Why I Didn’t Eat Ranch Dressing for Fifteen Years

This post is about 800 words

 If you’re lucky, you’ve had a bad job. It you’re blessed, you’ve had a terrible job.

I’ve known people who have worked themselves up from near-squalor and I’ve known others who’ve had charmed lives and probably never washed actual dirt from their hands. No judgment either way from me. I can’t begrudge people for the lives into which they were born.

But there’s something to be said for having a career where everything didn’t go your way. Not only are these opportunities to see how you deal with the crucible, but they add a different level of appreciation to what you’ve achieved.

Here’s an example from my own varied work history.

In college, I worked for a temp agency that regularly sent me to a food processing plant. Most of the jobs were mundane: picking burnt chips off a conveyor belt or pulling mislabeled cans off the line. I could literally turn off my brain while I did these tasks, and actually, I wrote a lot in my head during my overnight shifts.

Those aren’t the kinds of tasks I’ll describe here, however.

One night, the shift manager took us to a more secluded part of the factory, where the mercury vapor lights seemed dimmer. As we walked past ovens, labelers, and mixing casks, he explained that we were disposing of ruined food. Bacteria had spoiled a large batch of ranch dressing that had already been bottled. Our task was to open the bottles and pour them into fifty-gallon drums.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Continue reading

Have you tapped into something special?

One never knows. A creative project is an emotional roller coaster filled with self-doubt, self-assurance, and second-, triple-, and quadruple-guessing.

Sounds like a Monday.

There are bleak days and dark ones. These are the times when you wonder if your book would better serve as a doorstop than entertainment. I know many writers feel similarly during the course of a project. It could be an external factor, like your day job, piling upon your feelings of self-worth. It could be a matter of life and love. It could be a change in weather. Or it could be that you’ve read that blasted manuscript so many times, the words might as well be in another language.

Unfortunately, those feelings can create powerlessness, creating doubts that are very difficult to overcome. It’s the reason that so many of us have abandoned drafts that we keep promising we’ll return to someday.

We’re often waiting for perfect conditions that never arrive.

When we’re honest with ourselves, truly honest, we recognize that those days are more exception than rule. There are also good days, which are more rule than exception. Even better, we have those moments when it doesn’t feel like work. When things are clicking. When you feel you might – just might – have tapped into something special. And it gives you the power to keep going.

So. I’m writing this for other writers to let them know that sometimes, the universe rewards you and reinforces that you need to keep going. Here are three examples of when this happened to me.

Continue reading

If a book falls in the forest

If a person writes a book and no one reads it, is it still a book? Depending on your reason for writing, your answer will vary.

I write for a variety of reasons – relaxation, brain exercise, practice my craft, gottagetthatdamnideaoutofmyhead – but I primarily write because I want to entertain people. It’s a need written in DNA, and a novel is the current medium in which I choose to satisfy it (I’ve also dabbled in flash fiction, a novella, pitched a comic series, and currently have two tabletop game ideas I’m exploring).

Looking at it from that perspective, I won’t find success until my writing is in someone’s hands, whether physically, digitally, or in the not-too-distant future, displayed via holographic projection. Said another way, what I’ve written is not really a book until someone reads it. It’s simply a interesting story, perhaps an exercise, occupying a similar paradoxical state as Schrödinger’s cat.

I imagine people protesting on my behalf: Don’t sell yourself short! There’s value in the experience! Simply finishing is a major accomplishment! All these things and more are true. They have value, and I appreciate the sentiment.

But they’re not the things that bring me to the keyboard. However…

Continue reading

Word Casualties #8 – Famous Places

Like a 1930s Pan Am Clipper whisking us to parts unknown, our fingers fly equally fast across keyboards or touchscreens, often with the intent of taking readers to similar exotic destinations. When we don’t take a few moments to check our spelling, who knows where our readers will arrive? By the following examples, and made-up definitions, we see that sometimes they’ll end up in a far different place.

Destination: Cairo – Raiders of the Lost Ark

CASUALTIES

Stonedhedge – A line of bushes used to hide casual drug use. 

Nakropolis – City of nudists

Pyramids of Geezer – Large stone structures on the front porch of an old man who yells at people for walking on his lawn.

Mecha – The holy land of robots.

Deaf Valley – A desert in the southwest US where the extreme heat causes hearing loss.

Parsenon – An ancient Greek building used for the analysis of sentence grammar

CORRECT SPELLINGS

Stonehenge

Necropolis

Pyramids of Giza

Mecca

Death Valley

Parthenon

I captured these years ago in a piece I was proofreading. The author was embarrassed to see these errors, telling me these places are common enough to easily verify, even if spellcheck fails. Yep. I told him that sometimes our eagerness to complete a piece causes us to forget a step or two. That’s ok. And that’s where a good proofreader and editor can help (though you probably want them checking the tough stuff, not the gimmes).

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


© Michael Wallevand, July 2021

A Few Words About Word Count

A post in which website marketing makes a surprising entry into Mike’s website about writing fiction.

I’m a senior product manager for legal websites, which means I’m regularly asked for my opinion on writing content. As a professional writer, too, I have a fairly passionate opinion that is desperate eager to be expressed. Fortunately for my colleagues, I’m judicious in editing and in my use of the backspace key.

Usually.

OK, sometimes.

Ironically, a recurring topic concerns website page lengths. Word count.

A brief tangent about my bias: I like to read and research, and I tend to be verbose. As such, it could be assumed that I fit in the more-is-better camp. However, I’m also pretty good at skimming and scanning, so word count on a webpage is less relevant to me than many readers. The posts I write for this site are probably in the 400-800 word range, anecdotally-speaking.

The topic usually resurfaces when an article is written about search engine marketing or optimization (SEM, SEO). The articles say something like this: “We’ve found that high quality pages are often longer pages.” To many people in the online marketing industry, this is distilled into the inaccurate “more words = higher quality”.

Point One: Correlation and Causation

But that interpretation is not what was said, is it? There might be a correlation between count and quality, but that doesn’t mean there’s a causation. Said simply, having more words doesn’t necessarily impact the quality of a page.

If you’re familiar with the old saying, “All elephants are grey, but not all grey things are elephants,” then you’re already with me.

Continue reading

Look at that writing: Elmore Leonard

Sometimes a piece of writing just hits me the right way, and I sit back, amazed. It makes me want to hold up the book and exclaim, “Look! Look at this right here. Now this is writing!”

I usually don’t literally do that, but I did this week.

I’m reading Get Shorty for, I dunno, maybe the tenth time. That puts it up there amongst my most-read books. It’s the first and only Elmore Leonard book I’ve read, a mistake I’ve been meaning to correct for something like fifteen years. My reward for finishing this post is checking out Rum Punch from the library.

I’ll be honest: I picked up the book because I adore the movie and the character Chili Palmer. I apologize to book purists in advance, but there are are some parts of the movie I prefer. However, there’s one thing it didn’t capture.

That Elmore Leonard frickin’ dialogue, man.

John Travolta is nice and smooth in the movie, Chil you might say, but his portrayal has that Hollywood polish. Chili Palmer in the book is tougher, rough around the edges. He thinks and talks like a person, which is to say, not like a written character obeying the rules of writing and language. He also doesn’t think much of the things people say.

Despite having read this book several times, it always takes me a few pages to regain my comfort with Leonard’s natural, if unusual style. I say that with all possible affection. As much as I appreciate grammar and the mechanics of writing, there are times when you break all the rules, and he is a master.

I’m coming to the end of the book and this passage knocks me out:

Continue reading

Word Casualties #7 – WTH?

The latest collection of typos for which I’ve invented humorous definitions.

We all make mistakes in our writing that cause us to shake our heads when we discover them later. Why not have some fun with them? Here are a few of mine, which must have been spawned by some level of intoxication on my part…

CASUALTIES

converstation – synonym for talk radio

reboob – When you take another look at, well, you know.

expenseive – colloquialism for pouring money down the drain

transformance – used to describe superb acting that takes the craft to another level

belibubble – the delicate membrane that separates the possible and the unbelievable

mispellebtion – describes hwo you type afder a few cocktalis

seasonaling – the magical tinkling of bells at Christmastime

strengthing – that, you know, whatever-it-is at the gym that you lift and it’s heavy

destainement – instead of taking you into custody, they just cover you with so much filth that you’re afraid to move

trainsformation – locomotives lined up on the parade grounds

CORRECT SPELLINGS

Continue reading

Difficult Story Choices #2

I knew it was coming.

I didn’t want to admit it. I figured if I kept these parts in the book, eventually I’d find a way to make the passages work.

But the writer knows. You know when it’s not going to work long before you concede the reality.

And then about a week ago, I wrote this note which sealed their fate: “Repurposing these words to the Elf would move the Dragon to Samor Book 2; at which point all the other Dragon stuff could be moved out. I’ve been struggling with their purpose for a while.”

Even then, it took a few more days before I started yanking stuff from the manuscript. I once again followed the advice of Stephen King, who was borrowing from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Murder your darlings
Continue reading

My Writing Freaked Out a Rock Star

Writing inspiration comes from everywhere. Looking out a window or considering how a person might react to a situation or watching your kids play. In this example, it came from the song “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls.

“You bleed just to know you’re alive.”

When I wondered what might cause a man to literally, not metaphorically, do such a thing, the story erupted from me. It was the writing experience I’d always imagined, though rarely had. And it came from questions that followed one after the other, piling up until I couldn’t type quickly enough.

More than fifteen years later, I still recall the first scene. A man in a cheap apartment staring at himself in a grimy mirror and hating what he saw. He picked up the razor blade, as he had many times before, and cut his wrist. A single droplet of blood fell into a claw-footed bathtub. As he watched, his cut healed and he screamed in helpless rage. He slashed again and again, healing again and again…until he didn’t. He breathed a sigh of relief. Soon, it would finally be over.

While there’s a violence and hopelessness to the scene, I believed the book would be a beautiful take on the unrequited love story: A man who heals others and himself, and the nurse searching for the person performing miracles in the streets. He falls in love, but will never tell her, never end his self-imposed exile, because his body is too scarred, his psyche too damaged. He’s unworthy of redemption. To further quote the song, “I don’t want the world to see me ’cause I don’t think that they’d understand.”

A few months later, I had the draft of a 30,000-word novella.

Fast-forward to sometime in 2006. Goo Goo Dolls were promoting their latest album, Let Love In. I worked in the Best Buy Music department, and we were often a stop for such junkets. Artists would talk about the album, maybe spin some tracks or perform, and then we’d often get a chance for handshakes and pix. It was the coolest job perk I ever had.

It’s key to understand that “meet and greet” is a brief encounter. Obviously, no one’s making friends, but it is a chance to say a few kinds words or ask a question before quickly moving on. Sometimes, it’s idle chitchat; other times, you get to thank someone for a meaningful impact they had on your life.

Continue reading

Word Casualties #6 – Despair & Hilarity

Another collection of typos for which I’ve invented humorous definitions. Today’s list is from a horror writer I was editing a couple years ago. Like other renowned works of horror, it’s filled with despair and hilarity, which are two great tastes that taste great together.

CASUALTIES

drakenss – male duck butts

damnotion – a new idea that a person has, but does not like

ensalved – a victim covered with a soothing ointment.

Santanic – 1) describing the rituals used to bring about the return of jolly ol’ St. Nick. 2) describing the rites used to conjure a Mexican-American guitar legend.

inferal – a wild, rabid conclusion

maleviolent – ferocious attacks by men

inquickity – doing evil things at a rapid pace

revolvting – used to describe something hideous and disgusting that slowly turns

sarrow – the sadness of pirates, me hearties

CORRECT SPELLINGS

Continue reading