Skip to content

How to Overcome Family Distractions While Writing

Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children's ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

Another perfectly-worded phrase was shattered by the children’s ruckus in the other room. (image via wikimedia)

“There is no such thing as 110% effort,” a colleague ranted at work last week.

He’d been watching an athlete’s interview online after our local sports team won an important victory.  The athlete had given credit to his team’s efforts, saying that they’d given 110%.  Of all the things going on at work, this was what had set off my colleague.

“I hate it when they say that,” he continued.  “You can’t give 110% effort!”

“At least he didn’t say they ‘literally’ gave 110%,” I said.  Everybody likes to complain about the incorrect usage of “literally” nowadays, but I have a monotone voice, and nobody in the office could tell if I was joking or serious, so they pretended I hadn’t said anything.

110% is a great concept, but it’s limiting.  If you’re going to make a statistically impossible claim, why limit yourself to 10% over the possible?  If I’m going to overstate my effort, I want to overstate it by more than 10%.  I’m going for it all.  I’m giving 1,000,000% effort.  If I think I can get away with it, I’ll go for infinity% effort.

As I thought about how much effort a person can give, I realized that I haven’t been giving 100% to my writing recently.  When you have a family and a full-time job, you can’t give 100% to writing all the time.

For example, I started my most recent writing project in January with a goal to finish by August, just before the new football season begins.  That gave me about seven months.  Four months have passed and I’m less than ½ of the way done, and that’s not including formatting and last-second panic edits.  If I’m going to finish, I’ll have to pick up the pace.  I’m going to have to become obsessed.  I’m going to have to give at least 110% effort, maybe even 150%.

When I put anything more than 75% effort into my writing, though, my personality changes.  I become obsessed and cranky.  My family gets annoyed with me.  If I were making money from my writing, they’d be more likely to put up with it, but I’m not.  At the same time, I’ll never reach my writing potential if I don’t occasionally give myself the chance to put 150%, maybe even 200%, effort into my writing.  As I returned home that night, I decided I was going to change the way I did things.

I gathered my family into the living room to tell them the news.  My two daughters knew it was important when I muted the TV and told them to put their phones away.  When I explained to them that I wanted to have my writing project finished by August, my daughters exchanged a knowing expression.  It’s tough to describe their knowing expression because it’s just eye contact and no visible change in their faces, but I’m their dad, and I can see the change that’s invisible to everybody else.  If I accused them of exchanging a knowing look, however, they’d probably deny it.

I explained that when I announced that I was writing, I was to be left alone.  If the two daughters got into an argument while I was writing, they had to wait until I was done for me to settle things.  If they needed help with anything, they had to wait.  If anybody came to the door, I wasn’t available.  With an imperious tone, I asked if my rules were clear.  They said yes.

Since everything was set straight, I announced that it was time for me to write.  I stepped into the den and closed the door.

Five minutes into my writing session, my youngest daughter stormed into the den.

“I need help with my math,” she said, plopping a bunch of worksheets on top of the keyboard.

“I’m writing now,” I said irritably.  Christ, I couldn’t even get five minutes, I thought.  I probably shouldn’t have thought the word “Christ,” but at least I didn’t say it.  You can’t help what you think.

“You take too long,” my daughter said.  “I don’t want to wait.”

I huffed, but I still followed her into the living room where my oldest was watching TV.

“Why aren’t you helping her with her homework?” I asked.

My oldest daughter shrugged, not even making eye contact with me.  Annoyed, I sat down on the couch, explained a math concept, talked my youngest through a couple practice problems, and told her I’d check her work when I was done.  When I got up to leave, I turned around to make sure she was working, and I spotted it, the knowing look between my two daughters.

This time there were even traces of grinning.  I’d been had.  I’d been made the chump, the fool.  I knew they had been messing with me with this whole homework thing, but I could never prove it.  They’d just deny it.  I don’t want to be like a television dad where the kids get away with everything.  If I was going to finish this writing project by August, I thought, I needed to make an example now.  As my own dad used to say, it’s better to punish the innocent than let the guilty get away.

“The floor’s dirty,” I said.  “You two need to sweep and vacuum.”

Then I looked around.  “Wash the dishes.  Clean the kitchens and the bathrooms.  Fold the laundry.  Clean the litter box and walk the dog.”

Their mouths hung open, eyes flashing with anger, but at least they weren’t giving each other knowing looks.

“And when you finish,” I said, grabbing the television remote and their phones, “read a book.”

I completed the remainder of my writing session uninterrupted.  I can’t say I gave it a complete 1,000,000% effort, but it was productive.  I was proud.  I’d figured out how to keep the kids from distracting me while I wrote.  The next challenge in distraction, I knew, would be more difficult:

My wife.

*****

But enough about me!  What do you have to do to establish a productive writing environment?  How much effort do you have to give to your writing in order to be productive?  Is it 50%?  100%?  200%?  What are your most challenging distractions?  How do you deal with distractions when you write?  Is it better to give 1,000,000% or infinity%?

The Fake Word

If Lewis Carroll can make up “vorpal,” “brillig,” and “uffish,” then I can make up words like… (image via wikimedia)

If Lewis Carroll can make up “vorpal,” “brillig,” and “uffish,” then I can make up words like… (image via wikimedia)

I accidentally created a fake word a few days ago.  It happened because of my new boss, a younger Ivy League guy who likes to talk a lot and think of new acronyms for old ideas.   Anyway, after a meeting, I was ticked off and quietly muttered to a co-worker who (I hope) agrees with me:

“This new guy is way too damnbitious.”

I had meant to say “too damn ambitious” but I ran the words together.  It was an accident.

“You came up with a new word,” my co-worker said.  “If he fires you for complaining, at least you have that.”

I don’t like new words, especially if they’re fake.  The English language has enough words, so many that we don’t need many fake ones.  Last year, I used the fake word “nit-prickety” in a blog post about The Great Gatsby .  “Nit-prickety” is a combination of being nit-picky and a prick.  I don’t like being either, but sometimes I feel like I’m both, and that’s how I felt when I was writing about The Great Gatsby.  It wasn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fault; it was mine.  Anyway, I liked the sound of “nit-prickety” the first time I used it, but I haven’t used it since.

After my verbal slip-up a few days ago, I couldn’t believe that I would be the first person to say or think of “dambitious,” so I checked online and found several versions of dambition/damnbitious already in use.  I was a little disappointed because there was a part of me that was proud to have created something new, even if it was a fake word.

It makes sense that somebody else thought of it first because I’m usually a few years behind the trends.  I started watching Game of Thrones last summer after season 4 was already done.  I started using Twitter a few months before that.  I didn’t start blogging until four years ago.  I’ll probably start making YouTube videos in a couple years when it won’t matter anymore.  I still rent DVDs.  The way things are going, I won’t start streaming movies for another five years.

I’m glad I found out ahead of time that I wasn’t the first person to think of “dambitious.”  As litigious as people are nowadays, somebody else would have accused me of stealing the word and sued me.  I would have felt guilty, even if I hadn’t officially “stolen” the word.  I could understand the creator of “damnbitious” for being protective.  It’s nearly impossible to think of original stuff anymore.  A lot of people have original thoughts, but now with the internet we can easily find out if somebody else had that same original thought before we did.

I haven’t found proof that anybody else has used “nit-prickety” yet.  Maybe that one is original.  Or maybe it’s so stupid that the millions of people who thought of it first didn’t want to claim it.  I’d hate to be the guy who claims the bad idea that millions others have thought of first but discarded.  That’s embarrassing.

Sometimes fake words can have a good purpose.  Lewis Carroll used a lot of fake words, especially in “Jabborwocky.”  When I was in high school, the fake words confused us students so much that we were certain Lewis Carroll had been high when he wrote Jabberwocky.  Those fake words like “vorpal” or “brillig” are useful because they confuse kids, and kids should be confused as much as possible.  It keeps them from thinking that they know everything.

A few weeks ago when my daughter rolled her eyes at me like I was an idiot, I just said, “You don’t even know what ‘vorpal’ means.”  That shut her up (and made her keep her eyes in one place).

Even if I don’t like most fake words, I appreciate new words for old concepts that English doesn’t have a word for yet.  For example, the Japanese language has the word “tsundoku” which means the act of buying books and not finishing them, letting them pile up until they take up the whole house.  Maybe English should have a word for that.  But why create a new word in English when the Japanese already have one?  The English language can simply adopt the word.  For example: “I just tsondokued the guest room in my house.”

Yeah, that sounds like a fake word (and kind of vulgar), but that’s never stopped a word from becoming part of the lexicon before.   Right now, nobody knows what “tsondoku” means, but we bibliophiles love knowing novelty words, especially words that apply to us.  We can proudly declare ourselves as “tsundokus,” and nobody will know what we mean at first.  It can be our smug code word until it becomes so popular that it is used widely in English.  Then, in a few generations, “tsundoku” (or some form of it) will be so familiar that English speakers will forget that the word even originated in Japan.

Stealing a word from another language is much better than making up unnecessary fake words.    Now that I’ve stolen a word from another language and created a couple fake words, it’s time for me to think of an acronym for my boss.  If I’m lucky, it will spell out a real word and not a fake one.  Acronyms that spell out fake words are the worst.

*****

But enough about me!  Have you ever accidentally (or intentionally) created a fake word?   What other concepts does English NOT have a word for?  Have you ever created an acronym?  What trends are you behind on?  When your kid talks back, what’s your best comeback line?

Book Titles That Get Mispronounced: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Maybe I should have listened to the audio.

Maybe I should have listened to the audio.

Before reading a novel, it’s good to know how to pronounce the title. That can be a problem with Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  If you don’t know French, it’s easy to mispronounce the title as “Less Miserables.” For example:

I am “less miserable” than that guy over there trying to read Les Miserables.

You sound kind of silly if you mispronounce Les Miserables as “Less Miserable” in front of educated readers.  I should know.  I mispronounced Les Miserables in college in front of a bunch of other students in my ________Literature class almost 30 years ago.  I don’t remember how or why, but I remember mispronouncing it.  It shouldn’t have been a big deal.   Back then, Les was a common name.  I knew a couple guys named Les, and there was even a character named Les on a popular television show.  There was every logical reason to believe that the Les in Les Miserables was pronounced “less.”  Except for that French language thing, I guess.

It didn’t end there.  In college, I also pronounced Jean Valjean as “Gene Val-Gene”.”  I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to ever do that, but my literary friends looked at me with such contempt that I had to find new literary friends.  It’s not easy to find new literary friends when the old ones keep telling everybody that you mispronounced Les Miserables and Jean Valjean.  I know a book has it in for me when I mispronounce the title and a main character.  At least I knew how to pronounce “Cosette.”

If I’m mispronouncing “Cosette,” nobody has told me yet.

I really wish this had come with an audio.

I really wish this had come with an audio.

Despite my own linguistic issues, Les Miserables should be one of the best classics ever.  It has a great story, a great protagonist, a great antagonist (kind of).  I know this because I read the Classic Comics version over and over again as a kid.  Les Miserables was probably my second favorite Classic Comics book, surpassed only by The Three Musketeers.  The Les Miserables comic book was so great that I was going to read the novel on my own in junior high right after I had finished The Three Musketeers, a novel which was pretty readable for a 7th grader.

When I found Les Miserables at the used book store, I was horrified.  It was much longer than The Three Musketeers.  That was okay, I told myself.  I was accustomed to walking around with huge books at school.  I took pride in walking around with huge books at school.  When I carried Shogun by James Clavell, I had been the boy with the biggest book in school.

“Biggest book in the whole school” is not a euphemism.  I was actually proud that I literally carried the biggest book.  Looking back, I probably should have been beaten up.

Even though I didn’t read Les Miserables, I should have talked about it to somebody.  If I had talked about Les Miserables to one of my junior high teachers or to a book store clerk, I might have learned how to pronounce it correctly.  Everybody will forgive a kid who mispronounces Les Miserables.  At least the dumb kid who mispronounces it is trying.  But a college guy majoring in English (for a while)?  It’s humiliating!

It was so bad that I considered reading Les Miserables, actually reading it, the unabridged version.  Reading it word-for-word would redeem me for mispronouncing it as an adult.  Yes, it’s been almost 30 years since I mispronounced Les Miserables.  I blocked out the memory for a while, but it’s coming back, gnawing at me.  Maybe if I read it, the memory of mispronouncing it will go away.  Reading Les Miserables outweighs mispronouncing it.  I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.

*****

Every once in a while, I get a little cocky and start thinking that I’m smarter than I really am.  I write a sentence that people think is clever, or I solve a problem that has been bugging me for a while.  This week, I solved a major problem at work, and co-workers praised me, suggesting that I could be the next boss.  They weren’t even being sarcastic.  For a quiet guy, that kind of attention doesn’t happen often.  I started daydreaming about promotions, raises, new projects, and then…

I remembered that I mispronounced Les Miserables when I was in college.

Stuff like that really ticks me off.

*****

Would reading Les Miserables redeem me for mispronouncing it?  What is the statute of limitations for mispronouncing the title of a classic novel?  Have you ever mispronounced a book title or character’s name?  What astonishing gap have you discovered in your own knowledge?  What mistake do you keep beating yourself up over?

The Wardrobe Malfunction

(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

I had heard about women’s wardrobe malfunctions before, but I’d never actually seen one, except the ones on television, and they didn’t count because they had probably been publicity stunts.  Yesterday, however, I saw my first real wardrobe malfunction.  A woman was standing waist deep in the water when a portion of her bikini slipped.

I was reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at a beach-like environment (it wasn’t quite a beach, but it was similar in a lot of ways, and it was pretty crowded) while my wife and daughters were on water slides on the other side of the park.  I had found a wall and had placed my chair next to it so that nobody could sneak up behind me while I was reading and conk me on the head.  Maybe I’d still get conked.  No position to prevent getting conked on the head is foolproof, but at least if I got conked on the head, it wouldn’t have been from behind.

I normally wouldn’t read a book like Infinite Jest.  I don’t read books if they’re over 500 pages anymore (especially if they’re small print), but people keep saying Infinite Jest is great, I have to read it.  The problem is that if I don’t enjoy it or don’t finish it, then I’ll be accused of not getting it, and that pisses me off.  I can “get” a book and not want to finish it.  I haven’t read enough of Infinite Jest to know if I “get” it, but I’m sure I’ll “get” it either way.

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on Infinite Jest at a beach-like environment (or almost any other environment), I also had a Bernard Cornwell novel about Saxons and Danes slaughtering each other.  I’m not sure what the title is because there are about ten of these books, and the author writes one or two of them a year.  I’m jealous because I’d like to rewrite the same book every year and have people just like me still read it.

I know I’m getting old when I start thinking about books when I should be discussing a wardrobe malfunction.

For some reason, I looked up just in time to see the malfunction.  The top strap of the woman’s bikini had slipped enough for lots of a forbidden body part to be seen.  I had time to avert my eyes, but I chose not to.  Surprisingly, I didn’t feel guilty watching.  I often feel guilt for things that aren’t my fault, but I didn’t feel any negative emotions about watching this.  She was in public wearing a tiny garment in a place where a malfunction was possible/likely.  I know, maybe I’m rationalizing, but I don’t feel guilt.

The woman with the malfunction didn’t seem concerned either.  She adjusted the string (or whatever it was), secured it, and then even started the whole process again, pulling the strap down so that the forbidden body part(s) could be seen again, seemingly unconcerned that anybody might be watching, and then she secured it again.  It was like she rewound the whole incident for me, and nobody else noticed.  Her friends didn’t squeal at her and point.  No guys yelled at each other to look.

I never should have seen this malfunction.  I was over 100 feet away with dozens of people between me and the wardrobe malfunction.  There was no way I should have had a clear shot of what happened.  The odds of me looking up at the time it happened without anybody walking or standing between me and the malfunction are impossibly small.

A part of me thinks I was meant to see this malfunction.  I have a recently deceased relative who (when he was alive) would have noticed a malfunction like this.  He then would have nudged me (or done whatever what was necessary) to get my attention.  The more I think about this, the more I believe this recently departed relative noticed this malfunction from wherever he is, and he went out of his way to arrange things so that I would see it.  He made me look up at the right time (“Hey, Jimmy, you gotta check this out!”), and he parted the crowds so that I could see.  It’s the only possible logical explanation.  This kind of luck just doesn’t happen.

I know I should be more appreciative.  I was taught to never criticize a gift or favor, and I hope I don’t sound ungrateful.  I’m glad my recently deceased relative thinks enough of me to come back down(?) and point out a wardrobe malfunction for me.  That was very thoughtful of him.  I’m just surprised that out of all things the recently deceased relative could point out to me, THAT was what motivated him to get my attention.  I mean, that’s what he would have done had he been alive, so I guess he’s consistent.  The woman with the malfunction is lucky because if my relative hadn’t been recently deceased, he would have videoed the malfunction and shared it.  I don’t condone that kind of behavior.  I’m glad he couldn’t do that (but that doesn’t mean I’m glad he’s deceased.).

If there was something wrong with me watching the malfunction, I’ve already been pre-punished.  My wardrobe malfunctions have been worse than what this woman experienced.  One day at work, I had dots on an inconvenient location of my light khakis and I didn’t notice until it was too late.  Nobody said anything, but I could tell from my co-workers’ eye contact and facial expressions that the dots in the inconvenient location had been noticed.  I wanted to proclaim, “It’s water.  I just washed my hands!”  But since my co-workers hadn’t said anything, it would have seemed too defensive of me to state my innocence when I hadn’t been officially accused of anything.

So yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have looked at the woman while she struggled with her wardrobe malfunction.  But those co-workers shouldn’t have stared at mine either.  At least the woman in the bikini could immediately fix her wardrobe malfunction when she noticed it.  Me?  I had to wait for the water to dry.

I promise, it was water.

*****

What do you think?  Is Infinite Jest a must-read book?  Do you think there is such a thing as a must-read book? Have any deceased relatives ever come back and done you a favor? Are wardrobe malfunctions so common now that people don’t care about them anymore?  Is it wrong to watch a wardrobe malfunction from far away?  What kind of malfunction is worse, the bikini strip slip or dots on the khakis?

*****

Ugh, I should be using this space to advertise my own books instead of somebody else’s.

Infinite_jest_cover

Is This Self-Help Book Still Relevant? How To Win Friends And Influence People

If the cover says it's "the only book you need to lead you to success," that's good enough for me!

If the cover says it’s “the only book you need to lead you to success,” that’s good enough for me!

Just so you know, I didn’t decide to read How to Win Friends and Influence People  by Dale Carnegie because I needed some self-help.  Well, I might need help, but if I ever read a self-help book because I actually need help, I’m not going to admit that to anybody.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, the big self-help book was called I’m Okay-You’re Okay.  That title rubbed me the wrong way because it implied that everybody was okay and even then I knew a lot of people who weren’t okay.  I wasn’t even sure I was okay.  Maybe the author and I disagree about what “okay” means.  I’ve never read the book to find out.  Sometimes I think I’m better off if my opinion is uninformed.

When I review a book, I usually start with the title, and How To Win Friends And Influence People is a little misleading.  If I’m going to read a book about how to win something, it won’t be for friends.  To me, friends are something that you either have or don’t have; you can’t win them.  If I’m going to win something, I’d like to know how to win the lottery or maybe learn how to win at blackjack or how to win in court.  Maybe I’m being too literal, but How To Win Friends And Influence People is a very literal book.  There’s not a lot of figurative language in HTWFAIP.

Even though HTWFAIP was written in 1936, it might still have some relevant advice.  The chapter that most interested me was “An Easy Way to Become a Great Conversationalist.”  If there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s talking to people I don’t know.  To be fair, I’m bad at a lot of things, but making small talk is one my worst.  I was looking forward to great insightful advice, and all I got was “Be a good listener.”  That kind of ticked me off.  I’m already a good listener.

I need advice to get me to the stage where people will talk to me enough so that I can demonstrate my great listening skills.  After “Hi, how are you?” I’m accustomed to long awkward silences, especially if I’m talking to somebody else who is a great listener.  Two great listeners put together alone in a room can make a bad conversation.  When I was younger, I could have used a chapter about how to get the other person to start talking so that I can be a good listener. Instead, I had to figure it out for myself.

Advice you won’t find in How To Win Friends And Influence People:

 If you know about football and reality shows, you can start a conversation with almost anyone.

Back when HTWFAIP was first published, “be a good listener” was probably new advice.  Maybe very few people thought that being a good listener was important back then.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t around.  But maybe HTWFAIP seems irrelevant because the advice that was brand-new in 1936 has become so commonplace.  Again, I don’t know.  I haven’t read any pre-1936 self-help books.  Maybe pre-1936 self-help books suggested that you talk loudly and shout over people to get them to do what you want.  I’ve never read a self-help book that says shout people down, but it has to be in a lot of self-help books because I see people do it all the time.

One problem with HTWFAIP is that a lot of the references are old.  There are a lot of traveling salesman stories and lots of references to companies that no longer exist.  When I was a kid, traveling salesman stories usually ended up involving a farmer’s daughter.  If a story was really good, it involved more than one daughter and maybe some of her friends.  None of the traveling salesman anecdotes in HTWFAIP have any farmer’s daughters (or any kind of daughter) in them.  Having at least one would have made the anecdotes more realistic to me.

I’m also concerned that most of the companies and businesses that are mentioned in HTWFAIP don’t exist anymore.  I’m not sure what that means.  Did they stop following the advice given in the book and then fail because of that?  Or did they follow the advice in the book and still fail?  Maybe the stories and testimonials given in the book were all lies.  We know people lie in their books now.  I’m pretty sure people lied in their books back then too.  Maybe all of Carnegie’s anecdotes were fake too.  I have no proof, but it makes me wonder.

Is HTWFAIP still relevant?   Probably.  It’s not the book’s fault if most of the advice is commonplace now.  Is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer irrelevant just because everybody knows the white picket fence trick?  Heck no!  HTWFAIP is still relevant because it’s the first of its kind (at least that’s what one of the many book covers says), and people still read (and argue about) it today.  As long as people willingly read it, then HTWFAIP is still relevant.  And at least it didn’t destroy a generation like I’m Okay, You’re Okay.

*****

What do you think?  Is HTWFAIP still relevant?  What self-help books have you read?  Is “be a good listener” practical advice in the new millennium?  Have you read I’m Okay, You’re Okay, and is it as bad as it sounds?  If you’re reluctant to talk about self-help books, it’s okay.  Having an opinion about a self-help book is not an admission that you really need help.

I Found An Old Letter A Famous Author Wrote To Me

If I'd received a letter from THIS famous author, I'd have had it framed!

If I’d received a letter from the famous author who wrote THIS book, I’d have had the letter framed!

I was a bit suspicious of these stories the first time I heard about them.  First, a woman last summer found an old letter written by JRR Tolkien where the famous author described how much teaching depressed him.  Then a few weeks ago, some guy found an old letter that Roald Dahl had written him decades ago, giving him some advice about describing a woman’s features.

As I mentioned, I thought these stories were suspicious.  If I had ever received a letter from a famous author, especially authors of The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I would have kept track of those letters.  I would’ve had them framed.  I would have shown them off to every visitor who stepped into my house/apartment.  How do you lose a letter written to you by JRR Tolkien or Roald Dahl?

After I thought about it, though, I remembered that these kind of things usually happen in threes.  I figured if anybody should be the third person who finds a letter from a famous author, it ought to be me (or I).  Maybe, just maybe, I had an old letter that I had forgotten about from a famous author.  I went through my boxes of old stuff, including letters, musty books, and outdated bills.  I found a birthday check that my grandma had given me 25 years ago (I didn’t cash it back then because she really didn’t have the money to write me checks, but grandmas do stuff like that).  After hours of digging and reminiscing, I found something that I had forgotten existed.

About 20 years ago, James Patterson wrote Along Came a Spider, and it was actually a pretty good book.  At the time, I was trying to write my own serial killer mystery where a fake psychic had to figure out who the murderer was to save his own reputation.  No, the protagonist wasn’t really psychic (I wasn’t going to cop-out on my one mystery novel), and I wrote James Patterson for some advice.  My older brother had given me some ideas that I was using in my book, so I was thinking about giving my brother co-author credit.

The problem was that there was a scene involving intimacy (I guess it’s okay to call it a sex scene now), and my brother wanted me to use the phrase “twin cones of pleasure.”  I was trying to write a high-brow mystery, and there was no way I was going to use that phrase.  I told my brother that I might use that euphemism in another book, but I wasn’t going to use it in my high-brow mystery.  My brother called me a hack, which is funny because I’d never published anything and I had a job that had nothing to do with writing.  But the argument upset me so much that I never wrote the sex scene.

At any rate, when I wrote my fan letter to James Patterson, I asked him if “twin cones of pleasure” was any good and I wanted to know if it was wise for a writer to work with somebody else on a novel.  I didn’t keep a copy of my letter.  Back then, people didn’t keep their own letters.  Instead, we just kept the letters we received (and in some cases found them decades later).  I was surprised when I read his response for the first time in (probably) 20 years:

Dear Jimmy,

Thank you for your letter.  Without fans like you, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to work with other writers on a novel.  It could cause legal issues, and some authors might try to take too much credit for books they didn’t really spend much time with.

Also, whatever you do, don’t use the phrase “twin cones of pleasure.”  It’s tacky, and tacky sex scenes can ruin an otherwise good novel.

Good luck with your writing career.

Sincerely,

James Patterson

After I found the letter, I remembered why I had forgotten it.  It had taken James Patterson a long time to write back to me.  That’s not a complaint; I’m impressed that he wrote back at all.  By the time I received it, though, I had already given up on the novel, and my older brother no longer cared about the phrase “twin cones of pleasure.”  There was no use showing my brother the letter and opening an old wound.  I’m not the type of person who will bring up an old dispute just to prove that I’d been right a long time ago.

Even so, I can’t believe I didn’t take better care of that letter.  I should have had it framed.  I appreciate a celebrity author who takes time to write a personal letter to a fan.  I mean, yeah, James Patterson wasn’t writing 20 books a year back then, but still, he took time that he didn’t have to take, and that means a lot to me.  And I shouldn’t have been so critical of those other guys who lost their letters from famous writers.

In the meantime, I’ve written JK Rowling, asking her if she would pretend to be me like she did with Robert Galbraith.  Robert Galbraith’s Corcoran Strike book sales weren’t all that high until JK Rowling said she was him (or he).  If she could pretend to be him (or he), then maybe she would consider pretending to be me (or I).  It doesn’t hurt to ask.  I’d love for my book sales to go up.

So if my ebook sales suddenly skyrocket, and JK Rowling pretends to be disappointed that her lawyers can’t keep secrets, then you’ll know what really happened.  I’m not holding my breath, though.  E-mail can move very slowly nowadays.

*****

DISCLAIMER! Despite how far-fetched everything sounds, the above story is true, except for the part about me writing a letter to James Patterson and receiving a response.

*****

What do you think?  Have you ever received a letter from a famous author (or any celebrity)?  If you did, did you forget where you put it?  What famous author would you like to get a letter from?  What advice would you ask for from a famous author?  Would you ever use the phrase “twin cones of pleasure” in a sex scene, and if you do, would you please let me know so I could tell my brother?

How to Write an Award-Winning Novel starring… The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

(image via wikimedia)

(image via wikimedia)

In some ways, it’s better to write an award-winning novel than to be a best-selling author.  You might make more money with a best-seller, but in a few years your book could be forgotten, lost in the ash heap of other replaced best-sellers.  On the other hand, if you win an award like the Pulitzer Prize, your book will be on that list forever.  Even if your Pulitzer Prize winning novel isn’t read much after a few decades, the title will still be on the list.  As long as there are literary critics, there will be a Pulitzer, and as long as there’s a Pulitzer, your book title and name will be on that list.

Reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel isn’t always easy.  In 7th grade I was forced to read The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings.  Yeesh!  Does anybody read The Yearling anymore?  Back then, I disliked it, and I haven’t gone back to see if I was wrong to dislike it.  In 9th grade we were forced to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but at least nobody hated it.  If kids hated it, they kept it to themselves.  Even then, students knew it was wrong to hate that book.

As an adult, I read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara because I went through a Civil War phase (without growing a long beard and dressing up in old musty uniforms).  I read The Shipping News because everybody else in my writers group had read it (but I don’t remember a thing about it).  I recently read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

Writing a novel that’s considered for a Pulitzer Prize isn’t easy either.  An author usually has to do more than just tell the story.  An author has to use literary devices that catch readers’ and judges’ attention.  If devices like symbolism and figurative language aren’t enough, authors then have to throw in some literary gimmicks too.  A gimmick is a device that’s easy to do but doesn’t really add anything to the story.

For example, some Pulitzer Prize winning novels (The Road and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) don’t use quotation marks for dialogue.  Maybe leaving out quotation marks makes dialogue more meaningful than dialogue with quotation marks, but I’m not sure.  I’ve always used quotation marks with dialogue.  That’s how I was taught, but I’ve never won a Pulitzer Prize.

The Road also used nameless characters like “the man” and “the boy” (I probably shouldn’t have put them in quotation marks since the book doesn’t use them at all).  Plus, there was a double space between every paragraph, even the one sentence dialogue paragraphs that didn’t have any quotation marks.  I don’t know if The Road would have won a Pulitzer if the characters had had names, or if the spaces between paragraphs were normal, or if the author had used quotation marks.  It still probably would have been a good book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, along with no quotation marks, used several other literary gimmicks.  The novel had really long sentences with lots of Spanish and Dominican slang thrown in too.  The story was told out of order from several different characters’ points-of-view.  Plus, there were lots of nerd culture references.  Even though I’m a fan of nerd culture references, I thought there were way too many nerd culture references in this book.  Even nerd writers for The Big Bang Theory probably think there were too many nerd culture references in TBWLOOW.  I’m not saying you need to use nerd culture references to win a Pulitzer.  You need to pick a topic and drown your novel in references, like Donna Tartt did with the topic of art in The Goldfinch.

But if you want to emulate a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction that uses a ton of literary gimmicks, try  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

A Visit from the Goon Squad uses six literary gimmicks (that I noticed):

  1. Telling the story out of order.
  2. Switching points of view (3rdto 1st to 3rd…)
  3. Switching tenses in various segments (past to present to past…)
  4. a chapter of only power point/ flow charts (don’t use an e-reader for this book)
  5. lots of stream-of-consciousness
  6. And the worst gimmick ever… 2ndperson present tense!  I call it the worst gimmick ever because I tried using it in a college writing class, got yelled at by my writing instructor for using it, and then two months later Bright Lights, Big City became a bestseller. Now I’m biased against 2nd person present tense.

At any rate, six literary gimmicks is a lot for one book.  There were so many literary gimmicks, I expected the author to resort to the 1st person present tense narration death scene.  I was wrong.  Instead, she used the 2nd person present tense narration death scene.    I hate being wrong.

Having so many literary gimmicks in one novel makes it look (to me) like the author is trying too hard.  My writing instructor might have declared that using all these gimmicks took away from any merits A Visit from the Goon Squad had as a story.  But he probably would have shut up once he realized the novel won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

*****

What do you think?  Is using so many gimmicks good story-telling, or is it trying too hard?  What other literary gimmicks have you noticed in award-winning novels?  How many literary gimmicks should an author be limited to?  What literary gimmicks do you dislike the most?  If you were limited to one literary gimmick, which one would it be?  If you had a choice, would you rather write a bestselling selling novel or a major award winning novel?

*****

And if you want to write a best-seller instead of an award-winner, get some great advice from… How to Write a Best-Seller with… Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Life as a Romantic Comedy

Emma and Literary Girlfriend

Sometimes it takes years or decades to realize that something wasn’t normal.  Over 20 years ago, I dated a woman who wore big glasses and carried around a Jane Austen book just so people would think she was smart.  Back then, I thought it was cute, not weird.  This girlfriend did some other stuff that I knew was weird (like eating corn chips loudly at a public library), but at the time I never thought about writing about it.

Now when I think about it, I see this ex-girlfriend’s literary pretention as strange.  In a lot of ways, I’m a literary fraud too, but at least I’ve tried to read some of the books that I (used to) carry around.  It was this ex-girlfriend’s lack of trying that made it weird.  About a year ago, I finished writing “The Literary Girlfriend,”  my romantic comedy about this relationship.  Originally, the blog version was going to be about 10 episodes, and then I was going to flesh it out and turn it into an ebook.  By the time I was done a year later, the blog version was 60 episodes.  And changing it into an ebook didn’t work out (that’s a whole other issue), so now I’m stuck with a blog serial.

If I had known it was going to take me a whole year, I might never had started writing the damn thing.

I mean “damn” in a good way.

I guess anybody who has been in a weird relationship has a romantic comedy in them somewhere, and a lot of relationships are weird.  Not everybody has a war story in their experience, or an espionage story, or a murder mystery, but everybody has a romantic comedy.  All you need is either a bad or a weird relationship experience, and everybody has at least one of those.   Even now, my wife says our own relationship is weird.  It’s not a 50 Shades kind of weird, but she agrees with me that it’s weird.

My wife has agreed to let me publish a story about us, but she says I have to charge money for it, even if it’s just a little bit, so none of my current project will be on this blog.  That could be good or bad, and we’ll see how that turns out.  Since I have to be careful while writing about my current relationship, this project is taking a while.  I have more at stake than when I was writing about my former girlfriend.  But when it’s done, my new project is going to be great.  My wife’s in it.  It had better be great.

I was surprised when my wife agreed to let me write about us.  She didn’t read much of “The Literary Girlfriend” because she didn’t like the ex-girlfriend in the story.  My wife had never met her, but I didn’t blame her for not liking her.  Wives probably should dislike every ex-girlfriend a husband has.  If it’s not already a code, it should be.

It was easy to write about this former girlfriend because I could portray her however I wanted without fear of repercussions.  Writing about a current relationship, especially a spouse, is a bit more risky.  The situation I’m writing about with my wife and me is still kind of going on (mostly resolved), and if my wife doesn’t like the way she’s portrayed, I could regret writing this ebook.  My wife has a great sense of humor, and she says she trusts me and that she doesn’t need to approve anything, but that could be just like a wife/girlfriend saying she doesn’t want a present for Valentine’s Day.  It’s not good for a man to be wrong about something like that.

The relationship with my ex-girlfriend 20 years ago stressed me out a lot, but now I think the situations that made me anxious then are kind of humorous.  Time will do that to you.  Looking back, I should have enjoyed that whole relationship more.  In fact, that’s the one thing I kick myself over is that I didn’t enjoy it more.  But I’ve learned from that experience.  Now when I start to get stressed out, I just pretend that I’m 20 years in the future looking back finding humor in my current situations.  20 years from now, I don’t want to kick myself for not enjoying the parts of my life I should be enjoying right now.  The good news is that I don’t get as anxious as I used to get.  I guess that’s an unintended benefit of writing about a stressful part of my life as a romantic comedy.

But 20 years from now, I hope I’m not kicking myself for writing a romantic comedy about my wife and me.

*****

But enough about me!  What weird relationship could you turn into a comedy?  Have you ever dated somebody weird but you didn’t notice it at the time?  Or did you notice it but didn’t care?  Is it a good idea to write a comedy about a relationship while you’re still in it?  If not, what is the right waiting period?  Should I have my wife approve my romantic comedy about us before I publish it?

*****

Here it is!  Read “The Literary Girlfriend,”  the blog serial romantic comedy that made my wife dislike my ex-girlfriend even more!

Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: The Scarlet Letter

Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne has a lot going for it as a classic novel.  It’s relatively short, and most modern readers would rather read a short classic novel than a long one.  The Scarlet Letter deals with an interesting subject matter, and the symbolism involved is stuff that a literal guy like me can understand.  But like a lot of classic literature, the sentences can be tough to get through.

Different people have different standards for bad sentences.  If a sentence would have gotten me red-marked for writing it back when I was a kid or lectured at by my writers groups as an adult, then I consider it a bad sentence.  The sentences in The Scarlet Letter aren’t as long and ponderous as those in some classic literature, but there are plenty of other issues.  For example, in Chapter I, “The Prison Door,” Hawthorne starts the book with the following opener:

“A throng of bearded men, in sad colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”

That’s the first sentence?  That’s the hook?  First of all, I lost track of what the sentence was even talking about.  If you cut out all of the prepositional phrases and other interrupters, you have “A throng was assembled.”   There are over 20 words between the subject and the verb.  If I had ever written a sentence with 20 words between the subject and the verb, my English teacher would have red-lined it and pinned my essay on the Wall of Shame bulletin board.

And if I had used the phrase “sad colored garments,” my writers group peers would have criticized me for telling, not showing.  “What colors are sad in the 1600s New England culture?” they would have demanded.  And then the phrase “… the door of which…” is clumsy.  Just say “… with a heavily-timbered oak door studded with spikes.”

At least that’s what my writers group peers would have suggested.  I’d never dare to edit Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Long sentences aren’t always the cause of bad sentences.  Sometimes Hawthorne can’t make up his mind what to say.  For example, in the first paragraph of Chapter X:” The Leech and his Patient” Hawthorne writes:

“He now dug into the poor clergyman’s heart, like a miner searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave, possibly in quest of a jewel that had been buried on the dead man’s bosom, but likely to find nothing save mortality and corruption.”

Every once in a while an author might put two similes in the same sentence.  I respect that.  But I’m not wild about authors changing their minds about a simile in mid-sentence.  First, Old Roger Chillingworth was like a miner searching for gold, and then…No, he, old Roger Chillingworth, was NOT like a miner searching for gold after all.  He was more like a sexton delving into a grave.  Possibly this sexton was looking for a jewel buried on the dead man’s bosom.  Or possibly not.  Maybe the sexton was looking for something else on the dead man.  We just don’t know.

Maybe this sentence wasn’t so bad.  Maybe mid-sentence simile replacement is a widely respected literary device and I just don’t know about it.  I know I have astonishing gaps in my knowledge.  Maybe this is one of those gaps.

Hawthorne uses mid-sentence simile replacement several times in The Scarlet Letter.  For example, at the beginning of Chapter XXI “The New England Holiday,” Hawthorne writes:

“It (Hester’s face) was like a mask; or, rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.”

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Hawthorne should have combined the two similes, maybe comparing her face to a mask of a dead woman.  Also, use of the word “actually” is a misuse of the word, because in no way was she “actually” dead.   She might have been near-death in social status.  She might have been on the bottom rung of the social ladder, but she was not “actually” dead.  And I wouldn’t have cared how many words Hawthorne used to explain how Hester was metaphorically dead if he hadn’t used the word “actually.”

That’s not true.  I still would have thought he used too many words to make his point.

Maybe it’s not fair to judge classic literature by today’s standards, but I’ve struggled through a lot of classic novels, and I’m supposed to be one of the good readers.  If I have to concentrate really hard to read something like The Scarlet Letter, then I feel for a struggling reader who is forced to get through a book like this for school.  At least now we know specifically what makes a book like this tough to read for some people: 20 words between the subject and the verb, and mid-sentence simile replacements, and too many words to make a simple point.

And I don’t think these aren’t fake reasons for struggling.  In my opinion, these are “actually” good reasons to think The Scarlet Letter has some bad sentences.

*****

What do you think?  Are these sentences bad sentences?  Or are these sentences  actually good sentences but I’m too stupid to recognize them as good sentences?  Is mid-sentence simile replacement a great writing technique that I simply don’t know about?  What literary devices in classic novels do you usually notice?  Is it fair to judge classic literature by today’s writing standards?

I Need a Good Self-Promotion Publicity Stunt

I might do a book reading, but I'm not singing or playing any musical instruments. (image via wikimedia)

I might do a book reading, but I’m not singing or playing any musical instruments. (image via wikimedia)

Self-promotion is tough for me because I was raised to not call attention to myself.  I was taught to stay quiet and that if I did something well, others would notice.  Maybe that was true to some extent when I was growing up, but if those days ever existed, they’re over now.  It seems today it’s more about promotion than actually having a good product.  I’m not complaining.  I can’t complain because I don’t even have a new finished product yet, but I need to start thinking about self-promotion.

The ebook that I’m currently writing might be the best, most mainstream story I’ve ever written.  I won’t say what the title is because then it will sound like self-promotion and I’m not ready for that yet.  Anyway, I’ve never seen this particular story told before, and if I take my time, I might even write it well.  Unlike The Literary Girlfriend or The Writing Prompt, I’m not going to put any (or part) of it on Dysfunctional Literacy.  It’s not going to be free.  But I’m concerned that if I don’t put it on my blog Dysfunctional Literacy, then nobody will read it.

A lot of people know way more than I do about promotion.   I could use my blog or Twitter for self-promotion, but a lot of authors already do that, and I’m not sure it’s effective most of the time.  I think unpublished authors need something more.  I think I’d better come up with new exciting ways to self-promote my new ebook before I’m done writing it.  I already have a few ideas.

First, I’d like to get JK Rowling to say that she is me.  That would be a great attention-getter.  It worked for Robert Galbraith.  Robert Galbraith’s first book didn’t become a best-seller until JK Rowling announced that she was he.  That’s the kind of self-promotion I want.  I’d love for JK Rowling to say she was the author of Dysfunctional Literacy and all my ebooks.  My sales would skyrocket, and I wouldn’t have to do anything else.

I’ve even asked JK Rowling to claim that she is me.  Not personally or face-to-face or anything like that.  A few months ago, I wrote her and asked her to allow her lawyer or publicist to start telling people that she was me.  But she hasn’t responded.  She gets so much fan mail that maybe she hasn’t seen my message yet.

I’d go ahead and say that JK Rowling is me without her permission, but then I’d probably get sued, so I guess it’s a bad idea.

Maybe I could claim that my new book is really Harper Lee’s other lost manuscript.  Yeah, she and her estate haven’t mentioned a second lost manuscript, but of course they wouldn’t do that, at least not until they found it.  And I could claim to have just found it.  Harper Lee was brilliant, pretending not to have written another book for over 50 years and then announcing that she’s suddenly found a manuscript that she thought she had lost decades ago.  That’s publicity gold.

Her new book will be a best seller (I think it already is before it has even been released) without her having to do anything else.  I’m jealous.  Every misplaced manuscript that I’ve written sucks, and nobody cares when I find them.  Her lost manuscript might actually be good.  My manuscript that I can pretend is her second lost manuscript might not look anything like Harper Lee’s writing, but the publicity might help my book sales anyway.

Ugh, this is probably a bad idea too.

I could say that James Patterson co-wrote my new book.  Some people would believe that.  James Patterson can co-write anything.  I even know a guy named James Patterson who agreed to type a word in my manuscript just so he could say he co-wrote it.  I’d be willing to put JAMES PATTERSON in huge letters with everything else in a tiny font if I believed it would help book sales.

But the guy I know, his first name isn’t really James.  His last name is Patterson, but there isn’t a James anywhere in his name.  He doesn’t even have a James in his family.  The guy has eight brothers, three generations of fathers, uncles, grandfathers, kids, grandkids, and not one of them is named James.  A couple of them are named Pete.  What kind of family has two Peters and no James?  You could make a tongue-twister out of Peter Patterson, and they used the name anyway.  If they’d had the foresight to name a kid James, they could make themselves rich.

Instead, I’ll have to think of another idea.

*****

What do you think?  What self-promotional techniques have worked (or not worked) for you?  What would you like to try?  Do you have ideas but are reluctant to say what they are because somebody else might use them first?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,185 other followers