How “scrib-something” in a podcast changed my writing life.

Rising action (of a mild, reflective kind)

My wall awaited. My stockpile of comic-novel timeline raw materials awaited. I will get to that, I told myself. And told myself. Then one day, tired of the self-harangue, I went on a walk and listened to a podcast interview of author Gail Carriger by a certain Evan Christopher. (I think, Evan; English accent, American ears.) The Christopher fellow briefly waxed gushingly about scib-something writing software. Carriger said she would check it out. Me, too, I thought. Why? Because when I listen to a podcast, I eschew saying things out loud.

Scrivener’s neat yin-and-yang ripoff logo with commas appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities; and that literatureandlatte.com is their website appeals to my “that makes no sense whatsoever but I like it” sensibilities.

Back in the office, I discovered that scrib-something was in fact Scrivener. (Google! Is there a better spellchecker for the severely spelling challenged?) I went to the website. I read. The progression of my comprehension went as follows:

1.) After reading, “Scrivener knows nothing of pages until it comes to exporting or printing and therefore does not have the page layout viewing features of modern word processor applications,” I thought, “What? No page layout view! These guys must be absolute idiots!”

2.) I watched two Scrivener instructional videos and thought, “Actually, it appears these people are pretty smart idiots.”

3.) I watched more videos – “Snapshots” and “Statistics” to be precise – and thought, “My god, they’re fucking brilliant idiots.” (As this blog’s author and editor, yes, I’m allowed to use the f-word as well as many other letter-hyphen-”word” words.)

4.) After the “Outliner & Synopses” videos, I dropped “idiot” altogether and wanted to have the developer’s child.

And so it was that I assumed the full risk of Scrivener’s 30-day free trial offer. This brave decision was helped by the fact I had sent the developer, Keith Blount, an email with whiny questions to which he had responded with a short story of explanations. (As someone adept at testing patience, I especially appreciate it in others.) Or perhaps it had been a slow day in Truro, Cornwall, population 15, 310 (World Book Encyclopedia, 1975) where Blount lives and writing me had been a diversion from boredom.

Falling action (of dubious narrative relevance)

(I was excited to communicate with someone who lived in Cornwall. I’d seen firsthand the striking Cornish coastline on “Coastlines of Europe.” [If you find that amusing, know this: it was in high def.] Add every episode of that Masterpiece Theatre, 18th Century Cornwall-set, soap-opera classic “Poldark” to my body of knowledge and it’s easy to see why I’m considered something of a [modest] expert on things Cornish, especially in the subject areas of game hens and clotted cream.)

Climax (in a narrative sense, a narrative sense!)

Scrivener puts everything before the writer’s eyes and at the writer’s fingertips. It ignores other parts of the writer’s body, but that’s OK.

Scrivener was a revelation. Here was a program designed around the needs of crafting a book-length manuscript without the 18,628 superfluous features that MS Word inflicts (That’s a rough count.) I could, were I of a mind, bore you to tears with how Scrivener has this amazingly simple yet efficient interface, how it breaks writing into manageable chunks, how it enables you to rearrange chapters or scenes in endless ways, how it can isolate a subplot or part of the story from start to finish for viewing, how it creates an index card for each piece of writing and thus an outline as you go, how it takes snapshots of each draft of a scene and then reveals how you changed it from one revision to the next, how the screen splits into two vertically or horizontally so that a picture or website or PDF or some other file can then be viewed in one of the halves, how all the research related to any part of the writing appears with that part for easy reference. But as I say, getting into all of that, even in summary form, would most likely be more than you’d care to hear about. And dear reader, I like you.

Dénouement (for purposes of a blog post anyway)

You’re probably thinking, “But George, was Scrivener easy to learn how to use?” Yes! Indeed it was! Mastering it (more or less) didn’t begin to approach the difficulty of the first time I took Calculus 101 in college. (Or the second time I took it. Or, for that matter, the third.)

Epilogue (of sorts)

Scrivener is all things to a writer wrestling with a novel, non-fiction book, film script, poems, song lyrics, lecture, or any other chunk of writing. Kudos to Keith Blount for realizing the need for such a program and developing it. I love that guy. But we’re both already married.

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Me and Julio down by the side yard

We had our carpenter, Julio, do some work for us a while back. One day when he was finishing up, we stood in the strip of side yard between my driveway and the neighbor’s yard and talked about being fathers of daughters.

Julio’s from Uruguay originally. He’s been here for 20-some years, so he speaks only passable English. But no more than every fourth word or so was a verbal black hole from which meaning couldn’t escape. Where language failed Julio and me, we segued smoothly into head nodding and eye rolling accompanied by minimal verbalization.

According to the always reliable World Book Encyclopedia, volume U-V, 1975 edition, Uruguay is slightly smaller than Kansas. But outline to outline, Uruguay's lopsided pear beats the Kansas square hands down. This smallest of South American republics exports excellent meat, wool, and carpenters.

“Ahhhh, mmmmm, yesssss, that isss sooo,” Julio would say.

“Uh-huhhh, uh-huhhh,” I’d reply.

Of course being men, we don’t need to say much to say much anyway. And, too, fatherhood is its own universal language.

Yes, my 20-some years comment was a joke at Julio’s expense. But after five years of taking Spanish in high school and college, I recognize a fellow slow language-learner when I meet one. Not that innate inability is my only excuse. I’ve always been pretty talented at not learning a subject that early on I decided to invest minimal time and effort in.

(The perceptive reader will have picked up on my attempt to add a veneer of rationalization to the sorry core of that last sentence. But I guess only Ikea can do that and get a really attractive result. [Did you know that to slice wooden logs [[as opposed to, say, Duraflame® logs]] to the thinness of veneer requires boiling the logs to soften them first? I did not know that until very, very recently. I’m filing it under “Trivia to bore with.”])

Even understanding some English speakers can give me problems. My friend Marina, a naturalized American citizen from Russia, can have me nodding and smiling in bewilderment in a crowded, noisy room. Her Russian-flavored English is fine. It’s my Rolling Stones-concert ears (going back to maybe The Dave Clark Five) that are the problem.

Speaking of speaking a second language, I came across a Rosetta Stone magazine ad the other day and thought, “Maybe I should brush up on my Spanish,” and guffawed. (Kidding. It was a low-key laugh.) Brushing up suggests a solid foundation to build on. At my current vocab level of five or six Spanish words, the backhoe hasn’t disturbed the ground yet.

I read the ad’s tagline: Live life fluently. Was that supposed to mean we one-language speakers weren’t living life fully? That’s the way I took it. My old Latin teacher, Bernice Owen (who long ago joined her beloved language in the hereafter), may have been blunt in her assessments of me (OK, she was) but she stuck to teaching Latin without once trying to be Tony Robbins.

I’m thinking of looking into Berlitz. They eschew telling us uno-linguals how to live.

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Belated road-trip post #2: Faulkner’s resting spot to Memphis BBQ spot

Even if you haven’t seen that 1960′s comedy “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium,” the film’s premise is obvious: too much travel over too few days. On our Deep-South road trip, Sara, Anna, and I lived that experience. By late Wednesday, two and a half days after leaving Richmond, The Tisdale Three had driven east-to-west across Virginia, north-to-south across Tennessee, and down Alabama to Birmingham. Then it was west to Tuscaloosa (and the first Starbucks sighting since Richmond despite several SIRI-instigated exits) and into Mississippi to Starkville, and then Nowheresville (actual name, Prairie) where we unloaded Anna’s cargo at her country home for the next three months, and Sara said hello to Anna’s next-door neighbor: a bull. En route north to Oxford, we’d driven through Okolona, motto: The Little Town That Does Big Things Not Much in Evidence. (I added the not-much part.) And we’d seen Oxford, Ole Miss, and Faulkner’s home and grave.

Tradition has it that someone always leaves an empty fifth of Jack Daniels at Faulkner’s grave to honor the man. But as a spirit, I would think he could handle a full bottle of spirits.

Now we were bearing down on our final destination, Memphis, and … hold on, I didn’t tell you about our visit to Faulkner’s grave, did I? There’s a reason why (that didn’t just occur to me, honest): How to explain the strange event we witnessed there.

(Have your interest now, don’t I? What I just did is a writer’s trick called “the hook.” We think of you, the reader, as a fish to reel in. To play along, pick a species of fish to be.)

After driving in circles in the older part of the cemetery searching for the grave, we asked a groundskeeper who consulted another groundskeeper who said, “See those two big trees yonder? Below them, on the opposite side.” We found the entrance, turned in, and there on the rising slope behind those trees was Faulkner’s grave – and supine atop it, a young woman in shorts, T-shirt and athletic shoes.

That’s the first half of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain story. The other half, on the back of that marker, I guess I’ll never know.

“Look at that woman lying on his grave,” I said, because I often like to say the obvious out loud (a harmless trait except in a darkened, crowded movie theatre where it draws comment). I turned in and slowed to a stop. The woman stood and walked away. Or did she float? No, hah-ha, she walked. She did. I have floaters (laser retina surgery, both eyes, won’t bore you) and one of those floating blobs in just the right light becomes the very figure of a women. And in running attire, too, which is strange, I’ll admit.

Anna didn’t think the woman had been on Faulkner’s grave, but lying beside it. All I can say is I saw what I saw (through my repaired eyeballs). And if I had to guess (and may be about to), that young woman was communing with the spirit of The Great Writer himself, not a runner taking five.

The wolves at the Memphis Zoo didn’t share our excitement about meeting them for the first time.

There was one other possibility besides a solo seance: the mysterious woman was low on cash. Scattered coins adorned the marble slab of Faulkner’s grave. I wanted to read some significance into this, but just as many coins were on his wife’s slab as well as the ground. I tossed a penny – and just like that the explanation for the scattered coins came to me. A good number of them had been tossed by inept throwers like me also trying to land theirs on Faulkner’s slab. (There’s a reason I’ve never won a stuffed animal at the fair.) As for why the coins were left in the first place, we never found out.

Where was I? (By the way, if you’re a reader who might engage me for a writing project, please know that I can stay on topic when paid to do so.) Right, entering downtown Memphis and driving by the city’s shining landmark, the Pyramid Arena. Vacant. Considered a white elephant. But imposing, very imposing. (Advice to Memphis city planners: Do what Richmond did with “The 6th Street Marketplace” on Broad Street: Tear the thing down and move on.) Speaking of plans, ours were to see the Memphis Zoo, take in Beale Street the home of the Blues, do a guiltless drive-by of Elvis’s home, Graceland, and a guilt-enducing drive-by of the National Civil Rights Museum. And all of these activities we did do thanks to our chauffeur, retired Fedex pilot and college classmate Rich Lykins. To impose on Rich for your Memphis trip, shoot me an email.

Maria, Sara, and Anna often tease me about getting food on my face. At other times (as here, at Corky’s BBQ), one of them likes to take a photo. Worse, in this shot the harsh overhead lighting makes it appear that I have little hair.

Some highlights worth sharing? In the zoo’s tropical birdhouse, a Laughing Kookaburra told us his opinion of our presence. Wolves slumbered in their enclosure next to Elks in theirs, the former no doubt dreaming about how to gain entry into the latter’s enclosure. A swimming polar bear did a head-bobbing dance for us. (The “Good lord!” in the audio is your humble correspondent.) And in Corky’s BBQ, voted the best barbecue joint in Memphis, the nicest waitress in the world cajoled me into a combination platter, then a dessert of banana pudding I had no room for half a rack of ribs ago. Corky’s ships worldwide. I could eat those ribs again in a heartbeat.

 

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Here, for the first time, I reveal a writing secret.

People often say to me, “George, what are the secrets to writing well?” I’ll mumble something about there not being any. But of course I’m lying. Why? As a freelance writer, I am loath to divulge these secrets. Give away one here, another there, and before long a client might make an ugly comment such as, “Do we really need George?”

But I’m not an overly secretive person. So now, for the first time, I will reveal a single writing secret that’s been so closely guarded it has not once appeared in any book on writing (of which I own all but two or three thanks to my unfortunate discovery of Bookfinder.com). (Tempted to click on that? Wouldn’t if I were you.)

All right, here goes. There comes a stage in composition when editing on paper provides a writer with a helpful change of perspective. Problems and alternatives stand out in ways that they never did on the computer monitor. When this moment arrives, the tendency is to reach for a red pen. All you amateurs, this is a colossal mistake.

Seeing red? Uh oh. 

Among the colors of the spectrum, red is the most aggressive hue—and it’s never consented to anger management. Red is the color of war, of blood, of heat. Red admonishes, e.g. Stop here, or else. Red warns, e.g., CHECK ENGINE. Red assigns blame, e.g., The Scarlet Letter.

Consider some “red” expressions. A business in the red? Doomed. Red-faced? Embarrassed beyond belief. Red card? Not only ejected from the match, but from the sidelines, too. A Red? A communist. Red herring? To be misled on purpose and feel foolish about thinking it actually was the butler who did it.

So unless you’re into self-flagellation (and if you happen to be, please seek help immediately), avoid editing in this angry color.

(Of course if you’re Chinese, red is a lucky, happy color that brings good fortune; and the above Western biases would not apply.)

Feeling blue? Not good. Not good at all.

Blue? Blue is a “neh” color for editing. Blue is nonchalant. An edit in blue says, “Make this change. Or don’t. No one really cares.”

And when blue isn’t diffident, what is it? Depressed. They don’t call the blues the blues for nothing. That English rock group The Moody Blues? Sucessful, sure, but no one would call them happy. Those NYC rockers, Blues Magoos? Forgotten, sadly.

Take “blue” expressions. A person blue in the face is extremely exasperated. Or dead. If something goes into the blue, it went far into the unknown—and good luck getting it back. Out of the blue? Appearing out of nowhere, and that’s rarely associated with a positive development. Bluetooth? Short-range wireless technology that disconnects for no known reason. Devil in a tan dress? Little black dress? White strapless evening gown? No, it’s devil in a blue dress. Black and blue? In a bruise, yes. In an edit, forget this namby-pamby color.

But combine those two flawed primaries and the result is perfect purple.

Don’t laugh. Purple has one positive connotation after another. Purple has long been been associated with royalty. As far back as ancient Rome, purple denoted rank, authority, and privilege. Today, the Purple Heart honors those wounded in battle.

But is purple more? Purple is more. Purple is fun, e.g., the 1958 hit single, “The Purple People Eater.” Purple is playful, e.g., Barney the Dinosaur. Purple is a revelation, e.g., Who knew Oprah could act until The Color Purple?

So edit in a color of positive connotations; edit in purple, the secondary color that writers in the know reach for first. Not too laid back, not too emotional, friendly purple pops off the page and says, “Yes! Yes you can write The Great American Novel—or at the very least a pretty decent essay for that grad school application.”

What shade of purple? I personally recommend the Pentel EnerGel® Deluxe RTX Retractable Liquid Gel-Ink Pen in the 0.7 medium metal tip, in violet. I get my editing mojo on with that pen.

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When I helped make safe sex more available

The take-one brochure I wrote. Email me for a free PDF to share with friends and neighbors.

Now for a modest account of the historic role I played in bringing condoms out into broad daylight, or rather the cool white fluorescent lighting of convenience stores. This is a true story: I did breakthrough condom work. Make that breakthrough work in condoms. In the advertising sense, I should add.

It was the late 1980s, a time when family planning sections were few. Condom perusal was an unknown shopping concept, and young men lived in fear of having to ask the adult at the pharmacy cash register to show them the condoms. Then along came the AIDS epidemic, and just like that merchants everywhere became pro prophylactics display.

At the time, I was doing freelance work for Williford, Winstead, James, a small ad agency in Raleigh. WWJ had a niche focus: convenience stores, or c-stores in the parlance of the trade. If a company wanted to get its products into c-stores, WWJ had the expertise to do it.

Carter-Wallace, Inc., the maker of Trojan® brand condoms, wanted to make a splash in c-stores nationwide, and they engaged WWJ to create advertising and sales-support materials promoting the profit potential the leading condom brand offered, plus the small-footprint, countertop merchandiser unit they had designed to tempt the titillated, impulse buyer.

An advertising career can be full of painful disappointments, e.g., this brilliant but doomed print-ad concept for the condom merchandiser unit.

Kristie Freeman, WWJ’s art director, and I developed a sales brochure—“Trojan condoms have come out from under the counter” its cover proclaimed—and a small take-one brochure for a side pocket on the merchadiser. After answering the pressing question of why to choose the Trojan brand, the copy went into “Instructions for condom use. (Reading level: third-grade, stupid about sex.) Step 10—Carter-Wallace wanted to be thorough—read as follows: Remember—never reuse a condom. I won’t even begin to guess at the number of unwanted pregnancies that admonition saved.

I’m proud that I helped bring condoms out of the dark, making safe sex available to more. So proud that I believe a highway historical marker near our neighborhood entrance might be justified. Surprisingly, the Commonwealth of Virginia has not gotten back to me on my application. I’ve heard that some state offices are severely understaffed. Probably a waiting list for historical markers, too, I imagine. If so, I hope my offer to write (or at least collaborate) on the marker’s text moves me closer to the front of the queue.

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How I became a writer, part two (incarceration)

A few years back, I edited a client’s draft of a website page about his company’s headquarters location. The text began, “Ah, Petersburg.” Now, in George’s Style Manual (Make-believe Publications, 2008, page such and such) that expression falls under “Corny clichés to avoid,” where I give it a five-ear rating. (One ear equals the annual harvest of a leading, corn-growing state.) Is there any instance when one may write “Ah, (something)”? Not really. And in certain cases, the expression would be laughable as well as inconceivable. Take “Ah,  totalitarianism,” for example, or “Ah, Virginia Military Institute.” Some subjects simply cannot be romanced via trite expression or otherwise.

Hand-tinted postcard of VMI barracks

Marching was a popular activity at VMI, as was standing in formation.

From the moment I arrived at VMI, I discovered that Augusta Military Academy was its secondary-school equivalent in imagination only. How bad was VMI? It was back-of-fridge, mayo-based, eons past sell-date bad.

One’s first year was the worst. VMI didn’t allow freshmen, or as we were affectionately called in the corps of cadets, “Rats,” to have radios or stereos. The only respite was mail. To encourage its daily arrival, I wrote letters night and day, often revising them, sometimes illustrating them. I wrote to anyone who’d write back—the furthest of distant cousins, the slightest of casual friends, even my sister. When I discovered that certain businesses loved having pen pals, I struck up ongoing correspondence with them. (In industry terms, they are often referred to as “direct marketers.”) I wrote so many letters that I neglected the world of letters along with the worlds of science, mathematics, et al., and as my Rat Year drew to a close, I found myself in a world of academic hurt: academic probation.

My Rat photo in the VMI Bomb

What did I have to smile about for my first VMI yearbook photo? Not much.

My problems didn’t end there. I was also on conduct probation for one too many demerits. Well, to be precise, it was not one; it was a 72-ish number. And I was on confinement to barracks for an I-don’t-remember-what transgression. Unlike my poor GPA, however, these other problems had nothing whatsoever to do with excessive letter writing. No, they were the natural effects of an extended period of incarceration. But at least my first year at VMI was over, and I had a nice break coming before I had to return to VMI for both summer school sessions and more letter writing.

My sophomore year at VMI, life began to look up as I undertook the only major I was suited for: English. Under the onslaught of essays, letter writing waned. Then came the day I called an Air Force Captain an SOB for giving my roommate a demerit. Fortunately, the officer had just left our room. Unfortunately, he was standing outside the door listening. The next day, I stood before the Commandant of Cadets (read “unfriendly dean of students”) who said to me, “Tisdale, you’re not the kind of cadet we want at VMI.” In principle, I agreed with him, but VMI’s Superintendent (read “aloof but kind college president”) took pity on me and let me stay for the cost of a months-long penalty of confinement, which included 40 hour-long personal tours of the front of barracks with a rifle resting on my shoulder. And so, restricted to VMI and its environs, I returned to my default coping mechanism: writing letters by the bushelful.

Was that Air Force officer an SOB? Yes, indeed he was. And as much as I might liked to have lied about it, VMI has a rather strict honor code. I had no choice but to tell the truth. It was a real-life Catch-22.

Next post, my circuitous route to becoming a writer takes me from art school to the U. S. Army to advertising, all in all, a natural progression.

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Cats, the post

For my second post, I thought we might continue to get to know one another. While I promised to never do another imaginary Q&A, this would still require a conversation of some kind. I began it this way.

Me: What’s your name?

You: (silence)

That was a no-go from the get-go. Then I recalled what Rebecca Schinsky (a.k.a., She Who Knows All Things Social Media/Blogging/Books) had said about my second post: nothing. I could write a post about anything. Our cats, for example. Correction. My cats.

It all began a few years ago—many past events do, I find—when our younger daughter Anna broke up with boyfriend I-forget-the-number. As with previous breakups (and those to come), Anna was distraught. My most heartfelt and practical advice—“Don’t worry, sweetie, you’ll have another boyfriend one day”—didn’t lift her spirits. Like men often do with women, I had misread the situation: My job was to listen; and if anything could make Anna feel better, she’d let me know. At last, she did.

“I want a cat,” she said.

Not what I was expecting, but before long Family Tisdale was en route to PetSmart, where we went to look at the adult cats up for adoption. An older, calmer cat, wiser from a life of hard knocks, desperate to please a new owner, sounded like the right cat-acquisition strategy to me. Looking through the glass at a big, sleeping, neutered (informative window sticker) grey tomcat sporting white, baby-booty paws, I said, “I like the looks of him. What do you think?” No reply came, but then it never does when others aren’t present. The girls—wife Maria, Anna and sister Sara—were in the center aisle gushing over the kittens.

I moseyed over to the kitten cages. Anna handed me a brown tabby. Worn out from all the attention it had been receiving, it settled down for a snooze in my arms. Anna added a grey tabby to my arm cradle. It promptly climbed onto my shoulder and then atop my head, proof that even at an early age a cat has a strong need to do what’s in its nature: Look down on us humans. They were both cute. Which one would we choose?

Seeing our indecision, someone (possibly an interfering PetSmart staffer) said, “If you get two, they can play with each other.”

This was choosing-between-two-kittens advice? The mob-rule element of House Tisdale thought so. I wasn’t so sure. We needed to think this over. And away from PetSmart, too.

We went to a nearby deli for lunch. As we ate, Maria, Sara and Anna stared at me. We returned to PetSmart, where it was time for me to be firm. I had a tough decision to make. I was going to make it.

“We’ll take them both,” I said.

After all, if one is going to cave, one might as well cave lock, stock, and litter box.

We named the brown tabby, Coco, and the grey one, Lola. They grew up fast—though not as quickly as Maria returned to work, Sara left town for points north, and Anna decamped to college dorms and apartments. Meanwhile, back on the home and freelance-writing front, I continued in the role of constant-cats companion.

What else can I tell you about the Cats Tisdale? Like other female members of the family, they like things their way. And of course they do charming cat things (e.g., fireplace-mantle sitting, hair-tie playing) as well as irritating cat things (e.g., midnight blind “I want to go out” banging, bathroom activity sharing [and that's any activity]).

Do cats help the writing process? When not catatonic, and in the mood, yes, they can be able assistant editors, though more in limited, desk-accessory roles, such as furry paperweights and printer-operation observers. Sad to say, cat talents don’t carry over into composition. But in the event I did get a special request for something written in stream of cattishness (e.g., nnnnnnnnnnnnjjjjjjjjlllllllllllllllllll?//////’), I know I have the capable staff to take it on.

 

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