How Do I Know What I Mean until I See What I Say?

My mom would often quote: How do I know what I mean until I see what I say? when we talked about writing around the dinner table. Which we did sometimes, oddball family that we were. That expression immediately came to mind when the lovely Mr. Fandango suggested a blog One-Word Challenge using the word “mean.” I take heart that I did not think about someone performing acts of cruelty, although I cringe slightly that I also didn’t consider anything statistical which, after all, is right up on my blog masthead.

But that’s writing, isn’t it? We don’t really control it.

Writers Meander

It turns out E. M. Forster is the source of the original saying, and that he was misquoted. He said “think,” not “mean,” which is a curious distinction.

How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Forster seemed to be talking about the way thought flits from topic to topic, an unpredictable hummingbird. The thoughts spill out, almost randomly, and the writer must follow and make sense of it all. I prefer my mom’s version, which puts more power into the writer’s hands. I do have something in mind, I just don’t know what it is yet, until it emerges onto the paper or springs forth onto the screen.

Actually, Aspects of the Novel appears to be public domain, so I started poking around the PDF (research always being more fun than writing). It looks quite interesting…anyway, Forster is discussing plot. His quote refers to an old lady who refuses to understand or follow “logic,” yet he quotes her to tell novelists that they should let themselves be overtaken by the plot.

…Writers should mix themselves up in their material and be rolled over and over by it; they should not try to subdue any longer, they should hope to be subdued, to be carried away… All that is prearranged is false.
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Supporting Characters Don’t Always Behave

Writers typically start with an idea, definitely a beginning and maybe an ending. Or, sometimes just an ending image… I can see the movie poster…says the producer in Bowfinger. You hope to get where you planned, although usually it’s not a straight line but a Candyland-style wandering path.

Characters pop up unannounced and make themselves at home. Your hero does something stupid, and it turns into a running metaphor. Other supporting characters won’t behave and keep saying witty things that are out of character until you have to change their backstory. Someone else turns out to have a dog.

What have you done?

The Tule Fog of Writing

I’m working on a book–let’s call it about Topic X. I know where it’s going, but it seems to be taking forever to get there. Most of the paragraphs seem well-constructed, but only after the fact. I keep looking back and thinking, hey, that’s pretty good! But I have almost no idea how I got there.  As I look forward, I don’t have a good idea about what comes next–even though I have a very very clear outline.

So, it seems to me all of this writing jazz is like being in a tule fog. Tule fog is a particularly dense fog native to our Northern California Central Valley. Visibility averages about 500 feet…(should I say the “mean visibility”?)… although it can drop rapidly to only a few feet in some pockets. It often causes multi-car pileups in the winter, and you have to crawl along the freeway, hoping to see another car’s lights.

Tule fog
Tule fog in Bakersfield, photo from Wikipedia

Writing seems to be like that. You crawl along, miserable that you can’t go faster, only able to see a few feet ahead. I can visualize the next sentence, and usually the next paragraph or the transitions between, but no farther. I can inch forward, miserable at this slow speed, hoping to see a guidepost somewhere, but usually out on my own, feeling my way towards the end.

And, suddenly, there it is!

I hate writing. I love having written.
–Dorothy Parker


5 Primo Coding Secrets for English Majors

Last week, as I was trudging through the quicksand of changing my website theme, constantly sinking into the swamp of contradictory code and grasping at branches of CSS held out by travelers before me, I wondered if something positive could be pulled out of the mess. Aha! I could share what I learned with the blogosphere. Thus, in the spirit of passing on some recently, painfully-earned wisdom, I will share the most dominant lessons.

CSS code response = success

Have you ever forgotten to save your writing after a long stretch of creativity, only to have your computer crash and lose hours of your genius? In the old pre-computer days, this was known as “the teacher lost my paper.” Two weeks of my best creativity disappeared because I was too cheap to make a copy of my seminal work on the religious imagery in e.e. cummings’ poetry. It still bothers me, decades later! Back up your work. Here’s what that means when you are creating or making changes to a blog site.

1. Write down the changes you make–preferably as you go

Most writers know how and why to keep track of changes as they go, either by using a Track Changes feature or the primitive “print it out and make edits by hand” method. Version control becomes an issue when you don’t keep track. Also, what if you change something and you decide you don’t like it? You might want that original brilliant phrase back which only sounded mundane after a night reading Seamus Haney. The same logic applies to changes to technology. Continue reading “5 Primo Coding Secrets for English Majors”

100 Blog Posts and Counting

Source: Pinterest

I didn’t plan to spend so much time writing in my second act.

I didn’t plan to become a weekly blogger or to write a book about the Olympics.  I also didn’t plan to spend thirty years working as a cost accountant and process designer for a single company. That wasn’t what I dreamed of as a child. I am still in shock that we’ve lived in this house for two decades and that I have apparently raised a physicist and a music teacher.

I thought I’d be going out to museums more often and watch less television. I thought I’d eat more pizza although, now that I’m older, I wish I’d eaten less pizza. Plans–life plans–are like that. They’re really more like wishes.

In the Company of Writers

I spent a lot more time in my youth thinking about writing than actually writing, although I did harbor a notion that I would become a famous writer, someday.  I blame Freddy van der Gelder, this kid in my fourth grade class. We were supposed to write a sentence that included the word “beautiful,” then pass our papers to a neighbor. I wrote “The beautiful lake was shimmering in the moonlight.” His hand shot up, he was so excited to read it out loud. That was my First Like. Continue reading “100 Blog Posts and Counting”

NaNoWriMo: Less Counting, More Dancing

The more people writing, the better! Really, writing should be encouraged. We can never have too many writers, artists, dancers, or musicians. But NaNoWriMo as a Thing To Do has always been kind of lost to me, and as people are posting their word counts on social media, I just can’t help but explain why.

20171108 snoopy writing

You Can’t Count your Way towards Better Art

NaNoWriMo is about writing 50,000 words by the end of the month of November, which means writing approximately 1667 words every day.  But 50,000 words doesn’t necessarily equal a novel. Some stories can be told effectively and be commercially successfully in a lot fewer words. Many stories take a lot more.

Honestly, 50,000 for a “novel” might be a little on the short side. Good for children’s books, or if you’re Vonnegut or Hemingway.  J.K. Rowling’s books started shorter (Sorcerer’s Stone was 77,000) and then, as they got interesting, became decent-sized. Four NaNoWriMo’s worth.

A great painting is not made better by having more paint strokes. A symphony isn’t better by having 50,000 notes as opposed to 35,522 or 272,395. But NaNoWriMo by nature is built around counting. It was started as a community project to help a handful of San Francisco writers practice their craft in miserable weather. It clearly struck a nerve, since so many people want to participate. But the participation effort is about writing a certain number. The helpers include several ways to count your words or build word count apps. That’s what apps do. Continue reading “NaNoWriMo: Less Counting, More Dancing”

‘Tis a Mystery: Where Do Mysteries Come from?

Sherlock Holmes playing the violin while puffing on a pipe, gray smoke misting the air like thoughts of inductive reasoning… Hercules Poirot sipping on his tisane while musing with his little gray cells…Mr. Monk framing the room with his hands… Columbo, hand to his forehead, dripping cigar ash on his raincoat…such detectives have captured popular imagination for centuries and are among the most famous of our modern heroes. Mysteries have nearly eclipsed novels as popular reads. Agatha Christie is called the world’s best-selling author with two billion sales of her 66 detective novels.

How did we get here?

Most discussions of the history of the mystery define the universe as related to detective fiction — a premise I grant — and suggest that Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” was the beginning of the mystery. But let’s go back a little further. How does Poe’s 1841 short story about a detective, C. August Dupin, arise into existence? What were detectives before then? Didn’t anyone write short stories? Didn’t anyone write stories about people who investigated things? Continue reading “‘Tis a Mystery: Where Do Mysteries Come from?”