Tag Archives: The Write Life

The Write Life: Opt for ‘remarkable’

Saturday in Jackson’s Journal is The Write Life, a trek past the mundane and beyond the borders of creativity. This is where we celebrate the craft of writing, storytelling and connecting with the hearts, minds and souls of readers.

I love my job as a reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune. I now have 30-plus years of newspaper clips as evidence of my role as a modern-day scribe, chronicling the events and people who I’ve been fortunate to encounter.

Like most writers and reporters, my work leads me to rather paradoxical conclusions. On the one hand, I do believe that what I do is important. I’m telling and reporting history. Live. As it happens. On the other hand, I often believe that what I actually produce is gibberish and not very important because it’s so poorly done.

This week I wrote an article about a rural water district’s bookkeeping problems. Maybe the water district has only 2,500 customers, but to those payers and for the community where the district is located, that’s a big deal.

Without the aid and patience of a gifted editor, however, no one was going to read beyond the lede sentence. I mean, for crying out loud, I learned to write a lede — how to “hook” the reader — in high school. What I presented to my editor began like this: “Officials with Public Water Supply District 4 at Hallsville …”

And I lost her. SHE didn’t read beyond that bland, lazy launch into an important story. Worst of all, I filed the story knowing that the lede stunk. Did that mean I lost sight of the importance of what I do for a living? Probably. Sometimes the reporting and writing seems effortless. Sometimes it’s clumsy and confusing.

My editor, Lora Wegman, insisted on a new lede. This is what I came up with:

“Failure to pay payroll taxes on some expenses and paying a higher-than-allowed mileage reimbursement rate are just two of the bookkeeping issues a former office manager brought to the attention of Public Water Supply District 4 board members Tuesday.”

Better, wouldn’t you say? I got right to it. Still a bit wordy, but so much more interesting and readable than, “Officials said …”

My sophomore (and last) year in college I was editor-in-chief of The Muleskinner, the campus newspaper at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg. The managing editor and I decided to reject any article that began with the words “the,” “a” or “an.” Our motto: “Get to the point.” We had journalism professors and all manner of academics argue about our unbending ban, but we won every argument. (Or so we thought. And it was that attitude that led me to leave college after two years because I really did think I knew it all).

Get to the point. If we’re writing something important, get to it. And in today’s newspaper world of a shrinking news hole, maximizing the words we use is top priority — well, second to the journalistic trinity of accuracy, fairness and balance.

The water district story was important to those customers, but I’m also convinced it was a big deal to all readers because watch-dogging and exposing what might be less-than-transparent operations ought to serve notice on all public entities entrusted with the people’s money.

Maybe that’s a lofty goal, but I buy into that aim. My first weekly newspaper boss used to say that photos of car crashes — and sometimes just the crashed car, because maybe we missed the actual accident — made everyone drive more safely.

I remember asking, “Then why do we keep seeing wrecks?”

My publisher, Norman Gallagher, scowled at my seemingly logical question and zinged me with a challenge. “Why don’t we do a better job getting their attention? Let’s tell the story better.”

Mr. Gallagher’s zeal for the truth was sometimes sidetracked by prejudice and personal vendettas, but he was passionate about telling the story.

“Let’s tell the story better.”

That brings me, in a rabbit-trail-chasing sort of way, to the point made by author/writer Jeff Goins, whom I consider a writer’s writer.

“What is up to you is the choice to be remarkable. As is the decision to be mediocre.”

That’s the conclusion Jeff reaches in Friday’s post, “The first day of the rest of your life.” Check out his blog.

Then choose to be remarkable.

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Six-Word Memoir: The Write Life

It’s Saturday, time for The Write Life, an exploration of words and the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. Guest posts and comments are strongly encouraged.

Six-Word Memoir

 I continually break blogging’s cardinal rule about brevity.

 I tend to write long. (Not surprisingly, I have the same habit in my day job as reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune. My editors sometimes need an axe and a cutting torch to trim my copy).

 For those of you who have longed for my long-form blogging to tighten up, Six-Word Memoir is for you. In fact, this one is for everyone. However, your participation and commenting is mandatory. I’m going to ask you to write a Six-Word Memoir and share it with the growing crowd that is Jackson’s Journal.

 Legend has it that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. His response? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

 I’m not sure I can come up with something so brilliant that paints a cornucopia of thoughts, images and mysteries. (On a side note, I’ve been dying to use the word “cornucopia” this week).

 This Six-Word Memoir is not an original idea. The online magazine Smith asked readers to write a six-word story of their own lives in a single sentence. That project birthed Not Quite What I Was Planning, a collection of six-word memoirs by writers, artists and musicians.

Larry Smith, founding editor of Smith magazine, and Rachel Fershleiser, Smith‘s memoir editor, offered their own contributions. Fershleiser’s Six-Word Memoir? Bespectacled, besneakered, read and ran around. And Smith’s: Big hair, big heart, big hurry. Some others: Almost a victim of my family; The psychic said I’d be richer; Mom died, Dad screwed us over; Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult.

I’m giving you my three stories. Your assignment: write at least two six-word memoirs – one funny, one serious. If you can come up with three or more, you’ll get bonus points. If you can achieve both humorous and somberly serious in a single, six-word entry … well, the cornucopia of warm feelings you’ll have will be the best reward.

Ahem. My stories.

Stop? Ask for directions? Not me!

Apparently left owner’s manual in womb.

Was great, now fantabulous. I’m “Grandpa.”

(Grandpas are allowed to invent words).

Now …

Your turn.

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The Write Life: Setting as character

It’s Saturday, time for The Write Life, an exploration of words and the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. Guest posts and comments are strongly encouraged.

Setting as character

I simply have to learn how to use Dropbox. I’m constantly emailing myself notes and reminders. This week I had an epiphany about viewing my fiction’s setting as characters: alive and organic. Give the setting weight, make it an integral part of the story, not just an element that fits a novel-writing formula

I thought I was really on to something until I found this buffet of thoughts on “setting as character.”

I was especially struck by the last line: “The only question will be whether you use your setting consciously, or it uses you.”

I’ve tried to put some of these ideas into practice this week as I’ve honed, revised and forged ahead on my unfinished first draft of Chasing The Devil. I know my characters intimately, yet I don’t watch them in the bathroom. Sounds a bit awkward, I know, but the point is there are unseen elements in their lives. And that’s okay. They aren’t automatons. Robots. (That’s an idea someone else can pursue; it’s not my genre).

In the same way, I want to know some of my settings so intimately that they are alive, yet retain the shadows, nooks and crannies that make them complete — and more life-like. In my tiny hometown of Belle, Mo., the damp, dank areas between the buildings on main street (Alvarado Avenue/Highway 89) always caught my eye. When we lived above Faith Baptist Church – the old Dahms Hardware building that was infested with brown recluse spiders – one of those shaded, shadowy walkways separated Faith Baptist from the local newspaper, Tri-County Publications. The street-side entrance was through a brick archway and I always felt as cool and tough as James Dean when I went between those buildings.

And I like thinking about the nooks and crannies in the lives of Cole Davenport and Jamie Light, the primary protagonists in Chasing The Devil. I know 99 percent of all there is to know about them. Somehow it’s nice to know that there’s 1 percent – probably more – of mystery. Besides, it leaves room for my fictional creations to grow and develop.

I suppose there are dark alleys and breezeways in both characters and settings.

Here’s one attempt to create a setting as vivid as the characters. In this example, from the chapter “Missing Pieces,” the old house of Cole’s childhood seems to literally breathe. At least that’s the movement and presence I’m trying to create. Cole’s mind is tortured by empty, shapeless memories of something his parents and sister refuse to acknowledge, much less talk about.

I want the creaking floor to become so familiar to my readers that the mere mention of that setting triggers sights and sounds in your mind. (Let me know how I’m doing).

MISSING PIECES

(Chasing The Devil)

Every floor board in the house announced each approaching footstep, each closing door, and every stiff breeze that frequently blew across the flat expanse of Cole’s hometown. His mother complained that something was always “settling.”  The house wasn’t as old as it sounded, and until recently the predictable vibrations of something settling took Cole’s mind to a different time, a nostalgic trip to a more peaceful time. A time before the night-long nightmares began.

He read the sounds vividly and depended on the rattling from the China cabinet to announce the next person coming down the stairs. The importance of that announcement was incalculable when the teen-age Cole sat on the sofa with his high school sweetheart – with the lights off.

The staccato, high-pitch “ping” of the cream-colored gravy boat was a dead giveaway for his sister, Penny. The cabinet doors emitted a low, prolonged growl of sorts, sometimes barely perceptible, when his dead approached the top of the stairs. Now even that sensation slipped further away with each nightmare seizure. The missing pieces of memories cried out for exposure from the fog and static in Cole’s mind, and the mental chaos blocked the signature rattling. Now Cole felt like a stranger in the creaking, noisy house, sitting on the sofa, more like an unannounced houseguest, waiting for his dad to summon his mom from her bedroom. This time, he said to himself for the thousandth time, she’s going to tell me the truth.

Cole missed the China cabinet’s high-pitched pinging announcement that Penny was on her way downstairs. A shadow on the wall below the off-key musical bird clock was the giveaway that Penny was finished having another whispered conversation with their mother upstairs. His sister’s tired eyes were full of disappointment. It was a stinging look that Cole knew well.

“Cole, you’re such a moron.” His sister shook her head slowly. “You just can’t let it go.”

Next time Cole’s childhood home comes into the picture, I’m hoping you’ll “see” the sounds, and feel that the creaking floors are as important to the scene as the cacophony of misfiring synapses in Cole’s mind.

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‘A novel kind of guy’

The Write Life

Lamar Henderson / Guest blogger

I’m a really bad writer.

That might be a glaring admission to make considering I have been writing fiction pretty much since I learned to write in the first grade and that being a writer is the only career I’ve seriously wanted to pursue in my life. (Some people might say that it’s about time.) Consider, though, a few facts.

In spite of writing fiction since first grade and being a writer is the only career I’ve seriously wanted to pursue in my life, I don’t have a lot to show for it. A few years ago, I put together a collection of short fiction to self-publish (Ten Minutes ‘til the Savages Come, now available as an e-book on Amazon, B&N and iTunes), mostly just to experiment with self-publishing and to make a rather unique and special birthday present for my lovely wife.

The biggest problem I should have had putting together this collection is selecting from my body of work the items I wanted to include in this omnibus edition. In fact, the problem I had was gathering up enough material that I was willing to publish in order to make a book. Looking through the bulk of my early short fiction – the college years, mostly – I found that most of it seriously wasn’t anything I was willing to put out there for public view.

Well, that’s all right, I told myself. I wasn’t really a short-form writer, anyway. Even my short fiction was mostly novellas. I’ve never even been a big reader of short stories. I’m a novel kind of guy.

As to that, though, although I’ve started many a novel, I’ve only completed first drafts of two. The first one, an epic fantasy started back when epic fantasy was actually starting off as a publishing category, took me seven years to complete. I wasn’t writing all the time, though – I’d write on it for a while, then have to work on boring, bothersome stuff like actually finishing my degree or, you know, getting a job. And, honestly, the last third of the manuscript was finished in a sort of literary death march fueled no longer by my love of the project but only by a fierce, numbing resolution to actually finish the damn thing.

Which I did. And it sucked. I mean, epic vacuum going on here. The thing is, although my first novel sucked, and will never actually see the light of day, I imagine, I did learn a whole lot about the process and craft of writing a novel.

You’d think I would have wanted to put all that to use, then, you know, as being a writer is the only career I’ve seriously wanted to pursue in my life, and all. And I tried, I really did.

For nine years I tried. Nine. Years.

When my second novel came along, it sort of snuck up on me. I’d been fiddling with a character for a while – most of my stories start with a character idea – and one night, I just started writing. I managed to get through the first chapter, and actually did some revision, something I’ve never been good at, either. For reasons I can’t really get into (mostly because I don’t know them, actually), this project took off and had a life of its own. In a period of about two months, I cranked out a first draft of the second novel. And no slim volume of prose was it, either – it came out to about 165,000 words. (For those keeping score at home, the definition of a novel generally starts at 50,000 words.) It was a rush, an exhilarating time. I can’t think of a project before or since with which I was so enraptured.

In the next few years, I made some half-hearted revisions and looked for an agent, which didn’t go anywhere. My second novel took up space on my hard drive, and we seemed to come to an understanding – I didn’t bother it, and it didn’t bother me.

The next decade saw my production decline even further – you know, that whole life thing getting in the way of writing. I did get some stuff done – started a few more novels, wrote an actual screenplay – but in the back of my head, I kept going back to all the things I’d worked on and not really finished.

And that’s the thing, in the end. A first draft is rarely a final draft. If ever. A writer friend of mine once said that, while writing the first draft of a novel, he would have no idea whatsoever what his book was about, and it didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t until the revisions, the subsequent drafts, he said, that he ever figured out what the story was and how it needed to go together.

And that, friends, is why I’m a bad writer. It isn’t just that I don’t write enough. It’s that I have never really dug into the hard, difficult, horrible work required to revise a first draft and polish it into shape. And I’m not talking about just copyediting – I’m talking about completely rewriting large chunks of a manuscript. A second draft, a third. Hell, I’ve read that Fitzgerald would routinely go through nearly 20 drafts of his manuscripts. I am certainly no Fitzgerald.

Well, it’s finally time, I think. I still want to be a writer. I want to be a good writer. I want to be a writer whose work people actually want to read. That means I have to roll up my sleeves and dig into the meaty work of revising what I’ve done before. So, I’ve started doing that with my second novel. I’m into chapter 5 of 26 now, and I’ve already had to completely rewrite chapter 2 (I’m terrible at writing chapter 2s) plus big chunks of the rest. It’s actually going pretty well, I think. I think, this time, maybe, I might be able to turn out a book people will actually want to read.

We’ll see how it goes.

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The Write Life: My Tribbees are winners

Countdown to Kianna

10, 9, 8 … Just one week and one day from the due date when Darnell and Kishia Brown will be parents, and Jodie and Kelly Jackson will be grandparents. Kianna Allene Brown will also be blessed by her Auntie Natasha.

And that’s just the immediate family. So many others are already invested in the Brown family. And a few hundred have followed this countdown to some degree for 30 days now

It won’t be long …

The Write Life

We all want to be relevant. Even the most introverted among us (and that certainly is not me) wants to matter, if not make a difference. I think that’s the Number 1 reason we write, whether it’s newspaper journalism, non-fiction biographical histories, or novels of fantasy or mystery.

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The Write Life: Dialogue … only dialogue

Countdown to Kianna

18, 17, 16 … 15 days for Kianna to decide it’s time to show herself, to say, “Hi, Grandpa! I’m here.”

Okay, so it might be a year before she actually verbalizes that, but I’m convinced she already knows how incredibly wanted and loved she is. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience to her mom and dad if she went ahead and decided to get here today or tomorrow. This weekend’s as good a time as any to be born, right?

Saturday’s theme: The Write Life

Showing action, emotion, body language and thoughts is every writer’s goal. Show. Don’t tell. Being preachy is lazy. (And a turn-off). Describing every scene, every character, every action by telling our readers what they are seeing – rather than letting our readers see the scenes, characters and actions by the way we build those elements into the story – is also lazy, and it forces readers to be spectators rather than participants. I’m going to offer an exercise in a moment that forces showing, not telling, descriptive elements.

You’re probably familiar with writers who describe their characters as if reading the police blotter.

Jodie was about five-foot-10, average build, with graying hair. And overweight. He wore glasses and complained of perpetually itchy ears.

And then there’s the description of the character through the character’s eyes.

Jodie glanced at the mirror as he walked past the open door. He scratched the day-old stubble on his chin and studied the dreamy eyes that stared back at him. His amazement grew as the connection became clear. “I bear an uncanny resemblance to Robert Downey Jr.,” he said.

Your writing challenge today is to write at least a few lines of dialogue – and nothing else. No “he said, slamming the door as he left,” or “she said as tears trickled down her cheeks.” No one’s entering a room, dramatically pausing between words for emphasis or saying anything descriptive unless it’s in the form of dialogue. I promise I didn’t pre-write the following, but it’s been brewing in my mind for a couple of days. (Remember, the objective here is to “show,” not “tell.” Let your words paint, not preach).

The scene is two men meeting for an every other Friday noon-time chat at Dunn Brothers Coffee on Forum Boulevard in Columbia. We’ll call our characters “Jodie” and “Doug.” A third man will enter later. We’ll call him “Third Man,” because that’s how “Jodie” names characters when he’s writing on the fly, and, oh look, another character suddenly shows up. “Jodie” can consult his Master List of Character Names (a.k.a. old phone book), or simply call the walk-in character “Mr. Generic.” “Jodie” can give the unexpected character a proper name during the edit or revision.

An acceptable alternative is allowing the unnamed stranger to meet an untimely end. (Dramatic pause.) That’s right. Kill him.

Here goes …

“What, no coffee today, Jodie?”

“Nah. I don’t have a lot of time. Gotta get back.”

“Working on a big story?”

“Not really.”

“Well you’re sure not very talkative. Why the long face?”

“My face is fat. And unshaven.”

“Oh, you’re on that self-loathing kick again. I get it.”

“Not really. Just had a doctor’s appointment this week.”

“And?”

“I don’t know. Gotta count calories now.”

“You know how many calories are in just one glass of milk?”

“Matter of fact, I do.”

“I just noticed this morning that my milk is a hundred and ten calories.”

“That’s just one serving.”

“Yeah. That’s what I had.”

“I bet you drank a full glass.”

“Right. One serving.”

“Dude. Most drinking glasses are more than a cup. Probably two cups.”

“So? I don’t follow you.”

“One cup is one serving. A hundred and ten calories. You probably drank two cups.”

“Two-hundred and twenty calories?”

“Don’t fall out of your chair there, Doug. But, yeah, you said it.”

“Holy cow! That IS depressing.”

“Yep. Love my milk.”

“Gotta have my milk.”

“Whatcha lookin’ at?”

“Is that Third Man over there?”

“You mean the yuppie with the laptop?”

“No, you moron. At the counter. The guy tapping his fingers on the pastry case.”

“Yeah. Sure. Hey, Third Man!”

“Hey, guys, let me pay and I’ll be right over.”

“Jodie, why’d you invite him over. He’ll get crumbs all over us.”

“Looks like we’re in luck, Doug. They’re out of scones.”

“Hey, guys. What brings you two here? They’re out of scones.”

“Hey, Third Man.

“Hey, Jodie. So, what are you guys talking about?”

“Calories.”

“Yeah, thanks for bringing that up, Jodie.”

“Hey, you’re the one who starting going on about milk.”

“I don’t know if you two know this, but milk is a hundred and ten calories a glass. And that’s the one percent stuff.”

“Jodie, you want to correct his math?”

“Whaddya mean, Doug? My math is okay.”

“Not really. Doug’s right. That’s a hundred ten calories per eight-ounce cup. You want a full glass it’s two-hundred-twenty calories.”

“No way!”

That’s it. (And you were probably waiting for me to kill Third Man).

This is a (probably very poor) example of dialogue blocking. It’s a common technique for writing screenplays. Get the dialogue down first, then go back and add stage directions, props and the rest. It’s also a great way to overcome a bout of writer’s block. If you’ve got two characters and don’t know exactly where the story’s going next, just let them chat for a while. As your people talk it out, you’ll write it out. Maybe you’ll use it, maybe you won’t. If nothing else, you’ll get out of the rut and get to know your characters even better.

Grandpa’s message to Kianna #22

Sometimes when I call your mommy, Kishia, I hope that she doesn’t answer. Sounds funny, I know, but I love to hear her voice message. “Hi, this is Kishia …”

It’s the voice. Sweet, polite, just a tiny, tiny bit shy. The same tone, inflection and sound of the little girl she was once. And I need to hear that every once in a while. Your mommy is a grown-up woman now –has been for a lot longer than I care to admit. But every time I hear her voice message, I’m reminded that your mommy is also still partly my little girl.

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