Monday, April 25, 2011

In Search of the Perfect Word

I'm in the middle of turning a novella into a novel. The story is essentially a one-set exercise, with a cast of only three characters and a limited number of props. Part of the challenge has been coming up with new and varied ways to talk about the same place, prop, or person as the story unfolds.

It's a balancing act. Too much repetition and the book sounds amateurish. Too much novelty and I run the risk of sounding like I wrote with thesaurus at the ready.

As always, I write in search of the perfect word.

The Perfect Word Search is a necessary part of both factual and fictitious writing.

When I was working on Geoff Teall’s book for Trafalgar Square, shortly before the book was due at the printers an issue arose over the use of a single word: classical. As in “classical horsemanship,” “classical techniques,” and “classical riding.”

Those phrases, and others like them, occur throughout the book. But after in-depth discussions with both Geoff and the publishers, it became clear that the word did not accurately reflect Geoff’s intentions. To make matters worse, the phrases that use “classical” as a modifier mean different things to different horsepeople, depending on the discipline of choice.

For instance, Geoff used the word to denote something timeless that was not a modern affectation. He was talking about “correct” or “purposeful” hunt seat riding.

Persons with a background in dressage, however, think of Xenophon and ancient Greece when they think of “classical riding.” The dressage rider’s body position is considerably straighter in the “classical position” than in a hunt seat position.

And the search for the word continued. Mere days before the project went to press, I found myself going over the entire text and analyzing how we had used the word “classical” throughout it. I also wracked my brain to come up with a better word that more accurately reflected what Geoff meant when he said “classical.”

If this seems nit-picky to you, think again. This was not mere word-play. This was our final opportunity to make Geoff’s meaning, teachings, and philosophy crystal clear to the reader. The last thing we wanted was for readers around the world to be confused about what is a central concept within the text.

We’d actually been down this road once already on this project.

Months earlier, Geoff and I had the same sort of exegetic conversation about the use of the word “equitation.” To me, it meant “proper riding.” But to him, it also meant a particular competitive Hunter division and he didn’t want people to read the word and misunderstand its use. Of course, he was right.

What we did was define “equitation” right up front, from the very beginning. Then, any place within the manuscript where there might be some confusion, we used the more benign “riding.”

When faced with what you've written, the reader does not have the luxury of having you explain things that are unclear. So take the time when the project is still in manuscript form to make sure that every word you use means exactly what you want it to. It’s an obvious, but often forgotten truth: When writing, words are all you have. Treat them with respect and use them wisely.

What techniques do you use to help you find the perfect word? How do you avoid sloppy repetition? How do you ensure that your meaning is clear?  Share your wisdom in the comments.

And now, if you'll excuse me, the search continues...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why We Write: Words of Wisdom from the Trenches

Once again, I was wrestling with my current Work in Progress. I knew what had to happen, knew the characters involved, and knew how it all fit into the grand scheme of my story. Sometimes the words flow like wine. Or hot chocolate. Or - sweet ecstasy - Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

Friday, however, was not one of those times.

For an entire afternoon, I wrote page after page, only to realize how awful it was. (I'm not being precious here. I'm fully capable of recognizing dreck when I see it. Even when it's mine. Especially when it's mine... ~sigh~)

I wrote 3 pages, then performed a mercy killing and began again. Lather. Rinse Repeat. At the end of the bloodletting, only 3 paragraphs remained standing.

I felt like the early settlers who, when pushing across the heavily wooded Midwest could labor all day beginning at sunrise, then at sunset look behind them and see where they had started.

And so, I turned to Twitter. Because no other place online makes me realize that we all endure the same process. I asked a simple question:

In spite of rejection, caffeine shortages, sleepless nights & tetchy muses, what keeps you #amwriting?

Here's what my brothers and sisters in the trenches had to say:

@Pages2Type:  If I stopped, my wife would have to hear all these things. If write them down, it keeps me sane... well, sane-ish.

@DaleEstey: To find out what happens.

:  I keep writing because the characters just won't shut up.

@trudymorgancole: My dad (a publisher) once had to explain to someone how little $ most pubbed authors make. Person (aghast): "Why do they do it??"

Dad's response? "They can't help themselves."

Truer words were never spoken. We can't help ourselves. Furthermore, I, for one, don't wish to.

Why do you write? What keeps you at it, especially on days when the words won't dance with you, or your characters aren't talking to you, or your family just shakes their collective heads in disbelief? I encourage you to add your words of wisdom in the comments below.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

White Eggs and Spam: The Tweeter's Lament

(With profuse apologies to Dr. Seuss)
Eggs hatch spam-bots. And dinosaurs.

I do not like white eggs and spam.
I do not like them, sir or ma'am.

I do not like them in HootSuite
TweetDeck, or Twitter.  Won't re-tweet
Them. Won't click on links.
I'm not an idiot. 
     (That's what you thinks,
Isn't it? Why else
Would you blast me with your URLs?)

From "Writers Wanted!" to Bieberfans and
#followback begging, I hates the spam!

I do not like white eggs and spam.
I block and report them as fast as I can.
I will not keep eggs in my feed.
They hatch spam-bots. I do not need,
Or want, or even tolerate
The time-line clutter spam-bots make.

It's true, not all spam comes from eggs.
If I see boobs or butts or legs
It's a fair bet spam is in the tweet --
Spam that licks a toilet seat.

I do not like white eggs and spam.
I do not like it, sir or ma'am.

I tweet to connect with other people:
Writers. Riders. Real live tweeple.
I like what they have to say -
Even if it's just what they ate today.
They make me laugh. They keep me #amwriting.
They're so interesting, I find myself fighting
To more productively manage my time
So I do not spend it all online.

That's why I don't like white eggs and spam.
They clutter up my feed and jam
It with unwanted ads.
I "block & report" & kick bots in the nads.
If I wanted spam ads everyplace I look,
I wouldn't be on Twitter.  I'd be on FaceBook.
The Winning Argument.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Ode to the Serial "Smartypants" Comma

Today, Mary Kole, associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency,  wrote a "Smartypants Comma" blog post.

In it, she explains the two different schools of thought on the comma -- the punctuation that mandates a brief pause and separates elements in a list.

Some advocate NOT using the comma before a conjunction in a sentence. They call it the "Oxford comma" or the "smartypants comma," arguing that is it pompous and unnecessary for concept comprehension. They would write:

The American flag is red, white and blue.

Others insist that the serial comma is not superfluous. It has a job to do -- and that job is to allot each element its own personal space.  They don't care if they're labeled high-brow; they put the comma to work. They would write:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

At the risk of being labeled an insufferable smartypants, I confess that I am a big fan of the serial style.  I have been ever since I had a lawyer explain it to me this way:

*  If a will is written: "I leave all my belongings to John Smith, Sue Jones and Robert White," then the single comma means that John will get half the property. The other half will be divided equally between Sue and Robert, meaning each will receive 1/4. The absence of the comma after Sue's name lumps her with Robert as a single entity.

*  If, however, the will is written: "I leave all my belongings to John Smith, Sue Jones, and Robert White," then all three people are equally important. Each stand on his or her own. So each would receive 1/3 of the property.
Red. White. Blue. Where's YOUR comma?

In monetary terms, if the estate were worth a cool million bucks, the absence of the serial comma in the first example would mean that John would receive $500,000, and Sue and Robert would each get $250,000.

In the second example, John, Sue, and Robert would each receive $333,333.33. Their lawyers would have to fight over who received the extra penny.

So you see, unless you're John Smith, who stands to gain a significant amount of dough from the absence of a comma, there is strong incentive to include it. I think Sue and Robert would agree.

Since April is National Poetry Month, I have composed an Ode to the Serial Comma. Ahem...

Oh comma, my comma,
That comes before "and"
To separate elements so each can stand
On its own. I salute you. 
You are hardly mere filler.
I'm an Oxford smartypants,
Not a serial killer. 

*cue applause*

What's your take on things? Are you a Smartypants? Or a Serial killer?  Weigh in below.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Secret of Subtext

"What is subtext?" novice writers will ask in workshops and critique groups. "I've heard that I need to include more of it in my work, but nobody can tell me what it is."

That's because subtext is what's unsaid. It's all the words that should be there, but aren't. It's hidden meaning and missing facts. Subtext is shrouded in silence.

Subtext makes the reader see MORE than what's there.
I've always considered subtext as the "lost" information in a scene.

Without the information, the characters in the scene interact on one level.

But with the information, the reader puts on the equivalent of literary 3-D glasses and the scene POPS. Subtext creates undercurrents of tension. It's the plot's negative space. It's the underlying thing that makes the whole scene stick.

No wonder it's so misunderstood. It's the thing that exists only when it's not there.

I recently saw a perfect real-life example of subtext.  Sometimes, to understand a thing,  it's better to experience it than to explain it. So, without further ado, I present:


Setting: A Daytime Talk-Show

     *  Ditzy Airhead Hostess (DAH)
     *  Super-Hot Actor Guy (SHAG)
     *  Normal Ordinary Regular Male actor (NORM)


DAH: I'm here with Shag and Norm, and Shag, I have to tell you, you are even more gorgeous in person than on screen. Isn't he, ladies? I mean, just look at you!

Appreciative "WHOOOoo's" from audience. SHAG smiles graciously.

SHAG: Uh. Thank you.

DAH: Now the two of you, together, you have such great chemistry. It's like a bromance. You just click, you know?

SHAG: We have a great cast. I've been a fan of Norm's work for a long time.  Flashes a million-watt grin.

NORM: We're very lucky that our styles work well together.

DAH: They certainly do! You two really seem to get along. Do you hang out with each other after shooting? You know, go out for drinks or dinner when you're not working?

SHAG: Well, we work together 70 hours a week. There isn't a lot of time left over for socializing.

DAH: That's right. That's right! Oh, and Norm, you have a family! That kind of work schedule is tough with what: two kids?

NORM: (nods) Two kids. So it's hard, you know. I'm working so many hours during the week. But I try to be there for their soccer games. And recitals. I don't get to see my wife as much as I would like. That's the tough part of the job. I do the best I can to make the time to be with them.

DAH: It's tough. I understand. So, Shag. I bet the women are all over you. You hear the screaming in our audience. You never worry about going out alone or needing a date, do you?

SHAG: The fans are awesome. They're so enthusiastic. But we work all day most days. Usually, if we're awake, we're working.

DAH: Well, whatever you're doing, it's working! Isn't it ladies?

More appreciative "WHOOOoo's" from audience. SHAG flashes another aw-shucks smile. NORM just shakes his head and laughs, knowing the screams aren't for him.

DAH: Shag and Norm, thank you so much for visiting. Shag and Norm from "That Hit Show," everyone!

SHAG: Thank you.

NORM: Thanks for having us.



That's a fairly accurate transcript of what happened. There's plenty of dramatic tension on the surface just from the situation, the inanity of the host, and the built-in discomfort that arises from seeing human beings put on display while vocalized ogling is encouraged.

But where's the subtext?

Ah. I'm glad you asked. It is this:  "Shag" is gay. He's in a long-term committed relationship. He and his partner have kids. It's common knowledge in the industry. Even his IMDb listing is up-front about his orientation.

See how that changes things?

Your personal thoughts about gay rights or gay marriage don't matter. What matters is how one extra unsaid fact colors the entire interview. Those changes - those colors - are subtext.

I watched the piece while holding that one additional pixel of information and it changed the entire flavor of the interview.

On the surface, the Hostess' drivel appeared vacuous. But the subtext made her seem venomous.

On the surface, Shag listened attentively as Norm talked with obvious pride about his kids. As a testament to his acting skills, not a single shadow of doubt or sadness crossed his face to dim his smile. The added subtext, however, made the situation heartbreaking.

Subtext also increased the dramatic tension with unanswered questions: Should he mention his kids? Would that kill his career? Would it kill the show? Did the Hostess know his situation? Was she trying to goad him into spilling about his personal life? Or was she really as stupid as she appeared?

And that, my friends is the secret of subtext.  Arm a character or two with more information than the rest of the cast, let the reader in on it, and turn them loose on a scene. Then put on your 3-D specs and watch the drama unfold.