How Not to Write and How to Not Write

Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is something every aspiring writer (and maybe every reader) should read. I haven’t read it in quite a while and am due to revisit it. There are many great books on writing–how to, what the writer’s life is like, how to edit and plot, and all kinds of good stuff. I have a lot of these kinds of books and have read most of them and have gotten a lot of books on writing from the library. Some of the books are better than others, but anything that teaches you something useful is good. I haven’t seen too many books on how not to write, so let me see if I can fill a tiny bit of that void with some advice on how NOT to write and even how to not write. (They are different, trust me.)

First how not to write. Don’t write “in the style of” someone famous and much loved unless you’ve really made a study of how that person writes. You can certainly borrow plots (Shakespeare did) and some great stuff has come out of what was started out as fan fiction. But if you want to write in the style of, say Jane Austen, make sure you understand her wicked sense of humor as well as her time and culture. Paying tribute may be a great way to start, but honestly, you have your own voice. Find it. Use it.

Second, don’t slide over plot points. If it’s important to the story, give it some time and effort. Don’t spring stuff out of the blue without some foreshadowing. “Oh, and by the way, she was an orphan with a twin who was raised by witches,” you write in chapter twelve when suddenly, conveniently the twin appears. Readers hate that. It’s like cheating. Find a way to hint at or even tell about something that becomes important later.

Third, don’t pick you mom and your best friend for editors. They will love it no matter how bad it is. Get someone who will be honest AND instructive. “This is terrible” isn’t useful criticism. “I don’t understand this part” or “I wish you told me more about…” is. Part two of this is, don’t ignore criticism of your work. Fix it or explain it or make it better. If one person has trouble with it, likely others will too.

Don’t use “just”. The problem is, once you use “just”, it just invites all its relatives and just starts showing up everywhere, like in every paragraph and sometimes in every sentence. If you just mean “merely” or “simply” or “only”, use those instead if you must. If you mean “right and fair”, “just” is okay. Just do a word search and eliminate them all. Then if you re-read and in spots it makes no sense, just add it back. Just sayin’.

Don’t use cliches. I know everyone says this, but gosh it’s tempting to use the shorthand of cliches. Don’t do it. Don’t describe in exhausting detail things that don’t move the plot along. Don’t use slang unless your audience is familiar with it or unless it is integral to the story and you make it clear by the context what it all means. Don’t kill the dog. Or the kid. Unless that is what the story is about. Make sure you know what your story is about. And stick to it. The detailed sex scene may be earth shattering, but is it relevant? Of course there is a lot more, but this is only a blog post, not a book. Let’s get to how to not write.

You won’t get any writing done if you have no place to do it, no place where you and your thoughts can collude in some level of peace and quiet. And when you insist on not being disturbed because you’re writing, make sure you’re writing. You won’t write if you don’t have a time to write, a time set aside to focus on what you want to say. You won’t write if you put everything and everyone ahead of writing, if you’re never a little selfish, just for a little while. You won’t write if you spend too much time doubting yourself or thinking your work should be perfect on the first draft–it won’t be, but that doesn’t mean anything. You won’t write if you give up, but you also won’t write if you plug away at something that is making you bored and frustrated and disgusted. For Pete’s sake, give it a rest. You can always come back to it. And if you give in to the despair of writer’s block, you won’t write. But it will pass. An idea will mug you when you least expect it, and you’ll get back to writing and abandon not writing, so in your face, writer’s block!

I don’t pretend to know much about writing or how to write well, but I do write. I plan to keep doing it. Hope this helps.

Image: Some writing books. The rest are in the public library. By Marilyn Evans

Autumn Rituals

Two big days happen at the beginning of my autumn (yes, officially autumn began September 22, but humor me). The first big day is Halloween, the second is November 1.

Halloween, Samhain, the Day of the Dead, whatever you may call it, is the time of year to celebrate and honor those who have passed on to the next world or to otherwise acknowledge Death, the other side of being born. It’s also a time to watch a plethora of terrible horror films and the Simpson’s Tree House of Horror, visit a haunted house, drink and feast (possibly in costume) with friends, decorate–sometimes extravagantly–but above all, it is the time to give away candy.

My love of all things holiday can be directly traced to my father. Passing out candy was one of the all time highlights of the year. I know there are those who say the Trick or Treaters have to be children in costumes, but I’m of the school that anyone who shows up at my house on October 31 gets candy or in some cases, if they are of a certain age and so inclined, a tasty adult beverage.

I was deeply disappointed this year when I only had four costumed children (and a mom also suitably dressed). Even in the midst of last year’s raging pandemic we had a better turn out. I fear “Trunk or Treat” events or other incursions into tradition may be eroding my pleasure. I pray next year will be back to my preferred normal.

The second big event is the start of National Write a Novel in a Month month. This is day two and I’m hitting my word count. I woke up this morning excited to write. This is a happy thing after the long dry summer with a few short stories and not much else including blog posts. I’m back in full swing and having a great time. I always promise myself that after November, I’ll write another novel in December and another in January…. You already can guess how that will work out, but leave me my optimism. I have ideas, plot lines, rough drafts, and a big bowl of leftover Halloween candy. What could possibly go wrong?

Image: Halloween Party Food 2002. By Jonathan Hutchins.

 

Back in the Saddle Again

Maybe it’s the pandemic, maybe it’s the season or the era or something else entirely, but it’s been hard to write lately. I haven’t been the only writer having a long dry spell. I simply haven’t been able to get myself motivated. However, the contract with my publisher recently ended so he’s stopped supporting my book which means it has been listed on Amazon as out of print. That means I either had to find another publisher or self publish. I haven’t self published before, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I did a bit of editing (there was a continuity error that needed fixing and a couple of other things I wanted to add or change) and suddenly the second edition of Beloved Lives is on line and available as an e-book or paperback.

Mind you, I have been writing a tiny bit over the past months. Story ideas come in the night and poke me until I wake up enough to work them out and/or write them down. In the morning I’ll get a draft together, let it sit a while, then do serious editing after a decent interval. Then it needs to rest a bit more. It’s kind of like making bread with time between steps to allow the yeast to work and the loaf to rise. One story has gone off to be published eventually in an anthology. Anthologies are notoriously slow, so no telling when that will be in print, but there is nothing like getting an acceptance letter to get the juices flowing. And I have a couple of other new stories that are trying to find homes as well. When I’m sure of the publication dates or see actual contracts, I’ll let you know where and when these things might appear.

I have to admit, the process of reviewing and editing Beloved Lives got me in the mood to revisit The Gingerbread House, a mystery that wasn’t quite mysterious enough and needed a couple of red herrings thrown in. Over the past year it has been really hard to get back to it, but lately I’m having a lot of fun working on it. Revisiting my characters is being a real treat. I hadn’t planned to finalize and publish it until 2022, but Jonathan, my beloved spouse, thinks I ought to try to have it done in time for Christmas. If I work hard over November, that is a real possibility. Once all those things are done, perhaps I can finally get back to The Iliad in Space (working title, of course). That one has been in process for a very long time.

I do enjoy my stories, and I love my characters. It’s good to be back in the saddle, riding along with them into the publishing sunset.

Image: Fort Leavenworth Fox Hunt at Mulvane Ranch in the Flint Hills. By Jonathan Hutchins.

A Legacy

Four years ago my mother’s oldest brother died. He had led a remarkable life, but in his old age his mind began to fail him. He never had children, although he had many nieces and nephews to whom he left his estate. The settlement of that estate took years for weird, Dickensian reasons. If you are familiar with the novel Bleak House, you’ll get an idea of the ins and outs of the process of distributing Uncle Bob’s worldly goods. His estate was finally settled, and his  legacy was bequeathed, but not without a whole lot of weirdness.

My father’s older sister died in the early summer, the last of a large family of brothers and sisters. She passed quietly in her sleep at the age of ninety-eight. She was the mother of my favorite cousins, the matriarch of an incredibly close family  who gathered every Sunday for feasting and sharing. These people understand my sense of humor because they have it too. My aunt was one of the greatest cooks on the planet. Ask anyone who knew her. The pastor who officiated at her funeral nailed it: “When Virginia meets Jesus, he’ll say, ‘You’ve earned your rest. Sit here beside me, and we’ll talk.’ And she will reply, ‘If you want to talk with me, we can do it in the kitchen. People are coming, and they have to be fed.’” Yep, that’s Aunt Virginia.

My close friend died a little over a year ago, killed by a speeding felon who hit her car. Mari’s greatest legacy, in my opinion, is the many, many people she taught how to ride a horse with skill and confidence. She taught people to love horses and how to care for them. Because of her, I fox hunted in Ireland and rode a horse over a three-foot-six-inch fence without dying. Besides teaching, my friend rescued countless animals, large and small. Those of us who remember her and miss her feel grateful for her legacy.

My stepmother died of cancer this summer. We had a rocky start but became really good friends over the years. I missed her during the pandemic when getting together got tougher. I will continue to miss her now that she’s gone, miss our conversations and time together.

A compelling reason for creating anything, for teaching anyone, for having children, is to leave something behind—to create a legacy. We often don’t have a say in how what we leave behind is interpreted. I’m sure there are people who were monsters but thought they were doing good things. They are the ones we damn for their legacy. Others may think they failed, but as time goes on, that proves to be incorrect. Georges Bizet died thinking Carmen, was a flop, and so it was at first. Now it is one of his most beloved works.

I think perhaps we should be kinder to ourselves. While we can do our best to do good things, to create, teach, raise children, care for animals, work for the welfare of our planet, leave money to our heirs; in the end, we have no say in how those we leave behind will interpret our legacy. All we can do is the best we know how, and love everyone we can, and tell them so often.

Image: One of my grandmother’s quilts. By M. Evans

For the Love of Libraries and Books

In preparation for a long car trip, I got an audio book from the library, as I so often do. Listening in the car didn’t work out as I’d planned, but when I got home, I was so fascinated by the book that I got the print version (pictures!) The Library Book by Susan Orlean is ostensibly about the fire that consumed a great deal of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. In fact, it is a history of and love letter to libraries, librarians, and books. I had heard of this fire on a podcast about cookbooks–a cookbook collector who lived in a part of California subject to wildfires had donated a great many of her books to this same library where, ironically, they were consumed by an arson-set fire.

The Library Book tells about the history of libraries, the tragedies that have befallen some of them, and their resilience in rising from the ashes. She introduces us to librarians, ancient and modern. Ms. Orlean describes her magical childhood trips to her hometown library and the continuing magic that is the modern-day library, source of so much more than books. Today’s library contains books, periodicals, assorted historical documents, photographs and art works, computer terminals, voting registration information, support services for homeless people, and much more.

My own love affair with libraries started when I rebelled against the books foisted off on children such as myself where the animal so often died or the little girl was subjected to all manner of horrors until the end when all was forgiven. I was disgusted. Where, I asked myself, was the justice? That’s when I discovered the shelves and shelves of mysteries. If someone dies, it’s in the beginning and by the end of the book, justice is served. I worked my way through every mystery in the county library in my hometown.

I was fortunate to grow up in a house with books. I discovered Edgar Allan Poe and the beauty of his poetry at an early age. My brothers and I were known to act out bits of Shakespeare–we were mad for the ghost scenes in Hamlet. Owning books came naturally to me. Perhaps it has come a little too easily. My house groans under the weight of all the books it contains.

This summer I’ve helped my friend, Dennis Young, sell his books at a couple of conventions. Other people were selling books, too, so, yes, I came home with books. While at the horror convention, Crypticon, I discovered a new genre: splatter westerns. Imagine a slasher horror movie in the old west with elements of the paranormal. Not what I expected I’d be reading, but given my childhood reading material and my on-going passion for classic horror films, maybe not so surprising. Of course, I also came home with some mysteries, still among my first loves.

Audio and paper books from the library, old books on line from Project Gutenberg, new books from indie authors, I love them all. And librarians! There is a current internet meme about an Old English word for library that means “book hoard”. What a lovely word! It easily conjures images of librarians as dragons in their library lairs, protecting their books. But unlike dragons, librarians are eager to share their treasures. I salute all the library dragons and bless them for doing their best to keep the book hoards safe for us all.

Image: Partial book hoard.

Without a Home

A post apocalyptic novel or film might have used this plot. The world has been ravaged by a pandemic, killing millions of people and wrecking economies. The most vulnerable lose everything. Into this world, a woman and her dog seek shelter in an open space, finding others in similar circumstances sheltered there as well. One of the inhabitants, someone she has seen before, begins to behave more erratically than usual, and, though her dog will defend her, she fears for her life. Though it’s late and dark, she seeks aid from a lighted house nearby. She asks to use a phone–she lost hers long ago–and begs the police to come and defend her.

This is a true story. This happened. A homeless woman and her dog rang our doorbell, desperate and terrified. The police told her they couldn’t run the guy out of the park, and she had best find somewhere else to sleep. We said she was welcome to spend the night on our front porch. The cops discretely warned my husband and me to be careful about letting her stay too long. Because of issues with squatters rights, she might be hard to get rid of. We considered inviting her into the guest room, but we didn’t think the cats would approve of the dog, and we knew she wouldn’t leave the dog all by himself. The cops warned her she would have to move on in the morning.

She had a can of dog food in her backpack, and not a lot else. We fed her leftover pork fried rice which she also shared with her dog. We gave her a thick comforter and a pillow that the dog quickly claimed.

I didn’t sleep much that night. In the morning I researched how to make dog food. When she started stirring, I made her toast, coffee and a hard boiled egg, and added two little oranges. My first attempt at homemade dog food was a resounding success. While she and the dog ate, I made two sandwiches (BLT and PB and J, my favorites) added carrot sticks and an apple to the paper bag. I scrounged up $40. We don’t keep much cash in the house. I wish it had been more. I packed the rest of the dog food in a container, and refilled her water jug. She was tearfully grateful when she left.

I’ve agonized for days over her. She said she’d be getting a check the first of the month. No matter how big that check is,  I doubt it will be enough to get her an apartment and medical attention for her aging dog or enough groceries to last a month.

Homelessness is its own epidemic, and it will only grow. Moratoriums on evictions have ended, and many people are still without work or resources. And how do you find work without a phone, an address, decent clothes to work in?Kansas City has begun to try to address these issues. But the books Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond make it painfully clear that poor people are profitable for those who prey on and use them, and getting out the hole of poverty and homelessness is a massive struggle.

The woman and her dog are heavy on my mind. This could be any of us. So many of us are one paycheck away from where this woman and dog found themselves. The time to act is now.

Image: A home. By Jonathan Hutchins

An update from the SysAdmin: Certificate Fix

For more than a year how, the SSL certificate for the site, has had an error.  It wasn’t really a functional error, it was just showing that the certificate was expired.

I finally got the certificate update, and everything should be fine now

The Well-Edited Garden

I’ve lived in the same house for about thirty-two years. During that time, the park across the street has lost a lot of trees to old age, storm damage, and other causes. Also during that time, none of those trees have been replaced. I took it upon myself to write a letter to the parks department suggesting they might want to plant a few trees, you know, for shade and beauty and the environment. I didn’t expect anything to happen, so imagine my surprise when this spring, people and equipment appeared and planted forty new trees. I know because I walked around and counted them. Best of all, they seem to be entirely native species. Mind you, I might have made slightly different choices, including some chokecherries and hickories, but in all, I’d say they did a pretty good job. I look forward to watching that edited version of the park over the next several years as those trees grow.

I would like to have a native forest garden on my property with Missouri fruit and nut trees and shrubs and a few things introduced from other parts of the U.S. like ramps and wild ginger. But a certain amount of tending and editing is required to stay ahead of the conquering hoards of plants brought by accident or design from other continents.

I have personally declared war on the invasive species in my yard. Fortunately, I can eat the garlic mustard, so it’s not wasted, but when it’s gone, I won’t shed a tear. The problem with invasives is they squeeze out  native species and in some cases are a poor substitute for the native plants. Number one on my hit list is Chinese honeysuckle. It’s everywhere, hard to kill, quick to spread, and some people actually plant it on purpose. There was a time I was willing to let it live because it is a shrub that allows cover and nesting for birds and has little red berries that they will eat. Then I found out the berries are relatively nutritionally poor. Add to the that, the plants are a bit thin and therefore not as good cover as other plants are. On top of that, it starts growing up in other shrubs and, out competing them, kills them off and is the only plant standing. End of my compassion. You die, honeysuckle.

Even the desert needs help. You may have heard of the threat buffelgrass presents to the saguaro cactus and the desert habitat. Without an army of volunteers, habitats could vanish in a blaze of wildfires that benefit the invasive buffelgrass and not much else in the Arizona landscape.

I’m not saying all introduced species are bad. Apple trees didn’t come from North America, but who doesn’t love an apple?  And it goes both ways. The fruits and vegetables from the Americas have become essential to the cuisines of many countries around the world. But when I can, I’m trying to keep it local. And that requires constant editing out of things that would overwhelm my garden.

Let me bring this back around to writing, if I may. I’ve been doing a bit of editing for a friend who is in the process of finishing up yet another novel (Dennis seems prolific to me, but it usually takes me years to write a novel). One of the things I notice about writers, I am a perfect example, is that in some early drafts, certain phrases or words pop up again and again, pushing out other, possibly better words. I know this because my writing is full of these, and I have to weed them out when I’m reviewing my own work. It took a good editor to point this out to me, and I’ve been trying to share the wisdom when I can. That said, some writers are better at self editing than others, and Dennis is one of them. He leaves me little to do.

So, my friends, whether it’s writing or gardening, tend to your editing. Keep the weeds to a limit, but know that sometimes a weed is just a plant–or a word–that isn’t in the right place.

Happy gardening. Happy writing. Happy May Day.

Image: Chinese honeysuckle rising from the dead to kill my shrubs. By Marilyn Evans

The First 100 Years

[This guest blog is an essay by my good friend Chris (you remember Chris?)]

The first 100 years is the hardest, I think.

Looking backward through the lens of all your most trivial possessions—this essential oil from the 1970’s—nobody makes this sort of thing anymore. Look at that hand-typed label.  Smell the subtleties, still caught inside this vial.
Nowadays if you try to buy a fragrance oil with this name you get a paltry counterfeit.

And don’t even get me started about the real perfume houses and the gems they used to make, which _maybe_ you could find, used, on ebay, for more money than the many hundreds they cost you already in the 1980’s.

Looking back at this kerosene lantern—nowadays nobody even dreams of trying to camp with that old biohazard!  For eight bucks, you can buy a realistic looking kerosene-lantern-shaped object loaded with LED lights, running on batteries that easily last all night, never presenting a fire hazard.  You don’t have to pump it to pressurize the fuel.  You don’t have to know the dark secrets of burning the new mantle down to ash first, if you’ve had to replace it because it got bumped.

Those glorious, circular, wicked Aladdin lamps…hard to get…THOSE lamps cost hundreds of dollars.  The last time I saw one, I saw three…all brass polished and silver.  Their owners had lived by them while homesteading in Alaska for two decades.  They still looked new.   I pull the little LED flashlight from my pocket—cost me $5.

The first 100 years is the hardest because you are still rather moored to your technology, and nostalgia is still possible.

This Swiss Army knife-like phone in my pocket—what DOESN’T it do?
I still have my real Swiss Army knife…with 22 functions, including a magnifying glass. (“In case I needed to start a fire with no matches,” I told myself the day I bought it.)  That princely $40 I spent as a teen (investing in the best, following the wisdom of adults who had their own first 100 years from which to advise me), would be like spending $250 today.  Good knives, bright lenses…these, I was promised, would always serve.  But I haven’t pulled it from my drawer in a decade now.  My phone magnifies; my Bic lights fires.  Don’t even get me started on sturdy lost Zippos, or (equally lost) refillable butane status markers—engraved, sometimes.

The other day, I realized I no longer carry a car key. There’s a tech that’s slipping away—remember when it was a rite of passage to admire a muscle car?  To gain a license?  To OWN one of these things?  I hear the kids don’t even want one.  Too much trouble.  Just hire it.  Use your phone. And now, with a trace of contempt, we speak of “ICE”…Internal Combustion Engines.
It’s no longer taught in high school.  Why would it be?  People laugh aloud when a particularly old one goes by, and you can smell it for a long while after.

I think back.  Grama’s keepsake wedding china was shoved off to some Goodwill, I am sure, because that glorious gilt pattern couldn’t tolerate a microwave.  Heh.  Microwaves.  Remember when your first microwave cost $800 and lasted about 20 years?  Remember appliances that were meant to be repaired?

What other buggy whips do I have lying around? I have digital buggy whips!
I have a digital clock so old that it remembers THE FIRST daylight savings time.  Every year it shifts itself forward about three weeks too soon.  Every year it falls back three weeks too late.  I have to manually intervene… there’s no update for the onboard chip that old.

For a brief time, I got out my old wind up clock—a travel alarm of which I was enormously proud.  But it makes a racket, and it needs winding every day.  I finally let it run down again, because my spouse couldn’t abide the noise.  For his sake, I also had to tear the batteries out of the modern clocks that are not really mechanical, but they “tick” anyway.  What a legacy!  My phone doesn’t tick, always knows what day it is.

After the first 100 years—I think that the older I get, and the farther removed I become from the tech of my childhood, the easier it will be to just wave it past and mumble, “Ah, there goes another one.”  I haven’t worried about warming up the TV in many years.  I haven’t had to adjust the vertical roll that started when the CRT was too hot. Likewise, I haven’t had anybody invite me inside to admire the fact that the image was IN COLOR, and we all had to come over to see the first of us to manage getting one of those! Now… the screen goes from “WYSIWYG” to “Retina-display” with barely a shrug.  Somehow, we take that for granted.

Remember how we all laughed at the idea that we’d PAY for TV?  That’s what commercials were for! Remember VCRs were supposed to liberate us from that? Remember Blockbuster? Remember when Netflix came in the mail?

Remember going to a movie theater? Does anyone remember when the insides of the “movie house” were as ornate as jewelry boxes?  Balconies and carved ceilings and layouts that reminded more of cathedrals than of cushy living rooms?  I think it’s harder to have lost the ornate theater space than it was to say goodbye to VCR’s and their blinking 12’s.

First hundred years….
I think I shall barely notice passing through my second hundred years.

Image: Jonathan’s Swiss Army knife. By Marilyn Evans

Calculated Cuts

For some reason I can’t quite remember, I decided to count all my books. Of course, it was only ever going to be a rough estimate. I’m convinced the books move around when they so desire, just like the Rollright Stones, so you never get a true accounting. Still, I gave it my best shot. It was upward of 2000 on the first and second floors, but not counting the attic. In this book count, I didn’t count the electronic books. There are a few thousand more of those.

Now some of these belong to my husband who has a formidable science fiction collection. His collection includes many classics and some books that are truly awful. I, on the other hands, have a lot of mysteries. I’ve given away many of the ones I’ve already read, and some that are part of a series, I’ve borrowed from the library. When I used to fly a lot for work, I’d buy a book in a series, read it on the plane and at the hotel, then leave it behind for someone else.

It occurred to me during this exercise of counting books that a lot of the ones in my house I had never read, and some I had only scanned. So for the new year and here around my 70th birthday, I have decided it’s time to start making my way through the paper books at least, then consider giving away any that aren’t necessary references. So far I’m on my seventh gardening book.

I had no idea I had so many gardening books. I’m learning a lot, and kind of wonder why I hadn’t read these sooner. It could have saved me a lot of time, effort, and failure. One of the books that has really impressed me is Pruning Made Easy. These books have taught me that pruning isn’t just keeping the size of your plants under control, it’s increasing their productivity. You gotta cut to be kind. And you know where this is going, don’t you? Yep, editing writing has much the same effect. Not just cutting down on the hyperbole but making everything more direct and concise.

Now, I have to qualify this cutting down with the qualifier: I have been known to write like a scientist–just the facts without description, discussion, explanation, and all the other stuff that makes reading a story interesting. The trick in both pruning and editing is not to cut the good stuff or too much, but just the stuff that needs to be cut. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a good editor is worth their weight in whatever you’re willing to pay. The same can be said for a good tree surgeon.

So I’ve been pruning my blueberries (I was wondering why their yield had dropped so much), and anything else that can be pruned this time of year. I’ve been offering my services to a friend as a proof reader (he pays in barbecue). I’ve been doing some writing that I am editing as I go and again after it rests for a bit. I’m doing some indoor gardening and lots and lots of reading.

After the gardening books, on to the horse books. That may not be until well into spring. Did I mention I have a lot of gardening books?

Image: Tools by Marilyn Evans