A few of you might know that I passionately entertain the thought of one day being a "real" writer. That being said, I like to extol the virtues of writing...or at least using your imagination once in a while and writing something with it. I also believe there should be a lot more writing in school, especially in the elementary grade levels.
A few years back I talked my daughter's (name withheld because I'm like that) English teacher (also name withheld because I'm like that) into allowing me into her classroom to talk about my limited (but still very special to me) writing experiences. Some of the things I touched on were my methods of undertaking various aspects of writing...and how I hoped they'd embrace writing instead of being scared of the whole entire process.
This is that talk I gave to my daughter's 6th grade class...and, as such, you have to remember I tried to appeal to a year 2007 6th grade English class. Also, I ad-libbed a LOT as I tend to talk a LOT...and that's not in this basic outline of this "speech".
By the way, last year I was invited to speak at AUM (Auburn University at Montgomery) to a group of English students regarding my 2003 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest win...and if you're interested, I'd be more than happy to share my limited "life-long" writing experiences in other settings (classrooms, auditoriums, etc.) as well. All you have to do is ask me.
Allow me to introduce myself - I am Mariann Simms...Mrs. Simms...but most of you know me as my daughter's mom.
The reason I'm here today is because I talked your teacher into letting me come here and tell you that you should all WRITE some more. LOTS more!
A little about me...when I was young, about your age, I wanted to be a writer...then I grew up not knowing what I wanted to be until I realized, not too long ago, that I still wanted to be a writer. Imagine my disappointment knowing how much further I might have actually gotten had I just listened to myself years ago.
I have an online interactive humour website that I've been doing since 2001 that you shouldn't go to and I've also won tons of prizes, including a TiVo, by entering "funny" and or "writing-type" contests online. But my biggest claim to fame to date was winning the prestigious Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in 2003. For doing this, I was interviewed by CNN...American, Australian and Canadian radio and television programs, and had a front page write-up at the Montgomery Advertiser. I was on the front page of USA Today...and was literally (and I Googled myself, so I know for sure) mentioned in newspapers from Algeria to Zimbabwe. Yes, my name was mentioned in the Zimbabwe Times...or whatever they call their paper.
How many of you have ever heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest? (Excluding my daughter.) How many of you are now somewhat impressed by the fact I won it? Professor Scott Rice, the man who came up with this contest back in 1982 and still judges it, asked all the previous winners the other month (for his upcoming Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest book) what, if anything, did we notice that changed or happened to us since our winning it.
I told him I found that people whom I've told about my winning this contest seem to look upon me with an amount of admiration and respect...ESPECIALLY those who hadn't a clue what it was. Who here ever heard of the saying "The pen is mightier than the sword?" Well, the man who wrote that saying was Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who lived back in 1803-1873. He also wrote a novel entitled "Paul Clifford" which has the distinction of having, possibly in all of history, the worst opening sentence ever written and printed. How many of you have seen those "Peanuts" cartoons where Snoopy is typing and starts off..."It was a dark and stormy night..."? Well that was how Bulwer-Lytton started his novel...but then it went on and on and on and on...and really ended up getting worse by the word...only I'm sure he wasn't trying to do that intentionally. What I did was intentional. In 2003, I was judged to have come up with the "worst opening line to a fictional novel"...but keep in mind...I was the BEST at writing the WORST. It's not easy to write badly well...or is that badly good? Anyway, here's my winning entry:
They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn't taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would
have you believe it does by coloring it differently.
Seventy-one words...yep, 71 words...in one opening sentence; many different forms of punctuation, but only one period allowed. And I did this all on my first attempt ever at sending in an entry...and I only sent in the one entry. Yes, I had to throw that in for posterity.
This brings us to one of a writer's most annoying, perplexing, head-banging, paper-crumbling, pencil point breaking event: Coming up with that "stupid" first sentence to anything you write. Face it, after you get that part written, the rest usually comes a lot easier, right?
My advice to you...is to write the way you speak. How would you say it if you were just telling your friend? Just write the way you'd say it. Try it...it works.
Most of my favourite authors don't write to baffle and impress - sure, some do - but I find it most annoying to stop every 8th word to go look it up. Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer who wrote such classics as "The Martian Chronicles", "Farenheit 451", "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit", and countless other stories...writes extremely simplistic...but since it's told WELL, it captures you and draws you in. You WANT to keep reading to find out what's going to happen next and he hardly ever gets all "super intelligent" with you. Not that writing with big words and expanding your vocabulary isn't a good thing...I just don't think most people talk like a scientific journal reads...so, especially when you have characters in a story having a conversation...it's best they talk the way they would if they were real people.
My second piece of advice...get a good dictionary and thesaurus - a REAL one, not one of those online ones...and just keep it handy when reading or writing. How many times do you just skip a word that you read but you don't know its meaning? LOOK IT UP! When I was a kid or when I worked, during lunchbreaks, I would read the dictionary. No, seriously, I would. Sounds kinda spooky, huh? One of the most fun things to do with a dictionary is to just open it up on a random page and look at a word you don't know. You really can't do that kind of thing with an online one...so invest in a real one.
Now on to the "flow" of words...how they are strung together...how they sound. Are you redundant...using the same word over and over again? At the risk of sounding redundant here...get a thesaurus! Altho, sometimes redundancy is called for...as one of my favourite movie lines of all times from "The Shawshank Redemption" (which was a short story written by Stephen King...you know that scary guy?) shows. Bear in mind the word "hope" itself is used throughout the movie in many scenes...and it's used again toward the end of the film by the character Morgan Freeman plays, a man who's just been released from prison after serving about 40 years. As he's sitting on a bus that will ultimately take him to see his former-inmate friend, he thinks to himself:
I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.
Anyone know a quote from a film or book? What would have happened if it were strung together differently...think about that when you write...does it flow...does it sound nice when you say it? Does it have the impact you want it to have? How about if you change it around? Would it lose or gain something?
Coming back to myself here...I also write a blog at the Montgomery Advertiser's online site...only if any of you have seen blogs, they are all like "Oh my cat jumped on my car today and I think I have to get it washed...bummer." In other words, I don't think they're very interesting. Well, I write a blog there, but I like to think of them as "blogumns", or better yet, very short stories. But I'm not talking about newspaper-type stories...let me explain...
When you read a news story in a paper, there's a format journalists are supposed to follow. How many of you read the paper or have ever read an article in the paper? How far down in that article do you usually get? Do you read the whole thing...or stop after the first couple paragraphs?
Now, how many of you read books...like the Harry Potter ones? Did you read the whole thing or stop after a few pages? You read the whole thing, right? Did you ever stop to wonder...WHY?
You see, in the paper they have this thing called the 5 W's. Who, What, Where, When, and Why? They typically put all the most interesting and important bits in the first two paragraphs. The rest is just incidental stuff, filler, and probably some back history, quotes, and biography work-ups.
What would happen, say, if JK Rowling would have said ALL her interesting ideas in the first couple pages...or even the first couple chapters and then just dwindled off into "filler" the rest of the story? Wouldn't be much of a story, would it?
And don't get discouraged if it doesn't come out right the first time...JK Rowling took six years to write her first book...and she was turned down nine times before someone signed her. And guess how many times Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket was turned down for his first book? Thirty-seven times!
My last piece of advice to you would be the next time you sit down to write a STORY, keep in mind you need to capture AND HOLD the reader's curiosity to get him to turn that next page. Remember not to cram ALL your good stuff in the first sentence...or else it just might end up being a worse sentence than even MINE was...but probably not intentionally.
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." --Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)