Secret Writing Advice

July 7:  An argument for cutting.

Do you love the reader? Then cut him. Cut him hard. Cut him silently. Cut him when he least expects.

Here’s Toni Morrison giving you a vision of a boy at play, in short pants, then shanking you with the last six words as surely as you were her bitch in prison:

As Reverend Deal moved into his sermon, the hands of the women unfolded like pairs of raven’s wings and flew high above their hats in the air. They did not hear all of what he said; they heard the one word, or phrase, or inflection that was for them the connection between the event and themselves. For some it was the term “Sweet Jesus”. And they saw the Lamb’s eye and the truly innocent victim: themselves. They acknowledged the innocent child hiding in the corner of their hearts, holding a sugar-and-butter sandwich. That one. The one who lodged deep in their fat, thin, old, young skin, and was the one the world had hurt. Or they thought of their son newly killed and remembered his legs in short pants and wondered where the bullet went in.

Here’s David Foster Wallace stopping suddenly in the middle of an essay about Roger Federer to cut the reader’s heart out with a quick back story about the boy who served as coin tosser. Wallace then steps over the reader’s body and continues on about Roger Federer as though nothing ever happened.

This answer is plausible but incomplete. It would probably not have been incomplete in 1980. In 2006, though, it’s fair to ask why this kind of talent still matters so much. Recall what is true about dogma and Wimbledon’s sign. Kinesthetic virtuoso or no, Roger Federer is now dominating the largest, strongest, fittest, best-trained and -coached field of male pros who’ve ever existed, with everyone using a kind of nuclear racket that’s said to have made the finer calibrations of kinesthetic sense irrelevant, like trying to whistle Mozart during a Metallica concert.

According to reliable sources, honorary coin-tosser William Caines’s backstory is that one day, when he was 2½, his mother found a lump in his tummy, and took him to the doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a malignant liver tumor. At which point one cannot, of course, imagine…a tiny child undergoing chemo, serious chemo, his mother having to watch, carry him home, nurse him, then bring him back to that place for more chemo. How did she answer her child’s question — the big one, the obvious one? And who could answer hers? What could any priest or pastor say that wouldn’t be grotesque?

It’s 2-1 Nadal in the final’s second set, and he’s serving. Federer won the first set at love but then flagged a bit, as he sometimes does, and is quickly down a break. Now, on Nadal’s ad, there’s a 16-stroke point. Nadal is serving a lot faster than he did in Paris, and this one’s down the center. Federer floats a soft forehand high over the net, which he can get away with because Nadal never comes in behind his serve…

Here’s Kurt Cobain doing some cutting of his own:

I like it I’m not gonna crack

I miss you I’m not gonna crack

I love you I’m not gonna crack

I killed you I’m not gonna crack

Later, he would cut in a different and much more final way the person who found him on the floor, shotgun in his hand and driver’s license nearby for easy identification.

In A Day in the Life, John Lennon cut a generation of fans with line 6 of this song, among them, one can presume, Mark David Chapman, who later found him in New York and cut him back:

I read the news today oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw the photograph.

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn’t notice that the lights have changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

Nobody was really sure

If he was from the House of Lords.

All great writers know how to cut the reader. It happens suddenly and silently. You feel the blade in your heart and beyond that, in your soul.  And while you are kneeling down watching your wound make a red pool on the floor, you realize, ironically, you feel so authentically alive.

December 31:  Cold Bathwater

Words take the roles of either tools or weapons, or live in that variable space in between the two.  But all words written for an audience exist to cause a change in that audience.  The words that are selected, and how they are put together, can evoke wildly different images, feelings, and moods.

It’s worth taking a few minutes to consider your target.  First of all, who?  Who exactly?  I once wrote a whole novel as though it were directed to my friend Ro. The novel was a miserable failure.  Thanks for nothing, Ro.  But if your novel or screenplay or ad has a target audience, what is that person like?

Also, consider the somatic effect all great writing has on people.  If it makes them sad, how specifically does sadness feel, and in what part of the body?  It’s amazing, when you think about it, that a group of words can cause the same consternation or peacefulness or even physical pain that a drug can, or a sunset, or a police siren.

How does laughter feel in the body and when you are laughing, what part of your body is specifically affected?

Imagine your target audience laughing, feeling wistful, or sad, or nostalgic, or riveted.

I once had a friend that told me she was reading my second novel, Absence of Nectar, in the bathtub, and the water turned cold around her.  It was the ultimate complement. Oh, and one said she hid from her child while reading another book.  I liked that one, too.  But I digress.  Or not.  Maybe I’m not.

This is a vast subject area and might be covered in later, sporadic entries that five people read.  But just remember…the sound, arrangement and feeling behind your words, and the characters and situations that spring from them, are real to the human body, and can be as effective at changing it physically as a storm, the sight of a loved one, a shot of tequila, or the taste of a lemon.  (take the word “wry.” Tastes like a lemon, doesn’t it?)

Dec 27 – Coyote meat

My dear cat, Sunny, is a living breathing soul with his own mind and his own personality and even a couple of tricks up his furry sleeve, which he will do if he feels like it.  But I am very cautious about letting Sunny outside, for coyotes rove the area.  And to a coyote, Sunny is one thing – meat.

Your writing has a personality and a vision.  A soul.  But literally, it is type on a page.  If you do not infuse your writing with the proper magic or deny that magic with certain mistakes, your writing turns back to its basic elements – to the equivalent of meat, which is black type on a white page.

In the same way a cat can be both a friend and coyote food, words can be both a friend and a collection of letters.

How to keep your words from turning to meat:

Beware of sentences that go on and on, are cluttered, or contain too many metaphors.

Metaphors are good things, until they are bad things.  Metaphors that don’t quite work are like skaters that go for the triple axel and then crash.  You don’t remember the effort; you remember that sickening sound of flesh hitting ice.

Also, a piece of writing with too many metaphors becomes work instead of play.  Whenever you have to work at something, you are aware of time.  When you are aware of time, magic fails.  The coyote jumps the fence and slinks toward the cat.

Remember that the reading mind is aware of everything:  sound, rhythm, even the shape of the paragraphs on the page.  Long, dark shapes look like work.  If you insist, at least make the work worth the effort.

Another thing that turns your writing to coyote meat is the running start.  Don’t make the reader watch you warming up.  Hit them right away.  Example:

124 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s venom.

This is how Toni Morrison’s Beloved begins.  She could have begun this novel in many other ways, talking about what the house looked like, could have described the weather, or what it was like to be a slave woman.  But no.  She didn’t warm up in front of you.  Reading minds are annoyed when they watch someone warm up.  It’s like watching a football team warm up for the big game.  It’s boring.

A note about rhythm – 242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s venom.

The word “venom” is an awesome word, especially when you put it next to “baby.” But the rhythm could be better.  Here are some words that are wrong, but the rhythm is better:

242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s hate.

242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s teeth.

242 was spiteful.  Full of baby’s breath.

I know, I know, these words aren’t right in meaning.  But they are better in rhythm than “venom.”  Sometimes you have to make the decision.  It’s not like they denied her the Pulitzer Prize.

Dec 12 – Energy and the Reader

Where were we?  Oh yes, writing.  As I heard somewhere, writing is an exchange of energy and you should take that literally.  When you take energy instead of giving it in the first part of a sentence or a paragraph or a novel, you have to work uphill to win the reader back.

Let’s take something that sits in the crosshairs of Advertising and Novelism (not really a word):  The query letter.

An aspiring writer can send multiple query letters at once.  That’s what I did with The House of Gentle Men.  Remember, though, that good agents get hundreds of query letters a week.  You have to earn your place in his attention span. (let’s say his since my agent is male.)

My first query letter started out something like this:

My name is Kathy Hepinstall [1], and I have written a literary novel[2], about 80,000 words[3], that tells the story of a very peculiar bordello…[4]

  1. Who cares?
  2. Who cares?
  3. Who cares?
  4. Slightly more interesting but now this letter is sitting in a trough of neutral energy.

You see, Kathy Hepinstall means nothing to an agent.  If I had said, I am Stephen King, which I should have, the agent’s pulse would quicken and his heart would glow. But no, as an unknown writer I (and you) are neutral energy.  And neutral energy quickly degrades to its half-life state, negative energy. 80,000 words means that it’s an acceptable length. So might be Charlie Sheen’s penis. Does that mean you want it? (Mom if you have found this, I am terribly sorry. I was trying to make a point and it all went so terribly wrong. Please forgive me.) By the time I got around to the bordello, that’s when the interesting part began. That was about twenty words too late (don’t make me count the words).

This query letter got me a response rate of about ten percent. So I rewrote the query letter.  Now it said:

What happens when a woman finds out that her own rapist is responsible for her spiritual awakening?

Now, it’s not perfect.  “What happens when” is a bit hackneyed. But my response rate tripled, and I was able to snare that genius rockstar barricuda that I later fired*, my agent Henry, and he sold House of Gentle Men in three days.

Remember, energy.  That’s what writers must bring to the party or they will be shunned like I was in high school.

*then crawled back ten years later, then fell down his stairs.

Dec 7 – The art of seduction

Type is born into this world with nothing. Music can capture its audience within one note.  It’s incorporated into the body and assimilated into the soul.  Photos, ambience, even the presence of a speaker all help in making the message welcome.  Writers, we are black type on a white page.  We have to earn our welcome and that is an increasingly uphill journey.  Some thoughts on snares and carrots:


Be brief.  For Human Misery can be contained in a single word:  Vegas.


When you say, I saw a horse in a field, you are saying this from your recliner. You are not saying anything the reader can’t say, not seeing anything they can’t see.

You must be willing to take the reader by the hand and guide them to that field.

I saw a roan stallion with a scar in the shape of broken wishbone, its hooves half-sunk in mud.

Now you’ve made the journey.  Your reader takes note of this sweat of your brow and the flecks of mud on your shirt as you slog toward that beast and put your hand on its warm, wet neck.


Although your writing doesn’t have the benefit of actual music, all great writing is musical.  The starts, the stops, the syllables, the pleasant zephyr of the dipthongs, the beagle-nip of a hard vowel, all conspire together to make the song that is your novel or screenplay or headline or email.  And songs make people feel.


§ 16 Responses to Secret Writing Advice

  • Debbie Bowie says:

    Can’t wait to read this all the time Kathy! You are my hero. Um, I meant heroine.

  • Scott says:

    This is very good, Kathy. Definitely following.

  • Eric Hall says:

    Even your writing advice is more lyrical and gripping than my stories. 🙂

  • I also appreciate all your advice on this topic, Eric. I just didn’t have a good electrocution story for you.

  • Christine Blum says:

    Umm, helpful but brief. What would really be great is if I sent you the recliner-written, beginning pages of my low concept novel, and you edit, adapt and add until it becomes something publishable. (I will remember you for this in my dedication)

  • Mexican Jockey / Horse Whisperer says:

    I sit here smuggly in the knowledge that “ONLY I” have insider information as to the TRUE source of your writing prowess. Your horse example is so startlingly real! So vivid! One might think you’d have to BE a horse to pen such an authentic depiction. BRAVO.

    A small monthly stipend sent to my address will keep your secret secure.

    Perhaps a good topic for your next writing advice article: ” THE POWER OF WORDS IN CAPS”

    Luv Ya.

  • Eric Hall says:

    It’s 124. The second sentence is a fragment, yes? What is full of venom? Yeah, I know. In this case, proper grammar is coyote food.
    Thanks for sharing your vision on these things. It’s something that I have a hard time with — I may never actually “get it”. Much like not knowing what color of shirt goes with those pants (which is why I always wear Levi’s), I need help with sound an rhythm. Practice, practice and repeat.

  • Josh Sisco says:

    I’m loving this section Kathy. “Wry” does taste like a lemon, and “awry” tastes like sour apple jolly rancher.

  • Well said and so true. Writing is musical. The great poet Stanley Kunitz, in an interview with the Paris Review said (and I always come back to this):

    “The struggle is between incantation and sense. There’s always
    a song lying under the surface (of these poems). It’s an incantation
    that wants to take over—it really doesn’t need a language—all it
    needs is sounds. The sense has to struggle to assert itself, to mount
    the rhythm and become inseparable from it.”

    And I have never forgotten that. So I would add to your advice, read everything aloud as if it were a song and listen to the rhythms of the words. Because meaning and sense and feeling is also derived from that and can be very powerful.

  • Dexter Maven says:

    She speaks the truth.

    I saw her on, where she said she’d be flattered if someone read her books. I read the first one, then I e-mailed her.

    With sadness, she gave me what she thought was a delectable hint at a “turn” in the second book, which I figured out and spent the rest of the book as if I was sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car, staring outthe window as the trees whistled by and bummed that the last day of vacation was over. Are we there yet?

    She was beautiful and, more importantly, smart, but she liked guys with long hair. Would I be willing to grow mine? It’s not me. Could it be? Is that what a relationship is about? My hair? What does the length of my hair say about me? Dude, wake up. What does it say about her?

    I showed interest; not reciprocated. Best move on. Stop. Best move on.

    I never read her third book. I didn’t want to ‘figure it out’ and, then, feel some obligation to finish it just because… Because I am nice guy, and I finish things. Not this time. Let it go. Grow your hair anyways… just because.

    I don’t understand women.

    She wants equal rights and equal pay and the right to vote. She wants the right to yell at me if I open a door for her, the right to shout “Don’t touch me” in public if I accidentally brush her. She says she wants to be equal in everything. I’m for that.

    No. It would never work. She doesn’t want the truth enough. Who burns her bra for the right to sign up for the draft?

    So, is the last line cutting the reader?

    • Dexter Maven says:

      That is, does the last line show the ability to bring the reader a cut, “a stark sense of reality”?

      Women want equal rights, but most don’t really want to fight for the right to sign up for the draft and die for their country as men are required to do when they reach age 18.

      The coercion comes that men cannot get federal financial aid for college unless they do sign up for the draft–even to this day. If you want to get a federal job, proof of Selective Service System compliance is still mandatory. None of this is required of a female.

      There are benefits to marching for the right to vote (political power), the benefit of equal pay (economic power), but what benefit is there to be gained to sign up for the draft (duty and sacrifice) as men are required to do? I don’t know of a single women’s group that is fighting for this? Why? The conclusion, I think, is obvious. As humans, we want equal levels of power, but we rarely want equal levels of responsibility if it isn’t to our advantage.

      Just look at our tax code and ask yourself why single people generally pay a higher tax rate than married people. I don’t hear married people arguing for the same tax rate as single people or fighting for it. Why? It’s not in a married person’s interest to fight for the equality of someone else.

      We really don’t want to fight for equal “equal” rights. We really only want to spend our time and energy on those things that lead to increasing our equality and power; we rarely have the time to seek equality for someone else–let them fend for themselves. We might support the intellectual notion of equality, but on a pragmatic basis most of us want to keep our favored statuses in societies and relationships.

  • JPlo says:

    Great stuff, Kathy. Thanks for sharing.

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