Writing with the Right Words

Tale of Two Cities--Opening LineNothing is as profound as a simple truth eloquently expressed. And that’s where we, as writers, come in. We take simple truth and make it profound by the way we express it. We must craft our words in such a way that the reader slaps his forehead and wonders if we just cleverly revealed something new or if we creatively told him something he already knew.

I will leave you today with one of these simple truths because the writer so eloquently crafted it that it struck me upside the head with the force of the proverbial two-by-four.

I was reading the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest. This is the magazine’s “Creativity Issue” and the line that struck me was the first sentence in an article entitled, “Making More Room for Writing” by Amy Sue Nathan. Here is her brilliant opening line:

“Writing is done in the time we make,

not the time we find.”

BAM! Say no more. My head hurts from the impact of this simple, but eloquently expressed 13-word sentence. We all know this simple truth but look how succinctly, yet creatively, Amy expressed it. Short. Sweet. Potent. And full of meaning. She’s right; we’ll never find extra time to write. We must make it. Carve it out. Sacrifice something else. Manage the clock.

Albert Einstein once said, “Creativity is the creating of the new and the rearranging of the old in a new way.” Much of our creative writing will be the “rearranging of the old in a new way.”

In the next piece you write keep this in mind. If you are expressing a familiar truth, how can you craft it in an eloquent way that cuts through the clutter and speaks powerfully to your readers?

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Related posts on this blog:

When is the best time to write? (Type “time” in the search bar at right.)
What hinders your dream to write? (Type “clock” in the search bar at right.)

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Published in: on June 13, 2015 at 1:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Writing a Powerful Opening Paragraph

Iwo Jima PhotoWhile the last sentence of a book may be the one by which we judge whether we liked the book, the opening sentence is the one that decides whether we read it. The same can be said for the opening paragraph. In fact, the opening paragraph is the one that seals the deal whether the reader allows page two to ever see the light of day. The opening sentence hooks us. The opening paragraph sets the hook and reels us in.

With Memorial Day upon us, I’m reminded that the opening paragraph of Flags of our Fathers is one of the most moving opening paragraphs I have ever read. No matter how many times I read it, it has the same powerful pull on me. I wonder how many times author James Bradley rewrote it before he said exactly what he intended to say.

Now, I admit that Bradley’s opening paragraph grips me for a personal reason, nevertheless, notice how each line is beautifully crafted and builds curiosity. Let’s break it down line-by-line and then review the entire paragraph.

Opening Line: “In the spring of 1998, six boys called to me from half a century ago on a distant mountain and I went there.”

Six boys? Who were they? “…from half a century ago on a distant mountain…” How is that possible? Now I’m intrigued. “…and I went there.” Where? Why? I must know more. Bradley hooked me.

Second line: “For a few days I set aside my comfortable life—my business concerns, my life in Rye, New York—and made a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, to a primitive flyspeck island in the Pacific.” What compelled him to interrupt his comfortable life to go to the other side of the world, particularly a flyspeck island in the Pacific—50 years later? I must find out.

Third line: “There, waiting for me, was the mountain the boys had climbed in the midst of a terrible battle half a century earlier.” Okay, now I know where he’s going, but I’m still not sure why.

Fourth line: “One of them was my father.” Now the journey is personal. His father fought there. Still, why is he going? Why now? What is he yearning?

Final line: “The mountain was called Suribachi; the island, Iwo Jima.” Now it’s clear. In this paragraph and the ones that immediately follow we learn Bradley’s father was one of the six flag-raisers who hoisted an American flag on a makeshift pole on Mount Suribachi in what would become “the most recognized and most reproduced image in the history of photography.” We still don’t know why he felt compelled to go there but it’s too late for me—Bradley has me hook, line and sinker.

Now let’s read the paragraph in its entirety so we feel its rhythm and momentum.

“In the spring of 1998, six boys called to me from half a century ago on a distant mountain and I went there. For a few days I set aside my comfortable life—my business concerns, my life in Rye, New York—and made a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, to a primitive flyspeck island in the Pacific. There, waiting for me, was the mountain the boys had climbed in the midst of a terrible battle half a century earlier. One of them was my father. The mountain was called Suribachi; the island, Iwo Jima.”

This paragraph is personal for me because my father fought at Iwo Jima too. He earned a Bronze Star for bravery and survived a mortar shell that screamed through the sky at 3:00 AM one morning and exploded just a few feet from his foxhole. He was on the island when the flag was raised. So, this opening paragraph stirs my soul every time I read it. For the reader that has no personal connection, it’s still a beautifully crafted paragraph that compels you to find out why the author would pluck himself out of “his comfortable life” and travel to the other side of the world 50 years later.

The answer, in its broadest sense, is to satisfy a yearning. In every work of fiction, the protagonist must satisfy a yearning. If you can skillfully and creatively reveal that yearning in the first paragraph you can inspire your readers to care about your yearning, identify with it and rally around it by simply reading your book.

And isn’t that the goal of a powerful opening paragraph?

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May you enjoy the Memorial Day holiday as you reflect on the significance of those, who in Lincoln’s words, “gave the last full measure of their devotion.”

Published in: on May 23, 2015 at 9:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Stephen King | On Writing (Every Day)

Stephen King On Writing Book CoverI’m currently reading Stephen King | On Writing. If you haven’t read it, it’s his memoir on the craft of writing. Although originally published in 2000 and in paperback in 2010, I never picked up a copy until my writer son, David, gift wrapped it and placed it under the Christmas tree with my name on it. (My copy came with a decorative canister of hot chocolate mix. Nothing like reading about writing by the fire while sipping hot chocolate during a painfully long Wisconsin winter.) But I digress. The book is an inspirational gift. A good read. And a poignant example of undeniably great writing. But then, what would you expect from Stephen King?

Don’t expect an itemized list of writing principles in the table of contents. In fact, don’t expect a table of contents. Instead, this 284-page memoir opens with 38 mini-stories chronicling King’s life and, in his words, how these life events formed him as a writer. He refers to his journey as “a disjoined growth process in which ambition, desire, luck, and a little talent all played a part. Don’t bother trying to read between the lines, and don’t look for a through-line,” he warns. “There are no lines—only snapshots, most out of focus.”

One hundred pages into the book, King defines what writing is before revealing the “Toolbox” every writer needs—and which tools need to be on the top shelf of that toolbox. He then transitions to the meat of the book, the “On Writing” section before concluding with “On Living: A Postscript.”

King speaks in a frank, in your face style. And as you might expect, throughout the book he entertains you. But don’t be deceived. While he’s entertaining you, he’s subtly teaching you. There are plenty of sound bites you simply must tack to your bulletin board, scrawl on your white board, in your journal or capture on your phone, tablet or laptop.

But this blog post is not a book review. It’s about tips for the writing life—your writing life—from one of the most prolific and commercially successful writers of our time. I leave you with King’s advice on why it is so important when you write fiction to write every day.

“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best—always, always, always—when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer.”

Inspired play. You have felt it before. Yet, to keep feeling it, you must write every day. Yes, easier said than done when your day job grinds you down. But it’s true—you are at your best when you spend time every day crafting your characters.

If you haven’t read Stephen-King | On Writing, pick up a copy. You just might pick up a little inspiration to fuel your writing—and hone your writing skills.

Hot chocolate optional.

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Published in: on April 25, 2015 at 4:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thanks for Joining Me This Year. (This Blog in Review in 2014).

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 50 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Published in: on January 2, 2015 at 11:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Eight Things Charles Dickens & Ebenezer Scrooge Remind Us About Writing Every Christmas

The Christmas CarolIt is Christmas time and what better event to attend than the theatrical production of Charles Dickens’ beloved story, A Christmas Carol. Fifteen family members attended with me this year in what has become an annual family tradition.

This moving story rejuvenates my Christmas spirit because, as Dickens intended, it speaks to the heart about love, charity, kindness, the plight of the poor, and human suffering, while inspiring all of us to make our life count.

At intermission, I gazed around the ornate Pabst Theater in Milwaukee and let my mind drift. How do you write a timeless classic? How did Dickens pen a story that strikes a chord in the heart and soul of everyone that reads it generation after generation?

A Christmas Carol is still the bestselling Christmas book of all time. Watching this story come to life reminds me of eight writing tips we can glean from Charles Dickens and his beloved character, Ebenezer Scrooge. I have shared them here before but they bear repeating.

1. Write a story that resonates. Dickens hit on all the elements that create a good story. A flawed main character (Scrooge). Timing (Christmas time). Setting (London). Values (kindness, forgiveness, repentance, restitution). Uniqueness (The Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future). Conflict (Scrooge’s internal struggle to choose between love or money). Crisis (His impending death). Climax (His moment of decision). Resolution (His change of heart). Conclusion (Restored relationships, Tiny Tim survives).

2. Start with a memorable character. Who could be more memorable than irascible Ebenezer Scrooge? We love him despite his defects.

3. Write what you know. Writing 101 says “write what you know.” Dickens knew London; he lived there. He knew poverty; his parents were delivered to debtors’ prison while he, at 12, worked in a warehouse for six shillings a week.

4. Write with passion. Dickens’ sister-in-law wrote that she had never seen Dickens write with such fervor than when he wrote A Christmas Carol. In just six weeks he wrote a story for the ages. Within two months of its debut, eight theater companies adapted and mounted the story on stage. Critics hailed it “a national institution” a year later. It would become his most memorable work. He was 31.

5. Let your subconscious do some of the work. Like so many writers, Dickens got away from his work—to do his work. His sister-in-law once reported that he “walked about the black streets of London, fifteen or twenty miles, many a night” while plotting this endearing story.

6. Introduce an innovative element. Dickens used common literary techniques with flashback and flash-forward devices. Yet, he did it innovatively with the Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

7. Maintain a disciplined writing schedule. Dickens wrote steadily and fervently and completed this classic in six weeks. His masterpiece was published on December 19, 1843.

8. Give the reader something to chew on. This is perhaps the crowning achievement of this classic tale. It gives us pause every time we read it or see it. A question always lingers in my head. How can my life benefit others?

These are just a few writing tips to remember every Christmas from Charles Dickens. But what can we learn about being a better writer from crusty old Ebenezer Scrooge?

We can learn how a complex, multidimensional main character has the power to capture and captivate an audience—for generations. And, we can learn that although Charles Dickens made Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s also true that Ebenezer Scrooge made Charles Dickens.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.

The Writer’s Refuge blog is a place for writers, like you, to break away from your daily routine and for just a few minutes find insight, inspiration or simply a word of encouragement.

You may contact Jim Magruder at: jcmchips1@yahoo.com.

Published in: on December 27, 2014 at 11:04 am  Comments (2)  

How to Feel the Words You Write

Writing on a black keyboardIf you expect readers to feel the words they read you need to feel the words you write. Stands to reason. The question is how do you “feel the words you write?”

Most of my published articles are written for the inspirational market so I’m seeking an emotional connection with readers. How do I make this connection? By feeling the words I write. My words and my feelings connect with the reader because, in effect, I’m writing what she is experiencing, what she is feeling and what I just successfully navigated through.

Here are a few ways you can feel the words you write.

Write from your personal experience. The human condition is the same for all of us. We all have joyous and tragic moments. We all love the magic of a wedding, the birth of a child or the pride in a major achievement. We all experience disappointments, heartaches, illness, watch loved ones succumb, and traverse through life transitions. What challenge did you face and successfully overcome? What emotions prevailed through that challenge? What were your lessons learned? In your writing, speak to that challenge, those emotions and those lessons learned to inspire your reader through their valley. We all sojourn through the valley before reaching the mountain top.

Explore the depth of your heart & hurt and then expose it. I have found a direct correlation between the “depth of exposed pain” and reader response. Readers have contacted me from across the country the very night they read one of my stories off the magazine rack in a Barnes & Noble store. One reader on the other side of the world (India) wrote to me after reading another story published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Why? I believe it’s because I exposed the depth of the pain in my heart when I wrote about how my father died a slow death from Alzheimer’s disease. Don’t share surface emotion; reveal the depth of your pain. I love the way poet Robert Frost expressed this truth: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader…”

Write with compassion for the reader. When we write an article or story where we conquered a difficult situation, we need to write it with the motive to help the reader also emerge victorious. Most readers of both fiction and non-fiction place themselves in the position of the main character and wonder what they would do in the same predicament. When you’re writing non-fiction your reader is just a few steps behind you in their experience. They stand at the fork in the road. They’re looking for the road sign your story provides. And they’re hoping you and your keyboard provide that proverbial light. Write with compassion for them because they may follow the path your writing reveals.

Try these three things to connect emotionally with your readers and have them connect emotionally with your writing. After all, if you feel the words you write, your readers will too.

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Published in: on December 7, 2014 at 12:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Write to Release the Music Inside You

Wood Music NotesWhere do you find inspiration to write? While there are multiple sources of inspiration, perhaps the most reliable and accessible is simply reading. Ever notice how reading inspires a new article idea or generates a fresh slant to an old idea? Reading sets the imagination free.

For the last two or three years my schedule has been absolutely slammed! I’ve mentioned this here before. I can barely squeak out extra time to read, much less write. Which brings me to the essential question; how then will I ever write everything I’ve dreamed of writing?

This is a common writer’s dilemma most eloquently expressed by poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the Supreme Court justice of the same name. “Many people die with their music still in them,” he said.

His words struck me to the core. Listen again and drink it in: “Many people die with their music still in them.” It got me thinking about the great composers and how fortunate we are that, in most cases, they finished the music inside them and released it—to us. Every note set free to bless the ears of a waiting world.

My goal used to be to write as much as possible every time I sat down to write until Dave, a friend of mine, suggested that I might actually get more done if I wrote less every day.

“What?” I responded.

“You might get more done if you write less each day, yet, support your writing every day,” Dave said. “Instead of trying to write an entire article after work when you’re tired and less productive, try this.

“On Monday after work, select the topic of your article or blog. That’s it. On Tuesday, conduct your research and list three main points you want to make. Stop there. On Wednesday, find your supporting art or photo. Nothing more. Thursday let your subconscious go to work piecing it together in your mind. Friday, jot down a brief outline. On Saturday morning, when you’re fresh, pull all the elements together and the piece may write itself because you’ve thought about it all week and you now have the most energy to write.”

“Worth a try,” I agreed.

“By the end of each week you will have a finished rough draft. Let it cool, then edit.”

Dave is right. Use small chunks of time to brainstorm, research, find photos, write, edit and finally release your music to the world.

And after all, figuratively speaking, who wants to die with their music still in them?

 

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Published in: on November 26, 2014 at 10:10 am  Comments (2)  

Write About What Matters Most to You

What do you love most about life? Have you written about it? What dominates your thinking? Are you writing about it? On what subject are you uniquely qualified to speak as an expert? Will you write about it?

When we write about what really matters to us we write with an unparalleled passionate, intense energy and in-depth insights that compel the reader to dive into our story. The voice of the piece, the anecdotes and the emotional connection readers feel about the story then commits them to stay with us for the entire journey.

CSS_Reboot_Your_LifeRecently, most of my published articles have centered on what matters most to me—the pain of the death of my father from Alzheimer’s and the joy of raising my now adult sons.

In April, I had my father’s story (A Survival Guide for Alzheimer’s Caregivers) published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book entitled, “Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.” Last week, another story appeared in a CSS book. On September 16, “Reboot Your Life” was released nationwide. This anthology contains 101 stories of how people climbed out of a rut to find new paths to happiness.

My article is entitled, “Time of Possession” and shares how I connected with my two sons when they were very young and I worked out of my home as a freelance advertising writer and executive speechwriter. The story illustrates how their childhood love of playing football together bonded us forever. The story concludes with a poignant message of how “time of possession” is critical in both football and raising kids.

I’ve noticed that when I write about the things that matter most to me, those are the things that are most often published.

So, if you’re wondering what you should write about ask yourself two questions. What do you care most about? What are you yearning to say about it?

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For more on this subject, type “Write About What Consumes You” in the search bar at right.

Published in: on September 27, 2014 at 8:37 am  Comments (2)  

What Hinders Your Dream to Write?

What is the biggest hindrance to your dream to write? Time? Talent? Schedule conflicts? A demanding day job? Other people? Fear of rejection? Lack of confidence? Or, simply too tired to write at the end of a long day?

timemanagement.072513These are all legitimate reasons that stifle productivity and at one time or another we may experience all of them. But which is the most formidable hindrance to your dream? For many, the culprit is time.

The question is are you controlling the clock or is the clock controlling you? How do we better manage our evolving schedules? And how do we say “no” to competing opportunities so we can squeeze more out of the ever-ticking clock?

I have a confession to make. I have never learned to manage my time. Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I’m quite organized and have many publishing credits, one novel under my belt, a second rolling around in my head and I have a reputation for being a disciplined writer. Then why is the clock such a problem for me?

In recent years, my siblings and I have cared for my father as he slowly declined and later died of Alzheimer’s. Shortly after he died, my uncle came down with the same disease and once again my family and I assumed responsibility for his care and managed his financial affairs. After my uncle died my son had some medical issues involving complex surgeries, my job became increasingly more demanding as my department downsized and I took on more work. Today, when I get home from work I’m exhausted. And life still continues to throw me curve balls.

So what’s the bottom line? How are writers like you and me ever going to find more time to write? As it is, I often write during my lunch hours or “on the run.” (For more on this, type “How to Write on the Run” in the search box at right.)

The bottom line for me is believing this simple truth: The only thing that hinders my dream to write is me. That’s right. While my excuses are legit, they’re still excuses. And, I’ve let myself off the hook. Yes, I can’t control the clock or circumstances, but I can control if and when I write. I can carve out snatches of time even if only in incredibly small chunks. One woman wrote her published novel in intervals of 15 minutes a day. I can find 15 minutes a day! Can you?

I have been a writer for many years, but if I’m honest, there are days I don’t feel like a writer simply because I haven’t written. In these times how do I know I’m a writer? I know I’m a writer because I feel an incessant undercurrent inside that nags me to climb behind the keyboard. Perhaps you feel it too. It’s an urge I cannot suppress. It’s not guilt. Instead, it’s a fire burning inside. Yes, many times it’s on simmer but it’s burning just the same. I cannot ignore it because it often consumes my thinking. It’s a passion only writers understand.

So, ask yourself the question I’ve wrestled with the last several months. If the only thing that hinders your dream to write is you, what are you going to do about it?

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Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 9:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Talent or Tenacity? Which is Most Important For a Writer?

Moby DickI’m sitting in Barnes & Noble staring at a mural of famous writers painted overhead on the wall adjacent to me. Herman Melville, Kipling, Faulkner, Hemingway, Dickens, Wilde, Poe, Eliot. It got me thinking. Which of these masters was the single most talented writer?

As I scan the mural, I realize that many did not know each other. On the other hand, some were fierce competitors, Faulkner and Hemingway, for example. Yet, all faced what we face; the everyday challenge of the blank page. And, at some point in their careers, all must have concluded there was a less painful way to earn a living.

As I scan their faces now and ponder their contributions to American literature, another question tugs at me. The question is not who was the most talented, but more importantly, who was the most tenacious?

The Christmas CarolAs I consider The Christmas Carol, Moby Dick, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Telltale Heart and other timeless stories written by these men, I wonder who faced the most adversity. Who encountered the most rejection? Imagine if The Christmas Carol was never published because Dickens succumbed to rejection. Imagine if Hemingway never finished The Sun Also Rises, or The Old Man and the Sea because he was not in the mood to write and his writing discipline failed him.

As I study the faces in the mural I realize that these men, and today’s great writers, are much like us. They were rejected. They were distracted. They felt like giving up. But they pressed on so today, generations later, we can not only read their great work, we can be inspired by it.

Who was the single most talented writer among them? Well, a surface conclusion might be that the most talented was simply the most accomplished. But consider this: What if the most accomplished among them was, in fact, the least talented but the most tenacious? That possibility alone is enough to keep me writing.

How about you?

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Published in: on August 15, 2014 at 10:34 am  Comments (2)