Monday, April 20, 2009


This morning I was turned down for a corporate speech. Another rejection. I should be used to rejection, but I'm not. You never get used to it. You never just pass it off. Not entirely.

Still, you don't scream and yell. You don't run around telling people how bad you feel. Instead, you tell yourself, I won't let this ruin my day, and you give yourself a few minutes to feel rotten, and then you think about something else.

But the rejection is there, like a thorn, from time to time giving you a small stab. No, we never get used to it. But above all, we never "get even," we don't turn on the people who rejected us. We thank them and go on. If you learn anything in life, it's the futility--the stupidity--of burning bridges.

When rejection overwhelms you, and it does occasionally, you think about Abraham Lincoln, who was rejected endlessly--who "lost" at least once, in nearly every political office he aspired to, yet became such a venerated man his inspiration has lasted over a century.

My response to rejection works for me. I say to myself, "What do THEY know?" and tell myself--actually communicate with my soul--that some day that person will wish he'd taken me on, that eventually I will surprise him and he will regret the day he turned me down. I take the "long view." And you know what? Most of the time the "long view" comes true.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Just discovered your computer can turn into the cyberspace version of a ninety-year-old's junk-filled house. Old e-mails, old newspapers, old, forgotten messages, all piled in a corner waiting for a spark to ignite them. Spent two days "cleaning out" my old stuff, some dating back to 2001--and in the process discovered people I'd forgotten ever existed . . . and other people who absconded with my time--more time than I ever should have given them.

The whole process was exactly like house-cleaning. Felt kind of creepy while you were doing it, but gave you that freshly-washed feeling afterwards. Got rid of 2000 messages in all. (Did I really need all those old Washington Posts? And all those old rants about old President Bush?) Maybe now my computer will run faster. Whether it does or it doesn't, my clean computer house gives me a good feeling, kind of like starting a new day without all the junk left over from yesterday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Have You Ever Noticed?

Have You Ever Noticed?

Even big corporations don’t always produce good writing.

Try reading Annual Reports. Some are so dense the meaning is entirely obscured by . . . well--garbage. Words that have no meaning. It seems almost every corporation has members who can learn to write better.

I’m here to make this happen.


Good technique is difficult to see in a well-written piece because the better a story is done, the less we notice how it’s done. What the author says becomes more important than how he says it. Technique is the mortar that holds the stones together, but in good writing all you see is the stones.


Do play your key scenes: This means milking the drama--enlarging scenes to capture and “play out” important moments. . . .giving key scenes the lines, the pages, they deserve.

Do hint at some bits of action: Not every moment of every scene needs to be described in detail. We describe some and leave parts for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

Do be specific instead of general. Say, “pine tree,” or even “aleppo pine,” instead of “tree” . . . “tulip” or “tiger lily” instead of “flower.”

Do pause for reaction time: A big, dramatic moment must be surrounded by lesser statements of lesser importance so the reader has time to absorb, or react to, the important thing.

Do keep transitions simple: Transitions can often be accomplished with a simple, “Next morning, he . . . “ or, “Back in Paris . . . “

Do vary your sentences: Vary them both in length and in structure. The reader quickly tires of sentences that are all the same length. An abundance of long sentences feels stuffy, whereas too many short ones make the work seem childish. Likewise, the text gets monotonous when all sentences are constructed alike--subject, verb, object.

Do use setting to enhance mood: References to external stimuli--activities, odors, sounds, weather conditions--can heighten the emotion of what’s going on in the scene itself. Rain, wind, hail storms . . . the sounds of battle, the smell of lilacs . . . all heighten and build on the scene’s emotions.

Do choose strong nouns and verbs: Use words like “sprinted” “rushed” “loped” to substitute for “ran.” Describe a mountain as a “crag,” “peak” “spire” or “precipice.” The more strong verbs and nouns you choose, the fewer adjectives and adverbs will be needed.

Do handle your inconsistencies by pointing to them: As long as someone in your novel points out that yes, this is an inconsistency, the reader will know that the writer understands what he’s doing and is not just making a mistake.


Don’t rely on an overabundance of adjectives and adverbs. They can be useful, but strong verbs and nouns are better. Some writers adverb their material to death . . . things are never just “said,” they are “said haughtily,” “said defensively,” “said angrily.” Instead of writing, “She walked out furiously,” use a better verb. “She stomped out . . . “ “She banged out.” Same with adjectives. Don’t call it “a large, dark, warehouse,” better to say, “A tomb--a cavern.”

Don’t let your dialogue be repetitive: People do speak repetitively, but it makes for dull reading. Our characters may be irritating, but they’re never boring.

Don’t repeat an action over and over: If the action really was repeated . . . summarize.

Don’t use “was” and “were” as helping verbs: They merely weaken the action and produce a passive voice. “He was rubbing his eyes,” is weaker than, “He rubbed his eyes.”

Don’t use repetitive words: Duplicated words make for boring text. Word repetitions are sometimes hard to detect, even harder to avoid, but they can be caught by reading aloud. Re-writing invariably makes the prose fresher.

Don’t be wordy: As writers, we’re trying to go in two directions--saying more and more using fewer and fewer words. All unnecessary words should be removed. Anything that can be said in 5 words becomes tedious when it’s said in 10. For instance, your hero never “Proceeds” to do something. “Proceeds” adds nothing. He just does it.

Don’t get into ping pong dialogue: long dialogue passages with no bits of action, no reference to emotion, can become hard to follow, and dull. When occasional bits of action or emotion are interspersed, the reader hardly notices, but life and interest are added to the scene. These unnoticed bits are more of that writer’s “mortar.” (Caution: too many dialogue interruptions, however, can be distracting. We don’t want to focus the reader’s attention on the unimportant things the character is doing instead of the vitally important things he’s saying.)

Don’t use “it’s” unless you mean “It is.”


1. Extraordinary Vision: A thought worth expressing: An observation, a mental image, an analysis, an emotion, a storyline, a description of a person or situation.

2. Finding unusual, even startling, ways to express your thoughts, so your reader is constantly surprised: “He was making me crazy, this maverick rolling through my life like an escaped tire.”

3. Great Dialogue: Using dialogue as a tool . . . to add a sense of immediacy, but also to illustrate offbeat thoughts or a unique character. (Dialogue never mirrors dull, common, everyday thoughts, like “Have a nice day.”)

4. Great, appealing characters: In fiction, or in nonfiction profiles, finding ways to illumine characters so they come to life. One remarkably easy way is to have one novel character describe another.

5. Using varied sentence lengths . . . at times letting your thoughts roll on, like a river. At others, pulling the sentence up short and making it abrupt, like the splash from a rock thrown into the river.

6. Great Drama: A feel for drama and a willingness to squeeze out every last drop from your scene—until it’s dry, like a squeezed lemon.

7. Use of the exact right word: A willingness to search endlessly until you find that one perfect word . . . either traipsing through your own mind or thumbing through your thesaurus.

8. Understanding the rhythms of language: A sense of the ebb and flow of prose—its rhythms, and yes, its poetry. Ability to create a “forward rush,” so the reader can’t stop reading.

9. A relentless search to make scenes vivid: a constant search for the words that seem to “lift off the page.” One trick: finding comparisons between what you’re describing and other, unrelated objects or situations.

10. Vowing to stick with what you’ve written when you know in your heart it’s right.