Al Lamanda here.
So I returned to the high school where my friend is a teacher (another free lunch was involved) to meet with some students interested in pursuing a life of poverty, or put another way, a career as a writer.
When last we met, the group of thirteen (six guys, six gals and one I’m not sure about) agreed to write two versions of an original short story. One version written from the heart without doing research and a second draft after researching their subject matter. The follow-up meeting with the group went sort of like this.
Me: “Who would like to read their story first?”
The I’m not sure about kid did a great impression of (are you old enough to remember?) Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter, so the I’m not sure about kid went first.
Me: “Go ahead and read your story.”
The I’m not sure about kid proceeded to sit and read the story. Silently, lips moving ever so slightly.
Me. “I mean out loud to the group.”
The I’m not sure about kid. “But everybody will hear me.”
Me. “Exactly the point. An excellent way to identify awkward, clunky sentences is to hear them spoken. Sometimes what makes sense to the eye doesn’t to the ear. Always read your writing out loud even if only to yourself.”
The I’m not sure about kid read out loud and the group was able to identify several sentences that rang false to the story, and several that didn’t seem to make sense at all.
Me. “Rewrite the sentences so they flow better in the context of your story and eliminate the sentences that don’t seem to make sense or fit with what you’re trying to say. Now let’s talk about spelling and grammar.”
The I’m not sure about kid. “I used spell check.”
Me. “That’s good, but a word can be spelled correctly and still be incorrect.”
The I’m not sure about kid looked at me with a blank stare, as did most of the rest of the group.
Me. “Its and it’s are two different words. So are their and they’re. Likewise with your and you’re. So it’s entirely possible to spell a word correctly yet spell it incorrectly.”
I could see the group playback English 101 in their heads.
Me. “Read your story backwards.”
The I’m not sure about kid. “Backwards. Why?”
Me. “When you read backwards you tend to bypass the brain seeing what it wants to see. You’ll see the missing apostrophe in the words its or the apostrophe in the words it’s that doesn’t belong there. Try it right now.”
While the I’m not sure about kid sat and read backwards, a girl asked a question.
Girl: “Is that like playing a Beatles record backwards? My grandfather told me they had secret messages on their records if you played them backwards.”
Me. “Which Beatles are we talking about? The cuddly mop tops of I want to Hold Your Hand, or the what the hell are they talking about Yellow Matter Custard Dripping from a Dead Dog’s Eye hippie Beatles that came later?”
Girl: “I don’t know. I’m not that old like you.”
Football player kid. “I saw a record at a flea market once. It was like a quarter.”
The I’m not sure about kid. “Eleven. I found eleven words spelled wrong.”
Me: “Good. Now correct those words and then don’t look at your story again until tomorrow. Sleep on it for at least one day, maybe two.”
The I’m not sure about kid. “I like sleeping.”
Me: “Hey, who doesn’t? At my age it’s the highlight of my day, but that’s not the point. Sleep on your story so that your brain forgets what you wrote and doesn’t see what it expects to see, but what is actually there. This is called what?”
The I’m not sure about kid. “Sleeping.”
Football player kid: “Coach says I should get eight hours every night, even during the off season.”
Girl: “My mom says she is sleep depraved.”
I glanced at my teacher friend and he was at the window, happily filing a fingernail and softly humming Beautiful Dreamer.
Me: “I think you mean deprived. And I’m not really talking about sleep. I’m talking about editing.”
“Football player kid: “Like when I screw up a play and the coach calls it a mental mistake and he tells me to sleep on it.”
Me: “Your coach is a wise man.”
Girl: “Is depraved a misspelled word?”
Me: “That depends on how you spell it.”
Girl: “I’m confused.”
Me. “Welcome to the very large club. It will get worse when you become old like me.”
Science fiction boy: “So you’re saying if we wait a day to check our story for mistakes, it’s easier to spot them?”
Me: “Not just mistakes, but content. Hemingway was a big believer in less is more. Why use nine words to say what you want to say when three will do. In most cases cut and not add is the rule. Concise writing is much easier to read than lengthy, run-on sentences and in most cases, more powerful.”
The I’m not sure about kid. “Who is Hemingway?”
Me: “He was who you aspire to be.”
Girl: “My baby brother has a turtle named Hemingway. My Dad named it.”
Football player kid. “Wasn’t Hemingway that big dog in that movie?”
Science fiction boy. “That was Beethoven. I heard he was deaf.”
Football player kid. “The dog was deaf?”
I glanced at my teacher friend and he was gazing out the window, minding his own business.
I looked at Football player kid. “Very good. You said in four words what you could have said in eight or ten.”
Football player kid. “I don’t understand.”
Me. “You could have said “How did you know that the dog was deaf?” or “Who told you that the dog was deaf?” or “How come nobody else heard that the dog was deaf?” but instead you chose a short, concise and to the point, “The dog was deaf?”
Football player kid. “I get it. Less is sometimes more.”
Me. “Who wants to do some homework and meet again in a week?”
All thirteen agreed.
Me: “Using the less is more rule, rewrite your stories using shorter, more concise sentences to make your point. Keep in mind that each word needs to be justified. By that I mean that each word should have a reason to be in a sentence and the story. If a word or a sentence does not add value to your story, cut it. Be harsh on yourself because I promise you that your readers will.”
We agreed to meet again in a week and the gang of thirteen filed out of the classroom.
My teacher friend grabbed his jacket. “Hungry?”
“Lunch depraved,” I said.
Al Lamanda is the author of the Edgar Award mystery novel Sunset. His novel Sunrise was voted best crime story of 2013 by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. His latest mystery titled This Side of Midnight hits stores in June of 2015.