Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

Postcard bridge on Pennsylvania Turnpike 20_0810 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)

Contests vs. general submissions for fiction, poetry, nonfiction: Economics & odds in publishing

Chicago World's Fair federal building (2) - clean copy

Vintage postcard: Federal building at night, Chicago World’s Fair 1933

I’ve rarely entered writing contests. At $20 to $30, most entry fees seem too high. Granted, some publications do ease the sting by sending you a copy of the issue containing the winning entries or a year’s subscription, but still…

When you could pay a $3 reading fee for 10 general submissions versus one $30 entry fee for a contest, the economics win. The return on investment for contest entries often seems too low.

Million-dollar contests

My view of contests was reinforced when I read about the Writer’s Digest contests in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. “When I worked for Writer’s Digest, the revenue from competition entry fees approached a million dollars a year,” writes Friedman. “The number of contests was a budgeted line item in the revenue forecast, and if the projected number was not achieved on time, the contest deadline was often extended to collect more entries.”

This gave me a new perspective on contests that announce they’ve extended their deadlines. Are they just trying to bring in a certain amount of money?

It also led me to do some math in my head—seldom a good thing—when an announcement for the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition popped into my inbox.

For this contest the regular entry fee is $30. I figured that to generate $1 million, the contest would need more than 33,000 entries distributed over the nine categories. Yes, the contest offers a $5,000 grand prize and several other higher-dollar prizes, but when I recently saw this year’s short story winner my first thought was, So that’s what a hundred-thousand-dollar story looks like (at least in terms of entry fees).

Here’s what I was thinking (mistakenly):

$1,000,000             (approximate entry fees)
             ÷  9             (the number of categories)
$111,111             (entry fees per category)

NOTE: This assumed that all categories received a ninth of the entries, or about 3,703 entries, at $30 apiece.

Okay, upon further examination, my math was really wrong because the Writer’s Digest competitions website also lists separate competitions for self-published books, popular fiction, short short stories, self-published ebooks, and poetry. These other contests must be part of the organization’s revenue projections, and I’ve only been looking at the Annual Writing Competition.

The one number I may be close to right on is that $1 million in contest revenue would require more than 33,000 submissions at $30 apiece, not counting expenses for prizes, administration, honorariums for judges, and so on. Nonetheless, the odds of winning or placing among 33,000-plus submissions doesn’t give me any sense that the odds may ever be in my favor, no matter how good or bad my writing is.

I apologize for picking on Writer’s Digest, but their contest just happens to be the one I read about recently. I don’t think their contests are alone in being a “profit center,” to quote Friedman again. I also doubt their odds are unusual among big contests.

Better odds in local and regional contests

When considering contests, I look for better odds. I’ve found this in local and regional contests, especially those held by nonprofits. These contests may attract a few hundred entries instead of thousands.

For example, the annual Wisconsin People & Ideas contests for fiction and poetry received 69 fiction entries and 585 poems in 2014 (the most recent year that I could find reported entry numbers for). The odds were much better for fiction (1 winner in 23), whereas the poetry odds were much tougher (1 winner in 195).

The regular entry fee is $20, and cash prizes range from $500 to $100 for the first- through third-place, respectively. While both the odds and the potential ROI for this contest seem more attractive, entries are limited to Wisconsin writers.

NOTE: In addition to cash awards, the Writer’s Digest contest offers introductions to agents and other benefits that are difficult to place a cash value on. Similarly, Wisconsin People & Ideas, a publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters, offers winners benefits such as a residency, publication in the journal, and a reading during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

Acceptance rates for general submissions

Acceptance rates of 1 to 2 percent seem common among many literary magazines, based on what I’ve read through the years.

In a 2016 Review Review article, “Is Duotrope Accurate? Ten Lit Mags Provide an Answer,” writer Jason Peck compared journal acceptance rates to what Duotrope users were reporting.

Here are a few of the acceptance rates literary magazines provided to Peck:

  • Colorado Review 1.06% acceptance rate
  • Flash Fiction Online 0.7% acceptance rate
  • Rattle 0.717% acceptance rate

Tahoma Literary Review regularly provides acceptance rates on a page titled “What We Pay (and how we do it).” For example, the fall/winter 2018 issue received 1,225 submissions, of which 25 were published, which is a 2% acceptance rate (if my math is correct). If you’re interested, the TLR website breaks the submissions down by category.

Final thoughts (for now)

In the end, contests may offer a bit more recognition, money, and perks, but their entry fees could quickly drain your budget for marketing your creative writing. On the plus side, contests offer a deadline, which may help push a project through to completion. Remember, however, that deadlines may be extended to attract more fee-paying competitors.

Candy holidays, Pynchon’s “Marmalade Surprises,” and a writing prompt

Orange grove postcard 19_0503b

Vintage postcard: Tractor at work in an orange grove near Fullerton, California.

The last of the candy holidays is almost here. Each of these holidays comes with bowls and bags and boxes and general excesses of candy:

  • The sugar bender starts with Halloween
  • Skips Thanksgiving for Christmas
  • Continues through Valentine’s Day
  • Peaks again at Easter (No, not Peeps.)
  • And finally slides home at Mother’s (and Father’s) Day

A box of chocolates could be an acceptable gift on any of these holidays, except maybe Halloween. But on All Hallows Eve, the big neighborhood news is often which house is giving out full-size candy bars (not to mention the health-conscious house offering apples and oranges and thus to be avoided).

These holidays each have their confectionary oddities that can linger for months:

  • Halloween—Orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy
  • Christmas—Bitter green-striped candy canes
  • Valentine’s Day—Tie: wax lips and box after mini box of pink and red Nerds
  • Easter—Palm oil “chocolate” bunnies
  • Mother’s Day—Mystery chocolates in a box with no flavor diagram

My apologies if any of these are your favorites, but most of them appear on “worst of” lists.

No matter how cringey these candies may be, they have nothing on the sweets in my favorite scene from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the novel during a grad school semester when I was assigned to read a book or more each week, and at 759 pages, Gravity’s Rainbow was a bit of a challenge. I may have been loopy with exhaustion the first time I read the candy scene, but it still makes me laugh today:

…He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, “Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—” a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingénue’s thewse— “years ago,” at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

“You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!” cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. “Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams.” Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

“Serves me right,” Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry … mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away the bitterness. Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it might be pure nitric acid, “Oh mercy that’s really sour,” hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple-three more candy jars down off the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

“Now you’re getting the idea!” Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, “you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks….” (116-17).

Slothrop encounters many more candy abominations before and after this in the full version of what has been called the “Disgusting English Candy Drill.”

Okay, so let’s see if we can get a writing prompt out of all this:

Intentionally or not, characters may weaponize holiday foods, treats, and other delicacies. In turn, the characters receiving the comestibles may struggle with how to be polite, how to at least try the food, how to escape with or without explaining, how to stay true to their own rules for eating, and so on.

Another potential aspect of this drill is encountering a food so consuming (no pun intended) that paying attention to anything outside of the food becomes difficult. It’s as if the volume is dialed up on the food and down on the world.

Write a scene or memory where struggles with food are at the forefront so that issues among the characters/people can only leak around the edges. Don’t forget to call on sensory details in working with the food. Note the different ways of eating and tasting (Pynchon incorporates the soft palate, nose, tongue, teeth, molars, eyes, and more in just this portion of his scene). Besides spoken words, how do the characters communicate through the handling, offering, and eating of the food (for example, power, rejection, resignation, surprise, etc.)?

I’d be interested to hear whether this prompt yields any useful results. Please post your comments.

Flipping: How to apply analytical techniques to your own writing

Chicago World's Fair Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.

Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.

Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).

For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?

So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?

Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority

  • Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
  • Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
  • Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
  • Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?

Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence

  • Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
  • Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
  • Employ reasonable arguments?
  • Follow a logical structure?

Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values

  • Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
  • Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
  • Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
  • Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?

Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity

  • Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
  • Use timely and relevant examples?
  • Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
  • Consider: Why this text? Why now?

For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.

This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)

In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.

This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.

References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were: