Never Say Goodbye

Characters on TV and Movies don’t say ‘Goodbye’. Not over the phone or face-to-face. I began noticing this a few years back and every time it happens it becomes more pronounced to me. At first I thought it was some subliminal message like salespeople use – they never use the word ‘no’- as in:

“Do these wheels come in gold rims?”

“Hey now that would be great, wouldn’t it?

Never say ‘no’, ‘can’t’, or anything negative, they turn it around. Get the customer to say yes instead.

So I thought screenwriters were purposefully keeping ‘goodbye’ out of the scripts to keep the viewers from subconsciously turning the channel. As if hearing the word ‘goodbye’ gives them permission to look away. Turns out I was half right.

Screenwriters don’t use the word goodbye on purpose. It is considered a ‘filler’ word, not worth speaking on film, not worth the time it takes to utter the syllable. But they still show the character hanging up because the screenwriter keeps that bit of filler in.

The problem with that is this practice is becoming more noticeable. When things like that become noticeable, it takes the viewer out of the story. As writers of fiction our job is to keep the reader in the story.

What readers don’t notice are dialogue tags like ‘he said’, ‘she asked.’ The eye breezes past them, the story flows along. Putting tags like ‘they negotiated’ or ‘she objected’ gets more notice and can become a speed bump on the eyes but so long as the story flows, it’s acceptable. When the tags get silly: ‘he hissed’, ‘she shrieked’, that’s when the eyes stop, the brain goes ‘huh?’ and you lose the reader.

I’ve spent most of my writing life avoiding the boring tag ‘said’ only to now embrace it. My writing flows better and I can concentrate on the dialogue more than the tags. That’s a relief. But now I notice something else in my writing. I use ‘look’, ‘see’, ‘gaze’ and other optical descriptors more than I’d like. It’s becoming as noticeable to me as not hearing ‘goodbye’ on TV and I find my writing grinding to a halt when I try to avoid it.

I wonder if, like the unobtrusive ‘said’, worlds like ‘looked’ and their ilk are equally invisible to the reader. More importantly, are they invisible to editors? That’s the real issue. Just like movie editors clipping off the ends of conversations as unnecessary fillers, literary editors can scratch off hundreds of words to make a story flow better.

So now I have to stop beating myself up about that, get the words down on paper and let my alpha and beta readers tell me what doesn’t work. I can leave the minutiae to the professionals.

 

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Under Pressure

Just picked up a pressure canner yesterday and used it to can some spaghetti sauce this morning.  The canner marks the last big ticket gardening item I’ll have to buy for some time. I feel like I have crossed over some invisible threshold from consumer to homesteader.  I suppose once I have a year’s supply of food preserved I’ll be a prepper, but that day is still a long way off.  For now I’m learning all the skills my mother forgot once she left her Arkansas farm for the promise of high paying jobs in the city.

Anyhow, the sauce turned out fine and it’ll sit on the shelf for a few months until needed.  There are still a hundred pounds of green tomatoes on the vines that’ll become salsa and tomato sauce, enough to last me until next summer.  So that vision I had six years ago (of not paying 3 bucks a pound for tomatoes) when I started this venture is now paying off.  Along with preserving tomatoes I’ve become expert at pickling cucumbers – both the dill and the bread and butter types, as well as peppers.  Heck, peppers grow themselves.

I still have dozens of other veggies that I can’t get right.  Potatoes are tiny, peas shriveled up and  only three carrots made it to maturity.   The weather didn’t help this year, no fruit came up except the blueberries and strawberries, and those were eaten in short order, nothing left to preserve.  But I’m very hopeful for next year, I’m more confident.

I’m not as confident in my writing.  I know I’ve improved significantly over the years.  I’ve worked on a specific style of writing and attempted to ‘find my voice’.  Like the garden, I know I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet.  Yet, that damn clock is ticking and I’m not getting any younger.

Two years ago I made a promise to myself to take this writing seriously.  To get better, to get published, to finish the novel I’ve coddled for five years.  I stopped playing Civilization and took those hours of playtime to write.  I stopped watching a dozen TV shows, stopped Facebooking, stopped Minecrafting, stopped YouTubing and used that time to write, to get better, to get published.

I gave myself until the end of this year to show some results.  Now that three months remain until my personal deadline hits, I’m feeling the pressure.  If I didn’t have a hundred pounds of tomatoes on the vine and a dozen jars of pickles and peppers on the shelf I would have given up on this gardening kick.  But I have tangible results, so I will keep on.  If my writing doesn’t yield any fruit after devoting so much time to it, do I throw in the towel?

The good news is that I’ve become more consistent in my writing.  I write everyday now, not when I feel like it or when I’m inspired.  I never felt like weeding the cucumbers or watering the sunflowers.  I never felt inspired to turn the compost heap or cut back the blackberry brambles.  I did those things because they had to be done.  Writers write because they have to.  If they don’t write on a consistent basis they shouldn’t call themselves writers any more than someone with just an herb box deserves to call themselves a gardener.

In the pressure canner, once everything was in place, the water boiling, the jars placed just right, the lid secured; it only took fifteen minutes to process the sauce.  A lot can be done under pressure given the right conditions.

If your writing isn’t fruitful and you’ve spent years talking about a book or a story you’ve never started, isn’t it time to add a little pressure?  Whatever your current project is, a poem, an epic or trying to get a seedless watermelon to grow larger than a softball, give yourself a cutoff date.  If you can’t finish it by then, or at least come close, then move on.  Consider your identity, as a gardener or a writer, always under pressure.

It’s Okay to Suck, but It’s Better to be Good

‘It’s okay to suck’.  I read that a lot in writing blogs and podcasts.  Giving one the permission to be bad at writing so you can get the words on the page.  Maybe even get their daily word count up in the thousands.  And for new writers, I agree with that sentiment.  Novice writers produce inferior work.  They have to get their first million words down to leave Sucksville behind.  What I don’t accept are the seasoned writers, even some professionals that continue to suck.

I knew my writing was bad when I was younger.  I knew that the only way to get better was to keep writing until I stopped sucking.  It’s no different than any field that takes years of experience.

I started gardening back in 2008 when the salmonella salsa scare shot the price of tomatoes up to 3 bucks a pound.

“Screw that,” I told the cashier, putting the tomato to the side.  “I can grow them myself.”

And I did, that year I grew a bumper crop of tomatoes, onions and peppers and made some killer salsa.  But the next year black rot took all half my tomatoes and the following year all of them went bad.  That’s when I discovered the benefit of crop rotation (plant them in a different spot in the yard) and solarizing soil (put plastic over the dirt in the early spring).  I haven’t had a problem with that since.

As I added more items to the yard, berries, beans, potatoes, greens, etc… each came with their own challenges and many mistakes on my part.  I learned my lessons and got better.

In writing, I have participated on several boards, one with a weekly writing prompt (the Flash Factory on Zoetrope) and I’ve gone through a Plot Whisperer workshop (see Martha Anderson’s videos on YouTube.  The videos are awful but what she teaches is invaluable, God bless you Martha.)   I’ve also reviewed or critiqued thousands of flashes, hundreds of stories and dozens of novels.  All of that – and giving up my addiction to Civilization 5 (damn you Sid Meier) – has made me a better writer.

I don’t suck; I don’t write stories that suck, at least none that I’ll show anyone.  This doesn’t mean I’m a pro right now, it just means I’m more careful about what I write, just like I’m more careful about what I plant and where.  If I want some killer salsa this winter, I have to plan out my garden the winter before.  Every gardener knows this fact.  We writers need to learn that lesson as well.

Sure it’s okay to suck, as a gardener or as a writer.  But, it’s better to be good.

Epic Fail

Have you ever wondered if the book you are writing is a tragic waste of time?  Is it good?  Does it stink?  Wouldn’t it be great if the novel actually smelled, and the smell grew worse the longer you worked on it?

The other night I came home from work I noticed a horrible odor in the kitchen.  My wife thought it came from the trash, I feared it might be the jalapenos I hadn’t gotten around to freezing.   Like a bloodhound I sniffed every surface in the kitchen, reminded of the watermelon fiasco of last year (never leave a watermelon in a paper bag for a week unless you want to do some reupholstering).  But I couldn’t find the source of the stink.

Maybe it was some pickles gone bad.  I did pull aside five quarts that had gone cloudy but they still smell very vinegary.  And then it happened.  I heard a ‘tink’.  The unmistakable sound of a mason lid giving way, the same sound it makes when it seals.

I rushed into the pantry.  Okay, it’s not a pantry.  In reality it’s my wife’s old office packed with old computer parts.  And I didn’t ‘rush’ so much as take two steps in, but you get the gist.

Four days prior we picked and prepared enough greens to fill fourteen quarts.  It was our first time canning greens and the sense of accomplishment we had was unsurpassed.  The stink was coming from those jars and the myriad of unfortunate equipment underneath them.  Old keyboards were filled with stagnant collard green juice, so was an old laptop, a scanner and a couple of Walkmen from the 90’s.

Up until then our canning was reserved to pickles, banana peppers and salsa.  The difference with the greens was that they were cooked with smoked turkey and every jar had a generous chunk of smoked meat to flavor the greens.  When you can veggies, after the jars are packed and the lids are on, you put them back in a hot bath for ten to fifteen minutes, just long enough to kill any bacteria and seal the top.  Turns out, meat needs more like 100 minutes and they should be sealed in a pressure cooker.

With a heavy heart I took the fruit of our labors out to the composter, dumped the contents and covered the whole mess in three inches of old potting soil to keep critters from going for the rancid meat.  The computer equipment got the heave-ho into the trash as well.

That smug sense of accomplishment we had a few days ago was replaced with the agony of defeat.  Four of the jars hadn’t gone bad…yet.  I still dumped them knowing it was only a matter of time before they ruptures and made a mess.

Writing novels takes a lot of work.  A writer can get everything right and still end up with a stinker.  You can put in months, years of effort only to find it’s no good.  We get so enthralled in our own worlds that we can’t tell if it stinks, or maybe we just get accustomed to the smell.  So wouldn’t it be nice to know in advance?

This is why having alpha readers are all important to novelists.  More than that, an honest reader who is unafraid to tell you where your novel stinks and where it works.  I count myself fortunate in that I have a group of reviewers who can let me know if something stinks before I invest time and do it in a compassionate manner.

If you don’t have a a group or even an individual – not a friend or relative – who can give you the honest truth, I urge you to seek them out.  Otherwise you may end up with a shelf full of stinkers.

Harvest Time

Aside

Harvest Time.

For avid gardeners the end of summer is a bittersweet time.  Plants are at full bloom or dying off.  Time for drying herbs, collecting seeds, canning and freezing what you can, and tossing the remnants into the compost heap.

At this moment I’ve canned 14 quarts of greens, 12 quarts of dill pickles (5 went bad), 6 pints of bread and butter pickles, and 8 pints of peppers.  The tomatoes haven’t ripened yet.  I need to place them in a better spot next year.  But still, I end up tossing the lions’ share of my veggies into the compost.  So much so that I have a second compost pile for the overflow.

The first one has yet to pay for itself.  It’s a fancy black number from the local Lowe’s and cost me eighty dollars.  I figure I have yielded about ten bucks worth of soil and compost from it in the last two years and I doubt it will last long enough to break down scraps for another eight years.  The second heap is just some old chicken wire in a loose oval.  Everything goes in that one, grass clippings, coffee grinds, blackberry canes, and general distasteful junk.  It’s the junk drawer of the garden.

And as much as I abuse or neglect that organic wastebin, it thrives.  There are potato plants and onions growing in it.  Those were the leftover seedlings, the ones too dried up and desiccated to put in a container or raised bed.  These underdog plants were rarely watered and never cared for.  But they survived the blistering heat better than the ones growing in the containers.  I pulled some tiny spuds from my ‘cultivated’ plants while the red-haired stepchild plants yielded tubers to rival the best Idaho has to offer.

It makes me wonder about the stories I have cast aside.  Ones that were written for a prompt on a site that never got past that weeks challenge, never cultivated for publication.  I haven’t touched them or submitted them because I just didn’t want to work on them, I was cultivating other stories that deserved my attention more.  The thing is, I like those stories in their raw form.  They may have some blemishes here and there but those stories may sustain me through the long winters more than the cultivated ones.

I think it’s time to give the ugly ducklings their time in the sun, let them spread their wings and see where they may end up.

I started this blog with a platform challenge, finished it, and really let it go.  It’s time to challenge myself to get more work out there, the good the bad and the ugly.