The Milo Minderbinder Guide To Killing Your Friends and Betraying Your Country

 

“The rest of the officers fled toward the two exits in panic and jammed up the doorways like a dense, howling dam of human flesh as they shrank from going farther. . . Tents and trees were in flames, and Milo’s planes kept coming around interminably with their blinking white landing lights on and their bomb bay doors open.” –Catch-22

With Obama and Romney preparing to storm each other’s beaches at tonight’s foreign policy debate, I find myself reconsidering Milo Minderbinder, the war profiteer par excellence in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22Milo is either a repulsive, treasonous f-wad who murders his fellow American soldiers, or a business and PR genius who has winning in his blood.

And I find myself wondering: Who are the Milos of 2012, and, since neither candidate is much of a dove, who are they voting for?

And eventually I find myself not caring because this isn’t a post about politics, it’s a post about writing.

Charles Ruas: The first time you mention Milo bombing the squadron it comes as such a shock, and then you move on.

Joseph Heller: If I were going to do that with a straight narrative form, it would not be believable.” –Conversations With American Writers

There’s a really huge block quote right before this where Heller discusses how he prefers to reveal that a huge or shocking event happened, and only much later describe it actually happening. (As opposed to the “straight narrative form” where everything is chronological.) This technique sneaks credibility into what might have otherwise been incredible–it’s already somewhere in our consciousness when we get to the gory details, so in our minds it’s already “happened”.

This is an essential tool in the belt of someone like Joseph Heller, the maestro of wacky situations that may be implausible but tell us everything about everything.

And I think it’s a good one for all writers to get comfortable with, especially those of us who write to sell or otherwise convince the reader. Get the big claim or promise up front, and don’t be in too much of a hurry to break it down to its elements. By the end break it down thoroughly–describe each bomb falling, each tree flying out of the ground, each corpse burning, but don’t show your hand too soon. Your audience might just run away.

I’d be heartened if Mitt and Barack read this post as they get ready to brawl in a couple of hours, so they can land their blows on Benghazi, bankruptcy, and binders with maximum impact.

 

6 Writing Books On My Big-Ass Desk

 

I just moved into a new apartment, and the previous tenant must hate moving as much as I do–because he left behind a 75′”x 37.5″ solid wood table. I guess it was intended to be a food-supporter, but it’s my desk now.

It’s such a huge desk! My sense of executivity is already severely overinflated.

Executivity is not a word, and in an effort to stop writing words that aren’t real or using tildes where I should use carets or letting sentences run on, I’ve placed a few stacks of books about writing on one of the desk’s sprawling corners. Here are a half-dozen that I pick up at least once a week when I catch myself staring out the window:

  • Getting Started As A Freelance Writer by Robert W. BlyBob Bly is a legend in the copywriting game, and he is very forthcoming with good advice about getting gigs, maximizing productivity, and overcoming doubts. His credibility is untouchable. Some of the parts about internet writing barely clear the generation gap (e.g. calling a website a “dot.com”), but that doesn’t make GSAFW any less of an essential text.

  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser – I’ve cited Zinsser on this blog more than once, and sure as Hellman’s will continue to. OWW is like the “Principles of Composition” section of The Elements of Style blown up into an entire book. What I like so much about it is that, whether teaching sportswriting or how to commune with your audience, he keeps coming back to crystal-clear descriptions of the turmoil in your head as you write and how to beat it. A bonus is the great 1970’s vibe of the whole thing–you can just hear his Smith-Corona clacking as your eyes scan the pages.

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage – It’s not fjord, it’s fiord, OK? Deliciously, brutally British, only Fowler’s would tell you that a sjambok is “(In S. Africa) a rhinoceros-hide whip.” Imperialist bastards.  I’m being a little glib here, maybe even unfair, because it is also extremely practical and as definitive as definitive gets on any questions of usage.

  • The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates – Not a go-to for tips on killer sales copy or negotiating freelance rates like a salivating tiger, but probably even more valuable for anyone trying to see the big–big–picture of the writing life. Lines as willowy and sylphlike as their author trace the most essential truths about reading, developing a narrative and self-criticism. If only Mike Tyson wrote the foreword.

  • Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik – Crass as it may be to brand a book with a potshot at Strunk & White–who will never be effectively discredited–Arthur Plotnik has contributed something substantially helpful to the discussion. Absolutely loaded with content, Spunk & Bite breaks down what exactly makes a great, punchy sentence great and punchy, and does it in a way that makes the technique repeatable. That’s good teaching where I come from. And for an older dude, he’s impressively not hilarious when using modern slang and idioms.

 

How Safe Is Your Syntax From A Dangling Modifier?

 

Having determined that dangling modifiers make the writer look like a chump, Layman’s Terms will avoid them from now on.

Wait, wait…  Layman’s Terms didn’t determine anything. I did! For myself, at least. You probably knew it already. But it’s another rule of usage that was never on any test I took.

The worst ones sure do look bad. Bill Bryson uses “Handing me my whisky, his face broke into an awkward smile” as the poster pimple illustrating this syntactical blemish. It’s a funny one–the face hands the whisky.

But it’s not often that a truly egregious dangling modifier like it finds its way into print. I think our brains come standard with a low threshold for such jumbling.

Avoiding the passive voice is one way of staying out of trouble. Purdue University’s helpful online grammar site gives several examples of dangling modifiers, almost all of which flop because of passive voice in the main clause.

Here’s my modest proposal: Just don’t begin any sentences with modifying clauses. You’ll never get a dangler. And even when the modifier is clear about what it modifies, it usually sounds bad.

How many terrible bio blurbs begin with something like “A passionate world traveler, gourmande and djembe beater, Petunia Zickafoose is a polymath without equal…”? No laws are broken here, but it sets my AMATEUR! alarm blaring.

Put the main thing first, then tell more about it.

The Shocking Truth About Hyperbole

 

So a headline is there to grab the reader by the earlobes and leave him no choice but to read the sub-headline, which is there to grab him by the eyelids and leave him no choice but to read the first sentence, and so forth.

The AdWords revenue just gushes forth from there, right?

Even if no one literally says that’s how it works, there is no shortage of do-or-die advice about the need to grab attention right away in a blog post or any other type of article.

And it’s all correct–attention spans are growing scarcer than fossil fuels as the internet continues to have its way with our brains, and the headline is the shiny, spinning lure that is the writer’s only chance of getting fish to bite.

But I have some reservations about how this wisdom is applied. At what point does being provocative and attention-getting cross the line into poor taste or even dishonesty? OMG Cat isn’t so cute after all? Pringles cause cancer? Defibrillators might not work? 

Maybe a line can be drawn by saying you have to be able to back up your shocking truth, but nowadays you can back up any claim and find (or become) an expert in no time. In the context of a blog post, what are the odds you’re really going to be fact-checked?

Hyperbole is OK, but integrity is really cool.

5 Bad Things I Do, 10 Ways I’m Getting Better

Self-diagnosis of problems has always been one of my core competencies. But finding problems is only worthwhile as a means of finding solutions. Today I’m going to try with five of the worst.

  • Running from stuckness – Is there any more familiar feeling in writing than not knowing what to write next? My instinct when I get stuck is to do anything else–Facebook, coffee refill, Burpees… All wrong. But I’m seeing that there is a pleasure in sitting with stuckness–a difficult pleasure, which is generally the best kind. It’s the feeling of the brain re-arranging in a good way. Going forward I will not only embrace stuckness, but also seek it out.
  • Undervaluing hours. Understanding the value of time–to the point where you base decisions on it–is the highest function of the human brain. I know I’ll never get that last hour back, and I know I’ll never get this one back if I piss it away. Why is this so hard to internalize? I’m fighting this one by disconnecting my internet whenever possible and using Google Calendar.
  • Taking criticism personally. This one is especially hard because, no matter how many times they say not to take it personally, all criticism is personal.  It may not be when it leaves the critic’s mouth or keyboard, but it always is by the time it reaches the end user. I find help here in humility, the unpalatable steamed broccoli of our instincts, and desire for growth, because growth only happens when others tell you what you can do better–even if most of them are idiots, which leads us to:
  • Contempt for the reader. You don’t get my unexplained Hamlet/Re-Animator mixed metaphor? Well **** you then, punk! There is nothing to win feeling smarter, better-read, or anything other than EXTREMELY GRATEFUL towards the people donating their attention to your writing. To this end I’m trying to emphasize communication over cleverness and assume the reader is the smartest person in the room.
  • Spelling “certain” “certian”. I think I spell pretty well, but this one just keeps happening. And I don’t have two solutions for this, so I guess I overpromised in the headline. I won’t do that again.

Be Careful What You Write In The Morning

 

Try something. As long as you have healthy arms and shoulders I promise it’s not dangerous:

Stand dead-center in the nearest single doorway with your arms at your sides, and then press them out against the sides of the frame. Press harder. Harder! Hold it for one minute. It should be pretty uncomfortable at the end.

Now relax your arms and walk into the room.

Whoaaaa!

OK, you probably didn’t do it, but if you did, your arms would have started rising up as if attached to a pair of helium balloons (cue “Comfortably Numb”).

The point of this post isn’t to get you to try the Floating Arms Experiment anyway. It is, believe it or not, a post about writing.

I’m glad I used my 20th and last free article of the month on nytimes.com to read Michael Erard’s meditation on structural priming–the brain’s automatic way of referring to sentences it recently arranged for cues on how to arrange its next one.

Like Mr. Erard, I also have a writing Day Job that has nothing, stylistically, to do with the aesthetic strivings of the foiled rock musician still living in my head, still watching the lava lamp ooze. Novels, poetry, all that. Stop laughing. Just you wait.

We digress. Structural priming is one of those ideas that makes so much sense that you feel like you always sort of knew it, you had just never articulated it before. You write in the morning and the words are still bouncing around in your head in the evening (if you’re resilient enough to still be writing then).

I presume this is the same reason memorizing good writing is a smart move. Leave pretty footprints in your brain’s wet sand.

Going forward I’m going to try to take advantage of this knowledge. Not by typing out my William Gaddis impressions in the morning so I can turn in pomo masterpiece press releases to clients in the afternoon, or with any single dogmatic routine–but I will be keeping a much closer eye on which type of fuel I’m putting into which vehicle, if you get my drift.

Do you notice your writing, or your anything from the morning reverberating throughout your day?