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SENTENCE OLYMPIANS: LEARNING THE POWER OF THE SENTENCE

Guest post by Daniel Noyes

Daniel Noyes writes books for children and is currently seeking DanielNoyesPhotorepresentation for his work. He is a member of SCBWI and a winner of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 LDStorymakers Conference first chapter contests. He has an MBA from Idaho State University and works as a critical infrastructure cyber security analyst.


Everything we write involves three choices: what to write about, the words we use, and the order in which we place them.

Gertrude Stein once asked:

Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?

As writers, our tools are words and sentences, and with these two things we write mountains of books. From these two things are birthed a plethora of pleasing sentences, some you may have memorized.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

—–

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

—–

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . .

Consider the following sentence.

He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

Wow, right? What a power-packed sentence. It starts so simple and clear and then builds and builds all the way to the very last word. Would you have guessed it was forty-one words long? Forty-one words. Did you have any trouble comprehending it?

Did you know that the sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” goes on for over a hundred words?

There will be many willing to teach you the “rules of writing.”  One rule I see too often is to keep sentences short. Some even say not to exceed a certain number of words and that if you do, you need to start trimming. They say long sentences only confuse readers. They tell you that Hemingway used only short sentences, unaware of his 424-word monster in The Green Hills of Africa, among others.

In a course titled, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Brooks Landon, English Professor at the University of Iowa, says this:

An assumption exists that long sentences are bad, but it is usually the case that bad sentences are long.

It’s time we shrug off our fear of long sentences. Fear is for things we don’t understand, things we can’t control, and as authors, we control our sentences.

There are many ways to write long sentences that are both crystal clear and replete with pleasure. One such way is through cumulative syntax.

In his course, Professor Landon goes on to say:

I think cumulative syntax is…the surest way for writers to immediately improve the effectiveness of their sentences.

—–

Cumulative sentences are easy to write, a process of adding modifying phrases to the base clause of the sentence, each phrase adding to our understanding or sharpening our visualization of the preceding phrase or of the base clause.

Let’s refer back to that corpse-in-the-trunk sentence, one that Professor Landon uses as a poster child in his course.

It has one base clause: He drove the car carefully,

Followed by five free modifying phrases: his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk.

They’re called free modifying phrases because they can be placed in any syntactic position relative to the base clause, unlike bound modifiers, which have a tendency to curtail comprehension in long sentences.

Go ahead and try it. Start with a simple base clause, add a comma to the end, and pile on some modifying phrases.

If your modifying phrases all refer back to the base clause, it’s called a coordinate pattern.

D1

If you’d like, each modifying phrase can refer to the clause or phrase immediately preceding it to create a subordinate pattern.

D2

Of course, we can mix and match coordinate and subordinate phrases as we desire. This is known as a mixed pattern.

D3

Here’s an example I found in one of my manuscripts. My main character, Ricky, has just arrived at the Colosseum in Rome where he is to change into an animal and compete in an Olympic-style tournament. Given how we’re just coming away from the summer Olympics in real life, this seems particularly fitting. Here are Ricky’s thoughts as he studies the arena.

Ricky imagined a Roman chariot flashing by, dust whipping and swirling in the air behind it, the horses galloping with every mite of speed they could muster, each hoping to finish first, to earn their master a laurel crown, to finally retire and grow fat and sire the next generation of champions, the next generation of stars.

Fifty-seven words; not bad. And if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Our goal as writers shouldn’t be to follow a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather to become sentence Olympians, able to perform syntagmatic and paradigmatic feats that give our readers ample pleasure.

(Cue epic music) No, we writers don’t win gold medals in live events with millions cheering us on. We don’t perform in vast arenas with tens of thousands screaming our names. Many of us will never earn enough to pay the bills with our writing. But our words, our sentences, our characters, our stories fill the minds of the world, expand the knowledgeverse, and live on, and on, and on.

Every book you read, every blockbuster you watch, every hit pouring through your speakers, all were spawned in the mind of a brave soul, a writer who slapped rejection in the face, saying, “You don’t own me; you don’t choose the words I share or decide when I give up, because I won’t give up; I will write, creating something where there was void, telling stories you said couldn’t be told, and if someday in a quiet corner of Earth, a beautiful bag of blood and bones reads my words and in them finds comfort or adventure, longing or courage, or whatever manner of happily they desire, then I’ve changed the world, made an individual difference, held an empty hand, dried a lonely tear, nourished a starving soul, and all by taking a single word and writing it down and adding to it another, and another, until I’ve reached the end and created something beautiful—a thing alive.”

Words are our nails, sentences, our lumber. From a blank space, we create characters who are as real to our readers as any pop star or gold medalist they’ve never met. Scientific discovery is engaged by our conceptions. Newborns are named after characters sparked from our minds. Our words, our sentences, are not accidents. They are decisions, choices we make every time we set off to write, choices we can be proud of, choices we can cherish.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

FIVE WRITING RULES AND HOW/WHEN TO BREAK THEM

I found a statement in an old copy of Writer’s Market on line by Jessica Strawser (Feb. 13, 2012 issue) that made me laugh out loud, and I quote: “As wordsmiths, many of us rejoice in a single fact every day: “Writing is not math.”

The reason it hit my funny bone is that I know a number of writers who would agree. I, on the other hand, loved math when I was a kid in school — probably from early junior high school on — Oh, not even! I remember maybe in upper elementary (?) whenever we hit fractions, both dividing and multiplying. I got an old steno-notebook and filled a page, top to bottom, with a straggly column of fractions. I moved over an inch or two and made a second column. Between the two I placed a “multiply” or “divide sign”; then moved over another inch or two, and I’d see how fast I could write the answers. My form of playing “Angry Birds” or some other “game” on an android, or even a phone, before those were invented.

What does all that math have to do with writing? Actually, it has to do with the “rules” imposed on us. Math has rules. So does writing. And every conceivable language, whether written or spoken, has rules. In math, formulae and protocols must be strictly adhered to . . . I wonder if anyone told Einstein that? Or Newton?

We writers “know” our rules too, and sometimes understand how and when to break them:

  1. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.
    But does that yield “bland protagonists? “Sleepy settings?” “Mild plots?” Instead, think “Write What You Know means Write What You See Differently, Feel Profoundly, Know is Important, Where You Find the Extraordinary in What is Universal.” Don’t limit yourself to what you know: use your imagination, exercise your human potential, stretch beyond your “borders.” And “The Rules.” Go ahead: Natalie Goldberg has advised writers to “lose control,” say what they want to say, break structure, and sometimes assigns them to write “what they’re not thinking of” or “what they don’t remember.” It’s the writer’s job, Goldman maintains, “to give the reader a larger vision of the world.” She claims everything — every person in Portugal or darkest Africa, the grass, bees, a horse, even a rock — all have different languages. And Donald Maass adds “. . . you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.”
  2. HOOK YOUR READERS ON PAGE 1.
    “Most experts advise starting with or quickly getting to an ‘inciting incident,’ or at least something that implies a main character’s status quo has been interrupted,” says Jerry B. Jenkins. Above all, he says, “it’s not gunfire, murder or mayhem,” but something wherein you want to know what’s going on — and you’ll stick with it until you find out. But, can we break even this rule? Steve Almond says most “student authors” refuse to orient the reader by providing “basic dramatic circumstances, such as where we are and what’s happening, and to whom. Instead we’re plunged into “[an] ectoplasm of vivid descriptions and incisive observations. I refer to this style of writing as hysterical lyricism.” All because they’ve been told over and over that they have to “hook readers on Page 1.” What the reader seeks to learn above all is “whom she should care about, and what those characters want or fear. Readers deserve clearly told stories, not high-watt histrionics.”
  3. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
    What, exactly, does that mean? Your job as the writer is to “transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. Details. We need details to let us envision. Back to Goldberg, “Writing is a visual art — and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract, it is full of particulars.” Later, she says to “Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view.” Donald Maass argues that, generally speaking, this rule is sound, but asks that we “make it concrete. Externalize . . . [what] is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four- letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph.” But, he argues further, sometimes, “what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.” He compares it to the change of mood in a stadium when fans know “with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose.” There’s “the buoyancy of . . . new spring fashions . . . or the intuition . . . for no solid reason that she’s going to leave me.” So how do we break this rule? Maas says “Realize there can be tension in the invisible. . . found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.” So the trick to telling is to base your passage “in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment . . . Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.”
  4. WRITE “SH*TTY FIRST DRAFTS.” (REALLY, DO YOU HAVE A CHOICE?)
    Nope. No choice in the matter. So “let it rip. You have nothing to lose as long as you make a deal with yourself: NO ONE will ever see it,” says John Smolens. “Here’s the thing about writing fiction : You’re alone. You work on your sentences, again and again. You have a chance to seem smarter in your final draft than you were in your first. Your character may not have the right rejoinder today, but by next Thursday she may come up with something . . . witty, urbane and wise and, despite your hours of labor, it may even appear to be spontaneous.” Musicians can jam — it’s not solitary, and what you hear is what you get — goofs and all. For writers, the first draft is a Solo Improvisation, “littered with sour notes and botched chords.” You’re just trying things out, what works, what fits. It’s the reason you write that “sh*tty” first draft: to see what you can’t/shouldn’t do before you discover what you CAN do. And with revision, patience, no one will ever know your first draft existed.
  5. WRITE EVERY DAY.
    John Dufresne believes in writing every day: says that writers want to write, but there’s the world beyond the writing room, intruding. And all those books to read! But “the doing, the intense activity of the mind . . . fascinates the writer . . . allows her to shape order from chaos. Writers write. Writing is work. And you go to work every day. It’s not a choice. If you don’t punch in, you lose your job.” He goes on to say “if you’ve tried to quit and catch yourself back at the desk — well, then don’t give up. Give in.” Good news: all the writing doesn’t go on at your desk. It goes on while you’re out in the world. So he advises carrying a pen, notebook; (today it’s more likely to be an Android or your phone). Whatever works. Gather evidence. With pen in hand (or other recording devise, perhaps), you think differently, observe more keenly, learn to pay attention, keep your senses alert. The note is repository, source of material, and refuge. “Go there when you need to think. Writing . . . engenders more writing. “And everything you write today informs everything you will ever write. James Scott Bell, on the other hand, is a big believer in word quotas. He claims the best advice he ever got was to set a quota and stick to it. He started doing a daily count, but life would intrude, and he’d miss a day (who hasn’t done that?), but when life intruded and he missed it, he became “surly and hard to live with.” He switched to a weekly quota, and has used it ever since: doesn’t have to beat himself up if he misses a day. He just writes a little extra on other days, uses a spread sheet (I, personally, let 750words.com keep track of my daily writing, and my total. Long ago, I passed a million words, and I’m almost 200K beyond that one now. And I can go look at any specific day since I started at ANY time!) Bell also intentionally takes one day off each week, his “writing Sabbath”. That seems to recharge his batteries. Meanwhile his projects are cooking away in his subconscious (like Stephen King’s ‘boys in the basement’ hard at work while King takes a day off). Bell also suggests taking a week-long break from writing each year. Use the time to assess your career, set goals, make plans — because “if you aim at nothing, there’s a very good chance you’ll hit it.”

Next week, Five More Writing “RULES” and How/When to Avoid/Circumvent Them.

Deep Writing Dreams

Natalie Goldberg, in her Writing Down the Bones, noted that some of her students had been doing what she calls “practice writing” — some of them for as long as three years. So one night, she asked them “Where do you want to go with writing? You have this strong creative voice; you’ve been able to separate out the creator and the editor. What do you want to do with it?” She told them that “There comes a time to shape and direct the force we have learned.”

Then she re‑couched her words: “What are your deep dreams? Write for five minutes.”

I haven’t read every short chapter in her book, but I always leave a marker where I’ve left off. I DO like many of her ideas. I opened to my marker this morning on p. 59 on which I’d highlighted, some time ago, “What are your deep dreams? Write . . .”

In other words, I wasn’t about to write for “only” five minutes.

I was literally shocked to see this particular exercise pop up as the next thing to do. For the last several weeks, I’d been collecting my thoughts on where I want all my UNfinished writings to go. In fact, to facilitate my dreams of writing, I’d already given notice to one writer’s blog, that I would stop writing my weekly blog for them by June 1, because here were (some of) my Deep Dreams:

Before the end of the year, I will finish the first full draft of my historical novel, which I have done many, many hours of research on, written one full screen‑play, and a 36-verse (rhymed & heavily accented “Celtic”in iambic pentameter) poem about my MC’s full story, to be printed with intermittent verses dividing chapters within the novel. All I need to do is re‑read extant copies of historical documents, past writers’ critiques, my poem, invent a new “order” of events to fit the story as it now should appear, and BEGIN WRITING. That’s a lot to do between now and Dec. 31, 2016.

After that? Write my three non‑fiction books (shorter and much easier): My journey through 30 years of ever‑changing cancer treatments; My Spiral Life, where my students, for 50‑plus years, taught me how to be a Teacher; THE Trip, illuminating how I managed to survive, and return to Utah from a trip in 1967 which took me to California, Hawaii, then by cruiser to several ports in Oregon, California (again), Mexico, through the Gulf, into the Caribbean Islands, onward to Portugal, France, eventually England. Which was where I bought my mo‑ped and traveled England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Spain before flying to Copenhagen, then on to NY, and eventually Utah, for my one‑and‑a‑half years of Grad School.

Meanwhile, I’ll be working on trying to sell small pieces (already completed, and sitting in my files): a little poetry, humorous essays, and scholarly articles.

When that’s done . . . I may have to write down my next Deep Dreams.

 

 

Unreliable Narrators

I’ve been hearing more and more about “unreliable narrators,” so I was curious when Deb Caletti, an award‑winning writer, chose to write a column called “8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators”. Why would I want to do that? It’s an odd concept. . . . . . Or not.

Her suggestions for “turning it up a notch” were to:

  • make your MC a liar,
  • let him/her lie “by omission” too,
  • “muddy” his/her motivations,
  • make that protagonist more clever than s/he seems,
  • “catch” this person in his/her lies by letting a secondary character catch him/her at it (it may also
  • help to have the secondary character doubt what s/he is seeing and so “catches” a narrator in a lie, or even show that s/he has been the victim of the MC’s lies),
  • throw in a MC’s unpredictable act,
  • make that MC the “bad guy” (or not!),
  • but, somehow amidst all that, keep it believable ! ! !

WOW. With just these short “headline” suggestions, I can see how unsettling such a MC could be. It would certainly keep me wondering, questioning, as I read. What could it do for YOUR MC? What could it do for ‑‑‑ or TO ‑‑‑ your readers?

Ooooh! THAT sounds like fun.

 

What Is Creative Non Fiction?

Last night I went to a League of Utah Writers’ meeting. The invited speaker, Meg Kinghorn who teaches at the U of U in the Lifelong Learning Annex, talked about “Creative Non‑Fiction.” I’d heard the term many times in the last few years and thought I knew what it was, but wasn’t all that sure. Meg managed to assure me that “Creative Non‑Fiction” can be exactly what I thought it was: a story, essay, whatever, told from a particular viewpoint and explored to find a (maybe) hidden or “special” message of great meaning to the writer.

I told the group about the time I found myself in Rome looking in great awe at the statue of The Pieta: Mary, holding her crucified son across her lap. I’d read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy many years before. In it, he’d described Michaelangelo’s dissatisfaction with the placement of his magnificent statue, presented to the Pope, but set up in an out‑of‑the‑way alcove. According to Stone, the artist sneaked back into the area at night and boldly carved his full name across one of the straps holding Mary’s robe together. He did NOT want his work to be ascribed to some other . . . think Da Vinci!

And there it was: his name, boldly proclaimed across Mary, shoulder to lap.

Tears came to my eyes. For many minutes. And do, again, as I tell the story, or write it down.

I don’t know if that was when or why Michaelangelo did that part of the carving or not. How can we know, centuries later? But I DO know Stone was particularly noted for his meticulous research. His Men To Match My Mountains was once used in a court of law to prove particular property rights. So I chose to believe him.

Meg Kinghorn said to write Creative Non‑Fiction, we need to “behold” something. Look at it. Really see it. Wonder why it has some power over us. What that means. How it can be shared and made viable so a reader may also “behold” and connect with that item. Think of the old broach handed down from your grandmother. Or your mother’s fancy gloves she wore on the last day of her life. Now, write about it, including all the many emotions it dredges up. Let your reader in to your snapshot of what and why that item meant so much to you. Let it remind him or her of something precious in his/her life.

That is Creative Non‑fiction.

 

To Query or NOT to Query — That IS the Question

Face it: if we want to get published, we MUST write query letters. Maybe many of them.

Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents had some interesting details to share about successful Queries. He has shared many actual queries and included comments from the targeted literary agent who actually accepted the author as a client following the reading of his/her query. The one I read was published online at Writer’s Digest: Guide to Literary Agents on March 1, 2016, if you’d like to read the entire article. He followed that up with an interesting article made up of agents’ thoughts on making connections with a new writer/client through their query letters. They had some thought‑provoking and informative ideas about what to do — and what NOT to do:

“. . . mutual respect for one another’s time and efforts goes a long way. I hate asking an author to drop everything and get me something ASAP, and feel similarly when the roles are reversed.” Elizabeth Weed (Weed Literary).

“A lasting relationship with an agent is not a guarantee. I have let go of clients and they have let go of me. For me, usually communication style is the issue or authors who push the boundaries of the relationship—i.e., try and tell me how to do my job, or when to do my job . . .” Elizabeth Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates)

“My dream client is someone who believes strongly enough in the work not to be deterred, but who can also be flexible enough to take good editorial advice.” Michael Bourret (Dystel & Goderich)

“A dream client is someone who writes wonderfully; understands promotion and knows how to build a tribe; always makes a deadline; is gracious with critique and direction; and is kind, grateful, smart and makes me laugh.” Rachelle Gardner (Books & Such Literary)

“Respect my time. Don’t expect me to constantly call if there’s no news to report. Trust that I know what I’m doing and don’t take the advice of writers at conferences or in your writing groups over mine . . . Understand that publishing moves slowly at times, and I’m just as frustrated as you are if we have to wait for a check, a contract, or a response to a submitted manuscript.” Jennifer De Chiara (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)

“A dream client is one whose talent continually surprises me, and my belief in it is what keeps me on my toes to make sure I’m doing right by his or her work.” Brian DeFiore (DeFiore and Company)

“The best writers I work with are flexible and adaptable.” Carly Watters (P.S. Literary Agency)

“. . . my dream client attributes: a natural ability to write—and well; a good idea of how to build a platform; a good attitude; and perseverance.” Dawn Michelle Frederick (Red Sofa Literary)

Trust Your Readers

I noticed some comments by our regular readers/writers on a pet peeve of mine. The use (and, in this case, the punctuation involved) of “then” or “then and.” The comments which came back, explaining the grammatical correctness of various examples were fine. But they skipped the idea of my pet peeve.

When I was teaching English at Salt Lake Community, and later at Utah Valley University, we occasionally had an assignment where students were required to explain, in considerable detail, something which they knew how to do, but had to explain to a novice. It could be about making some woodworking item, cooking a meal, baking a cake, knitting a scarf, etc. The subject needed only to be something they knew and understood how to do. The object was to “teach” someone else how to do the same thing. On paper.

That was when I began to notice what I now call “Timeline” words: then, now, after, before, soon, first, next, etc. The problem, to my mind, is that when groups of such words clutter your explanation of “how to,” they project your distrust of your reader or audience.

Someone writes about mixing a cake:

“First, you need to decide on the type of cake you want to bake.”

“Before you begin, decide which pots and pans you’ll need, mixing bowls, utensils, etc.”

“Then you gather all your ingredients.”

On and on. Even for a fairly simple task, the instructions and constant reminders of what to do when make for a confusing presentation. I found that if students wrote their instructions in a logical order, clarifying where necessary what they meant by each section, they did not need words like “And then . . .” “After that . . .” “First, . . .” (and this was always one of the worst offenders because, too often, two or three paragraphs later they would say “First, . . .” again. How can two things be done “first” ? ? ? Worse still, many students would write “Then, . . .” Three sentences later: “And then, you . . .” and ‑‑‑ for variety’s sake ‑‑‑ they might throw in a “Finally, you . . .” or “Last . . .” (or even “Lastly . . .”) Ugh!

This even carries over into the writing of fiction. You’re so afraid the readers won’t be able to keep track of the sequence of events, you label each step to clarify. What it really does is muddle the issue.

If you write your instructions ‑‑‑ or your fictional events ‑‑‑ in chronological order, and the instructions or details are clear, you won’t need any Timeline. If you throw them into the mix anyway, you are telling your reader “I don’t trust you to see events or tasks in the right order, if I don’t keep labeling their order for you.” Please, don’t assume your reader is stupid.

Cut most, if not all, Timeline words. Your clarity and the logical order of your writing will be enough.

 

ADVICE FROM AN “OLD” PRO: Charles Dickens

I’ve read that Charles Dickens ‑‑‑ yes, that Charles Dickens ‑‑‑ wanted to do three things to his readers:

  1. Make ’em laugh
  2. Make ’em cry
  3. Make ’em wait

What the Dickens ? ? ? All at once, or one at a time?

If Bleak House sounds a little too morose to contemplate reading, or you’re just “tired” of the constant Christmas Carol retreads every December, maybe you ought to look at some of his other works. See how he made ’em laugh, or cry, or wait.

Dickens’ overblown characterizations are often the source of his humour. For instance, the “evil” character Fagan and his often inept handling of all his “boys,” followed by his ultimate defeat, brings readers and audience members plenty of things to laugh at or with.

The writing of Dickens’ day was often what we would call “overly sentimental”. And yet, can you watch any production of A Christmas Carol, with Tiny Tim lifted on the shoulder of his father, shouting triumphantly “God bless us, every one!” without a lump in your throat, or a tear in your eye? Or, in writing about his own childhood experiences, recalling having to work early and work hard at demeaning jobs as a child, Dickens can choke you up every time.

Finally, one of the ways Dickens made readers “wait” was to write serial installments which appeared in papers or magazines. He did the same with Oliver Twist, while “dedicated readers” eagerly anticipated the next monthly installment, even crowding the docks where the installments would be shipped in. And within the stories themselves, where there is mystery, there is also the edict that you, the reader, must “wait” to find out what happens. He was also famous for his ability to withhold crucial information ‑‑‑ which character is really your hero’s friend (or is he the enemy?). Just when you’ve figured out the truth, another “fact” comes to light and changes your mind completely. Great technique for mystery writing, among other things. “The less you tell the reader, the more they will love it.”

Much of Oliver Twist and even The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and others, were so published as continuing sagas. Later, he and his wife embarked on a five‑month lecture tour of the United States, which he followed by penning American Notes for General Circulation, a sarcastic travelogue which criticized American culture and materialism. His lectures were so widely attended that ticket scalpers gathered outside his events (What would he think of us now?), and his biographer, J. B. Priestly, wrote that during the tour, Dickens “had the greatest welcome that probably any visitor to America has ever had.”

How can you, an author, twist and braid these three strands ‑‑‑ humor, pathos and the impatient waiting ‑‑‑ together in today’s lexicon? Seen through a 21st Century lens, these three attributes still have the power to move an audience, whether in a theatre or a book. And that’s a good lesson to learn.

What Questions Should I Ask?

When I first began my journey into serious writing, I seemed to see, everywhere, that writers needed to establish themselves as a presence through Facebook, tweets, setting up a blog, probably even Pinterest. I was a little intimidated by that at first.

Later, with a Facebook membership and some beginnings of stories, my husband and I decided to start a new critique group with another couple who were both writing. As we got underway, I wondered if we should set up a blog spot which all of us could use. We published approximately every other day, so that in two weeks’ time, we’d covered every day of the week. Some of the blogs were just for fun. Tuesday’s Tutor became my bailiwick, having taught English, among other things, for so many years in Utah’s high schools, colleges, and universities. I was of the opinion that blogs could be helpful if, for nothing else, having someone else to ask for answers about writing problems. We ran our blog for well over two years.

One of the most popular things we ran was interviews with other authors. I still believe it’s a great way to connect to published authors, and to wanna be’s, who are eager to find what published authors have to say. And what newly published author wouldn’t want to answer questions for an online interview that lots of people might see?

An “interview” can usually be accomplished online without being too time consuming or intense. One of the easier ways to do this is to keep a list of prospective questions about one of your chosen author’s strengths — (add to that list as you write more interviews, or read interviews with interesting or quirky questions). For instance, I have a writing friend who writes detailed books, often about ancient times and cultures. I always wondered about her research, and how she kept it all straight, so after a brief intro to introduce my friend and what types of writing she does, I listed her answers to the following questions:

Questions for a writer who does extensive research because of time period, place, or difficult subject:

I’ve always admired your extensive research. Can you describe the research process you follow?

How do you keep all your notes, research and ideas organized?

How long have you been publishing books which have required this kind of research, and how are your research methods different now than when you began?

What has been the most challenging part of your recent research?

What do you do if you hit a wall in trying to find out certain information? What resources could you recommend for authors writing about ancient times, which you do so frequently?

You’ve talked, recently, about going into self-publishing. What advantage do you see, at this stage in your career, in such a move?

What drawbacks are there? Do you have out-of-print books you’d like to republish on your own?

Please tell us about the contracts you have just signed, and when these new books will be available.

With such a list of questions, sent a week or more before you need your interviewee’s answers, you can cobble together an informative and interesting blog. If you work enough in advance, you may also be able to send a few extra questions which come up as you read the original answers. Another friend, after having published four or five books, became fascinated with the change the industry was going through from publishing houses to self-publishing. So I thought I’d get some answers from her as well.

For a published author of multiple books, including series, who is contemplating self-publishing:

I know you have decided to go to e-publishing. What prompted this change?

What kinds of information and/or contacts did you need to accomplish this, and how did you find them?

What was the easiest part of making this kind of transition? What was the most difficult part?

What has been most rewarding about this transition?

What would you advise someone who has never published in the traditional way before setting to e-pub?

Will you continue to e-pub, even with your new novels?

What new project are you working on now?

Please give us the names of your books? Which, if any, are still available in hard copies?

Anything else you’d like to add?

On occasion, I see blog “interviews” which have two or three quirky questions as part of the interview, like what’s your favorite flavor of pizza? Or, if you were starving would you rather eat a bug or a rat? Also, be sure to ask all interviewees for the names and publication dates of any new or coming books. This addition to your “thank you” at the end of the blog can add to the author’s sales as well, and who wouldn’t like THAT?

Next week, I’ll add some more questions for other types of writers/artists.

“I never metaphor I didn’t like” *

D. H. Lawrence once described a row of distant houses on a ridge at night: “The homes stood . . . black against the sky, like wild beasts glaring curiously with yellow eyes down into the darkness.” WOW! But what if he’d just said, “The lighted houses were black against the sky.” Now the idea has lost all its color, all its energy.

Read Pearl Buck’s words about the surprise when an opened bag revealed a handful of precious jewels: ” . . . such a mass of jewels as we had never dreamed could be together, jewels red as the inner flesh of watermelons, golden as wheat, green as young leaves in spring, clear as water trickling out of the earth.”

Now we’re talking “figurative” language, which lends beauty, interest, intensity to our writings. Two such devices, shown above, are similes and metaphors

A simile compares things which may be unlike, but uses a “comparing” word such as like or as. “Her hair was like silk.” “He was thin as a stick.”

“Books are like imprisoned souls till someone takes them down from a shelf and frees them.” ~ Samuel Butler

“Justice is like a train that’s nearly always late.” ~ Yevgeny Vetrushenko

“Books are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we go out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stage of development.” ~ Dorothy L. Sayers

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” ~ William Shakespeare (King Lear)

A metaphor compares things which are unlike without the “comparing” words, like or as. This is an implied, rather than a stated, direct comparison. Metaphor will often say one thing IS another: The road was a ribbon of moonlight.

I happened upon a strange (and funny) little book one day in a bookstore and had to have it. The title: “I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like” by Dr. Mardy Grothe. In this tome, you will find wonderful examples of both similes and metaphors (and many more, like analogies, puns, etc.). To quote a few gems, he garnered from a variety of sources:

“A committee is a cul‑de‑sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” ~ Barnett Cocks (Why am I thinking about politics? Elections? Senators and Reps?)

“A skyscraper is a boast in glass and steel.” ~ Mason Cooley (Funny, I’m still thinking politics . . . but I won’t say WHO.

“America is an enormous frosted cupcake in the middle of millions of starving people.” ~ Gloria Steinem

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” ~ St. Augustine

Several years ago, I wrote a blog for the ABC Writers Guild about borrowing from friends. And friends borrowing from friends. The short of it is, I borrowed an idea from Carol Lynch Williams and Ann Dee’s blog “Throwing Up Words” (FOLLOW it, if you don’t already!). Ann Dee had borrowed and adapted a writing exercise from THE PRACTICE of POETRY by Linnea Johnson, to come up with this fun list for you/us to recreate as completed metaphors and/or similes.

So from Linnea, down the line, to me, to you — have fun finishing these metaphors/similes:

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like . . .
  2. Cancelled checks in the abandoned subway car seemed . . .
  3. A spider under the rug is like . . .
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like . . .
  5. Nothing was the same, now that it was . . .
  6. The dice rolled out of the cup toward Veronica like . . .
  7. A child in . . . is like a . . .
  8. . . . is like muscles stretched taut over bone.
  9. The fog plumed through gun shot holes in the car windows like . . .
  10. She held her life in her hands as if it were . . .
  11. Lacey poured coffee down her throat as if it were . . .
  12. If I should wake before I die, . . .
  13. The security guard walks the lobby as if . . .
  14. The library books left in the rain . . .
  15. Music in the hallway like . . .

I’d love to see your best three is the comments below. And don’t forget to add color and verve to your writing by utilizing apt similes and metaphors.

*”I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like” by Dr. Mardy Grothe