 99% of art is - Work. Standing before an easel, picking up a maul and chisel, or sitting in front of a keyboard. It's the repetitious doing of those tasks that leads to the success your looking for. Doodling, noodling, and composing really bad sentences for hours on end. The inspiration lies in the experimentation, the one-in-ten attempts that yield a thought or project worth pursuing.

Here we are in the holiday season and I am sitting in front of my terminal five to seven hours a day, six days a week working on rewrites and outlines, sending out submissions, keeping track of what got sent where and how long it's been there. When I'm not actively working on poetry, prose, or painting, I'm researching possibilities for a piece. I'm in libraries or museums. I'm on the road or flying somewhere and absorbing the places I where arrive and the people I encounter. I relax with music, recorded, live, and what little I can create on my instruments, and I read-read-read!

I'm one of those people you encounter at open mic's. Like a good blues or jazz musician, it's not above me to - Uh - borrow a line, or a character, or a theme. But mostly I sit here, like I am at this moment, banging at keys. Has any of it made me famous? No, well maybe in some small ways, but I have the satisfaction of knowing I've reached audiences in any number of venues and, with the grace of that muse, and a lot of my own time and effort, have found the words to reach into their hearts and minds and deliver something that either lightened their load or let them know they weren't alone. All because I put in the TIME!

Thursday, December 7, 2017



Sitting here in Southern California these last couple of days watching wildfires boiling through the hills around the town I live in I was struck by something I saw on Twitter that directly referenced the writing life. It went something like this:

                         The house is on fire, my car was stolen, and the cat exploded. 1500 easy
                         words today, things are good.

While the disaster spread through the surrounding area I continued on like a runaway locomotive with the task of rewriting the novel I've written. One chapter at a time, red pen in hand, being as ruthless and unforgiving as I can bring myself to be. Not one page has avoided this cyclone of correction and mark-up aimed at reducing verbal diarrhea and clarifying my thoughts. All the while I try to keep in mind that arcane bit of editorial advice I picked up along the way, "In writing you must kill all your darlings."

This homily has been credited to any number of authors through history - Oscar Wilde, Chekov, Stephen King. Never one to let sleeping dogs get in a nap if I can poke at them with a stick, I went looking for reliable attribution for this. Turns out it comes from a lecture given in 1914 by Arthur Quiller-Couch entitled, "On Style", in which he railed against 'extraneous ornament';

        "If you require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this.: 'Whenever you feel an
         an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it - whole-heartedly - 
         and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."

What Quiller-Couch is telling us is to be as flamboyant as you want in the draft. Get the deadly sin of purple prose out of your system while you are still inventing plot, characters, and timeline, then be just as unforgiving with the eradication of the beast. What we feel to be the most precious turn of phrase, the most incredibly creative use of language, has no place in the reader's understanding of the story. All the flowers in the world will not cover the stench of self-indulgence.

Every phrase should serve only one purpose - advancing the tale you are telling. Do I need to understand why it took so long to potty train the main character? Probably not. Was the exact temperature centigrade necessary for me to understand it was a raw, damp day in East London? Doubt it. Is the character's name required in every line he or she appears in? Uh-uh.

Go like hell getting the story down and ignore all the surgical blood letting to come. But when the time arrives for fine tuning, your pages should come away looking like the runner-up in a knife fight - Bloodied from head to toe. Then, when you hit print the next time, the tawny beauty you envisioned will be on its way to completion. Do this enough times and eventually you can press the send button with a little less self-doubt - maybe.