How to Win the Writing Game by William Jeanes

Here’s an article I think all writers will appreciate. Enjoy.

In Issue:  of The Saturday Evening Post

Many of you out there in this great land of ours have taken pen in hand to write in seeking the inside dope on how to write good. I’ve reached into my bag of tricks and come up with one sure-fire tip from the top: Avoid clichés like the plague.

A hearty hats off to the man or woman who gave us that pearl of wisdom. Those are, as sure as I’m sitting here, words for writers to live by.

Though I’m busier than a one-armed paperhanger, and I’ve got a lot on my plate, I’ll take time out of my busy day to clue you in about how clichés can ruin your whole day. Here are three good reasons you should give clichés a wide berth.

Many of you out there in this great land of ours have taken pen in hand to write in seeking the inside dope on how to write good. I’ve reached into my bag of tricks and come up with one sure-fire tip from the top: Avoid clichés like the plague.

A hearty hats off to the man or woman who gave us that pearl of wisdom. Those are, as sure as I’m sitting here, words for writers to live by.

Though I’m busier than a one-armed paperhanger, and I’ve got a lot on my plate, I’ll take time out of my busy day to clue you in about how clichés can ruin your whole day. Here are three good reasons you should give clichés a wide berth.

First, clichés suck the life out of those words you’ve been working overtime on, leaving your sentence without a leg to stand on, as it were.

Second, a cliché is old hat, pure and simple. People in all walks of life have heard them time and time again—more times than you can shake a stick at.

Third, if you were a fly on the wall, getting an earful of folks spewing clichés left and right, you’d fall all over yourself to bid a fond farewell to that wall and get the hell out of Dodge.

If you want to make your writing smooth as silk and solid as a rock, you must set yourself apart from the crowd. Put some distance between yourself and all those run-of-the-mill writers. Realize that you’re not your own worst enemy; the cliché gets that nod. You may work your fingers to the bone, but in the end, when your writing is clear as a bell and beautiful to gaze upon, trust me, you’ll be proud as a peacock.

Keep your nose to the grindstone, and before you know it you’ll find brand spanking new ways to put into words things you’ve kept bottled up in your heart of hearts for lo, these many years. Just a once-over-lightly look at your letters tells me that you’re dead serious about making something of yourself. I know as well as I know my own name that you’re willing to give cliché-avoidance the old college try. It’s as plain as the nose on your face, and you deserve a pat on the back. It’s only natural that you want more than anything in the world to make your colleagues so green with envy that they’ll scream bloody murder. Get with the program, and soon you’ll be in Fat City—sitting in the catbird seat, happy as a clam.

Taking a long, hard look at your questions tells me in words I can’t ignore that you’ll spare no effort to write paragraphs that light up the page like a Christmas tree.

So, how do you rid that Great American Novel, the one you’re burning the midnight oil over, of clichés? It’s as easy as falling off a log—just keep in mind the hoary old chestnut that says: If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s a duck. Stick to your guns, and you’ll have those clichés on the run before they know what’s hit them. Tell them not to let the door hit them on their way out. What crosses the mind of your average eagle-eyed editor when a cliché-laden manuscript lands on his desk? Dollars to doughnuts, he’ll get madder than a wet hen. Chances are, at the very least, he’ll tell the writer in no uncertain terms never to darken his door again.

Fighting the good fight against clichés can take the wind out of your sails on any given working day, but there’s no question in my mind that working like a dog to rid the world of clichés is taking the linguistic high road. When you get right down to brass tacks, the herculean task of wiping clichés—and the horse they rode in on—off the face of the earth is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. But only if you adopt a take-no-prisoners approach to your work. Do that, and those hard-to-please editors will not only sing your praises, they will beat a path to your door.

About the Author

William Jeanes

William Jeanes is the former editor-in-chief and publisher of Car and Driver magazine.

Here is the link to the original article.

P.S. There’s a cliche’ contest on the host site. Maybe you’re up for the challenge?

An Appalachian in Southern California

I write this on a plane back from San Diego to Nashville. It was my first trip to San Diego, actually, and I was really looking forward to it. I’d heard so many great things about the city. (They were correct.)

SoCalI’d also been told that people in Southern California can be a bit, well, “WooWoo.” Of course, I’m Appalachian, and we have our own set of stereotypes, so I try to experience things for myself before forming impressions.

I attended a marketing conference with Marisa Murgatroyd, who was fabulous, I should add. I should also tell you, though, that I’m an introvert, and so when I’m in a large group of strangers, my inclination is to be silent. And, as a creative, I become a keen observer, and as a girl from West Virginina in SoCal for the first time, I think we might agree that I was destined to have plenty of, “Am I on hidden camera?” moments.

Here are my Top #5 Awkward SoCal Interactions:

#5  May I Take Your Order?

Me: I’d like a glass of unsweet tea.
Her: What?
Me: Unsweet tea.
Her: Do you mean iced tea?
….oh, yeah. Sweet tea is a Southern thing.

#4  You Have Sticks, We Have Leaves

Me: So was there a fire on those mountains?
Her: What?
Me: A fire, up there. ( I point up.) It looks dead.
Her (rolling her eyes in disgust): Yeah, that’s what it always looks like.

#3  The Non-Judgmental Judgmental Conversation

Me: So what do you do?
Him: I help people channel their past lives so that they can deal with the unresolved issues which are blocking their success in this life.
Me: Really?
Him: You know, past lives. Wait, you’re from the South. Don’t tell me you don’t believe in that? That would be so small minded.

#2  On Preferred Liquids

Her: Look at you, Miss I’m-Not-Hydrating!
Me: I’m not hydrating?
Her: Everyone has green tea but you.
Me: I don’t really like green tea.
Her: Oh. (horrified) You need to go to my website. I have a whole section on the benefits of green tea.
…but I don’t like it.

…and the #1 most awkward moment I encountered in SoCal:

#1  Imagine the Scariest Place You Could Be Right Now

Him: You should join us out on the green for our morning sun salutation.
Me: Is that because we’re in a Naval Training community?
Him: (Confused.)
Me: Oh, wait. You mean yoga. I was thinking about saluting…
Him: You’re SO not from here.

I suppose we’re all different, and really we’re all the same. We drink tea (unsweet, sweet, AND green), we have leaves & sticks, we think we’re correct, and we salute…or “salute.” Regardless, we have a lot to learn from each other, don’t you think?

What is one of your most awkward travel moments?

I Believe in You (Story Behind the Song)

When my beautiful friend and talented writer, Susan Gregg Gilmore, sent me an advance copy of her new novel, “The Funeral Dress,” I already knew I was going to be writing a song for the book. As I mentioned in my last post, Susan and I had talked about what a cool thing it could be, and we had heard her publisher was on board to use it to promote the book.

Just write...

Just write…

 

I admit that this is a totally fun project for me as a songwriter. I’m a great supporter of novelists, and this is a neat way for me to add to (hopefully) the promotion of one. I believe in the power of music, and I definitely love that music could be used to further Susan’s work. I thought you might be interested in hearing the song, “I Believe in You,” and knowing a little about how the song came together for me. Listen to it, and then read on for some insight into my writing process.

I broke my process down into Five Basic Steps so you could follow me. (I.Need.Structure.)

1. What I Didn’t Want

First, I decided right away what I didn’t want. I figured that if I took a few things off the table at the start, then I could get a better focus. The one thing I knew right away that I didn’t want was for the song to be a slow, sad ballad. With a title like, “The Funeral Dress,” I knew I wanted to stay away from writing a funeral dirge. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) So, slow songs were out.

For the sake of melodrama, I also decided not to use a minor key. (Musicians, can I get an ‘amen?’) 

Finally, I didn’t want to write the book title, “The Funeral Dress,” as a song title. I know me, and I can’t be trusted to write that closely to another writer’s title. I inevitably would have made up my own story for the title, and then the lyric wouldn’t have served Susan’s novel.

2. What I Did Want

With #1 in mind, I took some time to think about what I DID want. Right away I wanted the lyric and music to be hopeful. I suppose it is the commercial writer in me, but I thought a lot about the reader/buyer. Again, considering the novel’s title, if I were a potential buyer, I would want to have some feeling that I wasn’t signing up for a totally gut wrenching read. (I prefer to be tricked into those.)

I wanted a musical ‘feel’ that seemed inspiring. While I hadn’t read the book yet, I wanted to go into the reading of it with some sort of ‘soundtrack’ that would lift me up. So, I played around with music till I landed on something that I made me feel positive. Okay, I guess that’s just an instinctual thing, but in the end, if I’m writing it and I like it, then it’s all good, right?

3. The Easy Part

Once I had the musical soundtrack playing in my head, I finally read the novel. (Oh yeah…THAT.)

I didn’t take notes, and I didn’t worry about finding a lyric in it. I didn’t even try to remember facts or names or anything. I just read it at my own pace and when I was finished, I took a few days to see what bubbled to the top. All along, though, I did keep the ‘soundtrack’ in mind.

4. Got Questions?

After a few days of sitting with the story, some very specific questions began to form for me. So, I spent time answering my own questions.

  • What moments kept coming back to me?
  • What characters did I want to know more about?
  • What about the observers? The people in the town who weren’t mentioned in the book, but who were watching?
  • What did I think the real story here was? Was it the same story I guessed Susan intended to write?
  • What is my personal response to that story?

5. Enough Already

Finally, I started writing. I’m not going to talk about the scenes and moments (yet) that shaped the song because it might ruin your read. However, I will tell you about the small moment in the book, the moment you may not even notice, that got the whole lyric started.

Susan describes a scene when Emmalee, a new employee, is sitting at her freshly assigned sewing machine in the factory.

“From behind Emmalee, a woman half stood over the top of her machine and introduced herself as Wilma Minton. She had full cheeks and bright pink lips and eyebrows drawn on her face. The tail of her left eyebrow was smudged, and Emmalee held her hand to her mouth, careful not to snicker.”

For whatever reason, that passing moment in the novel never left me. My mind went off into a million directions when I read that small part–wonder who Wilma Minton is at home? Do I know a ‘Wilma Minton?’ Is Wilma lonely? Is she kind? Is she a gossip?  …and before I read too many more pages in the story, I decided I was going to like Wilma till she proved me wrong. And the lines in the pre-chorus of my song, “Life can break your heart, that’s the hardest part,” are totally, 100% from my first decision about Wilma Minton.

Gang, I wrote this song based on how The Funeral Dress made me feel. The overall story and not just one character or one moment.

It’s not a song for Emmalee or Kelley Faye, nor is it a song for Leona or Wilma or Easter, or any of the characters. Rather, it’s a song for all of them.

And, I suppose if I’m being honest, it’s a song for each of us who needs our own community, however disjointed or flawed or unlikely a community it is, to hold us up, too.

The Funeral Dress is available at your local bookstore, or on Amazon.com. I hope you’ll join me in supporting a fellow writer. Also, please share this post with your particular online universe–facebook, twitter, youtube, etc. However you communicate with the outside, let’s be the people who talk about art.

 

The Funeral Dress

One habit I developed a long time ago is that I write a song for nearly every book I read. I love to read, but I always used to feel guilty if I were reading and not working on a new song. (I’m so good at guilt.)FuneralDress

I remember the day I was telling my dear friend and fellow songwriter, Joel Lindsey, about it.  He said, “Belinda, it’s research. Read as much as you want because you get ideas from books.” We were at South Street Grille here in Nashville, and every time I go there I think about our conversation. I came up with the Novel Theme Song Plan out on that patio.

Fast forward many years, and many Novel Theme Songs, to summer 2013. I was invited to be on staff at the Appalachian Young Writers’ Workshop at Lincoln Memorial University, and when the director told me that Susan Gregg Gilmore would be the fiction teacher, I was stoked. I had read her first book, “Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen,” and loved it. Besides, I’m always fascinated with novelists; how on Earth does anyone concentrate on one thing for so long?

After a week of living in dorm rooms again, eating cafeteria food and surviving middle-of-the-night tornado warnings, Susan is officially one of my favorite humans.

 

The Cool Part

Here’s a very, very truncated version of one of our conversations:

Me: So do you have a new novel in the works? (I know writers hate this question. I asked anyway.)

Susan: Yes, it’s actually coming out in September. I’m really excited about it.

Me: Awesome. What’s it called?

Susan: The Funeral Dress.

Me: There’s song in that title.

Susan: Oh, it would be so cool if you wrote a song for the book!

Me: I’ll totally write a song for the book. (Thinking: She doesn’t know that I’m not allowed to read it if I don’t.)

And then a week later, Susan leaves me the following voice mail:
“Hey, I talked to Random House about your writing the song. They LOVE the idea! Call me.”

WHAT?

WHAT JUST HAPPENED HERE?

Gang, the Novel Theme Song has finally come into its own. And, honestly, I couldn’t be more proud of Susan and her novel. It’s so much fun for me to be able to add in even a small way to the release of, “The Funeral Dress.”

Today, I’m inviting you to check out your local bookstore (always support them first) or click here to order your copy.

And then you should write your own Novel Theme Song. You never know what could happen.

Here’s to supporting a fellow writer!

 

The Power of a Bad Song

 

I was just telling a co-writer the other day about how I’ve written some stinkers over the years. I always get a kick out of running across an old not-at-all-awesome lyric. I’ll come across a piece of paper with one of my furious scribbles, and the first thing that pops into my mind is, “What were you thinking? That’s terrible!”

Such is the case with a song I started when I was seventeen which I had to record recently.

I was a sophomore in college, and I was pledging a sorority. (I know. You don’t see it, do you? I am an Alpha Gamma Delta. It’s totally true.)

Our pledge class was told that we needed a class song. I was pledging with my high school friend, Kristin, and she and I decided to take the song I’d written for our high school graduation and change it to make it fit for the pledge class. (I found out later that they hadn’t meant we had to write a full-on song. They’d meant for us to make up lyrics to a popular song. Oops.)

The song was called, “When I Say Friend.” The hook is, “When I say friend, I’ll always think of you.” I’m not even going to go into all the parts that I wouldn’t write now (teardrop? Gheesh.) For your viewing pleasure, here is a picture the lyric I wrote all those years ago:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I got an email from an Alpha Gam a few weeks ago asking me for a recording of this song. “When I Say Friend,” has been passed down from year to year, and my chapter is still singing it. They wanted a recording because a music therapist from hospice wanted to play comforting songs to a young woman, Toni, who was dying of breast cancer.

“When I Say Friend,” was one of the songs they asked for.

Toni was younger than I and we never met. I knew her name, and I knew she had been fighting breast cancer for years. I also knew that her husband died unexpectedly last September leaving her with the two boys.

I sat down at my piano that day to record, “When I Say Friend,” and the professional writer in me kept getting embarrassed at the lyric. Then, I would think of Toni dealing with the betrayal of her body and the weight of leaving her boys, and I sang. I remembered the spirit in which I wrote that little song all those years ago.

At seventeen when this song was started for my high school graduation, I was making a promise to my friends. Truth is, it was the best promise I knew how to make at that age.

As it turns out, with all it’s imperfections and naievete, it’s still about the best promise I know how to make to my friends today. I’d write it differently, but I’d still mean it.

Toni Gusic Saylor was diagnosed with breast cancer on September 19, 2003. She died at the age of 37 on September 11, 2012. 

Songwriters, write your songs with the passion of where you are in your experience. Write what you know exactly as you know it. Write your truth. Be excellent.

Songs have a way of finding their place. Even the bad ones.

RIP, Toni.

Full Circle Moments: Thanks, Songwriting

It’s been a terrific week around here. I’ve spent a lot of time on learning new things, and then on Saturday I spent the day in Atlanta as a guest of the NSAI (nashvillesongwriters.com) chapter. I’ve adopted them, now, so they’re stuck with me.

I spent the afternoon answering questions, introducing a cool creative exercise, and then we ended the day with a few hours of my giving on-the-spot feedback for songs the writers played me.

What no one there knew (hi, guys! ha) is that the last time I was at that church, years and years ago, I felt stupid and fat and awful and unwelcome.  I wrote about the experience here.So, when I pulled up on Saturday morning and realized where I was, the exact same place I had been so many years ago, and this day I was actually being paid to ‘do what I do really well,’ let’s just say it was one of those full-circle moments.

It’s funny how things come back around.
 
-b

How to Gain Weight and Get Dates

My friend Steve Siler over at Music for the Soul mentioned vintage weight gain ads the other day. I thought for sure he meant weight ‘loss‘ and so I googled. Sure enough, weight GAIN ads exist.

Stunning. 

Can you imagine scouring the pages of a fashion magazine and finding this? In this day and age?

I giggled when I read, “Since I gained 10 pounds this new, easy way, I have all the dates I want.”

I can think of a bunch of easy ways to gain 10 pounds. Actually, I can just ‘think’ of gaining weight and my body jumps right on board. I don’t have to ingest a thing.

I could go on to write the typical post that we would all expect here about media, gender roles and how so many times we succumb to the thin=beautiful myth.

Today, instead, I just want to give a nod to all of us who are too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too light and too dark.  To each of us who are too eccentric, too serious, too free-spirited, too conservative, too energetic and plain ol’ too tired, here’s to us. Here’s to the perfect and imperfect, the beautifuls, the freaks, the I-don’t-knows and the I’m-just-trying-to-figure-it-out’s. 

Pull up your chair, and welcome to my table.

To our adventure,

Belinda