July 2015 Inside: ▪ Throw away the Pickle!▪ Writing Prompt: Cliché▪ Catch and Share Stories, Advises Brian Doyle▪ Nerdy Words: Punctuation with

Kickstart Your Writing Purple

July 2015



Throw away the Pickle!
Writing Prompt: Cliché
Catch and Share Stories, Advises Brian Doyle
Nerdy Words: Punctuation with Quote Marks
Student Showcase: "Why Hadn't I Thought of This Before?" by Mark Robben

Throw away the Pickle!

Rethinking tired, old advice about clichés

By Ann Sihler

Perhaps columnist William Safire said it best (or at least most humorously): “Avoid clichés like the plague!” As writers we’ve all heard this advice. In my Kickstart writing class we even use a screeching plastic pickle as a sort of cliché alarm when we’re reviewing each other’s work and find a tired, overused phrase, like “strong as an ox” or “sadder but wiser.” We should edit out every cliché, right?


I recently learned this lesson reading fellow student Kerry Macpherson’s short short, “Tight Lipped,” in class. The narrator, a young boy, makes a passing reference to “my sorry ass.” My first instinct in reading this was to grab the pickle. But then I realized that “my sorry ass” was a big clue as to what the story really was about: sexual abuse of children, a subject that was veiled in the story as it so often is in real life. I enjoyed re-reading “Tight Lipped,” looking for other subtle references to this topic.

Kerry made a cliché really work. In fact, it was a central line in her story. This reminds of George Orwell, who also frowned on clichés. The first of his rules for writers was to “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” But his last rule acknowledged the limitations of rules: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Hmmm …Maybe it’s time we threw out some of those writing rules—and the pickle!

(Read Kerry’s story yourself.)

Writing Prompt

Writing Prompt: Cliché

Write a story using a cliché that has special relevance to the story. Avoid using any other clichés.

Scribbles loops newsletter

Catch and Share Stories That Make the World Shiver

By Kathy Eaton

Listening to award-winning local author Brian Doyle is not for the faint of heart. He’s passionate, caring and loud. His message is deeply personal. Although he’s written 14 books of essays, poems and stories featured in national magazines and several anthologies, he’s most proud of two personal essays: “Leap” (in memory of those who jumped from the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11) and “Mary and Dawn” (about courage in confronting the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter).

“Catch and share stories,” he shouted to attendees at the July 7 Willamette Writers meeting, where he was the featured speaker. “You have that thing and it’s a gift.” When you catch a story, it must be written and shared,” Doyle told the crowd.

“Stories are everywhere. There are no little things or boring moments,” he said. If you’re bored, you’re boring. He’s clear about what he views as a writer’s most useful tools: eyes and ears, not fingers. Discover those stories that are all around you.

“Don’t overthink!” yelled Doyle. Writers should take notes when an idea comes to them, even if it’s at 3 a.m. “Leave clues for yourself, because you won’t remember them in the morning,” he said. Writers who listen and ask questions, such as “Really, and then what?” learn the most.

According to Doyle, “Oregon is stuffed with stories,” and social class doesn’t matter here. “It matters who you are, what your gift is and how you’re using it.” When you sit down to write, tell a story. Try writing a genre you’re not good at, suggested Doyle.

Doyle encouraged writers to follow up on writing prompts or “sourdough starters,” including these:

Who’s the last person you hit or gave a serious poke to because you were angry?
List all the people you’ve had crushes on.
Where has your non-dominant hand been in life?
What are the five or six worst words ever spoken to you?

Doyle’s writing process includes setting aside a piece after he’s written it. After a day passes, he picks it up and looks for places where he can cut. He also strives to eliminate commentary and “cosmic endings.”

In addition to writing Mink River (St. Martin’s Press, 2010) and The Plover (St. Martin’s Press, 2014), Doyle is editor of Portland, the University of Portland magazine. His most recent novel, Martin Marten (Thomas Dunne Books), was published earlier this year. Doyle is married and the proud father of three sons. In 2015 he won the Willamette Writers Northwest Distinguished Author award. His work will appear in the inaugural edition of The Timberline Review, a new literary journal that will debut next month at a launch party during the Willamette Writer’s annual conference in Portland.

Willamette Writers Conference Coming up August 7-9

Interested in pitching your work? Honing your writing skills? Getting your manuscript reviewed or meeting an agent or publisher? Check out this year’s Willamette Writers Conference, August 7-9, at The Doubletree by Hilton, Lloyd Center, 1000 N.E. Multnomah Street. The conference will feature more than 70 workshops, panels and labs for writers and screenwriters.

To register for the 46th Annual Conference of Willamette Writers, “Tell Your Story,” go to WillametteWritersConference.com. You can register several ways: online, by mail or fax when you receive a conference brochure in the mail, or in person at the office (before July 26) or at the conference.

Registration fees vary according to the number of days you choose to attend:

• one day: $250
• two days: $385
• three days: $455

Members of Willamette Writers receive a discount on their registration fee, and students are eligible for a substantial discount.

You can choose from several social events during the weekend, including the Willamette Writers 50th anniversary gala on Saturday evening. Fifty dollars will get you a ticket for the event, which includes dinner buffet, libations and entertainment. Also, for $25, attendees can attend lunch-time programs during the conference. Check the website for program details.

Nerdy Words

Nerdy Words: Punctuation with Quote Marks

By Ann Sihler

“How does it go again? Commas inside the quotation mark or outside?”

Maybe you are one of those writers who can never remember the rules about punctuation with quotation marks. You are not alone.
What I’m talking about is whether commas and periods go inside quotation marks, “like this,” or outside, “like this”. The answer is … inside, “like this.” Always.

You wouldn’t think that something that is always done the same way would be so hard to remember. In fact, given how inconsistent English can be (consider the pronunciation of words like “tough,” through,” and “though"), you’d think we would latch on to a rule like this that that is so simple and straightforward, so life-raft reliable. Sadly, there are confounding factors.

Confounding Factor #1: In British English, they do it differently. If you’ve been reading novels, essays, articles, or nonfiction books published in the U.K. or other countries of the former British Empire, you’ll notice that they sometimes do it just the opposite, “like this”. (And—ahem—only Australian writers have the excuse that they live in the Southern Hemisphere, where water drains counterclockwise in the sink, crescent moons wax from left to right, and at any moment you might slip into Dreamtime as a result of the powerful effects of living beneath the Southern Cross.) Thanks, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Robertson Davies, and Arundhati Roy for confusing us U.S. writers!

Confounding Factor #2: It’s different with other punctuation marks. Chalk it up to the expressive possibilities of punctuation (who knew?), but question marks and exclamation points can go either inside or outside the quotation mark, depending on meaning. “What?” That’s an example where the question is part of the quote, so the question mark goes inside. Compare that to this sentence: You call that “art”? Here the question mark indicates that the sentence is a question, while the quotation marks serve to call into question the term “art.” Therefore the question mark goes outside. Exclamation marks work the same way.

If the confounding factors have you confounded, just focus on the commas and periods, our most frequently used punctuation marks. In fact, we use them so much you can consider them domesticated, which means that they always belong inside (unless you’re moving to Australia). Once you’ve got that down, you can start wrangling those larger, trickier question marks and exclamation points, which are only partially domesticated and therefore might be inside or outside, depending. Good luck!

Student Showcase

Student Showcase: "Why Hadn't I Thought of This Before?" (excerpt), by Mark Robben

During his eight years of taking Kickstart classes, Mark Robben has worked on memoir, travel essays, and fiction. Currently he’s rounding out his memoir on firefighting with additional material on personal and family life. Here’s an excerpt.

About two weeks after we returned, I met my best friend and fellow firefighter, Mylo, for dinner. Our birthdays are just a month apart, so we met each year and planned some really different activity to do together, for fun and to push ourselves a bit.

The year before, we had chosen to parachute. It hadn’t gone well for Mylo—or maybe me, either. He injured his back slightly on landing, and my mom, on finding out what we had been up to, had a conniption fit. If something had happened to me, she said, she’d be the one left raising my precious children.

Oh, yeah. I hadn’t really thought about that.

This year, “Something a little tamer. Let’s put a personal ad in Willamette Week,” I sprung on Mylo, mentioning a local weekly paper.

Some people might say that taking out a personal ad is riskier than jumping out of a plane, but Mylo was game, even though he was known as a Lothario inside the fire department and was never without an attractive woman in his daily life.

Over beers and Mexican fare, we drafted our ads. Really, I drafted them, creative writing not being one of Mylo’s talents.

Writing my ad was easy. I had been playing with it in my head for a few days, and I thought it had kind of a flow to it:

"SWM, 30, hardworking, good natrd, fitness minded. After 6 yrs as single parent, willing to commit to right woman. I like movies (esp. old), books (esp. mystery), conversation (esp. with dinner out), plays, rain, home projects, Perry Mason & Bob Newhart. Seeking feminist w/Girl Scout qualities who can tolerate above. Box 691 c/o Willamette Week."

Mylo’s ad took much more time. Determined to never marry or make a serious commitment to a woman, he wanted to finish the sailboat he was building and cruise the Seven Seas for the rest of his life. He thought he was meant to be an adventurer, a bit of a pirate, carefree—living a life of warm tropical weather, blue oceans, sea breezes, rum and partying all the time. The woman should be willing to drop everything after reading his ad, put her life on hold, be incredibly good-looking, have sex nonstop, cook and be an able-bodied sailor, as required.

You know, your average gal. It wasn’t exactly an easy ad to craft and I thought it might have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting even a single response.

I don’t remember the wording of Mylo’s ad very well. I think it was full, at Mylo’s insistence, of the overused phrases found in personal ads, such as “fun-loving,” “laid back,” “open minded.” It had hints that he didn’t want commitment. I wish I had kept a copy.

Eventually we got through our little writing session. Mylo was not sure I had conveyed his true mission quite the way he thought it should be, but we mailed off our ads nonetheless.

Meanwhile, I remained focused on getting the house back into some kind of order and I forgot about the ads.

A week and a half passed and then a large, bulging manila envelope arrived in the mail. A pile of responses to my ad spilled out. I was amazed—why hadn’t I thought of this before?

Scribbles loops newsletter