Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you spice up your writing? (12/15/07)



Featured writer: Karen Betaque



Contributors this month:
Charles Markee
Harriet Gleeson
Karen Betaque
Lisa Romeo
Susan Bono


HOW DO I SPICE UP MY WRITING?

by Karen Betaque

Spice is necessary when food is bland; it piques the senses, widens the eyes, and brings a warm feeling into the heart. Bland writing also needs something to enhance its effect and it is easier to identify the problem than to find the solution.

Often my first effort is to take a short cut, widening the eyes of my reader by choosing a juicy cuss word. Then, of course, upon redraft it must disappear because it is just that, a short cut, merely a signal to my editorial brain that my first-draft brain felt strongly. I was too chicken to stay with the feeling, to walk toward it, investigate and finally discover an authentic flow of expression that, instead of jolting readers, tugs at their hearts like a cello's tremolo.

The spices I care about most are those that lose themselves in combination with fresh ingredients and reside in memory as a full experience, more like my mother's pot roast than an exotic night out at a Moroccan restaurant. Spice in the written word is often as subtle as the force of wind whistling through the words, intent on a destination and stirring up a sense of the forest through which it makes its way.

Karen Betaque is a memoirist living in Santa Rosa, CA.

How do you spice up your writing?

  by Charles Markee

What a silly question. Of course, you spice up writing by adding stuff, just like you add garlic and marjoram and rosemary and a whole bunch of other spices to food. Saute… dump in the spices, stir, add ingredients. What could be easier?

Now just do the same with your writing. Dump in exposition, multiple dependent and independent clauses, a couple of gerunds and participles—repeat important points, add a sprinkle of Latinate to impress the reader and switch point-of-view every once in a while to keep the reader on her toes. Maybe even try second person, you know, get direct to the audience.

Step two: print it out, find a comfy spot and read it over. Uh, oh. It's muddy. It's loquacious! It's boring! Yuk!

What was that about the "darlings?" Stomp them; kill them; throw them out! That's the real answer. Take out your red pen and apply liberally to great swaths of text. Here's what has to go: repetitious information, big chunks of telling exposition, passive construction, forms of the verb, "to be," and unnecessary "big" words.

The secret weapon for spicing up your writing is simplification. When all the extraneous drapes are removed, raw wonderful words full of emotional impact rise up from the gloom of overwriting.

What about all those "darlings" lying on the floor around you? Burn ‘em!

Charles Markee, middle-grade novel writer
Santa Rosa, California
E-Mail Charles Markee


Recipe

  by Harriet Gleeson

Mulled Verbiage

Ingredients:
1750 ml great idea
2/3 cup stream of consciousness
½ cup muscular nouns
½ cup hyperactive verbs
1 metaphor
large quantities of sights, sounds, smells and touches
pinch of adverbs and adjectives
1 punctuation nut

Step 1 Decant the great idea and stream of consciousness into the computer. Turn up the flame of creativity (the hotter the better).

Step 2 Drop in the zest of nubile nouns and vigorous verbs.

Step 3 Lightly pound the metaphor with the point of a pencil to release the aromatic oils. Add to the mixture.

Step 4 Squeeze the juice of smells, sights, sounds and touch. Add, with just a pinch of adverbs and adjectives.

Step 5 Sprinkle grated punctuation onto the mixture

Step 6 Stir regularly to ravel rhythm. Do let the mixture boil.

Step 7 Remove from the heat, store in a desk drawer, and allow to cool for whatever time you desire.

Step 8 Carefully filter the cooled mixture to remove unnecessary articles and conjunctions. Shake vigorously to activate verbs and scarify disgusting gerunds. Examine for dangling participles and other grammatical taboos (make your own decision about these).

Step 9 Read the piece to your best critic and ENJOY!

Caution: Mulled Verbiage is seriously addictive.


Harriet Gleeson, poet, lives retired in Little River, Mendocino County, with her partner and dog, two miles from the ocean and alongside a redwood forest.
E-Mail Harriet


HOW DO I SPICE UP MY WRITING?

  by Karen Betaque

Spice is necessary when food is bland; it piques the senses, widens the eyes, and brings a warm feeling into the heart. Bland writing also needs something to enhance its effect and it is easier to identify the problem than to find the solution.

Often my first effort is to take a short cut, widening the eyes of my reader by choosing a juicy cuss word. Then, of course, upon redraft it must disappear because it is just that, a short cut, merely a signal to my editorial brain that my first-draft brain felt strongly. I was too chicken to stay with the feeling, to walk toward it, investigate and finally discover an authentic flow of expression that, instead of jolting readers, tugs at their hearts like a cello's tremolo.

The spices I care about most are those that lose themselves in combination with fresh ingredients and reside in memory as a full experience, more like my mother's pot roast than an exotic night out at a Moroccan restaurant. Spice in the written word is often as subtle as the force of wind whistling through the words, intent on a destination and stirring up a sense of the forest through which it makes its way.

Karen Betaque is a memoirist living in Santa Rosa, CA.

The Write Spice

  by Lisa Romeo

After the drafting, writing, rewriting, editing, revising and rewriting--when I'm pretty certain I have the story right--then comes the fun part, the spice. I get out a few different colored highlighters--pink for verbs, orange for metaphors/similes and the like, green for adjectives/adverbs. I work my way through the piece, coloring as I go. It feels childlike and mischievous too, marking up my hard work in kicky colors.

Then I go back, one color at a time, and ask: Is that the one, precise, best word that works here? Is there a better choice? Can I eliminate or improve on each word? Substitute another word that does a better job conveying the image or feeling I'm after? Axe the adverb in favor of a stronger verb? Kill the adjective with a better noun?

I keep a legal pad at my side and make lists of alternative words/phrases, then often consult a thesaurus and/or dictionary. Spice shows up as more interesting word choices, more carefully pinpointed meanings, more unexpected imagery. It's the most fun a writer can have--before the acceptance arrives, that is!

Lisa Romeo writes from Cedar Grove, NJ.
E-Mail Lisa or visit her blog: www.LisaRomeo.blogspot.com





What's Cooking

  by Susan Bono

On the evening of December 23, my 50-year-old brother decided it wouldn't be Christmas without gingerbread men. Not just any gingerbread men, but ones like Mom made every holiday of our lives until Alzheimer's robbed her of the memory it takes to follow a recipe. Her creations were large—bigger than a child's hand—at least ½ inch thick, elaborately frosted and iced, with happy expressions on their round, flat faces and our names written in flowing script across the bodies. She made these cookies for friends, neighbors, aunts, uncles and cousins. For our family, they were the taste of Christmas.

Until that night, my brother had never made anything more elaborate than biscuits and canned gravy, but he went ahead and assembled his ingredients: a box of gingerbread mix, 3 cans of pre-made frosting and a case of chilled Mexican beer. At 10 p.m., after Dad went to bed, my brother began tearing apart our parents' kitchen looking for a rolling pin, cookie sheets and the man-shaped cutter. Having learned to avoid trouble on my brief visits home, I went upstairs to my old bedroom without trying to imagine how his cooking project would help us celebrate both Dad's 83rd birthday and Christmas Eve. Instead, I braced myself for the challenge of fetching our befuddled mother from the memory care facility the next day.

I managed to fall asleep. At 1 a.m., I sneaked downstairs to peek into the kitchen. Through a fog of airborne flour particles, I saw my brother with a beer bottle in one hand and a can of frosting in the other, staring at something dark on the kitchen counter. At 3 a.m., I checked again. He was gone, but the kitchen was surprisingly clean. In a small Tupperware container lay ten slightly warped cookies, four of which were smeared with blue frosting. There were twelve empty bottles in the recycling bin.

These days, when it comes to writing, I can identify with my brother—minus the beer and the late hours. So many times I've assembled the ingredients to flavor a good story—conflicts in relationships, lost dreams, too little time, too much booze. I'll start mixing them together with high hopes for a triumphant outcome, only to end up staring at an utter mess. Whatever finally makes it into the world is over or under-worked, and only hints at my original vision.

I know how self-defeating it is for a writer to think this way, how such thoughts can be their own form of addiction. But at this stage of my writing, the tried and true spices don't seem to be making it. I've been in the kitchen, both literally and figuratively, for a really long time, but I'm at a point where the old recipes aren't working anymore. I feel as if I've been trying to sugarcoat everything.

I refuse to believe this is a sign my powers are eroding in the way my mother lost her touch for gingerbread. I just think I need to give myself permission to work with a whole new array of spices, to try and fail until I learn how to make something I'm proud to share again. Salt is the first spice that comes to mind, the basic ingredient of tears.

Susan Bono is pouring salt in her wounds in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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