Friday, December 22, 2006

Dead Beat Does Not Believe In Inspiration

I always want to write, but often I can't get inspiration.

Biggest Little Dead Beat

Dear Biggest Little Dead Beat,

The good news is that Dead Beat is not a great believer in 'inspiration.' Inspiration, he believes, is simply a process we can learn or already possess unconsciously.

Ideas do no just 'pop' into our minds. We set ourselves up to use our senses in a way to generate 'ideas'.

Ho hum, Dead Beat, go on.

Really. Begin the practice of this process and continue to practice it until it is an unconscious process we simply do.

So how to practice: Return to the senses. We interpret our world through them. We use sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We see something(s), we hear something(s) etc. and we have an internal response to these - an emotional response - we get angry, sad, happy and so on.

We use our senses unconsciously and have a conscious response. For many people this response is an 'idea'. So to practice we need to 'consciously' note what our senses are up to. Look in great detail. Listen in great detail etc. Observe people around us, listen to what they are saying, feel, taste, smell in great detail.

Is there on detail about that person sitting opposite me that is particularly interesting? Is there some comment coupled with a tone of voice and an expression that is particulary interesting?

Walking along the shore, if I carefully observe what is around me, is there something I see which stands out for me?

Now can I use the comment, tone, expression to kick start a story or poem? Can I use the 'detail' on the beach.

Write your observations down if that helps. Five or ten things a day. By the end of a week, how many? By the end of a month?

Is there not one thing there that stirs some idea? Dead Beat thinks so.

Ideas are all around us. We lose them beneath the weight of emotion.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Faraway Hills- Age and Writing

Dear Dead Beat, I am nearly seventy years old and have started writing. I used to write some stories in my late twenties but did not continue. I have recently started again but feel it is probably too late.

Over the Hill.

Dear Over the Hill,

The great thing about writing is that you can never be too old. You can never reach the top of the hill. The other great thing is that the older you get the better positioned you are to write also.

You have seen more of life. You have made learnings which will assist greatly with the craft of writing. Many published writers did not begin writing until late in their life.

If you were writing in your twenties and still are keen to write this many years later, do not believe your 'writing' mind has been inactive. It has been working away unconsciously thinking about writing and the process. I truly believe this. I think you will surprise yourself with your ability.

Stick with it. It is all ahead of you.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Brothers Marx - And Other Literary Giants

Okay Dead Beat has been getting very serious - time to lighten up - and Dead Beat's true belief - you want to know anything about writing, don't look to The Brothers Karamazov but look instead to the Brothers Marx.

The Infamous Swordfish Scene from Horse Feathers.

Bouncer: Hey, Baravelli!
Baravelli: Whadaya want?
Bouncer: Watch the door for a few minutes. And don't let anyone in without the password.
Baravelli: Alright, what is it?
Bouncer: "Swordfish" is the password, d'ya understand?
Baravelli: Okay, I got it.
Bouncer: Well, what is it?
Baravelli: Password.
Bouncer: Swordfish! Swordfish!
Baravelli: Alrighta! Swordfisha! Swordfish!
Bouncer: Aahh...
Baravelli: (roughly interpreted) Piazza mosco santa rumbolla fatcha duzzi patsi!
There's a knock at the door. Baravelli opens the peephole.
Baravelli: Who are you?
Wagstaff: I'm fine, thanks. Who are you?
Baravelli: I'm fine too, but you can't come in unless you give the password.
Wagstaff: Well, what is the password?
Baravelli: Oh no, you gotta tell me! (pause) Hey, I tell you what I do...I give you three guesses...It's the name of a fish...
Wagstaff: Is it Mary?
Baravelli: Ha, ha! Atsa no fish!
Wagstaff: She isn't? Well, she drinks like one. Let me see...Is it sturgeon?
Baravelli: Hey, you're crazy! A sturgeon, he's a doctor cuts you open whena you sick. Now I give you one more chance.
Wagstaff: I got it! Haddock!
Baravelli: Atsa funny, I gotta haddock too.
Wagstaff: What do you take for a haddock?
Baravelli: Well now, sometimes I take aspirin, sometimes I take a calomel.
Wagstaff: Say, I'd walk a mile for a calomel.
Baravelli: You mean chocolate calomel. I like that too, but you no guess it. (Slams door. Wagstaff knocks again. Baravelli opens the peephole again.) Hey, whatsa matta? You no understand English? You can't come in here unless you say swordfish! Now, I give you one more guess.
Wagstaff: (thinking) Swordfish...swordfish...I think I got it! Is it swordfish?

The Importance of Scene in Fiction - Beating Off Agents and Publishers

Dear Dead Beat,

I know scene is important in fiction - but what exactly is it?

Sorry, feeling silly asking this.

Dear Feeling Silly,

Heck of a question. Scene is not just important in fiction, it is the basic unit of fiction. If you can write a scene, you can write whatever you want. If you can't write a scene, they tell me Engineering is a pretty good stock in trade.

So what is a scene? Think about the word. It is a location. It has people and an event.

(Hey, Dead Beat are you saying it contains the basic elements of fiction: plot(action); characters; and setting?)

In one.

You have a single location, two or more people (okay, you can have a single person, but it gets a little tricky - monologue and all that) and some action. If one person leaves, the scene has ended. If another person enters, the scene has ended. If the location changes, the scene has ended.

Scenes have the basic elements of fiction and they need to be described in detail. So the location is vivid. The characters are credible: they talk; they think; and they feel. Some event is described.

Now this is important - a plot is a sequence of events (not a series, mind you, a sequence - check out your math - Dead Beat has told you often, to write you need a math degree - check out Dead Beat's credentials). So a story needs a sequence of scenes. A number of scenes form episodes. And a number of episodes form a story or a book or any piece of well written fiction.

Work on your scenes. Make them credible and vivid. Arrange them in a sequence and beat off the agents and publishers.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Earning A Living From Writing

Dear Dead Beat,

Is it reasonable to expect to earn a living from writing - or is it really a past time for most people?

Old Timer.

Dear Old Timer, I will answer the first part of the question second and the second part first (Dead Beat is beginning to sound like Chico here - "the party of the first part...")

For many people writing is a past time and that's fine. If you take it seriously however, it is anything but. And no, Dead Beat is not saying anything about writing being a vocation since that is a load of nonsense (as the notion of any profession being a vocation is) and will ultimately backfire upon the misdirected writer. Writing requires that you give it your all - D. B. has no time for shoddy work.

As for the first part of the question - "Is it reasonable to expect to earn a living from writing?" - the answer is short, No.

In fact, Dead Beat will tell you, it is the most unreasonable notion that will ever flit into the consciousness of any human being... more unreasonable than writing being a vocation even.

p.s. the great thing about writing is that Old Timers make for better writers.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Support and Understanding

(A follow up to the previous letter - see The Myths of Self-Publishing )

Dear Dead Beat,

How do you cope with lack of support and understanding from the people you live with? What do you do when the person you live with tells you that you should not be wasting your time, or it is too late for you? When they harp at you to give it up, and any success you have is berated and never enough to change their mind. What do you say to well meaning people who advise you to see what is out there selling and write like that or make art like that. As an artist and a writer, I get that all the time. --

Dear Harped Upon,

At the very least you cope by knowing Dead Beat is on your side. This writing business is not easy.. It is not easy if you want to write a best seller and make lots of money, but it is particularly not easy when you are not interested in writing what is ‘selling’.

Here’s Dead Beat’s belief - you have got to write whatever it is you want to write and not what other people want you to write, and you have to write this to the best of your ability by learning your craft. Success is not guaranteed, at least not financial or success of the published kind, but there is personal success, and who knows the former may come.

The thing is, we do not live alone in the world, and our actions affect other people, so we have to recognise this. So we need to get a balance in our lives. We should look at the people around us and try to understand their needs and wants and incorporate this with our own. If we are too driven, and ignore their needs interpersonal success can be lost. Compromise and balance - finding the right time and place to pursue our literary endeavours without ‘injuring’ others. This is different for each writer as their personal circumstances are different.
Dead Beat has four children to raise, a household to ‘maintain’, a chauffeur service (for the four little Dead Beats) to run, a hockey Dad hat to wear (all four Dead Beats playing this season!!), memberships of various committees and boards, a mentorship program, writing workshops, oh yeah and a novel and a collection of poems to write…

Dead Beat has a very understanding but very busy (and oft travelling) wife, Mrs Dead Beat, but Dead Beat has made a lot of compromises, a lot of time shuffling, has given up much. At this point in time the balance has been achieved and all are content. When the balance shifts, some more shuffling may have to be done. There are large periods of time (e.g. school holidays) when Dead Beat gets no writing done what so ever and on it goes…

Dead Beat is not looking for sympathy since he needs none.

All I can urge is that you find a way to balance your life - balance the finances - balance your time - so you can pursue your art in a way where no one feels compromised.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

No Gun To Your Head - Writers

Dear Dead Beat,
Why do we write?

Dear Confused,

There is no gun to your head. Writers write because they get pleasure from it. Don't give Old Dead Beat any vocation nonsense.

The Myths of Self-Publishing

Dear Dead Beat,

I belong to a writer's club and sometimes you can get worthwhile feedback from others in such a setting. Sometimes some people can't get past their prejudices either, so watch out. What about self-publishing? There have been some big successes going this route? Would you recommend it? I have an other questions. How do you cope with lack of support and understanding from the people you live with? What do you do when the person you live with tells you that you should not be wasting your time, or it is too late for you? When they harp at you to give it up, and any success you have is berated and never enough to change their mind. What do you say to well meaning people who advise you to see what is out there selling and write like that or make art like that. As an artist and a writer, I get that all the time.

Dear Writer,

Dead Beat hears well what you are saying re writers groups (see Writer’s Workshops). Participants need to be able to critique other people’s work and quite frankly most are not skilled enough in this area. So, Dead Beat concurs - Watch Out!

As for self-publishing, Dead Beat is always a little wary. The point of critiquing other peoples’ work in workshops is mainly to learn to develop the skills to become a self-critic. Herein lies the rub. It is hard to be a self critic. No matter how skilful we are with other people’s work it is harder to be as detached with our own and we are frequently blinded. Thus we can be tempted to publish before we are really ready (see The Business of Rejection). It would be a shame to publish work before it is really completed. Also it is very hard to get distribution, promotion etc. Thus it is hard to reach a wide audience. This is not to say it should not be done but be wary.

The big successes in this route are in fact few and far between. There are many myths out there about this. And while yes there are some names to be mentioned, there are far far far more to be mentioned from the non-self published side. But it can be a stepping stone.

Now I know there are some more questions to be answered, and Dead Beat will return to them. Enough to ponder on for today.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Born and Unborn Writers

Dear Dead Beat,

Is there such thing as a born writer?

Dear Lifeless,

No. All writers are unborn.

Actually, we don't know. Writing is a process. This is how we best understand it. Some potentially could be born with the process engrained. Some may have to learn it entirely (Dead Beat doubts this). For most it is a combination of already 'knowing' and learning.

All Dead Beat can urge is that you do not veiw yourself as a born writer in case you are wrong. Study the craft of writing, study the craft of creativity, practice by writing until your arm drops. That would be a good start.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Writers' Guides to the Markets

Dear Dead Beat,
I am a writer of poetry and short fiction. I frequently submit my work to magazines etc. I also have enough work I think to submit to a publisher. I don’t have a lot of money. Do you think investing in a guide to writing markets is wise?

Dear Frequent Submitter,

Most writers understand the money shortage problem. And so decisions do need to be taken. Sending work out is not cheap. Therefore we do not want to send work to the wrong place or send wrong work in the first place (see Just Not Getting It).

You do need to know the magazines you are sending to. Preferably you need to seek them out and get them in your hands to read. Not always easy depending on where you live.

Similarly for publishers you need to have a look at their books, their websites etc.

A good writers’ guide can be a great asset in ‘guiding’ you. No doubt. If money is of concern see if you can find one in your local library or put in a request for one. But yeah I think owning your own is very useful. You can browse it at your will. Have it right beside you when you need it.

Thing is magazines come and go, publishers come and go, change addresses so an old guide may not be up to date. So the book you buy this year may not be so useful in the next. But that being said I would not advise buying a new guide every year either.

The key here is to get a ‘good’ guide.

2006 Writer’s Market seems very comprehensive for US and more.
The Writers’ Handbook 2006 by Macmillan for UK, Ireland and more.
The Canadian Writer’s Guide for Canada.

By the way, check out the internet for used copies.

Good luck.

Friday, October 13, 2006

How To Get Published - Dead Beat Has The Answer

Dear Dead Beat,

I have been writing forever but can't seem to get anything published. I can't believe it is all bad! I have three novels written and two collections of short stories. What is a writer to do?

Dear What to Do,

There is much left out here. How finished is the work?

Assuming it is finished, how good are your query letters?

Assuming they are good, rejection does not imply that your work is not of a good quality.

Anyway the answer is simple: perseverence.

Write to the best of your ability, seek advice from someone who truly knows how to critique work, rewrite and then rewrite some more. Most writing is of poor quality. Most writing submitted for publishing is of poor quality. Do not be part of the MOST.

Study the market - find out what publishers publish your style of writing. Send a worthy query letter and brief sample. Send and resend.

Write a new novel in the meantime.

Dead Beat pleads with you to stay the course. Whoever told you this would be easy?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What Is a Query Letter?

Dear Dead Beat,

what is a query letter?


Dear Embarassed,

If you want to be a writer never admit to embarassment. Writing honestly will always be embarassing.

A query letter is a letter of enquiry, usually in our cases to a publisher (or agent). So ask the question: Do you want to see my work?

Before that, set up the 'letter' that the answer is 'yes'. If you do not do this, then the answer is 'no' or at best 'maybe' and the question becomes almost redundant.

So how to achieve a 'yes'?

Be deserving of it.

If your work is not ready to be considered, do not sent it out. If it is ready the letter tells them this: so how do you know?

Have other people agreed with your opinion? Has it been published or received well? If so, let them know. Establish in your letter the validity of your work. Argue your position. Do not trust your own opinion solely. Do not say, "well others just don't get it, their problem."

Your problem is how to get them to understand it.

So ask in your letter if the publisher/agent etc wants to see your work, and explain before that why they would want to. If you can't explain that, either you have not yet earned that right or you have problems in telling why.

Be honest, or at least ask others to be honest on your behalf.

Either need to be solved.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Importance of Agents

Dear Dead Beat,

How important is it to have an agent for works of fiction?
- worn out writer

Dear Worn Out Writer,

It clearly has become very important to have an agent for novels. Short stories are a hard sell, and usually agents are reluctant to represent them. Besides it is often the smaller independent publisher who will take the risk on short stories, and the smaller publishers are not as dependent on working with agents.

So if you have a collection of stories, you can by pass the agent and approach the publisher directly with a query letter, short sample and list of publishing credits.

Even with a novel the same approach would be okay with the smaller publisher.

The bigger publishers deal almost exclusively with agents. However if you had a very strong publishing history, the query letter etc may bypass the agent again.

In truth it is almost as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publisher, but you may as well begin there.

Dead Beat wishes you well - be brave!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Just Not Getting It - And Writing Craft

Dear Dead Beat,

I may have a problem, but I'm not sure. I enjoy reading stories that say a lot in very few words, and often leave things out purposely in order to engage the reader's imagination. I like my reading to challenge me as well as entertain, and I try to write stories in the same way. This often translates into cutting. It's common for a 3000 word draft to finish at 1200 words by the time I'm ready to publish. What may or may not be a problem is that some people who read my stories don't understand what happened. Of course, some people do understand, but not as many people as might have if the story had stayed around 3000 words. A lot of writing instructors I've studied with are quick to slap my hand when I say some readers just don't get the story and remind me that it's not the reader's responsibility to bring clarity to a story, but mine. When does this become a concern for the writer? Should one purposely craft their stories to satisfy the larger audience? Or will some readers just not get it and that's okay?

Dear Unsure,
The slapping of hands by writing instructors is to be encouraged. Indeed Dead Beat has been known to advocate the hang, drawing and quartering - and the cutting out of tongues of certain writing students (see Writers’ Workshops - Greasy Bob’s Damage Control). In your case I am prepared to put such punishment on hold.

It all comes down to the intent of the writer and their work. If things are left out purposely “to engage the reader’s imagination”, then the intention is for the left out things to have some real purpose. So far, so good. But this raises a number of questions: What “things” are being left out?, what aspect(s) of the writing process/of the story form is(are) being left out?; Does this ‘leaving out’ truly engage the reader’s imagination?; What is the purpose of ‘engaging the reader’s imagination?; is the reader’s imagination not already being engaged?… and so on. I will come back to this, but for now let us move on.

“It's common for a 3000 word draft to finish at 1200 words by the time I'm ready to publish.”

This is common for many writers. Dead Beat is not being flippant or smart. Many stories need substantial editing and are reduced in size. However, the editing is for many formal reasons. So once again it comes back to what you are editing out.

“What may or may not be a problem is that some people who read my stories don't understand what happened. Of course, some people do understand, but not as many people as might have if the story had stayed around 3000 words.”
Here it depends on what is meant by “what happened”. Happenings, events, generally apply to plot, but it could be thematic. If plot, I appreciate the necessity of ‘mystery’ to pull readers along, but there is a balance to the necessary detailing of situation.

As for “Of course some people do understand…” this ties in with “some readers just don't get the story”. This may even be the crux of the matter.

Dead Beat says this in a non-jaded way, “he has been here so many times”. Indeed he has struggled with this very situation himself and continues to do so.
“At what point is my ‘vision’ correct and those who can’t see it my way because they are blinkered are incorrect? Or at what point am I ‘wrong’ because formally I am not executing my vision for others to see it?”

Here’s the thing - very many writers justify and defend their writing based on their vision - “If you don’t get it, that’s your problem not mine.” When in reality they have been sloppy about rewriting, sloppy about truly figuring out how to formally make their vision work. When Picasso and Braques engaged in Cubism, they had to figure out light and shadow all over again. They had to look at the formal elements of painting and see how they could make it work to paint what they wanted to paint. The “many writers” that justify and defend their writing, in my experience, have not gone to this trouble. Very often it is an excuse they cannot see through.

So Dead Beat puts himself on the line - “No easy answers, Mr Dead Beat, defend your position using strong literary or writing process argument.”

What I am getting at is that writers should not “purposely craft their stories to satisfy the larger audience” - (we would have no Joyces, Faulkners etc then) - but they were no slouches - they understood their craft. However, we must not allow sloppy writing to be excused as “just not getting it”.

I have no way of knowing which it is here. Deep down you do, and please, please, for the sake of your writing do not be defensive. Truly explore your reasons and how you technically approach them.

There are many ways to ‘engage the writer’s imagination’, have I chosen the most suitable one? Am I justified in losing those who feel something is missing? Indeed, is it missing?

Hah! - Dead Beat sighs in exasperation since he needs to hear your responses.

Let me make an offer, send me along a sample of your work. Send me the long version and the shorter edited one so I can view your process. There are many poor writing instructors out there who want you to write like them or like some prescribed notion they have read in a book. Dead Beat ain’t one of those. There are formal elements we cannot deny, but we can appreciate them while understanding the intent of the individual writer (see Writer’s Workshops - or How Do We Cope With Gerry?).

Seeing the work would help greatly (send to: Shh! Don’t tell anyone else that address.

The short and simple advice on problems of this nature is to err on the side of caution - instead of defending our stance, we should approach it from the perspective that technically we may be wrong.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

This Particular Death - The Difference Between Story and Plot

Dear Dead Beat,

You talk about the difference between story and plot. What is this difference?


Dear Undecided,

This is a great question and Dead Beat has a great answer. Story is the chronological sequence of events that take place. Plot is the causal and logical structure which connects events.

To paraphrase E.M. Forster: The king died and then the queen died (story).The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot).

But here this (quote from Diegesis - The Extent of Story: "Now here’s the sucker punch: story refers to all the audience infers about the events that occur in the diegesis on the basis of what they are shown by the plot. Story is always more extensive than plot."

It is logical for the queen to die of grief, but the important fact is that she died - the story revolves around that - grief is our excuse for this particular death.

But let us focus on story - the fact she died.

Questions for Dear Dead Beat should be submitted through the Comment section

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Writing With A Blindfold On - What You Want To Write About

Dear Dead Beat,

How does a writer know when he is writing about what he wants to write about and not what he thinks he wants to write about?

Dear Write About,

Dead Beat believes that a writer should go into their work blindfolded. Go into the dark and discover a source of light. Too many writers shine the light on one spot and write about that. It is usually a spot of comfort( see Swashbuckling). A spot they know only too well, and almost certainly a spot they do not need to write about. Writing is an act of exploration where we find out things we did not already know, where we reveal things previously hidden away. If we go in knowing what it is we want to write about, we are liable to end up with opinionated works. Writers’ opinions are dubious at best.

Dead Beat places a lot of trust in the unconscious processes. What you think you want to write about is usually a conscious thought and less interesting. Begin with that if you must, but as you write your initial draft take chances, go down roads you would normally avoid, meet people you would prefer not to talk to. Make the journey and then see what you have got. Find out what interests you now about your piece of writing and begin again from that perspective.

Dead Beat remembers John Keeble talking about Charles Johnson visiting EWU. Keeble mentioned that he would like some day to write about the Aryan Nations who had a heavy presence in Washington State. Johnson told him that if he ever did he had to promise to write from the point of view of the Aryan Nations people.

Writers must take risks. They must leave their opinions and viewpoints behind. The writing that results will reveal what it is you really want to write about, or more to the point, it will reveal what it is you ought to be writing about.

Leave any questions for Dear Dead Beat in the Comments section

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Finishing the Unfinishable - How Do You Know When It's Done?

Dear Dead Beat,
I seem to never be satisfied with my writing. I edit and rewrite and then I do it again and again and again. It never ends. I have written so many stories over the past decade. But even when I submit them for publication, even when they are published, I never feel that they're finished. I continue to work on them. Is this just the way of writers? How do you know when it's done?

Dear Dissatisfied,
Two questions and one long answer.

No, this is not the way of writers, or to put it more correctly, this is not the way of all writers. Some are like yourself, unsure when the work is complete, others cross the t’s and dot the i’s with absolute certainty. The latter are usually suffering from delusion.

You are right, “it never ends”. (See The Perfection of the Circle and related posts in Dead Beat). It is an infinite process. We seek the ‘perfect’ short story just as we would seek to reach where the infinite ends.

However if we were to pursue this notion, we would only write one story in our lifetime and it would never be finished (come to think of it, is that not what we do anyway?).

So rewriting and dissatisfaction can be very useful things. Rewriting is the crux. The pre-writing and writing stages are where the writer is seeking to find out what story it is he or she is telling. It is in the rewriting that the story can be told.

It comes down to the basic question concerning story - What is the story?

As an instructor and mentor in writing I can honestly say that most writers I encounter do not know the answer to this - even when the story is apparently ‘finished‘. And Dead Beat believes this is why so many other writers have a hard time ‘finishing’ a story. They simply do not know what story it is they are writing. Oh, they think they know. They certainly know the story they intended to write. But writing does not work like that. If we knew the story to begin with, what could we possibly learn?

So we have to probe our drafts and ask, what is the story? This is as concrete as it is abstract. By this I mean it will touch on elements of theme (abstract) but also narrative ones (concrete). Thus the story is not just the plot and it is not just the underlying theme.

Here, let Dead Beat get personal. In my novel The Eskimo in the Net, I would say the story is that Jim Gallagher pulls up an unknown corpse in his fishing nets. His search to find out who the dead man is mirrors his search to comprehend his own life living in a small remote fishing village. We have the concrete narrative details and the abstract theme.

The abstract theme is what interests me most as a writer, but in order to explore it I have to use the concrete narrative. His physical search mirrors his mental one. I am obliged therefore to plot out a physical investigation.

This is the single most important part. Here I am at the highest hierarchical level of fiction writing. Once I know what I am seeking to achieve I can look at all the other elements of fiction and work my way down to the lowest level - dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Many people do not work their way back down. They start rewriting somewhere in the middle of the process and are doomed to failure. A semi-good piece may result, but it will be incoherent as regards its meaning.

I don’t really have time to go into the various levels in this response, but we need to know this hierarchy, so that we work our way through it. Even then we have to ask ourselves if we have now allowed the ‘story’ that emerged to be told as completely as we can.

I f we are designing a building, we do not start with the individual bricks and start throwing them together. We start with the over all design and work our way through all of the necessary components.

I am not saying that this is why you feel your work is unfinished, but it might be.
Many published pieces are unfinished. Too many in fact.

However, once we have considered the big picture and have worked our way through the other elements, and have gone back through successive rewrites, there will come a time when we can say that the writing is ’close’ to the ’story’ we wanted. And we may have to leave it there. But at least we know that the real story has emerged and has not been submerged by a poor writing process.

This is a big subject - feel free to contact Dead Beat through the Comments section to help clarify any section.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Theme - The Worst Thing You Can Do

Dear Dead Beat,
I love writing poetry and short stories, but quite frankly I am not sure I really understand ‘theme’. It seems obvious, yet sometimes I have no idea what I am writing about.

Dear Clueless,
Dead Beat would not have it any other way. People who ‘know’ what they are writing about usually write in a superficial and often pedantic way. Thus they leave themselves little room for exploration.

That’s not to say, that theme can be ignored, absolutely not. But in the early stages of our writing, the initial drafts we are discovering what the theme will be. The mistake is in imposing theme upon a story rather than allowing it to emerge from within. Look at your drafts and think about them. What interests you in the story or poem? Maybe a single image, a line, a character, an action, maybe something larger. Think about your interest. Why is it interesting? What associations does it have for you, or could it have for your readers? Play with it, tease it out, see if it is going to lead anywhere.

In other words, look at your draft, think about what it could mean and rewrite pursuing this idea. The repeat the process - now what interests you? Has it altered. You stick with it until you feel you have a grasp of the theme that is emerging and then you construct the remainder of your rewrites to build upon this.

Dead Beat remembers taking a workshop from Rick Bass (Homework from D.B. for tonight - check Rick’s work out). Bass is quite the environmentalist. However someone said they had a really big issue they wanted to write about and wondered the best approach. Bass told them never to write about their issues. “What’s the worst thing you could do about an issue you care about? Write a bad story about it.”

Important issues will eventually emerge from within the story not from without.

Please leave questions for Dead Beat in the Comments Section.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Funny Place to Find A Door - Grammar and Punctuation

Dear Dead Beat,

how important is punctuation and grammar?


Dear Worried,

the only reason for punctuation and grammar is to avoid confusion in understanding language. However, it has taken on more elitist functions over the years. Points of grammar etc...

Forget it all. It is the least important aspect of writing. Even for English Composition or Composition of any language - I taught it for many years. Punctuation and grammar come at the end to make sure that the ideas you are expressing are not confusing by poorly placed commas etc

Trivial stuff - I heard the bell ring when I was still in bed, and I answered the door in my pyjamas. A funny place to find a door.

Mirrors and Frogs - Images and Symbols

Dear Dead Beat,

what is the difference between an image and a symbol?


Dear Embarassed,

rechristen yourself - call yourself Brave or Willing to Learn.

Actually it is a huge question, but Dead Beat thinks the answer is simple -
a symbol is an image that gets repeated. Therefore a mirror is an image. Repeat it however and the image takes on great meaning or we read more into it and it becomes symbolic.

If I write a poem and mention a frog it is an image - if I repeatedly write about the frog it takes on more meaning - a symbol.

Next question, by the way - what is an image?

Ask Dead Beat through the Comments Section

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sentimentality and Emotional Effect

Dear Dead Beat,
Someone recently described a piece of my writing as sentimental. What do you think was meant by this?

Dear Sentimental Enquirer,

Dead Beat has no idea what this person meant. If you haven’t already asked him or her, I would, just to see if they can articulate what was really meant. Many people use language inappropriately which can cause great confusions when critiquing work. Always ask people to explain the terms they use.

Used correctly, sentimentality implies that the writer has tried to achieve some emotional effect without providing any reason why this effect is warranted e.g. if the writer tries to make the reader sad about some situation a character is in in a melodramatic way - “This poor innocent woman’s child was about to die” - then sentimentality will result. The character needs to be built up and the situation revealed in detail that we will understand without being told the great sadness being undergone.

The events and the details reveal the emotion. It is not the writer’s business to tell us how to feel.

So take a look at your work. It is easy to fall into sentimentality. Strike out any melodrama and give the reader solid description instead.

Send Dead Beat any writing queries through the Comment section.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Grinding the Java - Writer's Block

Dear Dead Beat,
I suffer often from writer’s block. What can be done, if anything?

Dear Desperate,
There’s no such thing. Writer’s block does not exist.

At it’s worst it is an excuse for being lazy, at best a necessary part of the writing process.

That’s the good news.

What has become known as ‘writer’s block’ is usually one of two things: 1) Poor set-up; 2)A necessary subconscious part of the writing process.

Poor set-up simply means not allowing yourself get into the right frame of mind to write. Perhaps there are too many distractions or simply poor discipline at play. ‘Writer’s block’ begets ‘writer’s block’. We can easily set ourselves up for it, repeat whatever caused it the time before. So create a good writing environment and a good writing discipline. It helps to write at the same time and in the same place. We get used to it. It becomes a ‘writing’ environment. A good writing environment begets a good writing environment. So have regular writing periods and stick to them as best as you can. No slipping off for endless cups of coffee, or checking your emails. Once the pattern is created we go in with a better set-up. The set-up to write. If you are stuck in the beginning, write anything down (words beget words). Write about how stuck you are, but stick with it. Day after day. Discipline is everything.

Now as for the ‘block’ being a part of the process. Sometimes in writing we need to let things shift around in the unconscious mind a while. We have all sorts of writing skills and strategies at play in our mind that we know little about (old Dead Beat has studied this quite a bit, the unconscious processes using the NLP -Neuro Linguistic Programming method - the what Dead Beat? - Never mind!) Anyway trust the unconscious to do its part. But stay at the page. No slipping away - “oh well the good old unconscious will figure it out while I grind the java” - no you must stay with it, and it will all spill out (no, not the coffee).

However watch out that you do not confuse this unconscious process with poor discipline and poor set-up attitude.

No excuses, remember.

Forward any questions to Dead Beat through the comment section.

Plot and the Art of Swashbuckling

Dear Dead Beat,
I tend to map out my plot in advance. Other writer’s I know begin without such an outline? Which do you think is the best approach?

Dear Cartographer,
There is no right or wrong. Both paths are fraught with dangers. Dead Beat himself, being a bit of a swashbuckler, likes to dive on in unaided by charts.
Here’s my thinking. If we plot out the story too much in advance, it leaves little room for exploration. And without exploration, there can be no discovery. And this is what we are after.

If we head in with the germ of an idea, then we will be faced with many different paths to choose from. We may even have to cut a few of our own. We may get lost and never find our way out. But good explorers take note of their surroundings, create maps as they move along.

Either method is good as long as we keep these thoughts in mind. Be willing to change from the outline you began with. When some interesting road appears, travel down it a ways and see where it leads to. Be brave in the dark.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ambi Valence

Dear Dead Beat,

I have listened to writers, editors and teachers. At times they contradict each other and if you listen to some long enough they contradict themselves. I only write about what I want to write about. If it were any other way, where would the passion come from?

Dear Acute Listener,

you are absolutely right. Good writers, good editors and good teachers contradict themselves. It is those who don't you need to worry about. Remember ambilance - ambi valence both truths. That is what we are seeking in great writing.

Again you are correct to write about what you want to write about but seek out the truths in it. Not opinions, not facts, but truths. And if the passion does not come from that, well where else?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mistakes or Poor Advice - Engineering and the Abstract

Dear Dead Beat,

If writing courses and groups are dangerous and family and friends are unreliable, how can a writer tell when they are getting sound, constructive advice? Not being allowed to repeat mistakes makes good sense, but how is one to know if the mistakes are truly mistakes and not just poor advice?

Uncle Dead Beat can be a little harsh, he knows this. The point is, he's trying to make a point. Of course, not all writing courses are dangeous, but most are (see Writer’s Workshops or How Do We Cope With Gerry?) So find a good workshop with an instructor that knows how to teach critical analysis. Or find a friend that is a good critic. What you are looking for as a writer is a method of knowing what part of the process your writing is within.

Beginning, middle, end? Pre-writing, draft, re-writing? Most writers simply have no idea. Generally they confuse the pre-wriitng stage with the finished product.

A few simple guidelines: When you set out to write, you have no idea what it is you are going to write about. If you think you do, you are wrong and will write something wholly inadquate.

So set out on an adventure to find out what it is you want to write about.

See what transpires and try to make something of it. In other words what is the most interesting thing about this piece of writing? Follow that lead. Rewrite.

Continue with this until a story or poem or whatever has emerged, then ask what is it I have written?

Say it is a story, ask what is the story? Whose story is it?

In other words understand what has emerged and work with this. Create of it what it ought to be.

Does this sound vague? Sure?

You need a method. You need a process.

Writing takes something abstract (emotional) and conveys it to the reader through something concrete (words) producing an abstract response (emotional).

A story or poem or whatever is a vehicle. Just like your old Volkswagon, a vechicle is constructed, and there is a design.

Dead Beat, old engineer that he is likes designs, so learn your engineering.

Ask of me more. Dead Beat has Engineering degrees to hand out by the bucketful.

Why Academia?

Dear Dead Beat,

Why university? And why E.W.U.?

Dear Anonymous,

Dead Beat reached a point where he could not see the woods for the trees (Literary Agony and the Business of Rejection) He deduced that a more academic and crical analysis of his writing was necessary.

Why Eastern Washington University?

Well Dead Beat got a scholarship to the EWU Dublin Summer School and met the inimitable James McAuley (fellow Irish man who helped set up the program) who took a shine to Dead Beat and his work and vice versa. Dead Beat mentioned his interest in a university degree in Creative Writing and Jim promised to put in his two bits for him. Dead Beat was flexible and made the two year journey.

Writing needs this - journies, committment.

Old D. B. is the first to admit, he got lucky. Not just Jim McAuley, a fountain of knowledge, friendship, and educator, but John Keeble. Both have the big picture in mind, the connection between writing and life, life and writing (see
Inventing Constellations in the Black Emptiness and its links)

MFA programs are not for everyone. You need to be strong in voice and style for they will try to change you to a generic writer. But if you have the know how, you can avoid this and make it through and be all the better for it.

Go ahead, in the comment section ask me why?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Knowledge Of Writing

Dear Dead Beat,

Where did you study writing?

Dead Beat is not sure where this question is coming from. If it is purely inquisitory, then the answer is Eastern Washington University. But that tells you nothing. If there is more involved in this question, please come back to me. Everything should add to our knowledge of writing.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Literary Agony and the Business of Rejection

Dear Dead Beat,

I'm in literary agony. I've submitted my manuscript (partial) to several publishers in January and the rejection letters are trickling in. Two pubs requested a full and one sent it back this spring. The other still has it. I rocket between obsessing about the book, to feeling utterly bereft, to imagining a positive outcome that fuels me for a while. I've started writing a new book and I write for a paper so my obsessing hasn't stopped me writing--but what to do? Now I know why so many writers drink. --

Dear Agonised,

You've come to the right place. Uncle Dead Beat has much empathy. This submission business is just one of the many chores of being a writer. The trick is to become detached about it all. Make it the business it is. Do your research well and identify suitable publishers for your work. Much work gets rejected since it is being sent somewhere unsuitable. This can be slow work but do it well. Send out a sample and query letter as you did to a sizeable number of publishers. When the rejections come back, and as you know they surely will, (this is mainly due to the huge quantity of work they are receiving and the few books they can actually publish) simply tick them off your list and find replacement publishers to send your samples to. One in/one out. And keep at it. Don't think about it. It's not personal. It's the reality of the publishing business.

Besides you have done well. Two publishers requested your full manuscript, meaning you have a good sample work and most probably a good query letter. Even if the full manuscript gets rejected, you are further along the line than most. Well done.

If you do all of this and the work is good enough, sooner or later it will find a home.

Rejection is part of the business, and really it is the wrong word. It is far to negative. Your work may be unsutiable for many reasons which have nothing to do with the quality of it.

But on the subject of quality Dead Beat warns all writers out there to be sure their work is really at the stage to be submitted. Again a big proportion of work gets sent back because it is not really at a publishable state. This does not mean that it is not good. It just means it is being sent out too early - when the work is still an early draft. Sometimes as writers we find it hard to notice this, since we are so close to our work we can't see the wood for the trees. So seek advice on your manuscript from someone you can trust who is skilled to give this advice. Rule of thumb if you haven't rewritten your work substantially from the first draft you are most probably nowhere near ready.

So my agonised friend try to see the submissions part of writing as a business with little emotional investment, other than boxes to tick off. Dead Beat has been through his share of this and is still going through the process. The publishing world is vicarious. Even the best of writers can not depend that each book they write will easily find a publisher.

As for writers and drinking I think we need to discuss that over a pint some time, preferably of the black and white sort.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Out to Lunch

Dead Beat will be back in a jiffy. In the meantime you could check out Dead Beat or (another fine writer Dead Beat aspires to grow up to be) - Links to the side

Don't forget to leave your questions in Comments

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Learning the Craft with Bobby Jones

Dear Dead Beat,

Where is the best place to learn one`s craft?

As Captain Jack Sparrow might say, "On the Highe Seas, me Ladee."

Yes indeed, on the high seas of literary learning (see Bricklayers and Surgeons Need Not Apply).

Okay, here's the raw deal. You learn your craft by sitting on your netherparts and writing. But there's a catch. This is a catch most instructors of writing ignore, old Willie F. included.

Now Bobby Jones did not ignore this.

Bobby who? What novel did he write?

Dead Beat says, "Back off Buster, Bobby Jones is a golfer."

From 1923 to 1930 he won thirteen major championships and remains the only player ever to win all four majors in the same year-all before retiring from competitive golf when he was just 28 years old.

Now. Dead Beat says, Get this, he was an amateur.

He was professional in his manner. But not in it for the spondulicks.

So, one day Bobby Jones is on the practice ground watching someone 'practicing'. He drops his head, frowns. "What's the matter?" someone asks.

"He could be practicing for forty years, but it won't make a difference," Jone s says, " he's practicing the same mistakes."

So, my friend, learn your craft by writing, alone at your desk, by your computer screen, whatever, but check that you are not simply repeating your mistakes.

For that, find a friend who truly understands your writing and can critique it adequately(most friends can not do this). Find someone who will not allow you to repeat your mistakes.

Writing Courses can sometimes do this, but they are dangerous.

Writing Groups can sometimes do this but they are dangerous.

Find someone like Dead Beat. He holds you in no high regard like family. He does not ask you to practice, he tells you how.

In other words, write, learn from your mistakes, write, learn from your mistakes, write...

I'm on your side.

Write by yourself, ask someone wise for advice, learn from it and write again....

I won't desert you. This is only the beginning...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Simultaneous Submissions and Dangling Shoestrings

Hi. I'd like to know when it is ok to submit poetry that has been published in book form. In other words, after my book is published by a publishing company, may I submit poems from that book to journals? My other question concerns editors and their strict policies. I have sent my work to journals and have never heard back one way or the other. Yet they don't want simultaneous submissions. Then when I query as to the status they don't answer that either. What right do editors have to say they don't want simultaneous submissions when they treat writers like this? And why can't a poem or story be published in more than one journal anyway?

Frustrated Writer --

Dear Frustrated Writer,

Dead Beat hears you. With regards to submitting poetry already published in book form, the simple but unhelpful answer is that it all depends on your contract. Generally speaking once the poem is published in book form other periodicals would not be interested in it anyway. If an anthology was, then once again, generally, they would seek permission from the publisher.

Here’s Dead Beat’s take. If the poem is already in book form why would you wish to publish it in a magazine? Send them something fresh, another publishing credit to your name.

As for simultaneous submissions - that old bug bear - Dead Beat respects the right of a publisher/editor to insist against this, but that doesn’t mean he has any high regard for any such insistence. In fact in Ireland where Dead Beat originates we have in our Irish language a specific Irish word for ’no simultaneous submissions’ going back to the days of the Bardic tradition - ‘Codswallop’.

Let’s start with publishers of books who insist they don’t want simultaneous submissions - while there may be a practical publishing reason for this (that they may give time in considering a submission that ultimately will go elsewhere) all Dead Beat can say is, ‘so be it.’ Some years back I sent a collection of stories to a publishing house who insisted this way. They took over twelve months to respond. You may have to send to twenty publishers with a fine book of stories to have any success. Do the math. Dead Beat doddering down the road with his age old manuscript under his arthritic arm! From the writer’s point of view this is simply not possible. The practicalities of publishing mean that it can take a long time for publishers to respond to the writer, we can give them this, but then to add the ‘no simultaneous submission’ clause is to give nothing in return.

I feel the same about magazines etc. Now not all publishers or magazine editors are so slow in responding but even the fastest take a substantial quantity of time.

So here’s the choice. Send only to publishers without this stipulation or ignore the ‘codswallop’ and say nothing.

What’s the likelihood of being accepted by two magazines or publishers anyway? What’s the odds of being accepted by one? And even if you were, how difficult is to say you no longer wish to be published there ( but say it politely of course, and don’t mention Dead Beat’s name)?

What about agents? Do they only bring your book to the attention of one publisher? Hmm!

One thing though, Dead Beat has huge respect for most publishers and editors, especially the independent presses. As writers we sometimes do not appreciate the difficulties of operating on a shoestring, so we must give them some leeway. But as publishers they must respect that writers are operating on a shoestring also, sometimes without a shoe to go along.

Dead Beat urges us to unite and dangle our shoestrings together.

Contact Dead beat through the comments box with any questions

Lyres and Truths

Shelley writes:

Dear Dead Beat,What is meant by a lyric poem? I write poetry and someone described one of my poems as lyric.

Dear Shelley,

I like to keep this one real simple in an attempt to keep me out of trouble. Actually it will probably just get me in more trouble from all sorts of cranky customers.

Here goes: Let us divide poetry into two types of poems - lyric and narrative.
Well narrative speaks for itself - it tells a story. Thus a time element is involved. In lyric poetry time is suspended. In other words we reflect or meditate on something e.g ode to a palm top, that sort of thing. We build the poem around the object without a passage of time.

The term ‘lyric’ comes from the musical instrument the lyre. This is where poetry grew from - songs accompanied by the lyre. Thus lyric poems are songlike. They do not try to tell a story but reflect in a more personal manner the feelings and thoughts of the ‘speaker’.

So there you have it Shelley, and let no one tell you otherwise.

Differences Between Point of View

Tom K, writes:

Dear Dead Beat, I mainly write short stories. Sometimes I use first person point and view and sometimes third person but I am unsure about the differences between them. I have looked it up on the web but found it all quite confusing.

Dear Tom K.

The web is surely a confusing place, but that all depends on your point of view (Dead Beat goes deadpan).

As mention in Cranky Meets the Mad Trapper (Dead Beat) point of view may be the most important component of fiction. So your question is more than relevant. And you are right that the answer can be confusing since it is such a complex subject. So let old Uncle Dead Beat bring it back to its basics which is always a good place to start.

First person means we are in the mind of the main character. We are going through what her or she is experiencing.

In third person point of view - we are in the mind of the narrator. To keep it simple we will say we are in the mind of an omniscient narrator (hey, Dead Beat, I thought you said you were going to keep it simple!) An omniscient narrator being an all seeing, all knowing narrator i.e. the narrator can be in the mind of every character in the story.

Thus in first person we are limited to a single point of view. The disadvantage of this is that we only get on side of the story. We have to trust the main character completely that everything he or she says or thinks is accurate. Well when a person is emotionally involved they are very often not as rational as they ought to be. In third person we get other ‘opinions’ on the situation. We see it from a number of sides and get a more complete picture. We may see the situation more ‘truthfully’.

However we are less attached to the story - more detached. We are not as emotionally involved any more. If we are in first person, we go through what the main character is going through. This is why ‘coming of age’ stories are invariably told through first person point of view.

Advantage: This first person, ‘eye witness’ account gives immediacy.
Disadvantage: The narrator has limited knowledge and is biased. Thus the narrator cannot interpret the events as well.

Third person omniscient gives a greater dimension to the story, making it more flexible for the writer and potentially richer for the reader. The disadvantage is the distance created by the omniscient narrator which can come between the reader and the story. Moving from character to character can also affect the unity of the story.

So it comes back to the intention of the story. Is it more important to be in the mind of the main character so that the reader can experience what he or she is going through, or do we want to get a fuller picture of the story with a little distance from the main character?

How do we know? This can be tricky. The main thing is to write a draft of the story taking a shot at point of view. Then look at it and ask the two main questions: 1) What is the story about?; 2) Whose story is it?

Answering these questions can provide the answer to point of view. But that is most probably another question.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Time To Write - A Story of Poets, Dishwashers, and Uneaten Sandwiches

Dear Dead Beat (well okay, so I had to add the Dear Dead Beat myself. Anonymous you obviously don’t understand the protocol here. It’s a psychological thing. It helps me think better. I’ll forgive you this time, but others be warned.)

I am a keen writer, but live a very busy life style and find it hard to get the time to write. Any thoughts or suggestions?

Dear Anonymous (see don’t you feel better already),

I remember taking a poetry workshop many moons ago with one of Ireland’s leading poets Paul Durcan and a similar question arose. One of the participants, a mother of three children, asked Paul about this. She told him how she had to get up early to make breakfasts, school lunches etc. and get her children out to school. Then she headed off to her work. She got home that evening and had more meals to make, all the other household chores. By the time she finished she was exhausted. “I just don’t seem to have the time I need,” she told him.

I remember Paul nodding his head, and then he quietly asked her, “What time do you get up at?”
“Seven o’clock,” she replied.
Paul nodded again. “Well then,” he said, “get up at six.”

The point is well made. If writing means enough for you, you will find the time even if it means getting up an hour earlier in the morning.

Dead Beat remembers another lifetime when he used to design domestic appliances for a living. Dishwashers would you believe it were his speciality. Especially a little one you could fit under the draining board which would transform the life of… Oh well never mind. The fact is I would come home in the evening after a day of designing turbines and soap dispensers and set into my writing late into the night. Weekends were likewise spent at my Olivetti (that will tell you how long ago it was. Dead Beat is showing his age. In fact if the truth be told, it was probably washboards I was designing…) Anyway it seemed to me that I was doing things all wrong - that I should be writing all day and working part-time. And so I bid adieu to my design engineering career and took a risk on writing. Now, Dead Beat is not naive, and understands that a decision like this is not possible for everyone. But I was serious about writing, very serious, and I made the decision to pursue writing as seriously as I wanted.

So how serious are you about writing? If you are serious enough, the time is out there. Mornings, nights, lunch breaks. If it is not so serious, enjoy your sleep and your sandwiches.

Contact Dear Dead Beat Through the Comments to Respond to this Query or to Ask a Question of Your Own

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Dear Dead Beat

Here I am, Uncle Dead Beat. Willing to answer any questions you may have about the writing process. Uncle is not shy so be as forward as you like. My guarantee is that I will answer as honestly as I can in a manner that will lead to the truth, and what more could anyone ask for.

Use the comments section to send in your query.
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