Keeping a Commonplace Book

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I love commonplace books; the most recent entry in my own is from the photographer Alfred Stieglitz: “Nearly right is child’s play.” —Michael Dirda

When I was eleven, my godmother gave me a hardcover notebook. Inside the front cover, she wrote: “It can be a diary, whatever you like!” It turned into whatever I liked.

The first surviving page—there are several torn out at the beginning, evidence of false starts made before I figured out what use to put the book to—is a list of potential character names: first names on one side, last names on the other. There are also lists of Likes (cities, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, reading uncensored books), Dislikes (being serious, snow, people who borrow stuff permanently), Quotes (‘three can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead’), Vocab (made-up or repurposed words a la Urban Dictionary), amongst others. These lists weren’t created all at once, but compiled over years, added to one or two items at a time. My favorite of these is the one titled Words, a list of words I liked, often more for their sound than their meaning: eclectic, elfin, exquisite, eloquent; crinkly, quirk, corrupt, cajole; shimmery, psyche, sepulchral, sinuous. Others seem more prophetic or insightful: scribe, judicial, introspective, and provocative (twice).

In my book, I also copied out song lyrics (painstakingly transcribed while pressing play-rewind repeatedly), poems I read at school, bits of creative writing from English classes. Some fragments are typed (how 2012!) and pasted in. There are clippings from magazines and newspapers—and, naturally, no shortage of Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Teenage Angst Poetry. I did fancy myself a writer, after all.

Though I did include some of my own writing in the book, these were pieces I either considered finished (that I’d revised and polished) or that were like the word version of those snapshots that seemed like a good idea at the time (you know the ones I mean), but now not so much. It wasn’t my journal—I had a separate notebook for that, and it wasn’t a writer’s notebook—I kept my writing projects, such as they were, in a binder. Though I didn’t know it at the time, what I had created was commonplace book.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Commonplace Books: The Basics

While the lyrics to eighties pop songs probably won’t be consulted for their wisdom in a hundred years, teenage me did have the basics of commonplacing down: find things that are meaningful to you and collect them, over time, in a book—eventually creating a sort of a textual collage.

Commonplace books have elements in common with journals/diaries, writer’s notebooks, and scrapbooks, but are their own distinctive genre. A commonplace book might include some of the commonplacer’s own thoughts and observations, but unlike a journal/diary, which typically consists of narrative entries written in chronological order, a commonplace book is non-narrative and non-chronological. Ideas are typically organized under headings rather than by date.

A commonplace book tends to be both less impulsive and less practical than a writer’s notebook. Entries into a commonplace book are usually made with some forethought—a particular pen, an attention to neatness—unlike a writer’s notebook in which fleeting thoughts are scribbled, often illegibly. A writer’s notebook is often kept with specific projects in mind, whereas commonplaced ideas are collected more for their intrinsic value—knowledge for knowledge’s sake—than any immediate practical purpose.

Clippings and photographs might be pasted into a commonplace book, but unlike a scrapbook, which is outward-facing—the curated version of the scrapbooker’s life they want to present to others—a commonplace book is inward-facing. It is either completely private, or at least designed with one reader in mind: the author/curator him or herself. As such, a commonplace book tends to be more honest and personal than a scrapbook.

Traditional Commonplace Books

Historically, a commonplace book was a handwritten notebook, a place to store quotations, ideas, reading notes, scraps of conversation, etc. for future reference.

[Commonplace] books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests. —Wikipedia

[Commonplace Book], [late 17th Century]Photo Credit: Beinecke Flickr Laboratory

Commonplace bookScholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. —Steven Johnson
Photo Credit: vlasta2

 

MS Eng 584 (1)A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories;” and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his. —Jonathan Swift
Photo Credit: John Overholt

 

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. … early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. —Robert Darnton, The Case for Books (149-150)

Here, Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, discusses how Charles Darwin’s commonplace book was influential in his formulation of the theory of evolution:


(clip length: 3:00m)

This Harvard exhibit on note-taking includes scans of several handwritten (manuscript) commonplace books that you can flip through to see what they were like, and here’s an example of a nineteenth-century commonplace book that was published in print form:

Writers’ Commonplace Books

Many well-known writers kept commonplace books. Here’s a list of a few of them. Since most of these are out of print, the links are to WorldCat, which will show you what libraries near you have copies of the books.

Modern Commonplace Books

It might seem like commonplace books are a thing of the past; after all, who picks up a pen to write anymore? Why bother to transcribe text when it’s so easy to copy/paste? But a quick websearch shows they are alive and well.

Commonplace Book (Moleskine Foldout)Photo Credit: Chris Lott

76th of 2nd 365: A turned down corner in my previous commonplace bookI keep what I now realise is a commonplace book. A constant stream of notebooks—except most of my own notes go straight onto a keyboard these days … so the books are where everyone else’s notes go: notes on talks, and pages copied out of books. A lot of these. This is how I think. —James Bridle
Photo Credit: Tim Regan

 

The large version of my notebookRilke in my Commonplace Book[A commonplace book is] a means of collecting and storing all those bits of information that make our lives interesting. It could be a photo, an essay, or a quote. Regardless, it’s important information that you want to mark and save for later. Sharing things in my corner of the web makes them also form a part of my identity. What I share, to a large extent, is who I am. It’s how I communicate with you even if I’m not able to talk to you everyday. The destruction of a sharing service means I would also lose the ability to flip back through a history of my thought. Those long-forgotten hunches would stay forgotten and lost to history. Without a commonplace book that you control you’re gambling your ability to learn and grow from your current actions. —Andrew Spittle
Photo Credits: (top) George Redgrave
(bottom) Winston Hearn

 

Pages from my Commonplace BookKeep a commonplace book, inspiration board, scrapbook, or catch-all box to keep track of ideas and images. Not only do such collections help you remember thoughts, they create juxtapositions that stimulate creativity. My catch-all happiness document for happiness is 500 pages long, single-spaced. When I need a mental jolt, I just skip around and read random sections. It always helps. —Gretchen Rubin
Photo Credit: Jason Helzer

David Shields’s recent book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, takes the form a commonplace book: a series of quotes from various sources compiled together and interspersed with his own thoughts. The controversial twist was that he removed all attribution from the quotes so there was no way to tell who wrote what, unless you were previously familiar with a quote or style of writing—or you flipped to the appendix his publisher made him include (and that he urged readers to tear out).

The American Scholar has a digital commonplace book with quotes collected around themes such as blame, grief, and gratitude.

Why Keep a Paper Commonplace Book in the 21st Century?

Several years ago, in “Poetry 101: Getting Started,” I wrote, “[W]rite poems you like out longhand. When you do this, you’ll find your hand moving as the poet’s did, your breath as the poet’s did. You slide inside the poem and it becomes yours if only for a moment. Keep a notebook, and copy into it poems that inspire you, that make you want to write. When the book’s full, you’ll have your very own personalized anthology—one that isn’t just good reading, but is a document of your growth as a poet.”

This advice was based on my own experience keeping such a notebook—in reality, a very traditional commonplace book in which I only copied poems and quotes from things I was reading. But at some point, I stopped adding to my book. For a while, I kept quotations in a Word document, and then on my Geocities website (RIP). These days, quotes I like end up on my blog, which is fine—it’s efficient and allows me share them with others—but I can’t help feel doesn’t have the same weight that the book did. Writing quotes out by hand, instead of copy/pasting, forces you to slow down and really pay attention to the words rather than skimming.

“[T]here are still good reasons for writers to keep commonplace books the old-fashioned way. In copying by hand a masterful construction from another writer, we can inhabit the words, grasp their rhythms and, with some luck, learn a little something about how good writing is made. —Danny Heitman

[T]he key thing was to write the words in your own hand — by this means, by laboriously and carefully copying out the insights of people smarter than you, you could absorb and internalize their wisdom. Call it osmosis-by-handwriting. …When I post quotations and images to my tumblelog I suppose I’m succumbing to the temptation to cheat: I’m not writing anything out by hand; I’m not even typing the words … I’m just copying and pasting, which is nearly frictionless. I don’t have to think about whether I really want to record a passage or image: if it’s even vaguely or potentially interesting, in it goes. I might not even read it with care, much less give it the kind of attention that would be required if I were to write it out by hand.
Alan Jacobs

Commonplacing was a means of more deeply internalizing an author’s words, as its early practitioners often pointed out. It was a sign of attentiveness, of profound engagement with text. The cutting and pasting, or mashing up, that we do online today tends to be much more cursory and superficial—it’s done with a couple of mouse clicks rather than with the painstaking retracing of a passage in longhand. And what’s cut-and-pasted is rarely kept in the way that the passages in commonplace books were kept. (Rewriting a passage was often the first step in a process of memorization.) With cutting-and-pasting, the words remain external; we borrow them, briefly, rather than making them our own. —Nick Carr

There’s something important about exploring ideas privately as well as collectively. Indeed, there’s something about promiscuous online bookmarking and highlighting that seems antithetical to commonplacing. Because the real challenge of handling stray nuggets of information isn’t how to collect and organise them … Commonplacing is about internalising that information: engaging deeply, processing it so that it becomes part of you. Writing by hand seems to help; so does not instantly sharing everything. If the web is a wild, furiously creative ecosystem—a rainforest, say—the commonplace book is a private vegetable patch. Different things grow best in each. —Oliver Burkeman

Ideas for Keeping a Commonplace Book

Traditional Options

If you decide to start a traditional notebook as your commonplace book, consider how you write (e.g. do you have tiny, neat printing or sprawling, loopy cursive?). A small notebook can fit in a pocket, making it easy to take with you, but if you don’t have tiny handwriting, you might find it frustrating to use. Also think about your personal preferences and how you plan to use the book. If you hate it when your handwriting slopes up the page at angle, you’ll probably want to choose a lined notebook rather than an unlined one. If you’d like to illustrate your quotes, think about choosing a sketchbook rather than traditional notebook.

  • The I’m-not-ready-for-commitment option: index cards in a box. Easy to shuffle around if you change your mind about what heading to put a quote under and if you make a mistake, no worries. Toss the card and try again.
  • The environmentally-friendly DIY option: make your own commonplace book with scrap paper. Here’s a tutorial.
  • The old standby option: Moleskine journals.
  • The splurge option: invest in a leather journal. Here’s one example from Chapters (bookstores are a good place to look for journals/notebooks), and an indie version from Etsy.

Digital Options

If you know a notebook is just not going to work for you—maybe you really hate your handwriting or it’s completely illegible—but you think there might be some merit to keeping a private commonplace book, here are some offline and/or private digital alternatives that are superior to a neverending Word document.

Online Options

Finally, here are some public options for those of you who crave the social in social media. I’ve included some very non-traditional alternatives here, to illustrate that you can create a commonplace book almost anywhere.

  • A blog, such as WordPress or Tumblr, is the most versatile online option. Both give you the option of quoting, linking, sharing photos and video—as well as liking and reblogging others’ posts.
  • Delicious. Use the “description” box to copy a quote from the page you’re bookmarking.
  • Goodreads. Add quotes to “Quotes You Like” or like ones already added by other users. You can arrange your quotes in any order.
  • Twitter. Make use of retweets and favorites, as well as tweeting your own thoughts.
  • Pinterest. Here’s the board Baker started for Toasted Cheese, which includes illustrated quotations and writing humor. The limitation of Pinterest is that pins must include an image, but if you find inspiration in the visual as well as the textual, this might be an option for you.
  • Flickr. Another visually-oriented option. Favorites can reveal themes over time, as I realized when I looked at my page. Once you’ve identified a theme, you can use a gallery to collect images based on it. In galleries, there’s a space for adding text to each photo you select. Here are galleries of old books, people sleeping in libraries, empty spaces (shows how text can be added to the left of the images), and illustrated quotes.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to a single option. You can keep both a private book and a public blog or a text-focused commonplace and a more visual one. The beauty of the commonplace book is that it’s your book—you can make it whatever you like.

Final Poll Results

Imaginable Horror

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror.
Apocalpyse Now; screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola; based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness

Horror fiction might seem to be everywhere these days, from prime time TV to sparkling vampires. Truth is that horror is probably the oldest form of genre fiction. Some of the earliest English-language fiction has horror elements. Today’s Young Adult sections are full of horror-tinged series (and have been as long as “young adult” has been on the shelf). Horror is for everyone, to some degree.

Think of early short stories, novels, and films. Horror is almost always the first genre storytellers use (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Frankenstein, short 19th century films by Georges Méliès). It hits us at our most primal points, which is why horror so often uses or implies sexuality as well as the horror itself. The Count Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel is hardly a romantic figure but the metaphor of vampiric possession as sexual awakening has caused the character and his ilk to evolve into Byronesque figures. Gary Oldman’s “old” Dracula in the Francis Ford Coppola film is closer to the novel’s description while his “young” Prince Vlad is what audiences responded to and closer to how vampires are portrayed on screen and page today.

Horror binds us together, like the group of kids who have to work together to defeat a boogey man or the humans who work as a team to defeat the invading aliens. We’re all on one side and the horror is on the other.

Passed down for generations, horror stories and urban legends serve as warnings that serve to protect or inform. The story of “Dead Man’s Curve” can remind a teen driver to slow down when you get to that spot the locals call “Devil’s Elbow.” Don’t forget: if you go parking with your sweetheart, you’re likely to get home and find a hook hanging from the car door handle. Listen around a campfire of elementary-aged scouts and you’ll hear tales of mysterious creatures that lurk in the very woods around you.

What is horror?

Horror is written to scare, horrify, or unsettle the reader (see our Writer’s Glossary). There’s no set of rules for antagonists, situations, etc. Horror can be subjective simply because what frightens Reader #1 might not frighten Reader #2. You’re not even limited by your ending; it can be upbeat (they get away!) or downbeat (they all become cyberzombies!).

Your objective as a horror writer should be to get into your reader’s gut as well as her mind. The most successful horror stories literally haunt the reader, sometimes to the point where the reader is torn between walking away to regroup versus finishing a compelling story.

You can say anything with horror. You can speak out about a social issue, give advice, correct a slight, live out a fantasy—all the things you say with any type of fiction writing. You can put any other element with horror—think romance or humor, for example—and it will work. These two examples work particularly well with horror because they are so basic to humanity.

I was taught (in health class of all places) that there are really only three human emotions and that everything else falls under them: love, anger, and fear. Sounds like the building blocks for a horror story, doesn’t it? Don’t feel that your horror story—or the characters in it—is limited to only expressing horror. Horror is the chilled spine around which your story wraps. Your characters can express love, joy, anger, and desire all while experiencing fear, uncertainty, or even madness.

Horror, above all other genres, is about humanity. Horror forces humanity to face its one commonality: mortality. When we write horror, we hold that mirror up to humanity and force it not only to acknowledge but to accept the fact of mortality.

What horror fiction isn’t is a story with horror elements stuck in for fun. Horror readers are a fun and generous lot but they can spot this in a second (as can editors).

Understand the reader

Like all genre fans, horror readers have expectations that should be met. With horror, this is particularly tricky as people—including editors—define horror in myriad ways. Some readers love “splatter” horror with lots of gore and violence whereas other readers despise a horror story that wants to look like a blood-soaked film.

The best rule of thumb is true for horror as much as any other type of fiction: write what you would want to read. If you’re writing to publish, horror journals and anthologies will provide guidelines for you to let you know if your story is right for them.

As is true in all fiction: show; don’t tell. This is especially true in horror. Horror won’t work if you tell the reader he should be scared. Your goal is to weave a tale that gets under his skin and makes it crawl. Bring your reader along for a thrilling ride rather than put on a show for him to watch.

Different things are scary to different people

My six-year old son has innate fear of spiders. He’s not a fan of bugs in general but the very mention of a spider will send him screaming from the room. As a Florida native, I have yet to meet the bug that creeps me out (and am therefore the designated bug killer in the household). So I could read Charlotte’s Web and be fine whereas my son would consider it a horror story.

This isn’t to say we can’t identify with the horror (Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong). You’re not limited to the victim’s point of view when writing horror. Using the horror as a narrator or empathetic element could be chilling for your reader.

One of the guidelines we have in Dead of Winter every year is not to use clichéd monsters as the antagonist in a story. We have seen too many vampires, werewolves, zombies, and people who don’t know they’re dead. It’s not that we don’t like these horror baddies; it’s just that they’re so rarely fresh. We’ve found that ghosts, for example, seem to get writers to be more creative simply because there’s no standard definition of “ghost.” If you want to use these classics, think of new ways to present them. It’s fine if your vampires sparkle in the sunlight. To some people it’s ridiculous but to some it’s a fresh take and a long overdue addition to vampiric canon. The Incredible Hulk is a variation on a werewolf. Think outside the Universal Horror films when you’re deciding what these creatures are in the world you’re creating.

Bad choices

Bad choices are essential to move fiction forward, especially in horror. Why else would the teenager, knife clutched in her trembling fist, continue up the stairs toward the boogey man instead of simply running to the neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1? Because her bad choice not only moves the story forward but it also triggers our protective instinct. Then again, jaded readers might think that if you’re making an obvious bad choice you deserve what you get, Character. But what if there is no good choice? Make sure your characters have reasons—or at least excuses—for what they do.

As the creator, you get to choose what’s in the darkness beyond each fork in the road. Maybe your character hears scratching at the window. He can decide to investigate or to hide deeper in the house. If he goes to the window, he could be attacked or distracted. If he hides, he could become trapped.

So long as your characters are active and resourceful, you can keep a reader along for the ride. If your characters are idiots, your readers might stay with them but start rooting for them to meet their ends. If you’ve ever watched a lazily-written horror film with a group of people, you’ll find the tide turning toward the horror picking off the weak rather than rooting for the potential victims to get away.

One way horror writers get off the hook with characters’ choices is that our characters’ decisions don’t necessarily have to be rational or realistic due to the fear clouding their judgment. This might happen in other types of genre fiction (for example, a character making a poor choice due to being blinded by love) but horror readers tend to be forgiving because this fits in with human nature. Making bad choices is part of human nature as well (see any daytime talk show or court show) and when you compound them with being made under the duress of fear, you can get away with a lot.

Don’t forget that your horror—be it a monster or a vague sense of unease—is also a character. It has motivations, limits, choices, and what it does is under your control. Think of what the horror wants, what it will do to get it, and what the stakes are should it fail or succeed.

What to show and not to show

When Bruce the animatronic shark didn’t function properly, Jaws director Steven Spielberg had to come up with a way to have a shark in his shark movie. So the shark was represented by its dorsal fin, by an actress whose character’s demise opens the film (she was pulled back and forth by ropes below the water), and by yellow barrels jetting across the surface of the sea. Spielberg later said, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen.” In other words, the shark—the horror—became scarier because it existed in each audience member’s imagination rather than being onscreen.

All horror readers expect to be frightened or disturbed. One advantage written horror fiction has over horror films and TV is that we can draw as little or as much of the horror as we like, allowing readers to fill in the blanks. Think of how your mental picture of a character changes once a film of the book comes out. We have every physical detail of the character filled in.

There’s a word for horror that shows violent detail: spatter/splatter. If that’s what you want to write there’s no shortage of journals whose editors and readers love it. That said, don’t assume that all readers want blood and guts strewn across the page. There’s more to horror than that. Even within the fanbase, there are degrees and limits as to what people want to experience.

Can you go too far in horror? Ask yourself if anything is “too far” in any kind of fiction. If you fear where your story wants to go, follow it. Don’t worry about being able to shine a bright light into dusty corners. It’s more interesting if you’re on the last hurrah of a weak set of batteries.

So how do I start?

Writers get inspired in a lot of ways, especially horror writers. A horror writer could find inspiration in an antique shop, a bakery, a pet store, an insurance office.

Write what you find frightening. Someone else is also frightened by it. It could be spiders, clowns, or pocket squares. Write it well and when you get uncomfortable, push further into that discomfort. It’s fun to scare yourself and how often do you get the opportunity?

Horror hinges on humanity. The horror can be as fantastic as you can imagine but it should touch something in the soul of the reader. Horror can be as fantastic as your imagination allows so long as it has a root in genuine humanity to anchor it to our world and to your reader.

Horror is about choices, reactions, and fear. Stakes may be high or low. The monsters may be without or within. Horror is the human condition at its most vulnerable. Horror readers accept that vulnerability, going along for a roller coaster of a ride. Part of your job as a horror writer is to make them feel like once the ride is done, there’s something following them home.

Final Poll Results

Point of View: The Director’s Cut

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

Most writers are familiar with the various points of view. First person, the “I” view, is the most intimate. The story is narrated by the point of view character. The first person character is often, but not always, the main character of the story. Second person, which is the least used, is the “you” view. This casts a character known to the narrator, or sometimes even the reader, as an intimate recipient of the story. The third person point of view is the “he/she” point of view—it is an external point of view. (For more on the basics of point of view, see “Point of View: Who’s Telling Your Story?“)

Many people wrestle with what point of view is best for the story they want to tell. Usually they can get it down to “first, second, or third” by feel or experimentation. As they work with the story, they get a sense of which point of view is better for that story than the others.

I’d like to offer a different way of approaching the various points of view. What if you thought of your story like a play that was being staged, or a movie you were filming? What would the points of view be? Could using this analogy help identify which one is most appropriate for the job, especially when it comes to picking which of the various third person points of view are available?

Because first and second person point of views are not easily adaptable for stage and screen, I’ll just touch on them briefly. Movies that are filmed through a character’s eyes or camera, such as The Blair Witch Project, are a reasonable equivalent to first person. The only action the audience sees is what the camera character sees. Everything else has to be found out through other characters. Plays in which the audience members are directly addressed by the characters have some aspects of second person point of view.

The stage/screen analogy works best when considering the various third person points of view. The difference between the three is similar to the difference between the actor’s view, the audience’s view, and the director’s view.

Tight Third Person: The Actor’s View

Tight third is an exterior view that is heavily rooted in a specific character. It’s almost like first person, in that the actions, the interpretations, and the exposed thoughts all belong to the main viewpoint character—the writer just uses third person to describe it. Here is an example of tight third from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn.

Miles woke in a blink to broad daylight, a canvas roof, and a curious feline face staring into his from a cat’s breath away. Glad to discover that the weight on his chest was not some alarming new medical condition, he lifted the three-legged beast off and gingerly sat up. Post-drug headache, check. Fatigue, check. No screaming angels, double-check and an exclamation point or two. His vision seemed clear of all unrealities, and his surroundings, though odd, were not out of any nightmare he owned.

You can think of writing tight third as writing the story as if you had an actor’s view of a play. A good actor will get so into the character’s head that the actor will view all the action in the same way the character would. The actor is not the character, but is filtering everything he or she does through the character. If you are writing tight third, you need to do the same work as the actor. You have to get into the main viewpoint character, and see the world through that character’s eyes. You aren’t writing as the character (that would be first person), but as the person playing the character.

In general, you would expect an actor to be the same character throughout an entire scene of action. The same holds true for tight third point of view. An actor usually views a scene through one specific character. The actor (and thus the character) doesn’t truly know what other actors (and characters) are thinking, only what they are saying and doing. They can guess at others’ thoughts, but they cannot know. The same restrictions apply to a tight third POV character.

If an actor stops acting like their own character, and starts acting like a different character in the scene, this would really confuse the audience. The same thing happens to your audience when you switch tight third POV characters in the middle of a scene. Let your inner actor/writer play out the same part until the scene is finished. But just as an actor can play dual roles, and be another character in another scene, you can focus on a different character—just be that other character, and only that other character, in a new scene.

Objective Third: The Audience’s View

Objective third is much as it sounds: an objective view of what is going on. You present actions and dialogue, but you don’t get into the character’s heads at all. The reader has to infer what the thoughts are from what is presented. The example of objective third below is from The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. ‘I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. I have paid.’ His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. ‘They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.’ He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment, he spoke again.

‘Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’

‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory! Be at peace! Minas Tirath shall not fail!’

Boromir smiled.

‘Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?’ said Aragorn

But Boromir did not speak again.

Notice how everything is external. You aren’t privy to anything that an outsider watching the scene couldn’t observe. You can think of objective third stories as stories that are told from the point of view of an audience member who is watching a play or movie. The audience can see what happens to all the characters as they play out their scenes. They are not limited to one viewpoint or one set of mental interpretations. Objective third offers a broader view of what is going on in the story.

But it’s also a less intimate view. The audience can’t see the all the work the actor put in, the motivations, the thoughts. They can only see the results: the words, the way they are spoken, the body language, the actions, the interactions. Everything else has to be inferred. If you are choosing between tight and objective third, consider whether you want to sacrifice the intimate view for wider access to the broader picture.

Omniscient Third: The Director’s View

Omniscient third is a point of view where the reader can know anything—they are not limited to the actions of the characters, or limited the head of only one character. With omniscient third, you can describe events that none of the characters witnessed, or show emotions or inner thoughts of multiple characters in a scene. Here is an example of omniscient third, taken from Leave it to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse. Note that there is no scene break between the paragraphs below, and the two characters end up interacting with each other before the end of the scene.

With an aching sense of what might have been he thought now of his lost Lizzie. Regretfully he admitted to himself that she had always been the brains of the firm. A certain manual dexterity he had no doubt possessed, but it was ever Lizzie who had been responsible for the finer work. If they still had been partners, he really believed that she could have discovered some way of getting round the obstacles which had reared themselves now between himself and the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble. It was in a humble and contrite spirit that Edward Cootes proceeded on his way to Market Blandings.

Miss Peavey, meanwhile, who, it will be remembered, was moving slowly along the road from the Market Blandings end, was finding her walk both restful and enjoyable. There were moments, it has to be recorded, when the society of her hostess and her hostess’s relations was something of a strain to Miss Peavy; and she was glad to be alone.

Omniscient third is the director’s view of the story. The director is aware of everything on some level—what motivates all the characters, everything that is going on both on and off stage, the inner workings of the scene. Think of the director’s commentary that accompanies the movie on a DVD: “I wanted him to be really mad in this scene.” “At this point, she realizes that he’s not coming back. It was a devastating performance.” “We cut a scene where the town got razed. He’s just hearing about that now, but she already knows about it.” The director’s view enhances the audience view, providing more insight into what is going on, and what has gone on that the audience didn’t see.

Omniscient third is much more remote than tight third. You are told about the characters’ thoughts, but you don’t really experience those thoughts from the inside. The director is aware of the actor’s motivation for a scene, but not as deeply involved in the scene as the actor is. It is this distance that enables the writer to dip in and out of the heads of multiple characters in a scene. Omniscient third, when done properly, is less jarring than switching tight third points of view midstream. Readers are following along inside the head of the narrator, rather than the head of a character. So they are looking at the scene from a more complete perspective than they would be in a tight third story. With a tight third, on the other hand, the narrator takes a back seat to the character perspective, so shifts are much more unsettling. However, many readers still find the shifts confusing, and omniscient third is used much less frequently than it used to be.

Which View is for You?

Each point of view provides a different atmosphere, and serves a different narrative feel. They also present different expectations for the reader. With tight third, the reader is very involved with the point of view character, and can feel the story along with him or her rather than just watching it. With objective third, there is much more the reader has to infer about what’s inside the characters, but the reader has access to more of the overall vision. With omniscient third, you are taking the reader behind the scenes as they watch the show.

When you are choosing a third person point of view, think of how you want to tell the story. Are you following a character, getting into his or her head? Then stick with tight third, and be the actor for that character. Are you telling the story as whole, and staying out of people’s heads? Think like an audience member, and use objective third. Or do you need to be in complete control of all the action, all the thoughts? Then be a director, and use omniscient third.

Final Poll Results

Remembering to Read

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I read all the time. Twitter feeds, Facebook posts by the hundreds, forum posts, blogs, and emails. All day long, I’m reading something. It’s usually short, but informative. I take in a lot of facts, funnies, inspirations, and news.

As a writer, I’m learning to be brief. I’m learning how to write in fewer words than ever before. Learning how to read and absorb information and extrapolate facts from small blurbs and quotes. Learning how to get my point across without embellishments.

A co-worker started reading a book series that had been made into a television program. Because I knew the program, I was interested in the book and asked her how she liked them. She said it was her second time to read the series, which is twelve books long, and while she did watch the television show, the books were impressive, vastly different, and far richer than it could hope to be.

Talking to her, I realized I hadn’t read a book in well over a year. I tried to remember the last book I’d read, and I couldn’t. I tried to remember why I’d stopped reading and realized that I was “too busy” reading the quick and easy posts and tweets to spend time on a novel.

As a child, I would use books to escape reality and slip into worlds of magic and beauty. I would carry them with me everywhere and was ridiculed for having them. I would become so engrossed that I would skip meals and forget to go to bed on time and work the next day as if I’d spent the night drinking.

Another friend and I discussed the series of books one day, led there by discussing the television show, and she said she would send them to me. Expecting this to be a long time, I was surprised when a box full of the series arrived at my door. I eagerly took the first one and started reading. As I moved along in the first book I remembered what I had been missing.

The rich world of the written word is very different from the small blurbs we’re bombarded with each day on the Internet. I had forgotten how much fun it is to become immersed in a good story. As I’m reading, I’ll back up over passages I liked and read them again. I’ll savor a superb word, a handy turn-of-phrase, or take the time to draw the scene in my mind. I find I’m engrossed in the characters, the situations, and the world of the author.

As a writer, I find I’m also looking at it with a critical eye, too. I’ll read passages that didn’t sound right or that had an unexpected angle and go back again to try to find what was different and why. As a writer, I’m looking at what worked and why, and analyzing the word choices and differences in vocal presentations from each character.

Because it’s a series, I also have the opportunity to return to a previous book to refresh my mind on what came before. I can look at how the author got from one point to another and try to see his pattern and thought process. I look at his plot points and philosophies as they move from one novel to the next and try to guess where the next one will come in the book I’m on.

I found myself looking at what the author had to do to sell the series. How he had an idea for the first book which carried into the second and then changed drastically for the third. I lamented about his constant repeating what came before in the beginning chapters of each book… and how it’s rather annoying to read, since it’s longer each time, but I understand that he needs to do this in order to sell the book as a standalone.

As a writer, it’s important to read books and stay current. To know what is selling in your chosen field or genre and to see what new ideas are out there. You can read anything, of course, and be happy and enjoy it while still keeping the writer within happy. My editor with the Big Red Pen is happy to find a typo or a missing word anywhere, in any novel. She’s equally happy drawing a big moon, a forest, and a guy with a sword.

Keep your inner editor happy and read something. Grab or download a new novel that was released this week. If that’s too much for your busy life, there are great pieces showcased here at Toasted Cheese and many other online magazines. Heck, just pick up an old favored friend and take a trip down memory lane. Take your writing self on a little reading vacation!


Lisa “Boots” Olson is currently reading the Legend of the Seeker or Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind and is on book 10 of 12, Chainfire. (There are actually more than this and he adds them all the time.)

Final Poll Results

We’re NOT Bored:
Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Debbie Ridpath Ohi with I'm Bored book

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a Toronto-based writer and illustrator. Her illustrations appear in I’m Bored, a picture book written by Michael Ian Black that’s being published by Simon and Schuster this fall. I’m Bored recently received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Debbie also has an illustrated short story included in TOMO, a Japan teen fiction anthology (Stone Bridge Press, March 2012) whose proceeds will benefit young people affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Author of The Writer’s Online Marketplace (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001), Debbie’s nonfiction, fiction and poetry has also appeared in numerous print and online venues including Magic Tails (co-written short story with Michelle Sagara West, DAW Books 2005), Cottage Life, Applied Arts, Harp Column, Writer’s Digest and others.

Debbie was the creator and editor of Inkspot and Inklings, one of the very first websites and electronic newsletters for writers.

Debbie’s current projects include her own picture books, a teen novel that was nominated for the 2011 Sue Alexander Award, a compilation of her comics for writers, and a nonfiction book about board gaming.

As if that wasn’t enough, Debbie is also a talented musician and songwriter. In her spare time, she writes songs for and performs with Urban Tapestry, a filk music trio. (What’s filk? Click here.) Their songs have aired on national radio and are available on CD and in digital format.

We here at Toasted Cheese were very excited to talk to Debbie about her writing, illustrating, and experiences in the publishing industry.

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Debbie Ridpath Ohi: I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first chapter book when I was in second grade. It had illustrations and was written in pencil, and I was so very proud of the fact that I used the word “horrendous,” which I had carefully looked up in Roget’s thesaurus before including it in my story. Unfortunately, I misspelled it, so the teacher wasn’t nearly as impressed as I had hoped she would be.

TC: How did you make the decision to take the leap from having a regular full-time job into freelance writing?

Life in a Nutshell: I'm Bored Process

DRO: With the help of my husband. Jeff was my boyfriend back then, when I was a programmer/analyst at the head office of a big Canadian bank. I used to wake up around 5 AM every morning, get dressed up in my business suit and head to the office, briefcase in hand. As time passed, I would stay longer and longer at the office. Then I began working weekends.

I loved programming, but I felt like I was working on a very small cog of a huge machine (in terms of our programming projects) … a stark contrast to the creativity involved in programming assignments in school. I also wasn’t used to all the corporate bureaucracy, with intimidating stacks of forms and memos and meetings involved in what seemed like every small decision.

Anyway, Jeff was full witness to my gradual progression from optimistic enthusiasm to frustration to misery. One day, he offered to support me so I could find a happier path.

After some intense discussions with Jeff, I resigned from my position and embraced the freelance life.

In addition to freelance writing, I also earned money in a number of different jobs along the way, including working in a public library and in a children’s bookstore.

TC: Your writing career began in nonfiction. Was it difficult to transition into writing fiction?

DRO: My first writing sale was actually in fiction: a short story for Hobnob magazine (now defunct). I was paid US$10 and won their Reader’s Choice Award; I never cashed the cheque because I wanted to keep it.

I’ve always been writing fiction, though I haven’t yet sold any novels. But I will! 🙂

TC: You obviously keep very busy. What tips do you have for managing time effectively and finding balance in your life?

DRO: Hoo boy, I could write a whole book on this topic. Someday, that is, since I haven’t yet completely succeeded in the life balance part.

My main piece of advice, though, is this: Be conscious about how you spend your time. Don’t just be a passive participant, letting other people and external circumstances dictate how you live your life. Learn how to say no.

TC: When did you start working as an illustrator? How did that begin?

I'm Bored DRO: I’ve been doodling for ages, and from time to time people would pay me to do small one-off projects, like a birthday or housewarming card. After joining Flickr, I began posting some of my doodles and drawings that I did purely for the fun of it. Sometimes people who liked the art I posted would contact me for small custom projects. I also had a few online comics going, some of which attracted a lot of readers. My Waiting For Frodo comic, for example, even had fans at Weta Digital!

However, my career in children’s book illustration didn’t start until the summer of 2010, when my friend Beckett Gladney convinced me to enter the SCBWI Summer Conference Illustration Portfolio Showcase. I was thrilled to win one of the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program awards, and learned so much from my mentors as well as my fellow mentees (see our blog). But that’s not all…

One of the judges was Justin Chanda, who is the publisher of three flagship imprints at Simon & Schuster: S&S Books For Young Readers, Atheneum, and McElderry Books. When he saw my illustrations, he immediately thought I’d be the right illustrator for Michael Ian Black’s I’m Bored (yay!).

You can read the full story here.

TC: What was it like collaborating on a picture book? What can you tell us about that process?

DRO: Working with Justin Chanda and Laurent Linn on I’m Bored was amaaaazing. Justin was editor on the project, and Laurent was my art director. I learned so much during the process, not just about illustration but also storytelling.

As a newbie illustrator, I had expected to be told pretty much exactly what I was supposed to draw, and have little input. Instead, Justin and Laurent were interested in my input throughout, and strongly encouraged me to be creative as I interpreted Michael Ian Black’s wonderful story.

I loved the back-and-forth in the discussions we had in person and on the phone. I was incredibly nervous at that first meeting but I remember that after only a few minutes, I was drawn into the conversation so deeply that I forgot about feeling self-conscious and focused instead on the book, and what we could do to make the book as strong as possible.

And as I write that, I realized that this was one of the turning points for me in the collaboration process: when I began to think in terms of what everyone was doing rather than only my part.

You can read my blog posts about collaboration and other aspects of working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers here.

TC: You are obviously incredibly successful at using the internet/social media to market yourself and connect with other writers. Do you have any advice for our readers about using the internet as a tool in this way?

DRO: Thank you for the kind words about my social media skills. I’ve worked hard at them and made many mistakes along the way.

My main piece of advice for writers wanting to use social media and the Internet to market themselves and connect with other writers:

If most of your posts have to do with self-promotion or trying to sell something, it’s unlikely you’ll attract many new readers.

Instead, offer something to people they can’t easily get elsewhere, that makes them want to come back. Once they feel they know you, then (and not before) they will be more likely to be interested in your projects.

In my opinion, the value of social media is much more about making connections with other people than in self-promotion.

TC: Who are some authors/illustrators you admire? Who would you say has influenced you?

DRO: My biggest influence and author/illustrator I admire the most: my sister, Ruth Ohi.

Watching my sister work over the years on over 50 children’s picture books, I have learned a great deal about the craft and business. She has also inspired me with her focus and productivity, especially how she managed her work time when her children were very young.

Ruth continues to support and encourage me. There were times during I’m Bored when I got discouraged about my illustrations (“OH MY GOD I SUCK WHAT IF THEY HATE WHAT I’M DOING AND FIRE ME” etc.); my sister talked me off the ledge. 🙂

Thank you, Sis!

TC: Do you have a favorite project, past or current, so far?

DRO: I’m Bored.

I had so much fun working on this. I am totally serious.

I also learned a ton about the craft and business of making a picture book.

TC: Earlier this year, you announced that you signed two book contracts with Simon & Schuster; one to illustrate another picture book, and another to write and illustrate a picture book of your own. Can you give us any update on those projects?

DRO: I’m in the very early stages of creating the picture book that I am writing and illustrating with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. So far, I have had two phone meetings with my editor, Justin Chanda. I would say that right now I’m working on the pre-pre-1st draft. 🙂

As for the other picture book, Simon & Schuster is still looking for the right project for me to illustrate. Fingers crossed!

I’m blogging about the process of creating picture books with Simon & Schuster, for those interested.
Toasted Cheese comic


Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates for young people. She is the illustrator of I’M BORED by Michael Ian Black (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Sept/2012) and her work also appears in the teen fiction anthology, TOMO (Stone Bridge Press, Mar/2012). Represented by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd. URL: DebbieOhi.com. Twitter: @inkyelbows.

I'm BoredFor longer bios, see: Press Bios: Debbie Ridpath Ohi

WHERE YOU CAN FIND DEBBIE:

About I’M BORED:
Author: Michael Ian Black
Illustrator: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Ages: 3-8
ISBN 978-1-4424-1403-7

Final Poll Results

Facing Your Writing Fears

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

There are many things I am not afraid of. I’m not afraid of heights or spiders or snakes or flying or roller coasters or open water. I’m not afraid of taking tests or dogs or the dark or needles or thunderstorms. But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid of anything.

This is me, age 11, at Silver Springs in Florida, holding a boa constrictor. I volunteered to do this. When they asked who wanted to hold the snake, I stuck up my hand and waved it, and I may even have stood up, because I was small and used to going unnoticed. I didn’t expect to be picked, but I was, likely because I was the only girl expressing an interest. That’s ok. As I say whenever someone wins a contest because they were the only one who entered: you beat everyone who didn’t even try.

For me, holding the snake was not scary. The scary thing was asking to hold the snake, sticking up my hand, drawing the audience’s attention to me, taking the risk that I’d try and fail. That I wouldn’t get picked. That I’d not only be disappointed that I didn’t get to hold the snake but embarrassed that everyone (read: a bunch of random people on spring break) knew I’d waved my hand like a lunatic because I wanted so badly to be chosen. If it had been something else, something I wanted less, I would’ve left my hands by my side, let the opportunity slide by. There have been plenty of these moments in my life, most of which I don’t even remember clearly now. But I remember that time I held the snake.

At that moment, my desire overwhelmed my fear and I acted.

A century ago, Katherine Mansfield wrote, “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself.” This is one of my favorite quotations, one I keep returning to, because for me, this—silencing the voices, acting for myself—is the hardest thing on earth, and I need to keep reminding myself to take the risk.

Any endeavor has attendant risks, but because they are so often seen as frivolous, creative endeavors often carry a greater risk to one’s face. If you’re a mediocre doctor, you’re still a doctor. If you’re a mediocre artist, you’re wasting your life. There’s a lot of pressure to be good right away so you can silence the doubters, when we all know “that before you can be good at something, you’ll almost certainly be bad to mediocre at it.” Looking like something is effortless takes practice. And while becoming good at something mostly takes hard work, becoming great takes more than just doing the same thing over and over. You have to be willing to take risks, fail, and try again. We’re all familiar with the writer who writes an amazing first book—and then follows it up with 27 competent clones. That writer is good, but they’re not great. The great writer writes a second book that’s so different from the first that the publisher doesn’t know what to do with it and they end up parting ways. The risk, of course, is that book two might be a disaster. But, then again, it just might be brilliant.

Of all the creative arts, writing is perhaps the riskiest, because it’s so transparent. You can expose your deepest secrets in music, painting, dance and still leave the audience and critics divided as to what that was really about—even as they are moved to tears. With writing, it’s harder to obscure your source material. To be sure, you can cloak your story in metaphor or fictionalize it, but if you’re writing an essay about your mother, you’re writing an essay about your mother. Sometimes transparency is the point.

Things I do fear: small talk, schmoozing, job interviews, cold calls, having to answer questions on the spot, asking for favors, and failure, especially at writing.

Writing is a minefield of fears. Fear that we have nothing worthwhile to say. Fear that what we have to say is a cliché. Fear of taking our writing seriously. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of embarrassing ourselves. Fear of how much work it’s going to take. Fear of not-writing. Fear that we will offend the people we care about. Fear that we will offend, period. Fear of rejection. Fear of repercussions. Fear that the wrath of the internet will rain down upon us. Fear that books are dead.

For some of us, the fear started the moment we picked up a pencil. In elementary school, my handwriting always earned a “Needs Improvement” on my report cards. At one point, I was slotted into the remedial handwriting group, a bunch of oafish boys and me, bookish nerdgirl. I became so self-conscious about my handwriting that I allowed it to hamper my writing. Someone would give me a beautiful blank notebook or a cute little diary and I’d be unwilling to write in it because I was only going to ruin it. When I finally gave it a try—because I felt guilty for not using the gift—it would be just as ugly as I’d anticipated and I’d quit because the book was ruined. Or I’d tear out the pages so that I could start fresh. I spent more time rewriting things to try to make them look better than writing anything new.

I finally ended this cycle by starting to write in a regular school notebook with a pencil. My handwriting didn’t matter so much because the notebook wasn’t pretty or precious; it was ugly and utilitarian. The pencil allowed me to erase my mistakes. Somewhere along the way I started writing in pen. Eventually I reached the end of the notebook and I started a new one. At the same time, I started filling a hardback notebook (that, yes, the initial pages had been torn from) with lists, quotes, magazine clippings, poems I wrote. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was my first commonplace book. I still fretted too much about perfection, but I’d found a way to move forward: one scary thing at a time.

If you’re thinking my handwriting story sounds silly, that’s exactly my point. If you want to write, write. If you want to write about your childhood, write about your childhood. If you want to write a book, write a book. Most of the obstacles in our writing paths are trivial, or at least, surmountable. We envision them as Mt. Everests, when they’re more like that hill in your neighborhood that you walk up every day.

I frequently hear people say, “I can’t,” when what they really mean is “I don’t want to” or “something else is more important to me” or “I don’t want my image to be that of a person who does that” or “I’m afraid to try because I might fail.” “Can’t” absolves us of responsibility. It’s not that we’re unwilling to take a risk or put the effort in, it’s that we can’t. Fate has decided this for us. It’s not our fault. It’s not a choice.

Except it is. “Can’t” is almost always a choice, the safe choice. If you don’t try, then you can’t fail.

We live in a culture obsessed with safety. We like to think it is possible to eliminate risk. When something bad happens, the first thing we do look around to see to whom we can assign blame. When we find a scapegoat, we exhale with relief. It would never have happened to us because we would never have taken that sort of risk! This kind of thinking permeates all aspects of our lives. You’ve surely read many cautionary tales about the awful consequences that may befall you if you write about your job, your children, your personal life, you name it. But while safety-first thinking is prudent when you’re talking about an activity with real physical risk—skydiving, say—it’s less useful when you’re deciding how you want to spend your life. Always choosing the safest choice may make for a comfortable life, but it probably won’t be a very interesting or satisfying one. For that, you have to be willing to take a risk.

There’s a reason why so many success stories start with the protagonist at rock bottom: they’ve been rejected from something they’ve been working toward all their lives, they’ve lost their job, their spouse has left them, a loved one has died, they’ve been badly injured or found out they have a chronic or life-threatening illness. It’s not a coincidence and it’s not just because redemption makes a good story. We all know people with handicaps who take risks and live interesting lives. We marvel at their positivity. We talk about how we can’t imagine said terrible thing happening to us and how amazing it is that they’ve managed to succeed despite it. But that’s where our thinking goes wrong. It’s not despite. It’s because. It’s the terrible thing that makes the risk acceptable, that pushes it from “I could lose everything” to “What I have I got to lose?” As Maya Donenfeld recently wrote, “there is always a gift waiting even in the darkest times, because in every great challenge there is an opportunity for transformation and growth.”

One of the things I most looked forward to as a biology undergrad was taking herpetology. To my great disappointment, the class was always “not offered” or canceled. I guess there weren’t enough students interested in snakes. At the time, I just swallowed my disappointment and grumped about the poor course selection. Now I know this wasn’t my only choice. The brave, scary, potentially rewarding choice would have been to go directly to the herpetologist and ask to do a directed study. This would’ve meant taking the risk that he’d say no. But maybe he’d have said yes, and now I’d be traveling the world, writing about reptiles and amphibians for National Geographic.

I can’t exactly berate myself for not doing this, because I don’t think it even occurred to me. For a long, long time, I held the belief that “no” meant “no” and the polite, grown-up, civilized thing to do was to accept a “no” without protestation and move on. One of the important lessons I’ve learned in the past few years is not to just walk away when you hear “no.” No one is going to think less of you for trying again (and again and again). And if you really want something, it’s worth it to ask: “How can I change this ‘no’ to a ‘yes’?” “No” can be a kind of filter. It’s used to weed people out.

My eyes were opened when I heard a guy tell the story of how he got accepted to law school. Turns out, he wasn’t, but instead of saying, “oh well,” he basically marched into the admissions office, told them he’d already quit his job and yadayadayada his life was riding on this and they pulled his file and reclassified it as a mature student application and the rest was history.

The hell? I thought. It made me kind of angry. I knew that if I had been in his position, I wouldn’t have done that. I thought about all the times in my past when I’d accepted “no” for an answer. And I thought about how probably lots of those times there had been people who hadn’t accepted “no.” It felt like there was this back door that I didn’t know about. Well, now that I did, I was determined to use it. The next time I heard a “no” that I really wanted to be a “yes” I got up my courage and asked, “What can I do to change your mind?”

It was scary, but you know what? I succeeded.

Ray Bradbury once said, “I worry about rejection, but not too much. The real fear isn’t rejection, but that there won’t be enough time in your life to write all the stories you have in you. So every time I put a new one in the mail, I know I’ve beaten death again.” In the wake of her father-in-law’s death, Maud Newton wrote, “And it’s impossible to imagine ever returning to a life in which I treat my writing like a frivolous hobby or prioritize writing about other people’s novels over working on my own.” He had been working on a book. It was left unfinished.

Final Poll Results

Write What You Dig

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In the 1997 film Boogie Nights, Becky tells Buck he needs to find “a new look” rather than the “country western” look he’s been using. Later in the kitchen, a frustrated Buck tells Maurice how Becky, his managers at the stereo store, and others have been pressuring him to change his appearance. Maurice replies, “You know what I say? Wear what you dig. That’s it. Wear what you dig.”

The current phenomenon in the publishing world is 50 Shades of Grey, originally conceived as Twilight fanfic but appealing to suburban women who have made reading erotica mainstream. When E.L. James wrote 50 Shades, she likely wrote for herself, as most fanfic writers do. That she happened to tap in to an audience is serendipitous.

Erotica readers and writers—myself included—are critical of the book but hey. Read what you dig. Write what you dig.

My current read is Crackpot by John Waters (my immediate previous read was Role Models, also by John Waters). Waters is better known as a director and screenwriter, mostly of films that specialize in purposeful bad taste, a blend of art and anarchy. Waters says, “I’ve always said that in the film world you have to pretend eight million people are gonna love it and in the art world, if eight million people love it, it’s really bad.” So he makes the films he wants to see, whether anyone else wants to see them. He writes what he digs.

Katharine Hepburn, another Hollywood icon and writer, said “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” Again, write what you dig.

So why do I keep repeating this mantra? Writers increasingly write for an audience. This audience might be regular readers of a weblog or the friends who eagerly volunteer to beta-read our latest short stories or poems. As electronic publishing lends itself so easily to self-publishing, we find it easy to put our work directly into a reader’s hands. We want to please, which is natural. But, like Anastasia Steele—the heroine of 50 Shades of Grey—are we putting the receipt of our own pleasure in someone else’s hands?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep our audience in mind when writing. Stephen King writes of his Ideal Reader in On Writing; his wife Tabitha is the only person he claims he wants to please with his work. The focus of a single Ideal Reader can sharpen our focus. When we branch out to please many readers, to appeal to everyone, our work can be spread too thin and not hold enough appeal for any one reader.

Speaking of “digging,” if you find you’ve dug yourself into a hole with your current work—uninterested in working, out of fresh ideas—it’s possible you could be subconsciously trying to appeal to a wide Ideal Audience rather than an Ideal Reader or a narrow, intimate Ideal Audience. Chances are good you won’t produce the next Hunger Games, Harry Potter series, or 50 Shades of Grey so why put the pressure on yourself? Think of what you might achieve if you wrote what you want to read. You could become a cult icon! A hipster’s “discovery!” It’s not the size of your audience that matters; it’s the passion your audience has for your work (or even you).

Beyond the mundane answers you might give to “interests” at your social media profiles, what interests you and/or your Ideal Reader? Your mind might be racing now, everything from Dancing With the Stars to “cheese in a can.” Let’s go into that closet in the back of your mind, rummage around and find out what story ideas are lurking in there.

When you flip through TV listings, what catches your eye? CSI, Castle, or Law and Order reruns? Maybe you’d like to write a crime story. How about River Monsters or Man vs. Wild? An adventure story might be what you crave. It doesn’t matter if you know anything about these topics. Just write. Enjoy yourself. If something comes of it, fill in your technical blanks later.

Maybe your neighbor insisted on shoving 50 Shades or Twilight into your hands. Give her your own fanfic, erotica, or gothic manuscript or send her the document for her e-reader. You know what she’s enthusiastic about reading so give her something worth her enthusiasm. Call it a “thank you” gift for her inspiration (and thank her in your acknowledgements, even if you never intend another living soul to see the page).

Are there things that interest you that you’d never want to admit to anyone? Those are great sources for your fiction. Because you’re fictionalizing, you have no need to explain to anyone what your inspiration was. Blame your characters. No one need know you’ve visited the Mutter Museum 257 times, that for your eighth birthday all you wanted was to visit Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, or that you paid an extra five dollars at the county fair to see the four-headed vampire monkey. No matter what The Weird Thing is, someone likes it: you. Write about it. Then sit back and enjoy the story or poem. Someone wrote it just for you.

Writing for an audience of one or two not only frees you from the need to please but also silences your Inner Editor/Critic. It can increase your honesty and allow you to examine uncomfortable subjects more closely.

If you’re a genre writer, think outside your genre. For example, if you’re a horror writer, you might be reluctant to let people know you’re working on a fantasy series (see Stephen King’s Gunslinger series). You might worry that the reaction will be “Where’s the horror?” You might feel pressured to shoehorn the genre in there. If yours are the only eyes that see your fantasy stories, whose expectations are you meeting? Every reader will be pleased.

Does it matter if anyone else ever sees these stories? Does it matter if no one sees you walk on your treadmill while listening to Viking funeral chants? No. If you exercise, you see results. Same with writing. If you write these single-reader pleasers, it’s good exercise. It gets you in the groove. It gets you motivated. It gets you not only to write what you dig but to recognize what you dig. If you decide to submit for publication and your work is rejected, think of that John Waters quote. If everyone liked it, how boring a world we’d live in! If you have enough pieces that please only you or your Ideal Reader, collect them. If they share this common theme, that’s unifying enough for a self-released collection; maybe you’ll find that Ideal Audience by just being yourself and writing what you dig.

Final Poll Results

Writing as Therapy

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

First, the disclaimer. I am not a therapist of any kind. I’m not even that much of a writer. There are a few novels in my drawer, to be sure, but nothing publishable, yet.

But what I have, I’m willing to share. Things go wrong in these lives of ours, and sometimes we need a little help to get back on our feet.

For me, writing has helped immensely. Telling stories, any stories, is part of who I am, and it’s part of who I am when I’m mentally healthy. So struggling to tell stories when I just don’t feel like it at all is an important part of regaining my equilibrium.

One of the primary therapies that helps people go from having flashbacks, intrusive memories, etc., is to construct narratives around the events that caused the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In a recent episode, the American Public Media radio program On Being interviewed Kevin Kling. Kling was born with one withered arm, and in early adulthood experienced a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him, and took the use of his other arm. He is also a storyteller, and he loves to laugh.

I found it striking that he remarked that retelling a story, your own story, with different endings, is a good way to get better. It helped him to recover from the PTSD his accident triggered.

Trying on different endings, different answers to the “where should the story go from here?” question, is both a great way to edit a plot flaw out of a story, and to imagine where your life could go.

The full interview with Kevin Kling is available here.

Likewise in an interview, Kurt Vonnegut, best-selling author of Slaughterhouse Five among others, remarked, “A writer is lucky to be able to treat his neurosis every day.”

Writing is, I think in its essence, a process of picking at the sore parts of your being. A common piece of advice to writers is to write what you’re afraid of. Open a vein, bleed a little into your story. Share your experience of pain with your characters; it makes them more believable.

Telling a fictional story that relates in some way to your stresses and bad memories may be a step beyond a memoir-style retelling. It allows more inventive changes to the tale, moving further afield from the simple facts of the case, and a more extensive examination of the what-ifs of the situation.

It’s worth pointing out that there are opposing opinions. For example, Anis Shivani in this essay describes academic creative writing programs as hazing and therapy in the model of an old-fashioned mental hospital. Linking to this, the Brevity Non-Fiction Blog suggests that someone give Mr. Shivani a warm cup of milk.

As an exercise, let me suggest thinking for a few moments (but not too long; this is therapy, after all) about the things that bother you most, that scare you most, about life, the situation you’re in, the way the system works. Write out a list with a few items on it. Now wash your mind out, sit down with a blank page (or word processor window), and write about those things, either one at a time, or several together. Play with different outcomes. Find one that’s good and not wildly improbable.

The stuff you write for therapy may or may not be something you’d share with others. Writing for publication is perhaps a different kind of a thing. But art, to be good, needs to be authentic; it needs to be about something real. And so, in the process of readjusting yourself, you will also, just maybe, readjust your writing to be more authentic. Playing around with different endings may make writing that started out as a private, therapeutic exercise into something that would be of interest to others.

Final Poll Results

Poetry Essentials:
Sound, Rhythm, Image

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

I like to meet with various local writers to talk about their craft. Poetry always fascinates me because it seems so basic to being human. Recently, I got together with my friend, poet Sandy Longhorn, to talk about the essence of poetry and what makes it eternal.

Toasted Cheese: How do you think poetry evolved as a form of expression?

Sandy Longhorn: The quote that I always return to when talking about poetry is from Lucille Clifton, one of the most gifted and generous American poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, may she rest in peace. Clifton says that the very first poem was written the first time a cave dweller stepped out into the light, looked at the sky, and said “Ahhhhhhh.”

This ties in neatly with Donald Hall’s description of poetry as “the unsayable said” or really the attempt by the poet to give voice to those deepest truths about the world that often escape words. See Hall’s essay “The Unsayable Said” in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected.

So, poetry, which is the oldest literary art form, begins in the basic, physical, human need to express what presses and pulls within us, what yearns to be communicated to another human body. After all, poetry is created with the idea of both the poet and the audience. Yes, many people write poems that never see the light of day, but the drive to put those words down connects with the drive to share those words with others, whether that is the result or not.

TC: I’ve often considered poetry to be a mnemonic form to relate, repeat and remember cultural heritage and societal norm.

SL: As the oldest literary art form, poetry began well before the advent of the written word. It was oral and aural. It was sung, chanted, spoken, and most of all, it was memorized. The great stories that remain with us from the time before written texts (Gilgamesh, Homer’s epics, parts of the Bible and other religious texts) all began as pieces that were memorized and shared. In this sense, the idea of the singular author was not quite the same as it is today. Stories belonged to communities and regions. Each teller might tweak (i.e. revise) the story to fit his or her liking, to more accurately portray what needed to be said. Only with the beginning of written words did poetry make the transition to the page, and the poet’s work today is to be sure the words don’t languish there but that they leap from print and ask to be sung, chanted, spoken, memorized.

TC: What essential elements do you think make this happen?

SL: The three elements at play here—sound, rhythm, and image—all act together and are inseparable. To discuss one first is merely arbitrary.

As an oral/aural art form, poetry probably first relied on sound play as a way to ease memorization. Thinking of nursery tales and jump rope chants, we easily recall those rhymes that pleased us in our youth: “Jack, be nimble, / Jack, be quick, / Jack, jump over / the candlestick!” Say it out loud. Feel those Js striking on tongue and jaw. Hear the pleasing rhyme of quick and stick, but also the assonance of the ‘i’ in nimble that echoes the ‘i’ in quick and stick. Follow the consonance of the ‘j’ through the repeated Jacks and then jumped. Taste the roundness of “ump” right there in the middle. That is language at play. That is at the heart of poetry, even as we go beyond the simplicity of nursery rhymes.

Now, there is rhythm, which shows up in our Jack example as well. There is a clear beat that is repeated and, aside from the variation in line two, each line has four syllables. The variation in line two works perfectly as the shortened rhythm (only three syllables) emphasizes the word “quick.” Whether we recognize it or not, that variation contributes to the sense of urgency as we compel Jack on his task. So, the poet must think not only of what he/she intends to communicate, but also how best to use rhythm in that communication.

Sound and rhythm go hand in hand to build a physical memory, a muscle memory that was instrumental in the memorization of long poems like The Odyssey or The Iliad so that traveling bards could recite the various adventures and battles of the heroes and thus earn their supper along the way.

The third element, image, is also an integral part of the whole, as it is through image that we strive to express whatever it is bubbling up inside us. Of all the writers, poets rely most heavily on figurative language, in particular the metaphor. At its heart the metaphor, and its subset the simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that share some striking similarity. So, if I say that my hair is like the matted fur of an unwashed dog, that is one level of metaphor, but perhaps not very striking, as hair and fur are quite similar. However, if I say that my hair is matted and gnarled like weeds and sticks caught in an eddy at the river’s bank, that’s a bit more memorable and a bit more ‘wild,’ suggesting/saying something more strongly about my physical condition.

The poet’s work with image is to not only be memorable but to be precise. To chose the exact image for the expression that will communicate the idea most effectively. One of the long standing traits of poetry, even in long poems, is concision (compression). To create a poem charged with both meaning and craft, the poet must select each and every word and place it precisely where it belongs, not to mention placing punctuation marks and line breaks with care as well.

TC: Do you think codifying poetry, through writing, has changed its primal aspect?

SL: Historically, Western poetry was formal; it existed in set line lengths with set rhythms and set rhyme schemes. Think of the sonnet or Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter verse plays. The formal nature of poetry aided in memorization and provided a scaffold around which the poet crafted the poem. At its best, formal poetry joins the intellect and the emotion of the poet and uses the formal structure because it is the best way to communicate whatever it is that needs to be said.

After hundreds of years, poets began toying with formal structures and eventually branched off into free verse, poetry that does not contain a repeated pattern of rhyme or rhythm. While there are precursors as far back as the fourteenth century in Western poetry, free verse became firmly established in the nineteenth century and has become as widely if not more widely used than formal poetry today.

Some people would question the importance of sound and rhythm, then, when dealing with free verse. Here, the poet does not have to conform to meter and rhyme; the poet is able to bend and break lines according to different rules. Still, I would argue, sound and rhythm are hugely important. Otherwise, what is to distinguish a poem from a paragraph that is simply broken into lines on the page? Where is the poet’s craft, then?

TC: This is great, Sandy. Let’s ask our Toasted Cheese poets what else they would like to hear and continue the discussion. Thanks.


Sandy Longhorn is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems are forthcoming or have appeared recently in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, North American Review, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. Longhorn teaches at Pulaski Technical College, runs the Big Rock Reading Series, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.

Final Poll Results

What Dr. John H. Watson
Can Teach About Writing

Absolute Blank

By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

“Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations.” —Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

Dr. John H. Watson is the fictional biographer of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. Dr. Watson (and his creator) always spun the tales of deduction and reasoning into stories that mesmerized the Victorian public. Even against the criticism of his friend, Watson continued to write his stories, and when Holmes finally took up the pen to write one or two of his own tales, he was forced to admit that, for all his analytical mind, he had to create a story to interest his readers.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless other fictional detectives and mysteries, and are still being rewritten and re-imagined, over one hundred years after their original publication. What is it about the stories penned by Dr. Watson and his creator that have made them last? Why do readers keep returning to them?

Tell a Story

First and foremost, Watson was a storyteller. While Holmes may have preferred to focus on the science of the cases, Watson knew his readers wanted the romance and thrill, and he gave them just that. In each story, he painted a picture of the visitors who climbed the seventeen steps to 221B Baker Street, from what they were wearing to their emotional state when they arrived. And when a case called for action, Watson pulled no punches, giving detailed accounts of a dangerous boat chase or a tense stakeout, as well as concluding dramatically with the capture of the criminal and explanation of Holmes’s deductions.

As a writer, give your readers the big picture as well as the small, and allow them to feel the thrill, romance, fear, even the mundanity of the situation. Give them enough information to see the scene in their head and keep them on the edge of their seat, eager to turn the page to find out what happens next.

But don’t tell them everything. Sometimes what the reader can imagine is more interesting to them than what you can come up with. Watson often referred to other cases, dropping tantalizing clues to stories that were never published or giving just enough hints so that his contemporary readers could try to puzzle out the real-life counterpart to a client or villain. You may know about everything that happens in your world, but you don’t have to present it all to the reader. Drop a reference here and there, and let your reader imagine the rest.

Be Prolific

Dr. Watson alludes to many unpublished cases in his stories. One of the reasons he gives as to why he never published them is that the results were too mundane or unsatisfying to provide any interest to his readers. Even though he faithfully chronicled every one of his companion’s adventures, he carefully picked the stories he chose to publish, sharing only the ones he knew would make good stories.

Not every story or novel you write will be a masterpiece. Some of them will have unsatisfying endings, others will have boring characters, and still more will just stop and have no ending. Every writer has a couple of stories that just didn’t work, no matter what. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to write it. Every word you write is practice for the next one, and even if that piece never sees the light of day, you still had the practice for writing something better. But what do you do with all those unpublished stories?

Watson had a tin dispatch box in the bank vault at Cox & Co., where he kept all of his case notes. Create a special place for all of your work, whether it be a folder on your computer’s desktop or a special box in your closet. Instead of leaving them there, though, make a regular date with yourself to go through them and handpick the best ones to polish and send out into the world.

Create Lasting Characters

Dr. Watson not only created an intriguing star for his stories, but a standout supporting cast. Most readers can immediately recognize the rat-like, unimaginative Inspector Lestrade and the long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson, who in turns worried over and was antagonized by her eccentric tenant. Even the smaller characters, such as The Woman, Irene Adler, who once intrigued Holmes with her cleverness and is often cast as his love interest, or the nefarious Professor Moriarty, the shadowy spider behind London’s criminal scene, have their own unique personalities and quirks that make them memorable.

Each of your characters should have a story. For your main characters, this means writing a history for them. What events occurred in the characters’ lives that got them to the point where you start your story? The reader may never get to see that history, but remember that every character is the star of their own show.

With your background and one-scene characters, you don’t have to create as elaborate backstories, but have an idea for what they want out of their lives, and out of their interactions with your story. Writing a character with no purpose to his or her life will make for a flat character. Give them a purpose for their own fictional life. By giving each of your characters a reason for existing, you make them more real and more memorable to your reader.

Live your own adventure

Dr. Watson wasn’t just Sherlock Holmes’s biographer. More often than not, he was found right next to Holmes in the thick of danger, often lending a hand or his trusty service revolver to aid in the capture of a criminal. He didn’t just write the adventures; he lived them, and his perspective gave his stories more interest to readers.

As a writer, you can’t spend all your time imagining at your desk. Sometimes you have to go out into the world, and have an adventure. You don’t always have to write what you know, but you’ll hardly have anything to write about if you don’t have a few adventures now and then. While following the world’s only consulting detective around may not be practical or even safe, there’s plenty you can do, starting by just stepping out your front door. Experience life, and then go home and write about it.

Final Poll Results