I get dozens of non-fan letters per dayâ€”but I have no desire to respond to the strident, insistent, and persistent demands for my dismissal. To those folks, I can only say, â€œGet a life!â€ However, every once in awhile, a letter comes into this august nautical publication with a specific marine-related question of wide interestâ€”like where a local sailor could buy a wife like my Carolyn. Fat chance Iâ€™m going to spill the beans on that oneâ€”for fear theyâ€™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, â€œHow do I become a writer like you?â€
In a nutshellâ€”it ainâ€™t easy, pal! Education plays a role, and if youâ€™ve got any, youâ€™re out. Itâ€™s not just a matter of being ignorantâ€”it is the breadth and depth of that ignorance which lends it resonance.
Note that last sentence. It sounded like I said something, didnâ€™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 meaninglessâ€”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, â€œI helped my Uncle Jack off the horseâ€ really needs those caps!
Vocab is important. Example: I donâ€™t know what the word â€˜myriadâ€™ 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, Iâ€™ll repeat: another rule is to avoid redundancies, repeating yourself, or saying the same thing over and over.
Thatâ€™s taken care of.
A writer, of course, is supposed to write what he knowsâ€”hence, my beginning this essay with the ignorance-thingie.
The primary rule of the modern journalist is show donâ€™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 isnâ€™t nearly as effective as saying to the reader, â€œâ€¦look in the bowl!â€
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, â€œNever talk down to your reader,â€ even though, obviously, if your readers had any sense youâ€™d be reading them instead of vice-versa.
In todayâ€™s marketplace, specialization is important. Iâ€™m not just a writer, Iâ€™m a marine scribe. Why? Because I figured any reader whose hobby was puking at great expenseâ€”was just the reader for me!
Humor, of course, is hard to define.
For example, an aspiring humorist recently wrote, â€œA woman fell out of her wheelchair.â€ Ho hum.
When I, however, write â€œA woman fell out of her wheelchair,â€ I laugh for monthsâ€”thinking of her sprawled there, rump in the airâ€¦ too much, eh?
Of course, you have to be careful not to be insulting. I mean, some people can handle â€œMy ego is bigger than yours,â€ and some canâ€™t.
Script writing is another source of incomeâ€”but one in which commas play a major role. The line, â€œEats shoots and leaves.â€ might be fine for the Nature Channel but add two commas and its for mature audiences only.
Writing for radio is another optionâ€”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! Iâ€™m not kiddingâ€”if they were undertakers, their clients would complain!
Of course, writing for a Caribbean audience is difficultâ€”especially since so many of them donâ€™t know what the letter â€˜hâ€™ is forâ€”nor how to pronounce it. But this has a plus sideâ€”as all the Stateside writers donâ€™t know we spell the world â€˜datâ€™ 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, â€œChristopher Columbus arrivedâ€ and end it there too.
Too many adjectives arenâ€™t considered cool any more. Thus, I donâ€™t say, â€œ big, huge, voluptuous, curvaceous, plump, delectable, full-figured, buxom, sultry, D-cup breastsâ€ anymoreâ€”I leave the bra-size out.
Itâ€™s all about the verbs, really. They really put the zing in a sentence. Thus, in a mystery novel a poor writer might say, â€œthe corpse lay thereâ€ while Iâ€™d have that same corpse â€˜jack-knifingâ€™ and â€˜waltzingâ€™ and â€˜jitterbuggingâ€™ up to the Pearly Gates.
Cliches like â€˜Pearly Gatesâ€™ are frowned uponâ€”unless, of course, youâ€™ve died and gone to heavenâ€¦ because youâ€™re too broke to pay attentionâ€¦ and are tired of this heaven-on-earthâ€¦ and like to frolic in the â€˜Garden of Eden,â€™ etc.
â€¦ why, you might even think advice like mine is heaven-sent!
Of course, a writerâ€™s relationship with the editor is importantâ€”as is the method of payment. I work with some editors who pay by the word and they get short onesâ€”why waste money typing â€˜antidisestablishmentarianismâ€™ about the dismantling of the Church of England when â€˜closedâ€™ works just as well.
Other editors pay me by the column inch, so they get a lot of choppy dialogue because:
â€œNo, I didnâ€™tâ€¦â€
â€œYes, I did!
â€¦just earned me an additional two bucks.
What Iâ€™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 deserveâ€”and weasel out of it, if necessary, with the cryptic statement, â€œThere are three types of people in this world: people who can count, and people who canâ€™t!â€
This usually shuts up the publicationâ€™s anal-retentive bookkeeper immediately.
For years, I wrote for Fodorâ€™s Travel Guidesâ€”writing â€˜open air diningâ€™ about every beach bar, beach snackery, and beach restaurant in the Caribbean.
They call this â€˜creative writingâ€™â€”go figure!
Iâ€™m currently editor-at-large for a major national publicationâ€”which is about as meaningless a title as possible. Basically, such a title means, â€œWe canâ€™t pay you any more money but because we think you are so very stupid weâ€™ll attempt to piece you off with one of these high-sounding corporate titlesâ€”oh, dear! It worked!â€
I requested, instead, to be called an Editor-at-Fat. They refused, haughtily.
No, writing isnâ€™t very lucrative. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quit his medical practice and picked up his penâ€”and then filed his income taxâ€¦ his income tax form came back with a handwritten note that said, â€œThis is totally unacceptableâ€ to which he replied, â€œI couldnâ€™t agree more!â€
This publication pays me by the month but we cash the checks annually so as not to be embarrassed.
My wifeâ€™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, â€œWe donâ€™t have much money because they pay my husband what heâ€™s worth.â€
The worst part is that editors are always calling for rewritesâ€”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, â€œGee, Iâ€™m really looking forward to any other suggestions you might have on the back of that check!â€
There are a lot of highs and lows to being a writer. When the school my daughter Roma Orion attended asked me to speakâ€”I was honored. When I arrived and the entire faculty was there to meet meâ€”I was even more honored. But when the principal informed me theyâ€™d purchased every one of my books in a desperate attempt to find a paragraph to read to the childrenâ€”and failed, I was not.
Reviews are, needless to say, evil. Iâ€™d change my opinion if I received a positive oneâ€”but Iâ€™m not holding my breath. â€œDoes Mister Goodlander realize that trees have to die so he can write this tripe?â€ didnâ€™t sit well with meâ€”and is one of the primary reasons Iâ€™m now such a fan of eBooks.
The New Yorker rejected one of my submissions with the handwritten note, â€œThis is the worst manuscript weâ€™ve ever received.â€ I cried for weeks. Then, more determined to be a famous writer than everâ€”I sent them another story to show I hadnâ€™t been discouraged. â€œWeâ€™d like to revise our previous statement,â€ was the rejection note this time.
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 Iâ€™ve written and find immoralityâ€¦ only one letter off!
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are currently zooming through the Straits of Torres towards Bali.