Although I don’t think James Scott Bell is the best writer in the game, he has written some of the best books on writing. Check out Plot and Structure, for example. A newer book, Writing Fiction For All You’re Worth, I haven’t yet read.
Interesting event featuring Stephen King at UMass Lowell. King even reads a new short story aloud!
How does one write? Where should one begin? This is often the most difficult part for writers and we are all familiar with the mocking empty page or that despicable blinking cursor. We rage, shake our fists, sob, drink, and slip into deep melancholia, but eventually we have to either set our dreams aside for something more realistic, what many fathers have described as “a real job,” or put aside all human emotion and write something, by God! That’s really all there is to it. You write by simply doing it.
Of course, it really isn’t that easy. Nothing ever is. There is still that monster lurking somewhere in a writer’s psyche, a loathsome beast eating up words and ideas before they even make it out of the womb, much less mature into usable material. Some call this writer’s block.
There are those out there who deny the existence of writer’s block. They say it is a scientifically impossible concept and is simply a product of overwork or exhaustion. Some even go so far as to judgmentally imply that writer’s block is nothing more than an excuse used by the less industrious writer in order to avoid doing any actual writing. One of these, Terry Pratchett, is credited with saying, “There is no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
There is no doubt that writer’s block has been over-romanticized, but I never fail to become irritable when I hear it summarily dismissed by some sniffling, self-satisfied snob. These characters are either lying or are extraordinarily fortunate. Either way I can’t help but fantasize about them individually falling down a well—an effective literary device made famous by Mark Twain.
It may well be that the problem lies in the definition of writer’s block. Jeffery Deaver, author of the Lincoln Rhyme series, said, “I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block.” With all due respect to Mr. Deaver, that is simply making a distinction where none is needed. That’s exactly what writer’s block is—a dearth of ideas. No one is arguing that writer’s block involves the writer being physically unable to press a key or grasp a pen. If nothing else, one can always write, “I have nothing to write,” a strategy that is often helpful to employ.
Chances are that you will experience writer’s block, whatever your definition of it may be, and need to deal with it. If you’re one of the lucky ones who never faces the problem, then allow me to be the first to congratulate you, but it still won’t hurt to be prepared just in case you become a mere mortal one day.
The most important thing to remember during a bout of writer’s block is to refuse it power over you. Sit down and write something, anything, even if it is as awful as the line “I have nothing to write.” It doesn’t always work out immediately, but it can have amazing effects. I once used this strategy with great success. I was suffering from writer’s block and couldn’t seem to break through. I tried every idea I could find on Google, sought the help of other writers, and made a pilgrimage to Narnia to seek a curing magic potion. (One these is a lie. I’ll let you guess which one.) Finally, I began writing “I have nothing to write” over and over on a blank piece of notepaper. After a few minutes I grew bored with myself and changed characters. The line changed to “Bob has nothing to write about.” Then it became “Bob has nothing to write about because he is illiterate.” At that point I felt a little spark of interest in Bob. Why was he illiterate? Was this the Middle Ages when illiteracy was the norm or in more contemporary times when illiteracy is actually quite rare outside of Idaho? Eventually I worked out that Bob was an illiterate man who, through wit and good luck, had somehow become president of a bank, but was now facing a dangerous situation in which basic reading skills were required. In short, his luck had run out. I ended up turning this idea into a horrible short story that I never bothered sending out for publication or admitted to writing (until now), but it broke the writer’s block and I was able to get back to work on my other projects.
If writer’s block is inevitable, then so is the end of writer’s block. Like a virus it will eventually run its course. Just keep writing, keep working, and remember that nothing can ever truly keep you from writing. Unless, of course, you die.
Rules mostly are goddamn nonsense, and not just the ones about writing. The rules of life are so often goddamn nonsense that I often wonder why I and everyone else don’t break them more often. I’m not even talking about the big ones, the obvious ones, like stomping on babies or stealing condoms out of a single mother’s purse—nothing quite so heinous. But what about those little rules of conduct, like having your money ready at the drive-thru window (something I rarely ever do) or returning your grocery cart to a cart corral (something other people rarely ever do)? There are thousands of these little societal rules that, if everyone stopped obeying them at the same time, would bring our culture to its knees. Of course, not everyone is going to stop obeying them. There will always be just enough conscientious people to make up for the complete societal uselessness of everyone else. Or, if that fails, corporate dollars will pay for the fix. Let’s use the grocery carts from a few sentences past as our example.
Nobody returns their grocery carts anymore, so stores employ cart gatherers, the much less heroic, modern version of a Western cowboy. These cartboys amble through the parking lots all day long and through all types of weather, spending their working hours cleaning up the mess left by the rest of us rule-breaking Neanderthals. It wasn’t always this way. It used to be the case that the grocery bagger, those pimply-faced adolescents of yesteryear, would not only bag your groceries, but take them out to your car, taking the cart back with them when they left. Then as money tightened, stores stopped offering this service and expected the customer to return the cart to the store themselves. This, of course, was ridiculous and stores quickly realized that not only was nobody returning the carts, but that customers were selling them to passing homeless people in return for half of their goods. It was a great deal for both the customer and the homeless person. Not only did the wandering indigent quadruple their capacity for transporting treasures of the road, but the customer received all the rotten banana peels and dead puppy carcasses they could ever desire. Then it was that the fun ended and we ended up where we are today, with people using the cart and then giving it a cursory shove in the general direction of a cart corral, which it misses entirely and instead scrapes along the previously pristine, gleaming flank of a custom painted, vintage Corvette. The world did not end; this is the point. Humanity struggled onward, not noticeably better or worse off than before.
Comedian Louis C.K. muses aloud about this topic in one of his more recent specials. He recounts how he had rented a car and was in the process of returning it at the airport when he realized he was about to miss his flight. As a result, he simply parked the car in front of the terminal and left it there with the keys still in it. Calling Enterprise, he explained the situation.
Incensed, the attendant sputtered into the phone, “You…you can’t do that!”
But he had done it and there wasn’t a fucking thing they could do about it. As Louis C.K. said, with that now-famous, self-deprecating half smile, “What were they going to do about it? They obviously wanted their car back.” And it occurred to him, Why don’t more people do this?
The point is a valid one. There really isn’t anything the company could do about it at that point, outside of charging a no-return fee, and if you’re in a position to afford the fee…then who the hell cares? This explains why so many rich people are assholes. They have now reached the point where they can afford the added expense of breaking the rules. If you can’t pay the fine, then don’t break the rule. As an aside, this may be the greatest argument in favor of societal classes. As long as there are classes of people who can’t afford the rule breakage fees, they will continue to obey them, thereby maintaining at least a certain level of order.
Rules in writing are much the same. There are writers who will obey the rules because they don’t believe they can afford not to. Some may be afraid the reader will think they don’t know the rules if they break them, so they fall into line for fear of being scorned by their audience. Others keep all of the rules because they have matured as a writer past the point of not knowing the rules, but not to the point of knowing when to break them. However, the writers who will truly break through and write those great books (and I’m not putting myself in their company, by the way) are the ones who have learned to understand but not give a shit. This lends an amazing level of freedom to the writing process. Rules about writing, while they can provide a basic structure, can just as easily shackle the writer and freeze their creativity. I am convinced that this is one of the major causes of writer’s block, an evil, reeking, oozing creature we will discuss in a later post.
One of the other issues with rules is that no one can agree on exactly what they are. There may be statements in this certain posts that contradict what the reader has read elsewhere, to which I say, “Fucking great!” My philosophy is not really about rules. This isn’t to say that I won’t write any imperative sentences, such as, “Don’t call your reader a moron,” but keep in mind that whenever I do so, there is a twinkle in my eye and a knowing smile on my smug little face, because I know what all writers should know: that rules are meant to be broken. This doesn’t mean that one should muck about and break all the rules willy-nilly, simply because one can. There is a revised and, I believe, more accurate and encompassing version of that rule about breaking rules that I alluded to earlier: “Learn the rules and then break them.” A well-broken rule can make a story come together and stand out from the pack.
The dusty little secret, kept as secure as nuclear codes by the stuffy writers of actual rule books, is that there are really not that many unbreakable rules in writing. In fact, the only one I can conjure as I’m typing this (there may be one or two others) is that something has to actually be written in order to be called writing. Something must appear on the page, electronic or otherwise. And a rule that is considered unbreakable now will likely be viewed differently in a decade or two when someone has the audacity to break it. It wasn’t too long ago that the previous sentence would have been attacked by an editor’s pen for beginning with a conjunction. Some still cling to that idea, although most have realized that the rule itself has no grammatical foundation and that a sentence, by definition, must only contain a subject and verb to be considered viable. We are also at the stage, achieved longer ago, where fragments are acceptable in creative prose as a method of creating pace and realism. Quotation marks, while still an excellent and strongly recommended method of indicating dialogue, are nowhere to be found in a surprising number of more recent books.
The point is, having arrived here through an ever-narrowing labyrinth, is that rules are just fine as guides—we could even think of them as compasses to be used when we lose our way—but should not be allowed to become dictators. Nothing spoils creativity faster than restraint and nothing imposes restraint more effectively than a heap of rusty rules. Don’t worry too much about what the “right” method is or what someone else demands you do. Robert Masello, an award-winning writer, says it nicely in his delightful book, Robert’s Rules of Writing: “…the only real secret is that everything works—for somebody. Finding out what works for you is all a matter of trial and error” (Rule 102). (Mr. Masello is so charming throughout his book that we’ll forgive him for putting the word “rules” in the title.) Pay your respects to the rules and give them room to work, but if they get in your way too much, don’t be afraid to show them who’s really in charge.
(“Rules” is an excerpt from a chapter in the upcoming book, An Affair with Words.)
Those who know me best understand that my first love is writing. That hasn’t been obvious over the last year or so, as I’ve pursued other projects. It’s been fantastic to have the opportunity to launch various endeavors I’d previously only dreamed about, including The Rusty Nail literary magazine and Sweatshoppe Publications. These projects are ongoing and consistently growing, but the time has come to more deeply engage in my own personal writing. This is one reason why I have begun giving my online presence a makeover, but there is further motivation.
Many of you who have followed this blog for the last couple of years know that, for about the space of a year, it was thoroughly engaged in the discussion of religion, fundamentalist Christianity in particular. This fascination, founded in my own upbringing, even spawned a book. Many posts and discussions, often heated, unfolded on this blog and on the Facebook page. As time went on, however, I began feeling an intense feeling of fatigue concerning the topic. I was changing as a person and the subject no longer excited or engaged me as it once did.
Lately, as I began to lay the groundwork for relaunching my own personal writing, I took stock of my various online outlets and was surprised at how completely they were saturated with religious and spiritual postings. Although the book and the state of the websites were a clear reflection of myself at that time, I could no longer identify with what I had written. In fact, some of the work seemed like it had been written by someone else entirely. There simply seemed no way to honestly present myself on those pages. Obviously, people change and evolve over time, but having taken almost a complete break for a good stretch of time, it seemed to approach the obscene to leave the blog as one person and show up as someone completely different. Add to this the fact that I have no real interest in discussing those old topics and you may be able to understand that I began to feel uncomfortable on my own blog.
I should make it clear that, to the chagrin of some people, I am not offering apology for those earlier writings. I still agree with a number of those posts, although I disagree with others. I have simply changed as an individual and, I feel, grown past that era in my life. It was an important time, but one that has run its course. This is not to say that I will never address it again, just that its time of dominance has long past.
With all this in mind, I decided that the best way to begin anew was to do just that. Many of the followers of the blog and old Facebook page were used to the old topics and some had joined precisely because of them…now they would be served up something entirely different. So the new Facebook page has been started from scratch. If you wish to say hi over there, please do! The blog will stay where it is, but the specific links to the religion posts have been taken down. They are currently available online through a search function, but I am considering removing them altogether.
I am jazzed to enter this new phase of my writing career and look forward to interacting with you all on this new journey. There are some exciting projects in the works, including a book of poetry, a non-fiction book on writing, and a novel (in the early stages). I look forward to bringing these to you over the coming months.
Thank you for being out there and remaining faithful friends and fans.
In the interest of full disclosure, I received two of the Recluse Draconian cigars from the Iconic Leaf Cigar Company for the sole purpose of reviewing.
The cigars did not come with specific measurements, as the actual release vitolas have not yet been announced. They were, however, very similar to a robusto in both length and ring gauge.
I smoked the first of these cigars a couple of weeks ago and today finished off the pair. Occasionally when one smokes two identical cigars, they will behave quite differently, making it difficult to write a truly objective review. This time, however, the two cigar were consistent with each other, so I feel no conflict.
The pre-light smell was pungent, being of a slightly sweet, barnyard nature. It isn’t often that I pair those two things–sweet and barnyard–but it fits here. It was quite pleasant, actually, avoiding the overwhelming manure scent that certain other cigars sometimes have. There are cigar reviewers who claim that the more a cigar smells like manure, the better it is going to taste. I have experienced some of these, but it isn’t a constant. Certainly not something on which to base your cigar purchasing choices.
The wrapper was a medium-dark brown, with a small amount of mottling, but nothing too unsightly. There were no visible imperfections in the way of tears, rips, or holes.
The cold draw was a little snug and delivered a robust chestnut or oak flavor, very natural and rustic. The construction was solid and the cigar balanced well in the palm of my hand. Tightly packed, it took me awhile to light, and I became a bit concerned about how the burn was going to progress.
Once I got the cigar lit and began drawing, the pre-light flavors shifted to a smooth coffee and nut. The interesting thing was that they weren’t two distinct flavors coexisting. Rather, they were operating as one–if coffee were made with nuts instead of beans, this is what it would taste like. (Granted, coffee “beans” are actually seeds, but let’s not get technical, eh?)
After about a quarter of an inch, I was forced to touch up the cigar, as the burn began going off the reservation. Then, about a half inch in, the ash became flaky and I had to tap it off to avoid getting it all over my pants.
The smoke was leaving a dry feeling in the back of my throat and an oily sensation on my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Describing it makes this sound horrid, but on the contrary it lent a nice lingering flavor. It also seemed to trap only the pleasant flavors, leaving behind none of the harshness that sometimes occurs with a long aftertaste. At this point the smoke also began giving off a nice chocolate scent.
The second third featured a bit of pepper. It wasn’t strong and didn’t leave behind any tingle or burn on the lips or tongue, but was there for about an inch or so and added a good extra dimension to the flavor profile. I did have to retouch the burn again and also tapped off another half inch or so of flaky ash. The draw, which up to this point had been snug, began opening up and the smoke output also increased. There were a couple of points, particularly during a quarter inch or so, when the cigar took on some harsh notes. This could have been due to having to retouch it a couple of times.
A wood flavor became foremost, crowding out the coffee and nut, delivering a nice hickory or oak with a smooth, smoky finish. In fact, the last half, and especially the last third, was my favorite part as the cigar really came into its own. For a brief time a not entirely awesome grassy flavor cropped up, but disappeared quickly.
This cigar was not quite as good as the Recluse Iconic OTG Toro, but is still a great addition to the line. This cigar would benefit from being smoked as slowly as it will allow. This is typically sound advice for any cigar, but especially important for a cigar with any harsh-burning tendencies. When this cigar smoked well, it was excellent. In my opinion, if this cigar had been just a bit less firmly rolled, any existing issues would disappear. The tight roll may have resulted in the slightly erratic burn, which led to the retouch, which may have led to the moments of harshness. I wouldn’t hesitate to try another of these cigars, however, and it was overall a great smoking experience.
Quotation marks and other types of punctuation are very pleasant by themselves, but put them together and they turn into little assholes. They simply don’t like each other. I’ve often struggled with combining quotation marks and other punctuation. The reason is because there is not a single standard in English for using these devilish things. In general, there seem to be two camps: the American and the British. As usual we are squabbling about something that, in the larger picture, probably doesn’t matter all that much.
There are some aspects that do not cause a problem. We can all agree that question marks and exclamation points are placed depending on the logic of the situation.
“We are being attacked!” is correct, not “We are being attacked”! The same holds true for the following examples: Did she say, “I don’t feel well”? and She asked, “Can I eat ice cream?” The marks remain faithful to the portion of the sentence to which they relate.
It gets trickier when we tackle periods and commas, however, as that is where the usage begins to diverge around the world. In America, the accepted usage is to put commas and periods inside the quotations marks and in England to place them in or out depending on a specific situation.
I love Robert Frost’s poem, “A Girl’s Garden.”
Robert Frost wrote, “A Girl’s Garden,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “Ghost House.”
I love Robert Frost’s poem, “A Girl’s Garden”.
Robert Frost wrote, “A Girl’s Garden”, “The Road Not Taken”, and “Ghost House”.
I’m going to just assume that in both cases the Oxford comma was used, because that’s not the topic and also because I love it.
Admittedly, the British usage is the more logical of the two. In fact, some people even refer to this standard as “logical punctuation.” After all, none of the above poem titles actually include a comma, yet one might reasonably assume so by reading the sentences.
However, if you check various respected sources here in the U.S., you will find that the majority of them support the American usage. These sources include, but are not limited to, The Elements of Style and the style formats AP, MLA, and Chicago.
Interestingly, you find the British usage more commonly used online. It constantly pops up on blogs, forums, and social media sites. Ben Yagoda, in a Slate article titled “The Rise of Logical Punctuation,” says this is because the British style “simply makes more sense.” He goes on to say that, as an English professor in the U.S. who therefore follows the American usage, he is constantly taking points away from students who can’t seem to break themselves of the habit.
So what is one to do? For myself, I have drifted nearer and nearer to the American usage, although I will admit to having been guilty of mixing the two styles. My decision was based on the following factors: