writer

WHY I DO IT

Why do you blog?

A friend asked me why I blog. Which is the same as asking me why I write and take pictures. I felt like asking her why she breathes because writing and shooting is like breathing to me, but instead, I asked her why she plays golf.

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She is a fine sportswoman and can’t imagine living a life in which she can’t play or compete. That’s as much who she is as her face.

I write because I have a head full of words. I take pictures because I see them wherever I go. These things are as much part of me as my face or my feet. I can no sooner not write as not breathe.

Go figure.

ADVICE FOR BABY BLOGGERS

I’ve gained a slew of new followers recently. If I can, I check out all the my followers. I go look at their websites, if there is one … or even a profile. It’s because I’m trying to get a handle on who’s who, figure out what made them click the “Follow” button.

Sometimes it’s easy. It’s a fellow photographer or writer. Maybe we’ve had a passing encounter via his or her website. Or they have an interest in what I write about, are my generation, love the same movies or share a passion for history. Or the same taste in books.

Quite a few are probably spammers hoping to gain entry to my site. I can block them from commenting, but I can’t block them from following. Anyone can follow whoever they want. I wish it were otherwise.

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A bunch of them are from countries whose language I don’t speak, often whose alphabet I can’t read. I think some of them are photographers and come for the pictures, but I can’t always tell for sure.

And then there are the baby bloggers. Not merely new to blogging, but … well … children. Teenagers as young as 12 or 13 years old. Girls who aspire to a career in fashion (why in the world do they follow me? I’m the most unfashionable person I know!) and some who want to be writers or photographers. Many who aren’t sure what they want, but have discovered blogging. They follow me, hoping I’ll follow in return and help them build a following of their own. I get that.

If blogging had been an option when I was that age, I’d have been doing it. For a creative kid, blogging is a godsend. So much better than a diary, which was my best option.

It’s hard to get a blog off the ground. There are weeks, months — even years — before it begins to come together. So when these kids ask me if I’ll follow them or imply as much, I’ll at least give their site a read, a “like,” a comment and maybe some encouragement. I’m already following more blogs than I have time to read. I’m loathe to add more, though now and then I do add one anyway.

Some of these baby bloggers are surprisingly good. Their observations are astute and sensitive, their photographs show a fine eye for composition. Others — not so much. Some need to learn the rudiments of composition and basics like focusing, cropping. Many more need to learn the difference between writing and texting.

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For all you youngsters who want to be writers, I would like to offer you some unsolicited advice:

  • Use real words, not internet abbreviations or hacker slang
  • Check your spelling
  • Write sentences and paragraphs
  • Leave some white space on the page. All text and graphics makes me claustrophobic
  • Punctuation is not optional. Discover how exciting commas and periods can be
  • Do not end every sentence with one or more exclamation points!!! Really, just don’t!!! If you do that all the time, it makes you sound hysterical!!!
  • Use emoticons sparingly :-)
  • Contractions require apostrophes. It’s don’t, not dont, can’t, not cant.

If you want adults to read your posts — anyone older than your texting pals — you will have to write in a way older folks can understand. It’s not just the words you use.

It’s also subject matter. I’m mildly interested in what’s going on with your generation,  but makeup and gossip don’t hold much appeal for me. If you are going to write about things that only interest your high school friends, your only followers will be the kids who attend your school. Maybe that’s enough for you. But if you want a wider audience, find topics that interest a broader audience.

Most importantly, make sure that you write in a real language, not text-speak. Please.

Beware Exasperated Kidneys: Can You Spell-Check Disaster?

Some years back, there was an incident in the Boston Police Department‘s boot camp. In an attempt to be as tough as any Marine Corps drill instructor, the BPD instructor in charge of recruits forced a group of newbies to stay at hard exercise during one of the hottest days of the summer, without rest, food or water.

One of the recruits died when his kidneys failed. He had an undetected pre-existing condition. Dehydration proved fatal. This was a tragedy and a scandal.

The Boston Herald is one of the city’s two leading papers. The Globe is now owned by the New York Times and wants to be taken seriously. They have excellent writers and often the most thorough and unbiased coverage of important news. The Herald is a tabloid with a really great sports section. Intellectuality be damned, if you follow the teams, you read the Herald. Besides, the Globe is ridiculously expensive on Sundays.

So, back to the story. As it unfolded, the Herald pointed out that the young man who had died was already afflicted with kidney problems which were exasperated by being forced to go without water, food or rest in extremely hot weather.

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I looked up from the paper and said to Garry, “This poor fellow suffered from exasperated kidneys. I can hear them now … (in a kidney voice) ‘That’s IT, I’ve HAD it, I’m OUTTA here …’ “

The dreaded spell-checker had struck again. The word had been exacerbated but the spell-checker didn’t know the word, so … the young man died of exasperated kidneys. What a pity. And so young, too.

There’s a moral to this story and that is (I hope) obvious and relevant to all of us who write or blog. Don’t depend on spell-checkers. They are helpful, but they are not intelligent. They are only nominally better than auto-correct … and we all know about that!

Spell-checkers don’t get context. Or style. You may want to say “my own” rather than simply “my.” The spell-checker will argue the point until you want to put your fist through the screen.

Proofreading is a big problem for all self-published writers, including bloggers. I’m tempted to give up on text and publish only pictures without captions. Even a headline could prove fatal. I am the typo queen. Worse, I hold the cut and paste error championship. When moving text, I can count on leaving something behind or taking something away that ought to have been left behind. It’s frustrating, it’s embarrassing and occasionally  funny … but not in a good way.

If I took everything to heart, I would have long since given up blogging. I do not have someone dedicated to proofreading and/or editing my copy. There are two reasons for this:

  1. No one wants to do it. They have other things to do (What? Something is more important than me? How could that be? Aren’t I the center of the universe?)
  2. No one I know is any better at proofreading than I am. I know this because I self-published a book. It was read and re-read by all my friends and family members and there are dozens of typos remaining.

Authors are generally lousy proofreaders of their own work. Sometimes, we are lousy proofreaders, period. As authors, we see what we meant, not necessarily what’s really on the page. It has nothing to do with sloppiness or not caring. Writing and proofreading are different skill sets. Hemingway didn’t have to do his own proofreading, nor did Thomas Wolfe. If they’d had to proof and edit their own copy without the excellent support of their publisher and Maxwell Perkins, they would never have made it into print. Nor would many of today’s most popular authors like Tom Clancy make it to print. Clancy, by his own admission is a very poor editor and proofreader … and in many people’s opinions, not a great writer, either, but I digress.

In the past few decades, editors and proofreaders have been mostly eliminated as too costly. Authors are expected to present press-ready manuscripts. Unless you are one of a publisher’s big money-making authors, there’s a very high likelihood that no one will read your manuscript before sending it for publication.  The result has been visibly lower quality manuscripts. You see it in printed books and even more on e-books. The official position of publishers is nobody cares. But readers do care.

Who doesn’t care? Publishers don’t care. Readers don’t get a say in the matter. If we want to read, we learn to cope with and compensate for text errors. The absence of proofreaders and editors is part of cross-industry cost-cutting and bottom-lining. The idea is to keep eliminating support services until there are no more services to cut … and then be thunderstruck that your product has suffered.

I spend hours going over my posts and I still miss stuff. It’s infuriating and embarrassing, but no one has time or inclination to read everything I write. It’s my blog and my responsibility. Not everyone has someone to backstop blog posts. My choice has been to write shorter — and fewer — posts. Fewer words, fewer mistakes. As it is, I spend more time proofing than writing. Ten minutes to write the post, 2 hours or more to proofread. There aren’t enough hours in my day.

If this means people won’t read my stuff because I’m a crappy proofreader, then I throw my hands into the air and say fine, whatever. I agree punctuation and spelling count, but so does content. If punctuation and spelling are the only things that count, something is wrong with the reader, not just the writer.

But what about spell-checkers? Surely they will catch the typographical errors!

Yes and no. Remember exasperated kidneys? Spell-checkers will find words that are misspelled and occasionally a few words used incorrectly. Spell-checkers will never find words that are spelled correctly but should not be there (cut and paste errors). They will “decide” what you wrote should be something else — witness exasperated instead of exacerbated — because the word you used isn’t in their database. Spell-checkers only catch misspellings. They won’t catch a missing word, a wrong word, an extra word. If you let them, they will change your text to mean something quite different.

There’s no convenient, simple answer. In the end, we do the best we can with whatever resources are available.  If perfection is going to be a requirement for blogging, most of us would give up. Perfection will never be achieved by anyone. Or at least, not by me.

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Blurbs

The other day I had to write a couple of blurbs. It was a job – as in paying. Really. Try not to fall out of your chair. (No blog readers were harmed in the writing of this post.)

Along the twisting path of my professional life, my first big (read: good) job was as a promotional writer for Doubleday. I was editor for two book clubs, the Doubleday Romance Library and The American Garden Guild. It was a job so wonderful I never fully recovered. Aside from the perks — 2-hour lunches, unlimited sick days and all the books you could eat — my colleagues were intelligent, funny, literate and one of them is my best friend.

The work was fun too. It hardly seemed like work. I never stopped being amazed someone would pay me to do something I enjoyed so much. I got paid to read books on company time. Imagine getting paid to read best-sellers. Mind boggling, isn’t it?

After reading them, I would write them up for various book clubs like Doubleday Book Club and Literary Guild for which everyone wrote because they were the biggest clubs and had the most mailings and promotions. All told, we were 13 writers and 15 graphic artists, plus a few editors. I was a writer (big surprise).

Each writer had his or her club or clubs for which we did the mailings, promotions, flyers, blurbs, book flaps … whatever. It was advertising, sort of, but not exactly. Promotions are closely related to advertising, but not quite the same though there’s an overlap.

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The thing is, we lived and died by the blurb. Book flaps (the fold over pieces of a book jacket) are long blurbs. Promotional mailers can be long or short or downright tiny. One way or the other, you had to fit a lot of stuff in a very small space because how many characters you could use (no not words, characters … including punctuation and spaces) was determined by the layout. Which was designed by the graphic artist … not known for flexibility.

Sometimes you could negotiate a little with an artist (always be very nice to the artists … they control your space) if you absolutely couldn’t work in the allotted space. Usually there wasn’t much room for negotiations. If you had 1000 characters, you might be able to stretch it to 1050, but 50 characters isn’t much flexibility. So you learned to write to whatever space you were given. Or got a job doing something else.

Everything counts when have a 100-word blur. You can’t explain. You imply. Suggest. You can’t use sentences. You write words. Exclamations. You can’t tell a story yet you have to give at least a general outline of what the book’s about.

It’s interesting reducing the complex plot of a 500 page book to 100 words. That’s what I did. I hadn’t done it since the mid 1970s, so I wasn’t sure I still knew how, but it turns out it’s like riding a bike but you don’t break anything if you fall off.

I did it. Pretty well. One blurb, 250 words. Exactly. Second blurb. 100 words. Precisely.

One complete sentence. The rest? Murder! Chaos! Poison! Kidnapping! Secrets! Thrilling adventure from the author of …

If you are a writer and think this is easy, try describing your favorite book in 100 words. Exactly. Then tell me it’s easy. If you have to write it for your own book? No writer should have to do blurbs for his or her own book. It’s cruel and unusual punishment. Like someone asking you to describe your leg. I always went blank when asked. My book was like a body part. I couldn’t separate myself from it sufficiently to say anything intelligent. I still can’t and it’s 6 years later.

It took me almost a year to remember how to write whole sentences after I left Doubleday. I wish I could go back. Those really, truly, absolutely were the good old days.

The Committee Meeting

Sunlight is sneaking through the blinds. Morning has come again.

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Brain to Marilyn: Hey, get up. I’ve got stuff to do.

Marilyn to Brain: Shut up. I’m tired. Let me sleep or I swear I’ll take a pill and shut you down.

Brain (sullen): Fine. Be that way.

Marilyn drifts off to sleep for half an hour.

Brain: How about that dream I sent you eh?

Marilyn: That was horrible. Why did you do that?

Brain: I thought it was cool the way I turned butterflies into flying monsters. You didn’t like it?

Marilyn: No, I did not like it. And right now, I don’t like you.

Brain to Marilyn: Logic and Emotion are going at it again. Wow, this one’s a real knock down drag out fight. Loud, huh.

Marilyn to Logic and Emotion: If you guys don’t cut it out, I’m going to stop this car and you are both getting a time-out.

Logic and Emotion in chorus: HE STARTED IT MOM!

Marilyn to Logic and Emotion: I don’t care who started it. SHUT UP! I need sleep!

Logic and Emotion together (meekly): Sorry Mom. Don’t be mad …

Brain to Marilyn: I have a message from Spine. She says you need to take something for pain. Spine is unhappy.

Marilyn to Brain: Spine is always unhappy.

Brain to Marilyn: Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Oh, and Bladder needs a trip to the bathroom.

Marilyn: Oh fine.

Muttering all the way, Marilyn gets up, hauls self to bathroom. Comes back with Tylenol. Takes pills, crawls into bed pulling covers over head. Sighs and settles into the embrace of the most comfortable bed in the world.

Brain to Marilyn: Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story! How about you write about our morning chats, huh? Wouldn’t that be neat? Come on, get up before you forget everything. Lazy daisy get your butt outta bed.

Marilyn to Brain: I haven’t had 6 hours of sleep yet. I’m too tired to write.

Brain to Marilyn: You are never too tired to write! Get up, get up, it’s morning.

Sounds: Dogs howling, yapping, more howling.

Marilyn: Can you make the dogs shut up?

Brain: Sorry, no direct access to doggie brains.

Marilyn to Brain: Okay. You win. I’m up, I’m up. Coffee. I hope we aren’t out of half and half. I’m never going to get a whole night’s sleep. I’m going to die of permanent, chronic sleep deprivation. I hope you are all proud of yourselves.

The mournful howl of canines is heard in the background. Day has begun. Soon there will be coffee and all will be well. Tired, but well.

Light From On High

Write? Right?

After 35 years as a technical writer, I am discovering many aspiring writers secretly — maybe not so secretly — want to write user guides. While invoking a glamor by calling their work fiction, their truest heart’s desire is to write dry narrative. We, the readers, should fill descriptive gaps from the overflowing richness of our imaginations.

If description is not the author’s job, who needs the author? If I can find all that imagery in my head, why should I read your book?

Everyone wants to be Ernest Hemingway. I’d rather read William Faulkner. Never exclude the possibility that what you want to write is not what people want to read.

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A wholesale willingness to discard pieces of our language appalls me. I’m not looking for the leanest, cleanest text. I love description. I revel in complexity. I adore rich language, word play, emotional depth, color and texture. I want my authors to carry me to unexplored and previously undreamt of realms. I wish to be transported on wings woven of words, to undertake soaring flights I would never achieve on my own. In my opinion, that is an author’s job. If not that, then what?

I deplore the overuse of any grammatical structure, but to suggest the complete elimination of adverbs and modifiers? Much of the beauty of the English language is the huge vocabulary available to us. And unlike German, Russian, and many Romance languages, English grammar is flexible, offering a wide variety of constructions. You aren’t locked into any rigid forms. You can place modifiers as you please and modify verbs, nouns and just about anything else.

The quote from Stephen King “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” has been tossed around a lot.

But I am sure it was not intended to suggest we eliminate adverbs. Read anything Stephen King has written and discover he is one of the richest users of English, as per the following clip from 11/23/63. Count, if you like, the number of adverbs and adverbial clauses. If you can.

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No author would advocate banning any part of speech. King’s admonition urges you to avoid overusing adverbs, not eliminating them because if you were to read a few lines further, he admits that ultimately, like everyone else he uses whatever parts of speech are right and most importantly, ensure that the reader understands what he means. Stephen King is not a great writer because his prose is so lean. He is a great writer because of its richness and creativity, the poetry of his words. Lean? Hardly.

Books need to be engaging, interesting. Writers need to love words. Everything ever written about writing is no more than a guideline. To write well you need to hear the music of words, the flow of them. You need to know when your narrative needs to be spare and when you need a glorious outpouring of rhythm and poetry. No one can teach you to write. It is a gift. You can learn to write better, but if you have no inherent talent for words, no amount of hard work will turn you into an author.

You can get away with virtually anything but if you bore your readers, they will never forget or forgive. And if by chance I’m reviewing your book? I won’t be counting your adverbs. Trust me, if I even notice parts of speech, you’ve already failed. Dismally (yes, it’s an adverb … cope).

Ultimately the only thing that matters is how your story and characters resonate with readers. You can create the most perfect text ever put on paper, but unless it’s interesting, readable, entertaining, gripping … I don’t care and neither will anyone else.

Worry less about style. Worry more about content.

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Daily Prompt: Million-Dollar Question: Why I Blog, But You Play Golf

A friend asked me why I do this, why I blog. So I asked her why she plays golf.

We do what we do because we love it, need to do it, or both. Writing is like breathing. If I don’t write, I suffocate. My friend needs to compete, to be active. To play golf or she will suffocate.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who have told me they want to be writers, but don’t know how to start. They want me to tell them how. Because they asked the question, I’m reasonably sure they will never be writers. If you are a writer, you write. No one has to tell you how or when. You will write and you will keep writing because it is not what you do, it is what you are. It is as much a part of you as your nose or stomach.

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I started writing as soon as I learned to read, which was about 45 minutes after someone handed me a book. It was as if a switch had been thrown in some circuit in my brain. Words felt right. Putting words on paper was exactly the same as speaking, but took longer. I didn’t mind the extra time because I could go back and fix written words. Being able to change my words and keep changing them until they said exactly what I wanted them to say was the grail.

I was awkward socially and my verbal skills were not well suited to my age and stage in life. I was not good at sports and no one wanted me on her team. In retrospect, I can understand why. But when I was a kid, it hurt. Games and other social activities let you become popular, make friends, and do those other things that matter to youngsters. I couldn’t do the regular stuff … but I could write and I could read and that gave me wings. I might be a klutz, but words let me build my own worlds.

I was consuming adult literature when I was so little that my mother had to run block with the librarian to make sure I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. I had to be told to stop reading so I would eat, sleep, or go outside. If I was writing, nothing could stop me. Some things never change.

If you are going to be a writer, you know it. Practice will make you a better writer, can help you understand how to build a plot  and produce books that publishers will buy, but writing itself is a gift. If you have it, you know it.

Writers have words waiting to be written, lining up for the opportunity to get put on paper or into the computer. It may take quite a while for you to find what your special area will be, fact or fiction. However it sorts out, you will write, professionally or as a private passion.

There are many gifts. Talent comes in an endless number of flavors. If you have the soul of a musician, you’ll find a way to make music. The same with painting, photography, drawing, running, hitting a baseball or throwing one so that it just skims that outer corner of the plate at 96 miles per hour. Mathematics, engineering, architecture … creativity and talent are as varied as the people who use it.

Gifts are given to us. It’s up to us to use our gifts as best we can. Not everyone is gifted, Plenty of people would give anything for gifts that you may take for granted. What is easy for you may be impossible for most people.

So my advice to all hopeful writers is simple. Write.

Don’t talk about it. Do it. Write a lot, as often as you can, even if most of it is awful and you never show it to anyone. Sooner or later, you’ll find your way to where you should be. If you don’t write, it is your loss, but it may also be the world’s loss. You will never know how good you can be if you don’t try.

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This blog is my way, in retirement, to find an outlet for the millions of words stuffed in my head, seething restlessly through my brain. Blogging is freedom in every sense. I have no deadlines to meet other than those I set myself. No editor is looking over my shoulder, I can write about anything and I have no word count to meet.

I hate golf. I can’t figure out why anyone would want to walk or ride around an enormous lawn hitting a little white ball. I can’t think of anything more boring … but I know a lot of golfers and they live for it. The rest of the week is just a pause between tee times.

So, if you don’t get why I write, that’s okay. You don’t have to get it. That I get it and can do it and other people actually read it … that’s enough for me. You do your thing, I’ll do mine. If I believe in anything, I believe with all my heart that we should all be what we were meant to be because that is the only route to any lasting happiness.

Daily Prompt: Morton’s Fork – Hobson may have a choice, but I don’t

I'm part of Post A Day 2012

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The question posed is as follows:

If you had to choose between being able to write a blog (but not read others’) and being able to read others’ blogs (but not write your own), which would you pick? Why?

For me, the answer is a no-brainer. I would write. Why? Because I am a writer. If I could not write, something in me would die. When asked “what are you,” I never immediately think I’m a wife, mother, grandmother or even that I’m a woman. I automatically and instantly respond that “I’m a writer.”

Being a writer is so much a part of my identity that if I am not that, then I am not sure what I am. Writing was my profession, but I was a writer before I earned my living writing. I have been out of the job market for more than a decade and I am still a writer.

Unlike other professions … and probably this is true of the arts in general, not just writing … what you do is more than how you earn your living. It’s a drive, an instinct, the way you synthesize your world and experiences. It stays with you as long as you breathe, long after the paychecks stop coming and often, even though the paychecks never started coming.

Writing is so deeply embedded in who I am that I cannot imagine not needing to write.  I think only death will stop me … and depending on how that works out, maybe not even that. If there’s an afterlife, I’ll be blogging about it.

Reading blogs is wonderfully inspirational for me and I would miss it greatly  … but there are books, newspapers, all other literary and news inputs. Writing can’t be replaced. There in no substitute for it. Nothing else could fill that space.

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  • “The 12-Foot Teepee (Book Review)”. Anti Essays. 5 Dec. 2012: NOTE: This is a review of my novel. It is supposed to be free and available, but the site on which it is posted (Anti Essays) says that due to technical difficulties, none of the free essays on the site are accessible without paying them money. Do NOT pay them money. Read what you can without payment (which is most of the essay, fortunately) and then forget it. They call it a technical problem. I call it fraud.
  • Daily Prompt: Hobson’s Choice (writinglikeastoner.wordpress.com)
  • Daily Prompt: Hobson’s Choice (burningfireshutinmybones.wordpress.com)
  • Why read blogs? (bottledworder.wordpress.com)

 

Getting Personal

 

Today a friend asked me how, in photographs, I was willing to reveal parts of my life that many consider too private to share: my office, our bedroom, our personal world. I hadn’t even thought about it until she asked. I had been entirely focused on the picture and the light. For me, it was a visual challenge; whether or not it was intimate never entered my mind.

But that got me to thinking. The willingness to stand naked in front of strangers, in front of the whole world, is at the core of being an artist. If you can’t let the world see you, warts and all, you won’t create things that feel “true” in the deepest sense of the word.

Once upon a time, I was young and trying to write fiction. Although I was good at many kinds of writing, my fiction was always flat. I never understood exactly what was wrong with it, but I knew it wasn’t good. Nonetheless, I persisted in endlessly submitting material to editors in hopes that someone would like one of my stories enough to publish it.

One day, an editor took the time to tell me what she felt was the problem with my writing.

“You write,” she said, “As if you are afraid your mother is going to read it.”

Talk about stunned. She had hit the nail on the head. I really was afraid my mother would read it. Literally. Moreover, I was afraid I’d tell a truth that would hurt someone’s feelings or reveal something intimate about myself that I didn’t want known. Despite knowing my fear of emotionally exposing myself was blocking my ability to write the way I wanted to, I couldn’t change. Only after my mother and brother had passed did I finally write something truly honest.

When people tell you to write about what you know, they don’t merely mean that you should write about places and things that are familiar. They mean that you should draw on your own life, your own experiences and feelings, because from that well will come your best work.

I never wrote a great novel and I never will. It turns out that you need more than a knack for words and dialogue to write fiction. You also need the ability to develop a plot and characters, an ability I lack. I do know that every good piece of work I’ve done, whether a photograph or writing, sprang from genuine passion. You can’t fake it. You’ve got to feel it.