Two Penguins in a Bucket: Avoiding Clichés, Recognizing Your Worth and Finding Discipline

by Geoffrey Notkin

Author Geoff Notkin

One of my early writing teachers, Ginny MacKenzie, hated any form of cliché. She would berate me any time I used one and make a face suggesting that she had just smelled something awful. She told me I was a creative person and that I needed to come up with my own unique way in which to describe my adventures. As such, I fanatically avoided tired and overused sayings, such as “cold as ice,” or “it was as black as night,” and instead dug deeply into my thoughts to create original similes and descriptions.

While writing my second book, “Rock Star: Adventures of a Meteorite Man,” I was trying to recall the despair that my companion and I felt, sitting stranded in a car in frozen northern Canada during a meteorite hunting expedition. The sentence: “I turned off the engine, and we sat there in the cold like two penguins in a bucket,” seeped into my head, seemingly from nowhere, as I stared out into my desert garden. I thought it very odd, but also humorous and specifically descriptive. My editor marked it as one of her favorite passages in the book.

Writing discipline is, in my case, one of the most difficult aspects of being an author. I tend to procrastinate and wait until I am in the mood to write, or until a deadline is hurtling towards me (note how I avoided the obvious phrase of “looming deadline”). At a recent writers’ workshop in my adopted home city of Tucson, Arizona, local authors were discussing how they coped with issues relating to writing on a regular basis. One panelist stated: “For me it’s easy. I write one page a day.” Another panelist piped up and said: “Well, that’s not much, is it?” The first replied with: “Yes it is, actually. A page a day is a book a year. Do you publish a new book every year?”

I found this a simple but amazing concept: A page a day is a book a year.

It is very easy to say to yourself, as a writer: “I am going to write every day,” but a lot harder to accomplish it. A tactic that works for me is the self-imposed deadline. My first book, “Meteorite Hunting: How to Find Treasure from Space” was published on February 1, 2011, just in time for the largest trade show of its kind in the world. I was a vendor at that show—which featured meteorites, minerals, rocks, fossils, and jewelry— and knew the book would be of considerable interest to visitors. Some months before the show opened, I gave myself the task of writing an entire chapter every day. I usually write most effectively in the morning, before the never-ending distractions of the day—email, social media, interviews, phone calls, meetings, appointments, orders, packing and shipping—can wreak havoc with my creative impulses. So, each morning during the winter of 2010, I rose early and did my best to complete an entire chapter before listening to any phone messages or checking my email. It will be of no surprise to readers that I did not manage to finish a whole chapter every day, but I did so often enough that my deadline was met and the book’s release was a big success.

In terms of marketing and promotional advice, perhaps the most helpful tip I ever received was from a former press agent who urged me to get involved with Twitter. My initial reaction was: “I don’t have time to waste with another social media platform,” but I eventually relented and found Twitter to be an invaluable tool for the writer. I have connected with other writers, my current publicist, fans, and made many extremely useful contacts that have helped me promote my work. There is something about Twitter that makes initial contact easy and pleasant. If someone starts following me, and they are a fellow writer, or involved in another one of my fields such as science or television, a dialogue often ensues, and these brief correspondences have produced invitations to do major interviews, attend signings and speaking events, and similar. I was also encouraged to join, in an author capacity, and I have found it a friendly and engaging platform that enables me to learn what colleagues are reading and enjoying, and also to promote my own work to people who love to read.

It is important to remember that writing is a creative endeavor, but it is also a business like any other. An adored art teacher, Susannah Kelly, told me that as artists (and this applies to writers every bit as much), we must believe that our work is worth something. Only do unpaid work on spec if it is something you want to do, or feel will further your career. We do not ask plumbers, dentists, or mechanics to do work for us on spec. They will not be impressed if I say to them: “Hey, fixing my toilet for free would be great for your resume.” They are professionals who provide a valuable service, and expect to be compensated accordingly. The same is true for writers. I have, many times, written articles for free, because I liked the publication and they had no budget. But don’t forget to believe in yourself and the quality of your work, and don’t sell yourself, or your words, too cheap.
Geoffrey Notkin is the author of “Rock Star: Adventures of a Meteorite Man” and “Meteorite Hunting: How to Find Treasure from Space.” A television host, professional meteorite hunter, science writer, photographer and owner of Aerolite Meteorites, Geoff stars on Science Channel’s award-winning TV show “Meteorite Men.” He has also made documentaries for National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, BBC, History Channel, A&E, and Travel Channel and has written more than 150 published articles on meteoritics, paleontology, adventure travel, history, and the arts. The minor planet 132904, discovered at Mount Palomar, was named “Notkin” and approved by the Minor Planet Center in recognition of Geoffrey’s contributions to science and education.