Make The Words Go Faster

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/beth wareham

In my long, lonely corporate publishing career, I read way too much. Some of it still haunts me, strange sexual longings and random violence that popped up in the strangest of manuscripts and proposals. But most of it just bored me silly. I remember reading this long passage of a Hollywood “Dermatologist to the Stars” who rushed to a starlet’s house to pop her pimple with a Q-tip so it didn’t read on the camera the next day. And we wonder why movie folk get so infantilized.

But that pimple was a good day. I still remember it, right? What I don’t remember are long, meandering stories with little plot and lots of author ego. I remember novels (my colleagues’ favorites) whose prose had been picked clean like a European forest. Perfect. Beautiful. Bloodless.

Give me blood. Give me fast and raw and take me somewhere. I don’t want a perfect 2 hour moment of strolling though the Vienna Woods, I want to feel, move, challenge, fight, fuck, love, retreat, surge forward, and maybe win, maybe not. I want life.

How to convey that speed, that rawness? First, get the right story. Only you know what the right story is. It’s the one that gets your blood up, the story you want to rise to and conquer. Next, read other stories  you admire. Watch how writers write raw and fast. It’s plot, word choice and length of sentence, graph, chapter, book. If you can’t get it done in 60,000 – 80,000 words, rethink it. And, I’d even shoot for a shorter book: 50,000 sounds good these days.

Get real. Your competition is Homeland on Showtime and Fargo on FX. Your competition is 24 hour war coverage, the weasel that dances atop Donald Trump’s head, and all the shiny things the internet throws up that keeps you surfing for hours.

Here is a short list of books that changed the way I thought about the velocity of narrative. Or, as my husband says, “they know how to write clean.”

My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The White Album by Joan Didion

There many more. I hope you tell me some of your favorites because I’ve been watching way too much on-demand. And just as I had to change for my health and eat clean, my brain needs a’washing and I want to read clean. Help me.

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What Thriller Writers Know

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…and how you can use it to make your writing go from good to great. (Yeah, I stole that last bit. So what?)

I am obsessed with thrillers. It’s part of my “write short” sickness that many loathe but I require. I never read Proust and boast about it. Henry James makes my skin crawl, except the one about those two kids turning a screw.

Only a handful of the greatest of greats – Tolstoy, F. Scott, Marquez, Markham, Salter – keep me from yelling “oh, get on with it!” as I read.  These guys are so good that if they are trying to stun me with adjectives, clauses and descriptions that go nowhere, the writing is so great and surprising, I don’t mind. I refer you to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych which contains the sad cold hearts of civilized humanity in one thin book. Or Marquez’s Memories of His Melancholy Whores which boils down the nature of love and lust in human beings to the thinnest of powerful reads.

Quite writing so much, everybody. Everything will read better: your emails, social media posts, notes to your lover, anything. Get to the point and do it with these simple tips:

  1. Noun, verb. This is the easiest to remember of all the writing short tips. He ran is a perfectly fine sentence. He ran around the rose bushes that Aunt Mae had planted all those years ago in the summer rain is not a that great of a sentence. Those rose bushes just take out the punch and slow a sentence about speed: He ran.
  2. Focus. Thriller writers fly low to the ground, adding detail only as                                     absolutely necessary to give the reader information about the plot. If the detail that an agent is terrified of snakes comes up, you can bet there will be a scene where snakes come into play. NOTHING IS WASTED.
  3. Cut adjectives and adverbs.  You can’t tell people anything; you need to show them. It’s the same in parenting, teaching, writing and leadership. You are the Supreme Leader of this Book. But don’t wear a weird jumpsuit and designer sunglasses when you type.
  4. Pick a detail like you are shopping for a diamond ring or a new car. One little word, a tiny flick of your typing wrist, can set a scene or character alive and indelibly imprinted into the mind of your reader. She walked into the room versus She walked into the room in an orange dress and stockings with a hole running up the leg. Feels like a different woman, doesn’t it? And you’ve only used 12 more words.
  5. Surprise. Surprise gets attention. Take the readers mind in one direction: They will anticipate a certain word, analogy, response, event, ending, whatever, and you give them something else. It is in that “something else” where your core message might lurk. The mind of the reader will be off balance and it’s a perfect moment to strike.

 

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Author Gabriel Horn Talks about His Obsession with Motherless

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/Beth Wareham

I sent Native American author Gabriel Horn a Q&A about his new book MOTHERLESS. When I got back just one answer – the first – with promises to finish the questionnaire, I knew this was an interesting stand alone piece for writers writing. It is also a true picture of what drives the writer’s art: OBSESSION. We write and we rewrite. Nothing is ever over and nothing is ever finished, just like life.

Q: Why did you write and rewrite Motherless? What drove you?

A: Maybe I am crazy. That being said…

A master teacher and writer told me early on, nearly 50 years ago, There is no such thing as writing; only rewriting. And, I remember reading how Hemingway once said, he never considered himself a great writer, but a damn good rewriter. I remember reading that he rewrote the last page of For Whom the Bell Tolls forty-nine times. That’s one page! I understand how that can happen. I might’ve broken his record. I had taught this idea of rewriting to my own writing students over the years, and now I was once again, more than ever, having to walk the talk. The writing had to be my best because I knew the content of Motherless would not be one corporate publishers might want to handle from an Indigenous perspective. If I could find the words that could reach into one of their hearts…. If I could write something so moving it would have to be published….

Stories evolve like people evolve. Or they should. This story grew inside of me. I saw it in my daughter’s eyes. I felt it in my wife’s tears. It lived in my mind. It lived in my spirit. It dreamed inside of me. And I kept writing it and rewriting it to make it perfect as it is flawed.

I would wake up every day, week after week, month after month, year after year, driven to keep at it because I love the Earth. I respected my agent, Lisa Hagan, and she deserved the best I had because she believed in me; she believed in this story. I was driven because I knew there was a diversity of young and older people in the world who also loved the Earth, or had strong feelings about saving our planet from the consequences of human arrogance and greed. I had something they might want to hold. A perspective they may have forgotten and wanted to know again. Something they might need. I had this story being born of me. This story that needed to be told. I was driven because this is what I do, this is who I am. This is why I’m here.

And I would dream…. It has been said, Wisdom comes in dreams. And I would write and rewrite.

Motherless had to be good writing because of what it says, the theme itself so disturbing, and yet so profoundly wonderful. I have never talked down to young people. I have never written down to young people. I just had to find the right words. Just like in the story, Grandpa is always struggling to find the right words, and at one point when he questions himself, he hears the memory of his wife telling him that it was alright … give Rainy the words, in time she would understand them. Writing about a history that is not a good history, like genocide, and writing about this environmental holocaust in which we are presently living, created so many drafts I can’t count, all created around the loving souls of the characters, though, and for the loving souls of its future readers. This kind of writing, and rewriting, is not for the faint of heart.

I shared drafts of Motherless with friends I’ve had for many years who I could trust to give honest feedback. Some were teachers and teachers of teachers, and a few writers themselves, and most of them had grandkids and they would read with them Motherless. And I would revise, or write, sometimes just based on one little word they would say. A daughter of a friend who read a draft of Motherless sent me a clay turtle she had made in school and a drawing she had done about the book to help me along the way. I kept those by my computer as I revised and wrote. Revised and wrote. Wrote and revised. I listened to what she said when she told her dad about the story, especially about other kids, and Mr. Kline, and about school. He’s got that right, she said. Another grandchild said to her grandmother, I like the writing. Man, I needed those affirmations.

Don’t they always say that publishing is about timing? Timing. Motherless will be published when it’s ready…. Be patient. I would hear these whispers out of the Mystery. When the timing is right…. And so, I used the time to revise and write, and write and revise.

And after years of revising Motherless, you, Beth Wareham, got my best. And then you, with your extraordinary sense of things, feel for story, gave me the suggestions I needed and the reasons why I needed to make some cuts. Tighten it up. Keep it moving! Get this baby turtle ready to hatch! I understood you. You were awesome.

I had completed the final revision. Lisa half jokingly said before I let go of the final draft, I think you might have revised a thousand times.

Now Motherless is in the world and there will be no more revising.

TO ORDER GABRIEL HORN’S LATEST BOOK MOTHERLESS, CLICK ON THE TITLE

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A Writer’s Path: Ruth Sidransky Remembers First Meeting the Pen, 80 Years Ago

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By Ruth Sidransky

Life is tumultuous, sometimes sumptuous. Life has intervened, interfered with my writing throughout the years. I have written in snatches, on backs of envelopes, on notepads I generally carry with me, and in full concentration in the journals I have kept and continue to keep.

When I was 12 years old my friend Julia and I bought diaries with locks. Mine had a green leather cover with faux gold lettering. Amusing, now. One of the first entries I made was of a kiss. It was my first kiss under the stairwell in the boy’s apartment building on Grant Avenue in the Bronx. He had flaming orange hair and his name was Jack. And that’s what I remember. Was it wet, was it delicate, was it embarrassing? I don’t know. It’s not important. The importance lies in the memory. Perhaps we are made of more than our DNA, perhaps it is the memory of time past and the promise of time tomorrow, and the promise of life at the moment that gives our lives substance, a legacy to be passed on to the next generation and the next, and the next.

And so into my ninth decade of life, I stop, I pause and begin reading my old journals to ask why I wanted to write, to record, to remember. As I read I discover not only my comments on writing, but the life I lived as I wrote. It is as though writing was sandwiched in with the events of my life: graduations, marriages, births, successes, illnesses, divorce, death and all the ephemera that built my life in time gone by. A lesson in me. Startling, revelatory, sad, funny, amusing, spiritual, brave, prayerful, fearful, angry, pages filled with pleasure and contentment…and if I can think of anymore human attributes and failings I shall find them in the thousands of hand written pages, and perhaps include them. If I remember. The writing, however, was me and all me. It was the time I reserved to myself, to think, to tell a story. How my deaf father loved stories. He’d wait until I lifted my hands in sign/speech.

I would create stories for him, and he would ask, with a grin on his mustached face, his hands rising into the air, “Are you telling me the truth?

In mock seriousness I would both sign the word “Yes.” And nod my head.

In return, he signed, “You lie to me. Tell me another story.”

It was a time of deep pleasure, my father and I cavorting with language and the telling of the tales I spun with my hands.

I begin to search out reasons for the gift of storytelling, the gift of witnessing an event, the gift of watching yellow tulips fold for the night and open for the day. There is gift after gift. The primary gift is the gift of language. The gift of pen to paper, the gift of hands to the keyboard and I have been so gifted. The process is mysterious. I do not have the words to describe the muse that enters my soul and the need, the absolute need to write it down, write it out. Whatever that ‘it’ is at the moment.

And so I now make an attempt at writing yet another book on writing. It may be moot, yet, like all writers, composers, painters and artists of every stripe; the process is the same, the process is different. An oxymoron, not so. It is so. I speak to my young grandson, and ask, “How do you compose?” He says, “It just comes through my fingers.” He composes at the piano, as I write, through my fingers, either on a computer keyboard or in longhand.

I prefer writing with pen and ink on a blank white page. The computer offers legibility, speed, and immediate editing, either by deletion or a rewrite, sometimes, a word, here or there. On occasion, I have regretted deleting a paragraph or a sentence; sometimes it might have served a better purpose, if I had saved all the cross-outs. The deletions may have contained a thought-germ, or a phrase I might have used.

There are no deletions of the mind. Every thought is packed somewhere in our brain cells, even those struck out. The mind is the fount of work. Some call work creativity. I shy away from that word. We are all workers who create: music, books, plays, poems, songs, homes, cars, trains, buildings, an apple pie and the list is forever. Working is the touching of another, most of the time. The farmer tills his soil and creates nourishment for our bodies. The mother creates food for her infant. The father (usually) creates income for his family. Doctors create health. Artists create entertainment, sometimes instruction for all of us.

Entertainment for the mind, for the soul, is essential, to understanding who we are, where we come from. And storytelling is my path, my journey, my musings, and this is an invitation to my writing process, to my story as a writer.

Come; join me.

To read more of this extraordinary writer, try Reparations: A Tale of War and Rebirth (click on the title to order) or the charming Woman’s Primer, a perfect gift for the graduating young woman. (Again, just click on title to buy ebook or paperback.)

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