Friday, October 26, 2012

Invention Tip: So then . . . So What?

Design, décor, detail. These are my sedatives.

If I must endure a long wait without fascinating reading material close by, then I turn my mind to design, décor, and detail. If I am not immediately sleepy when my head finds its perfect nest on the pillow, then I turn my mind to design, décor, and detail. Quite often, I begin these mental delights with two words: So then . . . and add two more to set the scene:

So then, I cried. From there, I must invent. First, I define the type of crying. Am I sobbing? Is a single tear drifting down my cheek as a single drop of rain might make its way along the glass? Or are my eyes just now reddening and welling?

Next, I costume myself and invent a place. Am I in winter dress or something light and cool for summer? Are the clothes pressed and neat, or are they wrinkled and shabby?

Answering the two questions about dress usually gives me an idea about where I am in this invention so I place myself on the front porch of a well-lighted home, looking down the road at a pair of taillights. If it’s summer, I may lie upon a quilt beside a placid, dark lake. I hear the sound of a car engine fading in the distance.

Finally, I add the detail. What happened? What provoked the tears? How do the clothes and setting complement the tone, or do they clash? I explain how much have I lost and what I will do in the next moment and the next and the next.

This mental exercise serves me well in idle moments. When I'm actively working on a story, not sure what my next word will be, I settle my mind and ask So then. . . So what? I let my mind play with ideas, confident that one will draw me on more than others. I know I'll find a path when I ask So then . . .So what?

At other times, I’m just inventing from scratch. I can go anywhere and play with any emotion:

  • ·      So then, I laugh . . .
  • ·      So then, I shriek . . .
  • ·      So then, I walk . . .
  • ·      So then, I sit . . .
  • ·      So then, I . . . well, you have the idea, I’m sure.

So when your creative well runs dry, try So then . . . So what? When your mind wants to idle, try So then . . . So what? When troubles plague you and you wish to steady your mind, try So then . . . So what?

So then . . . So what? is as good as taking a walk, swimming laps, or meditating. So then . . . So what? allows your mind to explore and stretch. You’ll like what you discover, I promise.

Reading Challenge:

Read a quintessential novel about writer’s block. In this one, madness follows: Stephen King’s The Shining. Oh, and you’ll also find fiction suitable for Halloween, complex characters, paranormal intrigue, a brave little boy, and a mother who struggles to do what’s right and best for all.

Writing  Challenge:

Follow through with at least one So then . . . So what?  Write it.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to the Basics

Since we’re going back to the beginning with this and last week’s post, may I remind you about a text that grows sentences as well as sunlight grows flowers? Search for Virginia Tuffte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax and Style.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Back to the Beginning: Write Today, Tomorrow and Tomorrow

In nearly three years, 141 posts including today’s, I’ve offered insights into

·      resumés that float to the top among candidates,
·      persuasive cover letters for work and scholarship searches,
·      and other academic writing tasks, especially the dreaded and oft assigned researched analytical essay.

I’ve also reviewed many classic writing patterns that shape language into works of art; these patterns include

·      tropes such as metaphors and metonomy,
·      short, emphatic sentences, and
·      other syntactical choices made by professionals.

Many posts have been devoted to villains and heroes, two of many conventional characters. Archetypal themes and story lines from novels, short stories, and film have been examined for your enhanced understanding, all undertaken in keeping with the philosophy that the more you know, the more you understand, the more empowered you are as both a reader and a writer.

Using the Flipcard feature of Blogger (upper left, black bar, downward-pointing arrow will provide a list of formats), you can see the many titles and topics for My Writing and Editing Coach. You can also scroll using Timeslide. Either of these will help you navigate 141 posts; each will allow you to review the blog to see what it has to offer you.

For those of you with lots of time on your hands, you will find that the blog began as an online writing text--a workbook that you can use to begin and sustain a writing habit. Each post since the beginning has offered a Writing Challenge as well as one for reading and a GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics) review.

How many of you, I wonder, are writing? How many of you are parents who have made the students in your lives aware of this blog? It is a series of lessons by a teacher for students of all ages, and these lessons will smooth the rough edges of both high school and college English. They will also stand once formal education has been put aside in favor of lifelong learning. So, if you have not already done so . . .

Begin a writing habit today. Writing helps you remember and discover. It also clarifies your thinking as nothing else can or will. For example, last night, on the new CBS series, Elementary, Sherlock Holmes asked Watson to stop talking in favor of listening so that Sherlock could speak aloud his analyses. He said that talking helped him think and see more clearly. Writing does the same, but serves us better. A spoken story exists for the moment only; writing becomes a treasure trove that we can return to again and again.

Exercise your mind while making art. The act of writing begets more writing, and writing improves, especially if you spend some of your day reading and thereby internalizing the ways in which other people communicate most effectively to you. Writing, in other words, stimulates writing and so does reading.

Leave your legacy in deed and in words. Let those you care for know who you are, what moves you, what has challenged you. We may miss each other unless we take pains to reveal ourselves for ourselves and those who care about us.

So if have come late to this blog, remember its overarching purpose: to inspire you and guide you to write. Join me in writing. It is one of life’s greatest joys.

Reading Challenge:

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

Find other quotations about writing by writers at editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/72-of-the-best-quotes-about-writing.

Writing Challenge:

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King, WD (WD = Writer’s Digest, a print and online publication referenced above)

Can you be ruthless? Ruthlessness is essential to the writing process.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
—Elmore Leonard

Of course, writers know and master grammar as well as correct usage and mechanics. They use their mastery when preparing synopses, corresponding with editors and publishers, and for academic writing. But as Elmore Leonard observes, being too proper may not serve the story so tell your story beautifully and truly.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Beowulf and Katniss: Two Heroes Only a Millenia Apart

As a teacher of students from ages fifteen to seventy, I enjoyed sharing old, stodgy works featuring heroes such as Beowulf because his biography in verse celebrates timeless human ideals including courage and sacrifice, ideals that continue to inspire readers of all ages. In fact, those are the ideals that make Katniss Everdeen a hero for the modern age.

Equally important, Beowulf and Katniss experience moments of doubt, fear, and sorrow, and when they do, story-tellers knock them off their high idealistic pedestal right down into the dust and ash where the rest of us reside. It is their humanity that inspires us to love them because in their humanity, we see ourselves: imperfect but striving for excellence in almost all we do.

In fact, that’s classic Aristotlean heroics. A great figure, suitable for the high art of tragedy, must pursue excellence, only to be brought low by his own hamartia: hoisted with his own petard (Hamlet), so to speak. Oedipus, for example, Aristotle's paradigm, tried to save his parents whom he knew to be Polybus and Merope. He ran as far from them as he could go after the Oracle at Delphi revealed the destiny that lay before him. Later, he worked as aggressively to save his city, Thebes, from the gods’ curses and issued a dire edict, ignorant of the truth about himself.

Oedipus’s good intentions cannot save him from the gods' wrath or man's judgment. Oedipus allows his ego to suffocate his better self and lead him into a series of mistakes following the first flight from Corinth. Worse, his failure to be humble forced a horrible lesson in humility upon him. He brought about his own suffering--as most of us do, and that makes his story achingly familiar.

Beowulf pursues excellence, too. He wishes to test and prove his own bravery by serving Hrothgar’s nation in its time of need, and like Oedipus, Beowulf’s actions will determine the fate of a people, the Danes, framing his story lives as an epic.

Beowulf also suffers a painful lesson in humility. As a young man, full of vigor and bravado, he kills two monsters, earning both acclaim and gold. In time, he becomes king in his homeland and oversees a long era of peace and prosperity during which his warriors grow so soft that they run away from a fight, even when the only man standing is their king, frail and alone, armed with helmet, shield and sword against a fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf loses that last fight and dies with the knowledge that his high ideals no longer thrive in the hearts of younger men. The high ideals he held so dear have not endured under his leadership.

One thousand years later, Katniss also chooses to fight for others. She takes her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, knowing the contest may kill her, but if she succeeds, she will not only save her sister, but she will lift up her community, making their lives measurably better. Indeed, the fate of her home rests upon her shoulders, and as it turns out, the fate of her entire dystopian world depends upon her success.

Katniss is less eager to take life than is Beowulf, but Katniss faces mere mortals rather than the Spawn of Cain and a dragon. She must kill her own in order to triumph, and we admire her when murder, whether murder that is licensed and State-sanctioned, gives her pause. We know then that Katniss, in other circumstances, would pursue excellence in all things, never taking life except to hunt so that her family and her community might survive.

Still, Katniss falls to the lowly ash and dust as does Beowulf. She can be blind to her own flaws. She can be quick to judge others, doubting their integrity and motives. She also suffers from insufferable pride occasionally. She must learn to be humble and always generous before she returns to the pedestal of heroes.

Beowulf’s story, originating about a millennia ago, is a saga alive and well in this post-modern literary era. Katniss Everdeen is but one proof. Both appeal to readers because each one tells a timeless tale of men and women who strive to rise and dwell among the angels in spite of the very human frailties that drag them back to rest upon earth.

Reading Challenge:

Read or reread Beowulf (available online at 16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm) or translated beautifully by Seamus Heaney. You may also wish to consider King Arthur and Sir Gawain as tarnished stars of the old world. Who from the modern canon would compare to those knights?

Writing Challenge:

Compare another modern or post-modern story to Beowulf’s. Some possibilities include one of Marvel’s heroes or Harry Potter’s epic journey.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics

As I post this, I am aware that many students are now enjoying Fall Break, or is it Fall break or even fall break?

According to the excellent resource available online from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (, a GUM resource that everyone should know and use:

·      Do not capitalize the seasons; e. g., This spring I hope to visit the zoo unless
·      The seasons are part of a title; e. g., Fall Break or the 2013 Spring semester.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Horror Fiction Confronts the Unknown and Unknowable

Gordie Lachance is the protagonist of The Body, a novella included in a 1982 Stephen King collection titled Different Seasons. In 1986, Gordie’s story became more widely known through the film, Stand By Me. Both book and film are coming-of-age tales (four posts from December 2011 explain and illustrate coming-of-age stories), and both book and film fit nicely under the sub-genre-heading, Horror Fiction because both explore the relentless “… human need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall” (Douglas Winter, defining horror fiction in Prime Evil).

Gordie is not quite thirteen, the only surviving son after the death of his older brother, Dennis. In the grip of grief, Gordie’s parents have little to offer each other and nothing for the awkward, bookish boy left behind, an orphan yet living with his parents. Gordie endures with the help of three school mates, each from dysfunctional families. Together, the four friends embark upon one last great adventure before school begins. They set out to see the body of a boy about their age, a quest that tests their courage and friendship and resolve.

Their journey is much more than a long walk to witness death. The boys, especially Gordie, need to confront Death, a terrible unknown--even to those who have lost someone to death because, as Hamlet observes, death is the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns (3. 1. 87-88). We have no first-hand accounts, no eye-witness news. We have only our faith and our imaginations to guide us. Thus, we search the expressions of the dead for hints. We place death on a map to the underworld or the heavens above. We make sacrifices to death in ritualized farewells.

We even re-enact death in its most graphic, horrifying shapes, fulfilling a morbid curiosity, and we portray death as an ultimate act of courage, a noble and poignant conclusion to a purpose fulfilled. These moments on stage and screen, unfolding on the pages of great and pulp fiction, allow us to rehearse for the moment when we will be in Death’s thrall. Until then, we can try on emotions. We can rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas), or we can surrender to it as lightly as a reed bends to the waters by which it grows (Emily Dickinson).

Gordie and Chris do a bit of both. They humbly and sorrowfully bear witness to the dead boy until Chris’s rotten older brother and his pals intrude. Then, Gordie and Chris put on the cloak of rage, finding the courage to declare their friendship and defy interlopers while laying claim to a dead boy they didn’t even know. Soon, however, their fierce loyalty to a dead boy fades, and they surrender him, as all of us must, to some larger mystery, that undiscovered country, the one to which we are all inexorably drawn.

The Body tells the story of a quest to know, understand, and prevail in spite of our finite existence. It recreates the journey of mere boys who reveal “… our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall" (Douglas Winter in Prime Evil). Their journey is the journey of horror fiction.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Body, a novella in Stephen King’s Different Seasons, a collection that also includes Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Breathing Lessons. I recommend each of the novellas representing Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.

Writing Challenge:

Reflect upon the words written for Gordie Lachance by Stephen King:

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.”

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics, Affect and Effect

Students often ask which spelling is correct for the context, affect beginning with an a or effect beginning with an e? These two words are two that many people just can’t keep straight.

One important point to remember is that affect is a verb, and it means to influence or shape. For example:

Change-agents, also known as community organizers, strive to affect community outcomes and prosperity.

Effect, on the other hand, can function as a noun or a verb in sentences. For the noun, effect, result is a synonym; as a verb, effect means to cause. For example:

The net effect (noun) of dark skies and heavy rain is an increase in depressed states of mind among vulnerable segments of the population, notably those suffering from SAD.

Consecutive days of dark clouds and rain effect the levels of sorrow in a population, especially those afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).