A Solstice Reflection

winter sunset

Image Credit: Zach Dischner

Updated December 21, 2016

Every year, in my part of the northern hemisphere, the leaves forsake the trees and the snow starts to fly in December. Nature is still. Dormant. Even the animals that remain active through the cold, dark months have changed—instead of seeking out mates and producing young, they’re in survival mode, scurrying around in search of food and shelter. Earth is tipped on its axis away from the sun’s warmth and light. The days grow shorter and shorter. When I wake, the sun is barely over the horizon. By late afternoon, it’s sinking low in the sky. This is December—a time for descending into darkness, for hunkering down, for settling in to ride out the bleak months.

But in late December, a small, miraculous thing occurs. On the eve of the solstice, we slip into the longest, darkest night of the year. At this time of year, many of us partake in traditions, most with ancient origins, designed to fight back against the darkness. Instead of surrendering to the gloom, we light our homes and hearths. Our towns put up seasonal decorations. We deck our halls in red and green, silver and gold. Candles glow in our windows. We wish each other peace and joy. We celebrate the love of family and friends. Christians celebrate the birth of the Son, the Light of the World, while Jews light the menorah to commemorate the miracle of a one-day supply of oil lighting the Maccabees’ lamps for eight days. Pagans place a Yule log on the fire to symbolize warmth and light and sustenance.

On the solstice, the longest night of the year, a tiny bit of cosmic magic will take place and gradually, day by day, the light will grow. Instead of our days getting progressively darker, now they will get progressively lighter. It will take a while for the earth to warm again, but warm it will, and spring will come, bringing new growth, followed by the warmth of summer, and eventually the harvest, and then the decline into autumn as nature grows quiet again and heads back into its long winter’s sleep.

You see, it doesn’t matter what we celebrate. No matter whether we’re saying “Merry Christmas,” “Happy holidays,” “Blessed Yule,” or “Happy Hanukkah”… nature will do what nature does, quietly and simply. And every year I’m in awe.



10 Ways to Write Better

typewriterOver the past decade of coaching writers—as a friend and peer, and also as a managing editor—I’ve found myself repeating the same advice. I summarized it on Quora, and now I’m revisiting it here. May it help you become a better writer.

#1 Write daily.

All the writing advice in the world, all the books, and classes, won’t help unless you’re writing and actively incorporating what you’re learning into your work. Not a day goes by that I’m not writing something. Every bit of writing I do, from article to novel chapter right down to this Quora answer, improves my writing bit by bit.

#2 Read obsessively and analytically.

Writers are readers. The best writers read not only to be entertained or educated but to discover why a piece of writing works or doesn’t. Because I was such a prolific reader at a young age, when I began taking college level grammar and style courses I found that I already had a tacit understanding of the mechanics – it seeps into your internal knowledge base almost as if by osmosis. The same holds true for learning the art of storytelling.

#3 Know what prepositional phrases are.

Learn to recognize and remedy instances where you’ve used prepositional phrases instead of active, less wordy sentence structures. Instead of writing, “The car came over the top of the hill,” write, “The car crested the hill.” This single piece of advice made me a dramatically better writer.

#4 Know what an adverb is.

Don’t use adverbs to shore up weak verbs. The dog didn’t whine pathetically, he whimpered.

#5 Learn grammar.

Read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Learn grammar and sentence structure. You can’t be an artisan without knowing and understanding your tools. It’s okay to break the rules, but only after you’ve mastered them. Need a little proofreading help? Try a free tool like Grammarly. You’ll still need to proofread, but the app will help you spot your mistakes and guide you through fixing them.

#6 Don’t distance your reader from your character.

Most fiction, and even some non-fiction, works best when we connect with the characters. Watch for weak verbs like lookedfelt, and seemed. They take us away from the character and make us watch from a distance. Eliminate them by using active descriptions wherever possible to create a more intimate narrative.

With weak verbs:

Catherine looked at the zombie and felt horror and revulsion.

With active, intimate description:

Catherine shuddered as the zombie shambled toward her. Her heart hammered, and her insides made a convulsive lurch.

#7 Read it out loud.

Now and then (and more now than then if you’re a new writer), read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Nothing’s better for helping you find problems with flow and syntax. If you’re stumbling over a paragraph chances are your reader will, too.

#8 Practice whittling.

Not wood, words. Write a 500-word description. Now rewrite it to see if you can get it down to 250 words without losing meaning or diminishing the beauty of the narrative. To me, 80% of writing success is in knowing what to leave out rather than what to put in. And it’s not easy. As Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

#9 Cultivate curiosity.

Always wonder why and how and then find the answers. No one writes well in a vacuum.

#10 Be authentic.

Do you. Your voice is the only writer’s tool you own that no one else has.