Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There's No Cliche Like a Sunset: How To Ruin Your Writing Without Having To Think About It

Everyone loves a beautiful sunset. I took this photo from the companionway of our boat a couple of weeks ago. It's the rainy season here in the tropical Pacific and this means great sunsets and sunrises because there are lots of clouds filled with water. It's a pretty neat picture because of the complexity of the cloud patterns and the wonderful colors.

What's the problem then? The problem is that sunset photos long ago became visual cliches--sentimental and overdone. No one can resist taking pictures of them and family photo albums are full of them.

The same is true with verbal cliches. They sound cool and colorful and for the first person who used them, they were. Using a phrase like, "It was a dark and stormy night," something we laugh at when Snoopy uses it, must have seemed like a good idea to the writer who first penned it. Now, though, it's even a cliche as a joke.

So, the lesson is this: Read your manuscripts over carefully and clean out cliches and replace them with original phrases that catch the ear and hold on to it. Because we use cliches so casually in our everyday conversations, you might not be aware of them . There is nothing wrong with having a friend read your stuff to root them out.

It is an absolute truth that every writer needs an editor. In fact, I'll send your teacher the email I just received from the editor of my last book, A Drop of Wizard's Blood so you can see what she said about my writing.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Finding the Elusive Tarradiddle and Other Uses for a Thesaurus

Tarradiddle--it's a read word and I think its a wonderful thing. I'm sixty years old, relatively well educated, a long-time writer, and never, ever, had I run across the word "tarradiddle" until last month. What does it mean? Twaddle, humbug, baloney, bilgewater, bosh, and drool, that's what it means, and those words themselves are very fine, too. Just listen to nonsense embedded in those syllables--twaddle? humbug? Really.

So, how, finally, after most of a lifetime, did I happen upon this addition to my lexicon? I have this computerized thesaurus called The Visual Thesaurus. When I write, I keep it up and running so I can refer to it easily. Lots of fun, really. When you type in a word, there is an explosion of synonyms on the screen like a flower blossoming. I needed a word that would mean--well, twaddle, humbug, and bosh, but something different. Up came "tarradiddle." At first I figured it wasn't a real word--a mistake. In fact, the spell checker on my Word program underlines it in red, meaning, of course, that the word "tarradiddle" is misspelled or doesn't exist. I double checked. It's real, just as real as humbug or bilgewater.

Into my writing it went and I can't wait to use in on some unsuspecting friend during casual conversation. And that's one of the dandy things about writing and using all this modern technology: surprises like tarradiddle. I recommend you get a good thesaurus and use it liberally. It will enrich your writing and your conversation, and that's no tommyrot or tosh.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Writing the Next Book: Where to Begin?

Here's where I begin: with an image. It is an image in my minds eye and in my writer's ear.

In my mind's eye, I can see a scene, like this one. A traditional canoe sailing across a bay somewhere in the Pacific. In my mind's ear, I hear words come together, just a phrase maybe, in a way that makes my heart beat a little faster--there's a feeling of excitement, of promise. The words, one following the other just so, are the beginning of the path I will now take, a path that will lead me through the process of creating something out of nothing.

The goal is to write something that will matter, something that will entertain. It will start in one place and go to another and along the way there will be some sort of adventure, either a physical adventure like the book Hatchet, or an emotional adventure like the The Giver, or a combination of both.

So I start with these images, in my eye and in my ear, and then the hard part comes. I need to answer this question: What is going to happen? Where will we go now? Here are my first thoughts on the book I plan on writing next: It is about a sailing canoe like this one. About two boys or young men, one an island boy, the other not. One will have brown skin and the other will be a mixture--white, brown, yellow. One will know things important to him, the ways of the islands--how to fish, how to sail using the stars and sea to navigate. The other will know things the island boy does not: how to read and many things about the rest of the world beyond the experience of a boy who has spent all his life on a tiny atoll.

They will have a common problem and will need to work together, despite their differences, to overcome it. I'm thinking that I'm going to set the book in the Mariana Islands during World War II. There will be soldiers--it won't matter to the boys if they are Japanese soldiers or American soldiers--and the boys will have to escape the soldiers by moving from island to island while they struggle to survive. Their goal will be to reach an island that legend says has a magical volcano in which the the spirits of the ancestors live and who will protect them and teach them the ways of the ancients.

So, now I see the basic theme of the book emerging: people from different backgrounds, different cultures, with different beliefs and skills having to get along, having to work together, to survive--if the world is going to survive.

My working title will be The Spirit of the Voyage. This comes from the belief held by islanders that every voyage they make has its own spirit, a spirit that travels with the canoe. Writing a book is a voyage, of course, and every book has its own spirit and that spirit comes from the spirit of the writer.

I you have any questions about the Eye of the Stallion trilogy, I'd love to try to answer them.
Let me know what you think.