What Shouldn't I Say?

A lot has been said about Hemingway’s sparse text, and whether it would -- or wouldn’t -- be as successful in today’s market. In my own experience, I read A FAREWELL TO ARMS in high school, and was struck by the poignant imagery of certain scenes, and how those characters -- so real -- lingered in my memory long after it was finished. They still do. Later on, it was THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, which I picked up on my own out of a love for old men and the sea.

Once again, characters sprang to life in that same familiar way (what makes something familiar?) and I marveled how he managed to make such a simple man so full of dignity. Years later, I got down to business as a writer and began picking apart even his short stories to search out the how’s and why’s of his craft. I had to. Because he had captivated me. How could he do that?

I don’t love his stories (most of them make me sad). I am even directly opposed to his “Todo de nada” philosophy -- everything is not worthless! -- and have spent most of my life reveling in how wonderful it all is. But he had something. He had something that people all over the world (including people like me who don’t even agree with him) relate to in some way. The basic needs of humanity, maybe, which will always hit the deepest no matter who you are, or what you do with your life. The need to be loved. The need to be respected. The need to be recognized. Deep, deep needs. Everybody has them. They must be met in some way at some point in life, or a person ends up warped in some way. Hmmm... so, he deals with the stuff that we don’t really want to look at.

Yes, but not really. Because he never came right out to say, for instance, “this man was never loved by anyone in his life...” but you knew it by the man’s actions. A constant need to please, maybe, or making himself a pest around people he admired. Something in the deepest part -- of all of us -- recognizes little things like that. It is not pleasant, but we know. Hemingway does not pass judgments on us for knowing, or meddle with our thoughts about it, either. He just gets on with the story. The “here is how it happened,” and “this is the way it was,” part. Which is all that really matters when you are into a story. Because even if you are not that man, you know someone just like him, so the connection is made.

Maybe Hemingway’s success lies in the knowledge that all people are human. So, he doesn’t put any of that into words. He just goes on with the story. Meanwhile, picking and choosing each action of his characters with a meticulousness that often drove others crazy. An obsessiveness that sloshed over into other areas of his life and made him a difficult man to live with. But he had an amazing grasp of something he was was exceptionally good at. The kind that can only be got by obsessive means. Like golfers who hit balls till their hands are bloody, he learned what he had to leave out.

He knew what NOT to say. And that meticulous choosing of exactly what not to say, spoke louder to us than his words. He even went so far as to remove any of his own words that might muddy up the waters of each reflecting pool he created. For his part, he just whispers, “Come here. Bend down. I want to show you something.” Who can resist that? On the other hand, if he would have offered, “Want to see a true-to-life picture of yourself?” The majority of us would have replied, “Thanks, but no. I have to live with myself every day, and I so don’t need to be reminded.”

So, I am thinking about these things, and have been thinking about them for a long time. Until one day -- hard at work on a rewrite -- the thought suddenly occurs to me, “What shouldn’t I say?” To which another voice chimes up from some other part of my psyche and replies, “Who do you think you are? Hemingway? He’s wine and you’re water. Do you want to get this thing done, or not?” But it’s too late, I am hooked by the idea, now, and I am going to think some more about this.

Then it strikes me -- after years of effort at learning how to put words down -- am I going to fly off to this new mountain and waste who knows how much time trying to figure out how NOT to put them there? Just the thought of that makes me ill. And while I am teetering, the advocate voice pipes up, again, to warn, “It’s just a distraction. This is your best work and you know it. It’s hard enough to get things down the way people want these days -- don’t sabotage yourself!”

“I never wanted to read Hemingway.” I may even have said that out loud. “He... captivated me.”

“Horrible man! Look how you came away afterward. Sad, sad, sad!”

But all of a sudden, I have to know. Am I onto a good thing, or a bad thing, here? Well, we shall just see about that! I don’t live in the Information Age for nothing. So, I minimize my work-in-progress (along with my voices) and hop onto the Internet to Google up a definition for the word captivate. Of course, I know what it means (I’ve used it enough times), but I have a hunch it may have one of those hidden poison meanings, too. Like the words assertive, or sophisticated. And if it does, I will toss it out and be done with this utterly disturbing, recurring mind-conversation, once and for all...

“Captivate: to attract and hold by charm, beauty, or excellence..”

Well, for goodness sake, of course I want to do that -- what writer wouldn’t? But the size of that mountain looks almost more daunting than the last one I climbed. Now, I feel like something of a deflated balloon, and I start to wonder if maybe I could be satisfied with just a little bit of charm, beauty, and excellence...

Oh, bosh! Satisfied? I’d be satisfied about as much as I am with a little coffee, or a little help, or even a little warm in my bathtub. I’d rather not have any, if a little was all I could get. And I’m thinking most people might feel the same way.

So, now I have to decide. Cold or hot, once and for all, either decide to do this thing or I never want to think about it, again. Enough! Enough for now, anyway. At which point -- almost out of reflex -- my finger clicks onto a new editing blog I’ve just found. Let’s quit with all this ethereal stuff and return to concrete, shall we? Isn’t that most of what rewriting a manuscript is? Let’s get down to business, here -- I’ve got a big job to do, and a bunch more waiting in line.

But then I read these words:

Drilling down to the essential ingredients

Choosing what not to say is the art of storytelling. Less is always better, and it’s actually fun to choose among all that’s happened to create a unique and insightful way of seeing things. Leave out everything you possibly can.”

Alan Rinzler

Can you believe that? Thank you, Alan. You have no idea how I needed that just now. Thank you. So, here I am sitting back where I started, this morning, with my nose in my rewrite, wondering, all right. All right! “What shouldn’t I say?”


10 Reasons I Know It’s Time...

I know it’s time to get back to work, again. I know because:

1. All the comments I have left on other people’s blogs for the last month have been embarrassingly long. Sometimes even off subject.

2. Too much indulgence in my daily routine has given me “I” problems.

3. I have begun to make mountains out of molehills. Who cares how I finally came to memorize that i equals the square root of minus one, when you don’t even need that kind of equation to balance a checkbook these days? Good grief, where have I been? We don’t even need checkbooks anymore.

4. The last three books I read for pleasure didn’t give me any pleasure.

5. I burst into a crying jag in the middle of a crowded theater during a movie that was supposed to be a comedy. It lasted all the way through the mall and back out to the parking lot, until my husband was so concerned he asked me if it would help to go to Paris.

6. I didn’t take him up on it.

7. I began spending hours at a time reading through titles over at the site looking for... I don’t know what I was looking for.

8. I used up an entire day reading a nineteenth century beauty manual, complete with recipes for potions that included ingredients which are not only unavailable today, they are illegal.

9. I became overly excited that an accidental war correspondent for the seige of Mafeking was a woman related to Churchill.

10. I’m still excited about that.


A Mile In Their Shoes...

In my quest to discover what makes bestselling writers consistently bestselling, one of the most universal skills I came across was their ability to grab the ordinary person with an opening scene that included the use of some ordinary impulse that everyone has expierenced. It didn't seem to matter what, as long as it was a common reaction that we all have. This proved true no matter what type of writing it was attached to. Here are a couple that pop immediately to mind:

  • It is five pm. A woman discovers that the package from the freezer she set out earlier in the day is not the chicken she expected, but the entire month's worth of lunchmeat she bought on sale and divided up only two days before. ("Crap!" response)
  • At night in an airplane. Three special ops soldiers decide to smoke only minutes before they must jump out of the plane. After lighting his cigarette, the man with the match shares it with one of the others but not with the third. Because three on the same match is unlucky. ("No crap!" response)
  • It is dusk, at a lonely gas station out in the middle of the desert. While a man is waiting for his gas tank to fill, he notices a lone car headed in his direction, driving erratically. ("Holy crap!" response)

These three incidents really didn't have all that much to do with the rest of the story. However, they were riviting in their few moments. Each caused me to say, "I must read a little more of this," even though -- in all three cases -- that particular catagory of literature was not my preferred reading fare. Somewhere along the line, each of these books either went past my "willing suspension of disbelief" or detoured into places I don't particularly enjoy travel

ing. But I still read the books.

Why? I really don't know. I could only conclude that these authors are masters at choosing the perfect hooks for their intended audiencces. Once hooked, we readers seem to willingly allow them to introduce us to all manner of information that is outside of our expierience, whether strange, wacky, or even bizzarre. Sometimes (at the end) I have asked myself why I wasted so much time reading such things. Then they come out with another book, and I say to myself, "Surely, they couldn't do it, again." And -- believe it, or not -- I actually go through the process all over.

You would think -- as a writer -- I could figure this out if I put my mind to it. But, alas! Even copying their oh-so-obvious-formula doesn't work for me. I can only conclude that to make so much tripe so palatable to so many people only proves one thing... they are professionals extraordinaire, and my hat is off to them. Which leads me to do some moral soul-searching. Would I do the same things if I were in their shoes?

What -- are you kidding? The only thing stopping me is I don't know how to get a pair.


The Reality of Dreams...

    So, back to our "dream studies" as they relate to the fiction craft. The question is, "What makes a dream memorable?" Because I am chasing down a hunch, here, that the words dream and book may be interchangeable. If so, we could be onto something exciting, but it is still too soon to tell. Let's start with a closer look at realities...

    The most common phrase when one is relating a memorable dream to someone else is, "It was so real!" By this they usually mean that the physical perceptions were so vivid that they actually physically responded to them. Was it something scary? They may have woke up trembling. Was it something happy? They got up feeling good all over. Or maybe they saw someone or something so clearly that they could only exclaim, "Why, I would recognize them, again, anywhere!" And they could.

    What is it about certain dreams that fire up all our senses to such an extent that they cause our brain to register on the same level as an actual experience? Whatever it is, the discovery of such a key might be something of an "Aladin's lamp" to the gateway of great literature. But like that famous mystical lamp, it isn't so easy to get into your possession. A lot has been written about the importance of sensory detail in fiction. But how many of us readers have been so bogged down by boring descriptions that we find ourselves skipping over those parts? It can't just be in the details.

    It' must be in the choice of details.

    In order to make the right choice, though, there would have to be some sort of criteria to sort through to help us decide. For choices in the fiction profession there are certain skills involved. Same as any other profession. For instance, one would not use a putting iron for a long drive in the game of golf, no matter how comfortable they felt with it. Simply because it would be the wrong tool for the job. The wrong choice under those circumstances. And one cannot choose the most suitable tool for a given situation until they know exactly what they are aiming to do with it. Only then can they figure out what they need to do it successfully.

    Oh, but this is a can of worms we've opened up, simply because of all the variables. If our Aladin is approaching the den of thieves, do we describe the little half-moons of sweat beginning to show beneath the sleeves of his shirt after such a long trek over hot desert? Or should we say, instead, how suddenly the hair on the back of his neck prickled up to alert him that someone else was watching? Well, hmmm... is it a comedy or suspense? Who would even notice the half-moons unless he had some princess tagging along? Certainly, none of the thieves.

    Even we writers can be tripped up over such details, because a good writer can write it well either way. Take it one step further and you can flit back and forth. But (unless you are a genius) that usually only spells disaster. Not so much to publishers. They will be happy as long as you meet their deadlines and maintain your audience. But to the readers, themselves.

     Of course, the loyal ones won't notice it right away. They will simply become more distracted over a period of time, only to end up vulnerable to some other author who has been paying more attention to his skills. One who knows without taking regular surveys whether he is better at comedy, or suspense, and makes his choices accordingly.

    A writer cannot pick the best details to connect any given project with the reading world until he knows what his own particular element is. Because that is where his skill levels will be highest. That is where the endurance needed to go the distance will not abandon him halfway through. One must at least know themselves well enough to recognize whether the material has been tampered with by muses or demons overnight. A demanding skill that takes a lot of practice to become adept at.

   You have to understand the reality of your dreams.

What's happening on the farm today: Our travels are going to be hard on the Peabody family, as none of the caretakers really like them. It is because of their pea-sized brains. Little brains that are incapable of being able to distinguish a friend from a foe. So, they only run at shadows. The trouble is, everything and everybody has a shadow. Especially caretakers!

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Remembering Dreams...

    Most dreams are forgotten so soon upon waking that only a mere few seconds of emotion are left behind. In less than a minute, the routines of real life click in and they are lost entirely. But some aren't.

    Some dreams -- whether good ones or bad ones -- refuse to let go of us. When this happens, we feel pressed to find someone to tell it to, as if the telling of it is the only way to be released from its mysterious grip. Normally, that's all it takes for it to be lost forever, and we are glad of that because most often these dreams are interlaced with a patchwork of silliness and illogic made up of our most recent concerns. But some aren't.

    There are certain times in our lives -- maybe only a few -- when we dream a dream so vivid that we never forget it. Months or even years later the memory of it pops into our conscious minds, unexpected, and brings with it all the clarity and intense emotion of that first original experience. Some of them are delicious, and we cherish those. But most of them are nightmares. The unpleasantness of this kind cause us to banish them immediately from our minds at the mere flicker of an appearance, until a battle ensues. It is a long battle. If we win it, it is only through a great effort of our own conscious will. If we lose, we are plagued with something called a reoccurring nightmare. Dark repetitive dreams that spring from our deepest fears.

    Except for children (who have an amazing capacity to outgrow their fears), we tend to eventually accept this thing as part of our lives and find some way to live with it. Mostly in private. Because somehow our soul now perceives it as some kind of weakness. The kind one only reveals to their closest and most trusted friends.

    It occurs to me that books are made this way, too.

    Most of them come and go like dreams. A few catch your interest but it is only a fleeting interest, and once out of sight you never think about them, again. But some you do. If this happens, we respond the same way we do with our dreams -- we must tell someone. Whether a person likes or dislikes a book they must tell someone. Because it is the most basic part of human nature to express our emotions. So, it seems that any book which causes readers to feel something (either good or bad) is a successful book. Yet, even most of these do not last.

    Of all the books ever written -- too many to count, because even the most famous writer of several thousand years ago (whose books are still selling, by the way), observed that "of the writing of books there is no end" -- only a comparative few are good enough to outlive their creators. And only a subsequent few of these become great.

    What, then, are the ingredients of great books?

    I have a feeling the answer lies somewhere back at the beginning, where that human connection takes place. The deeper, more universal one that causes people to express (or define) themselves before they can forget it. Almost like a law of physics, it seems to me that if you achieve a connection, you will automatically illicit a response. That might be the starting place.

    Because only when there is "current" is there any capacity for power. So it is, that if writers fail to "throw the switch" for this current to flow through, their work is doomed no matter how brilliant or painstaking the design. Without this conduit there is no energy running through the thing. No connection. And therefore, no capacity for power.

    Great books have the power to define people. But in order to have power, one must first have a sustainable energy. And if (as true science teaches us) all life is made up of energy, there must be a way to infuse such a substance into books. I know this, because this kind of substance can be found in all great books. This being so, the quest then becomes how a writer goes about capturing this "power of life" for their own creations.

    A very exciting subject. And I think maybe the secret might turn out to be a blindingly simple one. Something tells me it might even be something as simple as...

    Remembering dreams.

What's happening on the farm today: The dairy is shut down for the next month, and we shall see if it is possible to revive it again in summer, or if we shall have to wait for another spring. Current general opinion tells me this year is lost. But I find little patience in anything current, so, I wonder. Then again, it is in my personality not to give up on anything. A trait that sometimes brings me grief.

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Blog Party...

I have decided to celebrate. 

"I suppose we should, considering just having you show up around here has become something of an occasion."

Yes, but I notice none of you have been sitting around twiddling thumbs, which is as it should be. What else are muses for, if not to dream up inspirations for me to contemplate? I never leave you without jobs to do, and I see you've all been more than busy in my absence. Lilly particularly. Bit bold of you launching your own blog, Lilly -- what if someone actually reads it?

"My book is finished and we're launching, even if I have to hire a band of Madagascar Pirates to help me."

I believe it is my book, and a band of pirates wouldn't be any help at all. That's what we have professionals for. I suggest you leave it in the hands of the professionals and get on with your next project. Where did we leave off with that one? Oh, yes... the husband isn't away on business after all, he's really off doing murder...

"A bit too dark for my liking, and I'm not that fond of the hero. He's always showing up with sand on his feet. Or tinkering with something. Nothing but a beach bum most of the time."

Only because his hero-moment hasn't arrived, yet. Those moments can change a person, you know. I'm fascinated by how much we are shaped by our emotional moments. Still, you might have a point about him not being appealing enough. Keep working on it. There has to be something magnetic about him somewhere. He's hero material, I'm sure of it. Farther back in his past, maybe... something he did once that might give us a clue...

And in the meantime, quit enticing the Professor away from his work to help you with yours. I'm about ready for the second installment of the Young Scientifics, and I'll need that invention he's working on. 

"It could be coming along much faster, my dear, if you would do something with all these kids. They're making  havoc of my laboratory. And what's this blasted pulley system these two new rascals are tinkering with? The other day, they were hauling explosives up and down with it."

Only because I'm coming up to the finish line with them and things are on a roll. But don't worry, Professor, they've turned into young knights, now. You can at least trust them to fix whatever they break. Which is more than a lot of young people can guarantee these days. I'm about ready to send them over to Ann for some necessary clean-up, anyway. Sometime in June.

"You're scheduled to be traveling in June."

Yes, which is why we're celebrating. It's finally time to get ready for Cousin Summers. The rest of our projects are on schedule and you've all done a splendid job of keeping a warm fire burning in the study all this time.  And don't think I haven't noticed the web sites, Lilly. They do inspire me. Just remember to let me know if anyone real happens by, or we'll all lose our credibility. What's this, Ann -- treats?

"You said it was a party."

And so it is.

What's happening on the farm today: Working hard at the dairy. We are up to having enough milk for the day, and looking forward to yogurt and cheese. Pops is busy getting everything automated for while we are away, so that caretaker labor can be minimal. Meanwhile, the Peabody family continues to contribute over a dozen eggs a day. Every day! Which now pays the feed bill for our other stock , too. Ah... finally, the dream begins to become reality.


How to write what you know...

There's a lot to be said about writing what you know. Next to "show don't tell" it is probably one of the most often-quoted lines of advice in publishing. It is also most often assumed to mean sticking to your particular fields of expertise, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Here's three things I discovered after shipwrecking on what was lying beneath the surface of that definition...

1.  Know myself and the way I work as a writer before I start comparing myself with others. Especially when it comes to how I get and assimilate ideas, and how much I can comfortably accomplish in a day.

2.  Learn my own language. Can I tell when (and if) an idea is ready to be written down? Do I trust a first draft to reveal things to me because I know I can fix any inconsistencies on the edits? Do I know when I'm not stumped, I'm just tired?

3.  Stay true to my characters and their world before I resort to techniques. No matter how current or sure-fire I think they may be. They are only surface cosmetics, anyway, with the same result as taking out one's dentures at night. I must remember that even a glimpse behind the curtain deflates the magic.

No one can know these things but me. If I neglect to discover them for myself, I will have to resort to either constantly sounding the depths of the publishing world (which ultimately distracts me from my own forward progress), or piling up on the rocks, altogether. A writer travels through dangerous waters, over unseen hazards and frequent fogs. Sometimes even through hurricanes. I must not forget that any readers who agree to travel with me are trusting me to get them somewhere. I am responsible for them if I want to keep them.

So, I first have to know where I'm going, if I can actually get them there, and -- most importantly -- if they will have a satisfying enough experience to want to travel with me, again. I have to know myself very well in order to do this. Because if my journey is to be real enough to spring to life in such a way that it can also become someone else's adventure...

Then I can only write what I absolutely know.

What's happening on the farm today: Spring fever and waiting for goat babies. Bella's twins, Bonnie and Brie, have arrived. But we are still looking forward to see who Nan will surprise us with. Happy, happy times!

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An e-book is not a treasure...

They cannot be copied or bought at a bargain. They cannot be wrapped up beautifully and thoughtfully given away as gifts on special occasions. When you finish reading an e-book, you can not share it like a meaningful photograph that can be framed and set up and looked at in your home. Even if the cover is beautiful and included -- alas -- the machine needed for its viewing must be shut off and recharged. An e-book cannot catch your eye on a shelf years later, so that you pick it up and enjoy it all over, again. Nor can it be left out for someone else to notice and say, "What's this? Was it good?" and then lent. Some e-books even disappear after a certain period of time... I don't know where they go. Thus, an e-book is an isolated experience for one person, alone, and while they may add to your general knowledge, you cannot really "own" one in the traditional sense of the word.

In the beginning, e-books were a boon because they allowed wide and immediate distribution of information and some fine literature for pennies on the dollar, as long as you didn't mind losing some of the versatility and longevity of a traditionally printed book. This form of media even paved the way for a massive database of rare and otherwise lost volumes and manuscripts that -- without the labor of love from a worldwide force of volunteers known as the Gutenberg Organization -- would never have been accessible to the common public. All for free. These last few years are the first in history where any child with a computer can thumb through the original Da Vinci notebooks to get an idea for a school science project. That in itself is priceless. Of course I like e-books. I like them in the same way that I like the future.

But I do not love them.

Not the way I can love a physically bound and traditionally printed book. Accessibility of knowledge aside, I love print books mostly because of the human connection. They are touchstones to other lives. They are vehicles for time-travel to other centuries in places that no longer exist anymore. They are windows into moments of emotion that have come and gone for someone, detailed so poignantly that those same emotions register on your own heart, impossible miles and too many years away to reach all by yourself. 

One of my most prized possessions is a half-century old copy of an autobiography of WWII hero, Eddie Rickenbaker. Not so much for what the pages contain (although they moved me deeply), as for the author's signature inside. The thought of that book resting beneath the hands of that man -- one of my own heart's heroes -- surviving and then finding its way to me so many years later, encourages me. It incites my soul to better things. It taps me on the shoulder of my innermost being as I stand in a crowd of hundreds pouring over thousands of ravaged, discarded books, and says, "Look -- it's me -- I'm still here."

Print books have great capacity for human connections beyond their author's original intent. Some of them have attained "baraka," as an ancient culture once described items that had gained a life of their own from having been used by many others. I like that I can pick up a used textbook and find the previous owner has already highlighted all the important parts. I like that the spots and spills on certain pages of my grandmother's cookbook came from real moments in her life because she is no longer here, and I miss her. Once, I even thought I smelled cinnamon. My own father is nearing the century mark and no longer possesses the mental agility and quick wit of his earlier days. But in reading over a volume in his personal collection of Churchill writings he wanted me to have, there were a few scribbled comments from some of his own brilliant moments... and I am reminded. 

Some of my print books come from places I will never visit but they miraculously take me to them. Some I love because I so love the people who gave them to me. Some I love so much that I must give them away because there is life and hope in them: the usable kind that someone I care for needs desperately today. Sometimes (and for reasons unknown to me) I am driven to share my most special treasures. I can honestly say these treasures are more valuable than money to me. I like it that they are all mine to collect and save and do with as I please. They allow me to surround myself with the accomplishments of others here in my study as I work away year after year at trying to accomplish something of my own. I take invaluable pleasure from them. They give me strength. They encourage me. They connect me. And sometimes if I listen hard enough...

I can hear heroes.

What's happening on the farm today... snow on the ground, overcast skies, and the goats only venturing so far as to stick their heads out of their cozy barn and say, "Whaaat? It's no time to be having kids no matter how far we are overdue. Bah! Bah! Bah!"