When I was in fourth grade, one of
the nuns who taught me told my mother that she had
better spank me more if I was ever to be good in
English. My Mom ignored the advice and by the time I was
in 9th grade, I was told to concentrate on my math
skills. By the time I was twenty-four I understood the
theoretical mathematics behind nuclear power but was
unable to communicate them in writing.
I've always wanted to write but found
my lack of knowledge about basic grammar rules and
inability to spell, daunting obstacles to overcome. Then
I discovered text editors and spell checkers and worlds
of opportunity opened up. At the expense of the
Dispatch's reputation, over the past six months I've had
a unique opportunity to play writer. For those who have
read my articles, you've probably convinced yourself by
now that anyone, including yourself, can come up with
better articles then I can. And youíre probably right.
If youíre thinking about try your hand at writing for
the Dispatch, but youíre not quite sure how to go
about it, the following list of recommendations should
help you get going.
Don't procrastinate. When you get an idea for a story,
get it down on paper right away. For example, the idea
for this current article came to me one night while
reading unedited versions of past articles.
Unfortunately, due to space considerations, some of the
better story lines, such as the description of Mark
Zurgable playing the Air guitar to 'Stair Way to Heaven'
when no one is in his hardware store, never made it to
print. It occurred to me that if I was to write an
article on how to write an article, then I could use
these edited outtakes as examples and, with it, my more
embellished pieces would finally see the light of day.
I started gathering the outtakes
around eight at night. By eleven I had fairly well
scoped out rough draft. It doesn't take long if you
'Just Do It!' If I had procrastinated and waited a day
or two, the idea and the numerous subplots would have
been lost forever, and no number of gin and tonics would
have brought them back. When an idea comes, I usually
grab a piece of paper and jot down some key points. This
can be rather hazardous, especially when I'm driving on
270. Getting started is always the hardest part but once
you get going itís all down hill.
Ignore all editor
imposed deadlines. How long it takes to finish an
article is up to you. That's half the fun of writing. No
one can say youíre behind because only you know were
the story will end. It's also a great way to get out of
work around the farm. Whenever Audrey wants me to do
something, I plead a pending deadline and I'm off the
In general, all stories get better
with age. After completing a good rough draft, I put it
away for a week or two and then reread it. If what
you've written is still funny or interesting, go with
it. If not, change it and repeat. Once you have a draft
you like, ask as many people as you can to review it.
Never take comments personally. Take them as an
opportunity to learn.
I always read my rough drafts to
Audrey, if she groans and tells me not to quit my day
job, I know I have a winner. I get worried however when
she says she likes it. That usually means she is up to
something, like wanting a day off from the barn chores.
Paul at Zurgables is always my last reviewer. I use him
to insure that I offend everyone equally.
The key to a good story is taking as
long as you want to refine it. Wait till it's just
right, in the meantime, just keep telling the editors
it's on its way.
Don't worry about your English. That's what God created
spell checkers and text editors for. I constantly have
to struggle with my English. I couldn't tell the
difference between a prepositional phrase and a
subjunctive clause if my life depended on it.
Fortunately there are a lot of people who paid attention
in English class. Though today they are unable to make
the correct change for a newspaper, theyíre
nevertheless glad to correct your English.
The way I look at it, correcting
English is easy; itís coming up with the story line
that's hard. So when the person who is checking your
English, gives you a snotty comment about your use of
'past perfect tenses, remember, itís your idea, and
you'll be the one collecting future book and TV
royalties, not them.
Find a good place to write, preferably away from
spouses. Writing comes most easily when you have the
proper atmosphere to work in. For me, in the summer I do
my best writing sitting out under a tree with a double
gin and tonic in hand, PJ my trusty Jack Russell asleep
at my side and Audrey sweating as she pushes the lawn
mower around the yard. In the winter, I prefer to write
in front of a roaring fire place with a double gin and
tonic in hand, PJ asleep beside me and Audrey freezing
out in the barn cleaning stalls.
Write about subjects you know. Everyone has a story to
tell, but most figure their stories fall into two
categories, stupid - e.g., no one will find it
interesting - or personal - e.g.., your spouse will kill
you if you tell anyone. As to the first, whoever figured
that a story about a white board fence would be
interesting? (Actually, come to think of it, no one
really has said it was interesting.) That just goes to
show that any topic, no matter how stupid, is fair game
to write about. Think about it. I've written about
painting a fence, learning how to hammer nails and
coping with a satanically possessed tractor. Surely
someone can come up with something better. There are a
lot of good stories waiting to be written.
As to the stories that you consider
too personal, start cranking them out. The more personal
the better. Its a little know fact that the Dispatch
recently signed a fairly lucrative contract with the Fox
TV network, to develop story lines for a show to replace
Melrose Place. Currently titled 'Emmitsburg 1965', the
show focuses on the antics of Emmitsburg hippies and the
fifteen or so beer establishments that Emmitsburg once
sported. The Dispatch has lined up several residents who
have volunteered to flashback for it.
: If you can't remember the facts, make them up!. Now
while I know that sounds terrible, a vast majority of
books sold today are fiction stories, based on reality.
In grade school it was called lying and you were
punished for it. As an adult, you get paid millions of
dollars and cocktail parties are given in your honor. Go
I've also discovered the factual
accuracy of any story is inversely proportional to the
time remaining to the dead line.
For example, I'm
really late for this article, so this is a good time to
brief you on my upcoming exposes about Mark Zurgable's
impending run for town mayor. While Mark continues to
deny it, Paul has confirmed that Mark is having weekly
strategy meetings with Gary Kubala, his campaign
manager. Gary has reportedly chucked Marks campaign
slogan of: 'A 2500 pound power washer in every garage',
replacing it with: 'A family name for every street', in
hopes of garnering the endorsement of the established
families. Gary say's Mark has agreed to rename Main
Street 'Wivell Avenue', South Seaton Ave to 'Kermit
Glass Parkway' and North Seaton Ave. to 'Miller Family
isn't that more interesting to read about than the
town's septic systems?
Include friends in every story. Since the purpose of
writing a story is to get someone to read it, a easy way
to accumulate a following is to name people in your
story, which assures you a free beer from them when you
run into them in the bar. Everyone likes to see his or
her name in print; it's only human nature. All Dispatch
writers get a percentage of the paper's profits, which
is based upon the number of new readers they bring in.
So the more you bring in, the bigger your profit share.
So write about events in your neighborhood, and
remember, if you can come up with some plot lines for
the 'Emmitsburg 65' TV series, you also get a percentage
of the TV royalties!
Another good idea is to have a
reoccurring theme. The more you can string together your
stories, the better your chances that people will begin
to understand your unique sense of logic, or in my case,
dry humor. Even more important, connected individual
stories can form the basis for a future book, especially
when you finally realize that the Dispatch never will
pay you, no matter how hard you toil for it.
Ignore all suggested topics from the Editors. The
Cadle's don't always have the best grasp of what the
residents of Emmitsburg want to read. They'll give you
suggestions to write on such topics. Whatever they ask
you to do, just say yes, then write what you want but
don't send it to them till just before the deadline. In
general, I've found that the more off the assigned topic
I am, the closer to deadline I need to submit it and be
assured at least a majority will get into print.
Pick on Thurmont. This is my favorite, but the Cadle's
hate it. The way I figure it, every great center of
culture has its rivalry, Rome had Carthage, Washington
has Dallas and we have Thurmont. As far as I can tell,
everything in Emmitsburg is better. While Thurmont may
have the local high school, we have a college. We win!
Let's face it, if we really liked Thurmont, we'd be
living there but we don't, so let's have some fun at
So if by you've already broken all
your New Year resolutions, make a new one that will be
fun to keep: pick up a pen and give writing for your
community newspaper a whirl. It's the stories that are
passed down generation to generation that make a
community. New families moving into Emmitsburg need to
have a way to connect with the old and the passing on of
individual histories and stories will ensure the
fellowship of Emmitsburg will continue to flourish for
generations to come.
Michael Lives with his wife Audrey on
their farm east of Emmitsburg where he spends his free
time testing the limits of his wife's and the editor's
sense of humor.
other Humor stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman