Attention to Details

 

Attention to detail

Attention to detail matters.

“What’s wrong with a drawer full of jar lids?” I asked Roz Chast during the Q & A following her recent author talk before a capacity crowd.

I’d hesitated to ask the question because it was so unlike the questions about process and inspiration readers usually ask authors. But I’d loved her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – except for the one frame about the jar lids, which bothered me both personally and professionally.

You can read my personal reasons at Living In Place; the professional reason are about craft, and are what this post is about.

DETAILS

Attention to Detail

Chast’s graphic memoir about caring for her elderly parents.

Chast’s frame about the drawer full of jar lids struck me as off, not just because I have a drawer full of jar lids, but because Chast didn’t give me enough information about what made this bizarre.

All the other frames in the section – photographs rather than drawings – of the “stuff” she was left to clean out of the apartment in which her parents had lived for forty-eight years made sense: the photos show piles of magazines and papers, dozens of handbags and several defunct electric razors. It’s clear that the things we save – sometimes deliberately for reasons of potential usefulness or sentiment and sometimes from sheer neglect – take on a meaning of their own to she who has to sift through it. I know; I’ve just emptied my dad’s desk of pens that had run out of ink.

As a reader, I simply wanted more information about why Chast chose this particular detail, because it wasn’t clear to me the way it was clear why she chose to photograph her mother’s two-dozen nearly indistinguishable old handbags and electric razors that clearly no longer worked. So I asked.

“Rusty jar tops?” she said, her voice rising as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

I got it.

And I got more.

Chast went on to tell a story about a man who’d saved the screw tops of toothpaste tubes. He’d always planned to use them as lampshades for his granddaughter’s dollhouse.

This is a detail I’ll never forget because Chast did more than simply answer my question: she told me another story. In the process, she illustrated the kind of details that help a reader get what the writer is trying to convey. She amplified the characterization of the narrator of her memoir’s persona with her intonation and nose wrinkle, “They’re rusty!” And she created an idiosyncratic grandfather who saw the potential for miniature lampshades in every toothpaste tube cap.

THE TAKE AWAY

A single vivid detail can make the difference between the mundane and the memorable. If you make your details accurate and vivid, you will help your reader will see objects and attitudes the way you want them to. That’s authority.

www.deborahleeluskin.com

Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

 

How To Write An Obit

How to Write An Obit

My Dad. 7/23/1925 – 7/19/2018

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer and never plan to write for publication, chances are you will someday have to write an obituary for someone you’ve loved and lost.

How to Write An Obit

Mom, circa 1940.

I know this, because last week I wrote an obit for my dad. Six years earlier, I wrote one for my mom.

While I included the usual details of where they each were born, what they did for their livings, and where and when they died, their lives were a great deal richer than a collection of biographical facts.

Collect the Facts

Since it’s entirely possibly that you’ll be a blubbery mess when the time comes, you’ll want to collect all the facts about your subject before you start writing. Professional obit writers keep files on famous people for when the time comes. You might want to start a file now on those for whom you expect to write an obituary. You also might want to create a document with such details about yourself and file it along with your Advance Care Plan, your Last Will and Testament, the key to your Safe Deposit Box, and a list of your passwords, to make it easier for your survivors to tie up lose ends.

Consider Your Audience

Next, just as in writing anything else, you must consider your audience. The obit you write for the local paper may emphasize someone’s community service, whereas the one you send to a professional organization’s publication will narrate the arc of the person’s career. Make it easy on yourself: write a master obit with a paragraph for each section. This makes it easy to cut and paste shorter versions to the different places where an obit is likely to appear.

Make it Meaningful

Then consider what made this person’s life worth living. For most of us, our obituary will appear in the local paper one day and line the litter box the next, but readers will always remember a story. Tell stories about this  person’s one wild and precious life.

Links to Worksheets

Here’s a link to three examples, each for the same fictional person. I wrote these examples for a workshop I taught on obituary writing. The first is just the bare minimum: Who died, where, when and how (optional). The second is Standard Vanilla, with the usual details and not a whole lot more. The third gives you more detail and more flavor of the person who didn’t just die, but who lived – and how.

And here’s a link to a worksheet to help you gather the facts you’ll want to have on hand.

Having the Last Word

How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary – one draft if you died today and another if you live to be one hundred. Then figure out how to make the second one come true.

Blessings to you all, ~Deborah.

Write an Obit

Family Photo, circa 1962

Write an Obit

Family Photo, August 2005

Write An Obit

Family Photo, June 2018

 

 

 

Reposting: B.S. (Be Specific)

No_Bullshit            B.S. is one of the abbreviations I pencil in the margin of prose I’m reviewing –my own or a client’s. It stands for Be Specific, though it evokes a different two-word expletive that means much the same thing.

The best way to be specific is to know what you want to say – and sometimes that takes several meandering drafts. Once you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish in a scene or a post, a chapter, a story or a report, you can guide your reader to understand you clearly with specific language – with words.

Words can be general, like the word food – the fuel that sustains life. A general word fails to give your reader much guidance, leaving her to imagine grapes when you imagined roast beef.

Words that are more specific are limited in scope, like the word snack – which is a small amount of food between meals. This narrows what your reader can imagine, though one reader might think carrot sticks and another chocolate chip cookies with milk.

Words that are concrete are even more specific, and tell your reader exactly what to imagine. Make the snack chips, and you’ve given your reader the kind of narrow direction that allows him to see just what you intended.

Of course, words don’t exist by themselves, and the more specific you can make them all, the clearer your reader will see. Here are two different examples.

George held the bag between his knees, pushing a steady stream of chips in his mouth as he sat in traffic.

            Jeremy set out blue corn chips in a yellow bowl to brighten the November afternoon.

Here are some other examples of general, specific and concrete words:

  • Clothes, business casual, khakis
  • Writing, poetry, sonnet
  • Birds, raptors, eagle

You get the idea.

Adjectives are another opportunity to Be Specific. Here’s an example from My Writing Bible, The Harbrace College Handbook:

  • Bad planks: rotten, warped, scorched, knotty, termite-eaten
  • Bad children: rowdy, rude, ungrateful, selfish, perverse
  • Bad meat: tough, tainted, overcooked, contaminated

Every time we use a general adjective, we miss an opportunity to guide our readers closer to what we mean. English is a rich language, so there’s no excuse for using small when you could say so much more with tiny, microscopic, sub-atomic, undeveloped; or big when you could say plump, hulking, towering, Herculean.

A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms, and it’s a good place to find words. I find mine in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, originally published in 1852 and revised many times since. I love poking around in it, and find it much more complete and satisfying to use than the thesaurus in my word-processor.

It is a writer’s job to direct readers to reimagine for themselves what you mean. Since readers bring their own, varying, experiences and prejudices to your work, you must give specific instructions that narrow how your work can be understood. You must be authoritarian. And one of the best methods is to cut the BS and Be Specific with your words.

While I’m away, I’m rerunning some posts with writing advice worth repeating. This post originally appeared here on December 3, 2013.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rural and rooted life in Vermont, which I chronicle in my weekly blog, Living in Place. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Please visit my website to learn more about my mission: advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change. Thanks!

Reposting: A Brief Guide to Narrative Navigation

            In British English, punctuation at the end of a sentence is called a “full stop,” – just like the red, octagonal, road sign at an intersection. Indeed, basic punctuation is a great deal like road signs, instructing the reader when to slow down, yield, and stop. In this way, punctuation is a great tool – a way for a writer to lead her reader through a labyrinth of ideas without either of them getting lost. Here’s an abbreviated driver’s manual summarizing the punctuation/signage that will help you and your readers through a safe narrative journey.

The Comma. This little subscript mark is possibly the second most misused punctuation mark – after the apostrophe. It indicates a brief pause, like the letting up on the accelerator as you approach a cross walk where there might be pedestrians crossing, or a yield sign, indicating an important clause is about to enter the sentence.

The comma is also used before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) linking two independent clauses – just the way a driver hesitates when crossing a four-way intersection on a country road, where stop signs aren’t posted.

A comma follows an introductory clause or phrase, just as a driver can let up on the accelerator after zooming up the entrance ramp of a limited-access highway and achieving highway speed. And commas set off little elements, like non-restrictive clauses, parenthetical remarks, dates, and the like. These commas help a reader negotiate stop-and-go traffic, and can be as trying as a traffic jam when overused.

Overusing commas is similar to when a driver pumps the gas, creating a staccato motion that causes car-sickness and is not reader-friendly. Similarly, when commas are too infrequently used a reader could become anxious with breathlessness the way a driver who never pauses to read street signs can end up hopelessly lost.

The Semi-colon. If it’s possible to have a favorite punctuation mark, this would be mine. The semi-colon is all about linking equal parts. When a semi-colon joins two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction, it’s a sign to the reader that the ideas are equal; she must supply the mental connection of ideas just as drivers at a four-way stop sign must agree on an order for taking turns across the intersection. The semi-colon indicates the need for cooperation, and I like that.

The semi-colon is also used to separate coordinate elements that contain commas, like a long, complicated, list of items. This use of semi-colons resembles those giant, overhead, signs on the interstate that separate drivers into different lanes according to their destinations.

The Colon: This mark instructs a reader to pay attention, something important is coming up, just like the orange signs on the highway alerting a driver of upcoming hazards, like construction, a change of pavement or a bump. It says, “Heads up!”

The Period. Full stop. Ignore this mark at your peril! It is the stoplight that must be obeyed at all costs. Without it, intersections of ideas would be chaotic pile-ups. Even a single idea without a period at the end is as dangerous as a road that goes off a cliff. A period provides closure, and every reader wants to be told when to stop.

Learning to stop can be difficult, but with the price of gas going up in direct opposition to readers’ time, it’s a critical skill. So even though there are more signs worth knowing how to use, like the apostrophe, the dash, parentheses, quotation marks, exclamation point, question mark and the interrobang, these marks are beyond the purview of this post.

Happy Motoring!

This piece originally posted August 21, 2012. I’ve scheduled reruns while I’m on summer vacation, and hope this ones reminds everyone to drive safely during the summer holidays. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rooted and rural life in Vermont which I chronicle on my blog, Living in Place.

Please my website to learn more about my mission to tell stories to create change. Thanks for reading!

Reposting: Six Writing Lessons From The Garden

veg garden I love to garden. It’s a meditative activity – something I can do while my mind freewheels. Last Sunday, I found myself thinking how preparing a small vegetable patch is like writing a book.
Lesson 1: Writing is Solitary.Scarecrow

For the first time in thirty years, I’m planting the garden solo. My husband helped me install the fence posts (just as he built the studio where I write), but he prefers to nurture the orchard. I’m on my own, just as I write by myself during the week while he’s off tending to his patients’ health.

Lesson 2: Selectivity is Good.

There was a time when we grew and preserved all our food – but no longer. We’re now supplied with locally grown produce from a neighbor’s organic farm, so I’m only planting high-value items that are harder to find in local markets – shallots and leeks, fennel, veg garden2escarole and Brussels sprouts – as well as items we consume in quantity – cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers and a wide assortment of culinary herbs.

I’m leaving the prosaic vegetables – the zucchini and green beans, the carrots and potatoes – to the production professionals. In a similar way, I’ve retired from the teaching, managerial and editorial jobs that others can do as well as or even better than I can. No one else can tell the stories I imagine, so I’m concentrating on them.

Lesson 3: Limits are Helpful.

GardenPrep050513I started by limiting the scope of my garden. I’ve fenced off an eight- by sixteen-foot rectangle to keep the free-range chickens out, and to keep my intentions focused – and manageable. Our previous gardens were huge, time-sucking affairs, and sometimes we raised an equal quantity of weeds as tomatoes. Similarly, over the past year, I’ve drafted thousands of words about my character’s life. But recently, I’ve come to realize that the story I’m telling takes place over the course of nineteen months. So that’s what I’ll develop; everything else must come out, just like the weeds.

Lesson 4: Writing Takes Time.

At the outset, a hundred and twenty-eight square feet looks just as big as a 100,000-word novel, and turning it over with a hand fork appears as daunting as filling a ream of paper by pen. My husband offered to do this heavy task for me; he sundialwould have had the garden-plot ready in less than an hour. I thanked him and said I would do it myself. It took me three hours, during which time I meditated on how preparing the garden is like writing a novel. I stopped only for water and to take pictures for this post, which I was composing as I dug.

Lesson 5: Small Tasks Yield Success.

gardenprep10A week earlier, I’d covered my plot with a tarp to warm the earth and kill weeds. The weeds continued to flourish, however, and the prospect of turning the soil by hand and pulling the weeds out by the root was too much. So I put the tarp back in place and

Working a small section at a time.

Working a small section at a time.

uncovered only a quarter of the space. After I turned those thirty-two square feet, I peeled the tarp back again, turning and weeding the next section. Now, the job was half done. I folded the tarp back again and again, always giving myself a small, measurable task that I could reasonably accomplish. Writing a book is just the same: I break each chapter into sections, and each section into paragraphs, each paragraph into sentences, each sentence into words. Each time I stuck the fork into the soil, it was a reminder that books are written one word at a time.

Lesson 6: The End is the Beginning

By the time I had raked the soil into beds and outlined the footpath with string, my neck was sunburned, my back was sore, and I was ready for a bath. I was done – for the day. I now had a well-defined garden plot with clearly outlined beds as weed-free as a clean piece of paper. Even though I was done-in, I’m anything but done. In fact, I’m just ready to start.

GardenPrep8Ellen, the novel I’m crafting, is further along than my garden. But the garden is a good reminder about how to maintain forward progress on this first draft. My afternoon preparing my garden yielded these six truths: 1) Even though I work alone, I’m deeply engaged with my characters; 2) every time I cut out a scene or a character or an unnecessary word, I gain a clearer sense of what aspect of the story to nurture; 3) knowing the limit of the narrative has helped me focus on the story I have to tell; 4) drafting the novel is taking a long time – and I make progress daily; 5) I experience the elation of success when I set myself small, measurable tasks; and 6) every time I finish a section, a chapter, an entire draft, I’m ready to begin another section, another chapter, another draft.  And even when that’s done – even when the writing and revision are finished – there’s another whole set of steps to see a book to completion, but those are chores of another season.

This growing season has just started. I tell myself, if I write word by word, weed by weed, my effort will blossom, and in time, I’ll see my book in my readers’ hands.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely garden bed ready for seeds.

I garden and write about my rural, rooted life in Vermont at Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 5, 2013. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Know your audience (Who are you?)

I’m new here.

My first post was supposed to be at the end of December. It was titled, “What did you write in 2017.” But then my snarky inner voice chimed in, “did you even write anything in 2017?”

Of course I wrote.

whatiwrote_1

What I wrote in 2017

I wrote shopping lists and to-do lists.

I wrote cover letters, thank you letters, and condolence letters.

I wrote job announcements and bid announcements.

I wrote newsletters and love letters.

 

I wrote finance reports, grant reports, and project reports. I wrote e-mails (so many e-mails).

Most of my writing is anonymous or functional. The majority is both. It is technical writing, which means it is a step in a process, but not the final product. The benefit s of this type of writing is that it is published, it is read, and it is paid. The downside is that my writing is functional. It is more likely to alter someone’s to-do list than their sense of wonder.

My favorite part of being a pen-for-hire is knowing my purpose. My audience varies from officers at the Environmental Protection Agency, to parents at an after-school program, to clowns. When I sit down to write, the first question I ask myself is “who will read this”? Followed closely by “why am I writing this.” How I write, and what details I include, vary based on the reader.

This clarity can be a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to creative writing. One of the biggest challenges I face when I sit down to my creative projects is a sense of purpose. There is no deadline. There is no guaranteed paycheck. And, most troubling, there is no audience. 2017 wasn’t exclusively a year of functional writing. I also I wrote two plays, two performances pieces, and six (and a half) short stories. Some of these pieces have been performed or shared in a workshop, but most have only had an audience of one (me).

One of my goals for 2018, is to get more work in front of an audience.

That’s where you come in.

whoareyou?

Who are you?

The trouble is, I don’t know you.

Who are you? What do you want to read? What brings you to Live To Write, Write To Live?

I’m excited to write about: making time for a writing practice, combatting self-doubt, sharing unfinished work, and blogging ethics. What do you want to read?

I look forward to reading your responses in the comments and getting to know you!

Small_headshotNaomi Shafer is a writer, performer, and project manager. She works for Clowns Without Borders. Her written work has been performed at an array of theaters, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, Middlebury College, the New England Youth Theatre, and Peppercorn Theatre. She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

Narrowing down the PURPOSE of your blog

 

 

 

 

I’m currently teaching an adult education class on how to start a blog.

When I teach these classes, we spend much time during the first class trying to narrow down the purpose of the blog you want to create. Before you can write your first word, you need to figure out what you are going to write about. Just like when you work on any writing project, you need to outline and plan. You need to make a map so that you’ll know where you are going.

It’s vitally important for both you and for your readers to not get lost.

Unless you are very famous, (and even then, it is “iffy”) or the most exciting person in the world, no one wants to read about what you do every day.

A blog should not be a diary. There is no purpose to that.

Instead what a blog should be is a collection of “like-minded” topics that provide value. Sometimes that value is to teach and sometimes it’s simply to entertain. Often a blog’s topic is specific, for example you could write posts about cooking, traveling, books that you’ve read, or fun activities you can do with the kids.

Whatever topic you choose, you should remain devoted to that topic. At all times.

If you have a blog about cooking, then your readers will expect to read about cooking. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can *never* write about anything else, but keep in mind that every time you stray from your topic, you run the risk of confusing your readers – Hey, what happened to the recipes?

Every time you stray from the topic, your readers stray from your map and we all know that that means they might get lost.

A lost reader is one who might not come back.

But what if you write about many topics? Does that mean that you can’t write in your blog or have to have different blogs? In my personal blog I write about parenting, recipes, books, I’ve read, and chickens, but here’s the thing – all my topics fall under the umbrella of “living with children and chickens in New Hampshire.” So I get away with it. (Or at least I hope I do.)

I describe my blog as being like a women’s magazine. I have many topics, but they are all covered under that little tag-line of mine that sits right there at the top of the blog  – children and chickens. It’s a mighty umbrella under which all my topics fit.

This doesn’t mean that your blog can’t evolve. In the early days, my blog went from talking about my newspaper column to focusing heavily on chickens and the kids. For years I wrote about the lessons I learned from our flocks, both chicken and children.

I think my blog is about to evolve again. This summer all our chickens were brutally killed by a predator that came in the night and took out each bird one-by-one.

Right now we are chickenless.

I haven’t written about chickens since spring and I’m not sure we will be getting more chickens next year (cranky neighbors have something to do with it.) I can continue as is (just because my chickens are gone doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn from them) or I can make a modification for my readers and concentrate on other topics. I haven’t decided yet, but when I do, I need to tell my readers what is going on and where we are now headed.

My point is that your blog should never be confusing for your readers. If you don’t write about the purpose and topic of your blog then you need to address that sooner rather than later. You’ll either have to change the purpose, topic, or both so that your new blog map becomes clear.

And if you do it sooner rather than later, you’ll have less chance of losing any of your readers.

 

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.