As an editor, I'm always on the lookout for weak words. Some words we use just don't pull their weight. As an extreme example, consider "thing." "She picked up a thing" tells us almost nothing. Was it a knife? An octopus? In fact, when someone uses the word "thing," we might suspect them of being intentionally vague. "What did you do last night?" "Oh, not much. Took care of some things." Things, huh? Sounds sketchy.
A delightfully vague word that absolutely does pull its weight, at least in dialogue, is "nice." A character over the age of six describing someone as nice is up to something with their choice of word. A man comes home and describes his date to his roommate. "She was nice." Nice? That's it? Nice, while being vague, opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to our character. Was he bored by her? Was she so wonderful he doesn't want to say anything more and risk gushing about her? Did she stand him up and he's too embarrassed to tell his roommate?
Interestingly, this ambiguity is built in to nice's etymology. It comes to us from a twelfth-century French word (also nice, but ... you know, pronounced different), which meant "careless, clumsy, and weak" and which came itself from Latin nescius, meaning "ignorant" (literally, not-knowing). Over time, nice evolved through meaning timid, fussy, fastidious, precise, and agreeable before finally settling on our current definition: kind and considerate.
This particular path, from negative to positive, from vague to precise and back again, makes nice a workhorse of a word in the right character's mouth. Use it to show what she doesn't want to say, or what she can't say, or the only thing she can say without saying something else. It's a subtle little drop of uncertainty to add a bit of tension to your story.
Have a nice day! Really, I mean it!
I'm beyond proud to tell you all that one of my short stories, "Bullies," about killer bullfrogs, was selected for Ellen Datlow's long list of best horror from 2021. I don't mean to be falsely modest, but it amazes me to think that anyone out there is reading something I wrote, let alone reading it and not hating it. You can find it in They're Out to Get You - Volume One: Animals and Insects. I hope you also don't hate it!
I love the fact that most of you will immediately recognize this feeling. Are you brave enough to share in the comments what it was you did?
Feeling indignant over being suspected of a sin you did, in fact, commit.
Something I see a lot of in my writing groups is authors asking (or demanding) permission. Can they ______ or can't they? This usually takes one of two forms. New Author A is timid. She wants to know whether she's allowed to make the cat in her memoir grey when it was black in real life, or whether she can start a sentence with "But" if she only does it once and prays for forgiveness afterwards. Author B is defiant. She says there are no rules in writing. She doesn't care about subject-verb agreement. She's written a 200k-word children's book and is looking for an agent. What they both want is for someone to tell them that it's OK to break the rules.
OF COURSE IT IS.
But it depends on what you mean by "OK." A refrain that will come up a lot in this blog, and that comes up a lot in my reports to writers is, "What are you trying to do?" The answer is a spectrum running from "I want to write because I enjoy writing," and "I want to write a bestseller and quit my day job."
At one end of the spectrum, there are literally no rules.* Write in crayon. Write with no nouns. Have a sentient spatula as your main character. Break every odd-numbered rule in the Chicago Manual of Style. The pen and the keyboard belong to you, and you're in charge. This sort of creative chain-breaking is not only fun, but can often lead to some really, really good stories. For beginner and veteran writers alike, going into a story knowing you're not trying to publish, knowing you're not trying to impress, can be very freeing. See here for some fun rule-breaking creative exercises.
The further you go toward the other end of the spectrum, the more the rules start to matter ... some. If you want anyone, even your grandma, to read what you've written, it better be written in a language they can read, and adhere to at least most of the basic grammar rules of that language. You can say that every word actually means its opposite, or that it's meant to be read backwards, but if your reader can't extract some meaning on their own, what exactly was the point of you sharing it with them? Again, you can do this, but remember my question: "What are you trying to do?" If you're trying to share a story with your grandma, and she can't read it, you've failed. (Although if your grandma is anything like mine, she's too kind to tell you this.)
"BUT CORMAC MCCARTHY DOESN'T USE DIALOGUE TAGS AND LOOK HOW RICH HE IS!" It's true. He's quite rich. And he might fail a high school creative writing assignment. If he were my client, I'd probably send his stories back so marked up that it looked like an ink factory exploded. But his rule breaking works, and it works for two reasons. 1) He knows the rules and is breaking them deliberately. He knows how to use dialogue tags, and knows that not using them creates a greater intimacy and verisimilitude in his scenes. What did not happen was that, as he was learning how to write, he couldn't get the hang of whether the comma goes inside or outside the quotation mark so he just said, "Screw it, I ain't using 'em." 2) He has bought and paid for the extra effort it takes the reader to read his stories. I'll be honest: The first time I picked up Blood Meridian, I was put off. It's hard to read. His descriptions are really, really long, and when there's dialogue, it's really hard to track who's talking. But I pressed on because he has a dozen or so books published by a major publisher, a handful of feature films made from his books, and kajillions of fans worldwide. And it was worth it. I was quickly drawn in to the story, and good Lord, have you read it? Read it. I'm sorry to say, you likely don't have Cormac McCarthy's track record (yet). Is your book so good that it will reward your reader for putting in the extra work to read it? Are you sure? Even if it is, unless you've already built up some sort of cache with your readers, they're not going to give you the benefit of the doubt. As soon as it gets difficult, or unclear, they're going to get off the boat and they're likely not going to get back on.
Does that mean that you have to sell your soul to make it? That you have to give up your unique voice in order to get published? No. But it does mean that you're going to have to be extra, extra careful to make sure that your story is very clear, and very compelling. If you're writing for others, whether you want their enjoyment, or their money, or both, clarity and compulsion are all there. If they can't understand you, or if they don't care, nothing else matters.
Is your story clear to anyone but you? Is it compelling? If you don't know, drop me a line, and we can figure it out together.
*State, and federal, and moral laws apply. River Run Editing will not be held responsible for paying your bail or exorcising the demon you summoned by writing your novel with a chicken foot.
Doing something for the last time without realizing that it's your last time doing it.
(If you think about this one too much, you'll become so paranoid that everything you do, you'll wonder, "Is this the last time?")
EDIT: How appropriate that this was my last blog post for over a year...
I just found this amazing list of writing exercises: 66 Experiments by Charles Bernstein. They're designed for poetry, but who's keeping score? The best, most striking fiction skirts the line between prose and poetry. I love reading an electric bit of prose and feeling slightly shaken. Can a fiction author even do that?? Isn't there a rulebook somewhere that says we aren't allowed to do these things with words?
Remember, these exercises are meant to loosen you up. To break the rules and show you some new tricks to do with your old words. Let yourself get crazy and see where you end up.
Thanks to my friend Gnome for this one:
That brief period of time when you've finished all the laundry and the only dirty clothes are the ones you're wearing.
This is one of my favorite questions to ask reader friends. Do you finish every book that you start? If not, what causes you to jump ship? These days, I rarely have time for multi-hour reading sessions. If I set a book down and don't find myself picking it back up every time I get a spare minute ... it's not looking good. Usually the issue is that I don't care about what happens to the characters. I read a lot of horror (duh) - if you can't make me interested in whether the protagonist is about to have her brains eaten by zombie ghost worms, something has gone terribly wrong.
When I critique, I talk to my clients about what I call "fatal" flaws - these are issues that are likely to make a reader put the book down and not pick it back up. Fatal flows include the above, not caring about the characters, but also completely unlikable characters, meandering action-less plots, and too many long descriptive or expository passages. Most of the issues in most of the books I critique are non-fatal. Obstacles to a readers' enjoyment, yes. Serious problems that are going to lose your reader entirely, often not.
The good news is that all flaws, even fatal flaws, are fixable. The more critical the issue, the more work it's going to take to fix it, but we can do it! Talk to me today about how to keep your book off of the DNF pile.
My daughter is a rule follower. No matter what we're doing - coloring, swimming, eating dinner - she wants to talk about the rules. She's also a human with a rebellious little heart. To honor her love for order and her love for chaos, she'll allow herself small prescribed doses of anarchy. She will often tell us while getting ready for bed, "I'm going to run away three times!" And she does. She runs away squealing three times, and we chase her three times, and her need for disorder is sated for the night.
Sometimes, when a toddler's daily life gets to be too constrictive, she'll really need to cut loose, and will inform me: "I'm going to go all willy-milly!" This is a brief whirlwind of spins, kicks, shouting, and throwing stuffed animals. It's a delight to see a generally reserved little girl go absolutely nutso with joy and abandon. It's also the most creative I ever see her. I think having a defined period makes her feel safer, like things won't get totally out of control.
Sometimes, as writers, we have trouble letting go. We spend so long learning the rules that sometimes it's hard to just write. This can be a real hindrance to creativity. There's a reason many creatives turn to drugs and alcohol. I find a healthier way to let go is to give myself a safe, well-defined space where I can break all the rules and see what happens. Below are some rule-breaking exercises. These are not meant to result in good work, or publishable work, or work that ever sees another eye but your own. That's just fine. The point is to shake off the cobwebs and get the words flowing out of your fingertips. To free yourself from the pressure of producing publishable work, I recommend creating and keeping these exercises in different spaces from your other writing. Write them in pencil in a dedicated notebook, when you usually type on the computer. Maybe type in a different font and save in a different folder. Just do something to remind your writer brain that this is Willy-Milly time.
I recommend setting a timer and dedicating no more than 30 minutes to any one of these. Knowing you're on the clock keeps you writing, not analyzing.
Make a list of 20 nouns, 20 verbs, 20 adjectives, and 20 adverbs. Choose a story you like and rewrite the first paragraph, substituting every word with a word from your list of the same part of speech. (You can keep articles and prepositions.) After you've got the first paragraph down, continue the story from there, no matter how little sense it makes.
Take another story you like, and re-write it from the POV of another character. Try, at first, to stay true to the original plot as it was written. In my experience, you'll find that the harder you try to stick to the original story, the more rebellion creeps in and your character insists on telling a very different story. When you're ready, let go and let the story go off where it wills.
Read Girl by Jamaica Kincaid. Write your own set of instructions in this style. Some ideas to get you started: a coach to a player who isn't very good; a father turning over his shady business to a child; an outgoing president to the president-elect; a beautician to a new co-worker. (I've done this exercise myself probably a dozen times, and it always leads to good stuff.)
Breaking the Rules of Nature
Think of a basic task you do regularly. Walking to the kitchen to make coffee, getting groceries, taking a shower. Remove one law of physics: gravity, friction, inertia, etc. What would it look like to get try to accomplish this task if that law suddenly disappeared? Get as science-y as you'd like, but don't get too bogged down in the details. Obviously, if there were no more gravity, making coffee would be the least of your concerns. But how would you complete your task if everything kept floating away?
Tell, Don't Show
Have a great idea that you can't quite get going on? Write it like you had three minutes to explain it to a guy in line at the grocery store. Write it fairy-tale style. Tell everything, and don't show a thing. "There once was a man who kept hearing a knocking sound coming from his basement stairs. He was very afraid. He bought a dog." This is a great exercise to get a good idea down on paper before it escapes.
Fan Fiction Frenzy
Choose three real people from your life. Insert them into the plot of your favorite movie or TV show. (Try to do this without planning too much - random people, random show.) How would grandma react if she were on Breaking Bad?
Dick and Jane
Write a story with only two-word subject-verb sentences. (Jane woke. Jane stretched. Jane looked. Jane screamed.) How far can you get before you really need a third word?
Talk to Me
Write a story that's only dialogue, no tags. Try to include the scene and setting. Try to include a third character who doesn't talk.
Retell a classic monster story, but mix up the details. Dracula needs brains, not blood. Frankenstein's Monster only comes alive during the full moon.
Edit: Find more Willy-Milly exercises here.
Remember, let yourself go wild with these. Keep your fingers moving. Don't revise. Don't even delete if you can keep from it. And if any of these lead you to something great, let me know!
(This is my favorite part of this blog. You've felt them. I've felt them. But there's no word to describe them. Maybe we should write about them!)
Attending a potluck and only eating the food that you brought.