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.
Dude.
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.
Now, off the net: WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.
John

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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:
http://www.grammarphobia.com/books_woe.html
As always, WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.
John

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 http://www.writerswelcome.com/.
Now, go WRITE AT ABSOLUTE TOP SPEED.
John


Too cool not to share:
Thanks to a writer friend in Santa Barbara, I’ve been introduced to the Canadian poet, Anne Carson: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/317. 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.
John

        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.
      John

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: http://www.sbwriters.com/. Our poetry writers should take note of the “Weekend of Poetry” workshop the Conference is sponsoring on March 13th-15th in Santa Barbara.