Lessons From ‘The Freebird’s Dilemma

Today I share the most important lesson that I learned from writing ‘The Freebird’s Dilemma.’


I wrote “The Freebird’s Dilemma” in 1992 as a submission to Bridges, the Los Medanos College literary publication. That was the year that I first took a lit class. I was also in a supportive writing group that included my lit instructor, Madeline Puccioni. That was the year that I started writing seriously.

I also learned my most astonishing lesson of all from writing “The Freebird’s Dilemma”.

The submission guidelines were simple and direct. Twelve-point Times New Roman font. Double spaced. Ten pages maximum.

I wrote the story making maximum use of my experiences working on trail crews in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. I also used my experiences of feeling trapped in the town I lived in and really wanting to be back out in the wilderness. And I threw in a romance. I figured that couldn’t hurt, but that part was total fiction. Mostly. Rachel was based upon a single mom that I did know at college, but there was no romance in the real relationship.

I wrote the story. I edited the story. I got it down to twelve pages. And then I didn’t think I could cut out any more. Anything else that I cut would eliminate what I thought was critical information for the reader to have to understand my characters. I thought that it was going to be a twelve-page story, and that was that.

I explained my problem to Madeline.

She grinned and said, “Welcome to the world of writing! Ten pages means ten pages. Those are the submission guidelines, and there are no exceptions. Trim two pages, or it won’t even be read.”

This was the second most important lesson I learned from this piece. Submission guidelines are not suggestions. Not even when your friendly teacher and writing group coach is the one enforcing them.

The day before the submission deadline, I had a long afternoon break on campus. I sat in the cafeteria with a cup of coffee and looked my manuscript over one more time. The story opened with exposition of Joe and Rachel’s background, explaining how they had gotten to the point they were at in their relationship. I realized that the exposition made for a slow start, so I tried to find ways to tuck that information into other places in the story. Shuffling material around didn’t help me trim two pages, though. I could not let go of my need to make sure this background information was in the story.

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March 4 is National Grammar Day

National Grammar Day

March 4 is National Grammar Day in the United States. Established in 2008, it is a yearly celebration of the nuts and bolts of the English language.

In honor of National Grammar Day, author and podcast host Mignon Fogarty has a piece on the Top Ten Language Myths.

Who is Mignon Fogarty? Form her website:


Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and the “Today Show” and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase “grammar nazi” and loves the word “kerfuffle.” She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University.

You can read a short piece on her Top Ten Language Myths at her blog, Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips, or you can listen to her podcasts on them for more details. I will post a link to a playlist of them below, but first, I will give you Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Language Myths, in reverse order:

  • A run-on sentence is a really long sentence
  • You shouldn’t start a sentence with the word ‘however’
  • ‘Irregardless’ is not a word
  • There is only one way to write the possessive form of a word that ends in S
  • Passive voice is always wrong
  • ‘I.e.’ and ‘e.g’ mean the same thing
  • You use ‘a’ before words that start with a consonant and ‘an’ before words that start with a vowel
  • It’s incorrect to answer the question “How are you?” with “I’m good.”
  • You shouldn’t split infinitives
  • You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition

Be sure to read Mignon Fogarty’s explanations for these, or even better, listen to her podcast episodes for more details. You can listen to the Grammar Girl episodes for each of these top ten at the playlist that Mignon Fogarty has posted exclusively to Spotify. You can also find each of the episodes wherever you might already listen to podcasts, such as Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or Podbean.

Come on back and post your thoughts on these language myths in the comments.

 


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events. 8.) Short fiction. 9.) Poetry.Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Bygones

Today we have a recommendation for a useful website from WF member Dave Smith. And a little historical perspective.


Bygones

By Dave Smith

The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine that in its heyday towered by size over others in the rack and often had a cover by Norman Rockwell, popped into my life a few weeks ago.

While cleaning out the back room (one of those Covid-generated activities) I found a book that contained short stories from the Post, and vaguely remember picking it up at a book exchange sometime in the past. The title is Mystery and Suspense and the subtitle is Great Stories from The Saturday Evening Post. It’s not a recently published book. The last printing was 1976.

The book contains sixteen stories, and since the Post was such a quality magazine for a hundred-plus years, I thought I had found a nugget to read and learn about great writing.

One of the stories was ‘The Black Cat’ by Edgar Allen Poe. Yes, because the Post began in 1821, Poe could indeed have been a contributor.

The cat story was good, but Poe tends to write superfluously and pleonastically (he uses big words, and a lot of them). I think it may have been because writers often got paid by the word in those times.

I decided to pick a more recent story for my next read, ‘Pen in Hand’ by Ben Ames Williams, dated 1933. This turned out to be a cozy mystery, set in a backwoods country village, and the protagonist was an elderly lady who lived by herself on a ridge a few miles from town, and who once a week hooked up her horse to the buckboard and went to town. She was Grandma Ankers, referred to locally as Marm.

The story was intriguing, and I got caught up in trying to solve it, as this is what mysteries do to you. But the writer in me began to notice a verbose style and unusual dialogue tags. That’s okay, the story was good. Then near the end I came across a dialogue tag I don’t usually see. Here it is, after Marm had solved the puzzle, she spoke:

“There!” she ejaculated. “Sheriff I dunno what you think, but that’s enough for me.”

Every book about writing published in the past forty years has derided such tags—no, even longer if you consider the Elements of Style by our buds Strunk and White. And yet here it was, in the Saturday Evening Post no less.

Did the Post have editors? Did people talk like that back then?  Even though as used here it is technically correct, wouldn’t another word have been less interruptive?

I had to find out, so I did what any reasonable person does today—Google. And damned if I didn’t find something really cool and useful for us writers.

It’s called Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Maybe I’m showing my ignorance here, and I apologize for that, but this is one interesting tool I was not aware of. Ngram takes any word, phrase, or group of words, and can show relationships, usage in writings over time, and a hundred other too-deep-for-me things. And then Google puts it into a graph form which can cause one to exclaim, “Aha.”

The answer to my question was yes, ejaculated was used as a dialogue tag in many stories from the early 1800s to about 1940.

If your writing involves history, Ngram could help determine the written usage of a particular word at any time in the past. And even better, Ngram will show you the exact books and passages they found to support their data.

I now realize I was born 100 years too late. Today the golden  rule is to use he said or she said, with an occasional whispered or shouted if absolutely necessary, and yet in the not too distant past one could sell to a national magazine a story containing words like *insert your favorite*. I can write stuff like that, and would have made a fortune selling my stories, if only I had not been misplaced in time.

But all is not lost even if bygone words are bygones.

From where the sun now stands until forever, whenever I am disgusted with my writing, when the words smell so bad even my wife turns up her nose at them, when I am positive I am the worst ever, when I want to fast-ball my coffee cup—or beer bottle—through the glass patio door, when I want to throw open the window and shout I can’t take it anymore, when I want to stab my writing hand with a pencil to keep me from using it to waste my time, when I want to crumple up my computer and toss it into the wastebasket, when the deepest depth of despair threatens my sanity, … at those times I promise I will remember Marm ejaculating in the Saturday Evening Post.

And the black clouds will part, and the writers’ sun will shine on me once more.


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events. 8.) Short fiction. 9.) Poetry.Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Do you Scapple?

Text: Writers Forum Book Review: Encouraging One Another in the Craft

Today at Writers Forum, we have reviews of a couple of writerly products from Writers Forum member Dave Smith.

Take it away, Dave…


 

Do you Scapple?

By: Dave Smith

 

Good things should be passed along.

Here are two I found worthy of passing along: Scapple, and Alexa Donne. If you’re not familiar with them, let me tell you.

For the past few years I have used the writing program Scrivener. I got it because, first, it had a 30 day free trail. Yes, I’m cheap so this immediately appealed to me. I was impressed enough to purchase it because, yes, it’s not expensive. I paid $45 for it. A forever license.

Scrivener is a quality program, and I continue to discover more of its abilities as I write. Because of this, I recently decided to try another program designed by the same folks, Scapple.

This is a user friendly brainstorming type of program. I know what you’re thinking, but it is in my opinion well worth trying. This program is simple and intuitive, like my sentences.

It also has a free 30 day trial (not necessarily consecutive, so if you skip a day, you won’t have it taken off your free trial. Isn’t that sweet?)

How does it work? Well, it’s like taking all your ideas on a project and splattering them all over the page, like index cards on the floor. But then, you can connect them with lines, directional arrows, colors, and more, and you can move them around, and change everything you just did EASILY. You can import documents, and pictures, and export to other file formats.

Personally, I have difficulty keeping track of the various threads in stories I write. (Think subplots, or inner thoughts, or what nots.) This program takes care of that. I tried it with a new idea I’ve had, and it amazed me how it kept me unmuddled. Now I can see where my problems are, and move ideas and scene parts around accordingly, and can go from here to an outline, or just follow my thoughts on a Scapple page, pantser style.

Did I use Scapple to write this article? Yup.

 

Alexa Donne. Like everyone, I use YouTube to learn things; how to re-pot a bonsai, or replace a headlight on an old Toyota, or discover why my tomatoes look like they do. Sometimes I stumble across videos about writing, and if they’re interesting enough, I make it all the way to the end, dodging ads along the way.

I came across Alexa Donne and her video Harsh Writing Advice. I made it all the way to the end. For some insight and a few chuckles, check it out. You might see a familiar style if you look close enough.


 

Queen’s Letter: Notevengonnatrytolookupwhatdayitis

writers forum president

This week’s Letter from the Queen highlights some important issues we have to deal with today. Laura’s piece on contact testing and continued social distancing should go viral. It’s that important. And then Laura gives us another great writing aid.


 

 

Contact Tracing

I’ve done this.  When I was in graduate school for Medical (Urban) Anthropology, I manned and ran the Hotline at the university health clinic in the eastern San Fernando Valley.

It wasn’t the flu we were tracing. It was venereal disease. Girls would call; it was mostly girls calling.  They would call and describe symptoms we were trained to ask about, and we’d make appointments at the clinic for confirmation testing. The reason there were more girls calling than men is because most of the time, females have symptoms they notice. Their male partners did not have symptoms. But they were carriers. The men didn’t know they were carriers. Yet.

That’s where contact tracing found them. In the appointments at the clinic, girls were encouraged to make a list to take home, of the sexual partners they had in say 6-8 weeks previous to the onset of symptoms.  It was up to the infected girls to contact their previous partners and encourage those partners to come to the clinic (or an anywhere clinic), for testing and treatment.  There was blaming, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.

I encouraged the girls to paint a grim picture, with colorful language, for the important phone call they would have to make to each partner (former and current, cute or ugly). She, in turn, was encouraged to use colorful language to encourage the partner to come clean and get clean before he made any further contacts.  Once the male partner(s) came into the clinic, same dosey-doe. Each contact was traced by each person who came for treatment. The clinic didn’t contact the contacts on the list.

Unless a person told us that a contact refused treatment and made some kind of threat that they would intentionally continue untreated contact with the community. That didn’t happen in our clinic. But we heard about a guy who did that at another university. Cops were involved as a Public Health Emergency. For that one guy.

Contact tracing for Chingona Virus is coming. It’s already here. That’s how we heard about that Redding woman who just had to go to Sacramento to visit a sick person and brought the Chingona back with her to her son, to her church.  She was asked, after she was sick, who the hell she had contact with. She told health care workers before she died. The health care workers did this tracing and contacted those people she contacted because she was too sick to make the phone calls.

Staying the eff at home makes contact tracing much easier.  One way you can make this easier to do for yourself is to keep your receipts from the grocery store and the drug store for 3 weeks at a time in a prominent place. They are date and time stamped, so you don’t have to remember when asked, and health care workers can find these in case you are too freaked out when asked after you get sick or someone you know is now sick and you had to visit them and are now busted. And, of course, these are the only places you should be going for a while, so that’s not a lot of receipts to keep, is it? Don’t rend or gnash, just keep your receipts.

As of today (it’s the latest, trust me) Age 18-49: 26,956 cases,

Age 50-64:14,078 cases

Age 65+: 12,098 cases

in California. What the hell does this mean? It means that Californians who are 18-49 are getting sick far more often than older people. My guess is that they are also more likely to not be staying the eff at home. And also more likely to get in their cars to go somewhere else for recreation because, you know, they are bored.  And it’s not that they are going on a hike in the wide, open spaces and not contacting other people. They go to the gas station to prepare for driving Somewhere Else. They buy snacks at the gas station or one of our little markets. Contact. If your nephew, or grandson or sons and daughters are doing this, don’t yell at them, just back away. Tell them to just wave from where they are. Save a nurse.

Things are opening up, but not all the way and we are still vulnerable to spreading this and getting this. Wear an effing mask.  Not while you’re driving. Didn’t you read about that woman who was driving around with her mask on and hit a tree because she passed out at the wheel? The mask is hard to breathe through. I saw 3 people driving around downtown Redding yesterday, wearing masks while driving.  Don’t do that.  It’s going to start getting warm outside and that makes breathing more difficult, too. Limit wearing your mask to when you get out of the car to get groceries.  And you can’t put on your lipstick before your mask.  Found out the hard way. A cloth sleeping mask, turned upside down with the “nose part” flipped up, can make a pretty good mask with something you may already have around the house. Don’t try and order N-95 ones yet as our health care professionals still need them more than you do.

 

I know you’re bored and freaked out. I’m one of those. I’ve been trying to write and have been reading about writing, which is the same thing (it is, it is, it is!).

The funnest book in My Pile right now is Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, by Jessica Brody. This book has a predecessor for screenwriters and this book builds on that one for helping us write something as riveting as a great movie.  She’s written (and sold) some 15 bestsellers (YA mostly), so she does know a couple things.

This book helps you write a Beat Sheet for your plot points to fill out the Three Act Structure. It’s good for planning something you haven’t done yet, but it’s also great for fixing up what you’ve already written! Jessica (I can call her by her first name because I have contacted her online and now we are Pretend Friends!), shows examples of what she’s writing about in popular movies so you can get the visual.

And there’s more! Udemyyes, I spelled that right…is an online teaching place that offers Jessica’s “Write a Best Selling Novel in 15 Steps” course!  It’s offered on sale for $9.99 most of the time (wait for a sale, not the $50 price), and once you buy it, you have it online forever. It’s a lot like the book, but not exactly, but it’s very good to use and play along.  You can go back anytime and re-view one of more of the almost one-hour class. Go to www.udemy.com to sign up, create an account and pay online. There are 100s of classes to take, not all of them by Jessica.

I bought her book, marked it up and use it, but I also bought the course from Udemy because sometimes you need a puppet show.

Jessica’s course on novel writing is presented in little blocks of something like 5-10 minutes each with examples, charts, short outlines, and clear explanations from her little face of what the hell she’s talking about. You can stop and start and repeat in the middle of each lesson and go back and forth as you need. She shows how popular and classic novels used what she’s talking about (because they all have these beats!), and of course, how popular movies show her concepts. AND this gives you a movie and book list to learn from and get back into right now because you need more to watch now!

She explains things like Theme, the Catalyst, the Debate, and the B-story (which is NOT the sub-plot but is the main character’s emotional development throughout your novel, her reason for and resistance to the change she needs to make to survive her story).

You’ll learn exactly how to improve your Fun & Games, Midpoint, Bad Guys Close in, All is Lost, and the Dark Night of the Soul. And yeah, you need to improve all that to write and sell your best-selling novel. The Finale Beat and Final Image spots are the necessary ending parts that will make you sure you have given the reader what she needs to love your novel and look forward to your next one.

There’s a “writer’s room” at the end of each “chapter” or “beat” where she shows you what she’s working on that illustrates what she just said, and shows you how writers plan in person, in real time, and how we can help each other “spit-ball” ideas in the comfort of your living room in the Time of Chingona Virus!  See how that all came together?!

Learn something new online, you know, Distance Learning. Continue to stay the eff at home. And just be glad it’s not the University Health Clinic contact tracing you.


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.