Finding Motivation in Clichés

Conclusion of the series, “Benefit from Bromides”

Last week we looked how well-known sayings can jumpstart your writing. Here are three more adages that can inspire your career.

“He who hesitates is lost.” Either by direct effort or mere luck, some plum writing assignments will fall into your lap from time to time. If you waste time worrying about whether or not you are ready to handle such assignments—enough education? enough experience? enough time? enough publishing savvy?—you’ll talk yourself out of taking what might well be your breakthrough gigs. Always say yes. To quote Woody Allen, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Trust in your ability to learn as you earn. Go for it!

“Well begun is half done.” Physicists talk about the power of inertia. A body in motion tends to remain in motion. Well, apply that fact to getting started on your writing project. Initiate momentum by assembling all of your tools—notes, pens, cup of java, file folders, recorded interviews. Clear away any distractions, e.g., magazines, books, unrelated research. Divide the work project into a series of stages. Go to the computer, and power it up. You’re halfway home already.

“The race does not always go to the swift.” If you balk at starting a writing project because you know you are a plodder rather than a sprinter, take heart. Often the writer who dashes off a first draft and then rushes it to an editor winds up receiving it back with a rejection slip or request for additional research, better fact-checking, and improved writing. You, however, may take a bit longer to prepare your manuscript, but the high-quality end product will save you time overall. So get started, work at your own pace, and take home the blue ribbon when you cross the finish line.

Consider this parting thought: Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, spent a lifetime assembling the book of Proverbs. Ben Franklin collected all the known one-liners and clichés of his era when he wrote Poor Richard’s Almanac. Let a word to the wise be sufficient.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Jumpstart Your Writing with These Well-Known Sayings

Part 1 in the series, “Benefit from Bromides”

Probably the first rule writing instructors drilled into us was to avoid clichés, those overused, worn-out, tired expressions heard so frequently in daily conversations. However, the only way an expression can become overused is if it contains enough truth to warrant being repeated.

Knowing this, let’s reexamine some of the tried and true clichés that relate to overcoming procrastination and managing time in order to find out how they might jumpstart our writing.

1. Tide and time wait for no man. Magazines have ironclad lead times for their issues. If a publication’s guidelines say that all Christmas articles must be submitted no later than August 15, you’ll have to hit that deadline or you’ll lose that publication opportunity for another full year. Editors and deadlines wait for no one.

Similarly, book publishers work on catalog seasons. If you plan to have your novel among a company’s summer releases, you’ll have to have everything done six months earlier (including the proofreading and correcting of galleys). Bookstore owners and readers wait for no idlers. So hit your deadlines in all matters.

2. Inch by inch anything’s a cinch. Often we hesitate to start working on large projects because they seem overwhelming. But if we break a big job into smaller components, it will become more manageable. When it came time for me to research and write my 325-page doctoral dissertation, I panicked.

However, when the chairman of my committee told me to break it into twelve chapters and then divide each chapter into four feature-length subdivisions, I could see it would be no different from writing one magazine article per week. I could—and did—handle that. You can too. So break your big project into smaller units.

3. The longest journey begins with a single step. In my last year of high school, I determined that I wanted to make writing my career. In fact, I fantasized about cracking the New York Times best-seller list, writing Hollywood scripts, and hobnobbing with members of the literati. In time (read that decades), all that came to pass. What I discovered along the way, however, was that there were no quantum career leaps. It all came one step at a time: college student, newspaper reporter, short-story writer, soldier, graduate student, columnist, novelist, editor, screenwriter, college professor. The same is true of your career. So step out. Today!

Next week: “Finding Motivation in Clichés”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Add Zest with Rhythm and Cadence

You can learn a lot about holding people’s attention if you listen to the spiel of a carnival barker. Notice the use of cadence and repetition in his pitch.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry. Come one, come all. Witness a true wonder of the world. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step right up and see Joe-Joe the Dog Face Boy. He walks, he talks, he crawls on his belly like a reptile. Don’t miss this amazing creature. Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

The repeated chant of “Hurry, hurry, hurry” gives a momentum to the come-on. It keeps drawing the listeners back to the point that something is in motion, something special is happening, something wonderful is occurring, and the audience needs to become part of it.

Nonfiction feature articles can use this same technique to establish a rhythm pattern. The process is simple: write the feature in an interesting way, but insert key “pitch” lines along the way to make it seem as though the reader is part of what’s happening.

In Jon Franklin’s Pulitzer Prize winning article, “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” Franklin presented the story of Mrs. Kelly’s operation to have a tumor removed from her brain. As Franklin wrote the feature, which was fascinating in and of itself, he occasionally inserted a line in italics that imitated the heart monitor:

beep…beep…beep…beep….

It added tension and drama to the story when the inserted line started to change:

Beep . . . . . .beep . . . . .beep. . . . . . . .beep. . . .”

By doing this, the reader instantly realizes that the surgeon has done something that has put the patient’s life in danger. The heart is slowing down. Mrs. Kelly is on the verge of dying. Uh-oh, what will happen next?

Obviously, Franklin’s pitch line creates a lot of anxiety in the reader, causing him or her to read on, eager to discover what would happen next. However, a pitch line does not always have to be hyper-dramatic. It can also be used to create a mood, establish a setting, or clarify an incident.

I once was assigned to do a feature story every day for a week on the Indiana State Fair. Well, the first few days were easy. I interviewed visiting entertainers and dignitaries, I wrote about the judgings of everything from peach preserves to cattle, and I even did a article on quilting. By day seven, however, I had run out of ideas. So, I decided to write about all of the different people who run the food concession stands.

The feature part of the article discussed how carnies traveled from town to town, what volumes of food and drink were consumed in a day and a week, and how the food was preserved and prepared and marketed. Interspersed among the paragraphs, however, I inserted italicized lines listing the various foods available at a state fair midway:

cotton candy…taffy bars…popcorn…candy apples….

Three paragraphs later, I inserted another line:

hot coffee…lemonade…orange drink…cold apple cider….”

And so it continued until the end of the feature. The pitch lines created a sensation of walking down a state fair midway and visually spotting all the different consumables being sold. It put the reader on the scene.

Naturally, this technique should not be used too often. The effect will become tedious if it is overdone. As a change of pace, however, it can serve to woo the reader into the feature and to keep him or her involved. So, hurry, hurry, hurry, and give it a try.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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6 Ways to Avoid Off-Color Language

Conclusion of the series, “The Issue of Profanity in Fiction”

Writers in the twenty-first century will point out that most television programs and movies use profanity—even blasphemy against the Deity—quite routinely. Some novelists who profess to be Christians, such as John Grisham, use profanity in their novels. Many journalists who never use profanity themselves will write verbatim dialogue in their columns and features, even if it contains offensive language, because they feel an ethical obligation to give readers “the whole truth.”

I am not in a position to judge anyone. I have written more than fifty fiction and nonfiction books and thousands of articles, and I have never once used an off-color word. On the other hand, I am a voracious reader, including numerous contemporary books that contain vast amounts of questionable language. As a writer, I cannot bury my head in the sand and still stay current with today’s readers. Occupational hazard, perhaps?

So, I’m not here to judge you, but I can be here to teach you six techniques for avoiding the use of profanity while keeping your writing believable.

  1. Realize that you can insert a lot of characters into your stories whom readers will not expect to use profanity: missionaries, chaplains, pastors, aged grandmothers, nursery school workers, librarians, school crossing guards, nannies…well, you get the point. Many, many people have no need for profanity in their lives, and the rest of the population is fully accepting of this. If you populate your stories with these folks, profanity becomes a moot point.
  2. The time period you choose to write about can reduce the need to use profanity. When I was an elementary school student in the 1950s, kids could get spanked or expelled for using “dirty” words. There was no profanity on TV, in comic books, in movies (except war movies that dared to use the word hell), in church, or in polite society. Thus, if you write about that era or others like it, readers will not expect to hear profanity.
  3. The genre you elect to write in may eliminate the need for strong language. Romance novels are not enhanced by profanity. Children’s picture books don’t need it. Comedy can be done without getting crude. Skits, devotions, testimonies, interviews, profiles, history lessons, and travel pieces have no need of profanity. The field you focus your writing career on will have a lot to do with your choice of language.
  4. Consider creating a world where there is no profanity. Fiction writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien with The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis with The Chronicles of Narnia and J. M. Barrie with Peter Pan, created fantasy universes that were filled with adventure, drama, villains, heroes, quests, and ethical dilemmas, but no cussing. And Hollywood has gone stark raving berserk about making blockbuster movies based on these books. Even Star Wars has little or no crude language.
  5. Create a venue in which a character who normally would use profanity is now motivated not to do so. When Whoopi Goldberg’s character of a crass, brassy casino singer is forced to live in a convent with one-hundred nuns in the movie Sister Act, she does not swear in their company. When Harrison Ford’s character, detective John Book of the Philadelphia Police Department in Witness, must live with the Amish, he gives up his handgun and never uses profanity. It’s totally believable and realistic.
  6. Create characters whose dialogue is so unusual, it makes the reader forget that no profanity is being used. In the movie Sand Lot, the young shortstop is called “Ya-ya,” because every time he talks, he says, “Ya-ya, I will” or “Ya-ya, that’s right.” It’s cute, and more enjoyable than profanity. Officer Toody in the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? would always say, “Oou! Oou!” every time he got excited. People listened for it.

Don Adams made, “You really know how to hurt a guy,” a regular part of his stand-up comedy routines, and as Maxwell Smart in the television series Get Smart, he would say, “Well…would you believe…?” Mork of Ork said, “Nah-nu, nah-nu” each week. Audiences prefer these clever and familiar expressions over something shocking or offensive or crude.

The point of this discussion is that each writer should be true to his or her own ethics and natural expressions. Writers who feel that profanity is a natural part of creative writing are going to use it. However, writers who do not feel comfortable using profanity in their works should realize that there are plenty of ways to avoid using it. Really. I swear it’s true.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Expletive Deleted . . . or Not?

Part 1 in the series, “The Issue of Profanity in Fiction

Get into any serious discussion about “realism” in fiction and you’ll soon be part of a debate about the appropriateness—or lack thereof—of off-color language. Fans of screenwriter David Mamet feel that a four-letter word must be used in every sentence of dialogue. Other writers will point out that Hollywood has made seven Jane Austin novels into mega-hit movies during the past fifteen years, and none has contained graphic violence, gratuitous sex, or cussing and swearing.

Let’s sidestep this debate by changing the question from “Should off-color language be used in fiction?” to “How can I write realistic fiction if I choose not to use off-color language?” After all, no one will deny that sailors, dockworkers, drill sergeants, and radio/TV shock jocks use salty language. Yes, that is realistic dialogue. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t offensive to many people. So, the question becomes, is it possible to portray such people in fiction, not have them use objectionable language, and still make them believable? I believe the answer is, yes, but it takes skill.

Past Techniques Used by Authors

In days when censorship was strong in publishing, writers could only use a generic reference when indicating that a character was swearing. For example, in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the mountain rebels would say things such as, “I obscenity in your mother’s milk.” You, the reader, had to fill in whatever “obscenity” you felt was appropriate. Sometimes Hemingway would write lines like this: “The man, Agustín, spoke so obscenely, coupling an obscenity to every noun as an adjective, using the same obscenity as a verb, that Robert Jordan wondered if he could speak a straight sentence” (Tolls, chapter 3). This tells the reader that, yes, these people are crude and foul-mouthed; so, just take that as a given and move on with the story. Since that novel has never gone out of print, most readers must be comfortable with that.

Herman Wouk made a note to his readers in the preface of The Caine Mutiny that he was fully aware that sailors use raw language, but he purposely was choosing not to replicate such dialogue in his novel. It must have worked, since the book became a phenomenal best-seller and was developed into a successful movie with Humphrey Bogart.

We’ve all seen cartoon characters who have symbols such as #@**/! above their heads to indicate they are cussing a blue streak. There is also the gimmick that was used in movies years ago when a character would say, “You son of a ….” and just as the last word was coming out, a loud train whistle or boat blast or truck horn would drown it out.

Other times, writers would let you figure out what was said by explaining it to you in a parallel way. For example, Woody Allen has a stand-up comedy routine in which he explains that he prepares for parts in movies by becoming a method actor; that is, he becomes the character in real life (bus driver, policeman, short-order cook) for several weeks before he actually starts work on the movie. One time, he had to play the part of God, so he went around New York both blessing and smiting people. One man got irritated by this and punched him in the mouth. Woody said, “At that point, I told the man to go forth and reproduce himself. Well…I didn’t phrase it quite that way.”

Next week: “6 Ways to Avoid Off-Color Language”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Rewriting: The Prescription for Ailing Manuscripts

I once spent four years researching and an additional year writing a doctoral dissertation on the writings of Jack London. After all that time, I got to the point where I couldn’t stand the sight of the word London. I would open my morning newspaper and see: “The London gold market opened today at….” I’d rip it out of my paper. Aggghhh!

This is why I can identify so strongly with my writing students who tell me, “I’m going to go nuts if I have to revise my novel one more time.” It can be extremely tedious and laborious to read the same sentences and paragraphs over and over, trying to find a better way to express their meaning. But then, that’s what professional writing really is: rewriting.

Let me offer you six tips on how to make revising your manuscript more effective and less monotonous.

  1. Try to let your pages rest a while before you take the red pencil to them. If you return to your manuscript after being away from it for two days, you will look at it with fresh eyes. You may find a sentence such as, “The yacht is fast.” When you wrote it, you knew what you meant. Now, two days later, you aren’t sure whether you meant the yacht is tied to the dock (made fast) or that the yacht goes quickly over the water (travels fast). This indicates the need for revision work.
  2. Check for consistency. If you are writing a novel, prepare a dossier on each of your characters in advance. When your book is completed, check each character’s appearance in the story against the dossier. Correct any oversights. Make sure the villain’s tattoo is always on his left arm, or that the maid always speaks with a German accent, or that the war veteran always limps on the right foot. Trust me—if you make even the slightest error, your readers will catch it.
  3. Scrutinize your pages from the reader’s viewpoint. Ask yourself, are these comedy scenes really funny, or funny just to me? Is my explanation of how this machine works easy to understand, or is it easy for only a mechanic to understand? Is my story paced well, or is it the kind of writing I would skip over if I were an average reader? Whenever you become bored or bogged down by your story, start cutting, revising and simplifying.
  4. Read your manuscript aloud. Test it for rhythm, pace, flow, speed, and sound. If the sentences are too long, reduce them. If there are too many th or s sounds close together, insert alternate words. If the words are too big, replace them with smaller ones.
  5. Check your transitions. Paragraphs should flow from one to the next in obvious harmony. The end of one chapter should prepare the reader for the beginning of the next chapter. Even individual pages should blend together to form a perfect sequence of sentences.
  6. Examine the details. Are the settings vivid? If not, add color, sound, weight, smells, and temperature. Is the dialogue condensed? If not, remove needless adjectives and adverbs. Is the time well established for the reader? If not, talk about seasons, dates, hours, eras, and holidays.

Revision is never fun, but it’s usually profitable. On May 22, 1940, editor Maxwell Perkins wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald about a play by Hemingway: “Ernest’s ‘Fifth Column’ was a notable success in its revised form.”

I like that. Just knowing that Nobel Prize-winning writers also have to revise their first drafts somehow encourages me.

But then, Hemingway knew the secret, too. All good writing is rewriting.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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3 Ways to Keep the Muse Humming

Part 3 in the series, “Beating the Self-Inflicted Isolation Blues”

To maintain contact with others—without disrupting your writing schedule, try these three ideas:

  1. Working Out – My wife convinced me joining a health club would benefit me physically and socially. I made it a habit to drive to a health club for exercise, mild weight-lifting, then a refreshing shower. I’d usually do this mid-afternoon to break up the monotony of a full day of writing. Sometimes on a treadmill I’d talk to the people next to me. Other times I’d get on a stair-stepper and listen to an audio book.
  2. Library Visits – I limited myself to two library visits each week—each time only for research. But I’d also ask the librarians what topics were hot that week. Sometimes I’d wander into the children’s department to chat with students and teachers. I’d go to the video section and ask people what good or bad movies they’d seen and what they’d recommend and why. Not only were these talks fun, but they also gave me insight into what people were interested in. As a writer, I needed that.
  3. Writers Groups – I joined two professional associations that held annual conventions where I could network with editors, agents, publishers, journalists, screenwriters, and novelists. I also joined a local writers club. It met only once a month, but the focus was usually interesting: a lawyer discussing copyright-law changes, a newspaper reporter explaining how syndication works, or a librarian suggesting shortcuts to historical research.

Although writing is best accomplished in solitude, writers are often social. If we weren’t curious about people and events, we’d never have become writers. The trick is to strike a balance between socializing and work.

With today’s technological opportunities, you may feel less isolated. Still, nothing beats face-to-face meetings. A handshake, a smile, a look of surprise, an impromptu question . . . some things can be experienced only in person.

As a writer who’s discovered the value of coming out of hiding, I hope that never changes.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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Contacts with Cash

Part 2 in the series, “Beating the Self-Inflicted Isolation Blues”

To maintain contact with the outside world while adding a little income to your coffers, try these ideas:

  • Teaching Courses – I discovered that the YMCA, the local library, and several area colleges were interested in my conducting weekly writing classes. This got me out of the house every Thursday night for three hours and put some pay in my pocket. More importantly, it gave me a chance to sharpen my editing skills by critiquing the work of novices. And I benefited from their feedback on my projects (which I frequently read to the class).
  • Co-Authorship – I approached Holly G. Miller, another full-time writer, with the idea of collaborating. Though we lived 100 miles apart, we talked to each other by sending cassette tapes when we exchanged manuscript pages. We coauthored four novels and three nonfiction books. We met face to face only a couple of times each year and talked by phone about every three months. Still, that outside contact supported my writing career.

Today, e-mail, instant messaging, and Skype make it even easier—if you can discipline yourself so they don’t cut into your writing time.

Next week: “3 Ways to Keep the Muse Humming”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

 

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Having a Life Outside Your Office

Part 1 in the series, “Beating the Self-Inflicted Isolation Blues”

Riding the success of two bestselling books, I quit my nine-to-five job and stepped into life as a full-time freelance writer.

I set up a nice office at home. I slept late, worked in my pajamas if I wanted, drank a lot of coffee, and enjoyed living at the keyboard. Sometimes I’d get rolling and write all afternoon and night. I was my own boss. This was freedom. I was a lone wolf. I loved it . . . for about two months.

Then I got lonely. My wife and two children were the only people I saw daily, and they were usually gone. There were no chats at the water cooler, no gossip exchanges at the mailroom . . . not even kibitzing with a secretary. This was two decades ago — before the Internet and e-mail. I had cut myself off from society!

This hurt my writing. I wasn’t getting news of what people were interested in. I had no one to bounce my ideas off. No one was available for brainstorming. I hadn’t heard a new joke in eight weeks. I needed to get out, but I didn’t dare jeopardize my pattern of producing a set number of words each day.

By experiment and adaptation, I discovered several ways to maintain out-of-office contact without disrupting my writing schedule.

Next week: “Contacts with Cash”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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Prepare for Famine Years

Conclusion of the series, “The Power of Negative Thinking

I sit on the board of directors of two large writers’ conferences, one for the Christian market, one for the general market. I have made very positive changes in our class offerings, our selection of faculty, even our venue for holding the conferences by constantly bringing up negative scenarios.

For example, a few years ago I said, “What if younger writers don’t like keynote addresses and workshops done by lecturing?” As a result, one conference initiated interactive learning with students sitting at keyboards, instructors using smart boards (interactive white boards), and all work being done paperless. The enrollment at that conference for the age group of thirty and younger has tripled during the past couple of years.

Again let me stress that I am not a defeatist, only a pragmatist. Life hasn’t always worked out well for me. I was injured in Vietnam. My daughter was born with a complete heart block. A spring flood inundated the entire lower floor of one of my rental properties. Some of my books have gotten lousy reviews.

Hey, life is tough, and you can’t always see what is coming at you from your blindside. As such, like Joseph in Egypt, you lay up seven years of grain in anticipation of seven years of famine. It’s good to have a plan B and also a plan C. Anticipate what could go wrong and try to prevent it. If it goes wrong anyway, learn from that and be better next time.

I’m positive this will work for you.

Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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