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Monica Wood  

Archive of Tips for 2001 

(Please do not reprint this copyrighted material without my written permission.  Thank you.)

Tips for December 2001:  

Here is a writing prompt that I hope you'll find inspiring.  Think of the longest time you ever waited for someone.  Why did you wait?

Usage tip: Somebody wrote me asking whether the correct usage is used to or use to.  I adore questions like this.  I always write used to, as in "I used to be a fire-eater."   All the people I turn to with questions of usage also write used to even though the spoken version sounds like use to.  However, I've been seeing more and more frequently the written usage use to, but always, it seems, in the negative, e.g., "I didn't use to like being a fire-eater."  In the generous and unimpeachable The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Third Edition) edited by R.W. Burchfield, use to is grudgingly acknowledged only in "very informal contexts...with do support in negative and/or interrogative constructions," e.g., I didn't use to do much fire-eating myself or How long did you use to cry after eating fire?

 

Tips for November 2001:  

Dramatic tension usually derives from a juxtaposition of some sort.  Comb through a week's worth of newspapers and select two stories -- not headliners, but rather the half-buried stories in the back -- and combine an element from one with an element from the other.  It's fun to try this with obituaries, too, bringing two people back from death who probably would have ignored each other, or worse, in life.

Usage tip:  Last week I heard two people on news programs use the word flaunt when they really meant floutFlaunt means "to show off"; flout means "to scorn or show contempt for."  You might flaunt your new Corvette as you flout the traffic laws. You wouldn't "flaunt a law" unless you'd written it yourself.

 

Tip for October 2001:  

I am a writer.  That's what I do. After the terror attacks of September 11 my vocation never seemed more useless, my days never so barren.  To write, to continue writing, felt  trivial and self-indulgent.   After two weeks I did continue writing, though.  What else was there?  It was a little late for me to become a firefighter or emergency-room doctor and I had a book to finish.  To continue the simple, mundane gestures of my life--no matter how irrelevant these gestures might seem in a time of crisis--is to make an act of defiance.  My tip for this month, as we collectively get up and recover our feet, blinking into the light after such unspeakable darkness, is to remember that writing is a great and precious freedom.  We are free to discover what we know about the human animal, to reaffirm our belief that we are not alone, to explore the beautiful complications of the human spirit...and no one can stop us. 

 

Tips for September 2001:  

 All week long I've been watching the squirrels (whom I've been battling all summer long over rights to the bird feeder) hiding grub for winter.  Maybe we could all take a tip from these enterprising rodents and store our own metaphorical nuts.  Spend a few hours jotting down story ideas, first lines, remembered scraps of dialogue, last lines, possible connections between unrelated incidents, anything that comes to you.  Now, put your list away, preferably in a designated notebook.  You're going to need these ideas come winter.

Usage tip:  Good writers often slip up with the verb comprise, which means "include" or "contain."  The U.S. comprises fifty states.  The company comprises ten departments.  The arts organization comprises two theaters and a gallery. (The whole always comprises the parts.)  Don't write is comprised of, as in "the company is comprised of ten departments," even though you will see this usage everywhere, in the writing of folks who should know better.  Is comprised of doesn't make any sense.  You wouldn't say the U.S. is included of fifty states, or that the company is contained of  ten departments, right?  If you think of comprise as a synonym for include, you'll never misuse it again.

 

Tip for August 2001:  

Sometimes when I'm stuck for ideas, I make up titles.  It's enjoyable, a bit challenging, and often sparks an idea.  Don't feel compelled to do anything with the title--think of it as a stretching exercise, just something to get a writing session off to a zippy start.  "The Ruffled Bedspread."  "Manny's Fig Farm."  "Tell Me One More Joke." "Poor Little Fred."  "The Wife of Mayor Bustin."  You can go on like this forever.   Isn't it fun?   

 

 

Tips for July 2001:

MOTIVATION:   If you've been writing for years and have yet to be published, you can be forgiven for feeling bitter and unloved from time to time.  To keep your spirits up during what can be a long apprenticeship before publication, I recommend looking for an audience in unconventional places.  Where I live, there are two ongoing venues for "new" voices, where writers can read to small but interested audiences.  Some of my students have taken to writing editorials and opinion pieces for local dailies or weeklies, or writing essays to read on the local public-radio broadcast.  If you're a decent writer, then somebody out there wants your services!  Consider offering to write a newsletter for your kids' elementary school, or contributing a piece to your company's official publication.  No, this isn't the publishing experience you've dreamed about, but you might be surprised at how nice it feels to write something (on deadline, yet) that is sure to be read.

CRAFT: Most people reading this will roll their eyes, but the following construction gets confused so often by smart people that I feel compelled to include it here:  Don't use it's when you mean its.  You can remember the difference, now and forever, this way: 

It's is a contraction for it is.  

That's it.  The entire rule.  The only thing it's ever, ever means is IT IS.   

Its, with no apostrophe, is a possessive.  It contains no apostrophe because the apostrophe in this case is already taken.  

Examples:

It's a buggy day, so the cow swishes its tail to brush away flies. 

It's unfair that the team can't move into its new locker room.  

It's not my fault that the car lost its muffler.

Again, unless you mean to say it is, omit the apostrophe.

Bonus: The quotation mark always goes OUTSIDE the comma or period, no matter where it appears in a sentence.  Example: Theodore Bigelow, known to his friends as "Biggy," walked into the office and said, "I quit."

 

Tips for June 2001:

MOTIVATION:   Lately I have been taking a tip from Hemingway.  I leave my writing for the day with an unfinished sentence, therefore guaranteeing that I'll have something, however paltry, to write down immediately the next day.   It's a neat trick that I highly recommend.

CRAFT:  I spent last week in Quebec City, speaking my abominable French, infused with a depthless yearning to be able to express myself better in a language I find beautiful and evocative.  When I got back home and resumed speaking and reading and writing in English, I realized anew how beautiful and evocative my own native language is, how flexible, how multi-layered, how given to image and metaphor.  Language is the writer's one and only tool.  We are wise to offer it our deepest respect and care.  Hence, my tip for June: read grammar and usage books.  I'm not kidding.  I have met too many fledgling writers who tell me that grammar is something they're "not good at."  How can this be?  That's like a carpenter saying she isn't good with a hammer, or a surgeon saying he never really "got" that scalpel thing. I routinely read through books like Words into Type, a usage manual that is a standard in the book biz, or Strunk and White's classic Elements of Style.  Lately I've been leafing through Barbara Wallraff's supremely entertaining Word Court, in which this gracious word wizard straightens out a variety of mistakes and confusions with wit and precision.  If you regard learning more about your one and only tool as a gift rather than a chore, then I guarantee your writing will improve!

 

Tips for May 2001:

MOTIVATION:   I spent all of yesterday rearranging my writing studio.  That behemoth of a printer you see in the photo is now in a different spot (all I had to do was buy a longer cable, for crying out loud!), leaving me more elbow room.  I also moved a chair, a bookcase, and a file cabinet.  The space may be no more efficient than before the face-lift,  but the point is that I am more efficient. There is nothing more inspiring than rearranging furniture!

CRAFT:  If you are having trouble figuring out what your story is about, have your character write a letter to Dear Abby.  This is a fun exercise that helps clarify the character's problem and his motives.  Nonfiction writers can do the same, writing as themselves.  The letter form is so informal that you are free to focus on content rather than style.

A couple of twists on this exercise: The character writes a letter to the editor.  The character sends or receives an anonymous letter.  Have fun!

 

Tips for April 2001:

MOTIVATION:   Take a "reading vacation."  It might be as short as a single morning or as long as a week, but the idea is to go on a binge that will leave you reeling with inspiration.  Turn off the tv, keep meetings and errands to a bare minimum, leave the computer unbooted, let the machine take your calls.  Give yourself permission to sink into a comfortable chair and read.  I do this on a regular basis, and I believe it enriches my work.  Warning: There are people out there -- I call them "Certain Types" -- who think reading all day is a waste of time.  Give them the pity they deserve and keep turning the pages.

CRAFT:  A two-character scene is almost always more dynamic than a one-character scene.  This goes for nonfiction, too.  If your character is admiring a landscape, painting a ceiling, escaping from prison, or eating at a truck stop, think of some way to bring in another character.  That character could be anybody from a waiter to a field mouse; the idea is to get a juxtaposition going, something for the character to react to.

 

Tips for March 2001:

MOTIVATION:   Last evening I attended a "salon," which is the high-falutin' name my low-falutin' friends and I have applied to a gathering of starving artists -- artists starved for company, that is. We bring food and wine, things to show or read (a painting in progress; a few pages of a novel), and the only thing we ask of one another is applause.  This is NOT a critique session.  We also bring works by favorite authors, often humor pieces that collapse the room into laughter.  Sometimes we simply gossip, eat, and talk shop.  It's a time-out from our own inner critics, all our self-doubt, all our stubborn work in progress. Why don't you try it?

CRAFT:  Here's a late-draft revision tip for short stories.  Do a "search/replace" with the characters' names.  Stanley becomes Wilhelm, Leslie becomes Arial.  The names should be very different in sound and style.  Then print the new draft and read it.  Your story will seem strangely foreign, and if there is a glitch in characterization that you missed before, you'll find it now.  This really works.

 

Tips for February 2001:

MOTIVATION:   How is your January resolution coming along?  If you're stuck for a story idea, try this: Character walks into the kitchen after a day at work.  Something is sitting on the kitchen table that shouldn't be there.  What is it?  Start writing.  For nonfiction writers, write about the last time you felt truly surprised.

CRAFT:  When doing the final revision of a piece, don't forget the (seemingly) minor things.  Here are two of my last-draft must-do's:

1. Find every use of the word "sudden" or "suddenly"; once is fine, but more than that and you have to wonder if you're forcing revelations, i.e., "suddenly he felt scared" or "she got a sudden notion that..."

2.  Find words ending in "ly."  If you have too many adverbs you might be trying too hard.  A strong sentence doesn't need much adverbial help.  For example: "He hung precariously from the crane, which had been cantilevered over thirty feet of air and several fathoms of black water."  This guy's predicament is so inherently precarious that the adverb seems unnecessary.  Without the adverb, though, I need a verb that more fully expresses precariousness.  How about "dangled from the crane," or "swung from the crane"?  

I'm not anti-adverb, mind you.  Adverbs are magnificent parts of speech that add glory and glitter to our prose.  Because they modify verbs, however, adverbs can prevent us from finding the most vivid, muscular verbs.  Too many adverbs might signify a lot of verbs that are too flat to stand on their own.

 

Tips for January 2001:

MOTIVATION:  It's January.  Make a resolution.  A paragraph a day? A page a day?  A page a week?  A book by March 5?  Make your resolution modest enough to bear fruit, but daring enough to break you out of a rut.  If you are already writing a lot, resolve to send something to a magazine.  If you have stumbled upon this page because you've always wanted to write and are sick of just wanting, resolve to make a place for yourself to write.  In other words, if you haven't started, start.  If you have started, raise the stakes.  It's a new year!  Seize it!

CRAFT:  Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to our fictional characters.  The more we know about them, the better armed we are to create a multi-layered story for them.  One entertaining way to acquire this knowledge is to ask a friend to interview your fictional character.  You act as stand-in, and answer whatever question the friend dreams up.  Here are some especially fruitful questions I've come across: 

What is your earliest memory?

What are you most afraid of?

Do you go to church? Why or why not?

What was your new year's resolution?

Archive of Tips for 2002

Archive of Tips for 2000

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