Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Writing Workshop Lesson 4: Murdering Your Children

A friend sends this along.

What if Shakespeare had had a copy editor? [Said editor's notes are in brackets.]

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow [tomorrow and the next day, maybe?] creeps in this petty pace [doesn't "creeps" imply a petty pace?] from day to day [redundant] to the last syllable of recorded time [come on, we've only got 15 inches!].

... and all our yesterdays have lighted fools [vague * just fools? or are you saying we're all fools?] the way to dusty death.

Out, out brief candle,
Life is a walking shadow [pretty big generalization, isn't it?], a poor actor [or actress] who struts and frets his [or her] hour [or two] upon the stage and is heard [and seen] no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing [ not very much?].
Yes, we writers bristle when someone futzes around too much with our words. One of the biggest complaints from journalists is that a slice-happy copyeditor will slash and burn so much "it no longer sounds like" the writer.

And yet, I revere skilled editors. And the editor in me understands the urge to purge the wordiness. This weekend I edited some 50 pages of work by other freelancers. It was good stuff, but so many writers don't understand that shorter can be better, that leaving out the "-ly" words can make a sentence so much stronger and that "very" usually weakens whatever follows it. Also, "that" and "which" are not interchangeable. Nor are "that" and "who/whom." But those are lessons for another day.

Today we're talking about the writer's voice and breaking the rules. You can look at a page of that old Flak Catcher himself, Tom Wolfe, and you know he wrote it just from the CAPITAL letters and exclamation !!!! points (what journalists call "slammers," old-fashioned j-ists anyway). Hunter S. Thompson (kerPOW! To the moon, Gonzo!) had a voice on the page like he had in real life: stream of conscious mumbling with the occasional outburst of profane brilliance.

Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, even the Brat Pack writers Bret Easton Ellis (now back in vogue and Vogue) and Jay McInerney (trying SO hard to catch up) defied the rules of their predecessors and created new ways of "speaking" to readers. Examples from the theater start with the Greeks (Aristophanes was the Mel Brooks of his time). Hear the phrase "the kindness of strangers" and you know it's Williams' Streetcar Named Desire. "Attention must be paid"= Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Maybe you've found your voice. Maybe you're still looking for it. One of my teachers, the Greek diva Mary Ann Colias, told us undergrads that it takes 10 years to get good at anything. Twenty before you're an expert. She was talking about acting, but you could apply that to so many other skills (we of the still-frisky middle ages give each other a nudge-nudge-wink-wink right about now).

In my experience, La Colias was right. I've been writing professionally since 1979 (my first published piece was an interview with the late country singer Dottie West). I wrote hundreds of long feature stories in the 1980s, mostly for Dallas' alternative newspaper, but also for the two Sunday magazines at the local dailies. In the 1990s I wrote a daily column for newspapers -- two-a-days sometimes, given early deadlines for weekend editions. It was like working on an assembly line, that job at the dailies. Give me a topic and I can opine on it for exactly 15 inches worth of typing.

Writing a column, painting portraits or playing the Sousaphone -- do it every day for eight or 10 hours for eight or 10 years and you get pretty damn good at it. You can almost do it in your sleep. (I often write ledes and headlines in my sleep. Not long ago I dreamed an entire novel... my next project after The Phantom Prof.)

Practice, practice, practice. Write something every day. Even emails are good, if you don't just write empty messages. My friend Wendy sends the best email letters, all about her daughter Esme, her messy house ("Esme in Love and Squalor was never so true," she wrote recently), her decrepit dog, her sagging porch and, best of all, the plays she's writing for the theater in Humboldt County, California. Her writing sounds like Wendy and nobody else. It's full of humor and detail. And she cares about spelling.

Your voice should sound like you. That's where breaking the "rules" comes in. When I teach young writers, so often they want to pretty up their work, sticking in fancy words and tossing those dadgum semicolons on the page because they seem to formalize the proceedings. They write in a strange passive tense with too many -ings on everything. "He was walking up the stairs," instead of "He walked...." And a common mistake is to write about "starting" to do things, instead of doing them. "I started to go up the stairs," which to me means you're frozen mid-step. I'm also a big fan of the active voice. Put the reader in the moment, right as it's happening. (Not a rule -- just a tip.)

Students who've gone through school doing nothing but footnoted research papers or short, five-graf essays, aren't quite sure what to do when given permission to write like they talk. They're used to writing by the rules. But when they know it's OK to trust their own style --- Whoo, doggies! Now I'm interested.

Some of the young writers whose writer-voices I still remember -- Allison, Charles, Vanessa, Valerie, Cassie, Jonny -- I also recall were the ones who kept journals or were doing some other kind of creative writing on a regular schedule. They also read a lot. Important.

By reading good work, you start to see which voices you respond to. You can try on other writer's styles and see which fits your taste. Then you can vamp from there. (One of my earliest influences was Fran Leibowitz's Metropolitan Life. Also, the theater criticism of John Simon and movie reviews by Pauline Kael and James Wolcott.)

This week start to hone your writer's voice. I won't give you a specific assignment for that. I trust that many of you out there in writerland are working on things already. And if you're not, I hope you will start something. (We'll sample those in weeks to come.)

Be your own copy editor. See if you can do an adverb-ectomy on your work. Check to see if you are "starting" or "beginning" actions, instead of doing them. Take out the $50-words. And "murder your children." That's the old editor's maxim that means finding those sentences you think are particularly beautiful and erasing them. Trust me, it works.

And here's today's fun exercise -- some New Rules.

Comedians are great examples of writers who've found their voices -- sometimes by breaking the rules of their predecessors. One of the crankiest but funniest right now is Bill Maher, who hosts a show on HBO and who is out there on the stump hawking his new book, New Rules. Excerpt:

New Rule: Stop blaming the summer box office slump on DVDs and video games, and demographics. The summer box office was down because no one knows who the hell Ewan McGregor is. You know how you can tell you're not a movie star? When people would rather watch a penguin.

New Rule: Competitive eating isn't a sport. It's one of the seven deadly sins. ESPN recently televised the US Open of Competitive Eating, because watching those athletes at the poker table was just too damned exciting. What's next, competitive farting? Oh wait. They're already doing that. It's called "The Howard Stern Show."

New Rule: I don't need a bigger mega M&M. If I'm extra hungry for M&Ms, I'll go nuts and eat two.

New Rule: Celebrities must stop using their TV shows to hawk their other projects. A point I should have made in my book, New Rules.

What New Rules would you like to see in effect in our culture? Try four or five and post them in comments here.

(More about last week's assignments on Thursday. Gotta go murder some other writers' "children.")

34 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW--Who knew spammers could get on here, too! Love this entry...

Natalie

11:35 PM  
Blogger kitty said...

Better activate blogger's word verification for comments to cut down on the spam.

11:38 PM  
Blogger alg said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Cold Potato said...

Imagine what Harry Potter was like before the editors got their hands on it.

1:35 AM  
Anonymous Talley said...

Ok, I'll do the exercise. Here goes:

New Rule: Stop telling me this isn't the time for blame. This is the perfect time for blame, when our leaders have failed to lead. And because they failed so miserably, they lost their right to tell us what to do now. So blame now and blame later. Blame as much and as often as it takes to make them feel some shame.

New Rule: When you walk down the sidewalk yammering on your almost invisible cell phone, you don't look urbane. You just look crazy. And you annoy everybody else on the street who isn't talking into their own cell phone. So cut it out.

New Rule: The Presidency isn't hard work. Picking up other peoples' garbage is hard work. Helping ill people onto bedpans is hard work. Mining coal is hard work. But attending state dinners and making decisions? Stop telling me that every time a thought furrows your brow it is hard work.

New Rule: If you drive a Hummer, don't complain about the price of gas. You have a problem with your organ size and you are willing to pay more than $50,000 to compensate. So don't gripe when you have to pay 50 cents more a gallon. You knew what you were doing when you walked into the showroom.

9:53 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Talley: Love those!

And thanks for the tip about word verification. It has been activated. Hope that keeps the spammers out. Sheesh.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous zuleme said...

I call this process "kill your darlings". Works in video too, sometimes your most beautiful shot just has to go.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous kgirl said...

Talley --

AWESOME new rules.

I concur completely.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

New Rule: If you're an angry liberal, do something about it. Stop bitching and do something. Then maybe you can stop losing elections to sub-par foes.

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Tanner said...

New Rule: Never assume angry liberals are not doing something.

New Rule: Never assume that someone posting as 'anonymous' is hiding behind something, or that he or she drives a hummer.

New Rule: The phrase "cash money" is unnecessary. "Please donate cash," and "Please donate money," are both acceptable alternatives. And they don't sound nearly as stupid.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Greg - Cowboy in the Jungle said...

New Rule: Quit worrying about what labels others put on you. The only lable that matters is the one you put on yourself.

A prime example is the recent trend of homeless dome dwellers that refuse charitable donations (like diapers and food) because the don't like being called "refugees."

That's fine but your kids need diapers and food. Get in line and we will sort it our later, you lower wetland dwelling nomadic person of Franco-Cherokee descent.

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

New Rule: Quit using "we" to describe your favorite sports team. You do not get paid to cheer them on. Use the team's name and leave it at that.

New Rule: Quit expecting to withdraw troops from Iraq anytime soon. The United States started this mess and will have to stay there until the situation is spick-and-span.

Leave a place cleaner than you found it. That's what my mother told me. That's the way it should be here too.

New Rule: Getting a salad does not make you Jared from Subway. Slopping gallons of dressing onto a salad is not eating healthier.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous marion price said...

New rule: If you're going to tell me how the bible says homosexuality shouldn't be allowed, I don't want to see you eating shellfish, wearing a cotton/polyester shirt, or eating food prepared by a menstruating woman. Or any of the other 693 weird-ass things in Leviticus. Okay, Mr. Abomination?

New rule: Nobody who drives a steel brontosaurus gets to whine about gas prices. You bought Reagan's line about getting rid of all those nasty government regulations. An extra twenty bucks at the gas pump and you want them back?

9:51 PM  
Blogger wolfa said...

The "he was writing" is not passive, sort of passive, a weird passive. It's just plain active. The agent stays before the verb, the patient, if there is one, stays after; we don't lose an argument, and you can use it on intransitive verbs.

It is progressive (be V+ing), which is about aspect, which essentially tells you how time moved wrt that verb (or the verb wrt time, perhaps). Progressive talks about a time period; perfect (have V+ed) about something completed, etc. They're all quite useful, though of course not every single verb should use them.

More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_aspect#Aspect_in_English

9:51 PM  
Blogger beche-la-mer said...

New Rule: 4WDs (SUVs for US-dwellers) are off-road vehicles. Therefore they are only allowed to drive off-road. This should also solve the water crisis for all those suburban lawns in drought-stricken Australia.

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Matt again said...

New rule: Stop voting for people you could see having a beer with. No one wants a common-man to be Mayor, Senator, President, etc. You want someone who is smarter than you. Someone that will not make you doubt what he/she is thinking. If you could see yourself having a beer with the President, then there would be President Billy-Bob or Two-toothed Timmy.

12:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

New Rule: Why can't we treat our children as they are and not what we hope them to be? Why can't we enjoy them as children? Why can't we sit on the floor and play with them, listening to their easy chatter and capturing their magic?

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I come to this blog to get away from the political bickering.

New Rule: Dont use every resource you have access to as a conduit to project your political beliefs. It is sure to evoke a response which must, of course, be responed to. It is both tedious and banal, if that is possible.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Sean The MonkeyMan said...

New Rule: Throwing cigarettes out of a car and any instance of littering will be a punishable offense that will require offenders to spend sixty days in jail and be forced to watch "The Best of Hee Haw Volume 1" six times a day for the duration of their sentence.

New Rule: Pre-teens who talk in movie theaters will have their tongues cut out. On a related note, anyone who opens up or answers a cel phone in a movie theater (outside of an emergency) will be dealt with by firing squad.

New Rule: MTV is no longer allowed to give out Video Music Awards since the network doesn't show videos outside of pre-dawn hours.

10:33 AM  
Blogger still life said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:37 PM  
Blogger still life said...

New Rule: Telemarketing will be a two way street.
If you want information about me, be prepared to
answer questions about yourself. But not now,
give me your home number and let me call you back.


New Rule: Wheelchairs have the right of way.
Pedestrians shall move to the right when a
wheelchair is approaching, not vice versa.
It is you against a 275 pound power chair.
Do you see my point.


New Rule: There will no longer be standard greetings.
You will no longer be allowed to ask about a person's
health while in motion. If you ask how I'm doing, then
you will stop and wait for a response.


New Rule: There will be no set pricing for merchandise
of any type. The world and it's possessions will be
bargainable. Example: $3.99 seems a little steep for
toothpaste, I'll give you $2.97 and throw in my own bag.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Yvette said...

Every year on my birthday it's become a tradition for me to write out a few "Words of Wisdom" for my zine. Here are a few I'm saving for my next one, along with some of my all-time favorites. :-)

Just because your world stops does not mean that the rest of the universe is obliged to do the same.

Writing is like math: you can never become good in either without regular practice. Then why do so many people believe they are good writers without writing a sentence? It’s like believing you can ace calculus despite skipping high school algebra.

If you think skiing in knee-deep powder next to an avalanche warning sign is a good idea don’t be surprised when you have to dig yourself out.

It is wonderful to have ideals but since our world is not an ideal place you’re going to have to compromise them sometimes. The trick lies in knowing which ones, when, and why. The trick also lies in knowing which ideals are, despite it all, non-negotiable.

There are three reasons you should not swear all the time: you never know what negative impression will be made of you, you’re better then that, and you need some form of expression for those times you’re really pissed off.

You are more responsible for your actions and thoughts than anything and anyone around you. This is because you choose them for yourself.

3:53 PM  
Blogger SuperHolmie said...

New rule: Since we can't seem to conquer obesity in America, let's try some new terminology. Instead of measuring food in fat grams or calories, let's use minutes. A person can eat a five-minute serving of ice cream, or a ten-minute serving of pizza. No 30-minute servings of Chips Ahoy allowed.

5:39 PM  
Blogger alg said...

New Rule; You can make any political comment you like, but it has to be original. No more repeating something you think is clever. It's not, we've all heard it twenty or thirty times before, and even the ones who laughed the first few times they heard it think you're an idiot to keep repeating it.

12:22 PM  
Blogger distracted diva said...

New rule: If you have no problem with boobs when you're stuffing dollar bills in a stripper's G-string or when you're paging through your latest issue of Cosmo, you have no right to give me grief for discreetly breastfeeding my baby in public. Newsflash: that is what boobs are actually for.

1:37 PM  
Blogger distracted diva said...

New rule: No more pulling through a parking space to nose out of one on the next row because you're too lazy or inept to back out of a parking space. If you can't steer your car in reverse, you shouldn't be driving at all.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

New rule, Diva: Think again. Lazy? Inept? Can't reverse? If you drove a small car, as I do, you'd know that the B-29 SUV drivers prefer to park next to us. Gives them so much more space. Reverse steering is blind for us, and we don't much enjoy risking our backsides.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Frances said...

New Rule: If you're going to wear that thong, hit the gym. When you're standing in front of me on the escalator, I prefer seeing the outline of your common underwear to your buttcheeks running wild.

New Rule: If you're going to wear that thong, make sure it's the right colour. I prefer not to be left wondering if that was your pubic hair or simply a dark thong showing through your light trousers.

New Rule: On second thought? Don't wear that thong.

12:15 PM  
Blogger BlondebutBright said...

New Rule:
If you’re not religious, don’t get married in a church. Skip the baby christening and the funeral, too. In fact, don’t get married at all. It’s cowardly to hide behind religious custom in order to pacify elderly family members or to soothe your own insecurities about your lack of a traditional belief system.

New Rule:
Fellow females: we all agree that public toilet seats are gross. We are left with two options (now rules): 1) cover the seat with paper and sit, or 2) put up the seat and squat. Unfortunately, there seems to be a great majority of women who neglect to put up the seat, and opt instead to spray their deposit all over the seat itself, thus making 1) very revolting for the next bathroom visitor to carry out. Follow the rule(s). You have two choices.

New Rule: (Holland-based)
Despite the logic that they pay to have the streets cleaned and therefore should not have to pick up after their doggy deposits, the residents of Amsterdam should be severely fined for walking away from a pile of poop that is, in fact, their responsibility. Only heavy monetary penalties and crushing social stigma will succeed in solving this stinky, squashy problem.

5:31 AM  
Blogger distracted diva said...

anonymous: You should think again. I do drive a small car. Thanks for assuming. And I know how to use those nifty little rear view mirrors and look over my shoulder to assist me in backing up. And since I live in Texas, I am all to familiar with being surrounded by vehicles much bigger than my own. Yet, use of said mirrors and over-the-shoulder looking have safely protected me for all 19 years of my driving experience, despite the hulking vehicles that surround my car.

8:16 AM  
Blogger distracted diva said...

New rule: typing one-handed with a squirming infant on your lap causes typos. Do not attempt!

8:19 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I love what came out of this exercise, and I'm sad that I'm coming in it so late, but one of Talley's new rules reminded me of a poem I'm working on, so I thought I would post it here:
Things You Know Nothing About, or Lessons to be Learned from the President

1. It’s hard work being a feminist, with no ranch
to retreat to, no army at your fingertips. You think
you feel isolated, Mr. President—try telling
all the men in your workplace they have to take down
their nudy pics and they can’t look at internet porn.

And then try coming to work the next day
and finding someone to eat lunch with.
It’s hard work being a feminist. You have to
love yourself enough to know what you deserve.

You don’t get to name things when you’re
a feminist because they’ve already been named.
You can’t just use words like terrorist
and welfare mom, pointing your finger at people
who aren’t like you. They get to name you

feminist, but in a bad way. You can’t just
draft people into your cause when you’re
a feminist because it’s not noble work
fighting sexism, and the federal government
is not spending money developing weapons

to eradicate sexism. The federal government
does not even believe that sexism exists, but
it names feminists like it names terrorists—
we are a threat to humankind, demanding
freedom over all we own, our bodies,

and naming our needs. We are a threat
to the presidency, but we are ready for the job.
Because we’ve been working real hard,
fighting wars every day, civil wars even.

It’s hard work being a feminist, and we
don't even get paid. We don’t get to write
laws or veto much. We’re practicing democracy
even though we’re slaves. We’re naming
the enemy, even though no one is listening.

2. It’s hard working growing a baby—consumption,
consumption, consumption. It’s like growing
an economy. Everybody’s looking at you, asking
questions. If you’re lucky, you read the right book
last night, and you can report on the correct quarter
or trimester. It’s hard work growing a baby;
your brain stops working and you start making
up words to replace the ones you’ve lost.

Luckily, in the end, you get to name the baby.
You can call it whatever you want—you’re calling
the shots—and then finally other people can help
you with the burden. But for forty weeks, you’re
growing that baby all by yourself.

And it takes a lot of energy. You might find yourself
taking time off work as much as possible without
even making excuses. No matter how important
your job or how many people are relying on you
and the decisions you make, growing a baby is hard
work, and you might have to spend time growing
that baby in another town or on a ranch,
just to get away for a while.

You can invite foreign diplomats to your house
to see what they have to say about growing babies,
but there’s no reason to take their advice, or anyone’s,
for that matter. It’s hard work growing a baby,
but there’s no reason to believe you don’t own
the knowledge and experience it takes to do it.

7:25 AM  
Anonymous talia said...

I'm trying to find out more information about a teacher I had a few years ago named Mary Ann Colias. I've lost contact with her but I had an Acting class here in San Antonio with her. Could you tell me more about your experiences with her as a teacher?
thanks
talia

12:05 AM  

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