A book full of jokes is not nearly as funny as watching a comedian do his act. I bought this book because Seinfeld said in an interview, pressed on this exact point, that really it’s a book for writers. I’m probably the only writer who believed him and ordered the hard cover.
The book is divided by decade, beginning with the 70s. This is when Jerry began writing jokes. They were short.
Still, I persisted. Maybe, I thought, he would have a little commentary on how to write humor at the beginning of the 80s section. He did not. Just more jokes. The jokes got longer and more complex in the 90s and beyond, but I wasn’t reading them anymore. I was looking on every page for writing wisdom. Particularly, I wanted to amp up my humor.
My editor says my novels have a “subtle” humor. The trouble with being subtle is that quiet ironies may land a bit too softly for others to recognize. I looked at every page of Jerry’s book. Twice. There was no writing advice anywhere within. There were witticisms by the dozens, jokes on every page, and, although I laughed a lot, I received zero advise on how to prod others do so while turning my pages.
To give him credit, he never said it was advice he was giving the reader. It was jokes, specifically, every joke he’d ever written. I realized he was teaching by example. I prefer things spelled out. My stomach hurt from laughing; I almost stopped reading, but then I noticed how he set his jokes up. The early ones had three parts and as he got better the jokes became much more complex. Funnier. If Jerry was a bottle of wine, he’d age well.
The other thing I noticed was his page breaks. I am writing this post in block format. It’s what people are used to seeing when they read anything on the internet. Before the internet we had indentation, not a space between paragraphs. But Jerry chose neither of these forms. His jokes were, I finally noticed, printed like poems.
Most people, I assume, know what poems look like. The lines break in the middle of a sentence. Or anywhere. It can seem random if you are not a reader of contemporary poetry and/or do not have an MFA in English. But I finally recognized the poem pattern and it dawned on me. Jerry was writing in joke lines. The early ones from the 70s were the simplest. The first sentence or phrase would be the set up. The second bit was an elaboration. And the third was the punchline.
This was the lesson for writers. Genius, right? He was showing instead of telling. I tried using Jerry’s method in the first few paragraphs of this post and then threw in a few more. Trying to be funny is exhausting.
“Show don’t tell” is another thing writing teachers say to new writers. It’s not always true, because sometimes you need to tell. Everyone knows how to tell. Showing is harder, and I tried to do that, too. But I’m no Jerry Seinfeld.
The first book in my new mystery series, Jane in St. Pete, is available now. As a thank you for stopping by, I’m offering a free short story prequel.
I am no artist, but I do find it helpful when writing a novel to sketch out the main area of action for easy reference. Location in mysteries is important. Where was the body found? Where do suspects live? In my case I can’t keep an entire condo community that includes a bayou and nature trails and who can see what from their condo window all in my head.
I use watercolors my artist friend Ali sent me for Christmas a few years ago for two reasons. One, the use of color quickly locates the pool, for example, or shows orientation from one building to the others. I only put four condo blocks in my imaginary community just to keep things simple. The other thing is color cheers me up, no matter how sloppily applied to the paper.
At times, it’s nice to just switch over from writing to drawing. I spent a bit of time on the above masterpiece, as I used Prisma colored pencils as well as a regular No. 2 pencil before the final wash of watercolor. The Prismas make colors and shapes step a bit boldly to the forefront of the watercolor. Can you find my gator in the bayou? Top left corner. LOL this is NOT what I was going to blog about today!
So, back to writing and how to do it book after book year after year. You have to start and it won’t be pretty. I read an interview with Jerry Seinfeld and he said looking back on his early jokes, they weren’t very good, but those early words were the bridge to get him to where he is now. (Rich and famous.) He actually has a new book, a memoir, and he calls it a writer’s book. Because he shows how the placement and construction of his words make the jokes work.
So you need to start on one side of the bridge to eventually reach the other. Every day, writers open their notebooks or laptops and start at the beginning of the bridge. What helps is to have some little sliver of something in mind. I often wake up with a sliver and bring it to the bridge. It can be anything. Part of a conversation. An image. I usually know a little bit about where I’m going, and that’s all I need to cross that bridge.
Because when I start with that sliver, there is some kind of mechanism I don’t understand (maybe magic, grace, imagination, or all of them) that takes my fingers and types words. 3-5 pages a day on my very good days. The more you show up with your sliver, the more good days you will have.
This bridge/sliver/magic feels like flying. Not in a plane, or even like Superman, but just sort of your floating mind zipping along, keeping pace as your fingers cross the cosmic bridge. Does that sound fun? It is. That’s why I do it. It is SO fun. After 3-5 pages I blink and feel a long rush of deep pleasure. I did it again! And then it happens again and again, as long as I show up with my sliver and laptop.
It’s more complicated than it sounds. You should have a plot map of some sort for mysteries. Mystery Writing Plot Map may even even pop up on a search engine. If not, many many books show you how to make them. Characters, setting, murder details, clues help you dream up the sliver.
Then there’s the other thing. Every scene has to have a purpose. Either move the plot forward or show character development. Twists are good too, but not too many. I don’t worry too much about my scenes having purpose in a first draft. Reading through a completed draft, I check every scene. Does it need to be there? Why? I am sorry to say that you must do this on the sentence level and the word level too. How does this sentence contribute to the story? If it doesn’t, but it’s beautifully written or uses a cool word, you have to cut it.
Some famous writer called this revision process at the sentence and word level “killing your darlings.” Because sometimes you can write things you really love but they just do not serve the plot. Or, you could be a poet and not a mystery novelist at all. You get to decide. Everything is within your power. It’s your world, you made it. Maybe you even made a painting.
Seinfeld’s book is called “Is This Anything?” The interviewer, Mara Reinstein, asks why his fans might want to read his jokes instead of listening to him tell them. He said he wanted to show the crazy amount of time and work he spends crafting his jokes. Then he said “I think this is a book for writers.” I’m buying it.
In writing and in life, there are rules. The words “creative” and “writing” don’t always coexist, even for fiction writers. Yes, it’s creative to come up with a great plot full of surprises and twists and insights, but in setting that plot down on the page, there are constant rules. Sentences! Spelling! Grammar! And so on.
Genre writers have even more rules. Happy Ever After for romance writers. The criminal will be captured and made to pay in mystery. Those are the biggest rules and there are so many more that, should you be lucky enough to find an editor or agent to read your manuscript, you’ll hear them all. There are also books and workshops and classes and blog posts that will give you the rules as they understand them. Many writers will attempt to abide by these rules because they want to be published.
Yet something strange happens if you adhere too closely to these rules as a writer. You lose the creative impulse that spurred you on to write in the first place. You paint by number. You give your publisher and your readers more of the same, book after book. Readers expect it. Publishers demand it.
The art of creating something new is the thrill and now it’s gone. But if you persist in your specific vision, if your work is both original and compelling, it might win you acclaim, prizes and money. Or not. So following the rules as a creative writer brings risk, just as, recently, gathering in public is a risk. Certainly if you are not wearing a mask, you pose a risk to others.
I hate the mask, but I wear it because I try to live by the rule of “First, do no harm.” If you are out in public in a crowd without a mask, you may be doing many people harm. I used to suffer with my mask and become annoyed, even angered, by those who went without. Why were they being so selfish? Didn’t they understand that the mask is not only to protect themselves, but to protect others?
There are several answers to this question of why people do not obey the health guidelines to wear a mask in pubic. There’s not a thing I can do to change a single one of these folks’ minds. I wouldn’t even try. So I simmer in anger and bitterness, which I dislike almost as much as the mask.
The Buddhists have a solution, of sorts, to my anger at people who refuse to wear masks in public. It’s not easy, but it works. Anger and other negative emotions are the perfect opportunity to practice compassion. The practice goes like this: you find yourself angry because the person is not following a rule, you recognize you are angry, you turn your anger into prayer for this person, and for all persons like them.
It’s akin to the Christian rule to love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus on the cross. “May all humans be free from suffering,” loosely translates the practice of turning your own anger into compassion. For a person not wearing a mask in a crowded public space, the prayer might be “May this person (or these people) awaken to the need to protect their brothers and sisters from this virus.”
On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all the women and men who have lost their lives fighting wars for our country. And I honor all of those who have lost the fight against this virus. Namaste.
Al and I had our first big fight last week. Lasted all day. It was stupid, too. Not insignificant, but I had to look back in my morning pages to remember what happened. The day that should have been happy (I got my first edits! I was excited to dive in!) ) started out wrong. I just wanted to get to work but I got an early text from a friend in dire need of whatever advice or comfort I could muster. It was pretty heavy stuff, not mine to share.
But it was there, inside me, weighing on my heart. I was just going to have to take my heavy heart into the guest room, where I’d set up shop for editing…but first Al needed some information from me. Just a password and user name. We’ve both applied for our retirement paperwork down here in Florida and that might not have been so smart. Everything has to go USPS to our home in Michigan then forwarded down to Florida.
Who knew this would be so difficult and inefficient? Me, that’s who. I’d heard from friends how easy it is to do all this stuff either online or in person. I wanted to do it last November! Al said not to worry, he had it all covered, he’d been to see the benefit rep at the plant. I pretty much put it all out of my mind. Then the paperwork began. Almost immediately, things went wrong. All along the process, we did our usual thing of saving names and notes from phone calls, new passwords from websites, doctor and drugstore names and numbers, we had it all and we filed it.
Except I misfiled one password that Al needed right that minute. He was online and he had to pay a bill. I looked in the files. Nothing. I tried to log in. Nothing. I tried a few other things. Nope. This system had never heard of me although I’d spent the day with them quite recently. After about an hour of searching, I gave Al the bad news. He was tense and his short fuse blew. At me. How could I not save an important password? Etc. I gave him one final sheet of paper with a unique user name and password.
“It might be this,” I said, sure I’d found the correct way into the system. I couldn’t resist reminding him of the benefit rep’s words: “Don’t worry about your wife, it’s you we need to get set up first” (which turned out to be incorrect as I am a couple months older than Al). Before he could retort, I held up my hand like a stop sign. Then I went into the guest room where work awaited. I took those inflammatory words “Don’t worry about your wife” in there with me. I’m not as healthy (mentally or physically) as Al, and my delicate constitution absolutely requires worry, upset and medication.
Would we ever get our retirement life settled? I popped half a Xanax before anxiety and anger spiraled into fear and tears. There in my temporary writing room, with my beloved things around me (books, laptop, phone, notebook, pen, desk with beautiful chair) I piled pillows and propped myself on the handy bed. I checked the time. Not yet noon. Perhaps the day could be saved. I checked email. And Facebook. And Instagram. Also Twitter. Since I don’t tend to spend a lot of time on those sites, I felt like I’d accomplished something. Everybody knows writers need to use social media. Why? Hmmm. Not promotion, exactly. Just to keep in touch. Especially in a pandemic.
Then, all caught up online, I read a little bit from the Regency romance novel I was then enjoying. (I have been on an absolute Mary Balogh binge for months now.) There was no joy. So I tried to take a nap. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t even meditate. Naturally, all I could think about was Al not worrying about me. Ever. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I hadn’t even looked at the document I was supposed to be annotating. And I hadn’t eaten anything.
I sailed through the living room where he was reclining on the sofa, perusing his iPad, and into the kitchen. Dirty pots and pans and plates and bowls and coffee cups lay on every surface. Really? He couldn’t even do his own dishes?! I grabbed a yogurt and went back into the guest/writing room. We didn’t speak. I didn’t even look at him. But I was seething. After yogurt, I decided to get down to work. Then I noticed it was getting on to 4 o’clock when my dear Nicolle Wallace reports the news on Deadline White House.
We have a guest room television, but somehow it was already a little after 4 pm. and her opening monologue is my favorite part of the show. And we only tape shows in the living room. So I went out and happily Al had gone on his daily walk. I sometimes go with him, but no invitation had been forthcoming on this day. He probably thought I was working. Earlier in the week, he’d moved my desk into the one room in the house he had no reason to enter. He knew I’d gotten my edits, he knew I had a plan.
A plan that had been thrown a curve. Plans have been doing that a lot since the onset of the 2020 great lockdown. I watched Nicolle. She was wearing one of her colorful tops. Even in her basement, she is brilliant, pithy, and impeccably detailed. She cracks wise at appropriate moments to ease the tense news of the day, smiling wide. When the world seems like it’s falling apart, Nicolle will make you think things are maybe going to be okay again someday soon. Meanwhile, here are the facts and don’t forget we’re all in this together.
After the news, I went back into the writing/guest room and opened my document. I worked on it for a few hours, and Al peeked his head in the door. “David?” he asked. That’s what he says when he wonders if I’m ready for the national news. David is David Muir. I like to compare how cable news and national news report the stories of the day. It’s amazing how much David leaves out, but he faithfully reports the bullet points.
“Okay,” I said. We walked down the hall toward the living room. “Do you know what I was doing today?”
“Yep.” I said. “What did you do about the payment?”
“Oh that. I mailed it.”
I went into the kitchen for a glass of wine. Which I felt I had earned. The kitchen was spotlessly clean. I pulled together some cheese and crackers and fruit, too. Of course I made enough for both of us. First fight as a retired couple in-a-pandemic-with-edits-due over.
PS I finished my edits the next day and got them to my editor. She said they look fine. Our next round will be in a few weeks, when we’re back in Michigan. And I have a real writing room.
It’s almost comical, the way Al and I made a two-year plan for when he retired. He really had it nailed–or most of it. Then came coronavirus. Is there any area of our lives have not been affected by this disease? No. There is not. It is the same for you. The “stay home” part of the plan to beat this virus is not difficult for me. Writers already know how to spend long periods of time in isolation. Time collapses when we write.
I’m not writing now. Well, yes, I blog and scribble morning pages, but I’m not starting my next novel. I’m not yet editing the novel to be published this year. I WILL do the edits and all the other book actions when they come. Writers are the original work-from-home people. We’re used to it and we like it. Except it’s all different now, isn’t it?
My anxiety about a loved one catching the virus is not unique. That every one of my soothing and pleasurable routines in the world has been minimized to what I can do inside this little condo is the same for everyone the world over. I’ve almost adjusted my anxiety to going with whatever comes next. The parts of life where I can’t make any plans with certainty. Still we talk about our retirement, how we can reconfigure it this way and that. We both know none of it is up to us. It is all up to the virus.
The only control anyone really has is over their mind, their speech, and their actions. My mind can feel wild as a jungle. My speech, well, I could do better sometimes. Some of my actions are questionable at best. The Buddha says “First, do no harm.” So I stay home, wear a mask when I must go out, wash my hands when I return. Those are all right actions. I try hard to do no harm.
But what about my the harm I do my own self? I have been an emotional eater since I quit smoking 35 years ago. I’ve made many attempts at controlling this behavior that feels so good but has done a fair amount of harm to my body. Also, I often choose to read rather than go on a walk with Al. Even though there are 23 other hours in the day when I can read to my heart’s content. Reading comforts me, but I go too far. My body needs fresh air and a walk every day weather permits. I feel guilty about how I have overlooked it.
This morning I cued up “Here Comes the Sun” and did a series of sun salutations. That’s treating my body right.
Al has been so patient and kind with me. He also painted the kitchen. My words to him are kind…most of the time. But my actions reject his attempts to help me help myself. And my anxious mind is so out of control even daily meditation doesn’t remove the need for medication. I bet walking would help. And eating more vegetables. Some scientists recently discovered eating vegetables make you happy. They kick up the endorphins. They feed the mind and the body.
So, when it feels like everything is out of control, take a breath. Are your thoughts, speech and actions in alignment with what you know in your soul is right? When you can’t control anything else, remember, you can, with practice and patience, control your speech, thoughts, and actions. Take an internal inventory. For example, I’m not buying any more dairy free ice cream. I thought I needed and deserved sugar in these impossible times. But I didn’t. I just wanted a quick fix. Better to work on the best action, which is helping my body turn away from diabetes and to take that daily walk.