Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.



truth in fiction

“The consolation of imaginary things

is not imaginary consolation.”

— Roger Scruton

Writing Tip: Tinker

I’ve been writing stories and novels for many years and have used various techniques for moving through the process of cranking out 80,000 words. To do something like that, you can’t afford to get stuck very often.  Yet it happens, particularly when you’re in the beginnings of a new scene that hasn’t quite found its rhythm yet.

This morning I sat down to work on my story about Heather and did what I always do. I read a few paragraphs – maybe even a few pages – of what I wrote yesterday, just to get back into the flow of the scene. As I did, I started tinkering with word choices and the phrasing of sentences. Nothing really creative, just basic editing. Then I reached the end of what I had written previously.

I wish I could tell you that new sentences sprang forth and before I knew it, I had knocked out another 1,000 words.


So I went back and tinkered some more.

Here’s the thing. As you tinker, things are happening that you don’t realize. Your writing skills are improving, but more importantly, thoughts are forming in your subconscious. You’re working harder and more effectively than you realize. After two or three sessions of tinkering, the next new sentence will appear. Followed by another. Or a new twist to the story may present itself. And maybe an hour later, you’ve added 500 words.

Tinkering is better than staring at the screen, doing nothing, letting the hopelessness take over. It can be a very produtive exercise.

It works for writing. It works for painting. It works for running. It probably works for whatever you’re dong.

So tinker, my friends. Go forth and tinker.


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily in his trousers and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved into a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed.”

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

Two mutes?  You mean two people who can’t talk? Mute sounds old-fashioned and maybe even offensive. McCullers published her novel in 1940 when there was less awareness of such sensibilities. In modern medicine the inability to speak or use verbal language skills is called aphasia. Nonetheless, the town had two aphasics. In my entire life, I have never met an aphasic. And for a small town to have two aphasics would be very unusual.

McCullers continues in a Joe Friday kind of way. Just the facts, ma’am. No purple prose here. It’s so straightforward it almost seems like the start of a middle-schooler’s short story.

The two friends were very different.

First, we learn about the obese and dreamy Greek.  He’s kind of a pitiful character. A little slovenly. Half-closed eyelids. Lips the curved into a gentle, stupid smile.

Wait a minute. Gentle, I can accept. A gentle giant with a kind smile. But no, McCullers throws one high and tight when we were expecting an off-speed breaking pitch. His smile was stupid.  No way around this one. Stupid is offensive. I suspect that McCullers didn’t go around calling people stupid just because of how they looked. But she’s very much aware of human nature. She knows that her readers – meaning all of us – can’t help but to make these kinds of judgments, even if we are polite enough to keep it to ourselves. So when she says his smile was stupid, she knows we’ll get it. She doesn’t want us to like this guy.

The other guy is tall. Ok. He seems intelligent, just by the way he looks. Another unfair generalization that we make all the time.

He’s immaculate and soberly dressed. This tells us a lot. He may not have any control of his height or the way his face is structured, but he can sure control how he dresses. And he cares about his appearance. He’s not flashy or fashionable, just immaculate.

He’s friends with his opposite. Sure, the fact that they’re both mutes has something to do with their friendship, but you get the feeling that the tall guy has befriended the dreamy Greek because the dreamy Greek needs a friend. So we like this guy. All of this in the first paragraph.

Two mutes. Two friends. Always together. But very, very different.

Where is this going?

Very simple language. Very simple descriptions. And with that, an undercurrent of tension that compels the reader to turn the page.

Another strong beginning.

Breakfast of Champions

“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.

One of them was Kilgore Trout. He was a nobody at the time, and he supposed his life was over. He was mistaken. As a consequence of the meeting, he became one of the most beloved and respected human beings in history.

The man he met was an automobile dealer, a Pontiac dealer named Dwayne Hoover. Dwayne Hoover was on the brink of going insane.”

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Ayn Rand: serious and intense.
Kurt Vonnegut: irreverent, off the wall, fun, and yes, serious.

Ayn Rand’s approach was more intellectual and might leave the reader emotionally drained.
Kurt Vonnegut aimed for the gut, but the ride was so much fun, you didn’t mind the punch to the stomach.

“This is the tale of…”

A tale, not a story. Relax, dear reader, I’m just telling you a tale. No need to get uptight. Just two skinny, lonesome, old white men. They’re everywhere, these old white men. Yes, the planet is dying, but this is just a tale, remember?

And Kilgore Trout. How can you be a serious person if your name is Kilgore Trout? Such an unassuming nobody. Ok, so maybe he became one of the most beloved and respected persons — no, not just a person, a representative of the entire species we call human — in history. Not a mere fifteen minutes of fame, mind you. All of history.

The other character in this little tale is Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer. A wheeler dealer. But lest you think that this tale is going to get serious, one other little fact: Poor Dwayne is about to go bonkers.

Of course none of this really happened. It’s just an interesting little tale I made up, Vonnegut seems to be saying. Nothing to fear. Leave your intellect at the door. It’s just a silly little tale.

See? You didn’t even notice the sock to the gut.




The Fountainhead

“Howard Roark laughed.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone — flowing. The stone had a stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.”

— The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand.

One of the first serious novels I read. The first sentence leaves absolutely no doubt about who the book was about, even though these opening paragraphs are identified in Part One – Peter Keating. This is Howard Roark’s story.

And so many questions raised by this beginning.

Who the heck is this crazy guy standing naked at the edge of a cliff?  Why did he laugh?  Will he jump?  Is he suicidal?

And Rand’s choice of words. Yes, maybe a little melodramatic, but they weigh heavily with importance. As it turns out, this Roark fellow was indeed very serious.

The book is not without controversy and many think the it’s over-rated.  When I first read the book in my twenties, the background philosophy espoused by Rand flew right over my head, as did the possibility that the story puts women in a subservient role to men. For me, it was about Roark’s belief in his work – architecture – and his unwillingness to compromise his principles for either money or fame.  But because his talent was so deep, and because the power of his personality was so great, Roark survived.  And in the end, he was the only one with his integrity in tact.

And it ends like this:

“She saw him standing above her, on the top platform of the Wynand Building. He waved to her.

The line of the ocean cut the sky. The ocean mounted as the city descended. She passed the pinnacles of bank buildings. She passed the crowns of the courthouses.  She rose above the spires of churches.

Then there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark.”



In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

–Genesis, Chapter 1

What evocative language. What a way to start a story.  What a choice of words.  The prose is so strong, it’s poetic.

Of course the original writing was Hebrew.  Does the Hebrew translation have the same effect on the reader?  I don’t know.  The translation above is the King James Version.  Here’s the New International Version.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Basically the same meaning, and probably more grammatically correct.  No sentences begin with “And”, which I know drives some people nuts.  And the last two sentences have been combined into one, which modern grammar-check software would undoubtedly suggest. It may be more correct, but as literature, it loses a little of its punch, a little of its rhythm, a little of its beauty.

The choice of words matter.  Subtle changes can make powerful differences.

Let’s look at another beginning.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

–The Gospel of John, Chapter 1

I find this language intriguing. If one were to pick up this story without knowing anything about it, the first two sentences would produce a shaking of the head. What??? A mystery right off the bat. Then the third sentence introduces the main character. Quite a powerful guy, it would seem. Then the talk of light and darkness. A sense of foreboding.  Yeah, this would be my kind of story.

Many of my favorite books begin this way. A sense of mystery. The introduction of an intriguing figure. And you know something is going to happen.

This week we’ll take a look at beginnings, and we’ll see that words matter.





Can you handle the truth?

If you want to be better, you need someone who has the guts to tell you the truth.

Family won’t do that. Most friends won’t.  They want to encourage. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They’ll lie to you and tell you work is wonderful, even if it’s not. But if you want to get better, you need someone who will tell you where you’re going wrong.

A few years ago I wrote my first novel, Counsel of the Ungodly.  It’s the story of Savannah Joyce, who fled big city life in Boston to set up shop in a small resort town in the mountains of West Virginia.  A new highway will bring more tourism to the area, but there will also be winners and losers as developers vie for prime real estate along the proposed highway. Savannah’s peaceful world is turned upside down and she realizes she can no longer run away from her past.

When I finished, I sent the book to Joe Higginbotham to take a look. Here are a few of his thoughts (along with my reaction to his comments).

JH: I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Counsel of the Ungodly needs a lot of work. (Ouch.) The good news is that it’s worth it. (Ok, that’s better.)

JH: You’re opening paragraph needs a grabber. (Sure, I can work on that.)

JH: Your settings are weak. Each scene needs to answer the fundamental questions: what, when, where, who. (Seems like a lot of work, but ok.)

JH: Your dialogue is lazy. (Another ouch.) I think you’re trying to make your dialogue too realistic. Realistic dialogue is boring. Make every word of dialogue do one of two things: 1) Move the action, or 2) reveal character or relationship. (Ok, this is good. A lot of work to do, but good advice.)

JH: Your sentences, in places, are as meandering and indirect as the mountain streams of Hampshire County. (He was right. I still struggle with this.)

JH: I rejoiced when you finally killed Tim off. (Uh-oh. Tim was supposed to be a likable character.  The reader was supposed to be shocked and sad when Tim took the deep-six dive. JH had much more to say about why he didn’t like Tim.)

JH: I never liked Savannah. (Triple uh-oh. Savannah is the main character. She has to be likable. This is even worse than not liking Tim  JH had much more to say about why he didn’t like Savannah. My two main characters, and the reader doesn’t like them.)

You get the idea. Friends and family won’t tell you stuff like this so directly. JH had the guts to tell me not only what he didn’t like, but what he really didn’t like. Better Joe than a potential agent.

So I worked on the book and did the best I could with his suggestions. I entered the book in the West Virginia Writers Competition and it won first place. So yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about what I did. I sent Joe the revised copy.

JH: I calculate that this iteration of Savannah could not only beat 40 entrants from West Virginia, but another couple hundred form surrounding states. (Yes!)

JH: But you can and must do better. (I realize now that he was right. 100% correct.)

And then he followed that comment with three paragraphs of what I needed to work on with Tim, to whom he was finally warming, and Savannah, who in his mind, needed more clarification of her character and motivations.

Do you want to be a better writer? A better artist? A better song-writer? Find someone who knows what they’re talking about and ask them to be brutally honest. It’s the best way.

If you want to be a better writer, read these books.

I’ve always read a lot. Maybe not voraciously, I’m too slow for that. But I’ve read a wide range of books. When I began writing, Joe Higginbotham gave me books. Books that he bought for the sole purpose of sending to me so that I could experience good writing.

He was a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut so he sent me some of his books.  Slaughterhouse Five. Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut is so different, so unique, it’s hard not to be influenced by his work.

He also introduced me to one of my favorite authors, Chris Offutt. Offutt is from eastern Kentucky, close to my neck of the woods, and his stories connect with me for that reason alone.  There is also a simplicity and directness in his writing.  The characters in his stories are not overly complex and their journeys are not epic, but they’re real people. Joe mailed me three of his books, The Good Brother, The Same River Twice, and No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home.  I’m glad he did.

He encouraged me to be a better business person and said I should read Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi, and Selling the Invisible, by Harry Beckwith.  I did. As well as many others that he recommended.

And the first book he said I should read – well, study really – was Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology.  Heavy stuff, man.

But that was Joe.  He knew what he was talking about and challenged you to be better. That’s a good friend.

Hairbrained Ideas

schedule for web

This is going to be a little embarrassing.

The image above is a schedule I made for myself when I was very young. I’m thinking junior-high age but I’m not sure. I obviously had a lot on my plate back then. And a lot of ambition. Since then I’ve at least learned to draw a straight line.

After I got home from school, I gave myself some time to rest. A half hour. Then some hoops. I guess I was health-conscious even back then. Home in time for supper, then help with the dishes. An hour and a half for homework. I tried to be a good student.

Practice Instruments. I was in the band. A trumpet player. I was probably working on “Flight of the Bumblebee” for band auditions. Seriously. But no, I never learned it and was never better than third chair. I was probably practicing the guitar, too, working on the same three chords I still play today. Hey there Little Red Riding Hood… Only some of you will get that reference.

And then at 9:00, the magic happened.

I’ve always been an unrealistic dreamer and I had so much I wanted to do, I carved out time every night to work on what my mother called hairbrained ideas, as is in What hairbrained idea are working on now? It wasn’t how it sounds. She really was encouraging.  But heck, at one point I wanted to make my own laser. This was decades before you could go to a dollar store and buy a laser pointer. And I wasn’t the Sheldon Cooper type. There was no way I’d ever make a laser. I made snow skis once, complete with old belts screwed to boards to serve as bindings. Then there was the space trip I took in our basement. Another story for another day. If nothing else, I was good for a laugh around the dinner table.

These days my hairbrained ideas are only slightly more sophisticated. I thought if I really tried, I could learn “Classical Gas” on the guitar. I thought I could teach myself Chinese, but after 90 lessons, I can barely order a cup of tea. Then there’s this whole writing thing.

Four finished novels; none published.

The schedule is still on the door of my childhood home where my father lives. I mentioned it to him today and he didn’t realize it was still there.  (I wonder if he remembers the time I covered the ceiling of my room with aluminum foil?)

I still work by schedules and have pretty good self-discipline. And I’ll always be that unrealistic dreamer. I’ll always have hairbrained ideas.

I’ve got a concept for my fifth novel. Dreams die hard.

P.S.  If you look closely, you’ll see different handwriting in the time slots.  Call Susie.  A girlfriend added that years after I posted the original schedule. It speaks to the challenge of living in the real world, where schedules and plans are sometimes pure folly.



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