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The Nitty-Gritty on the Writing Life

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I get dozens of non-fan letters per day—but I have no desire to respond to the strident, insistent, and persistent demands for my dismissal. To those folks, I can only say, “Get a life!” However, every once in awhile, a letter comes into this august nautical publication with a specific marine-related question of wide interest—like where a local sailor could buy a wife like my Carolyn. Fat chance I’m going to spill the beans on that one—for fear they’d be out-of-stock on bad-karma women when she divorces me. But, lo and behold, occasionally I get forwarded a question which merits a serious answer. The latest is, “How do I become a writer like you?

In a nutshell—it ain’t easy, pal! Education plays a role, and if you’ve got any, you’re out. It’s not just a matter of being ignorant—it is the breadth and depth of that ignorance which lends it resonance.

Note that last sentence. It sounded like I said something, didn’t it? And yet, when you examine it closely, the sentence does not. It is as meaningless and charming as a Bob Dylan lyric. Do you think you could make your living for three plus decades coming up with similar lines of drivel?

I doubt it.

Oh, sure, a paragraph is easy to make meaningless—but to make a simple declarative sentence non-sen-tence-i-cal is truly a magic feat.

There are a myriad of rules for the writer to learn. Capitalization rules for example. The sentence, “I helped my Uncle Jack off the horse” really needs those caps!

Vocab is important. Example: I don’t know what the word ‘myriad’ means but I use it lots and lots and lots.

Another rule is to avoid redundancies, repeating yourself, or saying the same thing over and over. Do you understand that? If not, I’ll repeat: another rule is to avoid redundancies, repeating yourself, or saying the same thing over and over.

Okay.

That’s taken care of.

A writer, of course, is supposed to write what he knows—hence, my beginning this essay with the ignorance-thingie.

The primary rule of the modern journalist is show don’t tell. What does that mean? Well, it means that all the beating-around-the-bush with calling it the wash room and powder room and restroom isn’t nearly as effective as saying to the reader, “…look in the bowl!”

The latter is vivid, right?

Dishonesty is a useful trait for an inkslinger. For instance, if you want to suck up to your word consumer, just whisper in his ear, “Never talk down to your reader,” even though, obviously, if your readers had any sense you’d be reading them instead of vice-versa.

In today’s marketplace, specialization is important. I’m not just a writer, I’m a marine scribe. Why? Because I figured any reader whose hobby was puking at great expense—was just the reader for me!

Humor, of course, is hard to define.

For example, an aspiring humorist recently wrote, “A woman fell out of her wheelchair.” Ho hum.

When I, however, write “A woman fell out of her wheelchair,” I laugh for months—thinking of her sprawled there, rump in the air… too much, eh?

…ha ha!

Of course, you have to be careful not to be insulting. I mean, some people can handle “My ego is bigger than yours,” and some can’t.

Script writing is another source of income—but one in which commas play a major role. The line, “Eats shoots and leaves.” might be fine for the Nature Channel but add two commas and its for mature audiences only.

Writing for radio is another option—although I was once fired from a local station for being too handsome, comparatively. I mean, many radio personalities are so ugly they have to sneak up on the mic! I’m not kidding—if they were undertakers, their clients would complain!

Of course, writing for a Caribbean audience is difficult—especially since so many of them don’t know what the letter ‘h’ is for—nor how to pronounce it. But this has a plus side—as all the Stateside writers don’t know we spell the world ‘dat’ with the letters t-h-a-t in dese islands, mon.

Like most writers, I make a point of staying up with current affairs. Plus, pithiness is much admired in literary circles. Thus, as a Caribbean writer, I might start a column with, “Christopher Columbus arrived” and end it there too.

Too many adjectives aren’t considered cool any more. Thus, I don’t say, “ big, huge, voluptuous, curvaceous, plump, delectable, full-figured, buxom, sultry, D-cup breasts” anymore—I leave the bra-size out.

It’s all about the verbs, really. They really put the zing in a sentence. Thus, in a mystery novel a poor writer might say, “the corpse lay there” while I’d have that same corpse ‘jack-knifing’ and ‘waltzing’ and ‘jitterbugging’ up to the Pearly Gates.

Cliches like ‘Pearly Gates’ are frowned upon—unless, of course, you’ve died and gone to heaven… because you’re too broke to pay attention… and are tired of this heaven-on-earth… and like to frolic in the ‘Garden of Eden,’ etc.

… why, you might even think advice like mine is heaven-sent!

Of course, a writer’s relationship with the editor is important—as is the method of payment. I work with some editors who pay by the word and they get short ones—why waste money typing ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ about the dismantling of the Church of England when ‘closed’ works just as well.

Other editors pay me by the column inch, so they get a lot of choppy dialogue because:

“…you said…”

“No, I didn’t…”

“Yes, I did!

“…not!”

…just earned me an additional two bucks.

What I’m trying to point out is that men of literature such as myself have artistic criteria the lay-reader might have no conception thereof.

Often, I insist on getting paid more than I deserve—and weasel out of it, if necessary, with the cryptic statement, “There are three types of people in this world: people who can count, and people who can’t!”

This usually shuts up the publication’s anal-retentive bookkeeper immediately.

For years, I wrote for Fodor’s Travel Guides—writing ‘open air dining’ about every beach bar, beach snackery, and beach restaurant in the Caribbean.

They call this ‘creative writing’—go figure!

I’m currently editor-at-large for a major national publication—which is about as meaningless a title as possible. Basically, such a title means, “We can’t pay you any more money but because we think you are so very stupid we’ll attempt to piece you off with one of these high-sounding corporate titles—oh, dear! It worked!”

I requested, instead, to be called an Editor-at-Fat. They refused, haughtily.

No, writing isn’t very lucrative. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quit his medical practice and picked up his pen—and then filed his income tax… his income tax form came back with a handwritten note that said, “This is totally unacceptable” to which he replied, “I couldn’t agree more!”

This publication pays me by the month but we cash the checks annually so as not to be embarrassed.

My wife’s idea of an opulent meal aboard is when we get to eat more than one bean at a sitting. My profession makes her sad. I often hear her telling her girlfriends, “We don’t have much money because they pay my husband what he’s worth.”

The worst part is that editors are always calling for rewrites—as if we writers cared one iota how our stories are perceived by the public. This happened to Erle Stanley Gardner. He got a 30 page letter from his editor suggesting corrections, and immediately returned it with the statement, “Gee, I’m really looking forward to any other suggestions you might have on the back of that check!”

There are a lot of highs and lows to being a writer. When the school my daughter Roma Orion attended asked me to speak—I was honored. When I arrived and the entire faculty was there to meet me—I was even more honored. But when the principal informed me they’d purchased every one of my books in a desperate attempt to find a paragraph to read to the children—and failed, I was not.

Reviews are, needless to say, evil. I’d change my opinion if I received a positive one—but I’m not holding my breath. “Does Mister Goodlander realize that trees have to die so he can write this tripe?” didn’t sit well with me—and is one of the primary reasons I’m now such a fan of eBooks.

The New Yorker rejected one of my submissions with the handwritten note, “This is the worst manuscript we’ve ever received.” I cried for weeks. Then, more determined to be a famous writer than ever—I sent them another story to show I hadn’t been discouraged. “We’d like to revise our previous statement,” was the rejection note this time.

Bastards!

Still, I cling to my profession. Every morning, I sit down and attempt to write something that will live forever in the annals of literature. I reach for immortality! Each evening, I read what I’ve written and find immorality… only one letter off!

…so close!

 

 

Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are currently zooming through the Straits of Torres towards Bali.

 

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