Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I often find that being a writer is a game that involves a carrot and two sticks. One stick dangles a carrot in front of you, the carrot being complete and utter satisfaction with your finished product. And the other stick is self-doubt which flagellates you as you hobble along towards the carrot you vainly try to convince yourself is pointless to reach. Anyway, that was the obligatory woe-is-me artist rant with a further obligatory disclaimer that I don’t think every writer is destined to think their writing is garbage, but we’ll never expect our writing to be perfect, which is fine, because that’s the carrot that takes us to our ultimate destination.
In an earlier entry, I described some ways in which I keep myself motivated to keep writing. In this entry, I want to talk a bit about one of the tools I use to get myself to improve that writing, and that tool is word clouds. My preferred online word cloud tool is WordItOut, but feel free to find your favourite.
There’s two ways in which word clouds could potentially help you, though one of them is less useful for longer pieces.
The first, is trying to see if you’ve used any unusual words more frequently than you intended and as a result lessened their impact. For example, I read a history book a couple of years ago where I found the word “embryonic” used three times within a hundred pages to refer to a fledgling political movement. The first time it was a neat way to describe it. The third time felt like someone’s thesaurus malfunctioned.
The way you can avoid this problem with a word cloud is throw your text in, and then study the words that appear at the bottom when sort by frequency. That way you can pinpoint the impactful words whose use short be minimized. Of course, the longer your work is, the more words you have in that low range, so it might be a tonne of work with little payoff. But try it anyway to see if there’s maybe words you really like, but whose use you should spare. Yes, it will be painful to do, but overall your writing will have more punch.
The second method I’ve come to use for all my writing is using the word cloud to visualize which common words I overuse, and then track the progress I make in freeing myself from them. For example, check out this word cloud from the first draft of a story about the interaction between two Russian schoolchildren.
That “about” sits there pretty heavily in the dead centre of the generated cloud. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with using the word ‘about’ – it’s a useful word, but if it’s appearing in a story so much that it takes centre stage here, then it has become a crutch word or a “junk” word. It’s the kind of word that doesn’t by itself detract from your writing, but if you challenge yourself to reduce its frequency, you may finds yourself writing simple things in more creative ways.
Same with that “like” hanging out in the top right corner. A very useful word for similes, but its heightened frequency could mean either that your writing is turning into simile soup or that you need to look for different ways to introduce comparisons. For instance “he was angry like a raging inferno” could be “he was a raging inferno”; “ash landed like snowflakes on the pond” can be “snowflakes of ash landed on the pond”, and so on. I’ve once read a page of my writing that had four “like” similes across four paragraphs. Believe me, by the third instance, your eye notices it, and the writing no longer sounds polished.
Mind you, I don’t mean that these words have no place in your writing. On the contrary, eliminating all use of them would be both burdensome and risks making your writing gimmicky. These are simply words that require a second look, and sometimes you’d be surprised by the results.
Nor does every large word in a word cloud require a second look. While I eliminate most character names and other plot-heavy words to clean up the word cloud, sometimes you’re left with something like the following word cloud of a sci-fi story about a human writer in an alien publishing business.
“Yes” sits here like a Christmas tree topper, looking completely out of place. But then I realize that one of the characters in the story has a very peculiar way of talking that relies on repeated uses of the word “yes”. I made sure I wasn’t using it so heavily that it might annoy a reader, but I certainly wasn’t going to cut down its usage in half to achieve some artificial goal.
Same goes for “human” in the same word cloud. However, “through” did catch my eye. Apparently a lot of the movement in the story was “through” something, and I’d figure I’d make the movements a bit more varied, or eliminate it altogether where the description of movement didn’t add anything to the story.
So how do I actually get to the result I want here? Let’s take a world cloud from an early draft of a short story about parallel universes and the local housing crisis (name me a more iconic duo …).
I particularly like this example because it highlights some of my archnemeses: “like” (dead centre), “just” (bottom right) and “only” (bottom left). These have been my junk words since I started this word cloud strategy a few years ago.
So what I do after I generate the word cloud is I open my Word document, and use the “Replace” function. Except instead of replacing the word itself I got to the “More” tab and then “Format” and then select “highlight”. By putting in “just” in the “Find what” field and “just” with highlight in the “Replace with” field, every instance of “just” in the story is now highlighted. I go through the list of my words, doing around 6 or 7 of the top ones to not clutter the writing with highlighted words, and then print it off.
Now that the fugitive words have been highlighted, I notice them more during my editing, and eliminate them where I can. After I finish the next draft, I repeat the process. Sometimes the same words are in the top seven, so it’s a similar deal. Sometimes another word sneaks to the top and now they’re on the hit list.
Keep doing this until you’re satisfied with the draft, and then behold, the word cloud for the final draft of the same short story.
In hindsight, I should have eliminated “Glenn” from the earlier wordlist, but even then, you can see the results. “Like” which is in the bottom centre, has shrunk. “Only”, which is now in the bottom left corner, is considerably smaller. And “just”, which is hiding above “like” is no longer even remotely significant. I don’t know what it is with me and that word. Maybe it’s a quirk of my way of talking but it tends to seriously clutter my writing. When I edit, I find that the majority of its appearances can be deleted without editing anything around it, so I’m pretty ruthless.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that between the two clouds “think” and “know” have moved in, and I definitely had those words on my list during later drafts, but sometimes you do have to call it a day.
And you know what the best part about this process is? I know I mentioned “just” as my biggest Achilles heel, but take a look at the first two clouds in this entry. “Just” is not a significant word there despite these being clouds of first drafts. By continuously drawing my attention to those words, I am naturally eliminating them from my writing. I don’t slave away trying to find better ways of saying something without using that word, but rather, I have a decreased urge to write it in the first place.
So that’s my bit of advice to you. It certainly won’t make or break your writing, but I found it a very useful tool, and I hope you will too.
I had a chance to do some reflection this Father’s Day, which was actually pretty easy when you’ve got two great kids and a wonderful wife and spend a few hours at the botanical gardens enjoying the sights and slicing up your hands on some volcanic rocks. Anyway, I digress and I’ve barely gotten through the first sentence.
This was my second Father’s Day where I find myself lonely at the top. My dad passed away last year just about a month before the occasion, so that one I spent mostly missing him, and this year I had a bit more room to look within myself. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, you understand what an impact his death had, and I think Father’s Day has forever acquired some small shade of melancholy for me, but it’s important to stay focused on my owns kids.
So this Sunday the time I spent with my family, and the thoughtful gift they got me (a framed photo of me reading to the kids before I head off to work) really got me thinking about what a huge part of my life my kids have become. Prior to my eldest being born more than four years, I couldn’t imagine throwing this much of myself into something.
It’s no secret that I have to carve out time for my writing. I have to wrestle with each day to get in my allotted amount of words. I need to steal moments to edit my novel which has been in its editing phase for about three years now. The only time I have left to do reading is on the bus heading home. Writing may be my passion but it’s not my day job. My day job allows me to do some writing. It certainly doesn’t let my mind go to waste and for that I’m thankful. Almost a year ago I’ve also landed the dream job of working at an academic institution, and being steeped in the culture here has provided no shortage of inspiration. So there’s no daylight left to complain, but neither is there time to fully absorb myself in my writing.
But what about at home? Why is it when I look back at my words-per-day tracker, the weekends end up being the least productive days? Well that has an even better answer. No matter what I do, no matter how many hobbies I’ve had and dropped over the years, nothing compares to the two little guys that call me “Bapa”, and occasionally “Daddy” just to annoy me.
It didn’t come easy. I say this honestly because I don’t want to take too much credit and also to emphasize that even something like love and devotion to your kids is a project you should never cease working on. My own wife can attest to the fact that I’m not always the best person at showing the people I love how much I care. I’ve had to learn this with my kids. Together we’ve built the foundation that is now our family and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I get a FaceTime call on the bus as I’m going to work and see my kid crying because he slept through me getting ready for work, that is what my life is all about.
So if you’re following along with my writing, it may seem like it comes in drips. My novel is taking forever and I don’t exactly produce a steady flow of short stories. Yet with all that, I haven’t given up. I’m thirty one and even though my confirmation bias can pinpoint dozens of examples of writers who’ve already hit it big, I know it doesn’t work that way. Writing is a way of life, it’s a marathon. My writing shines brightly and bursts to get out, and alongside it there’s an even more intense fire in my life.
You can be passionate about more than thing, so don’t dare turn your back on what makes you happy.
I’m flying pretty high right now. I received some good news on the eve of my first week off in eight months and that is that my short story, Ursa Major, got posted on the Passages North bonus content website. I’ve shared the news of its acceptance in an earlier post, but now it’s become a reality so I wanted to let you guys know that you can read the whole thing here.
Once again, a big thank you to the folks at Passages North who saw something in my story and decided to share it with the world. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.
I recommend reading the story before you move on with this entry, as I’m about to write about my writing, which will either be the really easy, or I’m about to have regrets.
Firstly, I want to say, I have no idea how this whole thing started. This is probably the most unusual of my stories, but looking at Nightfalls, the other story that’s scheduled to be published in December, it’s perhaps not entirely out of character. Just one day I happened to be brainstorming and thought of the first line in a form quite similar to the final version. What if someone had an appointment with a bear?
The next natural question was of course why would someone have an appointment with a bear? No, scratch that. My first thought was whether I was losing my mind, and when I reasonably concluded that I was probably still sane, that’s when I went deeper into the story.
The next inspiration came from Babylon 5, my favourite sci-fi television show whose praises I have sung before and will sing again at any given opportunity. Very early in the series, a character named Londo Mollari of the Centauri claims that his people have recurring dreams of their death, and G’Kar, one of the other main characters in the show, was the man he always dreamed would choke the life out of him. If you want to find out more, better watch the series, but I won’t spoil it here. It was just such a delicious plot device to examine choice and destiny, it seemed perfect for a story where a pre-scheduled meeting can be arranged with a wild animal. There’s one more very subtle B5 reference in there. Let me know if you can spot it.
So with the first line and that element in place, the story kind of rolled along. But it’s a prime example of never shying away from seeking inspiration wherever you can find it. The layout of the cabin in my mind was mostly based on this vacation home in Egmont, British Columbia where we hosted my best friend’s bachelor party. The childhood dream sequence was based on the first nightmare I can remember, except there the villain was a wolf (there’s a Russian lullaby that very nonchalantly tells you not to sleep on the edge of a bed or a grey wolf will chomp on your side. Thanks for that, motherland). And that bit where the narrator bites his own arm to fool the bear into thinking he tasted gross, was based on my own night-time ingenuity, except it actually worked while dream-me smirked: “Stupid bear; I’m delicious.”
As much as the mostly nonsensical narrative was fun to write, before it was done I had a pretty good idea of what it was about. And I decided to double down on my interpretation, trying to hammer the point home like a screw. By the time the first draft was done, it was about 25% longer than the final product. It didn’t feel right. So don’t worry, it never does. It’s okay to question your writing because sometimes you produce a block of misshapen stone. But that sculpture is still hiding somewhere inside.
So I trimmed all the parts where I thought I was beating my reader over the head with what I was trying to say. Philosophical thoughts that perhaps sounded good on their own (or horribly pretentious, I guess we’ll never know since into the dustbin they went) sounded shoehorned-in when read in context.
So off I went, murdering my darlings without shame until arriving almost at the version that you now see.
But something still didn’t feel right. Like a picture hung on the wall that’s stubbornly askew. And so it sat, in a form that I thought was final, for a few weeks, with me occasionally reading the last couple of paragraphs trying to figure out not only what it was missing, but what it ultimately was trying to say. The theme was there in my head from early on, but not its essence. Like many of my readers, I too was confronted by a work that just came out me and offered no explanation and apology. It was a different sort of feeling. Normally I’d set out on my writing with a goal in mind and tailor it to that goal. But this was different. The writing came first, and the goal one day just clicked into place.
I can’t tell you how I figured it out, mostly because I don’t want to tell you what “it” was. I’ve got my own interpretation and I think most interpretations are as legitimate as mine, unless completely antithetical to my writing. In any case, I arrived at my own personal version of what the ending was about, and realized that I needed one final brushstroke to bring it completely in line with that vision.
And thus the penultimate paragraph was formed and sealed the oddest tale I have spun to date.
I’ve had people tell me the story made them laugh, others who said it made them pause. Others still who rightfully chastised me for sending them into the dictionary – my vocabulary here was admittedly self-indulgent. It’s been really cool to see people react to my writing. It’s one of the reason why I write, not just for the pleasure of it but to see the effect it has on people.
It’s like being in a relationship and feeling your partner’s body react to your touch. I feel a similar intimate emotion when others comment on my writing. So I hope Ursa Major had an effect on you, whatever that might be.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.