Colorless Green Ideas Crashed My Car
or
Your Right to Say Things that Don’t Make Sense

green car

This image was created from a photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Fast and Furious 6 Premier 5 Uploaded by tm) Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

Syntax gives us the power to say things that don’t make sense: Ideas can’t have color (or crash a car), and something colorless can’t also be green, but I can say “colorless green ideas crashed my car,” and you can understand me, even if you’re quite not sure what I mean.

The structure of a story or other piece of writing gives us a similar power. You can write about something that no one has ever experienced, and people will experience it through your story. This is not what I mean, and it makes my introduction about syntax sound like an analogy, when I’m trying to say something profound about the magic of language.

Let me try again. If I break the syntax—“green a the car colorless my”—you might not be able to follow what I’m saying anymore. You might say this string of words makes even less sense than “colorless green ideas.” However, with enough structure of other sorts, even such unconventional syntax can create deep meaning. For example, e.e. cummings: “anyone lived in a pretty how town / (with up so floating many bells down).”

What I’m trying to say is, write anything. You can change things later if it turns out you need to. Natalie Goldberg uses the example, “I cut the daisy from my throat.” This doesn’t make sense, but people’s minds will make sense out of it, and it will come to have meaning based on the context. If I say that colorless green ideas crashed my car, you’re going to start forming hypotheses about how this can happen: Maybe the “ideas” are aliens, and they are transparent but also green. That’s not what I mean either! The mind makes meaning. If you use syntax, you can say anything, and our minds will create it, even if it doesn’t “make sense.” If you use story structure, you can say anything, too. Story structure has underlying “bones” the way language does.

Here’s what I mean: Meaning is not dependent on making sense. Meaning exists even in things that “don’t make sense” in a conventional way. Look at the e.e. cummings poem I quoted above. Read the whole thing. It “doesn’t make sense” (the syntax is crazy, the words are used in ways you’ve never seen before), but its meaning is there nonetheless. In fact, we could argue that its true meaning and effect are only possible because cummings breaks the syntax and does things in this unconventional way. I’m sure it took him a long time and many revisions to get that poem into its final state.

I’m giving two pieces of advice here, for two different parts of the writing process:

  1. When you’re writing your first draft, write anything. Don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. Keep going. Write until you get to the end, and save the editing for later. (If you need a process to help you do this, I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice, detailed in her book Writing Down the Bones.)
  2. If you’re editing a piece, and the effect you want to create requires breaking syntax or creating an unconventional story structure, or doing something else that “doesn’t make sense,” DO IT! Your loyalty is not to some idea of social or literary convention, but to the entity you are trying to bring to life. You can trust your reader as the co-creator of this entity. Work hard. Make your language and structure ever more precise until what “doesn’t make sense” means exactly what it needs to mean.

(The Cure For) Fiction Deficiency Syndrome

I’ve been reading stories from the Golden Age of science fiction (most recently “Tunesmith” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.), and it is like being hooked up to an IV.

Have you ever been pretty dehydrated and then gotten an IV? A few hours after I gave birth to my first child, I passed out. The doctors said I was dehydrated, and they gave me an IV. I had been feeling perfectly fine: tired, sure, and maybe a little thirsty. But after they pumped a liter of saline solution into my body, I realized that what I had judged as “fine” was actually pretty bad. Like, wrung-out rag, crawling through the desert bad. But I hadn’t noticed. That’s what Fiction Deficiency Syndrome is like.

You know what else it’s like? It’s like being locked in a windowless room by yourself for days or weeks, and it feels perfectly normal. But then when you read, it’s like suddenly a good friend shows up, and they bring a picnic and take you out in the sun. You spread a blanket under the trees and talk and eat, and maybe a couple of other friends show up, and their kids play in the background, and you lean against somebody’s chest and breathe in the sweet air, and you realize that this is what life is, not the windowless room.

So here I am, lying around under the trees with Llyod Biggle, Jr. and Poul Anderson (“Call Me Joe”), and I can see Theodore Sturgeon walking toward us and waving, because I have an anthology.

There’s plenty of room on this blanket, and we’ve still got almost a gallon of lemonade.

Why don’t you come join us?

“I want these but don’t know how.”

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don't know how to finish yet.

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don’t know how to finish yet.

What do you do with the pieces you don’t yet have the skill to finish?

I used to leave them around in notebooks and never finish them. Half-abandoned, half-forgotten, they were a source of nebulous anxiety, though I vaguely planned to get back to them someday. Sometimes I’d remember one and think, “Hey, I know what to do with that now!” but usually I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since I started believing in myself enough to organize my writing, I have found a way to give those pieces a better chance at life. (I use Scrivener on my computer, but you can use this method with any computer’s file system or with paper folders and manuscripts.)

I keep my short stories organized in folders that correspond roughly to stages of completion, with later stages closer to the top (see image). For example, near the top is a folder for stories that are being submitted to markets, and below that is a folder for stories that are in beta. Below that come the folders of my finishing pipeline. But what I’m talking about today only requires a single folder, which I keep right below the finishing pipeline. It’s called “I want these but don’t know how.”

In it, I keep the stories I don’t yet know how to finish. The folder is right there, in the middle of my workspace, so every now and then I look into it and read through some of the stories, and every now and then I discover that I do know how to finish one of them. Or sometimes I’ve recently read something that gives me a new structure or technique I can try on one of the stories, and I try it. Maybe I still don’t know how to finish the story, but I learn a lot. Maybe what I learn helps me finish another story.

This folder is also important for its symbolic meaning. By using this folder, I declare, “These stories I’ve started are important to me, and I give them space in my life.” By using this folder I accept that I want something, even though I don’t know how to get it yet. By using this folder I take my work seriously, I act as though I believe in myself, and I thereby increase my confidence as a writer. I intend to write for my whole life, so I need systems that support that goal.

If you don’t have a place to keep the pieces you don’t yet know how to finish, you might try making a special folder where they can live. And if you have another method that works for you, I’d love to know about it! Please put a note in the comments (below).

P.S. I got the idea for this post because I just finished a story that used to be in “I want these but don’t know how.”

Character Names from Movie Credits

illustration of a woman watching a movie

Detail from a sheet music cover for “Since Mother Goes To Movie Shows” by Broadway Music Corp. (1916)

When I write a first draft, I grab character names off the nearest shelf in my brain. I’ll bet at least 50% of my characters started off named “Carla” or “Carlos.” I try to find a more fitting name in the second or third draft, but usually I don’t get much more adventurous than “Edna” or “Lawrence.”

Mainstream movie character names are similarly non-diverse. But movie credits! The names of the real people who worked on the films! In movie credits, there are many, many, MANY names that I’ve never heard of. There are whole sets of names that have a familial sound to them, as though they all come from the same language (which they probably do), and I’ve never even suspected that sound to exist, let alone any of the names.

You could name a whole story’s worth of characters out of a single “unit” in a movie’s credits and be guaranteed that the names have some sort of coherence. (Whether the characters match their names culturally is up to research. But if you happen to be writing a Spanish village, and you find a movie that has credits for a “Spain Unit,” I’d say you’ve at least got a head start.

Next time you watch a movie, stay for the credits and see for yourself. For now, I’ll give a few examples.

Names from The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman
(Disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen this movie.)
Alexandru Miron, Giani Roberto Ivan, Liviu Pojoni, Constantin Moldoveanu, Dragos Ionut Badea, Mihai Marius Apopei, Mats Holmgren, Bogdan Talpeanu, Vera Belu, Anneli Oscarsson

Last names from Blade Runner
Barberio, Ripple, Wash, Cranham, Spurlock, Bakauskas, Van Auken, Polkinghorse, Mirano, Wetmore

First names from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Sukhita, Robynne, Darin, Pietro, Gareth, Pranee, Nardeen, Fenella, Wineke, Gudrun, Sourisak, Huia

How to Believe in Yourself

Sun streak illuminating the sea from above; San Francisco dark in foregroundI got a fortune cookie last time that said “Believe in yourself and others will too.” That’s probably true, but it’s not very helpful as advice. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you start? People who already believe in themselves will say, “Just do it. Just believe in yourself.” But this is the same as saying “I don’t know.”

Here’s how to believe in yourself, which is backwards from the fortune cookie: Hang around with people who believe in you, and eventually you will believe in yourself. This is the reason you need a writing group.

And not just any writing group. You need a group like Write to the End: one that’s full of people who believe in you. (You need this even if you already believe in yourself, because we all need to believe in ourselves more than we do.) This is possible within many different writing group structures, but I think it’s easier to find in a structure like ours, one that’s focused on writing together and sharing our work with each other, rather than on critique.

If you want to start you own group, I’d recommend using a writing structure rather than a critique structure. I know people who swear by their critique group, and I’m sure those groups are filled with people who believe in each other. But a new critique group can’t get off the ground unless the members already believe sufficiently in themselves. Most critique groups I have experienced did not have that minimum, and they either self-destructed in an implosion of shame, or they churned members forever and ruined people’s pieces at every meeting.

In our group, we write together, share what we write, and encourage each other to keep going. This is a long process, but it helps people come to believe in themselves.

I wish I could instantaneously take away Casy’s trepidation, because that would turn her into a sun. What can do it? I know of nothing fast. At the group, we are participating in the slow process of transforming ourselves into suns. Every Tuesday, people take my writing seriously. Every Tuesday, people I admire and respect act like it’s normal to write, and act like it matters that I write, and act like what I write matters.

When my arms were injured, Betsy typed up the first draft of my story “Chen.” Sometimes I still boggle over that: Why? Why would anyone possibly do that? (Though I’d do it for any of us, and I bet you would, too.) Also, she sent me an email to say she’s glad I’m planning to publish flash fiction. The logic is inescapable: she believes in me. Other group members do other actions that have the same inescapable conclusion: they believe in me. And it’s working: It is forcing me to believe in myself.

We do this for each other. It peels away the scale, bit by bit. And writing does, too, but we’ll talk about that another time.

I believe in you. Keep going.

This is the process of turning into a sun.

Get Great Titles from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Paul Simon

photo of the lake isle of Innisfree

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by Kenneth Allen. Part of the Geograph project. (Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Here’s a fun way to get titles. You can use this method to title a piece you’ve already written, or you can use the titles as prompts and re-title later if you write something that doesn’t fit.

Titles from Poems: The Method

  1. Find the text of a song or poem you like. Prose doesn’t usually work, but you might have luck with a very dense and image-rich block of prose, such as something by Dylan Thomas. If you can’t think of a text you want to use, just grab anything by Shakespeare.
  2. Look through the text and mark the interesting phrases. (This means phrases you like, phrases that sound like titles, phrases that stand out for no apparent reason, or phrases that give you ideas.)
  3. Pick one of the phrases and use it for a title. (Or be inspired in some other way, follow your inspiration, and come back to the titles later.)

Example: The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I’ll do an example with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W.B. Yeats. Phrases I think could make good titles are marked like this. You will probably like different phrases, which shows what a good method this is.  (Note: Lately I am interested in longer, weirder titles such as James Tiptree, Jr.’s  And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which comes from John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Do you like any of those? Want to go through this poem yourself? Or, better yet, how about trying this method with a poem or song you love?

If you come up with a few titles you like, please post them in the comments below! (Don’t post an entire poem unless you own the rights or it is in the public domain.)

The Serving Dinner Model of Publishing

hand serving a plate with a manuscript on itDo you have a pile of unfinished pieces? Would you like to find a way to finish more projects? Here’s a method I’m using that helps me. (Note: It’s normal for creative people to start many more projects than they finish, so please never feel bad about that pile again. But you can improve your rate of finishing.)

How Can I Finish More Projects?

When I decided to improve my rate of finishing creative projects, I thought I was bad at finishing. After all, I had only published four articles on our Write to the End blog in three years! But I began looking for “bright spots” – places in my life where I actually did finish things – so that I could try to duplicate any success that I found. I thought that I wouldn’t find much. I was wrong.

Bright Spot 1: Serving Dinner

The first bright spot I discovered was dinner. I produced and served dinner, every day, pretty much at 6 p.m. Here was an example of successful and consistent daily finishing! So I wasn’t bad at finishing after all; I was only bad at finishing creative projects. I continued to analyze the bright spot: Why did I succeed at “getting dinner published” every night at 6 p.m.?

Because people in my house needed to eat, and they couldn’t eat much later than 6 p.m. Aha! I’d discovered two project characteristics that help me finish:

  1. Other people counting on me to produce.
  2. An external deadline.

How could I use this discovery to help myself finish more creative projects? In particular, how could I help myself publish more articles on our blog? I didn’t know, so I went back to looking for bright spots.

Bright Spot 2: Our Newsletter

The next bright spot I discovered was even more valuable because it was related to writing. I’d been sending our Write to the End newsletter (in one form or another) for over 10 years. Here was another example of successful and consistent finishing, and it was actually an example of successful and consistent publishing! The newsletter had the same two helpful characteristics as serving dinner: an external deadline and an audience. I had discovered the Serving Dinner Model of publishing, and I was already using it successfully!

Applying the Model: Our Blog

I suddenly knew how I could help myself publish consistently on our blog. It was terrifying to commit to this, but I did it. I added a section for new blog posts to our newsletter, and I promised there would always be at least one new article in that section.

It worked! Ever since then, I have succeeded at writing and publishing a new article every month. (Yes, I do it at the last minute. But I do it. And now that I’m committed to it, I’m starting to find ways to move the last minute farther away from the deadline.)

Applying the Model: Instant Books

The Serving Dinner Model can also be applied to one-time projects. You just have to figure out how to cause other people to rely on you to produce the project by a certain date. Here’s an example of how this has worked for me.

As part of Thinking Ink Press, I’ve been making Instant Books (small books folded from a single sheet of paper). My first two ideas for Instant Books are still unfinished, but in the meantime I have produced two others plus a Flashcard (a postcard with a complete short story on it). Why did I not finish the first two projects, but I did finish the other three? It’s because I applied the Serving Dinner Model to the ones I finished. I caused the two helpful conditions to exist by saying to my partners, “I’ll make Jagged Fragments for Anthony to sell at the Clockwork Alchemy convention,” or “I’ll make Bees for Betsy to sell at Play on Words.” Boom! Instant deadline and audience.

My first two Instant Book ideas have never had an upcoming author event associated with them, so I have had trouble setting aside other things to work on them. But I want to finish them, so I will be looking for opportunities to apply the Serving Dinner Model.

Take Action

What about you? Would you like to try the Serving Dinner Model?

What’s one thing you’ve been wanting to produce? For that particular project, how can you get an external deadline and people counting on you?

If you like, go ahead and leave a comment to let us know your plan.

Writing People Off

I don’t write people off. If you talk to me, I will encourage you to write. (Or I’ll encourage you to make art, or create smartphone apps, or start a business, or make whatever it is you want to make. But usually the people I meet want to write.) But if I were the kind of person who writes people off, this would be my top 5 list.

  1. You want to know your first short story will sell before you deign to write a first draft.
  2. You are in love with your idea for a novel, and your idea of yourself as the author of it, but you aren’t working on it in any way.
  3. You send me email after email about how you are going to come to the writing group, but you just want this or that special reassurance, or to meet with me privately (again), or to explain some particular of your situation that you think matters – but none of it matters. What matters is that you write. I care nothing for your problems or your diagnoses. Write. Come to the group if you want, or find another group. Write. Quit sending me email unless it’s a manuscript.
  4. You corner me and won’t shut up about this book you think I should write using your material. Go write it yourself, I say.  I don’t know what you want, but I actually think it is not for a book to exist about your ideas. I think you just want to watch someone act like they agree with you. I’ll bet if you start writing, this will go away.
  5. I’m sure that myself goes here. I’m like #3 whenever I don’t write but instead look for reassurances. I’m like #4 whenever I talk someone’s ear off about my ideas but don’t work on them. I’m like #2 whenever I don’t write but fantasize instead. I’m like #1 whenever I want to know I’ll end up with a story before I’m willing to put pen to paper. And here’s another thing I do, which can be #5: I have all these ambitions and even talent, I write stuff that I want to publish, but I just let it sit around in a notebook or on a hard drive.

Luckily I never write anyone off, even myself. I keep going no matter what, because attendance is my superpower. I am mean to myself; I tell myself I’ll never succeed; I yell at myself for how bad my writing is and how abysmally I manage my time and skill. But being mean to oneself could be #6 on this list! I’m sure it has never helped anyone to write. I am going to stop being mean and treat myself the way I treat everyone else.

I will always encourage you if you want to write. I promise to encourage myself, too.

The Parable of the Salad Bandage,
or
The Thesaurus Is Susceptible to User Error,
or
You Actually Need to Find Out What Words Mean

photo of lettuce and bandages

Don’t let this happen to you!

When I studied Spanish in high school, we had an assignment to write a recipe and present it in class. One of the recipes was for Homemade Ranch Salad Bandage – you know, that white stuff you put on a salad when it skins its knee.

Yes, they actually meant salad dressing. But guess what. The English-to-Spanish dictionary entry for “dressing” listed venda (wound dressing) first. That dictionary, just like a thesaurus, didn’t include any definitions. And high school students are prone to copying down the first word they find.

How many times have you seen a sentence that uses the wrong word, and the wrong word is a thesaurus synonym of the right word? I see this all the time. It often happens when the right word has already been used in a previous sentence. I understand the desire to avoid repetition, but repetition is better than not making sense.

Okay, usually the wrongness of the word isn’t as terrible as “salad bandage,” but still. Don’t you want to say what you mean?

You have the power to keep your writing free of salad bandages. All it takes is a dictionary.

Prove Me Wrong

leather journal with handwritten text

Photo by Ekuryluk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

I met a lady at a class one time, and we ended up staying after to talk about her novel idea. Her idea was great. Her material was fascinating historical novel stuff, with current socially relevant themes, compelling characters and situations, dramatic, literary — a book I want to read.

But I found myself bored for half the time she was talking. Why? Because I was saying to myself, “She’s never going to write it.” I was listening with rapt attention to the details of the novel, but when she talked about the writing part, I felt my attention slipping. Maybe it was fun for her to have the idea for the novel, fun to think of herself as a (potential) novelist. Maybe at that moment she thought she was going to write it, because I was sitting there listening, encouraging her, showing her the face of a reader begging to read her book.

But I know the other face, the one she was showing me. I’ve seen that face on some of the people I’ve invited to the writing group, but who have never come to a meeting. I’ve been inside that face talking about one of my own unfinished (barely started) novels. I’m pretty sure she’s not going to write that book. Maybe she doesn’t actually like to write; she just thought of a great idea for a book. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s fun to think of ideas for books. Most people I talk to have thought of at least one. And most of them will never write it.

Except I always have hope, because I want to read this lady’s book, and because I believe that everyone has it in them to create.

Please, dear potential novelist: If you actually want to write, prove me wrong. Everyone I’ve ever thought this about, prove me wrong. So you never contacted me. So you never came to the writing group, or you never came back. I don’t care, as long as you’re writing.

You have my card. When your book comes out, or when you have a complete draft, or even when you reach the anniversary of the day you actually started writing, drop me a line.

I’ll be glad to hear from you.