Filters–More Weeds in Your Prose Garden

Almost any attempt to revise my WIP brings opportunities to cut out nuisance words. Continuing in the vein of my last post, “Wimpy Verbs–the Weeds in Your Prose Garden,” I’m writing today about filters, the second-cousins of wimpy verbs.

Here’s an example from my published novel, Compromise With Sin, Louise being the point-of-view character in the scene:

“Doc picked up the button and gave it to her, letting his hand linger so that for a moment they held it together. He said nothing, but Louise felt his eyes said it all: time was running out.”

The filter words are “Louise felt.” Revised, the sentence would read, “He said nothing, but his eyes said it all. Time was running out.”

Here’s how Janet Burroway describes what makes filtering a problem: “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness.’ Yet, when you step back and ask the reader to observe the observer–to look at rather than through the character–you start to tell-not-show, and rip us briefly out of the scene.”

(Credit for the term “filters” often goes to Burroway, who described this creative writing nuisance in her text Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft. But it appeared earlier in John Gardner ‘s The Art of Fiction.)

I would change the last sentence to read: “He said nothing, but his eyes said it all: time was running out.”

Just between you and me, I’ve heard about filters for several years but pretty much pooh-poohed their significance. I heard that agents regarded filter-heavy writing as amateurish, and my instinct was to ask, “But does the reader care?.” But I started noticing them in fiction–especially when they appeared in paragraph after paragraph–and feeling jerked out of the POV character’s head. I get it now.

Here’s an incomplete list of filters: see, hear, taste, realize, decide, feel, know, watch.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Wimpy Verbs—the Weeds in Your Prose Garden

Like weeds that spoil your splendid garden, wimpy verbs sully your prose.

“Be verbs,” the various forms of “to be,” dominate the wimps list: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being. Along with the linking verbs—appear, become, feel, grow, look, seem, remain, smell, sound, stay, taste, turn—they belong to a class known as “state-of-being” verbs.

Truth to tell, wimpy verbs litter my drafts, and sometimes even my revisions. If I’m not vigilant, I get called out by my writing friend Gaylon Greer.  Thank goodness.

Here are some examples of how choosing verbs other than “be” verbs strengthen sentences.

Ex: Brandon is fearful of giving his speech.

Fix: Brandon fears giving his speech.

Ex: Danielle grew uncomfortable when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Fix: Danielle’s chest tightened when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Ex: I am lonely.

Fix: Loneliness grips me.

Ex: Such a brazen crime seemed unimaginable to residents of the quiet neighborhood.

Fix: Residents couldn’t imagine such a brazen crime in their quiet neighborhood.

When you start messing with words, the fun begins. For example, as I think of Brandon,
certainly “fears” is better than “is fearful.” But I want to feel his angst viscerally. And that’s what I want for my reader. So, “The mere thought of giving his speech made Brandon’s knees quake and his mouth go dry.” Been there, done that.

And I can’t resist going beyond the “brazen crime” sentence. So, “Several neighbors bought guns. Two men took turn patrolling the streets at night. A widow put her house on the market.”

Search in a chapter of your WIP for these key culprits: am, be, was, and were. You don’t have to weed all of them out of your prose–sometimes you’ll just like the cadence of the sentence as is. But you’ll find many sentences can be improved.

Leave a comment or example of your own.

Quotable

What could be more nostalgic than the smell of the library you grew up with? Or more likely to produce a lump in the throat than memories of riding bikes to the library with kids? Or more significant than thwarting the John Birch Society’s attempts to get certain books off library shelves?

–Leanna Englert, in “The Voice for America’s Libraries

(I meant to use this for Library Week, but April got away from me.)

This Glamorous Writing Life

As a fan of the late E. L., Doctorow–his Ragtime made me fall in love with the Progressive era–I felt validated when learning that he’d said this about novel writing: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That describes me. I don’t outline. I’m in the writing camp known as “pantsers,” as opposed to “plotters.” So after writing a first draft of Candlelight Confessions, my work-in-progress, I started revising, which in my case often means overhauling. I threw myself into it, massaging style, complicating character relationships and plot, and even toying with nitty-gritty stuff like changing “happy” to “glad” and back again.

It occurred to me I needed a bit of back story regarding Irina’s failed engagement. So I wrote a scene. And that inspired another and another and another. Magnificent scenes. Characters revealed new sides of themselves, and things happened that laid the groundwork for later events and character motivations. I was happily immersed in the anguished act of creating, which is essentially problem-solving, squirming with uncertainty and myriad possibilities, then knowing I’d found my way on this journey, as Doctorow suggests.

Then a forehead slap from my friends who critiqued these chapters at Austin Novel in Progress. I’d gotten seduced by a detour, that one new scene that called for more. Trouble was, these scenes did little or nothing to advance the story I intended.

Stunned, I listened to Tim who suggested I take a month off. That was about three weeks ago. The characters and story visit me now and then, but I swat them away. Hard to say what will ultimately happen with these pages. They just might end up in the landfill (or, to be PC, the recycle center) with the approximate 100,000 words cut from Compromise With Sin.

I’m occupying much of my free time working on piano technique and learning new songs. I’m not sure what will happen once I get back to the book. I just know I have a story to tell and characters I want to hang out with.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

The cave you fear holds the treasure you seek.

–Joseph Campbell

Authors, Grab This Low-hanging Fruit

Thought you’d want to know that a zoo in London is holding a Valentine’s Day fundraiser, charging the equivalent of two dollars to “name a cockroach after your ex.” Seems the day for lovers means different things to different people.

If you decide to brave a restaurant on that hallowed day, look around. Some couples seem to delight in celebrating new or enduring love. One woman’s eyes hold the expectation of a proposal. A man looks off in the distance, as though he wishes he were with someone else.

As writers of fiction, we strive to create characters who resonate with readers. To that end, we struggle with characters’ emotions, and we struggle to differentiate characters. If it all seems like a lot of hard work, it is.

But there’s something I call “one of these days is not like the other” or “low-hanging fruit.” We can reveal so much if we’ll tap the power of certain days to evoke meanings and emotions for our characters, reveal something about relationships, and sneak in back story. I’m talking about showing characters on holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries.

Here are a few examples:

Holidays can mean so many different things. Over Memorial Day, Morris goes on a three-day fishing trip with his buddies while his wife decorates the graves of forgotten veterans. Nathaniel Begay declines an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner and goes to a movie alone. Laurie joins a protest against wage inequity on Labor Day. Working on Christmas Eve means that Donna, who is Catholic, is missing important family time, and her mother has been nagging her to get a different job. Meanwhile Jacob, who is Jewish, thoughtfully trades shifts with a Christian co-worker every year. (And I haven’t even touched on being in prison on Mother’s Day.)

Birthdays aren’t just about celebrating or growing older. Glenn remembers his mother collapsing and dying on his seventh birthday. Claudia abandons her good-girl persona and gets wasted with her friends at a male strip show. Melody bakes her own birthday cake and eats it and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. For the second year in a row, Grady’s family has spent part of his birthday in their tornado shelter. Julie threw a lavish dinner party for her fortieth birthday during which her husband announced he was leaving her for her best friend. (That really happened.)

Anniversaries can be about the usual things or the very personal.  Married seven years, Anna has given up expecting Bill to remember their wedding anniversary. Alex grieves on the anniversary of his brother’s death. Shelly takes a mini-vacation every year to observe the day she quit the job that gave her migraine headaches. (See the opportunity for some backstory here?)

You have rich examples of your own. I suggest that you look at your work-in-progress for scenes in which meanings, emotions, or tension could be heightened if you’d set them on a day that holds some significance for your character(s).

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything, is ready, we shall never begin.

–Ivan Turgenev

Banished Words List 2019

“Ghosting” made the Banished Words List.

Another year, another Banished Words List from Lake Superior State University. I have to say I find their selections a bit lackluster compared to previous lists, e.g., 2018 . Creators of the list, which originated at a New Year’s Eve party in 1975, would ban words and phrases from the Queen’s English for “mis-use, over-use, and general uselessness.”

So here are some excerpts from 2018, along with comments submitted by nominators:

  • Wrap my head around–“Impossible to do and makes no sense.”
  • Yeet, as in to vigorously throw or toss–“If I hear one more freshman say “yeet,” I might just yeet myself out a window.”
  • Ghosting–“Somebody doesn’t want to talk to you. Get over it. No need to bring the paranormal into the equation.”
  • Optics–“The trendy way to say ‘appearance’.”


I have to say I find their selections a bit lackluster compared to previous lists, e.g., 2018 . I happen to like “ghosting,” and I think it will stick. I’d contribute “at the end of the day” to the list.

Your thoughts?

Quotable

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.

–Margaret Atwood

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer of fiction hears, “Where do you get your ideas?” and many, like me, respond, “I don’t know.” But, nagged by the sense that the answer isn’t satisfactory, I finally gave the question some thought. There’s still something of an “I don’t know” component involved, but I’ve decided that writers aren’t really different from everyone else. Writers simply take ordinary thought processes, worry them to a greater degree, and apply them to the page. Ideas can come from making observations that stick, borrowing from real life, needing to solve problems, gnawing on imponderables, and listening to the subconscious.

Making Observations That Stick

Who doesn’t like to people-watch? Sitting one day in the airport, I watched a woman talking on her phone. Slender, hair colored and styled to perfection, dressed in a business suit and expensive-looking heels, she was far enough away that I couldn’t make out her words. But she was doing all the talking. Her face was contorted, and she kept stabbing the air using her right index finger like a stilleto. Someone was getting crucified–an employee? a kid? I’d hate for her to be my boss or mother. Here was Cruella De Vil, from 101 Dalmatians. But anyone sitting in an airport with nothing to do might engage in some imagining beyond the first impression. There could be a more sinister reason for her behavior–maybe she’s chewing out a hit man for a bungled job. Or, thinking charitably for a good reason she’s lashing out, she could be talking to a doctor who bungled an operation that crippled her husband. I’ve not used this character or image in a story, but she is stuck in my head, a resource I might draw on some day.

Sometimes whole stories or books come from an observation that sticks. When I first joined the board of The Nebraska Society To Prevent Blindness, I was intrigued by the first entry in the chronology of the National Society: “Founded in 1908 to promote legislation of eyedrops to prevent ‘babies’ sore eyes.'” (I’m paraphrasing.) It was my “Huh?” over that curious phrase that led me to do research and ultimately to write my debut novel, Compromise With Sin.

Borrowing From Real Life

I may or may not use this situation, which I once saw on the news. A Marine scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan just days after his wife is expected to give birth is offered a deferment when the baby is born needing life-saving heart surgery. He decides to leave for Afghanistan the day before his son’s operation.

By the way, I have a problem with writers who reveal intimate facts about friends or family members. (I say that even though I’ve always enjoyed the novels of the late Pat Conroy.) But this issue bothers me to the extent that I’ve made it the crux of my work-in-progress (WIP).

Needing To Solve Problems

Much of a writer’s work involves the need to solve problems. Every type of story has both big and little problems that set the imagination in motion. How did this happen? Who’s at fault? What will the character do next? What will be the consequences of the character’s decision? What’s the best/worst that can happen? Etc.

But this kind of thinking isn’t just the province of writers. It’s true for all of us. The car breaks down, making you late for an important meeting. Your job doesn’t pay enough for you to manage student loan debt. Your spouse wants you to move out.

In my debut historical novel, Irina Taylor wears scarves. It wasn’t until after publishing the book that I learned that scarves had not yet become a fashion accessory. Hmm. Irina is the protagonist in the novel I’m currently working on. I needed to give her a reason for making lengths of fabric she wraps around her neck, so I decided she’s hiding a scar she got as a child when her twin, Christina, threw a fork at her. And having to think so much about the scarf may be the reason a scarf becomes very prominent late in the story. (That’s the “I don’t know” component.)

Gnawing on Imponderables

I can’t say that I often address imponderables in my writing, but there are several in my head. One comes up in my WIP, and that’s my difficulty appreciating the biblical account of the Prodigal Son. I’ve always sided with the loyal son, not the one who squandered his fortune on women and booze, and returned home to a feast and the open arms of Daddy.

Listening to the Subconscious

When I’m thinking or writing I know I’m feeding my brain, and I trust my subconscious to go to work. It’s not as though I can program it and expect answers or ideas on my schedule. The subconscious does what it will and often reveals itself in what are naturally hypnotic states: when I’m falling asleep or waking up, driving a familiar route, or putting on make-up.

Not all the ideas that come from my subconscious are useful. But when they are, it’s so much fun.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

–Kurt Vonnegut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons From Novel First Lines

When I’m looking for a writing-avoidance activity, I sometimes google “novel first lines.” That’s where I can find inspiration–not just for the opening of a novel, but for chapter beginnings as well.

There are numerous web sites that list the best X number of first lines. (Will someone please tell me why “Call me Ishmael” so often makes these lists?)

Here are some first lines I like, i.e., words that make me want to read on to find out what’s next:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

“This is a tale of a meeting of two skinny, lonesome, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

“They shoot the white girl first.” Paradise, by Toni Morrison

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide–it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills–the two paramedics  arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.” The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Housekeeping Detail for Indie Authors

I recently learned from Tosh McIntosh that Amazon will shut down CreateSpace, which means authors need to move their print titles to KDP. Go to your KDP account, and you’ll find simple directions for moving your book. It took me five minutes.

Your favorite first lines? Leave a comment.

 

 

 

Ben Rehder Visits our Book Club

A “halo” appears above the head of Susan Mayson for inviting Ben Rehder to our book club. Richard Slagle, on the right, has read everything Ben has written.

It’s no secret here that I’m a big fan of Ben Rehder. His novel The Chicken Hanger is one of my all-time favorites. At my urging, our little book club read it, loved it, and Susan Mayson decided to invite the author to our meeting.  He graciously accepted, even flexed when presented with a time change.

He would probably want me to comment on the shirt he’s wearing in the photo. He’s promoting not a book, but Emancipet, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, and  Clear the Shelters day.

Ben is best known for his very funny book series about a Blanco County (TX) game warden, and fans are eagerly awaiting the  book he’s currently working on. (I envy Ben for being able to write a book in eight or nine months.) A newer series, the Roy Ballard Mysteries,  features a private investigator. The first book in each series is free for Kindle users: Buck Fever and Gone the Next, respectively.

In discussing The Chicken Hanger, a book I recently wrote about on this blog, people were surprised he’d written it in 2007. Ben said in his research for the book, border issues have scarcely changed over the years. “You see headlines of fifty years ago that could have been written today.”

I told him that his books are being recorded by the Texas Talking Book Program, which he seemed glad to hear. In my seven years of volunteering with Talking Book, I’ve noticed there’s almost always a Ben Rehder book in the process of being recorded.

I’d love to have talked to him about self-publishing, which he turned to after having a legacy publisher for his earlier books. But I respected that our group is a book club, not a writing club.

Book club members loved the book, and I asked Ben how we can best promote it. He said, “Tell your friends.”

Quotable

When I’m writing, I write, and then it’s as if the muse is convinced I’m serious and says, Okay, Okay, I’ll come.

–Maya Angelou

 

 

 

 

Texas Talking Book Program Fills Real Need

On Tuesdays, my husband, Tim, and I narrate books for the Texas Talking Book Program. The free service, which depends heavily on volunteers, is affiliated with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, administered by the Library of Congress.

When I brought Tim to Austin eight years ago, he had fifteen years of experience with the Colorado Talking Book Program. He’s the better narrator in the family. His acting background has been a bonus as he does characters and dialects well, which is not a requirement for narrators. In fact, there are those who would prefer to leave such interpretations up to the reader, but Tim’s narration often brings kudos from the people who review our work.

The Texas Talking Book Program, now in its forty-first year, serves anyone who cannot read or hold a book. A majority of patrons are blind or have low vision, but other patrons include those who have a reading disability, can’t read English, or can’t hold a book. Books chosen for recording have a Texas theme or setting or are written by Texas authors. Priority is given to patron requests.

Over the years, the program has faced the challenge of adapting to technological change. Today’s recordings are done in a digital format. Once recorded, a book is copied onto cartridges, which are mailed to patrons, who load them into a specially designed player provided by the program. Currently an ambitious program is underway to convert archived books from tape to digital.

In recent years, books recorded in Texas and elsewhere have become available nationwide through BARD, which stands for Braille and Audio Reading Download.

You can’t get much more patron-friendly than the Talking Book Program. Everything, including players and mailing costs, is provided free of charge. Patrons can even call and talk to a reader adviser for help in selecting books. I learned only recently that there’s a phone-in book club so that people can get together via a conference call to discuss a selected book.

Every once in a while, I like to stop and think about the significance of what Tim and I and all the other volunteers and staff are doing. I like this quote from a patron: “When my vision deteriorated, much of the fun of life disappeared. The Talking Book Program restored much of the zest of living.”

Quotable

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

–Stephen King

 

Write it Hot

As I write this post, it’s 110°F in Austin, TX. As you can imagine, the heat is a subject that flares up at some point in every conversation. The usual, “You keeping cool?” or “I don’t know how people work outdoors when it’s this hot.”

I started brainstorming with myself about how a writer of fiction might describe extreme heat without being trite. Ideally, it involves “showing, not telling,” especially when it reveals the impact on characters. My list:

  1. A couple in a car argue over how much money to give to a panhandler who offers bottled water from a cooler to drivers.
  2. Firefighters collapse from heat exhaustion.
  3. A mail carrier sees a tied-up dog in distress, gives it water, and returns after dark to rescue the animal.
  4. While eyes are closed and heads are bowed in prayer, a church-goer takes a hand fan, provided compliments of Bowers Funeral Home, and slips it into her purse.
  5. A driver encountering a road block where a work crew is removing concrete chunks realizes the debris had burst from expanded highway seams.
  6. Looters delight in a power outage.
  7. Mother, who has never been known to utter a swear word, grips a hot handrail and says, “Holy shit.”
  8. The lover on top slides off.
  9. A roofer buying work boots inquires about soles that won’t melt.
  10. Homeless people park with their backpacks and over-stuffed trash bags in the public library.
  11. Swamped by an increase in heat-related emergencies, an EMS team loses precious minutes getting to a call because they’ve run out of ice and have to stop at a convenience store.
  12. Home Depot sells out of window air conditioners.
  13. Home invasion burglaries go up as more people sleep with their windows open.
  14. An air-conditioned mosque provides overnight shelter for people of all faiths.

Btw, I have some experience with # 3 and #5. I once knew a musician who sometimes after a late gig would rescue  dogs he knew to be abused. And I once had to stop on a highway while road crews removed chunks of concrete.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin.

–Mel Brooks