December 1, 2014
Joe Myshko was my teammate on the South Philly Quakers back when we were both in high school. He was remarkable for at least two reasons: He was the guy you wanted at the plate when the game was on the line. And he lived on the other side of the city. He traveled by bus and subway for maybe an hour and a half to get to our home field. Something else that stayed in my mind: His name had a ring to it. So, decades after the baseball had ended, I found myself using it occasionally in my writing. There's a reference to a Myshko in The Cassandra Project, and, as best I can recall, there's a galaxy with that name elsewhere.
Joe and I had gone our separate ways somewhere around 1954. So I was surprised a few weeks ago to receive an email from a Joe Myshko, asking whether I knew his grandfather. There was of course no way Joe could be somebody's grandfather. He was too good at tracking down line drives and running bases like a cat. But of course a few years had passed.
I said sure, I knew him. And the result was that when Maureen and I traveled to South Jersey last week for Philcon, we were able to meet Joe and his wife Angela for lunch at the Pub, in Cherry Hill. They both looked good, though Joe might be a bit slower getting down to first. It was an emotional hour, filled with reminiscences and so much laughter that we drew attention from other diners. And there also came an appreciation for what matters in life. Moments like that….
Philcon allowed me to participate in a writing workshop. Editors have been telling me for years that the most common mistake they see in submissions from people trying to break into the business is that they overwrite. They use thirty words where eight will do. There are too many adverbs. (Look out for anything that ends in –ly.) Some even start their stories with weather reports. Like Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy: "It was a dark and stormy night."
Hemingway commented somewhere that the smart thing to do is to let the nouns and verbs carry the freight. Use adjectives sparingly, and adverbs only at gunpoint. It's probably worth keeping in mind that a three-thousand-word story is easier to sell than a novelette. (I wanted to say 'automatically easier' but that just demonstrates how easily we can go wrong.)
Something else I've noticed over years of panels and workshops: Aspiring writers, when asked what a writer does, will almost always say that she tells a story. That misses the point entirely. The objective is to create an experience. The reader should become one of the characters in the narrative, and should live through the fictional events. When Lisa tells Will it's over, that she's sorry and it's not his fault, but that the chemistry simply isn't there, when she does that and walks away, the reader should be left in tears, much like Bogart standing in the rain in Paris. Anything that pulls the reader out of the experience, that reminds him that he's sitting in a chair at home, and that it's all right because Lisa doesn't really exist, detracts from the power of the narrative. Maybe destroys it altogether.
What sort of writing reminds us that all we're doing is reading? Getting the science wrong. The author breaking in to explain stuff. Misspellings. Wooden dialogue. Wooden characters who, for example, never feel a qualm about dangling from the face of a cliff. And so on.