Tag Archives: Literature

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.

Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.

Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?

Not really. Bring it, Melville.


by Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.) It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. (On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.


The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.

Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.

There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.

Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.

How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…

Got a suggestion for a Page 1 that deserves the red pen? Hit me in the comments, the Twitter or secret emails.

The Red Pen of Doom’s Greatest Hits Collection: 10 Epic Posts

  1. Epic Black Car deserves good owner; are you worthy?
  2. The Mother of All Query Letters
  3. Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller
  4. The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  5. The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books
  7. 30 achy breaky Twitter mistakeys
  8. Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt
  9. The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  10. Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Red Pen of Doom

Banned substances for writers

Click here to read the whole post at McSweeney’s here, because it is brilliant.

My personal favorites:

CAPOTEX – A vintage 1960s designer drug. Unlike most other banned literary substances, this drug is often used by fiction writers and non-fiction writers alike. Artificially increases prose style and sophistication. May cause speech patterns to be affected. Known to induce cutting, witty remarks in some test subjects. Long-term use can lead to literary irrelevance.

SPILLAGRA – Boosts literary testosterone levels. Known side effects include involvement with femme fatales, consumption of rye whiskey in dive bars, and over-reliance on colorful similes. If hard-boiled dialogue persists for over four hours, contact a doctor immediately.

ORWELLBUTRIN – Regulates and encourages the production of dystopamine in the brain. Developed as a means of social control, but now listed as a “doubleplus ungood” substance by the Ministry of Health. In rare cases, subjects may imagine that they can hear animals talking. Should only be taken after the clocks strike thirteen.

Related posts:


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.



Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction

Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller

In college, wise men with Einstein hair stood in front of lecture halls to tell you literature isn’t really about verbs, adverbs and dangling modifiers. No. Beneath the surface, lit-rah-sure asks a fundamental question that some believe is just as important as religion or science.

That question is this: “What’s worth living for, and what’s worth dying for?”

Nine words.

But I’m not banging in the keyboard late at night, powered by industrial amounts of coffee, to channel those old men wearing corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows. My closet contains no corduroy whatsoever.

I’m here to talk about those nine words, and why it leads me to one inescapable conclusion: that I do, in fact, know how to spell “inescapable.” Bit surprising. Thought I’d muff that one.
Continue reading


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Thrillers and mysteries

Friendly Friday: Amanda the Nelson of DEAD WHITE GUYS: An Irreverent Look at Classic Literature

We all read them in high school, then college. You know the books I’m talking about: the classics.


I’m talking about literature, except true literary snobs pronounce it “lit-RAH-sure.”

It’s these Great Books that we all flipped through at three in the morning, cranking out a term paper fueled by beer with fish on the can and Camel cigarettes bummed from your roommate as you dream up phrases like “the author’s framework includes a subtle critique of dialectical materialism buried within the character’s clear delineation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” until you hit about 7:15 a.m., with the paper due on the professor’s desk at 8 a.m. sharp, so you start busting out sentences like “The last chapter’s use of the hierarchical opposition of day and night, does, in fact, highlight the artificial constructs of love/hate, life/death and hunger/satiation, when clearly there are no such boundaries except as defined by man — or woman,  or cyborgs, sufficiently intelligent dolphins and chimpanzees trained in the art of ESL.”

Amanda the Nelson reads the classics for us so we don’t have to.

Then she writes  about these books with insight and hilarity.

Her blog is a public service.


One of my favorite blogs OF ALL TIME.

YOU MUST READ IT. Go back and click on that link.

Because honestly, all these classics do have interesting things to say, and Big Ideas worth pondering. They were simply written in a time when authors didn’t believe in these things we like to call “paragraphs” and “books that weigh less than a Volkswagen Passat.” Some of these guys make 1,032-page Stephen King novels look like their standard prologue. You know, just warming up them there writing muscles.

Amanda the Nelson

Amanda the Nelson reads the classics so you don't have to. Her blog is a public service. Go read it. DO IT NOW.

Amanda doesn’t talk about these classics in the usual pretentious language that we’re used to. Instead, she is hilarious.

Here is her post on why she writes in an irreverent way, a post worth reading simply because it’s damned funny: http://deadwhiteguyslit.blogspot.com/2012/02/why-irreverence.html

And I believe Amanda’s brutal, honest wit makes her better, not worse, as a critic. Because your average book critic says, “Hey, this was good,” or “This book stinks up the joint,” except they spend 500 words to say it, wasting 495 of those words (a) profiling the author, (b) comparing this book to the author’s previous stuff, (c) being so polite about it that you’re not sure what they really mean or (d) being so mean it makes you wonder if the critic hates the author instead of the book — you know, because of the thing with the guy at that place.

And here’s a bit about her from her blog, which gives you a flavor of her as a writer.


Greetings! I’m Amanda Nelson, and I live in Richmond, Virginia. I’m married and have one cat and a set of identical twin boys named Rhett and Atticus, even though children scare me (especially the ones in those sad, sad backpack-leash things). I love the following: literary tattoos, irony, those cats that look like little leopards, castles, earl gray tea, couch naps, having an ambiguous ethnicity that allows me to blend in anywhere, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, Jesus,  rain when there are no clouds, the smell of honeysuckle, writing real letters (BE MY PEN PAL), and rose perfume. I do not love: post-modernism, fake nails, being sticky, celebrity politics (shuddup Sean Penn, for the love of holy hot pants), small dogs, the color yellow and therefore bananas, fast food, Twilight, reading for escapism, hammocks that are made of rope instead of canvas, chinese food, my husband’s driving, and reality television. 

Amanda Nelson is a freelance writer and blogger from Richmond, Virginia. She is the sarcastic-yet-earnest voice behind the blog Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classic Literature. Amanda is also a weekly contributor to BOOK RIOT, a bookish news and social commentary site. She specializes in honest book reviewing and reader-focused literary criticism, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She has a Bachelor’s in History from Virginia Commonwealth University, which she mostly uses to sound smart at parties.

See? What’d I tell you. She is ONE OF US.

Because it has become a tradition, and because you may have lost her blog link already, here’s the typical Friendly Friday plug.

Amanda Nelson of Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classic Literature

Blog: http://deadwhiteguyslit.blogspot.com

The Twitter: @deadwhiteguys

Note: these Friday shout-outs are (1) always a surprise and (2) never in exchange for bottles of wine, boxes of chocolate or suitcases stuffed with purple euros. Do I want folks to nominate worthy bloggers, tweeters and writers? NO NO NO. Because then I’d be writing friendly shout-outs to people that I don’t read, people I don’t know one bit, making it all fake and mercenary, except for the getting paid part. I have to be inspired, to see a blog post or a tweet and want to tell the world, or at least the Series of Tubes.  

Related posts:

Friendly Friday: Theresa Stevens, Glowing Mystical Being

Friendly Friday: Gwen the Hernandez, Scrivener Goddess


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.



Filed under 6 Friendly Friday, Barons of the Blogosphere, Worthy citizens of the Twitterverse

The best Fabio romance cover OF ALL TIME

What is the most amazing, over-the-top Fabio romance cover OF ALL TIME?

We are talking about Fabio here, so there is an embarrassment of riches.

How can we pick one masterpiece when everything the Italian Master of Romance has done with the cover of novels is so good?

I wanted to do crazy sci-fi and fantasy covers first. But they are surprisingly monotonous, with the difference between (1) a great cover and (2) a campy cover and (3) an insane cover being a matter of taste, really, and of what cup size you want your robot / elven princess / barbarian warrior woman to have, and whether she should be a loyal sidekick, at the feet of the male hero, or the heroine who’s busy cutting off the heads of trolls or whatever.

The other options for sci-fi and fantasy covers include:

  • Old Bearded Man in a Robe with a Magical Staff,
  • Young Man Playing with His Magical Sword, or
  • Spaceships and exploding stars (dinosaurs are optional).

captainraptor (tony medeiros)

Frankly, they kind of bored me, though I will search harder for amazing sci-fi and fantasy covers, especially of spaceship riding dinosaurs.

Continue reading


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers

Is this high-brow poetry — or pretentious garbage?

Poets are crazy. This much I have learned.

Take a look at this man, who was apparently a famous poet.

You don't recognize Charles Baudelaire, the poet? You fool!

Charles Baudelaire, the most famous poet you don't know. Hell, I could be making him up, and you'd nod your head and say, "Sure, I read some of his stuff in grad school."

In my endless quest for the truth, I have discovered more Gertrude Stein-esque free verse.

I did so after writing the post, Gertrude Stein is a literary TRAIN WRECK.

I leave it up to you:

Is the poem below high-brow literary genius that only members of Mensa can understand?

Or is it pretentious trash ?



criminal beginning

shut, destroy us

the shoe display outside

arise, contract

undertake exactly

marry powerful?





your trial, his expression

production detail




sort, generate, combine

bottom quality


and start


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.



Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday

Gertrude Stein is a literary TRAIN WRECK

I know the name Gertrude Stein, and understand that she is some kind of Giant of Literature.

(It’s pronounced “lit-rah-SURE, by the way, if you want to be all snobby and lame.)

HOWEVER: For the first time, I’ve read actual words she wrote and published.

Not even gigantic hits of marijuana chased with tequila shots would make her stuff (a) understandable or (b) enjoyable.

She isn’t somebody I’d tell a new writer to read and emulate. If I actually cared about the new writer’s sanity and career, I would tell them this: read her words, then DO THE OPPOSITE.

Gertrude Stein is a literary train wreck

Gertrude Stein is a literary train wreck.

Check out one of her famous poems, Sacred Emily, which starts like this:

Compose compose beds.
Wives of great men rest tranquil.
Come go stay philip philip.
Egg be takers.
Parts of place nuts.
Suppose twenty for cent.
It is rose in hen.
Come one day.
A firm terrible a firm terrible hindering, a firm hindering have a ray nor pin nor.
Egg in places.
Egg in few insists.

Continue reading


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday

Best book signing EVER

Book signings, as you know, are boring, even for we literary types who love books and think authors are like Greek gods, only nerdier. Look at the headline. Is there any doubt you are a Great American Novelist, if not The Great American Novelist? Not when TIME proclaims it to be so.

Let me tell you about the Best Book Signing Ever, which happened in Great Britain.

Jonathan Franzen has signature writerly glasses, with thick black frames, and at a serious book signing event where Jonathan was surrounded by serious literary people, a crazy thief snatched those amazingly nerdy glasses, as if they are the source of Franzen’s strength, like Samson.

Franzen was just on the cover of TIME Magazine. He is Serious and Important, though not important enough for the British presses to print his new book without insane typos.

However: this bold and fearless thief didn’t just run off with Franzen’s magic glasses. No. That would be pedestrian, and gauche.

Our thief left a ransom note demanding SUITCASES PACKED WITH PURPLE EUROS. (Maybe he is reading the blog? Nothing is impossible.)

The ransom note asked for 100,000 euros, which is even more than 100,000 dollars, but easier to transport because you’re not packing twenties. You can transport stacks of purple 500 euro notes, meaning a million bucks fits in your purse, man purse or European carryall. Think of a suitcase packed with purple euros. You would be a bazillionaire.

The police were called, of course. There are reports the thief jumped into the water.

A helicopter showed up to look for this person. How many book signings have you attended where (a) the police show up and (b) they bring a helicopter? Zero. This is the best one ever. You cannot top it.

Sadly, police caught the man, meaning we will not be entertained by the manhunt and photos of the thief putting the glasses on statues across Europe to taunt Franzen.

P.S. If you haven’t read it, see The Stranger’s riff on the TIME piece about Franzen. It is worth reading. DO IT NOW.


Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.


Leave a comment

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday

Romance novelists are secret, epic army of man boosters

A classic post from my old blog. For new folks, enjoy.

Let it be known: we men must rethink our natural manly instinct that romance novelists are something to avoid, like SEX AND THE CITY 2, which is indeed worthy of scorn, and woe unto any man whose girlfriend or wife coerced them into wasting two hours of their life to see that stupid thing. No bribe is sufficient.

Published romance novelists are not only talented and funny, but many can write circles around the 6.57 gazillion reporters, writers and novelists I know. Also — and most importantly — they CELEBRATE AND ADORE MEN, which we should encourage.

I have thought about this, and it makes sense. These women are more talented than most folks writing about elves and spaceships, or elves riding spaceships, because there is so much freaking competition with romance novels.

It’s like throwing 10,000 authors into the Thunderdome, tossing in a single chainsaw and refusing to unlock the door until there’s only one woman left. By definition, that woman is going to kick tail. She will be a writing goddess.

And I was wrong to ever believe that romance novelists might be writing 80,000 words about shoes or amazing handbags. They focus on writing about men, though they apparently want us to be as allergic to shirts as Lady Gaga is allergic to pants. They also spend a lot of time writing steamy scenes encouraging women to do natural things with men. This is a Good Thing, and should be encouraged, and celebrated throughout the land, unless we men have been busy taking Stupid Pills.

The trifecta: no shirt, mullet and sword.

Also, they want us to be packing swords, if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from googling “romance novel covers.” IT IS AN EDUCATION.

Do they want us to be office drones, worried about TPS reports? No. Do they want us to talk about our feelings to a shrink and cry when we see a sunset? No.

Women want us to have one of three manly jobs: Viking, pirate or Native American warrior.

Fabio covers two of the three manly jobs that women want us doing. He's missing Native American warrior, but we can forgive him for that, because he has the mandatory sword.

Aside from piracy and swordsmanship, they specifically want us to punch things that need punching and spend our time with a beautiful long-haired woman who happens to be heiress to a billion-dollar fortune but does not know that, because her evil uncle has hidden this fact from her so he and his plastic-surgery obsessed witch of a wife could keep all that money for themselves, and it is our job to dropkick the evil uncle into the next century. If that doesn’t work, hey, all men are required to carry a sharp sword.

Check out Fabio’s covers again. Shirt? Optional. Sword? IT IS REQUIRED.

I have never read romance novels, or even checked the covers until now. Yet we men should secretly pool our resources to fund these female authors, because they are an army of dedicated women doing a $16.5 billion public relations campaign on our manly behalf.

So, romance novelists: I am holding a mug of Belgium beer, and I raise it in your direction.

Keep up the good work. We men may not know it, or admit it, but we owe you a huge favor.


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers

Vonnegut, Einstein and a Grand Unified Theory of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut was the Man.

Go back and read his books. DO IT NOW.

Once you’ve read his books, and fully appreciate his literary genius, you can watch this low-definition video with horrible audio that still rocks because it has KURT FREAKING VONNEGUT.

I would have paid monies to have him as my professor. Now that I think about it, I did pay monies to have professors. Hmm. Though my journalism profs were top-notch. Props to you all.

Now, it’s not so complicated, is it?

Hero in a hole.

Boy meets girl.

Girl with a problem.

Albert Einstein — and thousands of other people far, far smarter than you or I put together, even on our good days when our fingers spark magic and the coffee we drink would do better on an IQ test than Michele Bachmann — spent many years trying to come up with a unified theory of everything.

See, the whole E=MC2 was only part of the answer. That’s the equation for energy. He wanted to do an equation that also explained gravity and whatnot. IT IS COMPLICATED. We will not get into it.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was a muffin of stud with epic hair. I salute him. Image via Wikipedia

But writing isn’t rocket science. Not even close.

Oh, people get all mystical and complicated, and come up with their own jargon and rules. Yet these self-appointed writing gurus all disagree, and they specialize so much that they know more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing.

Continue reading


Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday