Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Random Thoughts On A Writerly Life

This month marks the 45th anniversary of my debut as a writer -- that is someone who got paid for writing -- and I recall that my first byline was a story on a local Marine drowning while on combat maneuvers on Okinawa.

I was paid 15 bucks for that article; that is 15 bucks for each Saturday that I toiled in the newsroom of my local rag writing mostly obituaries. As compared to the sweet 100 grand and six weeks of paid vacation that I negotiated my way to while covering the O.J. Simpson murders and criminal trial five days a week for 16 straight months in 1995-96, as well as writing a syndicated column on the Trial of the Century.
Early on, I found it relatively easy to write for others as a rewrite man who would take notes from reporters in the field and then craft deadline stories under their bylines in their voices. But I have no idea when I found my voice as a writer. I just woke up one day and realized that I had one.

That voice is familiar to readers of this blog: Edgy and fairly simple language and sentence and paragraph structure with an occasional 10 dollar word thrown in because, doncha know,
sometimes a big or obscure word can make a sentence more interesting and sometimes even lyrical as it rolls through the reader's mind.

As far as an ethic, I try to get out ahead of a story by explaining what might come next, not what already has happened. And when expressing my own view, doing so provocatively.

The hardest thing I ever did was write the obituary of a newspaper columnist friend who was stabbed to death by a punk while waiting in line at a Seven-11. It was harder than climbing a 13,000 foot mountain in Colorado or hiking out onto the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with blister-covered feet. It was hard because I not only adored Russell and was heartbroken, but I was told to write the obituary in the voice of the paper's obituary writer, who was not up to the task although the obit would carry his famous byline.

Oh, and by the way, every story can be told in 25 words or less. Don't believe me? Check out this 25 word gem from a recent New York Times:

In the years since 2001, neither our worst fear nor our highest hopes have been realized. But what passes for normal has exacted a price.
That about covers it, eh?

The only thing that I have not been able to write is comedy, and God knows I tried when a wealthy benefactress who planned to market a line of stuffed elephants called Repiglicans and donkeys called Demoquacks to sell at political conventions paid me a nice advance to come up with witticisms to package with the critters. I bombed. Badly.

Have I, you might ask, ever written something that could not be improved upon? Absolutely not, and that covers somewhere over 12,000 articles, magazine pieces and a true-crime book. (This article probably comes closest.)

With an exquisite sense of timing, I retired from the newspaper business six weeks before the 9/11 attacks, but found I still needed to scratch my writerly itch. I also was being bugged by people to write about my life experiences. These people notably included my children, who as youngsters never tired of my telling them stories of my mischievous youth and teenaged years, and later my world travels.

And so I became a blogger.
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I am currently mentoring via email a Zulu lad who is a friend of a former stateside newspaper colleague for whom things were not crazy enough in the U.S., which prompted her to move to South Africa.

My advice to him about gud . . . er, good writing is as follows:

The most important thing is KEEPING YOUR READER IN MIND.

Who is your audience? Is the level of information in the piece that you are writing suitable for this audience? Is the language simple enough if you are writing for a general audience? Is it challenging enough if you are writing for a more sophisticated audience?


Why are you writing a particular article or story? What message do you want to impart? Do you want to merely entertain or amuse? Do you merely want to share a simple tale? Or do you want to educate your audience about a particular subject? If you are able to figure this out first, then writing the article or story will be easier.


Try not to write too broadly and narrow down your topic to a specific aspect or angle. People are far less interested in being, say, a passenger in a story on bus trips in general than specific kinds of bus trips.


In my true-crime mystery book, I kill off the protagonist in the very first sentence of the very first paragraph:

The smell of snow was in the air as Eddie Joubert opened the back door to the Bottom of the Fox and walked down the steps for the last time.

I then keep the reader hanging for most of the book about whether his murder is solved.


This is less important in a book than in an article or story, but the reader should know fairly quickly why you are writing what you are writing.

If it is a non-fiction article, KNOW YOUR FACTS.

If you are writing about a bus trip from East London to Durban in South Africa, make sure you know what the distance is, as well as the sights, sounds and smells and the types of people you are likely to encounter as fellow passengers. This is not just because accuracy is important, but because you can't fool readers who will always know more than you.


Are you able to present experiences to which others can relate? Can you tap into their emotions? I, for instances, sought to get readers of my book to relate to Eddie Joubert and his circle of friends.

ADD COLOR to what you write.

"Color" means words and descriptions that help your readers to see, hear, smell and even feel what you are writing about. Getting back to the first sentence and paragraph of my book, note that I write:

The smell of snow was in the air and except for a thin ribbon of light in the western sky it already was dark.

While some people may have never experienced the smell of snow, people in colder climes know exactly what an approaching snow storm smells like, while anyone can relate to that thin ribbon of light in the moments before the sun sets.


Just as better informed readers will know if you have written haphazardly about a bus trip from East London to Durban, readers have a sixth sense about knowing whether a writer has conviction or is merely going through the motions.


This not only avoids bogging down the reader, but it can sometimes add an edge to your writing.


I always avoid overused expressions such as "light as a feather" or "sly as a fox" because they are products of lazy writing. Try to find a less trite way to say something.


If I had the luxury of not having a deadline breathing down my neck, I interviewed some people two or three times for newspaper articles. I interviewed some people four or five times for my book, which went through many drafts. When it was finally done, parts of it bore little resemblance to the first draft.


That may be the last thing you want to do at the end of a hard day, so make it the first thing you do in the morning. My friend Pete Dexter, who won the National Book Award for Paris Trout, writes every morning without exception.
Okay, you can have off on weekends.
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If I still have your attention, I refer you to "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," an essay by Mark Twain, the second funniest American evah behind Groucho Marx, that will give you a good laugh while improving your writing

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