Five Things For Which Life Is Too Short

I am not entirely sure how this post came about, but probably because I’ve been reading several really good novels, and then the inevitable stinker came along. It wasn’t even inevitable, it was self-induced. I knew it was a stinker when I started it. Bah. Life’s too short, thought I. Especially when life (as I know it) could be a whole lot shorter than I realize.

You never know.

Here’s five things life is most likely too short to do:

Long StoryLife is too short for a long story. Don’t you inwardly cringe when someone says, “It’s a long story but…”. To me, this marks the beginning of an upcoming period in my life where I’m going to be irretrievably bored, and will live precious minutes that I can’t get back, listening to something I’d rather not hear. Unrecoverable time. If the long story is a good one then quite possibly the time spent listening to it could be worthwhile, but ninety-nine-point-seven percent of the time, if someone says this, you’d be better off requesting an induced coma.

spongecupLife is too short to drink cheap wine. This is usually said when that first bottle (the one with the label on it which in no way suggests there is wine inside) is first tapped and allowed to “breathe” before dribbling two ounces into paper-thin, stemmed glassware which could hold a twenty-ounce Frostie with room to spare. The burgundy-colored liquid is swirled and examined for “legs”, the aroma breathed in, before that first teeny nip. The one where the lips are pursed on either side of the glass so as to not soil such a delightful accoutrement with anything one might deign to put on one’s lips. Fast forward two hours. Life is now not too short to drink cheap wine, if that’s all that’s left. The guests are now imbibing the more questionable adult beverage from bottles with labels picturing three-headed cows directly from Spongebob Squarepants cups. This after the unforgivable party foul — that of smashing three or four wine goblets during that little ruckus over by the barbecue pit.

TattoosLife is too short to blend in. After closely examining this phrase, it’s probably true. Those of us who are still keeping score — who has the biggest house, who stays in the better hotels, who has the most expensive car, wins — are probably guilty of blending in. To me, this says, don’t do what everyone else does, do your own thing, be different, do the things that cause Le Eyeroll Magnifique. Who wants it written on their tombstone, “Here lies Mary, She Blended In”. Well, actually, no one has shit like that engraved on their tombstone anymore. A lot of people get cremated and don’t even have a tombstone. And if they do have one, they probably prefer pictures of Angels with Wings.

Stuffed mushroomsLife is too short to stuff a mushroom. Some things aren’t worth doing. How much can you put into a mushroom? Just a little bit, and before you can stuff it you have to core the insides out of all those little fungi. It’s important that they be no larger than what can be popped into one’s mouth in toto, lest you squirt mushroom juice directly onto your neighbor’s Gucci cotton-poplin. Pick a different Hors d’oeuvre. Break out the Cheez-its someone, and spare me from having to poke something into a half-inch opening. I don’t have that much tolerance for boredom.

Valley of the doolsLife is too short to read bad novels. Ah, here it is. The justification for this blog post. Last post, I said I was going to read Valley of the Dolls as an example of what not to do. Got about 15% of the way in (one sitting) and decided: Nope, nah, not gonna do it. To deliberately read a novel that you know is bad is kind of like going to an Adam Sandler movie. You know what you’re getting into, yet you do it anyway. Thinking about those hours of my life that I couldn’t get back after I’d read VOTD, and considering I’d read it once before forty-n years ago and thought it was pretty stupid then, isn’t my idea of an intelligent decision on how to spend time. I’d just done that with Fifty Shades, and that writing was on par with this latest attempted read. So, no thanks, Ms. Susann. RIP, but I’m not reading any of your books. I got what I needed from the first ten pages.

Spongebob Photo credit: origami_potato / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Tattoo Photo credit: * raymond / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

On Reading “On Writing”

On WritingStephen King’s “On Writing” has been recommended and suggested so often I finally decided to read it. As with most How To Write books, I bought the actual book. For some reason, I prefer the physical book because they are easier to reference in the future. Or maybe I just like seeing those books sitting on my book shelf, and by virtue of their being there, I feel more like an actual writer.

It was an engaging memoir on writing, of how he, Mr. King, got started and it’s not surprising that he was interested in Sci-fi and horror and the supernatural from the time he was a little kid. It’s filled with humor and a bit of history, but at its heart, it’s a book “On Writing”. Not the usual how-to but a more general discussion of the subject.  It was one of the best books I’ve read on the subject.

A few things I took from it:

Just start writing. Do it every day. Set a goal and Just. Do. It. This is the closed door part. The part where you don’t show anyone what you’ve written. Just get it down. Start with a couple of ideas about what it is to be about, and let the characters take you where they will. Stephen King is a “pantzer” as opposed to a “planner” I think. He didn’t mention making any outlines and seemed to indicate that the work will suffer from too much plotting.

When finished with this, the first draft, put it away for at least six weeks. Do something else. Work on a new project or go fishing. But don’t look at that manuscript once.

After six weeks, pull it out and read through it. Then comes the second draft. It should be at least 10% smaller than the first draft. Take out unneeded junk and fix the other stuff, repeated words and omitted words and any other problems you see.

Here’s the part where we have to take different forks in the road. At this point, Stephen King gives the manuscript to his Ideal Reader (his wife) who gives him her very honest opinion. He listens and mostly agrees and makes the appropriate changes before sending it on to his editor. After that it’s in the agent’s hands I guess, who sells it to a publishing company, or probably sends it on to the same company that published all his other work. They schedule it up for release, and then the money starts rolling in.

It doesn’t work that way for most of us, who are reading On Writing, but nevertheless, the book is very educational, and is also encouraging. It’s worth reading.

Some other information I found useful:

Writers can be grouped into something like the Four Food Group Pyramid. The bottom and largest group are the bad writers. They have no talent for it, their interests lie in other areas. Give them all the creative writing classes in the world and they will still suck.

Up a level and the next largest group are the competent writers, all those at the office who can compose emails with proper sentences and punctuation, and then the good writers, those who write and actually make money at it and then — Ta Da! —  the genius writers. Those in their own class, born not made, “divine accidents”. You know who they are, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner. (My favorite author, Jonathan Franzen, comes to mind.)

Is it possible to move from one group to another? Sometimes. The bad writers usually remain in their own basement of horridness, unable to claw their way upwards to a more respectable level but the competent writers can evolve upward into the good writers’ group with the proper amount of practice. Not training, practice. Mr. King does not specifically say that education is not necessary. To the contrary, a degree in English is an excellent way to launch a successful career, and Creative Writing classes and workshops can be fun and interesting, but not required.

Whatcha gotta do then, is get a schedule and stick to it, and write your brains out for the allotted amount of words per day. Not time, words. If it takes three hours to crank out 2,000 words on Tuesday and seven on Wednesday, sobeit. Eventually you will get better. And better and better.

Another thing. When you aren’t writing, read. Read everything. It’s what I’ve been doing lately. There is a suggested reading list in the back of On Writing. I chose three at random, and one from my list of classics to read before the end of 2012 (that didn’t work out too well, replace with “2013”). I also chose a book by Stephen King, The Dead Zone, because it is one of his older ones, and less science fiction-y than some, since this and horror in general are not my usual genre.

He also suggests reading a really awful book. Reading bad books is as helpful as reading good ones. Reading something you consider a real eye-roller serves a couple of purposes. First, it enforces the idea that you can at least write as well as this author, and it is a powerful reminder of what NOT to do. I chose Valley of The Dolls, by Jacqueline Suzanne. In fact, this book is mentioned in On Writing as a good example of literature of questionable value.

Ms. Suzanne reaped in plenty of profits with her tome. I first read it back in the sixties, but want to read it again with a more finely-tuned writer’s eye. If nothing else, it will provide a funny blog post. It brings to mind, 50 Shades of Grey which I blogged about earlier this year. Books like this may have changed over the years, but the premise is still there. Bring on the smut and they’ll keep readin’.  Why read a novel that is filled with deep characters, thoughtful descriptions and believable dialogue when I can get a trip back into the Red Room of Pain?

Here’s my complete reading list for the next month (or so):

  • End of Story by Peter Abrahams
  • One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
  • The Last Good Day by Peter Blauner
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Suzanne