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!

Learning to Use Scrivener

Scrivener

I first learned about Scrivener, a program to help writers organize long-form projects, from a post by J.A. Hennrikus, right here on Live to Write, Write to Live. A few months later, she posted again about Scrivener, this time about taking a course about how to use it.

Scrivener

I typed on a Smith Corona before I bought my first computer for word processing.

That’s pretty much when I grayed out. I was happy with Microsoft Word, which I’d been using since I bought my first computer in 1984. It was a big advance over the Smith-Corona portable typewriter, which I’d had since high school. That first edition of Microsoft Word was pretty much just like typing, only better. I was good with that.

Then Wendy E. N. Thomas posted about Scrivener, inviting readers to watch her write a book using this tool. Good to her word, she posted a step-by-step guide, a blog post using Scrivener, A.T.T.P, a guide to nailing an outline, and Scrivener Simplified.

I still wasn’t convinced. I was working on other projects with paper, hole-punch, scissors, paperclips and tape. This system was working for me.

Then my writing-buddy brother started using Scrivener, telling me how useful it was for writing plays. He’d share his screen with me, trying to make me believe that this would make my writing life easier.

It was starting to feel like a conspiracy.

Meanwhile, I was sputtering on and off on two long-form projects. Every time I returned to them, I had to reorganize.

I finally got fed up.

It was time, I decided, to try Scrivener.

I’ve downloaded the free, thirty-day trial – which gives you thirty days of actual use, regardless of how many days or weeks it takes you to use them. And when I get stuck, I turn to the many videos and lessons on the Literature and Latte website.

It’s slow-going, and I’m not yet in love with the program, but I am determined to learn it so I can get on with my writing life.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator who blogs weekly at Living in Place. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Working through Problems with Automatic Writing

When I don’t know what I want to say, when I want to go deeper into an idea, and when I want to clear my mind, I turn to automatic writing.

WRITING PRACTICE

Automatic Writing

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is a great source for automatic writing prompts.

In automatic writing, also called psychography, writers put words on the page without the editorial filter. The goal, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her landmark book, Writing Down the Bones, is to keep the hand moving. Spelling and grammar don’t matter. And if the thoughts take a momentary pause, you just keep your hand moving. When this happens to me I write, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck.” Eventually, a new idea will bump the hand into other words.

While I prefer to practice automatic writing with a pen on paper, I sometimes practice it on the computer, typing furiously. In either case, the words don’t always make sense, and that’s okay. The point of automatic writing is not to produce a finished piece but to empty one’s mind onto the page like spilling the contents of a trashcan on the floor, allowing you to sift through the trash and discover the one gem worth saving.

Sometimes that gem is an idea or an image or a new line of thought. It’s a new place to start from.

TEACHING WRITING

I also use automatic writing to teach. I give my students a prompt and set a timer for anywhere from five to fifty minutes. The shorter times help generate memories and images, the longer times allow students to draft whole stories. Practicing automatic writing against the clock often adds a frisson of pressure that helps students focus and stick to the page.

Prompts can be anything that is evocative, from single words (“peacock”), to simple phrases (I remember . . .), to poems, excerpts from fiction or essays, photographs, textures, aromas. Sometimes, I write sentences that start with, “I see . . . .”

automatic writing

Writing for ten minutes is a measurable and achievable goal.

As the writer Dorothy Parker noted, sticking to the page is sometimes the hardest part of writing, but she put it this way: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Expecting to sit down and write all day is often unreasonable, especially at the beginning of a project, when you’re finding your way into a story or theme. But sitting down for ten minutes at a time is a measurable and achievable goal. Moreover, it can be done while waiting in the car, while waiting at the dentist’s office, during the last ten minutes of a lunch break, as soon as you wake up, and last thing before bed.

If you don’t already use automatic writing, give it a try – and let me know how it goes.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin tells stories to create change. Read more at her website and by subscribing to her blog.

 

Axes to Grind

Axes to grind

Two axes to grind

I have two axes to grind: a two-and-a-quarter-pound Boy’s Ax, and a Fiskars 28” Splitting Ax.

Tim gave me the Boy’s Ax for Christmas in 1984, my first winter in Vermont. I was living in a poorly insulated cabin smaller than my Manhattan apartment. I heated the cabin with a small, wood stove. The ax came in handy.

Last year, the ax flew off the handle. This had happened before. As previously, we bought a replacement haft of hickory. But it was also time for a new, heavier, axe, because for the past six years I’ve been splitting wood to heat my writing studio. The building is only a hundred square feet, and the wood stove is tiny; it takes six-inch pieces of wood. So Tim bought me the Fiskars 28, a highly engineered Finnish beauty that cuts wood the way a hot knife cuts butter.

Axes to Grind

A load of logs; my studio in the background.

He should know. Every year, he saws a load of logs to stove length, then splits it all with one of his ever-growing collection of axes and mauls.

AN AX, A PEN, A COMPUTER

A good ax makes a big difference, and not just in cutting firewood. My two axes are as critical to my writing as either a pen or my laptop. Splitting wood, building a fire, stoking the stove, and listening to the chuckle of the fire — these are all part of my writing ritual, and appropriately so. Humans have been using axes since the Stone Age; they predate writing, as does storytelling.

I like to think that after those early ax wielders chopped down trees and split logs and built fires, their clans gathered around that source of light and heat, and told stories. I need both the ax and the pen to follow in this long and distinctly human tradition.

Axes to grind

The tiny wood stove that heats my studio.

Deborah Lee Luskin is an author, speaker and educator dedicated to advancing issues through narrative and telling stories to create change. She blogs at www.deborahleeluskin.com, where this essay was originally posted.

The Rule of Three

three-fingers

While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published January 14, 2014.

Despite my annual resolution not to make New Year’s resolutions, I can’t help myself, so like the Lord High Executioner in the Mikado, I have a little list – not of people to behead, but of things to do. It seems endless, not just with new tasks, like renovate my website, learn how to tweet, and dig an asparagus bed, but also with the repetitive ones of groceries, finances and laundry.

But the Big Projects are repetitive too: write, exercise, be kind and generous. In fact, I could probably use the same list year after year, but I don’t. I think there’s some value to recommitting to the Big Ideals, like productivity and health. When it comes to writing my daily list of things to do, however, I limit myself to three.

To give credit where credit is due, I learned this technique from the therapist I saw in my twenties, the one who helped me come to terms with being a writer. In those days, I’d write lists that started with Wake up, and included tasks like Shower, Brush teeth, Dress. In my own defense, putting these tasks on the list did give me the satisfaction of crossing them off, boosting my sense of accomplishment before I even left my apartment to teach. But it was also like paying attention to static, and never getting past the Activities of Daily Life. So I tried the Rule of Three, and it worked so well, I’ve used it ever since, especially when I allow my To Do List to become overpopulated with tasks that I’ll do as a matter of course, whether I write them down or not.

I use the Rule of Three to clarify each day. Today, for instance, my three tasks are: write my post, work on Ellen, and follow up on business tasks. I To-Do-Listwill have the first task completed before eight; I’ll spend the bulk of the day working on the novel, where I’m nearly finished creating a list of new scenes that have to be written, as I continue to increase the story’s complications and bring the minor characters to life. In between bouts at my desk, I’ll come in to my office and call my producer at the radio station and the client who hasn’t yet returned the contract for a teaching gig that’s fast approaching.

Of course, I have more to do than “just work” – like meal preparation, errands, exercise and such. Whether it’s because I’m absent-minded or middle-aged, I have to write things down in order to remember them, and mapping out these other activities in my planner helps me be efficient. For instance, I attend a yoga class every Tuesday afternoon. This is on the schedule but not the To Do List. While this may seem like splitting hairs, it works for me, especially since if I’m struck fluent and find myself in a writing groove at 4 pm, I can choose not to go. I have to write; achieving a full-lotus is optional.

Because attending yoga requires a car trip past a bank and a grocery , I build those errands in to my exercise. But if I don’t go to yoga – the groceries can wait. In fact, everything can wait – until I’ve finished the three items on my To Do List for the day.

In many ways, this method of listing mimics my own writing process: I generate a rough draft that’s messy and inclusive, and then I hone it down. By allowing myself only three tasks a day, I’m forced to prioritize and I’m able to stay focused. Rather than being obsessed by crossing tasks off the list, I’m encouraged by how much I actually get done.

I’m curious to know how others use lists to boost creativity. And if anyone tries this Rule of Three, please let me know how it goes.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist, and editor currently accepting select clients developing projects in prose. Her novel Into the Wilderness won the Independent Publishers’ Gold Medal for Regional Fiction. She lives in southern Vermont.

Even though I’m attempting a through-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail, you can still receive An Essay Every Wednesday emailed directly to your inbox – by subscribing at www.deborahleeluskin.com. It’s easy, it’s entertaining, it’s educational, and it’s free.

Sourcing Free Images 2.0

paulus self portrait

Paulus Moreelse self-portrait from the Rijksmuseum

I needed an image of a Renaissance self portrait for a recent post on my blog,  but having made an expensive mistake once, I’ve become hyper vigilant about sourcing free images.

In my search for digital images I could use free and clear, I made two discoveries worth sharing. First, I stumbled across Open Culture, which proclaims to be “the best free cultural and educational media on the web.” There, I found links to over twenty world-famous museums that make images of their collections available on-line.

Museum in Valencia, Spain. Photo by Margit Wallnery via pixabay.

Museum in Valencia, Spain. Photo by Margit Wallnery via pixabay.

Essentially, it’s possible to see a significant portion of the world’s great art with the ease of a few keystrokes. While this isn’t the same as visiting the Museum of New Zealand in person, for those of us in North America, it’s a lot cheaper. And while I’d love to spend a week at the British Library, or visit the Getty in Los Angeles, or even stroll through the National Gallery in Washington, DC, traveling requires the dual resources of time and money, which are not always available separately, let alone at the same time.

Should time and money allow, however, these websites could

The Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre, in Paris. photo from pixabay

The Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre, in Paris. photo from pixabay

serve as a wonderful primer in advance of a trip. And for the blogger in need of images with which to illustrate a post, these sites offer a wealth of images.

Not every museum gives carte blanche, however, so blogger beware, and follow the rules. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for instance, has made 400,000 high-resolution images available on-line, but has restricted downloading them to non-commercial use. Looking closer, The Met’s free-use policy is even more restrictive: the images are available for “Open Access for Scholarly Content.” As I understand it, this excludes using an image from their collection on a personal blog.

The image from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that I used in my recent post at www.deborahleeluskin.com

The image from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that I used in my recent post

The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, on the other hand, not only makes most of the collection available on-line, it also allows ordinary users to download and manipulate their images, whole or in part through their Rijks Studio – a program that allows a viewer to save, edit and change images. I was glad to make this discovery and found an image that served my purpose well. And I’m determined to return to the site and figure out how to use the tools fully.

I’m also intrigued by Open Culture which offers a great deal of free material, including on-line courses, free audio books, e-books, movies, free music and more.

Where do you find open source images for your posts?

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-wining novel Into the Wilderness, a love story between people in their mid-sixties, set in Vermont in 1964. She blogs at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Grammar-ease: Using ‘who’ versus ‘that’

ThatVsWhoSimilar to my last grammar post on ‘and’ versus ‘to’, I see mixed use with ‘who’ versus ‘that’ quite often.

Usage between these two words is more personal preference than a grammar rule, as ‘that’ has been used for years and using ‘who’ is a more modern choice.

For me, I choose to use ‘who’ when referring to a person or specific people and ‘that’ when referring to a group or class of people, animals, objects, or a combination of people and things.

Examples:

  • Sue is a nurse who/that enjoys the late shift.
  • The cat is the type who/that shreds toilet paper.
  • The puppy who/that chewed my shoe is in big trouble.
  • The people who/that met last night had coffee this morning.
  • The cabin who/that my father built is still standing.
  • It is either Mary or her magic hat who/that is to blame.
  • Todd is the man who/that lives next door.
  • There’s the house who/that is built into the side of the cliff.
  • A company who/that makes toys can be a fun place to work.
  • The man who/that had plenty of money for years has filed for bankruptcy.
  • Girls who/that have long hair buy more shampoo than short-haired girls. (referring to girls in general)
  • The girls who/that become cheerleaders have a lot of energy. (referring to a specific group of girls)

Since there is no hard-and-fast grammar rule for this (and if you aren’t following a specific style guide), when in doubt, use ‘that’. When referring to a person, use ‘who.’

Have you noticed this difference when reading or writing?

What other grammar topics would you like to see?

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, technology, and realty businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

I’m Going to Camp!

My son is going to camp this summer, and so am I! Camp NaNoWriMo, that is!

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 10.03.00 AMCamp NaNoWriMo is a spin-off from National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo, or even NaNo.

The best part about Camp NaNo, from my perspective, is the ability to choose my own word count. In order to “win” NaNo, you have to write 50,000 words in the month of November. In order to “win” camp NaNo, all you have to do is complete the word count you’ve set for yourself.

And you can change the word count even after July 1st. (At some point you have to let it stand, but I’m not exactly sure what that date is.)

Since I have always found 1,667 words a day to be daunting, no matter how fast I get my fingers to type, I’ve decided to take the attitude that it’s summer, and the living is easy, so why not cut that 50,000 word count in half?

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 10.29.15 AMI can do 25,000 words in July, right? There’s even one more day in the month of July than in the month of November, so my daily word count goal is only 807.

If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you know that I love to set goals. And I love the outside accountability of the (Camp) NaNo community. I’ve signed up, committed to the word count, made a small cash donation to keep it real, and now I’m just waiting for July 1st when I can start watching my word count go up, up, up!

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 10.30.00 AMAs an added measure of accountability, I’ve asked to be assigned to a “cabin” with up to 11 other writers who are also writing nonfiction and who have a similar word count. I’ll find out my cabin assignment tomorrow. Can’t wait!

The biggest reason I’ve signed up for Camp NaNo is to put my goal of writing at the forefront of my brain. If I don’t, life will intervene, I’ll do a million other things in July, and I’ll be bummed out at the end of the month when I haven’t done the thing that is most important to me.

Writing is so personal; it’s only for me. It doesn’t benefit my family in any way, so it often gets pushed down the To-Do List until it falls off. Somehow, signing up for something like Camp NaNo helps me keep it at the top of my To Do List, even though it’s still really just for me.

Anyone else out there want to go to camp with me? Camp NaNo, here we come!

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, family physician, mother, and grandmother. I’m excited to be coming to a time when I’ll have a little more time to write and I appreciate all the support this community has given me. Happy writing, everyone!

The Artist’s Date

artistsway-t           Several years ago I followed the exercises in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Well, I followed some of them; I wrote my morning pages without fail. But I confess: I didn’t do the collages, and even though I went so far as to schedule regular Artist Dates, I didn’t always follow through.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron prescribes taking oneself on a regularly scheduled “artist date.” An artist date is “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers.”

Even though I’m good at blocking out time for writing and other word-related activities, I’ve never followed through on Cameron’s advice, even though I carried a shadow of shame that I should – if only I had the time.

Then last weekend, while I was in the Hudson River Valley for a family wedding, I visited The Storm King Art Center, a world-class sculpture park.

Waves, by Maya Lin

Waves, by Maya Lin

It was as I was strolling across the rolling terrain studded with sculpture of all sizes that I finally got it – what the artist date was all about.

Most of all, I became more observant, especially as my point-of-view of each sculpture kept shifting first as I saw it from a distance, then as I walked closer to it, around it, and then again from a distance. What I was seeing changed from each vantage point, just as our stories are shaped by the point of view from which we tell them.

I was also struck by the way the relationship of objects and angles bent space and changed one another, just the way details in narrative shift in importance and meaning depending on how they are presented.

I was especially struck by the power of negative space – the blank area created by sculptural lines that nearly vibrated with tension. Great prose can do this too – outline what’s not there, what’s not being said, but what may in fact be forcing all the characters in a story rushing toward mayhem.

Abstract sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Abstract sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Many of the sculptures were abstract. Nevertheless, I nearly always tried to make up a story about them, to ground them in narrative, because that’s how humans (or this human, anyway) makes sense of the world: through story. And once I noticed myself trying to tell a story about each orange girder, I challenged myself to see it simply qua orange girder, the way in yoga class I’m learning to acknowledge intrusive thoughts and then let them go. This technique allowed me the freedom of seeing without storytelling, sharpening my observational capability and focusing my concentration, two key tools for writers.

Some of the artwork literally stopped me in my tracks, they were so breathtaking, others barely registered as I strolled by. I simply noted this, without trying to evaluate it. Isn’t it interesting, I said to myself, that some of this art is so moving and some leaves me cold? And I walked on.

By the end of the day, I was seeing ordinary objects in new ways, which is one of the wonderful things that any IMG_1302art can do – sculpture, painting, music, prose. Suddenly, the way two trees leaned toward each other was pregnant with meaning, as was the relationship of two trashcans standing shoulder to shoulder, like sentinels guarding the parking lot.IMG_1312

And that was it: looking at art changed how I look at the world.

It also taught me the importance of the artist’s date, which I’ll now ink into my calendar and heed.

 

 

 

IMG_1298Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist living in southern Vermont.

Storing Words: An Alternative to Trash

WiddecombTableSince my mother died nearly two years ago, Dad’s been sifting through their belongings. Even though they’d downsized twice before, they’d accumulated lots of stuff during their sixty-six year marriage. What was left were the important pieces: the handcrafted cherry bed, a velvet sofa, hundreds of objets, and the dining room set.

These are beloved pieces, each with its own story, but none appropriate for Dad’s new digs. He’s preparing to downsize from a spacious two-bedroom apartment, complete with dining room and kitchen, into a single room in a comfortable assisted-living home for seniors.

Every time I’ve visited my dad in recent months, I’ve helped him sort through his stuff – and decide what to save, what to divest. The kitchen is easy: he won’t need any pots or dishes at his new place, but the bigger pieces are harder. The dining room set, for instance, is by a fine, mid-century, furniture maker and includes what my mother always called a Break Front, (the cabinet where she stored her china, silver and linens), a table that extended eighteen feet, and chairs with leather seats.

If furniture could talk, this table would tell stories of the luncheons Mom prepared for each of our elementary school teachers back in the day when we walked home for lunch; stories of Friday night suppers that started with prayers, and birthday celebrations from one to eighty. It’s also a beautiful table, and it’s been maintained with exceptional care.

My dad wants someone in the family to take it, but his four middle-aged children all have furnished homes of their own. So we’ve made a deal.

We’ll put the table into storage, along with anything else no one is ready to claim. That way, these household goods will be available when his grandchildren graduate from shared apartments to furnished homes. Dad won’t have to give his furniture to strangers, but he also won’t have to cram everything into his living quarters as if it were a furniture warehouse.

I know that this technique of setting aside things you still love but can no longer use works. It’s a technique I use in my writing all the time. Whether it’s a paragraph or a chapter doesn’t matter: if it no longer serves the story, it just has to go.

Excising paragraphs can be painful, and pulling chapters and subplots hurts. But not everything that’s cut must go to the trash. Simply filing the pages filecabinetaway can ease the trauma of excision. I store what I no longer need in my novel in a folder labeled “Outtakes.” Filed, these pages can be rediscovered and repurposed later – without cluttering the story at hand.

The current draft of Ellen is a hefty four hundred pages. There are paragraphs I love: I remember writing them, and I still find the prose sings, but it’s no longer the right melody for the story. Into the Outtakes folder it goes.

Whether it’s household chattel or purple prose, what I’ve learned is that as hard as it is to let go of things – be they tables or paragraphs – once gone, they’re rarely missed.

Cutting deadwood works for essays, short stories, poems and novels. Originally, this post was over eight hundred words; now, it’s under five hundred fifty.

dll2013_124x186Over the years, Deborah Lee Luskin has cut millions of words from her work. Some she’s composted, others she’s burned, but the gems she’s put in storage for later use. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com