In my next post, I’ll continue my series on good and bad literary trash, but I decided to interrupt it this week with some general writing tips, a roundup of what I’m currently reading, and comedy grammar.
Like me, I’m sure many of you are busy doing Spring cleaning, preparing for Passover or Easter, or counting the days until Spring Break. This period can be a real tinderbox of pressure and overwhelm, but it doesn’t have to be.
When preparing for a big task, I spend a few minutes breaking it up into parts, and then breaking up those parts into smaller, manageable, and quick jobs. I then make a timeline, working backwards from Ground Zero.
This year, I’m also trying to think lateral instead of linear. For example, I have always performed a one-day cooking marathon before Passover. It never occurred to me to take two days until a colleague of mine looked at me like I was insane, and said, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” So I readjusted my schedule and will now be able to cook for two days instead of one. Wow, what a concept.
Minimize writing overwhelm
For some of us, just the thought of sitting down to write engenders feelings of overwhelm every single day (you are writing every single day, aren’t you?). Consider applying my cooking and cleaning principles to your writing. Why not try the following:
- For a project, novel, article, etc., divide up the tasks into general categories such as research, outline, writing, editing, etc.
- Divide each of these large categories into several manageable, one-day tasks.
- Give yourself a due date and work backwards, assigning one task to each writing day or days.
- Decide the following the night before each writing session: when you are going to write, what you are going to write, and how long you are going to write – and stick to it.
Breaking tasks into small, mini jobs has also been helpful for preparing my revised, premium course, Wake Up Your Prose: Description Unpacked. I’m making slow but steady progress recording the script, and hope to launch sometime before the summer.
What I’m reading
I realized this morning that I’m reading, or have read recently, 6 books.
First is an ebook called The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages, by Scott Rank. It’s an interesting treatment of a 1,000-year period that has historically been labeled the Dark Ages. The author contends that there was a lot of progress and advanced thinking going on during these years, such as the invention of the clock and the writing of the Magna Carta.
Second on my bedside table is Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. It unsentimentally gives an account of the flip side of Manifest Destiny, which for most Americans of a certain age was glorified in our 5th grade history lessons. The book is very sad and very hard to read, but fascinating and important. I highly recommend it, and it’s well written to boot.
As far as fiction goes, I read Ann Tyler’s Back when We Were Grownups a week or two ago. It’s classic Ann Tyler, and I liked it. There are two Tyler novels that I did not like: The Amateur Marriage and Pulitzer-Prize-winning Breathing Lessons (sorry, Ann), and I was a bit embarrassed by Vinegar Girl (completely out of character for a Tyler book, but a cute read). Next on my Tyler agenda is A Patchwork Planet, which I picked up today.
I just finished the third book in a historical-fiction trilogy set in the post-Civil War Midwest. Immediately previous to that, I had read a series that takes place in post-Civil War San Francisco, so I’m enjoying the continuity of time periods.
I’ve begun reading Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, also historical fiction. It takes place in 1942 Seattle, Washington, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when anti-Japanese sentiment was at its peak. So far, so good. Very well written, and the historical time period is one I’ve always enjoyed learning about. Although I’m only on page 41, I can already recommend it. The writer is Asian, and it has that gentle, calm, and elegant feel that many of us associate with that region of the world.
I’m in the middle of A Year in Provence, a memoir by Peter Mayle. Mayle and his wife moved from London to Provence, France, in the late 1980s, and this book chronicles their first year there. It’s absolutely laugh-out-loud hilarious. And boy, is he a good writer.
As I’ve emphasized in my memoir series, the memoir writer must choose his or her area of focus: a specific angle, a special format, an impactful time period, etc. Mayle chose a 12-chapter format (January–December) and focuses on the everyday happenings and adjustments to living on what is for all intents and purposes a new planet. He spends a lot of time talking about food and wine, which I found tiresome, but I’m enjoying the book immensely nevertheless. Fans of James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful series will enjoy this one.
Comedy grammar time
Here’s a grammar-nerd-friendly piece in The New Yorker called “Dropped Hyphens, Split Infinitives, and Other Thrilling Developments from the 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference,” by the comma queen herself, Mary Norris. Many thanks to my dear subscriber, Yehoshua D., for the heads up. The article’s a hoot; here’s one long excerpt that I especially loved:
The conference offers dozens of sessions, on everything from gender consciousness to “Bad English.”… But the centerpiece of the weekend is the session at which the A.P. announces changes to its annual style guide. It was standing room only…. There were guidelines on race…and updates on recreational marijuana (pot or cannabis on second reference; employees at dispensaries are budtenders).
A cheer went up when [the A.P. representative] announced that “split forms” are acceptable—most copy editors have long since stopped worrying about the split infinitive, but now we are good “to boldly go” where the English language has been going for centuries….
You could feel the excitement in the room when a slide appeared with the heading “HYPHENS!” The A.P. is dropping the hyphen in such terms as “African American,” “Asian American,” and “Filipino American.” …
More hyphen news: in the interest of preventing clutter, the A.P. will drop the little bugger from such compounds as “third-grade teacher” and “chocolate-chip cookie.” The purpose of the hyphen is clarity: because there is no danger in mistaking which two words go together (it’s not “gradeteacher” or “chipcookie”), the extra mark is unnecessary….
One final item: the hyphen has been removed from double-“E” combinations, such as “preeclampsia,” “preelection,” “preeminent,” “preempt,” “reenter,” etc.
Pick up a good book, keep going with your writing, and I’ll see you next time with more examples of what makes good and bad literary trash. I’ve also got some great tips for making sure your own writing lands in the good, great, and magnificent piles. Until then,
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