#Cliches are not good, but… #writing

 

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from Keep It Short by Charles Euchner

#CLICHES

To give clichés life—to make them fresh and original again— find something surprising to add to them.

Too often, we use familiar ideas without really under- standing their meaning. We repeat phrases and ideas carelessly.

When we overuse expressions, we live in a fool’s paradise. We cannot hold a candle to the halcyon days, our salad days, when we suited the action to the word and revealed the naked truth. But we give short shrift to language, writing with neither rhyme nor reason. And we lose such stuff as dreams were made of, at’s neither here nor there, since these expressions are dead as a doornail. Coming full circle, we realize, more in sorrow than anger, and it’s a foregone conclusion that overuse of such terms is a fatal vision. So, in one fell swoop, we throw cold water on it.

All of those expressions come from Shakespeare. ese expressions once expressed ideas with freshness and originality. But used over and over, they have lost their vitality. Too o en, we use these clichés not because they express ideas well, but because they o er a simple way to say something. ey let us say something without thinking.

Remember you want to make the reader see, feel, helpless, harmless. Milo’s dead.” By using the slack, disinterested tone of a gumshoe, Lynch moves us away from sickly sentimentality.

 

Samuel Beckett uses clichés in playful ways to make them fresh. He writes: “Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards.” And then, describing the odor of graveyards, he added that he will breathe in the smell of corpses “when take the air I must.” In her memoir of family suicide, Joan Wickersham freshens a stale image: “Cal may have had pots of family money, but my husband didn’t even have a small saucepan.”

Whenever possible, though, avoid clichés. Lush detail—observation of sights, sounds, smells—helps to create original expressions.

Nack could just say, “I thought about that horse day and night. I couldn’t get Secretariat out of my mind. It popped up no matter where I was or what I was doing” Zzzzzz. Instead, Nack uses compelling images to show how Secretariat shaped every minute of his life.

Write like Bill Nack. Always look for the fresh images—ideas that are familiar, but which other writers have not used before—to help the reader experience the scene –

smell, taste, touch, imagine—and think of more familiar the images, the less you will engage your reader.

“Cliches,” Geoffrey Hill notes, “invite you not to think.” Cliches give use easy, lazy was of expressing our- selves. As Hill notes, “you may always decline the invitation.” When you feel tempted to use a cliché, stop. Get in the habit of considering how to state a point simply—or think of a fresh, original way of making a point.

To avoid the dreariness of clichés, play with them. Start by looking at its literal meaning. Porter Abbott explains:

When the orator urges his or her auditors “to strike while the iron is hot,” how many of them see the sweating blacksmith at his forge and feel his magical transmutation into new meaning? The answer is none. But when one tramp suggests to another that “it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes” the original vehicle is revived in its literal state.

Taking words literally reveals the cliché’s original insight. When you do a genealogy of clichés, you discover vibrant images that can be revived.

When you change the context of cliché, you can give it new life. In a memoir of his life as an undertaker, Tomas Lynch writes about the death of a neighbor: “Milo is dead. X’s on his eyes, lights out, curtains.”

 

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Sidransky, 85, reads from her masterwork, Reparations, begun in 1950

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Author Ruth Sidransky reads from Reparations, her novel begun in 1950 when, as a young American Jew, she moved to Europe with her husband and began smuggling for the Jews who survived in sewers and the woods.

She makes a European “family” of Holocaust survivors who slowly reveal their stories of horror. And she comes to understand that the only answer to death is life.

Given recent events in Europe, Reparations as a story feels extremely close and relevant as does the heroine’s thoroughly modern choice: to create new life and raise her children in America, commuting back and forth helping build a new country called Israel.

Reparations is a voice coming at us from forty years ago, raw, fascinating, heartbreaking, and finally filled with the wonder of the resilience of human beings.

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PUBLISHER’S DREAMS: Finding a Jewel in the Box

Reparations3

Beth Wareham
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Anyone who has ever worked in publishing has a secret longing: To discover a manuscript, dusty, abandoned, forgotten, transformative, beautiful manuscript languishing in a drawer of an old roll top desk or crammed into a shoe box and pushed beneath a bed. We dream of the jewel in the box that only we can find and open. We dream of unleashing a work of genius on the world. It’s a weird fantasy, I’ll admit, but there you have it.

Gone with the Wind. Confederacy of Dunces. 2666, Emily Dickinson. A Death in the Family. The Diary of Anne Frank. Emily Dickinson poems spilling from tabletops and drawers. Everything Franz Kafka ever wrote – flashes of light winking out of the black rock of a deep mine.

My “jewel in the box” rush came with an email from a rock star author I used to publish. His mom had a novel. He didn’t know what shape it was in…it had been written long ago. Would I look?

Long ago was 1950, the beginning of the years author Ruth Sidransky spent in Vienna, smuggling for Jews who survived World War II hiding in the forest. The novel was huge, literally and figuratively, moving across three continents, a world war, genocide, occupation, a marriage, a love affair, God, torture, revenge, annihilation, religion, joy, belief, endless cruelty and death. We learn to love her new friends and as they become closer the cost of their survival is slowly revealed.

Part Sophie’s Choice, part Everything is Illuminated, Reparations is a monumental book that ends with the surprise choice of a thoroughly modern woman and the triumph of the Jewish people to survive and thrive after certain destruction.

Author Sidransky turned 86 this year; proving you just never know where the diamonds are hiding.

This is one of the third books she’ll publish in 2015.

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If You Don’t Like Questions, Memoir Isn’t For You

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/Beth Wareham
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I just spent a few days with a novelist who had to keep yelling “SHE ISN’T ME” about the main character in her latest book. Of course it’s her. When publishing, she did put the word “fiction” on it so we had to back down. We have to honor — as friends and literary lovers — that she says the book isn’t her life story. I am not going to know who she was talking about when she wrote about a sexual encounter in the Dean’s office in college. (The idea of it excited me, by the by.)

Who WHO was it? Maybe Louis had the gumption, maybe Mike. Finally, one night, gone on buttery chardonnay, my friend blurted “memoir” instead of novel. I had her dead-to-rights and she knew it. My form of Rendition began.

Within 8 minutes, (I used a kitchen towel and Diet Coke) I’d broken through her little “fiction” to the “memoir” and found she did it on the Dean’s oriental with Martin the TA. I was appalled. Martin looked like Gene Wilder and my friend was in need of an A in Shakespeare. Our friendship has not been the same since.

Own what you’ve lived or use your imagination to build a world in which the reader could live. Spin something into something larger or spend some time on earth before you race to tell your “story.” Know why you do what you do. Do it well. Contribute higher not just more.

I knew who my friend’s heroine in her novel was: I wish she had called it a memoir, given herself credit for a life well-lived and made up something for a story later.

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Chop Chop Writers

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by Beth Wareham

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So, this meat clever is kinda scary. Blood. Animal? Human? Ha!

This is writer’s blood. From the way the red rises in the middle of the cleaver, forensics tell us someone was killing whole paragraphs. (Little splatters on the end suggest adverb and adjective removal.) Consistent smears along the blade tells us it was a sentence hunting mission. CSI for Writers: The Cleaver Tells All.

Every writer must be a ruthless editor, meat cleaver worn on a tool belt as he or she types. This editing is one of the hardest aspects of writing – we all think our words should be carried around on little velvet pillows – and that thought often embarrasses you later when you have an overwritten, indulgent book no one wants to read.

So, in a wildly simplistic list, here are the things your clever should do for you to progress in your life as a writer:

1. Adverbs and adjectives: CLEAVER THEM. AS MANY AS POSSIBLE.

2. Vary sentence length for dramatic affect. Consider these two scenarios:

“Walter walked in the back door, throwing his jacket to the floor, and commenced his feral wandering from room to room, beer in hand, waiting for a child or slow moving aunt to verbally ambush.”

“The door slammed. Walter threw his coat on the back of the chair. He immediately walked over to the refrigerator, pulled out his customary beer, and began to pace the first floor of the house. The living room was empty as was the front porch. He really wanted someone in his family to appear so he could burn off some of his darker feelings.

3. Don’t go down alleyways. Writers have curious minds and it is easy to write yourself off course. The cleaver must come out if you go on, say, a two page chat about derivatives in a South American love story. Stay on story or it’s the cleaver for you.

4. Don’t say the same thing in a bunch of different ways. We all assume a writer has the skills to tell us a story using different devices. Have enough faith in yourself to pick one story and tell it the way you want to….no hemming and hawing.

5. Write a book of appropriate length. You are writing in the age of the internet, not the 19th Century when entertainments were a bit slower moving. Keep it tight. Test yourself. Use the poet’s skill of distilling words to write prose. Practice writing short on twitter. Write to your time. Word selection is the 21st Century game of the highest importance. Just look at Search Engine Optimization. 🙂

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Rejection: A Case Study for Writers

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-Beth Wareham

Getting through the layers of agents and editors used to be the great head-bangers ball for writers. With as many opinions as there are interns, most books are DOA in the mail room. They sit there, they slowly move upstairs, an assistant opens them and puts them in a big pile, an editor assigns the first read to a younger editor, an assistant or even unpaid help. Someone doesn’t read far enough, doesn’t understand the history or context, spills their Starbucks on the manuscript. The agent calls and inquires as to how the editor liked it. The editor has not yet seen it and around we go.

Helplessness. The creative’s helplessness in the face of the publishing machine has always been a monumental problem. The arrogance of one side and the sheer powerlessness of the other made publishing toxic. The new world order is changing this and books now go straight into production at the author’s behest. They go on sale that way as well. Publishers now approach authors that have broken the sales code in hopes of hitching their wagon to a self-publishing star.

If this new world leaves questions in your mind, I offer a look into the rejection of some of the great writers who came before you. If they could take it, so can you.

16 literary agents and 12 publishers rejected John Grisham’s A Time to Kill

Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight Series, was turned down by 14 agents until an employee at Writer’s House picked it up out of the slush pile. That employee now has a job for life.

Alex Haley’s Roots had 200 consecutive rejections and went on to be an international bestseller and Pulitzer Prize Winner, showing American publishing that black people DO buy books.

Mom, a Bloomsbury editor, wanted to reject a book, but her 8-year old daughter insisted she get to finish reading the manuscript about a kid named Harry Potter.

Agatha Christie received editorial rejection letters for 5 years until her first acceptance. She is second in sales only to William Shakespeare.

Louis L’Amour read 200 letters telling him he couldn’t write until Bantam Publishing disagreed. One letter from an editor said, “You have no business being a writer and should give up.” With Bantam, he published 330 million books.

Richard Bach was famously jeered at for his little book about a seagull. Turned down by every publishing company at least twice, a young female editor interested in flying picked up the book and Jonathan Livingston Seagull flew out.

When “Chicken Soup for the Soul” made the rounds of publishing houses, the overwhelming response was “no one reads anthologies.” I mean, I just don’t know what to say about how wrong that is.

When Random House rejected his first novel, The Long Walk, he shelved it and began again. Stephen King got a contract on his next book.

So, writerly-types, the world is getting better. Tons better. It is even HARDER to get inside a publishing company these days, but I think you will find less and less reason to do so as the world develops.

#amwriting

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Tough Writer’s Manifesto: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Never Stop

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/Beth Wareham

Richard Bach, author of that 20th century pop icon, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, said a mouthful with “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” Richard – who once let me fly his plane – would not like what I have to say about much of his writing. But his work on aviation is magnificent. He was also based in the same squadron as a really professional writer – one James Salter – during the Berlin crisis. Salter, author of A Sport and A Pastime, among others, never chose a wrong word in his life.

A tough writer, amateur or check-casher, doesn’t quit. A tough writer works through problems, wipes out pages, starts over. A tough writer knows how you can get inside a book and slip and slide in it, failing to accomplish much of anything. A tough writer understands the words “begin again.”

Below is some pretty interesting advice I’ve heard from authors and editors in a 20-year career in the larger publishing houses of New York. Some of it will depress you and some will set you free.

You must remember, though, that part of the extreme joy of reading and writing is the discovery of the new voice, seemingly from nowhere, who changes your point of view.

What you also must remember, sitting glumly at your keyboard, is that voice just might come from you:

TOUGH WRITERS MANIFESTO

1. No one is watching you.

The great Ilene Beckerman, author of Love, Love and What I Wore, confessed that what she liked about writing was that nobody saw when she wrote a sentence like “She carried the steaming tureen to the table.” Allow yourself all the mistakes you need until it feels right to you.

2. Plan and destroy. Plan and destroy.

Map a plot. Change it. Flush out characters, modify, remove, add more. Throughout the process of putting a book together, you need the plan of a soldier who is ready to shift positions at any moment for a more effective line of attack. Rigid flexibility. Think on it.

3. Who are you writing for?

Too often, especially in non-fiction, authors are writing for peers. That’s fine, if you want to sell books to the 200 other forensic accountants in California. Who is your reader? Who do you see in your mind’s eye as you work on the book? Act accordingly. Don’t use technical words if you trying to reach the layman. Choose communication over showing off.

4. Feed a fever; Starve a cold

If you don’t believe in the muse, then you don’t believe in Faulkner, Mozart and Beethoven. Whole chunks of finished passages just appeared in their heads and the test was to write it down quickly enough they didn’t lose it. This is true of you as well. If you become deeply engaged in writing a scene, stay with it. Sitting down at a computer and doing 500 words a day is the drip, drip of sinuses disengaged from the passion of writing. Stop word counting and start throwing your soul into it.

5. Facts are not the truth.

In fiction, there are no facts but abundant truths. Since all writing is autobiographical to a degree, never got bogged down in the actually memory of a room or character. Remake them anew to meet the truth of what you are writing. You owe no one an explanation for your art.

6. Raw is good.

The closer you can get to the bone, the more you feel what you write, the more your reader will too. This is what Hemingway meant by his comment that being a writer was no big deal, you just sat down and bled on a keyboard all day. Readers know when they are being kept at arms’ length and most don’t like it. Bring them in to you and the story.

7. Detail isn’t everything, but it’s almost everything.

Every detail you choose should further your plot or give us more information about your characters and the “truth” of your book. Here’s a simple example of how you might or might not choose detail for a character:

Meyer’s suit was blue and his shoes were brown.

Meyer’s blue suit shined at the elbows, leading the eye downward to a pair of brown crepe-soled
work shoes.

Simple, right? And no one ever talks about the writer’s eyes; the painters get all that public relations.

8. Simple formulas make powerful books.

A) Tell your story from the beginning and end at the end. Simple. Never fails

B) Try the song form: A,B,A. Used for thousands of years, you can see this form best in a series
like Lord of the Rings: A is the Shire, B is the adventure, C is a return to the Shire with
lessons learned and evil vanquished.

9. Edit like Stalin.

Everyone, EVERYONE, uses too many words. Edit yourself ruthlessly. Any word that is not absolutely necessary to further your story should go. You owe this to your reader: don’t waste their time with overwriting. Proust covered that already.

10. Let the manuscript rest before final carving.

Polishing a manuscript brings up an interesting combination of anxiety and joy. You are close to a finished book. Give it that last read and polish it up. Remove the final unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Tighten descriptions. People will read it soon, thus the anxiety. People will read it soon, thus the joy.

Some will judge you positively, some might not. But somewhere, someone will read your book and it will change his or her life.

And that, my friend, is why you do it.

Stay tough.

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In Chelsea Handler’s Bedroom

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/ by Beth Wareham

A well-known fact about Chelsea is that she likes to pee on her friends. She entices them into her shower or quietly dog-paddles up behind them in a pool and releases a yellowy bubble that envelopes her victim. It’s a kind of warm liquid Hollywood fairy-dust, Chelsea’s pee.

I have no idea why she does this. I wasn’t an insider. I was part of Chelsea’s entourage’s entourage, a self-confessed mangy lot. My group never had a chance of getting peed on directly; we could only go to her pool when she wasn’t home.

51lQgRc0pJL._UY250_One strange day, one of Chelsea’s inner most circles got mixed up with the outer most circle and asked if I wanted to see her bedroom.

Huge, orderly and airy, she had a California King that didn’t look any more used than any other California King I’d seen.  (Have you seen the dent in the middle of Rhianna’s?) The room was weirdly peaceful. I don’t remember a television screen of any kind.

41zAv4Ncy0L._AA160_What I remember confounds me to this day. It wasn’t the bedroom of a celebrity at all; it was the bedroom of a writer. One entire wall was floor to ceiling bookshelves, all stuffed, with everything from architecture to art to

51FEbVMY-AL._AA160_politics. The range was stunning.

51Q7W-NOB7L._AA160_Funny girls write great books. They understand detail. They choose really interesting detail.  And as both Chelsea and Tina Fey become Netflix regulars, let’s see what “on demand” does to their creativity.

I can’t wait.

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Stuck? Walk Away. #amwriting

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/Beth Wareham

I have heard and read so many discussions about writer’s block, it feels like the commercial about “Going and Going” that air on all three network news broadcasts each night.

Creativity, being a function of your brain, is mysterious. Maybe it’s best to have the same respect (or nearly) for it as you do for love.  I’ve read so many books about creativity that I’ve come to the conclusion that no one else understands it either.  Without it, life is grim.

Science, however, has an explanation. In Dr. Herbert Benson’s The Breakout Principle, he talks about how creativity can be triggered by repetitive movement such as jogging, knitting, yoga, sewing, meditation, golf.  The repetitive motion releases chemicals in the brain.  These are the chemicals that allow different parts of the brain to communicate and make creative leaps and comparisons. It’s on.

The worst thing you can do, in other words, is to sit at the computer watching cat videos or go to dinner parties and bray at your friends that you have writer’s block.

Go fold laundry, run, sit in the bathtub, read to a kid. Release your mind from the struggle at the machine and let it solve the creative problem in its own mysterious way. It just might fall into you brain fully-formed and seemingly from nowhere.

Feed your creativity. It goes with you everywhere. Like a blue stool.

 

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