Happily Losing Yourself in Words

When Lolly Walter recommended a site called Online Etymology Dictionary, I consulted it a few times, mainly to make sure a word I wanted to use in my historical novel meant what I thought it did. That’s how I figured out that a scarf was not a woman’s accessory in Victorian times, something confirmed by my friend Elaine Jabenis who, among other things, authored books on fashion. (While a scarf might seem trivial to you, it figures prominently in my story, so I’ve had to do some scrambling.)

Not until I decided to browse the site did I discover its riches. I can get happily lost there, reading about how words came about and reading such pieces as Into the Words: an editing diary.  Here the site’s creator talks about working on dictionary entries, and I realize that letters have personality.

For example, he refers to RE as quicksand. “Any dictionary-writer would shudder at the mere mention of it. Crossing it risks sanity. The Romans concocted it, but the English got addicted to it in the 19th century and affixed it to literally everrything. . . .”

And “W is the insane asylum of the dictionary. Weird, wary, worrisome. . . . By the time you sort out wrack, wreck, rack, wreak, you’re probably ready for a padded cell yourself.”

It takes a little sleuthing to get a peek at the wizard behind the curtain. His name is Douglas Harper, a historian, author, journalist, and lecturer. You can read some of his writings and learn something about what makes him tick at a site called The Sciolist. (That’s an archaic noun meaning “someone who pretends to be knowledgeable and well informed.”)

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

–Benjamin Franklin

Writing With Your Brakes On?

The act of creating is so personal. Do you need two cups of coffee, your comfy slippers, and a fresh legal pad to jump-start your writing engine? If that works for you, great.

Now, there are two types of novel-writers: the “plotters” and the “pantsers.” Plotters create character sketches and outline their stories before starting to write while pantsers take a germ of an idea and some sense of where the story is going and let all be revealed in the act of writing.

I happen to be a pantser, but I would never discourage a plotter. To be sure, the plotter is the more efficient of the two, but I love the discovery that comes from dumping words on paper (or a screen).

What I argue for is that regardless of approach, a writer should let the first draft flow uncensored. No stopping to look for a synonym or to perfect a paragraph or to see if a character was blue-eyed or brown-eyed in an earlier scene. Just let it rip. My mantra: “Give yourself permission to suck.”

Why? Because editing as you write shuts down the creative process. It’s like writing with your brakes on. There’s a popular theory that the right-brain is the creator and the left brain, the censor. Whether our brains are actually so specialized has been challenged, but I can say that writing without censoring brings me joy.

And that experience isn’t the exclusive province of the pantser. Plotters can, and often do, write freely within the constraints of an outline and consequently surprise themselves.

Perfection can wait. Of course, the novel anyone would want to read comes from ruthless revision and editing. But it begins with that free flow of ideas.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity. It must be produced and discharged, and used up in order to exist at all.

–William Faulkner

Define “Women’s Work”

The idea that time and culture influence the meaning of words came home to me on a recent visit to Pecos National Historical Park in northern New Mexico. What remains there are ruins of a pueblo first constructed around 1100 A.D., and a church built sometime after the arrival of a Spanish Franciscan friar in 1621.

This church, big enough to hold all 2,000 residents of the pueblo, comprised some twelve million adobe bricks, no doubt made on site. Each brick weighed forty pounds. The builders? Women. It’s said that the friar attempted to enlist men to do the work, but they ran away rather than do “women’s work.”

In addition to being brick masons (masonettes?), the women covered the structure with adobe plaster. The exterior required re-plastering six times a year to shield the masonry from water that could seep into cracks, then freeze and expand, and weaken the building.

I’m reminded of a talk I heard the anthropologist Margaret Mead give one time. In studying varied cultures, she observed that each defined tasks by gender, so that in one society weaving was women’s work while in another it was men’s. Regardless of who did what, she said that universally men’s work was considered to be more important than women’s.

Remnants today?

Leave a comment.

Quotable

No two persons ever read the same book.

–Edmund Wilson

Christina Baker Kline at Texas Book Festival

Had a chance to attend a presentation by Christina Baker Kline at last weekend’s Texas Book Festival. Kline is best known for writing Orphan Train: A Novel and A Piece of Time. It has been suggested to me that I ask her to endorse my novel, Compromise With Sin, which is similar to Orphan Train in that both deal with actual early 20th-century events. Sending her a book is on my long to-do list.

In a slide-show presentation, Kline presented behind-the-scenes glimpses into the writing of A Piece of Time, a story about Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson, his longtime muse and the figure in the famous painting “Christina’s World.” To give an idea of how iconic the painting is, Kline showed parodies of the painting, ranging from Princess Leia to Wiley Coyote.

In doing extensive research, Kline serendipitously met a seasoned docent at one of the Wyeth museums. Kline was in a tour group being led by someone else when the docent, who was observing the group, pulled the writer aside. “I see you’re taking notes,” she said. Kline explained she was writing a novel. “I can tell you everything you want to know.” That’s what I hope will happen to me on our upcoming trip to Santa Fe, the locale for about one-third of the novel I’m currently working on.

Tim and I also attended a session at the book festival called “Sea Change: Wading in the Waters of a New Climate.” Its significance for the purposes of this blog has to do with an apt metaphor Cambridge University Professor of Physics Peter Wadhams used. Wadhams, the author of A Farewell to Ice: A Report From the Arctic, was asked if our planet is at a tipping point. In answering the question, he explained what a tipping point is: “You can poke a lion with a stick and it wakes up and goes back to sleep, but if you poke it too many times, it wakes up and eats you.”

Quotable

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.

–Oscar Wilde

Lose Those Adverbs–or Not

Last week’s post included a quote from Samuel Johnson: “When a man knows he will be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Wonderfully?  Wait a minute. That’s an adverb. Every writer learns that adverbs are a no-no. “Search for all the ‘ly’ endings in your manuscript, and purge them. ” So goes the advice.

Stephen King has a vendetta for adverbs.  In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he says,  “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s–GASP!!–too late.”

Truth to tell, I’m not afraid to use adverbs. I do try to write with strong verbs, e.g., “he  shuffled” instead of “he slowly walked.” And my friend and writing buddy Gaylon Greer points out that if an adverb is needed, moving it so it follows what it modifies can boost the impact.

I’ve thought about Johnson’s quote, and for the life of me I can’t imagine it without the word wonderfully or with that word placed anywhere else in the sentence.

What do you think? Can you improve on the quote without using an adverb? Leave a comment.

Sharpen Your Pencils

NaNoWriMo begins tomorrow.

Falling Star: Kirkus Revised American Heart Review

Being awarded a star by Kirkus Reviews is a big deal for writers. Have I mentioned that Kirkus gave Compromise With Sin a star? Forgive me while I milk that as long as possible.

After the elation of getting a star, I don’t know how I’d feel if Kirkus revoked it. That’s what happened to Laura Moriarty. Kirkus Reviews made news last week by revising a review and snatching back the star that had been awarded to her young adult novel, American Heart.

The reason? Many readers of the novel had posted on Twitter and Goodreads saying that the futuristic story about  a white girl overcoming her own prejudice to help a Muslim girl escape from a detention camp promoted an “offensive white savior narrative.” Kirkus reacted to the uproar by re-assigning the novel to the reviewer, a Muslim woman who specializes in YA fiction. She revised her original review, adding that the story is told through the filter of a white protagonist about a Muslim character, and revoked the star.

(Does anyone else notice the peculiar language here, as though “white” must mean “non-Muslim” and “Muslim” must mean a race other than “white?”)

Moriarty noted that the takeaway for writers is not to even try to write about people different from you. “Kirkus just really, really pushed things farther in that direction.”

Oh, please. As a writer, I see that I have a responsibility to be fair in depicting cultures other than my own, but I can’t be afraid to go there. I probably will offend some people at some time.

As for American Heart, could you ask for better publicity?

Here’s the NPR account of what happened. 

Leave a comment.

Quotable

When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

–Samuel Johnson

The Mortality Fallacy


No, this isn’t a spooky Halloween post. So why the tombstone? It’s because I want to rant about one of the most common errors people who should know better make when it comes to life expectancy.

How many times have you heard that a hundred years ago most people died–pick a number–before they were 45, 50, 60?  Yet maybe you had grandparents who lived into their 70s, and if you visit an old cemetery and look at the dates on tombstones, you’ll find lots of people who lived very long lives.

OK, I’m not disputing that Americans in the 21st century can expect to live longer than their counterparts in the 20th century. But there’s a popular fallacy about life expectancy. It has to do with looking at “average” life expectancy, something that was seriously skewed by high infant mortality rates in the past.

The best way to look at life expectancy is to take the view of actuarial tables, which look at it this way: in a given year, someone who’s 20 years old can expect to live another X years while someone who’s 40 years old can expect to live another Y years, etc.

So here’s what it looked like in 1900:

A baby born in 1900 could expect to live another 48 years. Does that mean most people died before age 50? No. This number reflects the high probability of the child dying in infancy or early childhood.

A child aged 10 in 1900 could expect to live another 50 years.

Someone aged 30 in 1900 could expect to live another 35 years.

(Statistics are from the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

Leave a comment.

Quotable

Those who do not want to imitate anything produce nothing.

–Salvador Dali

Stuck on a Novel Opening

I’m in the mode of revising the very rough draft of my WIP. How rough? I practically get abrasions from turning the pages. But that’s OK. My philosophy is that any first draft is good, and truth to tell, I really like how this story is shaping up.

But as I revise, I know the opening needs a lot of work. It probably amounts to only one or two paragraphs, but I’m struggling. One things I’ve decided to do is draft five different openings and see what that tells.

What will help, I think, is to look at my little collection of novel beginnings to see what I can learn. Here’s one from One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen:

Excerpt: Jail is not as bad as you might imagine. When I say jail I don’t mean prison. Prison is the kind of place you see in old movies or public TV documentaries, those enormous gray places with guard towers at each corner and curly stripes of razor wire going round and round like a loop–the loop atop a high fence. Prison is where they hit the bars with metal spoons, plan insurrection in the yard, and take the smallest boy–the one in on a first offense–into the shower room, while the guards pretend not to look and leave him to find his own way out, blood trickling palely, crimson mixed with milky white, down the backs of his hairless thighs, the shadows at the backs of his eyes changed forever.

My Take-away: The first sentence hooks me. What follows pulls us into a description of prisons as we identify with what we’ve seen in movies and on TV. It leads us from the innocuous physical characteristics of a prison exterior to the vulgar assault of a boy with hairless thighs. I’m impressed with Quindlen’s ability to evoke the horror of that scene without overly graphic details. And this paragraph lets you know you’re in for a ride with a superb writer.

But on the whole, this is unfortunately a trick opening for what is otherwise a really fine novel. The narrator is not in prison, and she’s most certainly not in a men’s prison.

What I can take away from this novel opening and apply to what I’m trying to do is the recognition that my original draft failed to hit the mark in terms of suggesting what was to come. I have the protagonist grappling with one thing, when it’s really another matter altogether that dogs her.

Back to the drawing board.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, consists not of creating out of the void but out of chaos.

–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

 

Three Questions Readers Ask

When you set out on the journey of reading a novel, you hope you’ll enjoy the ride all the way to the end. Sure, you may have to forgive a few bumps along the way. But sometimes you encounter a read that you simply can’t finish. Why?

When he was a member of Novel in Progress Austin, the late Hub Ratliff used to quote some unknown source who said readers ask three questions: Huh? Oh, Yeah? and So What? That spoke to me as both a writer and reader. I’ve always thought of the questions as a handy sniff test and, at one time, had them taped on my computer.

Huh?

Quite simply, the writing must be sufficiently clear that I don’t stumble over clumsy phrases or have to re-read passages to get the point. I also don’t like ostentatious language and foreign phrases that suggest the writer is a lot smarter than I am.

Oh, Yeah?

It has to be believable. Characters must not act “out of character” unless the writer has planted clues to this behavior or is able to show later what motivated it.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, tells the amusing and poignant story of an insufferable miser and curmudgeon, “. . .a man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” When his wife turns up the radiators to warm their chilly house, he turns them down. The author failed to convince me that a) Ove’s sweet wife was ever attracted to him, and b) she truly loved him.

I think nothing trips my gag reflex faster than too much coincidence. I’m not OK with more than one coincidence per novel, and I really hate it when the climax hinges on it. Say the mysterious man Julie admired on the elevator at work shows up at her dog park, and the next day her dog finds a wallet that belongs to him, and she looks at the driver’s license and realizes he was her boyfriend in third grade, etc., etc.

So What?

Often this question pertains to characterization. Do I care if Hilda–gets the job–gets the man–gets over psoriasis? Even if I like, or at least respect, Hilda, if I feel the stakes aren’t high enough, I just want to tell her to get over it.

Do you have other turn-offs or examples? Leave a comment.

Indie Author Fringe

Mark your calendars for Indie Author Fringe, 24 hours of free publishing advice from ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) beginning Oct. 14th.

Quotable

I ransack public libraries and find them full of sunk treasure.

–Virginia Woolf

 

Show? Tell? Summarize?

Somewhere between “showing and telling” lies “summarizing,” as in this excerpt from “The Magic Barrel,” by Bernard Malamud, in Major American Short Stories, A. Walton Litz, Ed.

Excerpt: . . . .All day he ran around in the woods, missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry, walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand; had even not recognized his landlady in the street when she passed with a friend and courteously called out, “A good evening to you, Doctor Finkle.” By nightfall, however, he had regained sufficient calm to sink his nose into a book and there found peace from his thoughts.

 My Take-away: Malamud’s summary offers a satisfying middle ground between telling the reader that the character was scattered all day vs. showing each of the character’s distracted behaviors. I think the strength of this summary comes from piling lapse upon lapse. Presenting one or two of these lapses wouldn’t capture the state of his mind nearly as well. It also doesn’t hurt the imagery that “all day he ran around in the woods.”

Announcement

San Marcos Public Library will hold its indie author day on Sat., Sept. 30th, 2-4 p.m.

Btw

I follow K.M. Weiland’s writing blog. Today’s post, “6 Lifestyle Changes You Can Make To Protect Creativity” was exceptional.

Quotable

I’m playing with placing quotes over images. Probably need to keep working at it.