Friday, July 31, 2009


Check out "John Grisham, 20 Years of Writing" on the blog "shaffer's notebook" (shaffer'

Blogger Todd Shaffer compiled Grisham's comments on writing from numerous interviews. Grisham describes how he got started, sneaking off for a half hour as often as possible to write "A Time to Kill" while carrying on a modest law practice and serving in the Mississippi Legislature.

Grisham is a great advocate of starting with outlines. Shaffer writes: "Grisham outlines his stories extensively. Sometimes these outlines take longer to write than the manuscript. And at any given time he may be working on several outlines for different stories."

The outline contains two-paragraph synopses for each chapter in the story. Although tedious, outlining cuts down tremendously on the editing later.

"The more time I spend on the outline, the easier it is to write the book," Grisham said in an interview with Borders. And in an interview with he said, "The outlining process is no fun, but it forces the writer to see the entire story."

Shaffer describes Grisham as a "self-taught writer, driven by instinct and by critical reading."

Grisham was the best-selling author of the 1990s, selling more than 60 million books. Pelican Brief was number one with 11 million copies. Grisham had four other novels in the top 10 (#2 The Client, #5 The Firm, #9 The Chamber, #10 The Runaway Jury).

The next most popular authors were Stephen King (38 million sold), Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

Grisham did not let up in his second decade as an author. He writes one book a year (he's at 22 and counting). At last count, 235 million Grisham books were in print worldwide, translated into 29 languages. Nine of his novels have been turned into films.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Truthful writing

"The trouble with bad student writing is the trouble with all bad writing. It is not serious, and it does not tell the truth."
—Eudora Welty

In his book "Telling Writing," Ken Macrorie gives an example of false, pretentious writing from a student essay: "The automobile is a mechanism fascinating to everyone in all its diverse manifestations and in every conceivable kind of situation or circumstance."

It's the kind of writing students turn in hoping the teacher will be impressed by their vocabularies. But it's neither true (EVERYONE is fascinated by automobiles?) nor interesting, even if the grammar and spelling are correct.

Compare that with this passage, written by a fourth grader in a class Macrorie taught (the assignment was to "write freely and truthfully"):
"When I watered the calves I spilted the water on my self becose the two calves made me spell it. And then I wen't to tell my mom. The calves barn steks. And when the like you whith they tung it tikls. And when they kike you it smarts. And when you feel then it fell's like bon's."
(In case you couldn't decipher the words: "The calves' barn stinks. And when they lick you with their tongue, it tickles. And when they kick you, it smarts. And when you feel them, it feels like bones."
Macrorie points out that the child instinctively used parallel construction for "clarity and punch." Despite the bad spelling, the passage conveys more information and is more readable than the wordy passage on automobiles.

I have noticed that college missions statements are, like the automobile passage, unreadable. The committees who meet to write these statements end up with meaningless collections of trendy words placed in arbitrary order.

This one is typical: "Through all of is programs, the college encourages students of varied backgrounds and abilities to realize their full intellectual and personal potential so they may gain understanding about themselves, others and the forces shaping our rapidly changing and pluralistic world." Huh?

As is this one: "(The) University will be respected nationally for outstanding academic programs, global sensitivity and engagement, and a stimulating intellectual community that prepares students for lifelong learning in a diverse and changing world." Snore.

This one might set a record for mind-numbing nonsense: "As an urban research university with strong disciplinary-based departments and a wide array of problem-oriented interdisciplinary programs, the goal of the university is to develop, transmit, and utilize knowledge in order to provide access to quality education for diverse groups of students ..."
Really, a "wide array of problem-oriented interdisciplinary programs"?

You would think that somewhere in the halls of those hallowed institutions they could find someone who can write an honest sentence. If I'm paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education, I really don't care about their global sensitivity. I just want to know they're going to teach me some things I don't already know.

The fourth grader might write: "The kollig shud teech me stuf." That would be an honest mission statement.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Construction v. Creation


My son asked, "Did you want any updog?"
"What's updog?" I responded.
"Nuttin' much. What's up, dog, wit' you?"

I told him that was an old joke. And besides, it was supposed to be "updoc."
He asked, "UpDOC? Nobody says updoc."
Bugs Bunny did, of course. But he didn't know that. Culture evolves, but not much.


Charles Dickens: "The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists."

Dickens may not have intended this as theology, but it is sound doctrine. The word of the Lord to Jeremiah (v. 1:5) "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you." And David wrote in Psalm 139 (v. 15, 16): "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body." As created beings, we were loved before we came into being. We existed in the mind of the Creator.

And because we inherited the nature of God, the "spark of the divine" in one theological tradition, we have the ability not only to visualize our creation — art, music, writing, architecture — but to derive intense joy from the creative process and lasting joy from the finished product.

But our work is never seen complete before it is created. I have spoken with many artists and writers who say they don't know where the piece they are working on is going. Fiction writers sometimes find their own hearts racing as they strike the keys in eager anticipation of what will happen next. You might argue that since they dictate the events, nothing that happens can be a surprise. But in fact the writers often DON'T know. They create the characters, and while the characters generally behave in accordance with the traits the author has given them, that leaves plenty of room for suspense and surprise. And sometimes the characters behave in ways wholly unpredictable even to their creator.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Iconic monotony

Reader Frankie wrote:
"I know we have discussed this before, but if you have any influence at all, I beg of you to plead with your fellow media types to find another word besides 'iconic' to describe anything and everything under the sun. Just within the past couple of days: from Iran, we have Neda, who (appeared) as the iconic video martyr; today, it is Ed McMahon, described on (the) MSN home page as the “iconic” Tonight Show sidekick. Enough already. I know these fads usually fade away (parameters, paradigm shift) but this one seems to have no end.

To which I replied:
"It has become the iconic cliche. But it fits the parameters of newspaper style. You'll just have to wait for a paradigm shift."

To which Frankie responded:
"Gadzooks! How about you initiate the shift by ordering your reporters/editors to obviate the word from their lexicons?"

I couldn't resist:
"Instead I will suggest that they find more opportunities to use the word 'Gadzooks!'"

Ah, but Frankie is right. And he even wrote before the death and subsequent nonstop coverage of the other two "icons," Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

We in the press do tend to perpetuate word fads. They generally originate on the screen. Writing coach Paula LaRocque addressed the problem of cliches in a column entitled "Fadspeak: Gag me to the max fer sure."
She listed some of the "canned clutter" media writers should avoid:
Get real.
Get a life.
Get over it.
Go for it.
Suck it up.
Deal with it.
The mother of all ...
Your worst nightmare.
In your dreams.
The ... from Hell.
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist (or brain surgeon).
What's wrong with this picture?
Same old same old.

If you're like me, you probably didn't get through the list without finding a few you've used, and that might make you feel a little embarrassed and self-conscious. What I recommend is that, instead of immobilizing yourself by trying to keep a list of all the words and phrases to avoid in your writing, just strive to keep your writing fresh. Go ahead and use the cliche once to get it out of your system (that's my one shot with "get it out of your system"). But don't let your writing grow stale with the habitual use of any word or phrase. If you know you've used it before, think of something else this time. And don't let it bog you down in the first writing; catch it in the rewrite.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hemingway's Five Tips

Ernest Hemingway offered five tips for authors (which might be more accurately called "five tips for authors who want to write like Ernest Hemingway"):

1. Use short sentences.
William Faulkner and Jame Fenimore Cooper don't make the cut.
From A Farewell to Arms: "That was what you did. You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had to learn."

2. Use short opening paragraphs.
From The Snows of Kilimanjaro: "'The marvelous thing is that it's painless,' he said."

3. Use vigorous English.
Show muscle, passion, pain, dirt.
From The Old Man and Sea: "The next shark that came was a single shovelnose. He came like a pig to the trough if a pig had a mouth so wide that you could put your head in it."

4. Be positive, not negative.
This is Hemingway, so the rule obviously has to do with style, not content.
Hemingway would not have written: "She was not entirely devoid of a certain comeliness." He would have written — and did — "She was still a good-looking woman, she had a pleasant body ... she was not pretty, but he liked her face."
Example from In Our Time: "When they evacuated they had all their baggage animals they couldn't take off with them so they just broke their forelegs and dumped them into the shallow water. All those mules with their forelegs broken pushed over in the shallow water. It was a pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business."
Note, incidentally, that Hemingway didn't care for apostrophes, reflective of his aggressive, impatient nature. Pauses projected weakness and would have undercut his raw prose.

5. Never have only four rules.
Hemingway here signals that the number of rules, even the rules themselves, are essentially arbitrary. Use or discard his as you see fit.