Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Authentic Voice

I recently read a blog post about authentic voice in characters of different races. The article was intriguing to me because within 13th Summer I have male character, Charles Washington, who is black and married to a white woman. He is from the south, but doesn't have a "deep south" accent. In fact, his personality and his speaking vernacular are very similar to my Grandpa McKee's, who was from Texas and white. Basically, his dialogue is sprinkled with "Honeys", "Y'alls" and "Sugars".

Charles has a daughter, Joy, who talks pretty much like any other midwestern teenager, but has overtones of a gentle southern accent. My other characters speak "midwestese", which is to say that they have a relatively bland dialect.

So, after reading this article, I began questioning the authenticity of Charles' character based on his dialogue with my protagonist. My main concern with the dialogue when I wrote it was whether or not the dialogue flowed. So, I really try to keep the dialogue pretty straight forward and maybe "season" it with a few words or phrases that give personality to my character.

Here's a for instance:

“So, what were ya’ doin’ zippin’ down that hill, there Mr. Scott?”
After so many years of being called Bing, he almost didn’t reply.
“I asked what you were doin’ zippin’ down that hill so fast.”
“Oh… just havin’ fun I guess.”
“Y’alls Mamma or Daddy ought’ve taught ya’ better than that.”
“But no one comes down that road.”
“Well, I guess I’m no one, then ain’t I?” The man opened his mouth and filled the cab with
gentle laughter.
“I probably shoulda’ told ya’, Mr. Washington goes to Hollenberg every morning on that road
and that you should watch out,” said Lonnie.
“Well, that might’ve been helpful, Mr. Lonnie, but don’t be too hard on y’self. Mr. Scott
here should know to look both ways. I mean, they teach that in Kindergarten still, don’t
they?” He winked at Lonnie.
“What’s in Hollenberg?” asked Bing as they pulled into a driveway that disappeared into a
single stand-alone garage.
“Oh, not much. I just doctor people’s animals. I’m a vet part-time and farmer part-time. It
pays the bills,” said Mr. Washington.
“So… should I call you Dr. Washington?”
“No, Charles or Mr. Washington, if you please.”

The previous was dialogue from the 13th Summer MS. Now that I look at it, I'm questioning the idea of "Y'all's". Which, in my experience, has nothing to do with being black. I lived in Texas for a summer back when I was a child and I remember one man, very white and practically blind, who spoke that way even when referring to one person. He would say things like, "Y'alls want a rootbeer float?" even if he was only speaking directly to me. My problem is that I don't want there to be a perception that I'm trying to have a character speak in a manner which is cliché or a mimicked version of how I might perceive someone of a particular race speaking.

I also don't want my reader to think that a character is necessarily ignorant by the way that they speak. In this case, Charles Washington says things like "doctor people's animals". This was something very specific to my Grandpa Wollenberg and generally something kind of midwestern. However, anyone who understands what it means to be accepted into and graduate from a veterinary school knows that it takes an extremely high level of intelligence.

I want my characters to be more than skin deep. Literally. Charles Washington has a certain dichotomy within his character. On the one hand, he's very affable, a loving father and husband, but on the other hand he's so easy going that people might perceive him as a bit backwards at first blush.

So, here is where we begin to question the idea of race and dialogue. My view, as an author, on Charles Washington is that his accent and manner of speaking have nothing to do with his race. My concern, though, is that there may be some perception by the reader that he does speak this way due to his race. How do we, as authors, express character through dialogue without offending someone at the first mention of a person's race. In my manuscript, Charles Washington's race is important because Joy being of mixed race is important when we explore Bing's grandpa's racism.

When we explore the book The Help, the blogger's argument is that the author only uses a particular type of dialect when a black character is speaking. Specifically that the character has a heavy southern accent accompanied by an associated dialect, whereas the white characters speak straight English with no real accent or dialect.

So, what do we do as authors? Personally, I believe that the most important aspect of a book aside from good story and plot is character development. I believe that it's important to create genuine characters. In doing this, there may be a requirement of dialect or of accent. However, dialect and accent should be applied appropriately regardless of race.

Being authentic is incredibly important to me and this subject is very important to me. So, if there are other authors out there with thoughts on this, I'd love to hear from you.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writing Like a Designer or A Thousand Wordsworth's are a Picture.

Okay, aside from the horrible title, I really do have something to say in this post.

As some of you may know, in my real life, I'm a graphic designer with mad skillz. Okay, maybe not so much mad, but skillz, none-the-less. Those who know me well, know that my favorite graphic designer is Paul Rand. Rand, like many designers of his time, was very Swiss School, but sometimes with cool little twists. He was a firm believer in "less is more" and "form follows function." You may know him only through his design. He did some pretty cool stuff: UPS (the old logo before the crap-tastic new shield they have now), Cummins, IBM, Westinghouse and the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to name a few.

Why do I bring this up and why do I point my pen at Rand's work? Simply put, writing holds many similarities to graphic design. Graphic design, in its purest form, strips away the non-essentials and focuses on the essentials and arranges them in a coherent manner so that it solves a problem, tells a story and evokes an emotional response from the viewer. In my opinion, the goal of writing fiction is identical.

When you compare masters such as Hemingway, Twain, Strunk, Bradbury and a plethora of others to designers like Rand, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser or Ivan Chermayeff, you'll find that the theories behind their designs and writing dovetail quite nicely. Let's look at some basic principals of design and writing as presented by the masters of their crafts.

1) On Simplicity

Hemingway - "Use short sentences." or "I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket."

Twain - "Anybody can have ideas - the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph."

John Carmack - "Beauty is the ultimate defense against complexity."

Paul Rand - "He [the designer] unifies, simplifies, eliminates superfluities. He symbolizes ... abstract from his material by association and analogy. He intensifies and reinforces his symbol with appropriate accessories to achieve clarity and interest."

Paul Rand - "Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations."

Mis van der Rohe - "Less is more."

2) On the Strength of Writing and Design

Hemingway - "Use vigorous English."

Strunk - "Vigorous writing is concise." This one could also fall under principle number one.

Twain - "To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worth to rank as a prize composition just by itself."

John Tanedo - "Design to express, not to impress."

Saul Bass - "Design is thinking made visual."

Massimo Vignelli - "The life of a designer is a life of fight: Fight against the ugliness."

3) On Showing and not Telling

Anton Checkhov - "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Twain - "Don't say, 'The old lady screamed.' Bring her on and let her scream."

Wouter Stokkel - "It's art if it can't be explained. It's fashion if no one asks for an explanation. It's design if it doesn't need explanation."

Scott Hanselman - "The difference between a designer and developer when it comes to design skills is the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it."

Shawn Leslie - "Good design means never having to say, 'Click here'."

4) On Surprises

Stephen King - "Good books don't give up all their secrets at once."

Paul Rand - In reference to the "Next" logo. "Splitting the logo into two lines accomplishes several things: it startles the viewer and gives the word a new look, making it easier to separate from common usage."

5) On Removing the Superfluous

Stephen King - "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Twain - "As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out."

Hemingway - "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the $10 words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."

Adrain Shaughnessy - "Graphic design has been likened to a wine glass. When we drink wine, we barely notice the glass it's served in. It wouldn't be true to say that we dont' care what glass we drink out of -- we wouldn't choose to drink a rare vintage out of a Tupperware mug, for example -- bit it's the wine that matters, not the vessel it comes in."

David Craib - "Design should never say, 'Look at me.' It should always say, 'Look at this.'"

6) On Why We Write or Design

Twain - "This is the love of your life. It's what I want to do when I wake up. Nothing feels so absorbing, so fulfilling."

Stephen King - "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."

Paul Rand - "Design is everything. Everything!"

Colin Wright - "Art is like masturbation. It is selfish and introverted and done for you and you alone. Design is like sex. There is someone else involved, their needs are just as important as your own and if everything goes right, both parties are happy in the end."

Saul Bass - "The fact of the matter is, I want everything we do, that I do personally, that our office does, to be beautiful. I don't give a damn whether the client understands that that's worth anything. It's worth it to me. It's the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares."

7) On Revision

Twain - "You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by."

Twain - "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say."

Stefan G. Bucher - "Making good design is easy. It's polishing the half-assed stuff that takes time."

Gunnar Swanson - "Graphic designers find themselves in a role of visual dishwashers for the information architects' chefs."

Saul Bass - "They (students) are not privy to the process. They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have to go at it... They redo... It gets better... It slips... It gets worse... It comes back... It comes together. And maybe it's something that's pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, 'Gee, it comes hard and it's so difficult. Am I really suited for this?'"

8) On Bad Writing and Bad Design

Twain - "The more you explain it, the more I don't understand it."

Stephen King - "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."

Santiago Borray - "Design is like a mom. Nobody notices when she's around, but everybody misses her when she's not."

Mieke Gerritzen - "Good design goes to heaven; bad design goes everywhere."

While writing and designing are two different processes, it's very obvious that the approach and results of the processes are very similar. As writers, we are designing good stories. We begin in our imagination. We ask "What if?" We begin hammering out an overview of where our story goes or maybe we sit down and fly by the seat of our pants and intuition plays heavily into our process. Either way, our process includes paring things down to the bare essentials and revising it until it bleeds. In the end, writing, like design, is what we do because we must.

That's all for now.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Author Accessibility or Hey, Stephen King is my FB BFF!

So, I took some NyQuil last night at about 7:30, fell asleep by 8pm and woke up at 3:30am with a severe case of cotton-mouth and ready to start my day. So, I figured I should hit my blog and entrance all of you with some of my meaningless drivel.

The e-revolution (some are calling it an e-volution) is creating a really interesting paradigm shift. Yeah, I used a stupid $10-word when I could have used a nickel word, but I like the word paradigm. Anyway, I'm finding that authors are not only willing to friend me on sites like goodreads and authonomy (and yes, I mean published authors, some of whom have been on the NY Times Best Seller list in the top 25 or higher), but will actually respond to messages.

While many best-selling authors lead a reclusive, monastic lifestyle, new authors and authors that understand the value of social networking seem to be more open to allowing people into their lives. I'm not sure how long this trend will hold out, but I really do like it. One example of this is Amanda Hocking. As many of you know, Amanda e-published several of her books and sold thousands of copies of them. This allowed her to generate a six-figure income and it caught the attention of publishing houses. In return for her hard work, she was offered a $2-million deal to write more books. Her name is generating a lot of buzz in the blogosphere (is it still cool to use that word? I hope not, because I'm not really into being "cool") and she's the newest reason that many bloggers are using, myself included, to back up their claims that self-e-publishing is the wave of the future. Anyway, I had just signed on to a social reading Web site called and I saw Amanda as a friend of a friend and so I sent a friend request and to my surprise, she accepted.

Here's the thing. I've gone through both and and have done the same thing over and over with published authors whose books are selling and friended them and they've friended me back. Not only that, some have responded with messages (not canned messages, either). But this wasn't the only thing that surprised me. As I've been tweeting about my blog or tweeting back at other people, I've noticed that other writers are beginning to follow me on Twitter. This was a truly big surprise to me.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think it has anything to do with my writing ability or lack-thereof. And I have to admit, I am a bit starstruck and kind of think it's cool that they're willing to follow my tweets. What I do think, though, is that writers are understanding the power of social media. Why? Because guess what? When I see someone following me, I go take a quick look at their profile and in almost 10 out of 10 cases, I follow them back.

Whether its a deep need to return the favor or some other psychological phenomenon, I believe that many of these writers understand the value of having hundreds or thousands of followers and by reaching out, they are able to add another to their fold. Of course, my theory could be completely wrong and they may just follow me because my tweets are such valuable gems that they can't bear to not read them. Okay, who am I kidding? But it's a fun thought, right?

I will close with a "writer beware" type thought, though. If you tweet and you follow me in order to get me to follow you (which I don't mind at all), please don't spam me with your tweets. I had one person follow me and I followed them back and immediately the spam began. "Buy my book!" "One day only special, buy my book of stories on for 99 cents!" and so on. It got old really quickly and it didn't make me want to buy their book.

I enjoy following other "tweeters" and I love seeing the advice by agents and other writers in their blogs and I love that they tweet about their blogs. This has opened up a whole new world to me and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. But please don't spam me 20, 30 or 100 times with your e-book pitch every hour. I didn't follow you for that and it really makes me sad if I have to unfollow you.

Anyway, I'm loving this and I promise that if you follow me, friend me or message me I will be your twitter BFF or your FB BFF. And Stephen King, if you're out in the ether, I'll be your FB BFF, too!

That's all for now.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Another Interlude. Again, brief.

I wanted to quickly thank Jenny Bent for taking time out of her day to answer 10 questions from aspiring authors on the Mother. Write. Repeat. blog. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first ten to ask a question and was very pleased to see that Jenny answered my question.

So, without further ado: Here is my question.

Neal Wollenberg said...
Hi Jenny, do you see future rights negotiations between publishers and authors becoming more hostile as more authors e-publish their own books or do you believe that this new trend empowers authors more?
April 15, 2011 8:57 AM

And her Answer:

jenny bent said...
I think that publishers will be reducing e-book royalties further--they've reduced them once before and I think as e-book sales continue to grow they will reduce them again. They've also started asking for multimedia rights, in some cases asserting their ownership of those rights rather than asking, where previously those rights were retained by the author. Currently, it's unclear as to whether original e-book publications fall under the non-compete clause in every author's contract; I expect any moment that this will be made explicit. Authors and agents have never been able to influence changes like these (for instance, e-book rights used to be retained by authors, until publishers decided unilaterally that these were their primary right) -- we just don't have the leverage against the big conglomerates. I could go on and on about this, but will spare everyone the boredom!
April 15, 2011 1:36 PM


Quite frankly, I wasn't bored at all because this is an incredibly fascinating subject to me and I'd love to know more of what Jenny thinks. Anyway, it was fun to actually bend the ear of an actual agent even if it was only for one question!

The entire post with questions by the blogger and other writers can be found here:

That's all for now.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dream a Dream or I am NOT an AP Style Guide Guru

Sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves. Especially when the day has been a pile of shit and you wonder what the hell is going on with the world. Sadly, that's probably a post that needs to be reserved for another day. So, despite the sadness I'm feeling... for my wife and for all of the people who have been affected by the recent tragedy that we've experience in our small hamlet, I will press on. My humor will probably fall short and jokes will be stale. The rain will still come down and we will still mourn. I'm sorry, you're here to learn about writing. I suppose one thing you could learn from this is to take the pain and the hurt and write from those depths that nearly kill you. Write. Write. Write.

Moving forward. Writing and grammar are invading my thoughts and contributing to my madness. Apparently, I dreamed a conversation between my boss and one of the editors at work regarding new AP Style Guide recommendations about the use of hyphens. The gist of the conversation revolved around new guidelines that changed how hyphens are used. Basically, AP Style Guide was saying that we need to eliminate as many hyphens as possible. In theory, I like this. Anything to get extraneous punctuation the hell out of my way. But alas, it was simply a dream. Unfortunately, I wrote an article and I followed this new "rule."

Yeah, not so cool. But bear with me, I honestly thought that I had overheard this conversation. I could picture it vividly in my mind. I believe it. Well, AP Style is not bending to my will, okay? I was full of crap. I had no idea what I was thinking or doing. I'm an idiot. The thing is, I'm not sure which is scarier: the fact that I dreamt about my boss and another co-worker or that I actually believed what I had dreamt.

Okay, but your'e here to learn, right? So hyphens... yeah. Cool things, hyphens. Whatever. Here's the skinny:

AP says hyphens are joiners. Make sure you use them to avoid confusing people. Use them to form a single idea from two or more words. Know-what-I-mean?

However, guess what? "Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion."

So, HA! I say my dream was not merely a dream, but a premonition. Hyphens are optional in most cases. Damnit, get rid of them and take commas with you while you're at it. Okay, not all of them, but seriously. I wasn't horribly wrong, I was just ahead of my time.

The key issue is that when you use a hyphen, you shouldn't be confusing your reader. ¿Que?

So how's this for ambiguity? Recovered and re-covered. AP Style gives us these examples: He recovered his health. He re-covered the leaky roof.

Also, use a hyphen when you have a situation where you're using a compound modifier. This means two or more words that express a single concept and those words precede a noun, use a hyphen.

Examples: full-time job, know-it-all attitude, bluish-green dress, etc.

But guess what? Sometimes, you don't hyphenate. If the two words occur after a noun, don't hyphenate the damn things.

More AP Style examples: The dress, a bluish green, was ugly. She works full time. His attitude suggested that he knew it all and was a jerk. (I added "he was a jerk")





When the modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs instead after a form of the verb to be, the hyphen usually must be retained to avoid confusion: (Direct quote from AP Style, okay?) Confused, yet? The examples: The man is well-known. The woman is quick-witted. The children are soft-spoken.

It gets better. Compound proper nouns and adjectives. Let's designate some dual heritage: Italian-American, Mexican-American... but wait! No damn hyphens for French Canadian or Latin American.

Meh. Hyphens suck. Let's just ditch them. Know-whatta-mean?

That's all for now.

Holy Carp Batman! Something smells fishy!

So, this is what I've been missing within the Twittersphere?

Oh, and while you're at it, the hands have it damnit.

Now I get it.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A New Post for Technorati

This post is simply a post that allows me to insert the code FJ76YD7DV8YR into my blog so that Technorati will allow me to claim my blog.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Vanity, thy name is Self-publishing

A couple of years ago, I pulled my boss aside and told her that we were on the cusp of a revolution. She gave me a funny look, but was intrigued. I told her that we had all of the tools in place to convert college textbooks into an electronic format. This would allow us to store the books in a virtual warehouse, pull 100% of the profit and take control of every aspect of text book publishing for the university I work at. Her response was that it would still be a lot of work and that the key component would be the issue of editing, especially in an academic setting.

A year later, I was sitting with my writing/reading group and I blurted, "You know, as authors, we really have all of the control we need to self-publish and sell our books digitally." My statement was met with raised eyebrows and a succinct discussion, the gist of which was, "Most authors don't want that responsibility. They don't want to do it themselves."

I would propose that as time goes on, authors will be required to do more and more in terms of marketing themselves and their work. In fact, when I've had requests for manuscripts from agents, they have generally asked, "Do you have a Web site or can you create a site? Do you blog? How much can you market yourself? Etc."

At this point, you're probably asking, "What's your point, Neal?"

My point is that authors can't just sit back and be authors anymore. In this economic environment, the more you know about marketing yourself over the Web, the better off you'll be. I think that the days of an author simply writing a book and the publisher promoting that book are over, if they ever really existed at all.

But I'm actually going to take things further. My background is in digital media - I have a Master's Degree in Visual Communications with an emphasis in digital media. What does this mean? It means that I know most of what a person can know about building Web sites, digital documents, graphic design, design software, typography, etc. I also have quite a bit of experience in writing and editing, believe it or not. The thing is, I don't believe that I'm unique. I've seen too many creative people with the ability to cross-over to other areas. I've seen musicians transition into fine art. I've seen actors become good musicians and vice-versa. This leads me to believe that writers, as creatives, can cross-over into publishing, especially digital publishing.

The best thing about this is that the conditions have never been better for authors to self-publish in the digital domain. There are plenty of free tools provided by sites like Amazon and Smashwords that allow authors to put together e-books. Why bother submitting to agents or publishers and waiting on the rejection slip?

Some might say that the stigma of self-publishing is reason enough. Two-years ago, I might have agreed with that. I might have snickered at a local author who told me she or he had been published only to find out that this person had actually gone to a vanity press. I might have snubbed my nose at the idea. The climate is different, now. Big time authors like Stephen King were experimenting with self-publishing digital copies of their work. The Plant is one example of King's work that came out digitally in installments for .99 ea via his Web site and PayPal if I remember right. Christopher Paolini (Eregon) is another example of being self-published. Paolini's first 10k were sold as self-published work before a publishing house approached him and said, "Hey, we want to give you money!" Recent examples are Amanda Hocking (who friended me on :), J.A. Konrath and Seth Godin.

Please understand, these authors are very good writers and at this point, they really are the exception. However, I think that as time goes on, we'll see more and more of this.

Personally, I think the economy has caused a lot of publishers and agents to concentrate solely on looking for that next best-seller and only that next best-seller. If there ever was a chance for an author to be represented by an agent or published simply because the story was good and the writing was good, I think it's gone right now. Money is what makes the publishing industry go around and it always will be. If an agent or publisher doesn't think a book is going to be a NY Times Bestseller, it has very little chance of getting published. Because of this environment, there is no reason we shouldn't be self-publishing our work digitally.

Despite this power and the excitement that I have about this new frontier, I do have some caveats. First of all, the work has to be excellent, well-edited and ready-to-go. Secondly, you have to be willing to market yourself. You have to blog, you have to get the word out via Twitter and your own Web site. There is no getting around the work that you'll have to do. I never said it was easy. In short, you have to be the hardest worker, the best writer, best editor and you have to self-promote the hell out of yourself.

Secondly, you have to question yourself over and over as to whether or not it's the right choice for you. Is the work really good enough? Take the time to find out. Send out parts of it to people that you trust to give you an honest assessment. Get people to read it first then get constructive feedback. Test it out on sites like where people can read parts of your book and provide feedback and rate it by shelving it or backing it.

I still believe that standard publishing houses are necessary. They have the clout and the money to get your book out in a printed format, which a lot of people, myself included, still love. I still think that it's a wonderfully humbling exercise and experience to send your query letters out to agents and get rejected. It sharpens your skills and makes you a better writer.

The tools that we have available level the playing field in the digital arena. The difference will be that the quality of players will not be level and it's up to you to do the training and hard work necessary to be the best.

That's all for now.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Pesky Comma, Balanced Independent Clauses and "And"

I’m a firm believer that commas spend most of their time trying to get in the way of my writing. Of course, there are times when commas are necessary, but I believe that it’s important to use them as sparingly as possible. If they detract from the writing then they need to be stricken from the page. My biggest pet peeve is the comma placed before the coordinating conjunction “and.” More specifically, when the word "and" is joining two independent clauses that are fairly balanced.

Remember conjunctions? “Conjunction, junction, what’s your function?” “Hookin’ up words and phrases and clauses.”

Conjunction Junction, What's your function?

To be honest, I learned everything I needed to know about grammar from Schoolhouse Rock. I also learned the basics of government, but that’s a different post.

Anyway, I digress. The conjunction junction that we’re talking about is the use of a comma before the word "and" when we’re hookin’ up two independent clauses.

Here’s an example: John loved to play the bass guitar, and he always played at night.

Both “John loved to play the bass guitar” and “He always played at night” are independent clauses with relative balance on either side of the word "and." Because they are related, I decided that a compound sentence would be more appropriate than two that were separate. Here’s where I start having an issue with things. In my opinion, the word "and" is enough to separate the two clauses. There is no need for a comma to add complexity, pause or even confusion.

Some people might think that I’m aspiring to be some e.e. Cummings or Cormac McCarthy, but truly, I’m not. I don’t believe in destroying all punctuation just for the sake of destroying it. My point is that I believe the coordinating conjunction is enough in a situation where you have two balanced independent clauses and the word “and.” The comma isn’t necessary.

And yes, I know my loving muse will disagree. She's my AP Style girl, you know.

Just a rant.

That’s all for now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Writing Tools Part 5: Real Tools for Real Writers

I thought maybe Part 4 was going to be the final post about the tools of the writing craft. Last night, though, after I had gone to bed and was hovering in that spot between waking and sleeping, I thought, By Jove, I've not told them about the bloody physical tools involved in writing! Sometimes I think with a bad British accent, especially when I'm half asleep. So, without further pontification on my part, here are some physical tools that could or should be in your arsenal.

Quill Pen and Parchment: Okay, maybe not, but pen and page are probably two of the most important tools you can have in your physical toolbox. In most cases, writers never stop thinking (Unless, of course, you're Dan Brown, and you never think nor do you do good research if you research at all). Because of this, you need to have something handy to write down the thoughts you have. You never know when that best-seller idea might strike. In fact, if you're a glutton for punishment or wildly wealthy with time on your hands, you could write an entire manuscript using a pen and paper. I recently read Under the Dome by Stephen King. In his notes at the end of the book, King comments that he wrote the entire first draft of Under the Dome using a pen and paper. This is no small feat considering the word count of this book is over 330,000. Of course, I could be wrong about that. It might have been Duma Key, which I had read just previous to Under the Dome. Either way, it's pretty amazing.

Laptop/Computer/Typewriter: After pen and paper, some type of instrument that you can use to write out your manuscript is necessary. In most cases, today, this will be a computer of some type. I use a MacBook Pro laptop with Microsoft Word as my weapon of choice. Whatever you use, the most important aspect of writing is that you place your fingers on the keyboard and begin.

Thesaurus: You may be one of those people that stores words and their synonyms and antonyms in your brain and you may never need a thesaurus. My mind doesn't work like that, so I do. When it comes to thesauri, Roget's Thesaurus is probably the standard. My personal favorite, and the one I use the most, is the Dictionary/Thesaurus software that came with my MacBook. When I'm revising, I pop it open and it sits there on my desktop, ready for use. My main goal is to replace weak nouns or verbs or nouns/verbs that I've tried to strengthen with adjectives or adverbs. I simply type in the word that I need a synonym for and it shows me lots of options.

Pocket Recorder: This tool isn't really a necessity, but it's a viable replacement for the pad and paper as long as the batteries aren't dead and you haven't lost it.

A Quiet Time and Place to Work: When you write, it's generally a good idea to do it in a place where you can have absolute focus. Out in a room where there's tons of activity, television or kids running around, is a horrible place to write. There have been so many times where interruptions have completely obliterated my train of thought and I've had to sit for ten minutes and refocus on what I was trying to write. There is an exception to this. When I'm writing my initial draft, I enjoy having my ipod on and music playing. Sometimes it even seems to help me with what I'm writing. On a personal level, though, I have a harder time concentrating when I'm reading and revising if I have my headphones in. In order to eliminate this distraction, but still enjoy music, I flip the switch on the radio. For whatever reason, having the radio on in the back ground is much less distracting than having earbuds in listening to music.

The second part of this tool is time. If you are to write consistently, you must set aside a time when you are going to write. Never setting a time or writing at different times can be devastating because you may never actually find the time. However, if you've stated to yourself and your loved ones, "5am to 7am every day of the week is my time to write." You'll write. Writing truly is work and as such, you have to schedule it as if it were a job. The difference is that you get to dictate exactly what the job will entail.

My writing time is from about 10pm until I get too tired to write. This works for me because I can sit in bed with my wife laying beside me and work in the solitude of a house that is as quiet as a church on a Monday.

Library/Internet: As someone who has dabbled in Historical Fiction, I know that it's extremely important to have research resources. The library, in my mind, is one of the best resources available. If you have access to a university library, that's even better. I look at the Internet (specifically the World Wide Web) as a secondary resource because you really have to vet what you find. Wikipedia is great, but there have been times where it's dead wrong. One recent "for instance" was when the page about the University of Texas Longhorn's basketball arena was changed to show that it was owned by Kansas State University. Obviously, the practical joke was hilarious, but for anyone using that page as a research tool, they may have been mislead, because in truth, K-State really does own UT basketball! ;)

Your Brain: This is probably the most important tool. Without it, you really have no need for the other tools. Your brain is what processes all of the information you take in and allows you to use that information in your writing.

Well, hopefully, this about covers the basic tools that you need for writing.

That's all for now.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Writing Tools Part 4: Take it all off... or Show, don't tell

This is part four in a series called "The Writer's Toolbox."

We've looked at grammar and vocabulary in our first post. Our second post treated us to strong verbs and nouns. Finally, our third post covered active and passive voice. Now we're going to talk about showing rather than telling.

Telling the reader what we want them to see might work for our first draft. However, if all we know how to do is tell a story, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever get our prose published. The difference between showing and telling is like a chasm. On one side, you give the reader the information they need. On the other side, you present information within context and allow the reader to paint a more vivid picture.

It's easy to tell. We simply list out one thing after the other, form sentences and paragraphs and call it good. Showing requires an entirely different mindset. Showing requires that we place the reader within our environment and give them the opportunity to see what we're sketching without describing it point A to point B.

Here are two examples:

Jane's skin was wet with sweat. She was forty-five years old and had crimson hair and green eyes. There was no way she'd let these young 20-somethings outdo her. She was 5' 10" and had long legs and she used every inch of them to grip that golden pole. She knew tonight that she would be putting the "X" in exotic dancer.

Jane sweltered under the harsh lights of the stage. She had forty-five years of experience in this world and she knew for damn sure that she wouldn't allow those 20-somethings to show her up. She wrapped 36-inches of leg around the golden pole and flipped her crimson hair from her eyes. Every inch of her 5' 10" frame, from her green eyes to her tippy-toes, was ready to show the world why there was an "X" in exotic dancer.

Both of these paragraphs give us the same information, however, the first paragraph tells us about Jane. The second paragraph shows us. By showing our reader the information, we allow them to have the opportunity to paint a picture of Jane in their minds.

While I realize this may not be the perfect example of showing and not telling, I think it's still pretty easy to see the differences. If you find yourself caught up in the moment and you're giving your reader detail after detail after detail, simply take a break and think about the context in which you want your character to be viewed.

If you can do this, you'll be worlds away from other authors.

That's all for now.

First Seven Chapters of 13th Summer now available...

The first seven chapters of 13th Summer are now available at:

You may have to register to view the chapters, but it's a painless process.

If you believe this middle grade/YA novel would be a good candidate for publishing, please comment below.

If you are a publisher or agent who wishes to review the entire manuscript, please contact me at nwollenberg (at) cox (dot) net.


That's all for now.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Writing Tools Part 3: Let's Get Physical... errr... Active, I Mean.

Passive Versus Active Voice

Remember back in my previous post when I wrote about revisions? This post has a very close relationship to that one. We're talking about tools that we, as writers, have in our toolboxes. We've talked about eloquent vocabulary, high-end grammar skills and strong verbs and nouns. Now we're going to talk about active and passive voice, which is directly related to strong verbs and nouns.

To put it bluntly, passive voice is for wussies. Passive voice whines on the page and blames everyone else for all of its problems. As a writer, you must destroy passive voice! I'm going to have some examples here in a second, but writing in passive voice pisses me off, so let me take a few deep breaths... there, all better. Okay, here is a passage that uses passive voice and let's add weak nouns and verbs for blandness and some adverbs and adjectives for nausea:

The car was being driven along the road quickly. Loving thoughts of Tom ran through Jane's head as the gravel hit the bottom of her car. The beating of her heart was like the bongos that Tom played in the jazz band. Once she was at Tom's house, her kisses would ignite his passion and their lovemaking would wear them out.

Wow. I'm so thrilled at this point I could vomit. Obviously, this is really crappy writing in the first place, but the passive voice turns it into a mushy bowl of Cream of Wheat.

If we make a few adjustments, though, we can salvage the sentences and maybe make it a bit more exciting.

Gravel tattooed the undercarriage of Jane's Mustang as she raced down the road toward Tom's mobile home. Her mind became a twisted playground of erotica and her heart thumped like Tom's jazz bongos as she contemplated shoving her tongue down his throat. She knew that when she locked lips with him that they would make love through the night and they would be overwhelmed with the exhaustion of lovers.

Meh. The writing still sucks. But at least we gave it some action, right? This is the difference between active and passive voice. In the first example, you have sentences that are like a limp-fish handshake. In the second example, the active voice grabs you by the lapels of your rental tux and shakes you like an overbearing father on prom night.

This is what has to happen with your writing. It's okay to go through and write the first draft and have sentences here and there that are in passive voice. The point of the first draft is to get the story down. Once you start the revision process, though, passive voice has to be flushed down the toilet. This is what it means to twist every sentence until it cries "Uncle!"

I realize this is a short post. I know you've grown accustomed to me rambling on and on, but I'm going to leave it at that and cover the rest of this in part four. Sometimes short and sweet is what makes the grade.

That's all for now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Writing Tools Part 2: Giving verbs and nouns a workout.

So, effective tools for writing. In part one of our tool talk, we covered two tools, hammers and duct tape... I mean, vocabulary and grammar. In this segment, we'll cover a couple of other tools and in our third installment (if there is a third) we might cover some things that shouldn't be in your toolbox.

Muscular verbs and nouns

The strength of your writing is directly related to how hard you work your nouns and verbs. Verbs and nouns that haven't been eating their Wheaties will be beaten to a pulp by an agent or publisher who reads your manuscript. Pity the day when you go to your mailbox and find that sad little self-addressed, stamped envelope carousing with the electric bill and the grocery ads. Picture it if you will. Your address has been smudged and glazed donut fingerprints have collected dirt from miles traveled. You carefully slip your finger under the ripped flap and tug. Once open, you find the pink rejection slip along with your manuscript. As you pull it from the dusty interior of the envelope, you see the red swaths of an editor's Sharpie like a blood pattern on a wall at a crime scene. You turn each page and find the same words written over and over: STRONGER VERBS AND NOUNS! Your jaw goes slack, a tear works its way from the corner of your eye. Your precious manuscript has been... murdered!

Okay, perhaps it isn't quite as melodramatic as all that. In fact, neither an agent nor an editor will take the time to go through each page of your MS and mark it up. It's more likely that they'll look at the first paragraph and make a decision based on that. Not a how-do-you-do, not a smile or tease or even tube of lube, but you'll still feel like you've been screwed.

But I digress.

My point is that without strong verbs and nouns, your writing will be like your first attempt at a soufflé: bland and flat.

The recipe for divining weak verbs and nouns and driving them out like an exorcist is as follows. One portion constant reader, several dollops of revision, a plethora of editing, let the mixture sit for a few months, repeat as necessary.

Your constant reader should be someone who will tell you the truth. Too many people give their manuscripts to their moms who in turn tell them how amazing and wonderful it is. Here's the deal, if your mom isn't brutal in her critique of your work, don't let her read it. The key to finding out whether or not you have buff nouns and verbs is to give the MS to someone who has a good grasp of the English language and who understands what constitutes a strong verb or noun. I'm lucky in that my wife taught language arts for over 14-years. She has a clue and she's brutally honest with me.

Dollops of revision means that you simply aren't satisfied with your first draft. Or your second, third or fourth. Revision is the process of tightening your sentences up until they scream. During the process of revision, you'll take your constant reader's advice and you'll be changing words like "poop" into words like "excrement."

Editing is different from revising. They can work together, but editing is the part where you make sure commas and apostrophes are in the right places, phonetically challenged words like "whine" are changed to "wine" because no one wants to read a book about whining, but everyone loves books about drinking, right? Editing is a pain in the ass, however, so are tetanus shots. Both are necessary.

Finally, let the MS rest for awhile. Push it back into a dark drawer for three months and leave it alone. Don't look at it, don't touch it and for God's sake, don't read it! Once you've allowed it to "season" for awhile, take it out and read it as if it were a book you were opening for the first time. I guarantee you'll find new things to change and make better decisions about the work.

Once you've done this, you'll probably have to repeat the process. Maybe even twice. Whatever it takes to tighten that baby down.

I'm going to go ahead and finish this post. I had thought I would be able to cover at least two more tools for your tool box, but alas, I'll have to save Passive and Active voice and Show, Don't Tell, for another post. But I won't leave you without some examples.

Instead of "Jimmy ate his scrambled eggs in big bites" you might say, "Jimmy shoveled his scrambled eggs into his mouth."

Instead of "Anna ran to the school bus stop" you might say, "Anna raced to the school bus stop."

I think you get the point. I'm simply substituting words that seem to have more of what my Grandpa called gumption. They're vigorous and active.

Now for a couple of nouns then we're done.

Instead of "Joey was a strong-willed boy" you might say, "Joey was a whippersnapper."

Instead of "John drives a crappy car" you might say, "John drives a jalopy."

In many cases, when you have a weak noun, it'll be preceded by an adjective. We'll talk about those pesky bastards in another post, but if you read the sentence about John's car, you'll notice that I replaced "crappy car" (crappy being the adjective), I was able to get rid of a word, which editors love and replace "car" with something more descriptive.

Writers, this is what you love and this is what you'll learn to hate, but if you use these tools, your stories will rock, editors will rejoice and books will sell.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writing Tools Part 1: Oh Ye of Gargantuan Vocabulary and Flawless Grammar

Every endeavor requires tools. Writing is no different. In fact, Stephen King suggests in On Writing that our writing toolbox have roughly four shelves and that it must be portable. I'm a big fan of tools, myself. I have some tools in my garage, but never the right one. I want to start working on a project only to find that I don't have the necessary tools to complete the job. Writing can be the same way, especially if your toolbox is short a few sockets or missing a hammer.

There are many different types of writing tools, but I want to concentrate on a few that are extremely important.

The first tool that you need to have in your toolbox is vocabulary. Much like a hammer, vocabulary is a tool that you will use constantly to pound your point home. Be wise in your use of vocabulary, though. For instance, using capacious and convoluted words may cause discomfort to your reader. My last sentence is a prime example of this. It's much better, as Twain said, to get right to the point. If you can use a nickel word to describe a dollar thought, do it. So, point one, Don't hesitate to enhance your vocabulary, but be careful in your use of big and complicated words in your writing.

One other comment on vocabulary. Don't be embarrassed about the size of your vocabulary. There's a boatload of excellent writers who use single syllable words in the majority of their writing. Hemingway was one of them. For example:

"Now is the time to think of only one thing. That which I was born for." -Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Vocabulary doesn't have to be huge to be powerful.

The second tool that you need to have in your toolbox is grammar. Like it or not, if vocabulary is your hammer, grammar is your duct tape. Quality grammar holds your vocabulary together. Much like oxygen is required for us to live, grammar is required for your writing to live. Obviously, I'm not going to cover all of the aspects of grammar in this blog post. However, I want to point out a few things that you need to understand.

This is only my opinion, but I believe you need to build sentences in such a manner that they are structurally stable. Word placement and punctuation are extremely important. The point is, poor grammar causes confusion. I'm not going to go into detail on sentence structure or what parts of a sentence are what. You either understand how to write a sentence or you don't. In my experience, though, I've found that there are a couple of things that people who know how to write decent sentences struggle with. The first is the comma and the second is the apostrophe.

I'm not going to go into all of the rules that govern comma usage, but there are a couple of instances where you absolutely should know how to use a comma. The first is in a sentence that begins with an introductory clause.

For example:

All things considered, the event went as planned.

"All things considered" is the introductory clause and "the event went as planned" is an independent clause.

The way that I remember this has nothing to do with knowing the type of clause. I simply look at the sentence and figure out if there is a complete sentence that has been added to a partial sentence. You wouldn't want to write "All things considered." as a complete sentence, however, "The event went as planned." can be used as a complete sentence.

In my opinion, the second most important use of the comma is when separating two independent clauses when they are joined by a coordinating conjunction.

John was sunburnt to a crisp, but Jan had used sunblock and was as cool as a cucumber.

"John was sunburnt to a crisp." is a complete sentence, as is "Jan had used sunblock and was cool as a cucumber." I don't want to separate them, though, because they are both sentences that share a relationship with each other.

The third most important area of comma usage, for me, is when I need to offset clauses, phrases or words that aren't important to the sentence. The test for this is whether or not the sentence works without the words, phrases or clauses that are offset.

For example: Yesterday, which happened to be February 29, John slipped on the ice.

If I remove the words that I've offset with the pair of commas, there should still be an independent clause left.

"Yesterday, John slipped on the ice."

As you can see, there is. Notice also that "Yesterday" plays the role of an introductory clause. If I were editing and following the rules of my previous post about Mark Twain's writing rules, I would take away the offset words and the introductory clause and be left with the sentence, "John slipped on the ice."

The third and final area of importance (and yes, there are more, but we're not going to cover them here) is when separating a group of three or more words in your sentence.

For example: John's wife asked him to purchase butter, cereal and milk.

You can also write the sentence using the "Oxford comma", which is an optional comma that is placed before the word "and".

For example: John's wife asked him to purchase butter, cereal, and milk.

My own preference is to skip the Oxford comma, but you may certainly use it if you like.

There are a lot of other rules about commas, but in my experience, those are the most common. If you're able to master those three comma rules, you'll be well on your way to excellent comma usage.

The other important piece of punctuation I want to cover is the apostrophe. Apostrophes can be tricky. Let's take a quick look at some important rules governing the use of apostrophes. Basically, there are three times when you use apostrophes. First, if you need the possessive form of a noun. Secondly, if you omit letters and thirdly, if you're showing certain plurals of lowercase letters.

Possessive nouns tend to be where things get confusing. The reason for this is because of plural possessives and how the apostrophe functions with all of those cranky "s's." Let's take a look at some examples.

Add 's to a word in its singular form even if it ends with an s.

For example: Neal's house.

I simply added an apostrophe and an s to my name. A singular word that ends in s always seems to trip people up, though. The name "James" is a prime example. Sometimes people get confused and want to add the apostrophe between the e and s. This would be wrong. It gets even more confusing. Adding an apostrophe to the word James without an additional s is also acceptable.

To form the possessive of the word James, you add an apostrophe and an s or just an apostrophe.

For Example: James's and James'

Plural forms of words that do not end in s need an apostrophe and s as well.

Examples: mice's, people's, men's, women's, feet's

Plural nouns that end in s simply need an apostrophe added to the end of the word.

Examples: dogs', does', friends'

Compound words need an apostrophe and s to show possession.

Examples: mother-in-law's

An apostrophe and s should be added to the last noun in a sentence when there are two nouns that share joint possession.

Example: John and Rudy's science project was the envy of the sixth grade class.

When you're taking letters out of words, as in contractions, you need to use an apostrophe.

Examples: would not = wouldn't, could have = could've, she will = she'll

Other examples of omitting letters: '69 = 1969, Bitchin' = Bitching

The final area where you use apostrophes is when you need to create plural forms of lowercase letters.

Example: When he was on Wheel of Fortune, John purchased a vowel and received three o's.

I don't have any tried and true method of remembering how to use apostrophes. As a child, I was forced into using quality grammar by my father. My best advice is to look over these rules and try to memorize them. If you get stuck, simply refer back to them or use Google to search for "apostrophes."

I do want to add one caveat before I end this post. There are several occasions where you don't use apostrophes. Any time you have a possessive pronoun, a noun plural or the relative pronoun "who."

First of all, possessive pronouns are already possessive, you don't need an apostrophe.

Examples: ours, yours, my, its, her, his.

You should also remember that its and it's are two completely different beasts. "Its" is a possessive pronoun. "It's" is a contraction of "it is."

The relative pronoun "who" confuses people because of the similarity of the phonetics of "Who's" and "Whose." Who's is the contraction of "who is" and "whose" shows possession.

Example 1 "Who's": Who's the cute girl out on the football field playing quarterback?
Example 2 "Whose": Whose brother is in the boyscouts?

I'm going to go ahead and end this post, now. There will be at least one more part, possibly two depending on how deeply I dig into the writer's toolbox. Please understand that I'm not an English major and I do not, repeat, do not have a complete understanding of the complexity of English grammar. For the most part, I simply try to write sentences that reflect how I speak and sound right when I read them. It's sort of a mixture of following the rules and doing what I think is right. So, if you find mistakes that I've made in this post, please don't skewer me. Shoot me an e-mail and I'll do my best to correct my error.

That's all for now.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mark Twain On Writing

Since my last post was about one of Samuel Clemens' master works, I thought it might be appropriate to get his take on writing. Obviously, interviewing Mr. Clemens would be the way to go. However, since he's been dead for a number of years, I think I'll just take his top twelve list of writing tips and, with my limited understanding, try to expound on them.

1. Substitute "damn" every time you’re inclined to write "very." Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

I think Mr. Clemens' point here is that we need to choose our words wisely. Eliminate unnecessary words and be precise in your writing.

2. Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.

If you are writing to make money, you're doing it for the wrong reason. Ultimately, you'll probably get tired of it and move on. When you write, it must be because you love to write.

3. The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.

In a word, "revision." As a writer, you will spend more time revising and re-writing your work. Get used to it. It's time consuming and it's not a lot of fun, but it will make your work stronger.

4. Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.

Tighten up your writing until it screams.

5. It was by accident that I found out that a book is pretty sure to get tired along about the middle and refuse to go on with its work until its powers and its interest should have been refreshed by a rest and its depleted stock of raw materials reinforced by lapse of time.

Take a break. Sometimes your break will be short, sometimes it will be long. Writer's block and exhaustion happens. The best cure is time away from the writing.

6. Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.

I love this one. To me, it adds weight to saying "Content is King." To be sure, grammar is important, but ultimately, the story and the telling of the story are the important aspects of writing.

7. As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.

No need for explanation, this is pretty straight forward.

8. I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.

Word play is certainly fun, but don't let it get in the way of the writing.

9. Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.

Show, don't tell.

10. I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.

I have a feeling that Dr. Seuss lived by this rule. It's okay to be creative sometimes. There are times when you may need a word that doesn't exist. If that's the case, make one up!

11. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I couldn't say it better. I mean, you could say "gutted" but I've always loved the word "eviscerated". Words with muscle (strong nouns and verbs) work harder and rarely need the help of adjectives or adverbs.

12. The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.

If the concept is that hard for the reader to "get" then maybe you need to rethink the concept. Be clear, be concise and be economical with your word usage.

And that's it. Twelve tips from our friend Sam that, if followed, will help all of us be better writers.

That's all for now.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Artistic Eye (or Let's Get Offended)

As someone who has spent a lot of time drawing, painting and designing, I'd like to think that I have a fairly decent eye for composition, color and line. Because of this, I'd like to make a few proposals. First of all, I'd like to go in and change Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper". I'd like to take Judas Iscariot out of it. To be honest, he just offends my Christian sensibilities. I mean, the man sold Christ out for 30-pieces of silver. The second thing I'd like to do is add some more details to almost all of Claude Monet's work because I think that Impressionism is just too vague. Finally, I'd like to gesso over all of Jackson Pollock's work and completely repaint new paintings ont he canvases because I'm offended by the fact that they're non-representational.

Are you cocking your head and arching an eyebrow, yet? Maybe thinking this guy is off his rocker? If you are, then you're probably not alone. The art I'm mentioning is classic stuff, perfectly in tune with what the artist intended and exactly the way the art was meant to be. In short, I have no right to change what the artist has already created and I should back the truck up and shut the heck up. Wouldn't you agree?

You'd probably also agree with me that writers are artists as well. They spend time and creative energy developing endearing characters, sketching gorgeous settings and creating eloquent prose. In short, since they are artists, we should leave their work well enough alone. Period.

Unfortunately, back in January of 2011, Alan Gribben, a Professor of English at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and New South Publishing made a decision to edit out the n-word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The uproar among Twain historians that followed was nothing short of explosive.

Gribben's reason for removing the word (which is by all standards probably the most repulsive word in the English language in my opinion) is noble, but, I believe, misguided. Gribben is quoted in a Wikipedia article as having stated:

For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.

As an author, I can't accept this as a valid reason for mutilating the work of an artist. Simply put, Twain is a master of the writing craft and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece. There should be no change to the book, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words or letters within this work of art.

In fact, Hemingway once said of the book, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." -Ernest Hemingway The Green Hills of Africa.

Twain's word choice was ruthless and meaningful and within the historical context of a nation that was ready to embark upon one of the most painful moments in its history. It confronted the issues of racism and slavery and mercilessly eviscerates the status quo. To remove this word from the text of Twain's book is to rob the work of its power to confront the issues of racism, slavery and unequal, horrendous treatment of human beings head on.

Gribben counters that the use of the word makes students and teachers alike uncomfortable and that because of this, the book is being eliminated from the curricula of many school districts. Therein lies the real problem. Do we re-paint Munch's "The Scream" because it makes us uncomfortable? Do we hide Egon Schele's canvases because they show us the true physical nature of our humanity? Do we burn Andres Serrano's photograph "Piss Christ" because it upsets our sensibilities? We do not. We allow the artist his or her vision and we respect their right to produce their art.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is meant to cause discomfort. It's meant to strip away the glossy enamel of our safe, non-confrontational and non-controversial lives and force us to start a dialogue about these issues. It's meant to force teachers to help students ask the question, "Why would Huck Finn refer to his friend Jim in this manner if he knows it's wrong?" "Why were people like this during this time in history and do we still face these same types of challenges today?"

While this issue grabbed headlines back in January, I noticed something that bothers me even more than the editing of the n-word that Gribben has done. Gribben also edited the word "Injun" into "Indian". In general, the reference to "Injun" is in the form of dialect and dialogue when people refer to a character named "Injun Joe". This subtle change is simply another shot across the bow of the artist's vision. In both cases of word edits we are seeing the beginnings of blatant censorship. Further, I believe that this type of activity by an editor and/or publisher may cause authors to self-censor to the extent that the works we read in the future will be nothing but non-confrontational, non-controversial, bland and flavorless bits of pathetic prose.

Gribben makes another statement that I want to call out. He tells The Birmingham News, "I’ve gotten dozens and dozens of e-mails, most of them very critical of me," he said. "One thing that has amused me about it is that in the e-mails that take me to task for substituting the word ‘slave,’ not one of these hotly worded e-mails has mentioned the n-word. ... They won’t say the word, and they won’t write the word."

You'll notice that within the text of this blog post, I too have chosen to avoid using the n-word as well. Professor Gribben, there is a reason we don't use the word. There is no need. In e-mails sent to you and in this blog post, you know exactly what word we're referring to. In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a necessity for the reader to be confronted with the discomfort of that most hateful word.

For the record Professor Gribben, I don't despise you for what you're doing. You have the best intentions, I'm sure. Unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and you've just laid down miles of new asphalt headed in that direction.

That's all for now.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Organized or Why I Am Where I Am.

One of the many things that my wife has taught me is how important it is to make lists. Lists allow you to organize what you do and give you a sense of accomplishment once you have everything checked off. She's a huge proponent of organization (stackable plastic boxes with lids make her eyes glaze over). I, on the other hand, suck at organization. No, "suck" really isn't the right word. Maybe terrible at it, horrible at it, unteachable... yeah, those are probably a bit more accurate, but I guess "suck" kind of generally conveys what I mean.

Here's the kicker, though. If I were more organized, I could get more done, which would allow me to spend more time doing the things that I'm really good at. If I spend more time doing the things I'm really good at, I might actually be able to monetize those things. For instance, if I were to make a list of all of the things I need to finish up, I could spend more time writing and blogging. If I spent more time writing, I'd be finished with 13th Summer and Fool's Gold. I'd get those babies submitted to agents/publishers and be well on my way to being a poor writer with lots of pink rejection slips, or maybe I'd get published. If I could spend more time blogging, people might actually notice my blog and maybe it would become popular and I could sell lots of ad space on it and make some scratch.

I really do believe that organization could be the key to becoming immensely wealthy based on the talents you have. Unfortunately, in my experience, I see a lot of creatives who just lack the drive to be organized, myself included. Honestly, it's too much work and we don't really like work. We like playing and doing the things we want to do. For me, that's writing, painting, playing music, etc. But wait, didn't I just create a catch-22? Be more organized so that I can do more of the things I want. But I hate being organized because I want to do the things I want to do. But... I have to work to make a living and I just don't feel like being organized so I think I'll sit here on the couch and not do anything. Such a conundrum we creatives create.

Personally, I think that creatives have a hard time being organized because we just can't access the left side of our brain. There's just too damn much going on that we have to see, touch, feel, do. Besides, we can always do stuff like write, blog or paint tomorrow, right? Oh wait, that's procrastination and that's another post entirely. I mean seriously, I'll get to it later...