Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I’ve confessed here before that I have so many projects on the go it’s sometimes hard to envision any of them reaching their conclusion. That said, I’ve also mentioned that this is one of my strengths – almost a necessary ingredient to sometimes push through writers’ block. So it’s nothing I’m really in need of changing, but it does make it hard to provide any kind of regular updates with respect to everything I’m working on.
I’ve talked about Wake the Drowned, the novel that I’m currently editing and seems to actually be nearing completion sometime in this fresh little decade (if we live that long, given the year we’ve been having). I’ve also mentioned, including very recently in my post about utilizing Google Street View in writing research, my second novel, which has now surpassed 30,000 words. I’ve also devoted some time here to my “side project” – The Bloodlet Sun, a sci-fi serial I’m releasing on this blog and that’s returning for regular updates September 10. There’s plenty of other things I’m working on, and I wanted to introduce one that has been very near and dear to my heart over the last year-and-a-half: an adventure story I’m writing for, and reading to, my kids.
If you follow my Twitter, you would have noticed that here and there I mention “Cassia and Mateo” or else make other references to writing a fantasy work for kids. This is less of a real writing project and much more of a labour of love.
My kids are voracious readers. Thanks to mostly my wife they’ve already consumed a small library of kid literature and the place they miss being at the most during this whole COVID-19 quarantine is the book store. Having grown up in Russia, my access was pretty limited to old Soviet children’s books, which were adorable at the time but are like ten kinds of problematic when read with a current cultural lens, so I’m lucky enough to have been sucked into my kids’ reading world as well.
As a writer (and I use this phrase sparingly as I think in 99% of cases it can be replaced with “as a human”), something was missing. Sure, there was that one story about Petey the Pirate, who had a massive hoarding problem, and the one about the kid who ate the world’s longest noodle, a tale that didn’t go anywhere, much like the noodle, but I was looking for something bigger. I guess the main kernel of inspiration came from The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater and the Fan Brothers. I also wanted to create that sense of whimsy with a ship and adventure on the high seas. Disclaimer: I still had no idea what I was doing.
I took two existing characters, the eponymous Cassia and Mateo, from a yet-unpublished standalone short story called “River Cows” and threw them into a world filled with pirates and treasure hunters and ancient relics and magical powers. At first, I tried to do it off-the-cuff – tell the story to the kids and then write it down when I had the chance. This quickly became unworkable as the story became more complex, and let’s face it, I wasn’t terribly good at improvising. So now, I do all the writing ahead of time, break it up into smaller chunks that I can spread out through our bedtimes, and read it to them later. This whole endeavour started in January of last year, and one-and-a-half years later, it’s still a staple of bedtime a couple of nights a week.
From a purely utilitarian perspective, this has been a great experience. Writing Cassia and Mateo as I go has been the ultimate exercise in flying by the seat of my pants (or “pantsing”) versus outlining the whole story in advance. Sure, I kind of know where its going to go in general, but mostly I don’t know all that much about what’s going to happen more than a chapter away. It’s also allowed me to practice building characters and worlds, and trying on for size what makes kids excited (for a while, my reading of Cassia and Mateo coincided with my wife’s reading to them the first few books of Percy Jackson and the Olympians and there were many loud protestations whenever Cassia and Mateo weren’t being chased by some sort of monster).
Aside from how this helps my writing in the long run, this has been a magical experience. Hearing for the first time “and then what happens?”, giving them a similar kind of excitement and joy they get from other books, made everything worth it; my whole writing career, if this is its apex, wouldn’t have gone to waste. I may not be the Fan Brothers or Rick Riordan, but I’ve got the most important audience I could ever hope for. Every time either of them says “one last part” when I’m finished reading, my heart pulls a Grinch and swells three sizes.
I’m not sure what, if anything, I will end up doing with the story. It’s ungainly – at 70,000 words it’s at most two-thirds done and I still don’t know how to tie off some of the loose ends. My kids are sometimes unclear as to the nature of Cassia’s power and asked me on more than one occasion whether the story actually has an end. I’m also retconning a bit as I go, which is exceedingly difficult with kids who have memories akin to elephants. So if this were to ever somehow move forward, it would require a gargantuan amount of editing.
So there’s a chance it won’t, that I’d be perfectly content with my kids being the only ones who are privy to this story. Which is fine by me. Though I’ll never drop the fantasy of being like Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L'Engle and reading to my kids something that would eventually be loved by millions of children around the world, it was written for my kids, and there’s nothing disappointing about it staying that way.
And who knows, maybe all that practice would be put to good use. I’m already starting to plan my next young readers project, and I’m even more excited about this one.
I would like to discuss buts. No, not those kind, and not because my kids are going through this phase where every villain from the books they read ends up being renamed to “Poo Poo Butts”. I would like to discuss the innocent conjunction “but”.
We all have our crutch words when we write. Whether they sneak in to our dialogues as borrowings from our own specific way of talking, or into our prose, which ends up cluttering it and acting as a distraction, these words are a natural occurrence for any writer. I’ve discussed how part of my editing process is aimed specifically at weeding out crutch words as much as possible by using word clouds. “Just” is one of mine, for example, and I found during editing that about 70% of the time the word doesn’t actually add anything in terms of meaning, and sentences read much cleaner without it.
“But” on the other hand, seems far less sinister. It’s a lowly conjunction. One would hardly go about trying to eradicate every mention of the word “and” in a story. So what kind of kooky mechanical advice in the same vein as “no adverbs ever under penalty of torture” is this?
I’m not advocating for the elimination of ‘but’ – it’s simply something I’ve noticed I use in my writing as a crutch, specifically for sentence construction. My recent bout of editing, from my novel, to my sci-fi serial to my short stories, made me a little too aware of using the simple addition of ‘but’ to put sentences together. Again, by itself, that’s not a problem. Anyone telling you to never use ‘but’ or to never end your sentence with a preposition are out to lunch, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have awareness of how you construct your complex sentences.
It’s like the classic advice about varying your sentence length. I know for me if I ever encounter three 10-13 word sentences in a row I know I’m in for at least ten minutes of trying to break these up into a more varied rhythm. Same with the use of ‘but’ to build sentences. In one particular short story I’d recently completely, I found three instances of the clause-but-clause sentence in a single paragraph that contained only four other sentences. There’s nothing glaring about writing out a sentence like that, but the human eye and brain is a keen pattern-finding machine, and repetition like this stands out. It feels unnatural, it feels lazy. Try saying three sentences like that in a row, and realize that they need to be spread further apart for that effect to dissipate.
Although it was a little jarring finding this tendency about myself, and adding yet another thing to the ever-growing editing checklist, it’s not entirely surprising why I lean in this particular direction. I find that one of the things I enjoy about my writing is creating contrasts and oxymorons. A lot of this can be found at the micro-level in sentences – a small twist in the direction it was taking, or else created specifically to highlight a juxtaposition. The conjunction ‘but’ is a natural fit for that kind of writing since by its own nature it is intended to create some kind of contrast.
So, with the reason out of the way, let’s not let it become an excuse. None of these contrasts or juxtapositions, as I put it, would land right if the reader was rolling their eyes at another lazily built sentence. So how do we go solving this problem?
The important caveat is again – there’s nothing wrong with using the word, all we’re looking for is breaking apart any clusters of them. The easiest way I found to do this is to search my work for any instance of the Word ‘but’. Newer versions of Word highlight the searched-for word in the entire work, which makes visually scanning pages for clusters really easy. I ignore pretty much every use of the word ‘but’ unless a see several highlights in close proximity. That’s when I stop my quick scrolling and try to figure out how to edit my way out of it.
Sometimes I’m tempted to replace ‘but’ with something similar, like ‘yet’ or ‘though’ and I’m fully aware that this is essentially cheating. So I use this technique sparingly and rather try to pick which of the sentences is the best candidate for revision and focus on that. Usually one, or at most two, sentences from the cluster actually need tweaking, so it’s not the most time-intensive aspect of my editing process.
The best part about editing like this, which is what I found in my campaign against “just”, is that this leaks into the writing process as well. I find myself less inclined to use “just” as I write, and I expect I’ll experiences the same thing with my sentence structure as well.
Sometimes it might not be the most comfortable thing to recognize faults in our writing, but without realizing them, accepting them, and tackling them, there’d be little room for us to grow as writers.
The internet can be a powerful and versatile tool in the arsenal of a writer. And I’m not just talking about Googling weirdly specific forensic questions that in the eyes of a law enforcement algorithm make one indistinguishable from a serial killer. The amount of research a writer can do from their comfort of their own living room is incredible, including visiting faraway places without ever having to leave the house. Or, in my case, revisiting long-shuttered corners of my memory in full colour.
One of the novels I’m currently working on is set in Moscow, and though that was the city of my childhood, I hadn’t been back there in almost twenty years. My main character shares a lot of the same places that I had grown up around, so you’d think it would be easy for me to replicate the setting.
Honestly, if I’d relied on memory alone, it would probably be passable. Any reader who’d never been to Moscow would certainly not know the difference, and even lifelong Muscovites, unless they specifically visited the neighbourhood I was describing, might not immediately notice that something was amiss. That is, won’t notice anything amiss with respect to the general locations and the broad stroke descriptions.
Once we dig down to the details we discover the little problem inherent in the passage of those twenty years. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the protagonist finds themselves uprooted from a life as an immigrant to Canada, and placed into an alternative universe existence where he never left Russia. A lot of the novel therefore revolves around the changes that had happened in Russia and Moscow since he moved, and the contrast to the expectations he had of his homeland after a long separation.
Memory alone would not permit me the experience to write this well. Short of going back to Russia for a tour myself, something that is presently not possible for me, all I’d have to rely on is hearsay. Not only would someone familiar with Moscow likely see through the inevitable missteps, but it would compromise one of the integral themes of my novel and would be a slap in the face of an ever-changing home city and country with which I share a complicated relationship.
So out came Google Maps. I touched on this process in an earlier post about the novel, but this time, I took a stroll through my own neighbourhood, taking intermittent moments to catch my breath while nostalgia and the slightest touch of what could probably be best described as homesickness gripped my chest. Following the path of my protagonist who traced my own childhood steps not only allowed me to remark on what has changed and what stayed the same, but also lent some more ephemeral elements to help with storytelling. A little old lady captured by the Google Street View camera would turn into a side character; a specific piece of graffiti would inspire an internal monologue in the protagonist. It almost felt like plagiarizing real life.
Each of my own observations could be downloaded into the protagonist, since he was essentially experiencing what I was – taking in familiar surroundings after a long separation. When it comes to the first draft, I’m pretty much throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it – every observation, every unlocked memory, gets tossed into the narrative. It’s probably too much at this point. As the novelty wears off and the novel eventually enters subsequent drafts, I’m sure a lot of these tangents would be pruned. In the end, I’m hoping the result is something close to an authentic experience that combines vague memories with refreshed visuals to create a picture of a city.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the kind of information available at our fingertips these days. This is an opportunity that just wasn’t available to our predecessors. To write even remotely believably about a place, the writer had to either absorb a multitude of first-hand accounts to paint their own picture or actually be present there physically. Now, for any major city around the world, a simple click of a button and we’re looking up at world-famous landmarks, sneaking around forgotten side streets, or cruising through the countryside. It’s a convenient and reliable way of providing support to a setting we may not have personally experienced.
A word of caution is that this is in no way a panacea. I’m not entirely convinced that this method of research would be sufficient for an entire work taking place in a setting that the author has never visited. Visuals go a long way but the feel of a place is harder to pin down through a computer screen. Not to mention the flow of life, its people and its culture. More serious research is required here, though I believe a reasonable product can be achieved here as well, made that much easier by all the other research tools that are brought to us by technology and the internet.
The need for proper research, and perhaps some self-reflection as to the advisability of the story/setting combination in the hands of the author, is heightened for certain settings, depending on their relationship to the author themselves. An ethnically WASPish North American author sitting from the comfort of their desk chair may be able to set their whole story in a rural Indian village or the streets of Caracas, but should they? A special sensitivity to place, culture and people is required here, and a reminder that technology is just that, technology, a tool, not the end all and be all of human experience.
So like any literal tool in a handyperson’s toolbox, tools should be used with caution and for their intended purpose, but I encourage playing around with dropping yourself into a setting you’ve never been before, and using that to grow your writing.
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.