Now, as we commemorate our co-opting the land and fortunes of innocent indigenous people, our thoughts naturally turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) the Austrian-English philosopher who said,
“The limits of my language mark the limits of my world.”
Not where your head is going, you say?
Consider this. As we bask in the post-election glow, we recall that a grammatically-impaired person came withing a 72-year-old heartbeat of becoming the most powerful woman on Earth. Out of such ignorance is savagely born.
I will spare you my usual tirade about the dumbing of America, since I assume you, the above-average blog reader are vigorously battling any attempt to dumb you down. ‘Tis you I am thankful for.
No time to be preaching to choir–only to say that the future of the Republic may be in your hands as you battle the hordes of linguistic barbarians who insist on bending, folding, spindling and mutilating the English language. Be of good cheer, for these aforementioned hordes are limiting themselves to a hunched-over dirt-contemplating view of our wonderful world. Let them rant. They have suffered enough already.
But it’s the higher road for you, my friends. (Imagine these words accompanied by awkward, jabbing arm gestures and a maniacal smile.)
Your job is to widen and enlighten the world. Write great stuff and share it with is. That task begins with broadening your own literary horizons. Read some uncomfortable, off-the-wall stuff today, maybe even a little Wittgenstein, though I admit that would be tough sledding. Try Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Alan Watts or Anne Carson. Discover how deliciously distended our language can be. My holiday wish for you: May you write wild and free and discover what you think about things. And may none of your pages be white.
That would be a satisfying propriety. And, dude, I’d be, like, so down with that.


Our writer’s tip for today concerns “had.” It’s inspired by a wonderful little book by Patricia T. O’Conner, called Woe is I (The title is correct, by the way), which I highly recommend.
I picked this problem because it’s a pet peeve of mine. I hear people using it improperly every day; I come across it often in student manuscripts.
It all centers around that mysterious verb form, the past participle; “had,” plus a verb: “I had walked all the way from Grant’s Pass.”
Here’s the key. Use “had” with your verb when you’re talking about two events in the past and want to show which one happened first.
“I was exhausted. I had walked all the way from Grant’s Pass.” Two past events. At some time in the past, I was exhausted, at an earlier time I made my arduous trek from Grants Pass.
Here’s where fiction writers get in trouble. Most fiction is written in past tense. “Louise Dingfobb walked into the store and grabbed a pile of raw fish off the counter.” The so-called ‘simple past’ tense is where our story takes place. It becomes our ‘now.’
We’re relating things that have already happened. Therefor, something that happened earlier in the story (like a flashback) gets “had.”
“Louise had been craving raw fish ever since Harry had stopped calling.”
Let’s say you’re talking with your literate friend (present tense). You tell her what happened today: “I had stopped to pick up a fifth of Jim Beam. I know it’s your favorite.”
An alarm will ring in your literate friend’s head. She will brand you as a goober. You’ve described only one event in the past, the booze pickup. The correct response is, “I stopped to pick up . . .” Does all this make sense? Good.
Now, go forth confident in the knowledge you will never screw up your past participle references again. Still fuzzy? Check out Patricia’s book at:

My thoughts are with Shelly Lowenkopf today as he and a lot of other Santa Barbara folks try to deal with the wildfires sweeping down from the hills. May there be rain and lots of it.
On his blog, Shelly talked (eloquently, as usual) about what to take and what to leave when fire chases you out of your house.
Writers face a similar challenge as they construct a scene. Which details are vital, which just clutter things up? The easy answer is: Include only those things which develop character or advance the story.
Fine. How do we tell what those are? Most any setting has a million things one could mention, and some writers insist on mentioning them all.
Put yourself inside your character’s skin. As you enter the scene, what things do you first notice? Why are they important? Maybe all those bowling trophies piled on the rug bring back memories of the glory days at Diamond Lanes when you were the league champ–when you were a contender. You fondle each one, perhaps reflecting that it’s probably time you got a life.
Maybe your old love, the hauntingly beautiful Louise Dingfobb, sits in a love seat by the window gazing out at the moonlit garden. Most contents of the room go unnoticed; the moonlight on her cheek captures your gaze. Or the four-poster bed in the corner.
Point your metaphorical camera at things the characters notice. Describe those things as the characters perceive them. A car goes by. One character marvels at that, ” . . .cherry red ’68 Mustang–dude listen to those glass packs.” Another sees, “One of those ridiculous penis-extender muscle cars.” (I once had a girlfriend who drove a ’68 Dodge Hemi–really fast. But that’s another story.)
Don’t assume that because you, the author, knows stuff, your character does, too.
Sister Mary Catherine squinted at the sub-machine gun. “The MP5 is vastly overrated,” she said. “Unreliable. With that thing, it’s spray and pray.”
A final thought: Leave room for the reader to fill in the details. He or she will do a better job than you can. If you show us a crystal vase, a red rose and a white marble fireplace, we can pretty much picture the room.
Here’s Archibald MacLeish, from his poem, “Ars Poetica”: “For all the history of grief/an empty doorway and a maple leaf.”
You’ll find “The 11 elements of a scene” under ‘writer’s tips’ at

Too cool not to share:
Thanks to a writer friend in Santa Barbara, I’ve been introduced to the Canadian poet, Anne Carson: and her book of poems, Short Talks.
Since I’m working on a novel about Vincent Van Gogh, I was drawn to “Short Talk on Van Gogh“:

The reason I drink is to understand the
yellow sky the great yellow sky, said
Van Gogh. When he looked at the
world he saw the nails that attach
colours to things and he saw that the
nails were in pain.

Infreekincredible. If anybody has written a cooler line about Van Gogh, I’d like to hear about it.
A little literary digression. Now it’s time to WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.

        At this moment, I’m basking in post-election euphoria, thoughts cooled and tempered by the gentle Oregon rain.
       We’re following some interesting blogs today. I encourage you to check them out. Particularly Shelly Lowenkopf’s excellent contribution to the work of helping writers. The depth of his knowledge and expertise is astonishing. He is one helluva teacher. You’ll find lots of useful stuff on his blog. Click on “my profile” and scroll down to the list of blogs I’m following.
     I’m proud to note that Shelly is my collegue; another of the infamous Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference pirate workshop leaders. He was, I believe, the original pirate workshop leader. A few days ago, I mentioned the SBWC and posted a link to the home page. Check it out. Maybe you’ll even want to join us in Santa Barbara for the summer conference.
     My toughts are with the folks who have lost their homes in the fire raging in that beautiful city.
     Thanks to the people who have contributed to this blog. Feel free to jump into the conversation. Ask your writing questions. Next on the help-for-writers agenda: What to keep and what to cut. Or, the Kenny Rogers paradigm. (You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold em, etc.)
     Hit those keys, vaqueros and vaqueras.

My thanks to an anonymous poster who spotted an email address error in an earlier post. The address has been corrected and I suggest you give it a try: Our poetry writers should take note of the “Weekend of Poetry” workshop the Conference is sponsoring on March 13th-15th in Santa Barbara.


Many of my writing students have become familiar with this, my usual signoff line, borrowed from Hunter S. Thompson. What lies behind this admonition?
All of us have a stern, internal censor. Our parents put it there, our school put there, or we put it there ourselves. Writers are, by temperment, an insecure bunch. What if we look stupid? What if people laugh at what we say? What if we’ve got it exactly wrong?
There is a saying that good writing tells the truth about the characters, bad writing tells the truth about the author. I’m not sure who said that, but it sure lays a burden of guilt and fear on us, huh? How can we lay that burden down?
I wrote a post a few days ago about the dreaded slooooooowww start. Writers starting out have a tendency to polish and re-polish their first draft before they move on. A little of that is fine, but it soon stalls your project and you realize you’ve spent four months on your first paragraph. Just can’t leave it until I get it right.
Here’s a tip: take a break from that feverish first draft and look around at your lonely writer’s room. See, there’s nobody watching, not even the ghost of your sixth grade English teacher.
There’s plenty of time for revision and polish and reworking–after you have that first rough draft finished. My fellow Oregonian, Ken Kesey was fond of saying, “Junk it through.” Just get the darned thing down, then go back with your magnifying glass and your thesauraus.
When I tell you, “Write at absoulute top speed,” I’m talking about getting that first draft done, letting your most honest, inner self do the writing, not that carefully controlled ‘correct’ person you like to show the world. Allen Ginsburg said, “First thought, best thought.”
How can we break through to our strongest inner voice, say what we really mean? It’s a scary task, but the rewards are substantial.
Lombard Street in San Francisco is so steep and winding that many people are afraid to even drive down it. Picture this: It has just rained and it’s one of those rare freezing winter days in The City (as the locals like to capitalize it) You stand at the top of the street. You’re wearing high heels (or cowboy boots, if “heels” makes you nervous).
You start down the hill. You slip, you slide, your foot goes upside your head, you do an involuntary split. You may look ridiulous, you may look akward, but you will discover moves you never knew you had in you.
Keep that in mind as you start to write. You’re trying to keep ahead of your internal censor. Get that stuff down before that other, more cautionary voice creeps in.
A clear, inspirational treatment of this subject can be found in, Writing From the Body, For Writers, Artists and Dreamers Who Long to Free Your Voice,” by John Lee, St. Martin’s Press.
Let us close with the words of Walt Whitman. “Dismiss what insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”
By the way, remember to WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.


Today, we ask three questions. The right answers have the power to change your writing life:

1. What does your main character want more than anything else in the world?
2. What is he or she willing to do to get it?
3. What stands in the way?
Sculptors often construct a wire frame called an armature on which to build and shape their work. The three questions above provide the armature for your novel–the basic structure.
If you’re one of those people who likes automotive analogies (you know who your are) think of these three questions as your novel’s drive train; the engine, the transmission, the differential. Or the gas and air and fire trapped in those cyllinders. If I knew anything about cars, I could probably extend this already strained metaphor to the breaking point–but you get my drift.
Why are these three questions so important? Without a main character who has a strong need or desire, there will be nothing to drive your story. Your character will plop in front of the tube and snarf cheetos for twenty chapters.
Many people think and dream about some goal or some need, but that’s all the farther it goes. To drive a novel, your character has to act on this need.
No story is complete without an opposing force, a bad person, an antagonist. Your main character has to act on his or her own, not be rescued by some convenient outside force. Especially if that force is mounted on a big white horse.
I’ve always thought that the success of the Dirty Harry movies hinged on the awfulness of the crooks he encountered. Harry’s pursuit of these sadistic freaks allowed the reader to empathize with his somewhat violent approach to law enforcemtn. Wow, that dude deserves to face Dirty Harry’s wrath.
These movies aren’t for everyone, that’s certain, but for lovers of the genre, we have the classic pull between good and evil. So our character has something big standing between him and his goal. The more significant that obstacle is, the better your novel will be.
Time to take a test. (Relax, you get to grade it yourself.)
Put your feet up on your desk, take a taste of whatever you’re drinking these days, close your eyes and think about these three questions.
Go ahead, do it. Right now.
Now grade yourself on how easy or difficult it was to answer those questions.
Easy=good. Hard=bad.
If the answers seemed obvious, and you rattled them right off, you’re probably on the right track.
However, if one or the other of them gave you some problems, a yellow caution light should pop on in your head. If the questions seemed unanswerable, make that light red.
The engine that will drive your story is not running on all its cyllinders and will likely crap out, metaphorically, forty miles east of Tonopah. That’s the literary equivalent of the first fifty pages.
Those of you have driven through the great state of Nevada know there is nothing forty miles east of Tonopah.
Now try this: Get off the Internet. Pull out your yellow pad or fire up your word processor and FIGURE OUT THE ANSWERS. Work, sweat, research, take a long walk, free write. Do whatever it takes to identify what your main character really wants, what action he or she is willing to take to get there, and what stands in the way. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, your book is dead. And, in the words of George Jones, “That’s the cold, hard truth.”
If this assignment wasn’t difficult enough, let me add another level of complexity. It’s entirely possible that, as the book begins, your main character doesn’t know what she wants more than anything in the world, doesn’t realize how much she is capable of doing and has no clue what incredible obstacles stand in her path. But somebody better know. And that somebody is you.
Let me know how this exercize worked out for you. Send me your success stories, your catastrophic literary collapses.
As always, WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED. (watch for futher posts on the efffacy of this approach.)

“Bang, bang, bangow Writers, , bang, four shots ripped through my groin, and so began the most fantastic adventure of my career.”
This famous parody first sentence introduces the subject of our message today: “Slow Starts.” This just happens to be the first chapter of my work-in-progress, Top Ten Mistakes Fiction Writers Make: And How to Fix Them. (little plug there.)
I’ve lost count of how many novels I’ve edited that begin with giant chunks of backstory, or long sequences of ‘driving to the story,’ or a major flashback that left me wondering where the book was going. My advice for today is take a look at your manuscript and see if you can locate the “inciting incident,” the action that starts the plot in motion (more about this “incident” in subsequent posts.) Where in your manuscript does this incident occur? If it’s thirty pages in, four or five chapters in, rethink your opening. In the first few pages we should know who the main players are, and what is at stake.
I’ve been re-reading one of Carl Hiassen’s earlier books, Lucky You. It’s all about the quest for stolen lottery tickets. We meet the usual gang of shady characters that cavort through the steamy south Florida landscape Haissen has made famous. He gives us the inciting incident, buying the winning lottery ticket, and introduces the characters we know will soon be fighting over it. The first chapter is funny, interesting people come on stage, and we see the setting in all its grungy detail. After fourteen pages we know exactly what kind of a wild ride we’re in for.
Take a look at your manuscript’s opening chapter. Have you done that kind of work? As I’m sure you’ve heard, agents and editors will seldom get beyond the first few page if the story doesn’t grab them.
Give me your thoughts and comments. Your horror stories and your successes. Now go hit those keys. And, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.