Fast Beginnings.

When you begin any writing piece, you must begin fast. Usain Bolt fast. Don’t waste time in warm-up. Don’t meander. Don’t get mired down in backstory.  You may (or may not) have time for that later.

If you don’t move fast, your reader will not keep reading.

Slate.com has a great piece outlining this phenomenon:“How People Read Online.”  Thirty-eight percent of readers who begin an online story will not make it to the second sentence.

Writers, be warned. You may love the background of your story, the winding way you discovered your content.  But your readers do not.  If you want to keep them around, say less, not more.  And maybe you will all make it to the finish line.

 

In Praise of Rainn Wilson’s Big Fat Head

I started Rainn Wilson’s autobiography, The Bassoon King, yesterday. It leads with one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a while.

Chapter 1: What Shall We Name Baby Fathead?

“I had the biggest, fattest head of any baby that was ever born into the human species. My head was–and remains–a combination of the head from the alien in Alien and a prize-winning albino casaba melon from the Iowa State Fair.”

Well done, Rainn, well done.  I love this opening for multiple reasons.

First, it begins quickly, without long-winded introductory remarks or caveats.  When readers begin Chapter 1, they’re ready to begin. So get going. Lead with fireworks.

Second, it’s vivid without being pretentious. The language is descriptive but not obscure. Nearly all of his readers will read the words “biggest, fattest” and hear echoes of their own childhoods, wherein something or somebody was a “big, fat” something. By the time readers reach his fourth and fifth words, they already know how to track his story. It fits in with their own childhood experiences.

Finally, and most notably, self-deprecating humor is almost always a good idea. We know Wilson is writing this book because he is already a famous and successful actor. (Dwight Schrute wrote the Foreword, by the way. Brilliant move!) Leading with self-deprecation allows him to be something else–vulnerable, personable, and endearing.  In less than two seconds, I read his opening lines, laughed, and decided I liked him. Turns out, there’s a big, fat head in all of us.

Why I Hate Jargon

Jargon alienates. Writing should connect.

Business jargon, academic jargon, and even middle school jargon is designed to delineate who’s in and who’s out. Too often, writers and speakers have buried themselves so far in their own small communities, they forget to think about why they are using the words they use.

In fact, jargon has a use–though highly targeted and small. It is the language of specialization, useful as a shorthand for those deeply steeped in a common field. So, by all means, if your audience is small, use the jargon of your community.

But if you wish to cross the threshold to a wider community, think more deeply. Never use a complicated word when a short word will do. Use words to bring your audience in. Words, at their best, are not divisive weapons for proving your superiority. They are olive branches of understanding, a common table at which to sit, and a tool for building better communities and a better world.

Should I Write a Book? Part 2

My first answer to “Should I Write a Book?” is yes.

Here’s my answer to the next question: Am I a good enough writer to write a book?
The answer: You can be.

Writing is a skill. It’s a skill you can improve. It’s also best done in a community. If you want to write a book, you need to improve your skill and find your community. The tricks are not complicated, but there are no shortcuts. You must read, write, and connect.

READ. READ A LOT.

To improve your skill, you need to read. Specifically, you need to read the kind of books you wish you had written.  (For the record, I wish I had written Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or The Art of the Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander.) At a minimum, you should be reading two or three books a month. Truly, you want that number to be as high as it can be.

WRITE. WRITE A LOT.

Are you writing at least one hour a day? How many days a month can you write? To be a writer is to decide that writing is important. You’ll know how important it is to you by the number of hours you spend on it in a day or a week or a month?  Let me be honest: Most people who want to write a book actually want to have written a book.  I must repeat: Most people who want to write a book actually want to have written a book. Those who follow through are those who find the motivation to spend hundreds of lonely hours at a keyboard.

CONNECT

Books are not written in isolation.  Writers are supported by communities of writing groups, early readers, and editors.  To enter those communities, you must be brave. Sharing an early draft is often like sharing a humiliating before picture without an after. But share you must. The present humiliation is merely the foundation for a future victory.

Finally, listen. Listen to your readers and to your editors. What you meant to say is not relevant. You need to hear what your readers thought you said. Writing is a grueling, but rewarding process and the only real way to fail is to learn nothing. If you begin, and if you persist, it may be one of the most enduring successes of your life.

The Curse of the English Major and Why I’m Doing Good

When people ask me about my college major, and I say, “English,” they typically apologize.  Really.  Well more than half of those who hear the word “English” respond with “I’m sorry…” or “You’ll have to forgive my…”

They’ve been suddenly transported from a perfectly lovely conversation to the excruciating cauldron of a final exam.  They imagine every red mark they’ve ever seen on their essays and guess I’m silently giving red marks for grammatical errors. I think they might believe I can even tell if they’re misspelling words as they speak!

Never fear, my friends. Perhaps there are English majors and English teachers who have been nothing but grammar nazis in your life, but I know a better way.

Language is about communicating.  Yes, there are more and less efficient ways to communicate and sometimes those relate to matters of correctness, but most of all, we must speak and write so that we might be understood.

In fact, many times the “incorrect” case communicates better than the “correct” case.

Here’s an example:

In my hometown, people often ask, “How are you?” and the appropriate cultural response is “good.”  I know that the grammatically correct response is “well” or “I’m doing well” and I know very well why this is so.  However, depending on who asks, to say “well” sounds pretentious. It doesn’t communicate a friendly introduction to small talk; it communicates, “I’m more educated than you.” So without reservation, I frequently say “good” when the situation calls for it.  Correctness is not going to matter a lick if it can’t communicate.

 

Tips for Beautiful and Effective Writing

This is one of my favorites from Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing: 

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

Words are music. They must sing to break through.  Careful attention to sentence length is one of the most practical tools for blending the syntactical with the aesthetic.  Make it beautiful and make it work. Make it sing.

smallviolin

 

Should I Write a Book? Part 1

I get this question question frequently. I firmly believe that every life is a beautiful story, and every life has beautiful stories to tell. So my first answer is yes.  Yes, writing a book of any kind is a wonderful personal endeavor. The process itself is a great teacher. A finished piece is a thing of beauty and something to be proud of.

Here’s the catch: Most of the time, when people ask me about writing a book, they are actually asking a series of questions they haven’t even asked themselves yet.  Am I good enough to write a book? What book should I write? Am I going to become a famous writer? Should I quit my well-paying job and become a writer? These questions are “a horse of a different color.”

Read Part 2