Once divorced. Has fear of clowns — things you may not know about me

image Ned Hickson

This week, Marcia has asked us to tell something about ourselves that others may not know. Whether this is to help us learn a little about each other, or for Marcia to collect incriminating information, I’m not sure. But I DO know Marcia is a gracious interviewer who had me on her other site Bookin’ It last year, during which she hypnotized me into revealing things from several past lives. What follows is an excerpt from that interview that actually reveals some things about both of us…

Marcia: Welcome to Bookin’ It, Ned. It’s great to have you here today. Can you tell us a bit about how you became a writer?

Ned: I am frequently asked how I became a writer. Mostly by my editor here at Siuslaw News. Except when she says it, the words sound more like an accusation than a question. I can honestly say I’ve been a storyteller since as far back as I can remember, back before I could actually write words. My mom used to record my spontaneous stories on cassettes, which she lovingly kept, knowing that someday I would want them and be willing to pay any price to keep them from falling into the hands of someone like Jerry Springer. By the time I was in middle school, I was writing regularly and exploring storytelling through making my own comic books, stories on cassette with background music and sound effects, and eventually movies with a Super 8 camera. Yeah, I was that kid. After graduating from high school, I drove to Texas and found work as a busboy before eventually making my way into the kitchen. A few years later, I was promoted to head chef, then regional chef in Atlanta, Ga. But even while pursuing that career, I continued to write short stories and a mystery novel in hopes of writing full time someday. In 1998, after returning to Oregon with my family, I was hired as a sports editor and columnist at Siuslaw News here in Florence, Ore. That’s really where my “professional” writing career began. Clearly, I’ve always been a late bloomer.

Marcia: Wow! Like me, you started young. Unlike me, you have your tapes and movies to prove it. Also, unlike me, you didn’t wait until you were ancient before settling into the career you were obviously meant to pursue, for which I, like all your readers, am immensely grateful! Can you tell us a bit about who inspired you? What authors did you enjoy growing up, and in what ways?

Ned: I didn’t actually read much as a kid. *An audible hush fills the blog-o-sphere* However, my grandmother introduced me to the short stories and novels of Stephen King when I was in my late teens, which inspired me to try my hand at horror-themed short stories. It wasn’t until several years later, during my first marriage, that my horror writing really evolved and I found some publishing success. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Haha! Just kidding! *cough cough*

Anyway, on the advice of my grandmother, I read The Client by John Grisham, which inspired me to write my first — and only — mystery novel, No Safe Harbor. By that time, I had just settled into my job at Siuslaw News and turned my attention to learning the ins and outs of journalism and becoming a columnist. I had no idea what I was doing and it took me a while to find my voice, which began being compared to Dave Barry and Art Buchwald. I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea who they were. When I eventually found out and read their work, I was flattered. But more importantly, it gave me a lot of confidence in the voice I was developing.

Marcia: Okay, finding out you didn’t read much as a kid is startling, I admit (though it would take more than that to cause an “audible hush” to fall over ME, you understand)! But finding out you didn’t know Dave Barry made me gasp out loud! Art Buchwald, I can almost understand, since he may have been a bit before your time. But Dave Barry? I think I still have the shrine I built in his honor a decade or two ago, when he was saving my life through his humor. Tsk. I’m glad you have now been enlightened, and yes, you were being complimented, for sure. And you have definitely earned the comparison, though you certainly speak with your own voice these days. Can you tell us about your reading habits today? (Asks she, crossing her fingers that they have broadened a bit). Do you have a favorite genre that you head to as soon as you enter a bookstore? Do you even ENTER bookstores? 🙂

Ned: Admittedly, I still don’t read as often as I’d like to or should. The last book I read was two years ago. But when I DO read, I gravitate toward mysteries, horror or sci-fi. Someone once said horror is the flip-side of comedy, and that the same essential elements apply to both in order for them to be successful. Unfortunately, the person who said this was murdered by a gang of clowns…

(And there you have it. Things you probably didn’t know about me. To recap: Weird kid, chef, divorced and afraid of clowns. Probably more than you wanted to know. However, for anyone who’d like to read the complete interview, possibly because you’re serving life without parole, here’s a link to the original on Bookin’ It)

Sometimes, your Muse needs to be romanced

imageBy Ned Hickson

Today, we’re going to focus on tips for writing intimate love scenes. Or more specifically, how to effectively insert (see what I just did there?) descriptive phrases like:

“He grabbed her bare shoulders, caressing them with the kind of longing one only reserves for fresh-baked bread …”

And

“She de-pansed him in one quick motion, opening a floodgate of memories from freshman gym class…”

As you can see, this is a genre I am intimately familiar with because, as I’ve said before, you need to write what you know. And believe me, when it comes to intimacy no one knows it better than myself. That said, as a personal favor to 50 Shades author E.L. James, I will actually NOT be offering insights regarding the the ins-and-outs (See how I did that?) of writing descriptive lovemaking scenes. The reason is because her latest book, “14 Shades of Puce” is due out later this week, and she is concerned many of you would recognize some of the techniques I would be discussing today.

In short, that “fresh bread” example wasn’t something I pulled out (are you following these?) just willy-nilly (Did I mention subtlety is important?)

So instead, we will turn our attention to a different aspect of romance and writing. If you’re a serious writer who also happens to be in an equally serious relationship, I have news for you: We all know about your love triangle! That’s right! Don’t try to deny it. We know you’ve been spending a lot of time together. And yes, they get your heart racing too because, when things are going right, there’s nothing quite like it. Now, before I inadvertently send someone off to confess an affair they think may have happened because they woke up at a neighbor’s New Year’s Eve party clutching a pair of party favors in a suggestive manner, let me put your fears to rest. In this case we’re talking about your writing Muse; that voice of inspiration that whispers sweet somethings that just have to be written down.

In the case of those party favors… Just don’t ever let it happen again.

Some of you might be asking:

What If I’m not in a serious relationship?
Or What if I’m single by choice because I AM serious about my writing?
Or Did my mother call you again?

Whether you are seeing someone on a regular basis or have temporarily stopped seeing anyone due to irregularity, being a writer means you are already in a serious relationship with your Muse. And like any relationship you want to see flourish, you need to do your part in providing opportunities to help it grow. If one or more of the following statements could be made by your Muse, it’s time to make some changes;

1) You never take me anywhere — As I’m sure E.L. James would agree, an integral part of any relationship is exploring new things. With your Muse, however, I’m talking about actually leaving your home/apartment/bonds and getting out to experience new sights, sounds, scents — things that can inspire you and your Muse. Or at the very least provide experiences you can file in a mental cache and refer to later. In addition, consider taking some photos and jotting down your impressions in case, like mine, your “mental cache” is more like Snap-Chat.

2) I need to be romanced a little first — It’s easy to fall into a pattern of groping at your Muse, getting what you want and then — at least in the case of many men — falling asleep at the keyboard. Much like having a lover, there is a certain amount of foreplay involved when “seducing” your Muse. Even if yours is slutty like mine, the seduction process — i.e., your writing preparation routine — is important. My writing foreplay involves making a cup of java that is best described as a liquid Coffee Nip, then putting on my headphones to listen to AC/DC, checking and responding to any comments on my blog and Twitter account, then getting to work on whatever I’m writing. If I can’t finish a piece I’m working on, I always leave off in the middle of a sentence. That way, when I come back to it, I can start right out with some momentum by finishing the thought I had. Your Muse will appreciate you coming back to finish what you started.

3) I think your Mom hates me — If your Muse tells you this, it’s a good indication you might be spending too much time together. If nothing else, it’s time to take a break and re-evaluate your relationship. Possibly with the help of professional.

Whether you’re in a love triangle or monogamous relationship with your Muse, it needs to be nurtured and appreciated.

It’s the little things you do on a daily basis to express your appreciation that will keep your relationship strong, supportive and continually inspired.

Oh, and the same applies to your Muse, too.

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Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

An excerpt from ‘Humor at the Speed of Life’ by Ned Hickson

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I believe some introductions are in order. And by that, I mean the introduction in my book, which seems like a good place to start. Given that Humor at the Speed of Life is a collection of my newspaper columns, I felt the need to give readers a little background as a jumping off point. Hoping, of course, that they weren’t reading it while perched on the ledge of a building…

***

THIS JUST IN…

After 15 years as a humor columnist, it finally hit me. And by that I mean my editor’s stapler. She had been threatening to throw it since 2004, when I first discovered the secret candy drawer she had cleverly labeled: Extra Work for Reporters. For the past nine years she had been warning me, “If you don’t stay out of my candy drawer, I am going to set this thing for ‘stun’ and hurl it at you!”

As I sat there, blurry-eyed and rubbing the back of my head, I came to an important and potentially life-changing realization:

I really need to publish this book now, before she gets a new stapler.

Once my editor replenished her candy stash, there was a good chance another direct hit would result in serious brain damage, ending my career as a journalist and leaving me to write for daytime television. The truth is, readers have been asking me for years to compile a book of columns. As one reader from Gwynette, GA., wrote in, “If you ever come here for a book signing, you better have pastries or something.” Continue reading

Tools for thought… or food for your toolbox… or something like that

image By Ned Hickson
A while back, I talked about three of the most important tools a writer wields when it comes to establishing their voice. Does anyone remember what they were?

For the sake of time, let’s just assume all of you remember what those tools were and, in a series of uncontrollable outbursts, begin shouting out:

TIMING!

TRUTHFULNESS!

and…

CUERVO!

No, the third tool is RELATIVITY — not Cuervo. Even though I think we can all agree Cuervo does have a way of making even the most abstract things seem relevant.

In this case, however, Relativity means ensuring the reader can relate to what we’re writing about. This is especially true when it comes to personal experience and family anecdotes. For example, that hilarious story about how Aunt Frida got mad and stomped through the garden won’t be nearly as entertaining to readers as it is to you unless, like you, they already know Aunt Frida was a mule. I realize that’s an overstatement, but unless you take time to lay the foundation of your story in a way that involves the reader, they will likely sit down and refuse to follow.

As for Timing and Truth, they’re pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, Timing is the use of punctuation and sentence structure to create a rhythm that enhances your storytelling, while Truth is exactly that: writing about what you know and, whenever necessary, doing the research to educate yourself about a topic before presenting it to your readers. For example, when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.

OK, fine. But I did do my research before writing about how awful the food would be at a space wedding, with puree’d roast beef and cedar-plank salmon from a tube, and how throwing rice would be a big mistake since, thanks to zero gravity, the wedding party would spend the rest of the evening surrounded by clouds of floating rice. And how do you spike the punch when it’s served in a squeeze box?

Now that we’ve re-summarized those first three important writing tools, here are two more:

Vocabulary
Economy

Vocabulary seems straight forward, right? A knowledge of words. But more important than knowing a lot of words — or big words — is knowing the perfect words. Think of it as the care you put into choosing the words to express your love for someone. Or quite possibly while trying to get out of a speeding ticket. In either case, there’s a lot riding on your word selection. One wrong word, or too many of them, and you could find yourself in hand cuffs. (I realize for some of you that might be the objective in the first case, but just play along.)

Let’s take a look at the last sentence a few paragraphs ago, about educating myself at NASA. What if I had written it like this:

…when I wrote my column on the first person to propose in space a while ago, I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA.

Here’s what I went with:
…when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.

The breakdown:
1) “…when I wrote my column” versus “…when I wrote about…” In the second instance, I’m assuming you already know it’s “my column.” I wanted to avoid another “me” reference and also improve the flow.

2) “…on the first person to propose in space a while ago…” versus “…the first wedding proposal in space…” We all know it’s a person who is proposing since there has been no reference to aliens or talking animals, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to refer to “the first person” proposing. Instead, I went with “first wedding proposal in space” since the proposal is the subject. Now, if alien or talking dog proposals were common place, then yes, I would make sure to clarify it was a person proposing. Hopefully to another person and not a talking dog. And I chose to completely drop “a while ago” because it really doesn’t matter when I wrote it, and trimming it cleans up the sentence.

3) “…I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA” versus “…I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.” To get to the action of this sentence, I dropped “learned about” and “by participating in” and combined it into “preparing myself by going through,” then moved “NASA” closer to the action as a way to bring those two images together much faster. From that point, I built on the satire by describing what I did as “extensive astronaut training.”

Are you having flashbacks from eighth-grade sentence diagramming? Sorry about that. I hope the breakdown was helpful in offering at least some insight into the thought process of choosing the right words or, if nothing else, why my daughter won’t let me anywhere near her book reports.

Our last writing tool, Economy, is directly related to Vocabulary because choosing the right word can often mean fewer words. Economy is big part of the revision process, when you take a hard look at what can be eliminated from the literary structure you have created while maintaining its integrity. While this isn’t as important in novel writing, it is critical for columnists, short story writers and journalists. Every story requires being as concise as possible by using an economy of words. Ironically, as I say this, I just realized the current word count makes this my longest post ever.

Fortunately, Hypocrisy isn’t one of the tools we will be talking about today.

Alfred Hitchcock once said everything in a movie must have purpose and propel the story. If it doesn’t, it needs to be eliminated — which could explain the number of murders in his films. In short, when it comes to Economy, think of Alfred Hitchcock.

But probably not while you’re in the shower.

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imageNed Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications.)

Is your manuscript in its eighth trimester? It may be time to induce

image By Ned Hickson

Let’s face it, editing the second draft of your story or manuscript is like a visit to the proctologist: You want it to go quickly; you want to avoid too much grimacing; and you know before you get started there’s going to be too much crammed in. Yet statistics show that early detection of grammatical “polyps” is the most effective way to prevent the spread of bad writing.

But apparently not horrible analogies like this one.

However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if you remove the “p” and “l” from the word “polyp,” then add a “t,” you can spell the word “typos.” Or if you prefer, drop the “y” and you can spell “stop,” which I plan to do right now because, judging from the look on your faces, I’ve made my point.

Or possibly made you queasy.

Either way, I believe the second draft is the most important draft in the “three-draft process” I suggest every writer practice. And when I say “three-draft” process, I’m not talking about how many beers it takes to loosen up those typing fingers. I’m talking about the minimum number of drafts you should make of your story or manuscript before you push the “publish” or email button. That said, I’m not suggesting you can’t do more than three if that’s what it takes to make your manuscript the best it can be. But if you’re on the 20th draft of a five-paged short story you’ve been revising for the last three years, it’s time to ask yourself if 1) There’s alcohol involved, or 2) You’re purposely stalling.

I recently had a conversation with a blogger who is an aspiring writer. She confessed to having a 100-paged “work in progress” she’s been revising on a weekly basis for six years. Her plan is to make it available online as a self-published novella. When asked when she thought it would be done, she wasn’t sure.

“I think it’s time to consider forced labor,” I told her. “This baby is so overdue that, if it were a child, it would come out eating solid foods.”

[Official Disclaimer: I am not an actual doctor, although I have played one. Just not on TV.]

Inevitably, she realized she was stalling out of fear of failure; as long as her novella remained unpublished — and unread — the hope it would be a “big success” remained. As I mentioned last week, “success” is a relative term. What I mean by that is, if your family won’t even read it, then Yes: it probably stinks.

Ha! Ha! Just kidding! Who cares what your family thinks! Or if your own mom thinks your writing is “just a phase” that will pass like “that Star Wars thing” once you turn 50 in couple of years!

By the way, have you seen my shoes?

Yeah, Star Wars and being a writer are just phases...

Yeah, Star Wars and being a writer are just phases…

In all seriousness, the only failed writing project is the one that is never started. If you’ve completed one or more drafts of your manuscript then you’re already a success because you’ve beaten the odds by doing something many people talk about but never attempt — let alone finish. Think of it as making the world’s best submarine sandwich; whether or not anyone takes a bite, it’s still a great sandwich. Having others walk around with mustard stains on their shirts is just a bonus.

So if you’re carrying around a 9-pound, fully-developed manuscript, ask yourself what you’re truly waiting for and why. Be honest with your answer. Don’t let fear of failure keep your literary baby from entering the world. It may be time to start pushing for a delivery.

And be thankful I didn’t end this with another proctology comparison.

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image Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. His next book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Writing Wisdom from 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist is due out in late February.

One of the biggest mistakes in my life? The time I quit writing

image By Ned Hickson
As I mentioned in the title to this post, there was a time I quit writing. Back in 2006. For almost a year.

It had nothing to do with the typical kind of frustrations every writer faces, such as not having a readership or being told it’s time to “get serious” with your life by family, friends or every publisher on the West coast. It wasn’t the result of drug addiction or alcohol abuse, although I did find myself addicted to watching Grey’s Anatomy, which made me WANT to drink.

Things were going well with my writing. My readership was growing and I had an agent working to get me signed with a large publishing house.

The problem came on my 40th birthday, when I was given the ultimate surprise gift: divorce papers and single parenthood. Though I can look back on it now and see it for the gift it was, at the time it was like George Clooney showing up on Grey’s Anatomy again: Unexpected and surreal, yet with the underlying knowledge that it was always a possibility, depending on how his other opportunities panned out.

In the span of 24 hours I had gone from celebrating 40 years of life, to life as a single father with two young children. And let me just say right now, Thank God for them. Nothing funny here, just fact: They saved me and were my daily inspiration. But to make ends meet, I left the editorial department at our newspaper and went into sales for almost a year. I also put my column on hiatus by being honest with readers, letting them know what was going on in my life and, for the time being, that I was having a hard time finding my “funny.” I also needed to focus on this transition in my life and the lives of my children. Most newspapers and their readers were understanding. Even supportive. But not all of them were, and I lost about 20 spots — which I understood; I’ve never fostered any hard feelings about that, EVER! I SWEAR!

Sorry…

My book deal also fell through. Probably because of the new intro I wrote, which began: I’m actually pretty funny, but let me tell you what I don’t like about my ex-wife…

Ok, not really. But the book deal was put on the back burner, where it eventually evaporated, much like my desire to write during that period. On the surface, it seemed like the perfect inspiration for a columnist — at least until I sat down to write about it. I didn’t want to become “the guy who writes about being divorced,” but my life completely evolved around that subject at that point in my life. At the same time, writing about superheated pickles and glow-in-the-dark mice seemed… trivial.

Silly, I know — but I wasn’t myself then.

Because of the importance of that last statement, I’m going to repeat it: I wasn’t myself then.

Even as I moved forward with my life, meeting and marrying the amazing woman I’ve been fortunate enough to call my wife for five years now, something was still missing (and no, it has nothing to do with male pattern baldness):

It was me.

Not until the following summer did I find that piece of myself, when I returned to the newsroom and began writing my weekly column for the first time in nearly a year. A few weeks later, on my 41st birthday, I started this blog as part of a gradual return to what I love:

Writing about my editor behind her back.

Ha Ha! Just kidding! I do that on Twitter.

What I discovered between those two summers was how giving up my writing meant giving up that part of myself that makes me whole. For writers, the written word is how we process the world around us and, perhaps more importantly, how we define ourselves within it. While most people are content experiencing life with their five senses, writers have a sixth sense that has nothing to do with ghosts or M. Night Shamalon Shamellon Shahma The Sixth Sense guy. It’s about taking those other five senses and interpreting them for ourselves and, if we’re fortunate enough, sharing that with others in a meaningful way — either through serious reflection, humor, fiction or poetry.

In the same way that sharing this life with my wife makes it real and complete, writing makes me real and complete. It’s not that I couldn’t survive without either one, I just don’t ever want to.

Nor will I again.

Unless my editor finds me on Twitter…

image (Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

Writing is a lot like weightlifting, except without the abs

image By Ned Hickson
It struck me this morning at the gym, while diligently pumping iron from a seated position at the smoothie bar, the number of similarities there are between reaching your fitness goals and writing goals, and how, in both cases, you will likely fail if you attempt too much too fast — especially if you’re trying to show off and accidentally flatulate while attempting a power lift. OK, now that the obligations required by my Gas-X sponsorship have been met, we can move on to how the same principles that make up a good fitness plan can be applied to achieving your writing goals. (Make sure to stop in next week, when Trojan will sponsor tips on expanding your readership.)

Just like many people who enter the gym for the first time and see the dozens of different torture devices designed to make you look weak and destroy your self esteem fitness apparatus that can sculpt your body into lean muscle capable of opening even the most stubborn mayonnaise jar, those entering the world of writing often find themselves being crushed under the weight of their own lofty goals by not building up literary muscle first. And by this I don’t mean technique, style or developing your writing voice. I’m talking specifically about easing into writing project(s) and commitment(s) in a way that strengthens your writing endurance so you can avoid “injuring” yourself creatively.

This isn’t to be confused with creatively injuring yourself, which I also know about. But that’s a whole other post…

In the same way a smart fitness plan is built on improvements through gradually adding weight in small increments, running for longer periods or monitoring and increasing resistance in measured amounts, writers need to follow the same example if they want to keep their disciplined writing commitment from turning into sloppy repetitions that can hurt their goals. Any gym instructor will tell you lifting a lot of weight too quickly, or without the proper control, is pointless and even dangerous.

Especially if I’m your spotter.

The key is to recognize your limitations and commit to lifting nothing beyond that until it’s time to add more.

How will you know when it’s time? When you realize you’re making the circuit without getting winded. In literary terms, the best measurement I can give you is this: When you find yourself easily beating your deadline(s) on a regular basis — whether self-imposed or established by an editor or agent — you’re probably ready to build more muscle.

Until then, keep working the circuit and maintaining those steady, controlled writing reps.

But please: Stay away from the gym if you’re gassy.

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(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)