Write Your Way into Writing

National Stenbeck Center - Guenette photo

We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome.

One of our ancient methods is to tell a story

Begging the listener to say – and to feel –

“Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least the way I feel it.

You’re not as alone as you thought.”

(John Steinbeck)

Here’s a little story about the art of writing your way into the work of being a writer.

In 2010, Bruce and I took a three-week, driving trip around Northern California. A highlight of the trip was our visit to the city of Salinas, the stomping ground of John Steinbeck. I’ve always been a huge fan of Steinbeck’s writing – right, who hasn’t? We enjoyed several hours at the National Steinbeck Center gaining insight into the personality of the author who wrote such famous works as, Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath.

Steinbeck - A Life in Letters coverLater, in the gift shop, I bought a book entitled Steinbeck: A Life in Letters edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (1975). This book is a compilation of personal letters written by Steinbeck over a forty-five year period of his life – the first letter when he was barely twenty-one and the last written just a few months before his death at age sixty-six. I’ve always found other peoples’ personal correspondence fascinating. Take note close friends and family – keep those personal papers under lock and key! People come alive in the letters they write. These Steinbeck letters are special because the editors decided the main criteria for inclusion should be that the letter in question was interesting.

I learned some valuable things about Steinbeck’s approach to writing while reading his letters. He started each writing day with personal correspondence and he sent out an average of five to six letters per day. It is within this letter writing that he explored who he was as a writer, he laid bare his pride and confidence in equal doses with his insecurities and his failures. His letters vibrate with life as lived in the moment and reflected on within moments of living.

National Steinbeck Center 2 - Guenette photo

In the early days of Steinbeck’s career he struggled financially and he handwrote most of his manuscripts on the blank back pages of used accounting ledgers he obtained from his father. He kept up the habit even when he could afford to drop it. He used a new accounting journal for each work. He handwrote the first draft of the novel on one side of the page and wrote his reflections and notes, as he went, on the other. He always wrote a novel with one particular reader in mind and often gifted the original draft, written in the accounting journal, to that person when the book was published. Can you imagine how it felt knowing that Steinbeck wrote a book thinking of you and then gave you the original, hand-written copy. Wow!

National Steinbeck Center 2 - Bruce Witzel photo

Steinbeck wrote his way into writing every day. He kept an ongoing, reflective dialogue right alongside of his fiction writing and he wrote always for a specific person. I think of John Steinbeck now every time I “warm-up” in front of the computer screen. What I used to call spinning my wheels is now writing my way into writing.

Write – do it first – do it every day – just do it. Let your fingers fly across the keys creating words. Let your thoughts be formed as you write. We learn that we have something of value to share through the process of writing it down. We write our way into being writers.

National Steinbeck Center 4 - Guenette photo

Personal disclaimer – this is one of the first posts I wrote for my blog. Busy with summer fun, I had hoped to simply reblog it. No such luck. I know I have honed my skills because writing done two years ago definitely needed a touch up or two or three for presentation today.

On the Road to Reinvention

Driveway - Bruce Witzel photo

I recently had the great pleasure of being invited to write a guest post for Joanne Guidoccio’s blog, On the Road to Reinvention.

Let me regale you with a bit of Joanne’s story, which I blatantly stole from her About page Smile

In high school, Joanne dreamed of writing the great Canadian novel. Instead, she gave in to her practical Italian side and got degrees in mathematics and education. She planned to teach during the day and spend her evenings, weekends and holidays churning out best-selling novels. That was the dream. Reality, as it often does, turned out to be different. Teaching is a demanding profession. In 2008, Joanne took advantage of early retirement. Slowly, a writing practice emerged and her articles and book reviews started appearing  in newspapers, magazines and online. She toyed with the idea of writing a fantasy novel for boomers. Her debut novel, BETWEEN LAND AND SEA, a paranormal romance about a middle-aged mermaid, was released in September 2013. She currently lives and writes in Guelph, Ontario.

Joanne runs an ongoing series called Second Acts, where women describe the ways in which they’ve gotten on with the next phases of their lives. If you follow the link, you’ll find dozens of these inspirational stories.

My guest post, entitled, Is There Life After Three Career Attempts and an Unfinished PhD, is the story of my second act as a writer. I can only hope this second act will be divided into as many sections as my first. Diversity has served me well.

North Island Morning - Bruce Witzel photo

Parallel Construction: What it is, what it isn’t, and how to write better despite hating your 8th-grade English teacher

francisguenette:

When I read this great post by Sally Ember, I wished there was a super like button :) The world of parallel construction – deconstructed. The writers out there know exactly what this is all about. Read Sally’s post and get a great primer on how to properly handle a sentence using parallel construction. These things do matter!

Originally posted on Sally Ember, Ed.D.:

Parallel Construction (PC from now on) is a type of sentence structure that confounds even “good” writers and many professional editors. Sorry! If you understand PC, then you must have HATED the title of this post!

YES! Points to you if you recognized that this post’s title is NOT written in proper Parallel Construction! I wrote: “…What it is, what it isn’t, and how to write better…”

parallel construction defn

image from unilifeapps.curtin.edu.au

When we write a string (a series) of phrases or words, the rule of PC is: the members of any string must be in the same form or format.
When they are not in the same form/format, then they must be separated by giving them different wording and punctuation than when they are Parallel.

Here is what is incorrect about that part of the title, according to PC. In the title’s string, I…

View original 842 more words

Florida Fiction with P.C. Zick – Location, Location, Location

Florida Setting 1

I have been fortune enough to be featured on P.C. Zick’s, Writing Whims Blog no less than four times! An incredibly generous blogger, P.C. does interviews with authors on Wednesday and features her book review of that author’s work on Friday. A great double whammy for readers who want to get to know a knew author. It gives me great pleasure to feature P.C.’s guest post on why she writes Florida fiction as part of the Location, Location, Location series.

Take it away, P.C.

Florida Setting 5

The landscape, the climate, the wildlife, the people —these are all the reasons I set my novels in Florida.

For thirty years, the humidity of the Sunshine State seeped under my skin and into my blood. Even though I moved away four years ago, it haunts my fiction. And I’d not have it any other way.

When my first husband suggested we move to Florida from Michigan in 1980, I asked, “You want to live in Miami?” That’s the only image I had of Florida until we moved to twenty acres in north Florida, sixty miles south of the Georgia border.

My first indication that I’d entered into a unique world came when we were driving to Florida from Michigan. We stopped for breakfast just over the Georgia border somewhere north of Jacksonville. We chose an old diner with a glass case containing dusty toys and candy bars and torn Naugahyde booths and greasy walls. As I perused the menu, a movement on the wall caught my eye. The largest cockroach I’d ever seen in my life crawled toward the ceiling. When the waitress came to take our order, I said, “There’s cockroach on the wall.” She continued chewing her gum and looked down at me as she held her pad and pen poised to write down my order. She never glanced at the wall. “What kin I git ya?” she asked.

I’d arrived in Florida where the word cockroach does not exist. What I saw on that greasy wall that morning was a palmetto bug, I soon learned. What’s not to love about a place that names an insect known for its attraction to filth after a beautiful tree?

Florida Setting 7

Adjustment came slowly. My new world frightened me. I didn’t see the beauty of the live oak trees draped in moss or understand the lure of frogs singing on a summer night. The wildlife of northern Florida held threats to my safety. I saw danger lurking in the surrounding wilderness. One morning I looked in the mirror and saw a tick, fat with my blood, attached to the center of my forehead. The first time I saw a broadhead skink, I threatened to leave my new home and head back to a land of lizard-less landscapes. After hearing that I wanted to leave, a neighbor suggested I read Cross Creek. I had never heard of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings even though The Yearling sounded familiar.

Not only was Ms. Rawlings a writer, something I aspired to be at that time, but she had conquered her fears of a Florida wilderness and wrote with affection about an area much more rural than anything I had experienced. For the first time, I began to understand the rhythms of life in this land that was beginning to own me.

When I began my writing journey in 1998, Ms. Rawlings remained my inspiration, and I found all of Florida’s wonders creeping into my articles, columns, and novels.

Florida Setting 6The abundant wildlife and their precarious balance with the human population make compelling stories. I try to include their plight within my novels, making their stories parallel to the struggle of the characters. In Trails in the Sand, I used the sea turtles and the danger to them as oil gushed out of the well in the Gulf of Mexico during BP’s 2010 oil spill. The race to save the hatchlings from drowning in oil appeared as the main character, Caroline, raced to save her family. Stories of alligators, Florida panthers, black bears, coyotes, bobcats, and crocodiles abound as their habitat shrinks, and they risk extinction. I haven’t even begun to write about the invasive species that thrive in the tropics of Florida. The Burmese python and iguanas are begging me to include them in a novel.

The landscape may not be as dramatic as the mountains, but a variety of settings—from the beach, to rivers, to the swamps of the Everglades—do exist. North Florida’s rolling hills, live oak trees interspersed with palm trees, and peaceful flowing rivers and springs make ideal settings for a novel. But I also like to set scenes on the beach, and in the swamps and marshes of the coast and the Everglades.

I use the heat and humidity to set the mood, and I employ hurricanes and tropical storms to indicate turmoil in the characters’ lives or create conflict within the plot.

I write about Florida because I know it and I love it. A passage from Trails in the Sand best expresses my awe and respect for Florida’s natural wonders.

Joey took us on the grand tour – we flew through the water until we came to small paths that took us right through the heart of the Glades. Then he slowed down and allowed us to take in the beauty of the land around us. The herons and egrets swooped down in front of us. The hawks glided overhead and the gators came out to take in the warm February morning sun. Simon leaned over at one point and kissed me on the cheek.

“I see why you love it here so much,” he said. “It’s nature’s cornucopia.”

My Review of Trails in the Sand

Trails in the Sand - BookcoverFollow the trails left in the sand through a blazing and heartrending story not soon forgotten.

P.C. Zick’s Florida Fiction novel, Trails in the Sand,  kept me page turning right to the end. I had to actually stop myself from racing through. I’m glad I exercised control because the book should be savoured as much for the story as for the many detailed descriptions of the current state of the environment.

The author’s writing is replete with detailed descriptions – the natural landscape, the gardens and the architecture are all painted in lush words.

At its most stripped down level, the book is the love story of Caroline and Simon. Their decades-long torch-carrying for one another is the live wire that keeps the spark of this book burning, but there are so many more fires that require the reader’s attention. Flitting through and around both Caroline and Simon is the deep-seated trauma of family dysfunction. Gladys Stokley, a woman caught in her own pain, had set-up a rivalry between her two daughters, Caroline and Amy, which nearly destroyed them all. Simon, the man who figures predominantly in the lives of both sisters, is caught in Gladys’ web as surely as the Stokley girls. The dysfunction tracks its way into the next generation and Caroline finds she must act. Family secrets will be traced to their source and hard truths revealed.

Caroline is a freelance, environmental journalist. This proves to be a clever device that allows the author to weave into the story yet another blaze – current events close to her own heart. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning in the Gulf and the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion in West Virginia provide a fiery backdrop to the more personal story elements of relationship and family.

And through the traumatic and painful life events of the characters and the tragedy that is countless barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf waters, we follow the trails in the sand left by the turtles. Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, the leatherback, the hawksbill and the green – the reader learns about each and comes to care equally for how these wonderful sea creatures will fare as for the human characters that populate the pages of this story.

Florida Setting 2

Please visit Amazon.com to check out P.C. Zick’s Florida Fiction novel, Trails in the Sand. It currently has thirty-eight, four and five star reviews, averaging a 4.7 ranking and the e-book is selling for the great price of $3.07. You can also pop over to P.C.’s blog, Writing Whims, for the links to various formats for all her novels.

Funny Friday–Kafka Anyone?

Someone sent me this comic the other day.

Kafka cartoon

Hilarious Smile

Kafkaesque – a nightmarish situation which most people can somehow relate to, although strongly surreal.

Get it – I no longer have to pretend I know what Kafkaesque means while actually in a Kafkaesque situation. Double hilarious. Smile Smile 

While actually being Kafkaesque. Triple hilarious Smile Smile Smile 

I dare you not to grin.

All kidding aside, though, Kafka wasn’t a particularly humorous guy.

“The first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die.”

Hmmm . . . not much to smile about there.

On the other hand,

“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”

That thought simply must free us to believe, passionately, with all that we are. We build the road as we go (Mondragon Cooperative), the next chapter of our lives is not yet written.

The Web - Bruce Witzel photo

Shaken Author Syndrome

Old enemy, New victim - by Tony Matelli

Maybe it would be better to title this post – The Things Other Authors Do That Make Me Want to Grab Them and Shake Them.

Quick disclaimer – it is not my intention in this post to lessen the importance of shaken syndromes and rest assured, no authors were shaken during the process of this writing.

A writer reviewing the work of other writers is on shaky ground. I admit that I don’t read the way I used to before I had struggled through the many hours it has taken to plan, write, revise and edit two novels. But when I read with reviewing in mind, I try to read as a reader, not a writer. I think about the genre the author has listed the book under and I read with that context in mind. I don’t expect a romance to be a literary novel or a thriller to be a comedy.

Though I’ve said this before, I think it bears repeating. I would never claim any kind of expert status as a writer. But I’ve been reading novels since I was eleven years old and I do feel I’m as close to being an expert reader as I’ll ever be.

So – lengthy preamble or what? What follows is an abridged list of the rants that have never made it into my reviews. I either don’t review the book because I can’t give it four or five stars on Amazon or I let a particular rant go because the book turns out to be so much more than that one thing.

Getty Villa - Bruce Witzel photo

Okay, here goes. The use of an unusual word – use it once and I’m thinking, oh, that’s fresh and new. Use it twice and you’ve disturbed the flow of my reading. Use that word a third time and watch out. I really want to shake you.

Then there is the case of endless pages of dialogue written phonetically to resemble a particular dialect. I get that you want to set a tone. I get that people speak a certain way. Give me a taste of it; go ahead and set the scene with a broad brush stroke. But please, for the love of all that is sacred in writing, do not slap me in the face with this stuff. Or, you guessed it, get over here so I can shake you.

A big rant of mine is irrelevant (to the story) bits and pieces that are clearly the author’s agenda jammed into his or her characters’ mouths. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader believe that every single thing a character says fits with who that character is. I don’t have to like what a character says but I better be able to believe those words would come from that character’s mouth. If not, right – you know the drill – let me shake you.

Information dumps can come in other forms and are no more acceptable to me. Like the chunk of irrelevant material that drops smack dab in the middle of story like a piece of space debris. There was this book I read a while ago. Out of the blue an entire chapter on dog breeding was wedged into the narrative. What the heck – come on over here and let me give you a good shake.

Then there is endless repetition. I read a book in which the author told me so many times in the first chapter that the main character was tired, I thought I would fall asleep myself. How about you just give yourself a shake on that one?

Montreal Metro2

Point of view issues can be problematic. I’ve had a couple of reviews of my books that said my style of writing, with multiple point-of-view characters, results in a complicated and at times fractured narrative. Fair enough. I want the lens focused from a number of directions. But it’s my job to make darn sure that readers are aware of whose point of view they’re reading. Head hopping within paragraphs is a big no-no. Throwing in a sentence that indicates the internal feelings or thoughts of an obviously non-point-of-view character is bad form. Writing an entire book from one person’s point-of-view and then adding in a paragraph or two that switches things up – no, no, no. Do not do this, unless of course you want a good shake.

I don’t want to forget to mention my rant about the police procedural in which the author introduced me to a serial killer and then described this maniac’s crime over and over and over. I get that serial killers kill multiple times. I get that serial killers use the same MO, but seriously? Do you really want to write that grisly scene time and time again? I’ll tell you one thing – I don’t want to read it again and again. Figure out a way to make it fresh or guess what? A good shake is coming your way.

Picasso - Head of Satyr - Bruce Witzel - photoLet’s talk about the likeability of characters. There are no rules that say an author has to write likeable characters. Believable – yes, but likeable – not necessarily. You’re taking a risk, though, if you go out of your way to make your main character totally irritating by repeating and elaborating every bad habit, picky phobia, and selfish trait they possess. I can only take so much of this before I am convinced that you want me to detest this person. After that happens, don’t ask me to feel sympathy for this character’s fate because if you do – that’s right – here comes a good shake.

And another thing about your characters – if you decide to write an elaborate description of a character, tell me what this person thinks and feels and cares about and then you kill this character off after the first chapter – what can I say? Unless this person is coming back as a ghost, shake, shake, shake.

A word about words – they matter. The English language is chock full of words. Have you ever glanced through a Roget’s Thesaurus? That book is thick. Given the number of words a writer has to choose from, answer me this question, please. What were you thinking when you used the same word repeated in every one of your first three sentences? And I’m not talking the regular, run-of-the-mill words that I expect will be repeated. I mean something like using the word freighter three times in a row. I can’t really give you a shake because I didn’t bother to finish your book.

Alright, already. Enough is enough. I’ve ranted on and if you’re still with me, I thank you for your endurance.

Bruce Witzel Photo

Here’s your chance to weigh-in. Though of course you would never give into such a base emotion – what makes you want to shake an author?

The Light Never Lies Shines

Good Morning - Bruce Witzel photo

Please take a few moments if you can and check out the review of The Light Never Lies that just came out on The Review Blog.

I am humbled down to the ground by the depth and detail of Anna Belfrage’s review and ever so grateful to be featured on The Review.

If you have a chance to pop over and read Anna’s take on the second book in the Crater Lake Series, do take the time to make a comment and get in on a draw for a free book.

Moon's up - Bruce Witzel photo - 2