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With a Ph.D. in American literature, Marc D. Baldwin has been writing, editing and teaching for 37 years. He’s published a scholarly study of Ernest Hemingway and numerous articles in various literary journals, and is president of Edit911, Inc.

Pragmatism & Belief: Where’d You Get Those Ideas Anyhow?

Before we inflict our writing on the world, it might be nice if we examined our ideas and opinions. Where’d they come from, exactly—our beliefs?  Some people are locked-in on and even obsessed with their own point of view, positions, and dispositions. As if they can’t be wrong and you can’t be right. Maybe, just sometimes anyway, we’re both right or wrong, or partially so at least.

Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a pretty cool philosophy—especially if you like to keep morality and questions of right and wrong out of the way you look at things. If you have a strict moral code and look at things through right-vs.-wrong lenses, then you likely despise pragmatism. Don’t get me wrong: morality’s a good thing. But various religions conflict so radically on some issues of moral behavior that it aids communication to leave morality aside when first analyzing certain subjects. You can always overlay a moral analysis once the terms have been defined and the perspectives understood, if not aligned.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

So, how do people get and keep their ideas or beliefs? One of the two Fathers of Pragmatism—if you will—is Charles Sanders Pierce (the other is William James, brother of Henry, Daisy Miller’s creator). He noted that people affect a “settlement of opinion” or a “fixation of belief”. Great phrases! People settle on opinions—like settlers or homesteaders building their thought-houses and moving in for a lifetime. They fixate on their beliefs, seeing little else through the haze of their own thoughts but their own dim reflections. One whose own fixated beliefs so easily please him is easily pleased indeed.

Four Ways of Settling & Fixating

People perform this settling and fixating in four basic ways:

1)      Sheer tenacity: they just have that opinion and cling to it, rigidly and stubbornly, like a bulldog clamping down on a pants’ leg, or a drunk shouting in a bar. You can’t talk to them. Can’t reason with them. They’re beyond hope.

2)      Because some authority figure sold them on it. Their parents, their pastor or rabbi, their teacher, their favorite celebrity, or someone they “looked up to” said to them “This is a fact” and they’ve carried that opinion with them ever since, unblinking, unquestioning. They can be swayed, but only if they accept that there are, indeed, other viewpoints that just might have some credence if only given a chance.

3)      A priori, from Latin, meaning “existing in the mind prior to experience.” Essentially, a priori means that some belief just seems right or natural or true. We look at a situation or issue and decide what to think about it based on common sense or how we feel, not on experience, evidence, or facts. It works pretty well if you’re fairly smart, informed, and well-balanced. If you’re a bit dim, uninformed, or treading a thin bipolar line, forget it.

4)      Evidence derived from experience, investigation, or scientific study. The first three ways for having opinions are touchy-feely and may be enough for some people, but they’re not solid methods upon which to construct a convincing argument, let alone communicate effectively with your fellow human. Going by the facts of life, by what really takes place and what has been “proven”—to some quantifiable and/or qualifiable degree, anyway—is profoundly more defensible and supportable than the alternative ways and means.

What we all need is a good brain editing service: cutting the crap and cleaning up our thought processes. Guess what? We can be both pragmatic and ethical by deconstructing our own ideas before presuming to judge those of others.

Writing Tips by William Faulkner — 4 Big Ideas for Creating a Fictional World

William Faulkner created a massive body of work, distinguished not only for its literary qualities, but for the breadth and depth of its engagement with the human condition. Perhaps his most impressive achievement is that he created an entire world or what Balzac called “a cosmos in miniature.”

1) Set all your stories and novels in one city, county, or state populated by a recurring cast of characters.

Constructing one archetypal county in the American South from the days of Indian possession, through the Civil War to the early 20th century, Faulkner populated it with over 1100 characters who mix and mingle throughout all of his stories.

Think about that for a minute. Pick the city, county, or even state you know best. Stick to it.  Start by writing a series of short stories, all with different main characters who reappear as minor characters in other stories. Then write a novel. As the years go by, you’ll have a growing body of work that’s integrated, fascinating, and a world unto itself.

One great advantage of this approach is that you’ll really know your characters. Not knowing one’s own characters is the major downfall of 75% of fiction writers. Their characters just don’t come to life. Yours will if you live with them and write them for years.

Taken altogether, Faulkner’s novels and stories transcend literature and rise to the level of cultural artifact—a living, breathing chronicle of the South’s soul and soil, its socio-historical reality. Mere history books pale in comparison to the authentic flavor and feel of Faulkner’s moving, soaring saga.

So think big. Enlarge your scope. Write and keep writing. Ten years from now, you will have created your own world if you follow Faulkner’s formula.

2) Infuse your fictional world with cultural depth and insight.

Faulkner was born in the Bible belt, into segregated white society. The tenets of his strict Calvinist-directed Christian faith were strained and twisted by the racism all around him. He knew this world, this culture, this heritage. He investigated it deeply and used it richly in his fiction.

What’s your world like? Your culture? Your family and hood, your experiences and heritage? Write about it. Bring it to life. Explore its traditions, discourse, attitudes, and socio-economic limits, limitations, virtues, vices, and values. Build them into your stories, plots, conflicts, and characters.

It’s what you know and who you are. It’s the real world—according to you. Readers might find it strange and interesting, new and unusual—which will keep them turning pages because they’re fascinated by what you know that they don’t.

Write about what you know and who you are. It’s your best material by far.

3) Think thematically and make your story mean something.

Some of the same themes that infuse Faulkner’s work with such power, feeling and depth—themes which are timeless and universal—can be your themes as well. Think again about your world and your cultural universe—the people, places and experiences that have made your life your life. What do they all mean? How are they manifestations of these themes?

  • Man’s Capacity for Evil This Calvinistic position holds that man is evil.   Look around you at the images of collapse and disintegration, of moral paralysis and spiritual desolation. Capture it in stark depictions and dark descriptions.
  • “The human heart in conflict with itself” As Faulkner put it in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he is concerned mainly with “the human heart in conflict with itself¼.The writer’s duty is to write about man’s soul and his capacity for endurance and compassion and sacrifice.” What a profound statement and guiding principle for any fiction writer to follow.
    • Show your characters engaged in a constant struggle against defeatism, negativism, cynicism, and pessimism.
    • Stress faith in the human heart’s ability to triumph over the failings of the modern human condition: greed, injustice, fear, cowardice, and duplicity.
    • After all, how someone reacts to the negative forces of life is how she should be measured.
  • Primitivism vs. civilization Do you hate or love modern civilization? Has technology distanced us or brought us closer together? Does social media makes us less social? Have the mechanistic forces of modern technology helped destroy the environment and dehumanize the individual?  Are your characters “primitive” or “civilized”?  Can you see, depict, and dissect the hypocrisies of so-called civilized people? For example, are you writing an urban novel? If so, this should be a major theme. Who’s really more “civilized”: the well-to-do or the barely getting by?

4) Try on Faulkner’s Writing Style for Size.

I’m not saying you should try to write like Faulkner. You can’t. No one can. And why try? It’s been done by Faulkner better than anyone else could do it. But, maybe you can learn a few tricks and licks from him, just as young guitarists learn from Hendrix, Van Halen, The Edge, and Clapton.

  • Don’t narrate or report a scene; render it in an impressionistic fashion. Often referred to as “stream of consciousness,” Faulkner’s style is a barrage of long sentences and abstract words, illogically constructed by a free association of images and the projection of events through the memory or consciousness of characters in the form of interior monologue.
  • Faulkner’s vocabulary strains the bounds of the ornate Romanticism to which it constantly alludes.
  • Like life, his prose is paradoxical, appearing at first glance to be rambling and unsettling—a flood of adjectives, two words merged into one, a series of negatives followed by a positive, numerous synonyms for repetition.
  • But if you think about it, his style makes perfect sense as a way to represent in writing the chaotic reality of life’s multiple perspectives, interminable ironies, and incorrigible resistance to simplistic terms.
  • Perhaps paramount and yet rarely mentioned is Faulkner’s mastery of suspense through style: he narrates effects in a dizzying flow of details, invariably suspending the reader’s recognition and the plot’s resolution through a seemingly endless chain of signifying clues dropped almost randomly by various voices from various times and places.

It’s all a matter of practice. In teaching my 6 year old baseball, I’m encouraging him to study all the players’ various batting stances. When he’s in the cage or up to bat in practice, I remind him to try Crawford’s stance and then Damon’s, Longoria’s and Pedroia’s. See what works for him. Ways and means vary; execution is everything.

5 Moby Dick Ways to Write BIG Novels

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick. Think we can learn something about writing from him? May-be.

If you fancy yourself a novelist and haven’t read Moby Dick, that’s like a drummer never having listened to Keith Moon or Travis Barker, or an artist never having gazed at a Picasso or a Monet. Suck it up and pick up, Nook, or Kindle that Top 5 all-time classic novel. Easily Top 5. Maybe Top 2.

And that’s just the big Moby. Melville wrote lots of great fiction.

Here’s a short list of some takeaways from Melville for you to dwell on. Deep stuff.

Eschatology never had a better frontman

It’s all about radicality. You like radical, right? Who doesn’t? Everybody does. If they say they don’t, they don’t know what it means.

Life, death, God. Beginnings, endings, eternity, infinity, everything, nothing. That’s eschatology. That’s Melville.

Only the biggest themes and subjects for him:

  • A great white whale with at least 25 possible meanings (read the chapter specifically devoted to him).
  • “The universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”
  • A megalomaniacal Faustian Ahab, who pursues and attacks the baddest creature on earth because he’d “strike the sun if it insulted him.”

Look around you. Find the big subjects. Match them with big characters, big action, big settings. Make your protagonist a cosmic seeker, for whom “Failure is the true test of greatness,” said Melville. “Think big,” as Donald Trump advises. Write big like Melville does.

Plot stories around the “inscrutable alternatives.”

Oppositions, ambiguities, ironies, and multiple undecidable choices make for great conflicts.

Who do you know that’s a big personality or has done big, crazy things? Who is that person’s opposite, foil, enemy, or antagonist? Pit them against each other on a sprawling, stage; a set with no boundaries.

In Typee, one of his novels before Moby Dick, Melville painted a vivid picture of the savage cannibals on a South Sea island. He’d actually been there. So he knew what he was talking about when he depicted them as virtuous and happy. As far better people than the “civilized” explorers who landed on their island and got themselves eaten alive. Talk about an “inscrutable alternative.”

Where have you been? There’s 8 million stories in your own naked city. What have you done? Plenty. But you don’t want to write about it. Why not? Afraid of spilling the beans on yourself? Spill the damn beans.

Empty your secret closets. Just change the names. Tweak the jobs, the setting, little details. You’ll be all right. Everybody’s a fine young (or old) cannibal, in one way or another.

We all have stories we don’t want to tell. And those are the exact ones we should tell. Because they’re damn good stories.

There’s no better story than good guys vs. bad guys

In Billy Budd, Melville pits the innocent Billy against the evil Claggert, who wants Billy dead just because everybody likes him.

Doesn’t that ring a bell? I can barely estimate how many twisted demons disguised as human beings that I’ve run up against in my life who wanted me dead just because someone else liked me.

Queequeg, a tattooed from head to toe (he makes Jesse James look like a Baptist preacher) cannibal harpooner in Moby Dick is the nicest guy in the book. Even nicer than the innocent white boy Ishmael, who becomes his best bud on the whaling ship.

When one after another “civilized” Christian insults, rejects, and condemns him, Ishmael defends him. But Queequeg’s above and beyond their pathetic bigotry: he reacts to every curse with calm aplomb.

See, he can throw a harpoon 40 feet into a whale’s eye. And kill that badass whale. Don’t mess with nice guys. Or their friends. The Big Q’s got Ishmael’s back.

Couple casting. That’s what a novelist does. Cast inscrutable opposites together. Lethal WeaponButch Cassidy & the Sundance KidMidnight Cowboy, Mutt & Jeff, Thelma & Louise, Huck & Jim, Jack & Rose, Bonnie & Clyde. The list is endless…

Make your characters allegorical

Again, think big. Create characters that stand for more than just themselves. Symbolize them.

Take Ahab. He’s Faust. Who was Faust? Dante’s dude who sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of power, fame, fortune, women, and fun. He wanted to be God.

Ahab played God. He went out way too far, all around the world, into unfamiliar oceans, chasing the glory and revenge of killing the whale that had bitten off his leg. Crazy dude. Just like the crazy parts in you and me—the blind pride, the utter foolishness, the inflamed desire for revenge.

Ishmael is Everyman. Not bad, not perfect, no genius, no great shakes, but not a waste of space either.

He’s drifting through life like his namesake in the Old Testament: the son of Abraham and Hagar who was driven from his home and wandered in barren lands. Not so sure of things; a little bit lost; a little of everything but not a lot of anything.

And then there’s Queequeg—the Noble Savage. The personification of the question: just what is a “civilized” human being, anyway? Tell me you don’t know some noble savages. If you don’t, you haven’t been around much. And if you haven’t been around much, exactly what do you think you can write about? Not having been around much? That’s exciting.

Here’s a plan: Write about spiritualism vs. materialism

We’re not talking religion or going to church vs. making money and living the high life, necessarily. It’s beyond that.

It’s eschatological: all matter exists to represent some idea. Like Plato in the cave seeing his shadow from the fire light cast upon the wall, Ahab knows that everything’s an illusion, really.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks….Who’s over me? Truth has no confines.”

Even people who haven’t been around much, have at least been around their own minds. It’s a cosmos in there.

And when you use that cosmos and really look for stories to tell, first do this: turn your back to the fire. Turn away from the light. You might the real truth, the deep meaning, in darkness, in the shadowland that lies behind the story, the people, the events.

Look at it this way: everything’s a re-presentation of the ideal. What ‘s real and what have you just made up in that mind of yours? Can you put your typing finger smack dab in the middle of truth? Nail it? Rip off people’s masks? Expose them for what they are?

If you can, you’ve got yourself a novel.

1000 Words Over? The Art of Cutting Copy

Many writers have specific word counts they are forced to abide by in their writing. However, writers tend to be so tied to their material and have spent so much time writing that it can be difficult to cut copy to fit the word count. The following are some tips for cutting back.

  • Start with the big picture. Look for entire sections first, then paragraphs, sentences, and words. It is much easier to cut an entire subhead or section of your writing that just doesn’t seem to fit or seem necessary in a smaller word count. Large sections can be easier to save for later use and may form the basis for a follow up work.
  • Look for long examples. Illustrations are great. They make writing come alive. One professor told me only to illustrate the points you want anyone to remember or get anything out of! But sometimes illustrations must be cut when copy is long. If you have three illustrations, keep the one that works the best. Or look to keep shorter illustrations. Summarize an illustration in a few sentences (see the next bullet).
  • Summarize, summarize, summarize. Cutting also is about more than merely chopping words. Summarization is a huge part of the cutting process. Graduate students often include long quotes in writing. Sometimes a sentence or two can summarize what is otherwise a word count hog. Anything that can be summarized in a few sentences and still prove effective is a must do when cutting copy.
  • Cut out repetition. Many writers follow the pithy presentation model of telling what you are going to say, say what you want, and then tell again what you just told your audience. That’s great for a speech but in a limited word count, unnecessary repetition is a great place to lose some copy.
  • Chop ancillary topics. When writing, keep your thesis or main idea in front of you. Post it on your computer screen if necessary. Resist the urge to keep anything that does not accomplish the goal of addressing your main idea. Not sure if it is on target? Send it packing!
  • Look for unnecessary words (e.g. that or very). Editors usually have a list of words they think are completely unnecessary and cut every time they see them. Personally, I chop the wordvery every time I see it. Very does not add a great deal to writing. The difference between a fast car and a very fast car is minimal. Otherwise pick another more descriptive word! Keep a thesaurus handy if necessary. Bottom line: Look for unnecessary words that don’t add to your argument.
  • Look for colloquial speech. Speaking of useless words, many times in the southern USA, we use words for emphasis that can be tossed as well. We might say that the car in the last example was really fast. No need for the extra words when it is time to cut copy. Pick a more descriptive word.

At Edit 911, we are always willing to edit or cut down to word count for you. Let us know how we can help!

4 Ways to Deconstruct Writing: Are Your Words Yours or Are You Theirs?

Deconstruction is a radical critical theory popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He and others after him took the analysis of language and communication deeper than it had ever gone before. In essence, they tore apart words, sentences, pieces of writing—deconstructing them—showing how all of our efforts to communicate with each other are constructions. We build narratives and dialogue, erecting buildings of words. Deconstructionists delight in making all articles, arguments or novels—just to name a few word buildings–come tumbling down like a house of cards. How do they do that? Why do they do that? I’ll discuss their methods and motives in another article. First, let’s discuss their tenets, their 4 main suppositions about language. Learning some deconstructive theory could help you become a better writer. You can never know too much critical theory.

 

1) Realize that there’s nothing certain in language

  • All words have radically unstable histories and meanings. Visit the dictionary and you’ll see at least a few definitions—known as denotations—for every word in there. How can that be? Then if you trace the words in each definition, you’ll find that they have several definitions, too. And if you follow their historical trail back as far as you can go, you’ll find they all started with words from other languages that themselves had many definitions. So what can truly be determined by any word? You say one thing and I hear another.
  • Words are signifiers that have no solid signified, no essential meaning. There is no right interpretation; there’s always more, an infinite loop. Think of great lawyers or politicians. They’re consummate deconstructionists. You can’t ever pin them down because they’re champions at using slippery words.
  • Our ideas, stories and articles can never be truly “original.” But our construction of those ideas, stories, and articles can be.

2) Embrace the fact that all words are metaphors

  • Language doesn’t work the way we think it works. There is no essential entity, no origin, no point “A”. Our writing always arrives at the abyss. It’s bottomless. An endless chain of signification. You can always write more; always go in a different direction or tangent.
  • Your texts always leave a residue from the past, always connect to other texts, other writers, thinkers, sources. All of your words re-present things or feelings or events or experiences or ideas. Your words are not the things, feeling, events, experiences, or ideas themselves. They are metaphors.
  • You can never fully re-present those entities in words. Your words, your articles, your novels are floating, dying, ever changing before your eyes, like the night sky. What do we see in the heavens? Stars? No. We see ancient history. We see light that has travelled for millions of years from stars that could very well be burned out and gone. We see what isn’t there anymore.
  • Writing’s the same way. We write and what’s written down refers to what isn’t there anymore. It’s either different or gone entirely.

3) The author is irrelevant

  • Do you really think that some subjective, independent, fully autonomous you is in charge of your words? Your writing writes you. Words constitute your thoughts. Words existed before you did. You just entered the earth’s atmosphere and splashed down into a swirling soup of words. Those words you write exist independently from you, the author.
  • It’s a convention of grammar to write in the syntactical subject/verb/object order. This structure asserts the authority of the author, the subject, you and me. We’re in the first position in most of our sentences. This artificial construct is an ideological position we created. We humans put ourselves first: before action, before events, before statements, before ideas, before everything else in our spoken and written communication. Rather pompous and pathetically blind to reality, actually.
  • In reality, all else came before us. Before we ever existed, countless trillions of ideas and actions and events existed and occurred that are similar to those we have and experience in our own little lives. We are nothing but conduits—cables through which the collective unconscious and the continuum of history flows.

4) The “not-said” matters even more

  • When you’re with someone or talking with someone, are there ever thoughts in your head that you don’t express in words? Only a few million in your lifetime so far, right? The same goes for your writing. In fact, there are the things you intentionally don’t write, many more things you don’t even think of writing, and—here’s the kicker—many things in your writing that you didn’t even intend to say.
  • The reader reads into your words also, reading meaning you never consciously meant to convey.
  • There’s an unconscious text inside every text. It’s an ethics of the Other: what’s excluded from the text is still in the text. It’s there by the very act of being “not-there.” Your writing contains meanings and messages that your brain never processed. They reside in the cracks and gaps, in the connotations and traces—despite your delusion that you control the cognition and communication process.
  • Words have a life of their own—whether they’re written down or not. As Heidegger posited, all writing contains the seeds of its opposite; no concept can be understood except in relation to its opposite.

Pretty radical stuff, I know. You might be saying: “What a load of crap! Is that what they teach in college?” Listen, for the decons, it’s all fun and games. They love pulling the rug out from under any book, article, or conversation. But, hey: it’s fun to play along. Wii for the mind. Just for the heck of it, why not deconstruct some of your own writing? Give it go. Gaze warily at your own words. Consider alternative ways of seeing and saying what’s ostensibly the same thing. Trace your words’ etymological roots. Engage yourself with yourself. Wonder a while: Are your words yours or are you theirs?

4 Ways to Write Realistically—Whatever That Is

Realism Seems Simple enough, but…it’s not.

Everyone knows what’s real, right? So why have a movement over it? Why even wonder or discuss it? It’s just a natural thing, isn’t it? Realism. What’s the big mystery?

Well, the term Realism itself is problematic. It depends so much on your conception of what’s real. And that depends, as so much does, on how sane you are. And sanity is a slippery term too, isn’t it? Some people are so sane it drives them insane.

If you think too much about this crazy world, you’ll go nuts. Just look at some of the radio and TV commentators and talk show hosts. They’re so “sane,” so rooted and obsessed with the political “realities” of life—as defined by them—that they’ve become ranting lunatics. Thanks to such extremism, Realism has effectively lost its meaning.

Write down to earth

Back in the day, Realism was a revolutionary way of thinking, living, and writing. It developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with America’s rise as a superpower, thanks in large part to capitalism and industrialization.

A rather well-off middle class loved their new prosperity and having more money. They no longer wanted to read fiction unrelated to real life.

So the fiction writers—all at once almost—turned from fanciful, Romantic plots and language, to real life material and words. Prior to Romanticism, most fiction writers tried their damndest to sound more educated, distant and aristocratic in their vocabularies and stories.

Realism made it okay to write about everyday people in everyday words. Truth be told, it’s my favorite way of writing.

Today’s generation of bloggers are Neo-Realists. The best ones write like people speak. They write about what exists in the world around them: work, social media, making money, being successful.

They’re fun and entertaining to read because they waste no words. Their writing is clean, clear, crisp. Right to the point. And often very funny. Brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit.

This same Neo-Realist style can apply to fiction. You want to write about dragons and vampires? Okay, fine. Some of the best stories are about real life fire-breathing “loved ones” and blood-sucking friends.

Whatever your subject, say it fast and sharp. For starters, ditch the adjectives and adverbs. Trash the hype. Respect every word and every second of your reader’s time.

Be objective, cool, detached

It might not be you. You might be highly subjective, emotional, and frantic. That’s fine, I guess. But try the opposite on for size.

Get yourself out of yourself. 30 minutes before you sit down to write, pop a Xanex if you have to. Frazzled fiction grates on the nerves after a few pages.

What’s really intriguing is a story that’s tense and roller-coaster wild, yet written in ice-cold, steely-eyed prose. Tell just the facts, ma’am. The remarkable, amazing facts. With no expression and no hyperbole. Like Trump negotiating a deal. Or Moneymaker over a $1m pot at the World Series of Poker.

Emotionless narration chills a reader to the bone.

Plot around complex ethical choices

One of the hardest parts of being human is making tough decisions. That’s reality on hyper drive. Do I do this? Do I do that? Geez. It’s gut-wrenching. And riveting reading.

  • Huck Finn was torn between helping Jim, his black slave friend, escape to freedom, or doing what Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas would want him to—turn Jim in. After a prolonged, agonizing fight with himself, Huck decides to side with him Jim and help him escape from slavery. In his moment of decision, Huck says, “All right, I’ll go to hell then.”
  • Howells’ Silas Lapham, who’s broke and needs money, still refuses to sell the mills.
  • Earning his Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s Civil War soldier, Henry Fleming, despite formerly deserting, returns to his regiment and leads a triumphant charge against the enemy.

The real world—whatever that is—lies all around you. You’re in it, my friend. Your best stories are growing inside you right now, in the struggles you’re having with difficult choices, but you need to be grounded, objective, cool, and detached to write them into existence—before they write you out.

That’s right: the stakes are high. If you want to be a great novelist, you have to face the present reality: you’re not one yet. So get real before real gets you.

5 Exceedingly Deep Writing Tips from William Butler Yeats

If there’s a better poet than Yeats, I don’t know him. Some as good, maybe, but none better.

“But I’m a novelist, not a poet,” you say. All the more reason to study poetry. You use words, right? Poets use them with more concision, precision, and figurative beauty than any other human beings. Yeats also had plenty of ideas, concepts, and thematic depth that can inspire your thoughts and get your own words flowing.

#1: Be a Bard

Don’t talk, do. Don’t say you’ll write, write. Make yourself into a Bard—a famous purveyor and showman of words.

“Art is but a vision of reality,” said Yeats. By the power of sheer will, you can create yourself into what you want to be. The little lost lizard “Rango” did. (Terrific movie. More for adults than kids. Great script.) He declared himself to be a hero and, thereby, became one. He forced himself to live up to his own invention of a “self” he wanted to be.

Look at the many great rappers and DJs from the hood—guys who had two strikes against them from birth, thanks to their environment. They picked themselves up, created personas, and used words—their powerful rhymes—to turn themselves into Bards. Their vision of the reality around them became their art.

#2: Explore a belief system

If you’re lost in space, with no moorings, no belief system, then write about that. But it’s not much of a credible or admirable sort of life—chaos and anarchy. Though, admittedly, it may make for some good stories.

Let’s say you’re a Catholic. Flannery O’Conner wrote some brilliant stories incorporating Catholic theology. Maybe you’re Jewish. Have you ever read Bernard Malamud’s astounding brand of magic realism? His novels and stories are permeated with his Judaic faith.

Maybe you’re not religious at all. That could work for a writer, too. Yeats explored various traditions of esoteric his whole life: mysticism, folklore, spiritualism and finally symbolism.

He was a pretty disenchanted, skeptical guy, imagining a “rough beast…[that] slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

He was always seeking what he called “There,” with a capital T. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? “There” is some center, some ultimate spiritual reality that made sense, that held everything together. Where is your “There”?

#3: Use symbolism

Yeats’ first volume of poetry was “The Wind Among the Reeds.” Published in 1899, it ushered in the Modern era in poetry, characterized by a highly self-conscious use of symbolism.

 

Yeats believed that symbols have a mystical effect of evoking the Spiritus Mundi, the memory of Nature itself, that would allow many minds to flow together and create a single mind, a single energy.

He was a pretty heavy dude. Always exploring occult traditions; always seeking some unified explanation of the world and the soul. Symbols are his theosophy; he found belief in God through mystical insight.

What’s your heavy side? What deep, far out—forgive the 60’s slang, but no early 20th century writer was any closer to the hippie 60’s than Yeats—ideas do you have?

#4: Ponder life’s interpenetrating opposites

One of Yeats’ main symbols is the gyre:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

That’s the first stanza of “The Second Coming,” one of the 5 best poems ever written. (I’ll share the other 4 with you some other time.)

Life is a journey up a spiral staircase: the trip is both repetitious and progressive. Gyres rotate, whirl into one another’s centers, merge and separate. They come in shapes of paradoxical mysteries: time and change; growth and identity; life and art; madness and wisdom. They go together. They’re interpenetrating opposites.

How can you practically apply this concept to your writing?

  • Through conflicts. All consciousness is a conflict of opposites.
  • Identify and set the opposites in your life—or in yourself—against one another. Show how they interpenetrate.
  • Think Batman in “The Dark Knight” or “Spiderman” in his dark moments: characters conflicted by their superpowers and their humanity, their love and their hate, their social consciousness and their desire to say “screw everything.” Those opposites merge into one being.

#5: Do you “get it”?

All outward things take their character from being internalized. Have you ever stood under the stars, walked through a forest, or gazed at the moon and been in awe, feeling that sense of wonder and amazement at it all? And have you ever done so with someone who couldn’t care less and thought you were nuts for being so moved by the experience of gazing, of “getting it”?

That’s what the writer in you must do: Get it. Find “There.” Be a Bard with a belief system that you set to lyrics or characters and stories that resonate with symbolism through your exploration of the paradoxically interpenetrating opposites.

Got that? Get it and you’ll write a masterpiece.

How to Kill a Copy Editor: Top 10 Grammar Mistakes

Copy editors dive into your writing, making sure it is styled correctly, has proper English, and contains verified facts. They often are the first to see your writing and have the job of cleaning it up. Many common errors are pet peeves of copy editors. Avoiding these trouble spots will help your writing and make your copy editor happy.

  • Incorrect subject-verb agreement: Subject-verb agreement is crucial. People have trouble with agreement especially when writing long sentences with dependent clauses or with prepositional phrases that separate the subject and verb. Don’t let this throw off your writing. Isolate the subject and verb that goes with it to make sure they agree.
  • Long, confusing sentences: I know copy editors who count the number of words in sentences. Why? Because the longer a sentence, the more complex and potentially confusing it can be. Avoid several prepositional phrases and clauses that can make a sentence too wordy. You can express thoughts in shorter sentences without having short, choppy sentences. Balance is key.
  • Comma drama: Comma drama refers to any incorrect use of commas, usually too many or not enough. Particular bothersome habits some writers have include placing a comma between two run-on sentences or not placing a comma in a series of items before and.
  • Pronouns without clear antecedents: Too many times writers use pronouns such as it without making evident what the pronoun is referring to. Make certain the pronoun follows the last noun used so that the antecedent is clear.
  • Split infinitives: People commonly speak with split infinitives and they often appear in writing, but copy editors are still trained to remove these or rewrite them so that sentences are less awkward. As a rule, look for every use of the word to and check if you have split an infinitive.
  • Double spacing between sentences: Double spacing after periods is a holdover from the days of typewriters. There is no need to do this. Free yourself from doing so. Copy editors commonly search documents for two spaces and replace with one space, but you don’t want them to have to do this for you.
  • No verification: When you reference information that is not your own, you must provide source material for verification. Most copy editors do this work as well as styling and grammar. Copy editors will thank you for saving them time and effort verifying facts.
  • Quotation marks to emphasize words: There is no need to add quotation marks around words you want to emphasize or that you think are colloquial. Choose words that carry weight and communicate your intended message.
  • Using the wrong word: There’s a reason why grammar students exhaustively study often confused words in English such as lie and lay. People commonly misuse these words in everyday speech. Use words correctly not based on what sounds right to your ear.
  • No organization: You must organize your work appropriately. Use subheads or other devices that clearly show your outline and organization for your writing.

Worried about your ability to find some of these mistakes? Send your writing to Edit911.com, and we will edit so that you can have peace of mind.

6 Writing Tips You Can Use from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

How great is Heart of Darkness?

I don’t ordinarily rate works of art. However, in my opinion, Heart is the greatest novella (short novel) ever written.

Conrad was inspired by his trip to the Congo (now known as Zaire). At the time, the Congo was a Belgian colony. Perhaps the greatest insight Conrad learned there was that the “civilized Europeans” were anything but that in their domination and enslavement of the natives.

#1: Write about Imperialism and Colonialism

You think you know nothing about those subjects? You think they’re irrelevant and absent in your life? Think again.

Heart is an expose into the Belgians’ exploitation of the “savage races.” One of its subjects is racism and the degradation and demoralization of one people at the hands of another. Ultimately, the exploiters and degraders themselves were destroyed by their own actions and attitudes.

Now…doesn’t that ring a bell?

  • Do you know anybody who acts domineering and tries to colonize people? How about your ex-boyfriend or ex-spouse? Or, worse yet, your current “love” partner? Feeling dominated, used, or abused?
  • Have you ever experienced or witnessed people or an institution wield its power and authority in a vicious, selfish, exploitative way?
  • Know any pimps?
  • Know any thugs?
  • Know any criminals?
  • Know any racists?
  • Know any hypocritical, unethical, or corrupt cops, politicians, teachers, leaders, pastors, or others in positions of authority?
  • Know any just plain old assholes?

If you haven’t experienced any of those things or known any of those types, you’ve lived a charmed life. Or you don’t get out much. Or maybe I’ve been out too much…I don’t know…but I do know that all those situations and people make for great plots and characters.

#2: Tap into your subconscious

Heart is a psychological masterpiece about the subconscious mind. Influenced by Dante, Conrad takes his readers on an Inferno-like descent into the underworld of human existence—searching for lost idealism, a center that holds, a meaning to life, and the essence of our existence.

Take your readers deep inside the underworld of your life. I’ve mentioned this before: the best stories are the ones you don’t want to tell about yourself. You don’t want anybody to know just how bad or twisted you really can be.

“I’m not bad or twisted,” you may be saying. Okay. Have it your way. You’re a veritable saint. You oughta be canonized.

Come off it. You lost your idealism somewhere along the way. Write about it.

  • Your center sometimes nearly rips to shreds and flies apart.
  • In your shadowy or shaddy moments, during your worst experiences, you’ve wondered if life is meaningless.
  • What’s the point of living?
  • Maybe writing about those darkest days is exactly what you need to do to achieve some self-awareness and a catharsis.

#3: Apply some epistemology

Conrad explored the boundaries and limits of epistemology: how it is that we know things. How do we know what we know is one of philosophy’s greatest unanswered questions.

What’s the exact mental and emotional process we undertake in learning and understanding “reality”?

  • You could have a character always questioning things.
  • A philosopher type playing off a foil—someone’s who’s the opposite, who questions nothing or disagrees with everything, or who answers with non-answers.
  • Epistemological dialogue can be extremely funny.
  • I’m not talking about having your characters go on and on like two boring know-it-alls.
  • Make it short, snappy, ridiculous even.

One of Conrad’s greatest achievements was his ability to write self-aware, meta-novels—stories that call attention to the art of story-telling itself. You could try that by having a character who declares that he knows he’s a character in a book, or in God’s story, or that he’s treated like he’s not even real. Maybe he questions whether he’s even alive or it’s all a dream.

  • Like Alice down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
  • Or the Who’s calling out for help on their speck of dust world, and only Horton hears them.
  • Or “Young Goodman Brown” sneaking off into the woods late at night to consort with the devil and his crew.
  • Or the entire 6 seasons of LOST—lives in limbo. Limbo, purgatory, anywhere between two dimensions is a Twilight Zone popular plot.

#4: Tell a twice-told tale

Conrad’s stories are often told through other people’s accounts of them, which are themselves often twice-told tales passed down orally, from several conflicting viewpoints or perspectives.

Conrad employs narrators who confront themselves, both in other characters and in telling the story of their own pasts. The narrator of Heart, Marlow is on a spiritual voyage of self-discovery, where he meets up with his own flawed, fatalistic nature and discovers the darkness in his own heart.

Thus, the reader must take an active role in attempting to discern among the ambiguous and competing versions or accounts of unreliable narrators.

  • Making a reader wonder ‘What the heck is going on? Who are these people?’ creates great curiosity and suspense. If you want answers and you want them now, you’re hooked on sticking with it until you get them.
  • You might have a character tell a story to a group around a campfire, or stuck in an elevator, or, better yet, somewhere mysterious.
  • A vague and ambiguous setting. We’re not sure where they are. We don’t know who the group is, or who the story-teller is, or why he’s telling the story—until the end of the story.

The reader is hooked into hearing this story within a story. The outside story is just as mysterious and page-turning as the inside story. Both stories are meta-stories. And I’ve never met a reader yet who isn’t fascinated by meta-stories.

#5: Try writing an apocalyptic story—they’re always bestsellers and blockbusters

The end of the world. Earth invaded by aliens. A meteor striking New York City. Hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tornados, tsunamis, riots, war. They never fail to attract an audience—provided you have characters caught in the middle of them.

Apocalypse Now, the extraordinary Francis Ford Coppola Vietnam War movie, is based, in part, on Heart. After reading Heart, watch the movie again, or for the first time, and you’ll have an insightful and fruitful intellectual experience noting the similarities (and differences) between Heart and Coppola’s masterpiece.

#6: Study and work hard like Conrad did

Conrad was born in Poland and didn’t learn English until he was 21 years old, which is a remarkable fact considering he’s one of the very finest prose stylists in the history of English literature. How did he pull that off? Hard work.

 

That’s the final point of this chapter: Read great books, watch great movies, and write every day.

Study the art of storytelling. Study like you’re studying for the most important final exam of your life. If you want to be a great writer, you’re taking a final exam every time you sit down to write.

And you should sit down to write at least 3-4 hours every single day. Not every other day. Every day.