Tag Archives: writing tips

That’s Just the Way It Is

22 Aug

Got To Get You Into My Life” was a song on the album “Revolver” and was released by The Beatles in 1966.  For forty years it was one of my favorite Beatle tunes, so imagine my surprise when I learned last year that what I thought was an upbeat love song was actually a tribute to pot (some say cocaine).  LOL

The lesson learned: I’m not nearly as smart as I’d like to believe.

That was just a bonus story; now on to the real blog posting.

Again with the music….I was listening to “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen the other day.  What a haunting, brilliant tune…and then that night I watched a tribute to Led Zeppelin, with Heart singing “Stairway to Heaven”…..again, a brilliant song….and I found myself wondering what it must be like to write something that brilliant.

Would you even know it if you did?  Seriously, do you think Cohen knew he penned a classic when he wrote “Hallelujah?” Do you think Paige and Plant knew they had written quite possibly the greatest rock song of all-time?

And that all reminds me of a line from the Robert Redford movie “The Natural.”  In the movie, Redford is telling his childhood sweetheart, played by Glenn Close, that he could have been so much better if he hadn’t run into trouble at a young age, and Close asks them then what? Why is that so important?  And Redford says “then, when I walked down the street, people would look at me and say ‘there goes the greatest baseball player of all-time, and wouldn’t that be something?”

I don’t know if it would be or not, but I keep aiming for it.  It’s how I’m wired.  I’m not satisfied being a good writer, or even a very good writer.  I want to be the best!

But then a little voice in my head tells me that will never happen, so live with it . . . but still I try . . .

And that’s just the way it is!

 

 

 

The Art of Storytelling

15 Aug

“The best way we as storytellers can move an audience, is by being honest and genuine with ourselves. If it doesn’t move us or excite us personally, how can we expect an audience to feel anything?”

Ken Burns, Film Producer

So I was watching a show on PBS the other night about Burns.  I highly respect him, and the show was fascinating.  Rarely have I seen any producer/director of any documentary tell a story as well as Burns has done in the past with his films, from The Civil War to The Roosevelts to Our National Parks.

He was saying during this show that he believes history should not be delivered as a set of facts in so much as it should be delivered as a narrative, because people make history, and it is through the words of the people who made history that we gain a real appreciation for history.  He went on to say that the really great storytellers never forget that we all share feelings, and tapping into those feelings is what makes a mediocre story a great story.

I believe that.  I’ve said it often in this blog.  The great authors I have read are the ones who have found a way to deliver the story in such a way that I actually care about the characters, and I feel what the characters are feeling.  This is a crucial point, so write it down, if you have to, and always refer to it.

Whether you write fiction or just a blog, it is all-important that you find a way to connect with your readers, and the best way to do that is on a personal level. A friend of mine, Linda, writes a blog about food.  She always includes a personal story in each blog posting, something which will reach her readers on a basic molecular level, and because she does that, her articles are always interesting, even to me and I’m strictly a mac-n-cheese sort of guy.

Who are you writing for?  If it’s just for yourself, good luck with that. I have nothing else to say to you.  But if you are writing for an audience, and it is important to you that you reach them, then I guaran-damn-tee it you will reach them if you remember that they are human beings who feel the same things you feel.  Your storytelling must always remember that.

Writers are storytellers.

Be the best storyteller you can be.  Don’t go through the motions and vomit mediocrity.  That’s an insult to all who came before you, and it’s a turn-off for all those who follow you.

THE OREGON TRAIL

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.  Growing up, our next-door neighbors were a lovely old couple. I have no idea how old they were, but I do know that, as children, they both came to Washington on the Oregon Trail by covered wagon.  I still remember many an afternoon when they would serve their six-year-old neighbor (me) chocolate chip cookies and tell him about crossing the country in a wagon.  It was absolutely fascinating, so fascinating that I still remember those stories sixty years later.

And I remember the stories of Alaska my Uncle Jim told me, about dredging in harbors with the temperatures so cold his breath would freeze upon exhaling, and grizzly bears walking down Main Street in Ketchikan, and I remember the stories my Uncle Mike told of being attacked on the USS Iwo Jima during World War 2, and stories of my mother working as a welder in the naval shipyards during that war . . . and stories . . . well, you get the point.

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Personal Satisfaction in Writing

8 Aug

“Sometimes, in the night I feel it
Near as my next breath
and yet, untouchable
Silently the past comes stealing
Like the taste of some forbidden sweet”

From “Ghosts” by Dan Fogelberg

 

They do talk to me, you know, and if you’re being honest with yourself, they talk to you as well.

The ghosts of our past.

It’s impossible for me to not hear my father speaking to me.  I don’t remember the tone of his voice, but I definitely remember his words:

“Give an honest day of work for an honest wage, and always be grateful that you’re able to work, Bill.”

Or my Uncle Mike, once a car salesman in Torrance, California:

“Working retail is an exchange, Bill.  The customer gives you money, and in return you give them the best product possible.”

Or my Aunt Lois, who died of heart disease at the age of forty:

“Life is too precious to waste it on half-efforts.”

I remembered those words, and others, when I was a teacher, a warehouseman, a truck driver, and now as a writer.  At the end of the day, and under the final analysis, I must answer not only to my lofty standards but theirs as well.  They will not allow me to do half-assed work.  They expect the best from me.  They are watching over my shoulder as I do an article for a client, and they whisper in my ear as I work on a novel possibly no one will ever read.

The payment for it all . . . for all of those long hours . . . for all of those days when we felt unappreciated . . . the payment is in the personal satisfaction derived from knowing we did our best.

Remember that as you go about your day today.

“Down the ancient corridors
And through the gates of time
Run the ghosts of days that we’ve left behind
Down the ancient corridors
And through the gates of time
Run the ghosts of dreams that we left behind”

Pax Vobiscum!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Understanding the Human Condition

1 Aug

I had to fight my way through a good portion of my childhood.  From age seven to say age thirteen, it was even odds whether I would get through the day unscathed or not.  I was a runt when I was young.  I was shy and goofy. And I was raised by a father who taught me never to back down from bullies.

That’s just the way it was back then in the 50’s and early 60’s.

I laugh about it now.  I went to a Catholic grade school, and we had to wear these uniforms of salt-and-pepper slacks, a white buttoned shirt, and a green buttoned sweater.  We might as well have had a target on us, or a large sign that said “I’m Catholic; feel free to kick the shit out of me.”

Seriously!  Remember when Kennedy ran for President in 1960, his Catholicism was a big deal back then.  Being a Catholic was no walk in the park for a young kid in the 50’s, and I happened to live in a Protestant neighborhood, so if I wasn’t fighting because I was small and shy, I was fighting because someone didn’t like my association with the Pope.

So a good many of my evenings were spent putting Band Aids on various cuts and scrapes, and explaining to my dad that I handed out as much punishment as I had received.

That’s just the way it was!

Now two things could have happened because of those early years of bullying and nursing wounds: I could have become bitter, and a bully myself; or I could have grown to have an increased empathy and awareness of those who suffer at the hands of others.

Thanks also to the teachings of my father, I went the second route.  I was taught never to back down from a fight, but never pick one as well.  Defend yourself and never take advantage of someone weaker than you . . . and above all, be aware that there are those out there who are having a hell of a time just getting through any given day.

This stuff is important for writers.  If you write fiction, as I do, understanding the human condition and psyche will help us to create characters who are believable and relatable.  Understanding emotions will help us to connect with our readers.

That’s just the way it is!

Have a great day being a writer! We are the chosen few!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

That’s Something To Be Proud Of

25 Jul

My dad worked at a job he hated for twenty-five years.

Stop and think about that for a moment.  It’s really hard for me to comprehend.  I’ve had some crap jobs during my lifetime (cleaning pig pens comes to mind), but I’ve never stayed with them for more than a year or so. Twenty-five years?  My God, what that must have been like for him, or for any of the millions of other people who have done the same thing over the years . . . coal miners . . . assembly line workers . . . I can’t wrap my brain around what that must be like.

And the thing is, I never heard him complain.  I asked him about it once, back when I was maybe fifteen, or sixteen, I caught up with my dad one Saturday afternoon and asked him how he did it, getting up every morning, going to work at a job he disliked, knowing that day, like all the other days, was as good as it gets . . . no chance for advancement, no future prospects . . . how the hell did he do it, I asked.

And he simply told me that a man should take pride in a job well-done, and in providing for his family, and it was no more complicated than that.

Now, in my sixtieth year, I understand.  Now, as a writer, I get it.

At least, as a writer, I have the privilege to get up each morning and do something I am passionate about, but there are no promises regarding fame or future sales.  For all I know, I may do this for a total of twenty or twenty-five years, with no prospects and no chance of ever being well-known.  That’s just the reality all writers, artists, or musicians face.  So we take pride in doing our jobs well, in being the best writers, artists, or musicians we can be, and by doing that we will have advanced the Arts and done our part to entertain and inform the general public.

We are the voices of our generation, and our work will stand the test of time.

And that’s something to be proud of!

Keep that in mind as you go about the business of creating today.

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

The Storyteller’s Legacy

18 Jul

 

A long time ago, gosh, back before I decided I wanted to be a writer, maybe twenty years ago, I wrote a short story called “Sam’s Legacy.” I think I published it on HubPages, where is promptly died a slow death, and then I published it on NIUME, or some other site, where it also died a slow death.

I wrote that story about a next-door neighbor of mine when I was a little kid.  I was only about five when we moved into the home on 18th Street in Tacoma, and our neighbors were Sam Witherspoon and his wife Delores.  I don’t know how old Sam and Delores were when we moved next door to them, but I do know that Sam came across the Oregon Trail when he was just about my age of five. Well Sam and Delores told me some incredible stories over the years about life “out west” during the second half of the 19th Century, and I’m sure my love of history came from those stories that they told me about covered wagons, Indians, barn-building, drunken fights in mining towns, and the hardships and victories attached to life in the west way back then.

Yes, I was at an impressionable age, so obviously their stories were fascinating, but it was also the way they told their stories that helped them to come alive.  I could smell the smoke from the teepees on the Great Plains.  I could imagine gathering bison pies under the broiling sun in order to start a fire for cooking after covering another fifteen miles on the Trail.  I understood the fear they experienced, the bone-weariness of it all, mixed with the wonder of seeing a new land for the first time.

They were great storytellers, and their storytelling greatly affected me.

And now I’m a storyteller, and it is my hope that one day my stories will greatly affect another little boy, or girl, and they will decide to become a storyteller.

It is a noble undertaking we have chosen.  We are the storytellers of our generation.

Treat your calling with respect and reverence.

Be the best damned storyteller you can be!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Trust Your Instincts

11 Jul

I was talking to my best friend, Frank, on the phone the other day.  I’ve known Frank for fifty-five years now, so we have a good amount of reminiscing to do whenever we talk.  On this particular discussion we were talking about baseball.

Summers were for baseball when we were growing up.  If we weren’t playing for a team we were getting guys together for games of “pick-up,” and if we weren’t doing that we were watching the local AAA team, the Tacoma Giants, play at Cheney Stadium during their homestands.

Frank and I were pretty similar in our playing abilities.  Neither of us could hit worth a damn, but we were both excellent outfielders.  We had that innate ability to track a fly ball off the bat, determine how hard it was hit, envision the path of the flyball, do it all in split-seconds, and take the shortest route to where the ball would land.  Not everyone has that ability.  There are players who will play for decades and never develop those kinds of instincts.  Standing three-hundred feet from the batter, hearing the tone of the bat hitting the ball, following the trajectory of that ball, toss in a little trigonometry, adjust for the wind speed, and knowing exactly where the ball will end up is not something you can teach a young kid.  They either have it or they don’t.  Practice helps, of course, but we are talking about a talent that goes beyond practice.

I’m not bragging, mind you.  I don’t brag. I’m simply stating fact.  Some have it, some don’t!

THE POINT OF THIS

It’s not that different in writing.

I re-read “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck, a couple years ago, and one sentence in that masterpiece stood out to me.  It was in the first chapter . . . hell, it might have been the very first sentence . . . anyway, that sentence seemed to go on forever.  It was the longest sentence I have ever seen in a novel.  It defied all logic.  It really broke all the rules.

And yet it worked perfectly for that novel!

You can’t teach that.  In fact, most teachers do not teach that sort of grammatical freelance.  If a teacher tried to diagram that sentence they would need a strong shot of whiskey afterwards.

And yet it worked perfectly for that novel!

The point is this: a large part of the craft of writing is instinctual.  There are times when grammatical rules can, and should, be broken.  I believe voice, and rhythm, are much more important than strict adherence to grammatical rules.  I can teach someone to write in a grammatically-correct manner.  I cannot teach them their own voice.

Thus sayeth Bill!

Have a great week of writing; have a better week of living!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Learning in Real Life

6 Jul Learning from Real People

I love farmers markets!  Love working them, love talking to people, just love the whole atmosphere of it all.  A market is a community of sorts. The vendors all know each other, and you get to know regular customers by name, and it’s just a very cool scene to be in on a nice summer’s day.

Amanda and her husband just purchased a home and they move in August 1st.  She is quite excited about it.  Brenda tasted our goat cheese for the first time and said we should rename it “OH MY GOD!”  Bob’s daughter is going into first grade next year and he’s one proud father.  Olivia is on vacation in Atlanta to see relatives.  An old friend of mine, someone I haven’t seen in 35 years, stopped by and spent some time with me at the market last week.  It was great to see him. Bev is doing what Bev does best, making people feel welcomed, making people feel as though they matter, and they all love her for it. Anthony’s daughter played music for four hours, non-stop, guitar and piano, just winging it song after song after song, a twenty-something young woman with the talent of five people.  The local fire crew stopped by and supported us; I gave them some free cheese in appreciation for the work they do.

And so it goes, week after week, new friends, old friends, people being people, laughing, supporting, interacting, one big extended happy family, just one small event in one small town in the United States, Tumwater, Washington, a dot on the roadmap of life, but oh, so important.

These are the people we novelists write about.  These are the people you non-fiction writers write to.

I can’t say this enough: writers need to interact with the public.  We are the storytellers of our generation, and the public is our audience and, quite often, the inspiration for our stories.

IT’S IN MY BLOOD

Not really, but I do come from farming stock, Iowa to be specific, corn farmers, hard-working people who believed in community and believed in the importance of local farms and buying locally.  I love the tradition and perhaps that is why I love the markets so much . . . but the other part is . . . I just like people.  Oh sure, they can drive me nuts from time to time, but generally speaking I do love them.  People are fascinating, and community is important, and I can’t imagine anywhere I would rather be on a summer afternoon than working our booth in Tumwater.

Who knows? Maybe a few of my customers will be characters in my next book.

I’ve rambled on long enough.  I think you get the point I’m making.  We writers do not live in a vacuum.  If you want your characters to come alive on the page, you will eventually have to meet an actual human being.

Get out there and mingle!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Get Ready for a Shock

27 Jun

My dad was into the DIY craze before it was a craze.  Most likely this was the end result from growing up during the Great Depression.  One learned, during that difficult time in our history, to take care of things on your own.  Carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, car repair, these were things my father knew nothing about, but he learned through dogged determination and need.

I remember, growing up, that we didn’t have the money for repairmen.  Dad worked hard . . . Mom worked hard . . . and all that hard work was for paying bills for necessities.  We rarely had extras . . . we rarely had disposable income . . . we weren’t poor but we certainly were not rolling in dough.

I remember one time in particular.  The upstairs bedroom lights wouldn’t turn on.  The switch worked fine, and there was no way my dad was going to call in an electrician to handle the job, so he tackled it on his own.  He took off the switch plate and started checking out wires to see if he could find the problem, and within thirty seconds he was knocked on his ass by an electrical shock.  I was there watching, and it was nothing less than frightening to see my 200 pound father knocked back from the wall, falling ass-over-teakettle.

He shook his head, rubbed his hands on his pants, stood up shakily and then resume working.  He eventually found the problem, spliced some wires, and we finally had lights again in that room.

I don’t mind telling you that incident scared the hell out of me, and to this day I won’t do electrical work, but a lesson was learned, and it is that lesson I pass on to you today.

Most of us writers do not have huge budgets for marketing.  Thank God for social media, or most of our work would never be heard of by the reading public.  The point being we have to just keep on keeping on.  We try marketing techniques, and if they don’t work we try other marketing techniques, and if those don’t work we keep trying.  We do not have the option to quit, and we do not have the resources to call in experts.

We keep on trying until we work it out!

What’s there to be afraid of?  The power is turned off on our particular job. There’s no chance we’ll get shocked!

Have a great week of writing, marketing, and living!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Work Smarter

20 Jun

Some of you may know that I love the game of baseball.  It has a sentimental value for me because it was the game my father taught me, a game he and I spent many hours playing together.  Some of my earliest memories are of me at four and five years of age, waiting for dad to come home from work, so we could play ball across the street from our home on an empty lot.  He would hit ground balls to me, and fly balls, and he would patiently teach me how to properly field them all.

As I got older he worked with me on pitching, how to properly release the ball, how to throw a curveball, and a knuckleball, and eventually I became good enough to pitch on my high school team, and then for the college team until my shoulder was injured my junior year and I had to stop playing.

I remember one game in particular, back when I was about thirteen.  I could throw pretty hard for a thirteen year old, and most teams I could handle simply by throwing the ball past the opposing batters.  They simply could not catch up with my fastball.

Until one day in July we played the second place team, a team with a lot of talented batters, and it took them about two innings to zero in on my fastball, to get their timing fixed on it, and suddenly every pitch I threw was being hammered for a hit.  One run, two runs, three runs . . . finally I got out of that inning after giving up four runs, and I was one frustrated baseball player when I got to the dugout to sit down and rest.  It seemed the harder I threw, the harder the other team hit the ball . . . really just a matter of physics, but I was in no mood to discuss physics when that inning ended.

I was getting a drink of water when my dad met me at the water cooler.  He asked me, with that grin on his face I remember so well, how my day was progressing.  I was almost in tears when I told him that no matter how hard I threw, the other team was just killing my fastball, and I didn’t know what to do.  Dad said just two words to me and then walked back to the stands and sat down next to my mother.  He said “throw smarter!”  I knew exactly what he meant.  If they were hitting my fastball then I needed to throw smarter and start throwing my curveball and knuckleball.

We won that game 5-4 and I didn’t give up a hit the last five innings, and a valuable lesson had been learned.

It is that lesson I pass on to you today.  Work smarter!  Make a priority list.  Realize that you may not be able to do everything you want to do as a writer.  Hell, you may have to drop some of your goals, and concentrate on the big goals, or you may have to seek help to fix a problem you can’t seem to fix . . . work smarter!

I hope you all have a fantastic week of writing . . . and living!  Remember how gifted you are.  Remember that probably one percent of the population can do what you do as well as you do it…one percent!

You are extraordinary!

Bill

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”