Monday, June 28, 2010

Writers Over 40

Page Lambert, in Connecting People with Nature, challenges recent opinions that writers over 40 have a slim chance of writing anything of substance. “Writers Over 40 Rock,” she counters. Now that I am over 40, and 50, and 60, and Yes, 70, I thought I might weigh in. My 71 year old musings follow.

Why Can’t We?

To those who say We Can’t, I have a two-word answer: Norman Maclean. A River Runs Through It, his first book, appeared when he was 74. Beyond that, the question leads down three paths:

Why Don’t We?

1. So many writers are searching for their identity. In our autumn years, we may have found ourselves, discovered peace in that place, and lost our raging angst.

2. There is a quiescence, a satiety, that comes with a long life well lived. The Waylon Jennings ballad, A Couple More Years, captures this with: “You’re headin’ somewhere, but I’ve been to somewhere, and found it was nowhere at all.” At least not somewhere we need to revisit.

3. After 40 we may find ourselves at some pinnacle of power, some apex of authority, or just plain overworked because we are especially experienced and competent. Who has time to write while imprisoned by our careers?

Why Should We?

1. We are unique. No one else walked in our footsteps, saw life as we did. And we are important. What we saw, what we thought has value. Might there be a hunger for what we alone can write?

2. Who else can capture the essence of what once was, to burnish it as memoir, and offer it as roots to those who will succeed us?

3. Our words provide sea anchors in the headlong rush of impetuous cultural change.

Why Must We?

1. Because our mind, the central component of successful aging, needs the exercise. Given the choice, we all would have our minds outlast our bodies. Other than learning a new language, becoming a writer may be the next best strategy.

2. Or just because there is a story inside that needs to find its wings.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ten Handy Edits

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s pithy advice, ‘Murder your Darlings” gives the writer an acidic editorial razor; Never, ever, fall in love with your own words. Instructors of creative writing repeat this maxim almost ad nauseum. For me, I need to focus my editing, pinpointing one or two specifics on each read-through. I push all my nonfiction drafts through these types of edits, murdering my darlings all the while.

1. Outline: Do all the main sections fit? Are the transitions clear? Do the section lengths match their contributions to the overall story?

2. Verbs: Check tenses for consistency within sentences and paragraphs. Emphasize present tense, active voice, fewer syllables. Use strong verbs. Much of the author’s voice, of her ability to capture and hold a reader, lies in verb and metaphor choices.

3. Read Aloud Edit: Absolutely essential. Check the flow and meter, the rhythm, find wordings that jar, isolate words that don’t fit or aren’t the author’s voice when read aloud.

4. Brevity: Cut all the crap that is tangential or irrelevant, shorten the sentences.

5. Minimize The 1st Person: Reduce the number of “I”s. No one wants to read your “Dear Diary” ramblings.

6. Time Line: Are the movements in time easy to follow, does the story move right along? Flashbacks can help with back story but avoid too much jumping around in time.

7. Past Participles: Simple past tense is usually a much more powerful phrasing.

8. Prepositional Phrases: Keep them to a minimum, use only where essential. Never more than one in a sentence unless absolutely necessary.

9. Metaphors and Word Choice: Wallace Stegner insists that words must be correct in all their meanings. Others might be familiar with more standard meanings. Using words with special meanings to the author alone, or to an inner circle, loses the general reader.

10. One Last Slash and Burn – Take No Prisoners Edit: Back off. Let the writing cool for a while. Create that emotional distance that must precede your final “darlings” pogrom. Then return with an editorial vengeance. Cut to the chase. Get rid of everything that is not essential to telling the story. Usually this means most of the spurious flavoring, the nonessential back story. Fear not. This literary Sophie’s Choice is ultimately cleansing.

What editorial foci help you the most?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Readability Statistics: Are They Meaningful?

I am a recovering scientist. In my prior life, my writing was copious, erudite and replete with $50 words. Copious, erudite and replete being examples. I even won awards for writing arcane trivia with a lavish lexicon. As I moved into literary nonfiction, however, a senior editor advised me to cut the crap. She told me I would be publishable only if I wrote at the 7-8th grade comprehension level and got my characters per word down below 4.5. A journalism professor cautioned me about the SMOG Index (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) which penalizes words of three syllables or more. But then a noted nonfiction writer, a professor of English, told me in rather pithy terms that readability stats would not make me a good writer, that they were a distraction, and that I was wasting my time. I felt caught in the middle.

To find some answers, I analyzed several 1000 word writing samples from each of the godparents of nonfiction, those writers I strove to emulate. On the list were Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Barbara Kingsolver, Joan Didion, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. I also sampled more than 50 others for comparison, including contest winners, essays in selected literary journals, lesser known book authors, and the like.

“And what to my wondering eyes did appear” but a really strong, narrowly defined pattern. Averages calculated for each of three groups, nonfiction godparents, edited literary journals, and contest winners, all fit these parameters. There were almost no exceptions. The editor had been right. Characters per word averaged below 4.5 in all cases. Sentences were short, punchy, averaging between 15.1 and 16.6 words. Measures of Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease fell between 72.4 and 75.6, which, within a range of 1-100, is basically homogenous. Average grade level for full comprehension measured between 7.7 and 8.0, again nearly identical. Average SMOG indices for each group were either 6.7 or 6.8. And last but not least, passive voice occurred in less than 5 percent of all sentences written by these authors. Parenthetically, the lesser known authors violated every one of these parameters, always leaning in the direction of worse writing.

My English professor friend was also right. Readability statistics cannot turn anyone into a great writer. Soul and substance are key, and the art and craft that captures them in a latticework of words makes for greatness. But, like chalk lines on a sports field, readability statistics loosely set the boundaries within which the game is played. And, like it or not, many editors and agents have come to expect submissions to fall within these same gridlines.

What are your own readability stats? Compare a first draft with a finished product.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Power of the Prompt

Professor John Calderazzo looked over his graduate nonfiction workshop class after the first week and gave us an assignment; “Write 1000 words on a moment that changed your life.” Lots of things had changed my life, I thought. Most, it seemed, were slow lessons learned the hard way, beaten into my intransigent skull by life’s insistent mallet. But, a moment? I had to think for a while. As I did, the brilliance of this assignment emerged, and left me wondering what makes for a great prompt.

First, and foremost, prompts focus the mind. Strip away the periphery for a brief period and aim at some particular core. This one merely sought a life changing moment. No ambiguity there. Second, while the target may be clear, the path toward it remains open ended, eliciting a full creative response as options come to mind. Third, a great prompt should lead into an arena laden with emotive or sensory memories. John's prompt is a classic in this regard. If the writer recalls a truly “life changing moment” how could she not write of it with passion and verve. In a classroom, the prompt must also strike some universal, something likely to be meaningful to each individual with their own unique life trajectories. Last, and singularly notable in this particular challenge, the assignment drove the students into some of their most intimate places, which John then shared as he critiqued and provided feedback on their writing. The bonds that emerged then grounded his critiques of each person’s work for the rest of the semester.

My life changing moment, just an instant really, became the shot I fired as a hunter that put my name and my “trophy” into the world record book and so filled me with remorse that I cleaned my rifle one last time and quit hunting on the spot. The full essay is forthcoming in the August (Fall) issue of Pilgrimage. Absolutely worth the wait.