Words Matter

This is Words Matter Week. I planned to participate, doing the blog prompts, but unfortunately real life is eating my online time, so I haven’t had a chance to answer the questions. I thought the blog challenges would make a great discussion, however, and even better, I don’t have to come up with something interesting for us talk about.

Here are the challenges for this week:

What is the most important word or words in your life? Why?

Communication breaks down when words are misused. What is the funniest, most interesting, or worst break-down you’ve ever observed?

Writers are people who take isolated words and craft them into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays. Who are the writers who make your heart sing? What is the magic ingredient?

If you had to eliminate one word or phrase from the English language, what would it be? Why?

What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will meet on gather.com for discussion about words, writing, and the writing life on Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 9:00pm ET. I hope you will stop by — it would be nice to see you.

If you can’t make the live discussion, we can have an unlive one here. You first.

No Whine, Just Champagne Writing Discussion

Another week of summer has passed since my chat group No Whine, Just Champagne last met. Don’t know whether to be glad the heat is going to be leaving us, or whether to be sorry that winter is creeping up. There. Now don’t you feel just a trifle cooler imagining the coming snow? Lately, I’ve been thinking about how writing is a way of playing with our readers, making them worry about the outcome of the story, making them think one thing is going to happen and surprising them with another, making them feel what you want them to feel. Words are powerful tools, and writing is a wonderful way to use one’s time.

I’m in the midst of editing my final manuscript which means that this winter I will have no good excuse not to get back to writing. I’m sure my poor hero will be thrilled. I can’t remember if he’s still feeling angry under a blood-gushing red sun, or if he’s feeling playful under an orange one. Either way, it’s long past time for me to do some creative writing. And, for the first time in a very long time, I’m looking forward to getting back to my story world. I have learned a lot in these many months of editing, and I know one thing — I will not make the mistake of using too many wases. It’s agonizing — and time consuming — to get rid of them.

I’m also at a standstill with promotion. Don’t know where to go from here, so it’s just as well I have all these manuscripts to edit. 

So, that’s where I am in my writing life. Where are you in yours? Do you have any writing concerns you’d like to talk about? Anything new, such as a different direction you’d like to take or a technique you’ve learned? How have you been manipulating your reader? Have you learned the secret of promotion?

Let’s talk.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will meet at the group Discussion #74  for a live discussion about **** on July 16, 2009 at 9:00pm ET. I hope you will stop by. At least this time you cannot use the excuse that we don’t talk about what you want to talk about.

**** Insert your choice of topic here. 

If you can’t make it to the live discussion, post your comments here. I’m listening.

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Heroes, Heroics, and Heroism

Writers generally use the word hero to mean main character, though often that main character is not particularly heroic. So what makes a hero heroic?

Note: For the purpose of this discussion, hero refers to both men and women for no other reason than that I don’t like the word heroine. For one thing, it’s too close to heroin, which is how many people misspell it; for another, it reminds me of intellectually lightweight females more given to heroics than heroism. (Heroics meaning “ostentatious and overly dramatic conduct.”)

The other day I watched the movie Lone Hero (an older movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips), and it struck me it had the same basic premise as Hero (an even older movie) starring Dustin Hoffman. A character instinctively does something heroic, (meaning, in this case, “marked by courage and daring; noble”) and at the end of the movie, he consciously chooses to do another heroic act. (I know movies aren’t books, but they are the result of writing, and as such fall within the purview of this group’s discussions.)

So, which was the true heroic act — the instinctual one or the calculated one? I got the impression from those movies that both writers thought the second one was more heroic since the characters chose the action, but to me that was merely bravery — true heroism comes from within, the instinct.

So, are your heroes heroic (in any sense of the word)? Do they act instinctively or calculatingly? What do they do that is so heroic? Does it change them? Does it change those around them?

And, on the opposite side of the spectrum, to be worthy of note by the hero, does the villain also have to behave heroically? All too often, writers give their villains heroics (overly dramatic bad conduct) but not heroism.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about heroes, heroics, and heroism during our live discussion on January 15, 2009 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (Or you can discuss this matter here.)

(Could I have used more parentheses?)

Who Are Your Writing Influences?

During my No Whine, Just Champagne writing chat on Gather.com last night, we discussed our styles and who influenced us the most. I’d never really thought about it before, but if anyone influenced me, it would probably be Taylor Caldwell for two vastly different reasons. One, I like books that tell of unknown events or show history in a different light or speak of real life conspiracies, and she did that very well. Two, she had an execrable style (in one book I swear she used the word inexorable on every other page. About drove me nuts.) which taught me to pay attention to what I want to say, don’t duplicate words or effects, and write shorter books.

As fellow Nowhiner, Sia McKye wrote, “I liked some of her story premises, but damn, I swear that woman could spend 15 pages describing the turning of a leaf, or a field. sheesh. You could condense her story by 40% and not lose the story, just the extra stuff.” Amen to that. So, I have tried to tell interesting stories with an historical/conspiratorial slant, and while I do put in a bit of historical background, I do not spend pages describing leaves. Nor have I ever used the word inexorable. Okay, once as a private joke, but that’s all.

Another Nowhiner, one of the best style mimics I ever came across, posted the following piece:

I would have to say that there is nothing in life sweeter than partaking of a nice piece of cheesecake at the Broadway Deli, saying hello to the dames as they walk by, talking with my friends from the track, and reading Damon Runyon, whose style is unique among mortals.

Or Hemingway. I read him in college. He was good.

Elmore Leonard walked into my living room with a large suitcase, a gun and an attitude. “Whats up” I asked him. He didn’t answer or smile, before he shot me through the heart. Now there is some style, I thought just before I died.

Ann Tyler, invited me to her large house in Baltimore, and allowed me to sit in her parlor, while she continued her often interrupted monologue with Silky, the cat who had belonged to her first husband’s daughter’s girl friend Ramona. The third time the phone rang, it was Ramona herself, and the monologue became a dialog, from which I learned a good deal about the complex relationships among those who had inhabited this world.

See what you’re missing? You are welcome to join us any time. The group No Whine, Just Champagne meets every Thursday at 9:00 pm ET for a live chat, though the discussion continues on unlive after the chat is finished.

So, I told you my writing influence; who are yours?

Writing Discussion: How Do We Make Our Writing the Best We Can?

Shirley Ann Howard, author of  Tales Out of School, is hosting my No Whine, Just Champagne discussion group. Please join us, either here or on Gather.com.  We want to know what you have to say.

How do we make our writing the best we can?

Reviewing previous discussions, I found a similar desire in all of us. How do we make our writing the best we can? I suppose it’s different for everyone. Some might like an exciting story with lots of action; others prefer a character driven novel. Last week I saw that quite a few of you do not like description, yet a previous discussion topic referred to it as imagery used to create a mood or enhance a reader’s knowledge of a character. I personally adore imagery/description.

A few previous discussions touted writing rules from well-known authors. How about if we discuss our writing rules, how we make our writing the best we can.

I’ll get us started with what I believe, and what I would suggest as rules if I were a famous author asked for advice. What fun…… What a great fantasy….. 

  • Write from the heart and soul.
  • Pretend nobody is going to read it.
  • Write what you know.
  • Write what you care about.
  • Write what you’d like to read.
  • Involve all senses, especially in an unusual way. I thought last week’s “smelling like horse manure” example was outstanding. It could have said so much about the male character. (Either he didn’t care enough to clean up or he cared so much he couldn’t wait to get to his woman.)
  • If you get stuck, go back and read your previous ten pages. When I do that, I’m always amazed that it seems so obvious what comes next.
  • Write from beginning to end, sketchily if necessary. Fill in the imagery, additional necessary exposition, and “he touched the side of her face” actions with dialogue later.
  • Then edit, edit, edit. Add, cut, correct.
  • Listen to the cadence of your language. It should flow like music with the rhythm of your action.
  • Avoid repetitious vocabulary. Use a Thesaurus…. carefully.
  • Avoid contrived situations and dialogue.
  • Make characters real, like the ones you know. Even Edgar Allan Poe said he did that, if you can believe it.
  • Edit two hundred more times.
  • Show your writing buddy. Take what he/she has to say under advisement.
  • In the end, write what you want… but please… do not use the word “gal.” 

So how about you?

Do you

  • Use an outline?
  • Read and study authors you enjoy?
  • Work on only one project at a time?
  • Write for today’s market?
  • Read “Writer’s Digest?”
  • Take writing classes?
  • Participate in a writing workshop?

Looking forward to what you have to say. I celebrate that we’re all different.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas during our live discussion on Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 9:00pm ET. Meet us here.

Discussion of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing Fiction

Elmore Leonard is hosting our discussion. He doesn’t know it, of course, but we had so much fun with Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules, I thought we’d use Leonard’s rules this time.)

Ten Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character-the one whose view best brings the scene to life-I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

“Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Do you agree with these rules? Which, if any do you follow? Which, if any, do you not follow? Which, if any of these rules, do you think are hooptedoodle?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about these rules during our live discussion on December 11, 2008 at 9:00pm ET. Feel free to join us, or to leave your comments here.

Style: The Search for a Voice — NWJC Writing Discussion #44

My writing group on Gather.com — No Whine, Just Champagne — meets every Thursday at 9:00pm ET for a live discussion, and you are all invited. Tonight’s host is Suzanne Francis, author of the Song of the Arkafina series from Mushroom Books, and her topic is Style: The Search for a Voice. Suzanne writes:

Where do you find it? Is it lurking in the keyboard, in the classroom, or in the back of your mind? How do you know when you have a voice to call your own?

Today’s discussion will focus on how we, as authors, find authentic style.

Style begins with competence. (Unless you want to be known as one of those writers for whom ineptitude seems to be a defining trait. I won’t name names…)

One of my friends, a teacher, once told me that competence has four levels.

They are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence–This is where I started. I wrote and wrote, thousands of words a day, and I thought every one of them was pure gold. I was surprised and offended when my critiquers pointed out that there were flaws, inconsistencies, poorly constructed sentences, flabby paragraphs etc. etc. Sadly, many writers these days seem to be published while they are still in this stage.

2. Conscious Incompetence–The great eye opener. You realize that your work is mostly crap. Some people quit here, because they don’t want to do the work of objectively editing their work down into something readable. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually graduate to…

3. Conscious Competence–I like to think that I am here, on a good day. I can see when the pace drags, when I am telling instead of showing. I work hard, examine my prose, recognize the flaws and fix them! I don’t get them all, but when my writing buddy finds something else I fix that too.

4. Unconscious Competence–Sometimes, very rarely, I get to visit this place, but I don’t live here. I’m sure you have had those moments when the words just pour from your fingers. Perfect fully formed sentences spring forth like Athene from the forehead of Zeus. I imagine there might be some writers who are able to keep this up long term, but I am not one of them. 

So once you have achieved level 3, or level 4 if you are very talented, do you have a style?


Now you have to do a little detective work–look at your writing and listen to your instincts. Which words sing out from the page? Where do the characters say just what they need to? What settings add heft and bedrock to the action, or transcendent beauty?

That is where your style is hiding. Read those passages again and again. Zero in on what makes them tick; why they are so successful. Then, slowly, carefully, begin to put those discoveries to use in other places. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And eventually you find your style, a distillation of your very best writing, enriching every page.

Let me make one thing clear…

Style isn’t about following rules, despite what I said about competence earlier. We have all read things that were grammatically correct and well-structured, but still left us cold. The warmth in writing comes from our ability to know when to break a convention in order to add impact. It takes time, and the patience to write and read many, many thousands of words. There is no substitute for the hard work involved. But the moment we realize that we have written something that is recognizably ours and ours alone, can be very rewarding.

So–how and when did you discover your own style?  Do you think style should be dictated by genre, ie hard boiled for mystery, flowery for romance?  Are there any authors whose style you particularly admire?  Is your style evolving and if so, in which direction?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will discuss these questions and more during our Live Discussion on Thursday, December 4th at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (A reminder: to participate, you need to be a member of gather, but it’s free. And to see the discussion, you will have to keep refreshing the page. It’s not like IM.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

I recently came across Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction and thought they were worth discussing. His advice:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the  reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I originally planned to center this discussion on rule number 8, but since the discussions I host usually have narrow topics, I decided to throw this out there and let you discuss any of the rules you’d like. For example:

1. How do you keep a reader from feeling that his or her time is wasted?

2. Do you have a character readers will root for?

3. What does your main character want? What do your supporting characters want?

4. Do you make sure ever sentence reveals character or advances the action? Do you agree with this rule?

5. Do you tend to start too far from the end, frontloading your story with scenes that delay the action?

6. What awful things are you doing to your characters? Do you take every opportunity to traumatize them?

7. Who are you writing to please?

8. Do think readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on that they could finish the story themselves? As a reader do you want it all laid out for you so that the end is inevitable?

My online writing group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about Vonnegut’s rules during our Live Discussion on Thursday, October 30 at 9:00pm ET. Everyone is invited. Hope to see you there!

How Do You Create an Experience for the Reader?

My writing group — No Whine, Just Champagne — will be hosting a live discussion (#39) tonight at 9:00pm ET, as we do every Thursday. To participate, you need to be a member of Gather (free) but anyone can follow the discussion. Since Gather does not have an IM set up, you have to keep refreshing the page, but that’s a small enough price to pay for such wisdom. (I’m not being completely facetious; many good points are made during the discussion.)

Tonight’s topic,  “How do you create an experience for the reader?” poses a good question because when it comes to fiction it is the only question. Without an experience, the reader has no reason to read. In the end, that is why we read — to experience what we don’t experience in our everyday lives. Even in stories that seem to be a rehash of everyday life, we can experience something new, such as a different perspective.

There is only one way to create an experience for the reader: through the use of words. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs give a feeling of immediacy, of something happening, of peril even. Longer sentences and paragraphs give a feeling of thoughtfulness, respite. You can create an experience by focusing on the experience — description, dialogue, action. Or you can create an experience indirectly by focusing on something other than the experience — by focusing on a lone daisy petal to evoke a feeling of love lost.

After tonight’s discussion, I’m sure I’ll come away with a better understanding of how to create an experience for the reader. And so can you.