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How to be Cruel to be Kind

Advice to writers.


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Still from Galaxy Quest starring Sigourney Weaver as Gwen DeMarco

As well as acerbic, Dorothy Parker was also a realist: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

 

She had two excellent points: although first published in 1918 (and regularly updated ever since) William Strunk Jr’s classic “How to” guide on writing plain English is still worth careful study. It is readily available and the aspiring should acquire a copy and read it.

 

Her second – more oblique – point was the use of that word “aspire”. The fact is, many do and few make it to the top of the literary mountain. Those that cluster in the foothills tapping at their keyboards could heed the words of a creative writing teacher who, when told by an aspiring but hopeless student: “I know I have a book in me,” said, “That’s the best place for it, keep it there, why don’t you.”

 

The thing is, just because you can peck out words on a laptop, have access to the internet and know how to use publishing software, is no reason to suppose you can or should be a writer. This is particularly true of the earnest types who post on Facebook or their personal blogs about “my muse” and her presence or absence. Muses have destroyed more trees and pixels than is socially acceptable because they absolve the writer of responsibility for her actions – or inaction. The latter resulting in endless dribblings on the personal blog about how hard it all is.   

 

Back in 1966, Susan Sontag wrote, “perversity is the muse of modern literature” and whatever she meant by it, let’s take it to mean: get off your tail and go find a job, or stop moaning and get on with it. Write.

 

At the same time, when you do write, it’s also a good idea to think about what it is that you are writing. I mean, have you any idea how many authors of lesbian romances  appear not to think at all when writing? No, neither have I, but it’s a lot. For instance, as well as the unlikely prevalence of green-eyed heroines (an earlier column) lesbian romantic heroines do another weird thing.

 

They slam their eyes shut. Yes, really. And yes, I know – you’re trying it right now and for all your efforts, it’s just not possible to make the essential “slam!” sound required of the act of slamming when what your eyelids are doing is…closing. Lest you doubt, here’s a sample of eye-slamming taken at random and with names removed to protect the guilty – and me from their wrath.

 

“When her limbs refused to move she slammed her eyes closed,”  “Chris’s tongue twirled around her nipple, making it even harder. Mary Jo’s eyes slammed shut.” “Kim’s eyes slammed shut and an inarticulate cry was torn from her throat.” “Her eyes slammed shut and she cried out.”  “Candace’s eyes slammed shut as she tilted her pelvis and slid two fingers deep inside herself.” “‘Oh, God,’ she whispered, her eyes slamming shut.” “‘You too.’ Dana gasped and her eyes slammed shut.” And finally, She slammed her eyes shut to block the image from her mind.”

 

 

Yet if writing is still the goal, don’t wait for your muse, just get on and do it. If still lacking motivation, try a viewing of Galaxy Quest, the movie that’s more inspirational than Ayn Rand – and in a good way. Thrill to Captain Jason Nesmith’s exhortation, “Never give up. Never surrender.” Or maybe Gwen DeMarco is more your speed when she says, “Ducts? Why is it always ducts?”

 

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