Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I am sometimes in complete awe at the kind of technology that is available to writers on a daily basis. And I don’t mean specialized programs like Scrivener, which I don’t use because I’m a Microsoft Word using normie, and like the proverbial old dog, new tricks come pretty slow for me. What I’m talking about here are things as simple as the Ctrl+F function. Our predecessors that toiled prior to the advent of computer word processors had no such luxury – a perfect shortcut to clean and tighten up their prose. Now, you can throw in any word whose use you want to cut down on in your manuscript, and you’re off to the races.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about combining this technique with the use of word clouds to pin-point your crutch words, and also about how I’ve used it to zero-in on my uses of the word ‘but’ in order to vary my sentence structure. In today’s entry, I want to go through a few examples of common words that can be trimmed using Ctrl+F – a simple and quick exercise to improve your prose. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions and by no means should every instance of the identified words be deleted. I don’t advocate for any hard rules, so please use your judgement.
The English language is rich with synonyms that render the word “very” redundant in most cases. “Very angry” can be “livid” or “furious”. “Very wet” can be “soaked” or “sopping”. And “very hot” can be “sweltering” or “burning” or “scorching” and so on. As you can see, there are subtle differences in meaning between these various substitute words, so be careful not to start fishing for alternatives in the thesaurus. However, also don’t be afraid of using a word you’re not entirely comfortable with – as long as you have beta readers or others in your life whose opinion you trust, they can help you refine your word usage.
As an example from my own writing, as I edited my novel Wake the Drowned, I’ve gone from 44 instances of “very” down to 15. I didn’t eliminate it entirely, nor do I intend to. Even a word like “very” has its uses. For example, in dialogue – it’s perfectly natural for a character to use “very” as there is no reason for them to talk in the style of your prose. Another potential use is for contrast, like in the following sentence from my novel:
“[…] still undecided as to whether I should eat a late dinner at my desk or a very late dinner at home”
Another good way to use “very” is to intentionally set a particular tone. For example, this sentence from the same novel:
“Middleton was not having a very nice day.”
Here, we can potentially use a synonym like “lovely” or “pleasant” or “wonderful”. But that would not have the same impact. I wanted specifically to use the word “nice” and slapping “very” right before it hopefully struck the flippant note that I wanted it to.
So while there’s a time and place for everything, overall “very” serves as a marker for where a stronger word can be used, so go ahead and make those edits.
While “very” can indicate where the sentence is thirsty for a synonym, a lot of uses of “that” are just straight up redundant. “I thought that”, “I saw that”, “I knew that”, etc. setting aside for a moment that these are fairly weak verbs, the “that” following these in most instance can be dropped completely without affecting meaning and only tightening up the prose.
The best part about this particular edit is that it is mostly easy and mindless. Although you can pretty safely go delete happy, there will be instances where you have to try your new sentence on for size and sometimes will decide to keep it anyway. For instance, here’s one I have from the opening page of my novel:
“[…] only the occasional tire swing or empty dog leash gave any indication that there were houses hidden on the other side of the trees.”
It’s a bit less obvious that the “that” here can go, but reading the resulting sentence out loud several times convinced me that it should. It is on the borderline, so if you feel like you prefer to keep it, you should follow your gut, as there should be no hard rules when it comes to editing.
Watch for context though, as not every “that” serves the same purpose. For example, this sentence:
“There’s only one way out that isn’t the terrible mouth of the beast.”
“That” in this instance serves an absolutely integral grammatical function and the sentence reads “wrong” to most English speakers. For this reason again, exercising judgement is key and mindless deleting could do more harm than good for your writing.
The word “little” is a sneaky one in that it serves a very clear descriptive function, yet I’ve found that not only that it’s similar to “very” in the sense that it can indicate the need for a synonym, but even when it can stand up on its own, it adds little value to prose. My growing dissatisfaction with it as an adjective can be evidenced from the frequency of its uses through the drafts of my novel: coming down from 249 to 77. Here’s a couple of examples of sentences that ended up losing their “little”:
“I throw my head back in my chair. It rolls away a little bit, detaching me from my desk.”
Then four drafts later we have this:
“I throw my head back and my chair rolls away slightly, detaching me from my desk.”
Sure, I’ve replaced the use of “little” with the oft-maligned adverb, but I generally reject the persecution of this part of speech and think the second sentence works much better.
Here’s a somewhat different example:
“Along with Danny, she was the last of the little dolls that Charlie’s father had given him […]”
This sentence currently reads as follows:
“Along with her husband, Danny the Foreman, she was the last of the figurines that Charlie’s father had given him.”
My problem with this particular use of “little” was that I had previously clearly established the size of these figurines by saying that they fit within the palm of the protagonist’s hand. So what is the point of describing them again as “little” when the reader already knows what the approximate size is. Ideally, each word you use serves a very specific purpose. This isn’t a standard that’s plausible to reach, but with it in mind, it should improve your writing tremendously.
I’ve pulled three fairly arbitrary examples out of my hat to illustrate my point, and there are plenty of other words on my delete list that I can profile in more detail with examples from my own writing. Hopefully you’ve found this useful, and I can certainly continue exploring this in future posts and talking about other words.
As I spend a Sisyphean eternity editing my first novel, I’m busily working on my second one. It went over the threshold from “idea I’m toying with” to full on project sometime in 2018, but overall it’s been slow going since.
As a result of my weird pandemic productivity boost that I experienced in the months before our third baby was born, it more than doubled in word count and is now at a respectable 40,000, though I recognize that a sizeable chunk of it is first draft bloat. I’ve been enjoying this particular project immensely, and a little while ago I talked about how I was using Google Street View to explore the city of my childhood.
Despite the level of enjoyment and how well it’s been progressing, I have run into some growing pains, which I think is an important subject for writers to be able to talk about freely. Sometimes there’s this tendency to subscribe to one of two extremes – either you’re a writer to the core and enjoy every aspect of it because it is the essence of your being, or you’re a tortured artist’s soul who is but a vessel for your writing, which rips you to shreds as it crawls out of you. Cute, but not the way things work.
I think there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the stumbles we all experience. Writer’s block isn’t a sign of weakness or a disease to be cured – it’s a natural part of the process. It also comes in all kinds of variations from writer to writer and within writers themselves. Not every case of writer’s block is a 100% stupor where no amount of internal turmoil will bring even a single word onto a page. Nice for relatable writer comics, but hardly ever happens.
What I’m going through right now with Maple Vodka (placeholder title, so bear with me) is something I like to describe as a “working” writer’s block. Kind of like “working notice” – where you’re fired from a job but stay on for the duration of your notice period. So in my case, it feels like writer’s block, but it’s not stopping me from actually continuing to write, or rather, I’m not letting it. The symptoms I’m currently experiencing are the following:
The current chapter is overwrought: I feel like the section I’m writing is entirely too long for the pacing of the novel and how much it actually brings to the plot. It started with the protagonist going to work and then moves into him remembering the long journey that led him to this dead-end job. Sure, it’s important to establish that his career stalled, but is this the best way of doing it? I’m not sure. I’ve certainly found the character exploration fascinating, but will it fall flat with readers?
There’s not enough here for a novel: this fear is closely related to the first one – because this particular fiction feels like it’s padding word count, I’m wondering if there’s even enough idea here to stretch into a novel length, or is it all just filler? Sure, it looked good as a synopsis, and then as a full-blown outline, but sometimes when I put meat onto the skeleton I quickly run out of material and end up with a half-dead being of abject horror. Is this the fate of this particular work, or are my perceptions suffering from recency bias, and I just need to get through this stretch to greener pastures?
It’s poorly written: hardly any of us do their best work when we’re forcing ourselves. So the last dozen or so pages haven’t felt like the kind of writing that I should be doing. Maybe that means the whole work is utter garbage and I shouldn’t subject anyone to the final product. Equally likely is that I’m too close to this particular piece of writing, and need some perspective in order to properly assess its merits.
As I’ve summarized them, these might seem like fairly sizable problems. On a bad day, it’s enough to discourage someone from continuing their work, throwing it in the discard pile, and moving onto the next project hoping this will be the perfect fit. As much as I do think sometimes you do just need to cut ties with something you’re working on, a technique practiced even by the most seasoned authors, I think it’s too early to do a post mortem. Like I said, difficulties are a natural part of the process, and it’s an intricate balancing act to learn when those difficulties are truly insurmountable.
In this case, I don’t think the threshold was crossed. Why? I’m not sure. There’s no bright line test here so at the end of the day, I have to trust my gut and believe that the solution to all three of the stated misgivings is: keep writing.
When I started writing my web serial The Bloodlet Sun in earnest is when I realized how difficult naming is in a sci-fi universe. It was one of the aspects of worldbuilding that initially held me back from sitting down and actually putting plot to paper and even when I bit the bullet the names still trickled out like molasses. And this doesn’t just apply to character names either. Every species and minor planetoid gets named only after an agonizing process that probably doesn’t need to be so agonizing, but that’s how I am. So I get that it’s difficult, and I get that certain shortcuts need to be made. Especially in something like Star Wars novels where characters hop from rock to rock at such a pace it’s sometimes hard to name that rock before they land on it.
Recently I’ve been reading one such novel – Catalyst by James Luceno, which serves as a prequel to the Rogue One film and follows the rise of Orson Krennic and Galen Erso’s involvement in the Death Star project. I hadn’t grown up on Star Wars novels in general, so I don’t read them that often, but when I do, they’ve been a fairly enjoyable experience.
As with any Star Wars writer, Luceno has the unenviable task of putting together a cohesive story that does not trample on any other established aspects of the Star Wars universe. To make the task easier, I found that most of the planets that serve merely as plot devices are created off-hand specifically for the novel itself, which means the author has quite a few planets they have to name without really needing to think of a long story or a full worldbuilding session. A good shortcut to do this is to find words that already sound natural in human language and provide slight modifications to them.
Some examples from the more mainstream Star Wars universe come to mind – Luke’s home planet of Tatooine was named after its filming location of Tataouine in Tunisia. Mustafar, which is the lava planet that saw the true birth of Darth Vader, was likely inspired by “Mustafa” the anglicization of an epithet of Muhammad.
In a less direct example from my favourite sci-fi series, Babylon 5, two species’ names bare a striking resembles to words existing in the English language. “Narn” is one letter away from “barn” and “Vorlon” is two letters away from “Gorgon”. Neither word is so similar to the original that it immediately invokes it, but both use structure already acceptable to the English-attuned ear.
It makes sense to piggyback on existing words to create names for alien words without sounding like you’re trying too hard – something I think I still need to learn. But at the same time, one particular example in Catalyst I think went too far.
Mind you, my bar when it comes to this kind of stuff is set fairly low. Only a couple of pages before the hard brakes on my immersion, the reader encounters a planet called “Kartoosh” – obviously inspires by the word “cartouche”, which is, honest to goodness, I’m still not sure what it is, but seems to commonly refer to a hieroglyphic depiction of a scroll. Oh, it was also a very mediocre 90s Eurodance group, which is how I first encountered the word. So for me, it wasn’t exactly an unknown entity, but the liberal change in spelling helped me move beyond that. That is, until I encountered the planet of “Samovar”.
This. This is a samovar:
It’s basically a traditional Russian tea kettle. It’s like if your characters travelled to the planet “Microwave” or the city of “Colander”. Unlike with Kartoosh, there was no attempt to mask the origins: Luceno could have gone with “Samofar”, “Samobar” or “Zamovar” – all probably would have flown under my radar. Nope, it was just straight up “samovar”, take it or leave it. Unfortunately, my brain left it, and every time I read the planet’s name I giggled internally.
Like I said at the beginning, I get it. It’s hard coming up with original alien names that don’t sound forced. But now every time I think back on this book I’m going to think of a massive ornamentally decorated kitchen appliance floating in space. So that’s a lesson learned for my own writing as well – there’s no problem with looking at someone else’s homework, but change a few answers to make sure the teacher doesn’t catch you cheating.
I’ve had a recent infatuation with voice memos to aid my writing process. I’m a firm believer that a writer’s experience is not measured strictly in the number of words they write. Any amount of our day may be spent consuming other content, whether that be media, news, or simply living, which would then be absorbed into our creative process. For this, boredom is a writer’s great friend, but how many of you had a good idea for a sentence, a scene or a bit of dialogue, and the next time you’re on the computer, it’s gone? It’s not bad enough that you’ve missed out on a potentially good idea, but remembering that there had been an idea in the first place is what really hurts.
In order to try to avoid this problem, I carry around a little black Moleskine notebook wherever I go. I’ve accumulated a whole mass of these which I’m sure will be valuable collector’s items when I inevitably (delusions of grandeur incoming) become a world-famous celebrity author who donates mementos of his career to charity auctions. I still stand by my little books, but recently I’ve found that voice memos are also an excellent option.
The biggest challenge in using memos is having to listen to the sound of your own voice, which probably for some people will be a show-stopper and honestly, I don’t blame you. That guy sounds effing weird. However, once I got over this particular hurdle and accepted that I don’t have a career in radio (or in podcasts, to use a more contemporary equivalent), voice memos have quickly become a staple of my writing process.
Many years ago I used to own a handheld dictation machine. I came into possession of such an item to try to deal with a bullying problem I experienced when I first arrived in Canada, which is a long story in and of itself but suffice it to say, having it in my pocket only worsened my bullying. In the years that followed, I occasionally dusted it off and tried to use it for my writing, but having to rewind the tape back and forth, and the aforementioned hang-up about hearing my own voice which I didn’t quite get over until I stopped giving a shit sometime in my thirties, it never caught on.
Now we’re living in an age far removed from my quaint magnetic tape dictation device. I don’t know about Android phones, but my iPhone comes with a handy Voice Memos app. It doesn’t do much, but it gets the job done. Scrolling through the recording is easy, as is recording over parts you’ve already recorded.
I wish it also came with the option of slowed-down replay, and I’m sure there’s other apps out there that can do just that, so I’m open to suggestions.
Best part of using voice memos is that so many of your daily activities can be co-opted into the service of your writing. A common time for me to do this is while I’m washing the dishes in the evening – not exactly the most stimulating task, so my brain often goes into creative mode. Having a phone nearby to record thoughts makes sure that creative churning doesn’t go to waste.
A car is another place where the mind often wonders. Once I get to my destination, I spend a minute or two dictating everything I thought of on my way there before getting out of the car, and boom, writing done during a time that would otherwise have nothing to do with it.
Normally, when I go on my morning runs, I listen to audiobooks, but I imagine someone else might find it helpful to run these notes during exercise too.
The limits here are convenience of accessing a phone and your imagination, so make the best of it.
I found that there’s two ways of using voice dictation to assist later writing: actual sentences and broad strokes.
Creating actual sentences is pretty self-explanatory – the writing is developed in my head, sometimes going through several iterations or part-sentences before it fully forms, and once I have the actual sentence, I record it with the voice memo, and move on to the next sentence.
Broad strokes, by contrast, doesn’t contain any usable writing. It sets the motions of the scene, the gist of what has to be said, but otherwise the actual writing process would need to occur at a later time.
Of course, what ends up happening is a bit of a mix. Sometimes a sentence doesn’t quite fall into place while the next one is bursting to come out, so I dictate a placeholder note. And sometimes when I intend to do a broader outline, a sentence just comes to me so I dictate it verbatim to not waste that little spark of creativity.
Depending on which method you use above, the transcription process is going to look different. With actual sentences, your role is pretty much just type out what you said, maybe editing here and there if you feel that with the benefit of hindsight that the writing could be better. This is perfect for those times when your muse is snoozing – might as well use your writing time productively without worrying what’s coming out onto the page. I’m a fairly decent typist, though I can’t keep up with my spoken speech – I tend to slow down my dictation if I have the opportunity, but sometimes I want to get it out fast and, in any case, I can never slow myself down enough.
For a broad strokes outline, the writing process itself will necessarily be a bit more involved – with creative writing being built on top of what was dictated earlier. In this case, speed of dictation matters less. Usually I play a prompt in its entirety and then set down to fleshing out the writing.
All-in-all, this method allows me to maximize the time I spend on writing activities and use my day more efficiently, especially since between a full-time day job and kids, those writing moments are precious and few.
Having extolled the virtues of voice memos, they will never fully replace my precious little black notebooks. Sometimes, you’re just not in a spot to whip out a phone and start talking into it. I may have less hang-ups about hearing my own voice but no one’s going to be listening to me dictate my creative writing on a busy bus, especially when it’s dialogue and it will look like I’m either trying to cover up that I’m talking to myself, or having a super weird conversation on the phone. Pulling a small notebook out of your pocket is far more discreet, even if I’ve been asked multiple times why I’m writing in my passport.
Also, writing in a notebook is far more user-friendly when you’ve got a random assortment of sentences and ideas that just need to be put down, rather than a single block of writing. These would be far easier to navigate in written form than in voice memos, and it also makes it easier to manage several projects at the same time.
As I was writing this entry, I was met with a cautionary tale that I feel obligated to share – I sat down to transcribe a four-minute voice memo, and discovered that it had somehow become corrupted, and all its content was erased. That was about an evening’s chores worth of ideas blasted out of existence. I managed to scrape out of my memory the gist of what I wanted to lay down, but not only was this an unnecessary double effort and therefore waste of time, but I know there were a few choice sentences there that were lost forever.
So I stand by everything I said above, but technology is technology and is often unreliable in the worst ways. Again, if there’s perhaps a more reliable voice memo app out there, I’m open to your suggestions.
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.
Last week I mentioned that I’ve been riding a wave of productivity over the last month. The result of this is perceptible progress on all my projects, including the completion of Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun. The only reason I haven’t started posting again is because this time I want to build a bit of a buffer first (not that a buffer would save me from a similar year-long hiatus that I’ve experienced since concluding Chapter 1, but I’m trying to be a little optimistic here). I’m already in the process of editing Chapter 3, and have also almost finished writing the first draft of Chapter 4. I’m hoping to start posting DoBS at a fairly regular weekly schedule in a month or so.
The fascinating challenge I’m facing with Chapter 4 is character naming. A lot of characters get introduced here, and even though I’ve worked on some of them for years, their names have never been set in stone. And I’m finding out that names are a big deal.
Han Solo, Kosh, Daenerys Targaryen, examples from some of my favourite works of sci-fi/fantasy fiction are memorable, punchy and evocative. In the case of the former, can be short, and easy to pronounce, in the case of the latter, longer, and a bit more of a tongue-twister depending on how many drinks deep you are into trying to forget Season 8. A character’s name is a far bigger deal in fiction than it would be in real life. Nothing in the real world is stopping Bill Jones from being the best he can be, but fictional Bill Jones is not going to amount to anything more than being an accountant in a room of other non-descript throwaway accountants preventing Stalactite Sinclair from financing her coup against a brutal dictatorship. So I’ve taken my approach to names seriously, although if my brainstorming of the last few weeks is any indication, perhaps a little too seriously.
In a way, naming the alien characters is a whole lot easier – there are fewer constraints to work with. There’s the species’ or culture’s naming conventions and phonetic inventory to consider, while also keeping an eye out for acceptable syllable structure, but otherwise, the rules here are entirely in my head. Just don’t spit out something with five syllables, three-consonant strings and multiple apostrophes like Shr’ulia’akrgi, and you’re golden. I break, or come close to breaking, the first rule with Thorian naming conventions (as you’ll see more in Chapter 2), but generally I also subscribe to shorter is better. Just look at some of the examples from J. Micharel Straczynkski’s Babylon 5: Kosh, G’Kar, Vir. All three are single syllables that are both palatable to the English speaker, but that could sound alien nonetheless.
The lay of the land for human characters is entirely different. Maybe if I was working in a pure fantasy world, I can be as unconstrained as with my alien names, but I’ve created for myself a specific setting and I have to try to play by the rules of this setting. Without going into any spoilers and simply borrowing from the general description of DoBS – it takes place approximately two thousand years from now, about the same amount of time from a great planetary disaster.
Thinking back on how human society, culture and demographics have changed over the last two thousand years, without a great calamity on top of that, I realize my puny human brain can hardly comprehend that many years into the future. So any “realism” here would be purely aspirational. Not to mention that in my perceived future the Earth has become a far bigger melting pot than it is today, and suddenly using names that exist across our world right now doesn’t seem too appropriate.
At least my inspirational golden standard, Babylon 5, was set about two hundred and fifty years in the future, so names like John Sheridan and Susan Ivanova don’t seem that far out of place. Crank the time scale by a factor of 8 and add all the waves of human migration, and “John Sheridan” might not seem too out of place, but if everyone else’s name was similarly familiar, it would seem like a cop-out.
Granted, I think I could get away with giving those names – I doubt the readership would judge me too harshly for it, but it doesn’t feel right in my own head, and I need to be fully immersed in my own world if I am to bring it to life for someone else. So, let’s take a look at the parameters I set for myself in deciding how to formulate human names in DoBS:
So now that I laid the parameters out, comes the actual hard part. Even though I have those “rules” for my naming conventions, I still need the names to come out naturally. The character rises out of my imagination – they have a personality and a history and first and foremost they are people who are alive, you know, as much as a fictional character can be in my head. Applying some sort of rule-based or flowchart-based approach to their names is mechanical and artificial.
Not only that, but developing a diverse cast of characters based on what would essentially be a checkbox exercise, isn’t exactly progress, it’s lip service, and not at all how representation is supposed to work. I can hardly claim that my characters are people first when their identity came about out of their names, rather than the other way around.
While I don’t want my cast of characters to look like Game of Thrones, or, face it, most of Star Wars, I also don’t want to blunder into this thinking that I already know exactly what I’m doing. I’m terrified of making mistakes, but I’m more terrified of continuing to be part of the problem just for the reason that I don’t want to stick out my head. This preference to do this from the comfort of one’s own experience is what has allowed systemic problems to continue unabated for so long and let’s face it, the fact that I’m even in this position is already a sign of privilege.
So, perhaps the solution is to shut up and write it, and if I mess up, to shut up and right it.
On the scale of “plotters” versus “pantsers” – where plotters are those who rely on heavily outlining their stories before they proceed and pantsers are those that prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them – I am confessed plotter. In fact, my tendency to plot (or is that overplot?) sometimes needlessly delays my projects because I want everything to fall neatly into place first. That is not to say I’m on the extreme end of the scale either. I don’t need to labour over every single plot point, and my short stories mostly get away with a mental roadmap to how it’s supposed to progress. But both the novels I’m working on have started as paragraph-long chapter outlines, and some works are in my version of “development hell” because I’m not comfortable with moving forward until more pieces have fallen into place.
Something needs to be said in favour of being a pantser though. Even with those novels that started as full outlines, both in the writing and editing stage there was significant divergence that perhaps could have been cultivated better with no outline. In fact, some of the newly “off the script” scenes have become some of my favourites, and at least one beta reader agrees with me. As another example, one of the short stories I’m currently finishing up was born as what I thought was a fully-baked idea, but some shower time musings have produced a twist on the ending that I then ended up weaving back through the entire story. Now I’m wondering what is even the point of that story without the new ending – that fully-baked idea seems at best half-baked.
All this makes me wonder if this propensity to outline is more useful or detrimental to my writing. Given the amount of time I spend in the editing phase reworking the plot, and adding and deleting major scenes, is the inordinate amount of time I spend on outlining those scenes in the first place a waste of time? Would I be better served if I just used that time to jump into the writing, let the story take care of itself, and then make the same investment in the editing process that I do now? All food for thought.
I don’t think I’ll ever be, nor do I want to be, a full-on pantser. I can’t just start writing only to discover that the story is going nowhere. It may take a different route, or change its intended destination along the way, but it can’t leave the house without knowing where it’s supposed to end up. I’ve heard of authors, well-established authors, who get a spark of an idea and then just set out to write a book. And then these authors, who’ve written plenty of books in the past, reach the approximate quarter-way mark, realize it’s going nowhere, and just dump the idea altogether. I mean, I get abandoning a project when you realize it’s not quite what you intended, but to have no intention at all and then drop it because it never formed, the thought makes me shudder.
Though the high-risk life of a full-time pantser is decidedly not for me, I’ve been slowly disavowing my overcommitment to plotting. Just last year I decided that if I go the full plotter route, the sci-fi story that had been forming in my head for over a decade would never see the light of day, and since I never intended to be exclusively a genre writer, I thought I’d start releasing here as a serial with a much thinner long-term outline than I’m usually comfortable with. I’m also loosening my restrictions as to how much I edit-as-I-go – prefer to fix plot-related changes in the editing stages instead of constantly rewriting the first draft.
Being able to relax about structure is already paying dividends in the sense that I feel like the writing is growing organically instead of being pushed into some kind of mold by me. It’s kind of weird to think about – I’m the writer, shouldn’t the story follow exactly what I say? I’ve been learning that it’s not exactly the case. If anything, it’s been a historic weakness of my writing – where I want my work to “say” something and I sacrifice quality for the message and come off being preachy. I’ve written a bit about this phenomenon in my post about writing dialogues.
Sometimes though, the story bucks against this original intention, or ends up arriving at the same intention but in more subtle ways.
Recently, I experienced this on a chapter-level as I set out to write Chapter 4 of The Bloodlet Sun. I had only the vaguest idea of what was “supposed” to happen in the chapter – something that could hardly fill a page of writing. But instead of overtly planning all the character movements and dialogues, I tried to imagine myself in the setting, digging deep into the POV character for that chapter. Then I tried to set him in motion, and observe. Some writers say that’s all they need for their writing process – just peek into the room and write down everything that happens. I don’t quite have their powers of being able to drift into alternate words, but it’s the closest I’ve come.
I still had to ask leading questions. What’s the character’s general perception of their situation? What’s their current mood? What’s their primary worry? What’s their short-term and long-term goals? Have they spent too long in this particular setting, so should they keep moving? And so on.
Sure, there’s was a little poking around in the dark involved and a few times the chapter stalled and I had to come away and do something else. But eventually, the chapter grew its own conflict – it told me what the character tensions would be instead of me deciding what the particular tension was going to be.
At the risk of a little hyperbole I have to say it was a weird and exhilarating feeling. Like watching your child take their first steps after you’ve been carrying them around for their entire life. Or better yet, having that child grab you by the hand and lead you somewhere.
I’ve gained a lot out of the experience. Not the least of which is a little bit of confidence that I can write myself out of a wet paper bag. Writing is an art, and by and large, art has no rules, and neither should artists themselves. If you catch yourself that you have certain rigid rules or habits as a writer, perhaps it’s time to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you may find yourself better off for it.
If I can’t talk about acceptances, which I have been starved for, receiving my last bit of good news almost two years, then I will talk about rejections. Specifically, rejections that include a few kind words that make me think I might not be so bad at this and should keep trying.
A couple of days ago, I received a standard Submittable rejection for one of my genre stories (fantasy? Magic realism? I’ve no clue, but I would put in the same bucket as my previously published “Ursa Major”). In any case, the editor of this particular journal decided to add a post scriptum to the email calling the main conflict in the story a bit vague, and suggesting that some rich world building was being crammed into story that yearns to be something else.
On the face of it, a rejection is still a rejection – there’s no success and no publication at the end of the day. But this is a silly and bleak way of looking at things, and I refuse to do that.
What I found here is two things to be happy about. The first is feedback. Almost any feedback is good feedback, and especially so for feedback that comes from an editor – someone who is steeped in the literary world and likely reading dozens if not more of these stories per week. It’s understandable that individual comments on each manuscript read are impossible, so consider that there was something about the story that caught their eye and motivated them to spend a bit of extra time to offer their opinion. Presumably the editor thought that it worth the effort to offer a helping hand to improve my writing. I choose to believe that it means the editor thought that my writing was worth improving. I think it’s great to walk away with this from a rejection – whether I use this to improve this specific story or the next one I write, I come away richer for it.
The second thing to hold onto is the encouragement hidden in the critique. In about 3,500 words I was able to create a world that seems to be yearning to grow. While perhaps this particular narrative doesn’t work, there is an idea in it that would pique someone’s interest. Great writing is a marriage of skill and idea, and the idea side of things is where I believe my current weakness lies. So hearing someone allude to the fact that I’ve had an idea here that may flourish better in wider pastures makes me think that I might not be completely hopeless on that front.
It may not quite have been the news I wanted to get, but this rejection letter is as important to my writing journey as meeting arbitrary daily writing goals or whatever other kinds of measure of success we place on ourselves as writers.
So here’s a big thank you to this particular editor, and any other editor that had taken a few moments to write some feedback and criticism. You folks make sure the creative world keeps running.
I don’t know how many of my blog posts are spawned from Twitter discussions (arguments? petty slap fights?) but let’s hope it’s less than I think.
This particular one stems from a recent Emma Watson interview where, when talking about turning thirty and being single, she described herself as being “self-partnered”.
Much like the creation of the universe had made people very angry, so it goes whenever a strong female voice expresses any independent thought or opinion and *gasp* dares suggest that she’s doing just fine being single. All manner of vermin are suddenly roused from their damp and murky dens to crawl onto social media in an attempt to remind the world of the superiority of their limp and pale appendages.
One such fellow caught my attention as I was scrolling through my feed. He chose to tweet at both Emma Watson, and at writer and current Chair of the NYC Mayor’s Fund, Chirlane McCray, who expressed support for Watson’s choice of words. And the important message he wanted to communicate to two people who accomplish more before breakfast than he does in a year, is that they don’t know the meaning of the word “partner”. Everyone, stop the presses, this man knows what a word means.
A commitment to misogyny, and a commitment is the only way to describe this person’s Twitter feed, reminiscent of the commitment shown by the rats to sinking Titanic, is difficult to break. But this person wasn’t just committed to a single line of outmoded narrow-minded thinking. This guy was also a prescriptivist. Or more accurately, he used prescriptivism as a platform for his misogyny, because let’s face it, this isn’t going to be someone who complains too much that “covfefe” is not a word.
When called out on his mansplaining, he double, triple, and quadrupled down leaving me with an image of a skinny guy at a hot dog eating competition. I was presented with a Googled dictionary definition of “partner” with the snarky comment about how that’s just English 101. Not sure which English class he’d taken where students are merely beaten with a dictionary for the entirety of the lesson, so maybe some sympathy on my part was in order.
Whatever childhood trauma causes the affliction, prescriptivists see language as a set of rigid rules that must be adhered to. Anything that does not fit into a prescriptivist’s neat definition of what language should be is chocked up to ignorance, or worse yet – innovation. You see, a prescriptivist’s mind is incapable of comprehending speech that isn’t robotically like their own.
They’re the ones who will happily, and incorrectly, remind you that “literally” has never meant “figuratively” and never will – the lowest hanging fruit of grammatical nitpickiness. In fact, it’s not even low hanging – it’s fruit that’s been on the ground so long that it has fermented and anyone who partakes of it because so inebriated that everyone around them is rendered uncomfortable and in want of more pleasant company.
Prescriptivists are the ones who are horrified at the prospect of “alot" becoming a word, even though “alright” and “already” exist. “Ain’t” is an affront to good manners and slang that isn’t so old that even grandpa has starting using it unironically at the Thanksgiving table is evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of youth these dates. Two hundred years ago, they fainted at Canadian colonists using “fix” instead of “mend” and “store” instead of “shop” and probably strongly considered dismantling the Empire just to preserve the Queen’s English. These days, they get flustered by the mere suggestion that they ought to use pronouns based on the preference of the people they’re referring to, and not their own sense of linguistic intractability.
So how did my prescriptivist dictionary-quoting English-101-invoking friend respond to a gentle reminder that English 101 fan-favourite William Shakespeare left his mark making up words or using them in novel ways? Here is where he trudged out the vague specter of philosophy – an internet argument’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife comprised entirely of corkscrews. Philosophy, in this case, required recognizing a difference between “organic” and “contrived”. When pressed again whether not to “coin” a term is a contrivance and its general acceptance is subsequently organic, the point was deftly side-stepped, Bill Shakespeare resoundingly ignored.
If you’re having trouble following the logic here, it’s because there is none. I believe the message was loud and clear – men are innovators, women are wrong. And yes, he did actually include the word “wrong” as an emphatic one-word sentence in our communications. If there was any remaining doubt who the global champion of these abhorrent opinions is, here’s the evidence you need. Who else feels like they need a shower at this point?
And here lies the more insidious aspect of prescriptivism – its shameful use as a tool to denigrate linguistic minorities. If one single WASPish version of English is the correct one, then everyone else is wrong, and by extension, inferior. The destruction of language has been a favourite tool of colonists for hundreds of years and this is little different – cultural vernacular or even gender differences in word usage could be relegated to deviations from an arbitrary norm. Unprincipled application of prescriptivism allows for Shakespeare to be celebrated as a visionary and for Emma Watson, despite her successes and education, to be ridiculed for not knowing what simple words mean.
Prescriptivism has little place in society, except perhaps as a foil to the increasing speed with which language changes in the digital age. There is even less space for it in creative writing. The facetious retort to that could be that I’m advocating an abandonment of all norms to the point where meaning itself would become meaningless, but that is a cowardly attitude. What I’m advocating for is to move quickly through the first stage of “learn the rules first, then break them”. As someone who grew up with a different language, I believe I have a good window into seeing the flexibilities in English – its potential rather than its current state. This leads me to experimenting, which I love to do, and sometimes this results in misses, but other times I can offer an interesting twist on an existing word or phrase. Why limit yourself? Why not strive to be innovators?
Break down the rigid barriers of “proper writing” with your own craft, and help open doors that are being so stubbornly closed by others.
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.