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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment #363

A Little Bit Different

I have been known, in the Mailbag, to talk about song lyrics I have found to be exceptional writing. Instead of doing that today, I thought instead I would talk about the composition and arrangement of an entire song I think speaks volumes about short story writing.

The song is “Stairway To Heaven,” composed and recorded in 1971 by, of course, Led Zeppelin.

The song is arranged in three distinct sections, each section increasing in tempo and volume. It really is a masterful piece of music, and I say that as a person who is usually lukewarm in my praise of that particular rock band. The important point being the increase in tempo and volume, and how that applies to the writing of a short story or even a novel.

Writing a short story, or writing a novella or novel, is all about pace, all about tempo, and all about ratcheting up the “volume” as the story unfolds. It is not something which comes easily, and it is something which takes a great deal of practice, but once it is achieved it is a real feel-good moment for a creative writer.

Anyway, enjoy listening to one of rock’s all-time greats, and let’s get to the mail this week.

The Mail Room

The Mail Room

My Students

From Mary: “Did any of your students pursue a career in writing?”

Mary, it’s impossible for me to answer this question with any accuracy. There have been hundreds of students over the years, and I’m not in touch with them all. Having said that, I know of three who have literary careers now. I also taught history, and I know of four who ended up as history professors.

Did I have anything to do with any of that? I’d like to think so, but bottom line is I’m just proud of all of them. It is incredibly satisfying to see my students as adults now, many with families, many with careers which make them happy, and to know that I was a part of that process.

Dragging out the Suspense

From Mr. Happy: “So, I have some technical questions, or relating to your thought process when writing your fiction stories. For example as I have mentioned in my comment, You keep up the suspense with little things like "you can tell me what the problem is" but then, You do not provide thew answer right away. The questions keep coming: "Is someone chasing you?" but no immediate answer. After a third try: "Tell me what’s wrong", an answer is given but one which invites even more questions, furthering the suspense.

“Did You plan that out? As in: "I will have X ask a few times what is wrong, before Y answers, in order to keep up the suspense". Three is a number often used in how many examples we give before we add an "etc", or when writing an explanatory essay, we give three examples, not five, or two. See what I mean? Are You numbering your hooks, or your suspense-boosting techniques? How does the mind of a fiction writer work? You see, I write non-fiction, so my dialogue in stories is not made-up. I do not have to invent it, I just have to remember it as correctly as possible, or remember my thoughts. It is a much more straight-forward process than writing fiction, in my opinion.”

Mr. Happy, this is such a great question, and it is a first for the Mailbag.

No, I did not plan on three questions to build suspense. Instead, I went by feel. After the third question, I felt that the suspense had built sufficiently so I could go ahead with the story. I guess, in the back of my mind, I was aware of how many words I had written, how close I was coming to a casual target of 1500 words, and it was time to approach the “climax.” But most importantly, it all happened because I trusted my instincts regarding the amount of suspense that was appropriate for that story.

That is only something, I believe, which happens over time and with tons of practice. And it relates to your second question, coming up a little later in this Mailbag.

Picture Prompt Response

From Pamela: “The sky was blue with just a few clouds, and it was 82 degrees. They were setting up for their annual summer family picnic. Gramma was getting some ice tea, and the granddaughters were laughing and talking around her. They were laughing because Grandpa rode his motorcycle to the picnic. They were talking to Grandma about it as they didn’t think it was safe for him to still be riding a motorcycle.”

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Last week's picture prompt

Last week's picture prompt

Thoughts About Writing

From Mr. Happy: I was watching a documentary on Gore Vidal. At one point (minute 14:50) he says:

"It was very clear. You don't decide to be a writer, You are one, or You're not one. This drives people crazy because everybody thinks it's easy, just... You just sit down and scribble. And that's it. Well, it isn't it. And You have to have a certain gift, which is not ... art is not a democracy. In fact art, is the enemy of democracy." Here's the link in case You feel like watching it:

“What do You think about that quote though? First of all, I had a laugh at the part about "This drives people crazy because everybody thinks it's easy, just... You just sit down and scribble." - This is so obviously clear by many written pieces on the web, which are just an abomination to the art of writing. (Not that I am any good at it but I at least think I can communicate my thoughts pretty clearly.) Do You think many people just do not realize how bad at writing they are and/or that writing is not the thing for them?

“Secondly, what do You think about the part where he says: "In fact art, is the enemy of democracy." - That's a pretty bold statement. Haha!!”

I actually listened to a podcast yesterday, during a rare May power outage, and this topic came up. And I agree with Mr. Vidal, and with you . . . not everyone can just decide they are a writer. Good writing requires practice, requires skill, and really requires a gift from the gods.

My blog site is called “Artistry With Words,” and I chose that title specifically because I wanted everyone to know that writing is an art. I’m not talking about sitting down and writing grocery lists, or writing notes to relatives during Christmastime. I’m talking about fine writing, outstanding writing, writing which makes a reader wish there was more, makes a reader hungry for the next piece from that writer. When that type of writing is accomplished yes, it is an art form and no, not everyone who sits down to write a blog or pen an article fits into that classification.

I think the internet has opened up many possibilities for people to express themselves. There are thousands of articles on HubPages alone, and not all of them are outstanding. In fact, very few of them are truly works of art. Still, it’s nice that people can go there and share information and/or creativity with others. But are they all “artists of the pen?” Not by a long shot!

And I love that last statement. Art is, indeed, the enemy of democracy, or at least it is using my definition of art.

Working a Piece to Death

From Denise: “There is such a thing as overworking art (or writing) but I somehow feel where the right effect has been reached. Do you have that same trouble with writing? Where to stop? When is it edited enough?”

Denise, if I allowed myself to do so, I would still be editing my first novel, which I published ten years ago. I never think my writings are perfect, but at some point I just have to say “ENOUGH” and publish them. I limit myself to three edits. After the third edit, that baby is going to press, period, end of story.

Don't work a piece to death!

Don't work a piece to death!

My Author’s Page

From Brenda: Please send me a link to your books. My mother is always looking for a good book to read, and I would love to send her one of yours.

Your wish is my command, Brenda, and thank you. Here it is:

Thanks for asking for it!

Stairway to Heaven

It’s just something to think about for you creative writers out there. It’s nuance, and subtlety, but it’s very important when telling a story that you build up towards the climax. It’s one of those technical skills which must be learned in order to get the most out of your creative writing.

That’s it for this week. Remember, if you are looking for a writing coach, I’m available by the month for a very low price. And if you have a question for the Mailbag, include it in the comments below or email me at

Thanks for joining me, and have a love-filled, deliriously-happy week!

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 06, 2021:

Shoot, Heidi, I hope you dog is all right now. Send me an update, okay? I hate it when our pets are down in the weather.

Happy Sunday to you, my friend!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 06, 2021:

Bobbi, your wish is my command. A Maggie story will be published Wednesday. Thanks for asking about it and reminding me.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 06, 2021:

Thank you so much, Nithya, for taking the time to comment. I'm sorry I'm so late in responding.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 05, 2021:

Way, way late to the Mailbag! Doggo health issue came up on Monday, and the week went from there.

Re: Students as Writers? I often wonder kind of the same about my author clients. Usually, I don't have continuing contact with clients. I always wonder. But I hope they're happy with whatever they decided to do with their writing.

That's it. I'll hope to get back to normal, or some semblance of it, next week. Happy Weekend!

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on June 04, 2021:

Hi Bill,

Another great food for thought. I hope you will write about Maggie soon.

Tou might have, however, I have been busy with family lately--so busy my kitty Baby has started to pout.

Have a great weekend,

Bobbi Purvis

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on June 03, 2021:

Interesting and informative writer’s mailbag. Being a writer needs practice along with the spark to write. Deciding when editing your own work to make it perfect is a tough decision but it has to be made so that we can move on. Thank you for sharing valuable writing tips with us.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 03, 2021:

It's the least I can do for you, EK! lol

EK Jadoon from Abbottabad Pakistan on June 03, 2021:

Aww...eagerly waiting for the next photo prompt.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 03, 2021:

I'm glad I helped in some way, Rodric, and I'm very sorry to hear about you not being able to see again. Temporary I hope, and not a permanent loss.

Filling in the holes...I'll answer that now, and the other question will make the Mailbag on Monday. I am currently working on the 6th installment of a series of mine, and it's always a good idea to give backstory in every installment. It's basically the same thing as filling in holes like you are talking about. My only word of advice is to do it gradually. Don't try to fill in all of the holes at one time because you ruin the flow of the story and do risk sounding preachy. Fill in one hole per chapter until you've filled them all in, and you'll be fine.

Best wishes to you, my friend.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on June 02, 2021:

I listened to Stairway to Heaven so many times, and have witnessed it in so many other artistic renderings that I did not pay attention to the beauty of its appeal. Thanks for that, Bill. I have a question that possibly can make it to the next mailbag. What are methods you have used to start again on a project that you stepped away from writing?

I remember you writing about a book you meant to get back to writing for years and finally realized that goal. How did you do it? What tips can you give me, being in the same position?

You already answered my question about whether I should re-write the stars of my old work. I agree that I should not try to undo my past. My future has to be so much better.

With the info from this mailbag, I am already reeling. I never paid attention to story momentum the way you and Mr. Happy suggested. I want to use that in my future writing on purpose, as Mr. Happy suggests, but I love the instinct of the building suspense that comes with not even the writer knowing when it will end until it does!

I wrote my first book, Border Arizona: What's My Name! It was a raw piece of emotional turmoil that turned into a rough story. It nags me because I did not make it more complex. I planned on it being a stand-alone book, but it seems like it wants me to tell more of the story. I hate that feeling while loving it at the same time.

It was the book I wanted to rewrite, but will not because you, Bill, convinced me to let it stand as where I was. I had already started integrating the second book into the first and unpublished it. I even started changing the story to fill info holes I left in the original. I am going to put the book back on sale and leave it alone. I will have to work in a follow-up book to fill in the holes without it being too preachy. Thanks for that. Also, any tips on doing that--not being preachy in a book that is trying to fill in holes for the first?

Sorry for the long comment. It is build up! I am afraid I won't be able to see again and am trying to get it all in!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 02, 2021:

I am very happy to hear that, Devika. Thanks so much.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 02, 2021:

For sure, Bill, that is the most rewarding part of being a teacher, seeing what your students have become later in life. A great reward, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 02, 2021:

Well Miebakagh, you must listen to the song, especially if you enjoy rock music!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 02, 2021:

EK, you had me laughing out loud about the composting toilet. Sorry about that. I will have a much more enjoyable photo for the next challenge.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 02, 2021:

Thank you, MG! It is writers like you that keep me on HP. I love the interaction. I love learning about other cultures. I greatly appreciate you.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 02, 2021:

Hi Bill it is a gift to write and reading helps a lot too. Your valuable tips shared here allows us to see this from your experiences and so well-written.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

That's it, Brenda! Hooray!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

MizB, you had me laughing. Go cook a steak while the song is on. LOL I can just picture it!

I'm with you on clunky sentences and organized minds. Especially, me thinks, writing short stories, novellas, and novels. Without an organized mind, chaos will soon reign supreme.

87 here today. Just shoot me now!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

It was a good weekend, Linda. Thank you! We got lots done in the yard.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

Thank you Rosina! I hope you are feeling much better now. Happy Tuesday to you!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

It was a good weekend, Flourish. Thank you and I hope you had a good one as well.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

Thank you Amara! I hope your week is filled with happiness.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

That's an interesting thought, Mary. I wonder if talents like that can be passed on through the genes? I'll have to look into that.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

Thank you Chitrangada Sharan! I love your name. It is melodic to me.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

It is my pleasure, Miebakagh! Thank you, sir!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

Thanks for the question, Mr. Happy. There is a shortage of them this week, so I appreciate it. Have a wonderful week, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

I'm sorry about that, Brenda. It can be hard for me, at times, to find my own author's page. That link was supposed to be the link to my page. Anyway, my books are under William D. Holland.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

Not always, Misbah, but I always am with good people. :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

Thank you Peggy! I hope your Memorial Day was pleasant as well. Sorry for the late reply.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2021:

Thank you Dora! I do have a passion for writing, no doubt about that. I'm glad my passion shines through in my writing, so thank you for that confirmation.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 01, 2021:

Nice mailbag Bill. I was never a Led Zeppelin fan but always enjoyed “Stairway to Heaven.” I’ll bet there are many more of your former students out there who pursued writing or history careers. It’s nice to have that kind of impact on young students trying to decide on a career. Have a great week, Bill.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 01, 2021:

I've never heard about the song 'stair ways to heaven.' But I agree Bill is a good story teller and teacher. So I'm honoured to learn a thing or two each week from the tutorial mail bag.

EK Jadoon from Abbottabad Pakistan on May 31, 2021:

It was a nice read, Bill. I am sorry, I couldn't send my response to the picture prompt. I tried to write it but didn't dare to send it to you because of "the composting toilet". You know I searched a lot about these toilets on google and youtube. Lol.

An oppressed old woman, who is bounded to advertise a company that make composting toilets. These kind of thing were coming to my mind. No doubt, you have added something new to my knowledge.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 31, 2021:

Hi Bill, nice reading. Song 'staircase to heaven' was before my time but I heard it later and it's wonderful. I liked your information on writing a book or a novel; wonderful, and I could identify with what you have written because I have also finished almost 14 books and my latest book on the happenings in Pakistan is being published from England. It's great interacting with you, Bill, and may peace and blessings are with you.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on May 31, 2021:


I did find this link on Amazon.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on May 31, 2021:

Bill, "Stairway to Heaven" is one of the greatest songs ever written, if not the greatest. The meaning is subtle, but powerful. I noticed that the version you posted was 10 min. 40 sec. This must be a modern cut. The original was over 25 minutes, and then a cut to a little over 5 minutes was made because most radio stations couldn't play a 25 minute version. My husband Larry was one of the first dee jays on KAAY's Beaker Street before Clyde Clifford took the program over. He would put the 25 min. version on and go cook himself a steak in the middle of the night if he got hungry. Or so he says. Led Zepplin is my favorite band from that era. I won't get into Robert Plant's fantastic vocal range.

To be a good writer, a person needs an organized mind. Too many writers have some great ideas, but they don't know how to organize them. Another problem writers have is verbosity. As an editor, I love to take a long clunky sentence and streamline it into a few words. On HP I see a lot of authors using compound sentences when a few well placed modifiers (adjectives, adverbs) could shrink the sentence and make it more readable. Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now.

We're having a cool snap (as my parents used to say) right now. No AC needed at our house yet. Just a beautiful enjoyable Memorial Day. Hope you and Bev had a nice one.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 31, 2021:

I’m going to listen to “Stairway To Heaven” now that I’ve read your description of it. I hope you and Bev are having an enjoyable long weekend.

Rosina S Khan on May 31, 2021:

An exquisite mailbag, as always. I loved the song and Pamela's response to the picture prompt. Happy Monday, Bill.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 31, 2021:

Whether you’re listening to music, reading or writing, I hope you are having a fantastic Memorial Day Weekend!

Amara from Pakistan on May 31, 2021:

Hi Bill, Its always good to see your students getting successful in their lives.. It was a nice read Sir..

Have a great week.. :-)

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 31, 2021:

Bill, my sister is one of those gifted to write and she does it without much hassle. She has not done anything to improve her talent except reading. She loves to read and did it all the time. Her university asked her to be editor in chief of their paper but she refused as she did not want to work hard. She has not really done anything about her writing but herds and grandkids seem to have the talent, too. I wonder if it is passed on through the genes or through close interaction.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 31, 2021:

Happy Monday Bill!

Loved reading this edition of the mailbag, and enjoyed the song too.

I liked, how you equated song lyrics with story writing. Both are creative work.

Thank you for sharing another wonderful installment.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 31, 2021:

Bill, thanks for a happy mail bag. I enjoy the read.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on May 31, 2021:

Thank You for taking the time to answer those questions. I appreciate it.

Awesome song too, that You chose! I wrote a metaphysics essay titled "Stairway to Heaven" once. It's for sure one of the world's greatest master-pieces! (The song, not my essay. The essay is decent though, I am not here to demean myself, haha!!)

"I limit myself to three edits." - How much time to You give in between edits? I find it frustrating that sometimes (like yesterday), I look at an old piece of writing and I find a missing comma, or an odd typo and so, I feel that I need long periods of time between edits, or I can find that I missed something that should have been changed.

Thanks again for the shared knowledge - have a wonderful week ahead!

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on May 31, 2021:


I have always loved "Stairway to Heaven".

I suppose the way the tempo increases in a song is alot like how we tell a story.

Great example.

I imagine it is quite fulfilling seeing your students succeed.

As per Mr Happy saying he hears alot of people say you just sit down and scribble, I think alot of people do believe it.

They just don't understand that it takes time to be creative.

It is truly a gift and an art.

There are times I keep looking at the same piece snd changing it constantly...i finally have to stop and let it go too.

I am having a problem with this link.

It seems to take me to kdp where I can publish my own book.

I'll keep looking.

Have a great Memorial Day.

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on May 31, 2021:

Sir, You are truly very kind

Blessings to you

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on May 31, 2021:

I would have liked your teacher, Alyssa. I did the same thing in my history classes. I had to do something to keep the attention of my students because, if not inspired, history can be a big turnoff for many students. Thanks for sharing about your teacher, and Happy Memorial Day to you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on May 31, 2021:

Thanks John! It's hard to deny the genius of Stairway to Heaven, even if you don't like the band.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on May 31, 2021:

Thank you, Linda, and Happy Memorial Day to you. I plan on working in the yard this afternoon, but only in the shade portions of the yard. :) Too much sun makes Bill an unhappy boy.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on May 31, 2021:

Happy Monday, Misbah! That made me laugh. How could a composting toilet be inspirational? LOL Silly me! I'll do better with the next photo prompt, I promise.

Have a wonderful week. Stay safe and be happy.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on May 31, 2021:

Happy Memorial Day to you, Pamela. I hope this finds you well. Thanks for using part of your holiday to visit with us.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on May 31, 2021:

All good points, Mel, and I can't argue with any of them. And thank the gods for the internet, giving the Mailbag a chance to take root and grow over the years.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on May 31, 2021:

It's an interesting question, Liz, one I've wrestled with over the years. Allow me to save this until next Monday and then give it the attention it deserves.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 31, 2021:

Art and writing definitely go hand-in-hand. Knowing when to stop working on a piece is also a determination made by artists and writers. Thanks for another informative mailbag. Happy Memorial Day!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 31, 2021:

I hate when I miss the mailbag. Happy I found it today. I do believe that good writers are gifted, also that we (talking to myself) need to be more passionate about using these gifts. You, Bill, certainly do a great job of motivating us. Thanks.

Alyssa from Ohio on May 31, 2021:

What a wonderful mailbag this week! Your nod to Stairway To Heaven brought back fond memories of my American History class years ago. (oh my gosh, 20 years ago!) The teacher was one of my favorites and he incorporated music to help us understand different time periods. Of course, Stairway To Heaven was included and he set it up with Baba O'Riley. I also remember The Eagles being included on another day. Song writers have always fascinated me. I'll often look up the meanings and the stories behind my favorite songs. Some are truly surprising.

Have a wonderful Monday and a fabulous week!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on May 31, 2021:

Bill, Stairway to Heaven is a true classic if ever there was one. I loved Mr Happy’s questions and your answers, as well as the others. Another excellent mailbag.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on May 31, 2021:

Thank you to Mr. Happy for some really great questions this week. I haven't taken the time to listen to that Gore Vidal podcast, but it's on my to-do list for this week. Writing IS an artform as is the ability to tell a story. I think you're right--it's a gift from the gods (or Muses). You have it or your don't. But if you have it, practice can certainly help you improve (hence your comment about rewriting your first book of 10 years ago).

Have a safe and happy Memorial Day my friend and a good week.

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on May 31, 2021:

Happy Monday! Lovely mailbag, Mr. Bill. I like Mr. Happy’s question especially and your response to the answer as well. About the picture prompt, I would have to say I tried a lot to write something on it but every time I tried, I got distracted by the words written on it says “The compositing Toilet “ Lol!!

Wishing you a wonderful and a blessed week, Sir

Stay happy and safe.

Blessings always

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 31, 2021:

Happy Memorial Day! I enjoyed reading the mailbag as usual. Three edits sounds perfect to me. I am also sure you have given many people an inspiration to write. I imagine you are an excellent writing coach, Bill.

I like Stairway to Heaven also. Have a very good week!

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on May 31, 2021:

Art might not be a democracy yet, but the Internet is helping it get there. I think it's a two-headed monster for sure - for everything foul and depraved online there is something else enlightening and enabling. For instance, it allows aspiring writers to share ideas, and it allows our art, which might not make it into print, to reach an audience. Most certainly it enables the mailbag, which is once again a thought-provoking treat.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 31, 2021:

I like the comparison between songwriting and literature. Both are examples of creative writing. How do you measure success in writing? Is it by remuneration, readership, recognition by respected writers and critics, personal satisfaction or a combination of them all?

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