Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I think I’m starting to lose my mind.
I’ve been with my current novel a long time. You can read about it’s more detailed history here if you’d like, but long story short, I started writing it more than a decade ago and the first draft was finished about five years ago. That’s five years of editing that I have poured into this thing, and I’m having a hard time figuring out where I go from here.
My first draft wasn’t great. Even my wife said so which really probably means that my first draft was much closer to a steaming pile of crap than I would have hoped. That said, I’ve been banging away at it for years since, sometimes crossing out entire paragraphs and pages, adding new chapters, and heavily revising everything in between. If I had to estimate, I would say at least half of the original novel had been binned entirely, while the rest has been revised, reduced, chopped up and rearranged.
It’s not the novel that formed my first draft. But is it good enough?
I’m familiar with the feeling of never being quite satisfied with your own work. The saying goes that an artist should always be one’s harshest critic and never happy with the work produced. I think that last part is taking the general advice too far – not sure how good it is for your mental health to never be happy with your craft. If you’re not happy with your craft, then really what’s the point? Yes, it works for some people to fully assume the role of tortured artist, but for most of us, you have to draw the line somewhere and be satisfied.
Problem with this particular work for me is I’ve been with it too long, and it’s been with me through pretty much my entire growth as a writer. I’m miles ahead of where I was when I first started writing it, and there’s still shades of that old author that can be found throughout that book. I’ve tried my best to purge it, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if I think someone is a good idea or sentence because it’s actually good or because it’s been with me so long that I can’t let it go.
All I know is I’m getting close. Maybe not to the sense of satisfaction I yearn for but at least that cutoff where I say that it’s the best it’ll ever be and I should repurpose all my energies that I’m still putting into this project into something else.
Where I’m losing my mind is I’m not quite sure how to get there. Should I still be adding more chapters, doing major cuts and moving things around? Or should I focus on polishing my prose by micromanaging my word choices? This week, I’ve decided to focus on the latter.
I opened up my spreadsheet that helps me track my editing efforts and went to what I lovingly refer to as my “shit list” – the list of words that are either week or overused. Examples include ‘like’, ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘know/knew’ and ‘feel/felt’. Words that don’t necessarily need to completely not exist in my writing, but those I could use less of.
Earlier edits would simply highlight the words throughout the text and I would edit them out as I go, but this time, my approach is more methodical and far more mind-numbing. I’m going through each word in the list and then using Ctrl+F to find each instance, spending some time to figure out if it’s a candidate for deletion, revision, or keeping around. Going through two hundred instances of the word ‘like’ in a 70K word manuscript is probably the least glamorous thing I’ve done as a writer. It hurts not just for its tedium but also not being fully convinced that I’m actually accomplishing something.
It doesn’t matter how well it’s written if it’s just not good.
Yet these are the depths I’ve descended to with Wake the Drowned. It’s my first novel – the first amongst many that have drowned before reaching the end of the first draft. I feel like I owe something to this accomplishment – to sink my absolute most into a story that has become so intimate to me, and not just because of how long we’ve been together. Maybe I’ll get completely sick of it before I finish editing and it will go into that dusty drawer of “also rans”.
Whatever happens at the end, I’m sure I can mine enough lessons learned from the project to fill many my blog entries. And heck, maybe I’ll actually learn something while I’m at it.
Time to share a success story! Spoiler alert: it’s a pretty tiny milestone, but when you’re a writer that barely has one foot off the ground floor, I think it’s important to focus on the little things. As I’ve mentioned recently, I started posting my science fiction (space opera or science fantasy, labels are so passé) web novel The Bloodlet Sun, on Royal Road on the same release schedule as I do here. And now over the weekend, The Bloodlet Sun reached ten followers there. To put that in context, the best fictions on RR have followers in the low thousands. For further context though, how many fictions have no followers at all?
For those of you unfamiliar with Royal Road, following a fiction is essentially just saving it as a bookmark, which, again, doesn’t seem like much, but it’s crucial to look on the bright side of things. Don’t see it as “just” a click on the “Follow” button. See it as someone who read your work, and found something in there that was worth spending more time on. That’s how I choose to see it, which makes that round little number that much more exciting. Also exciting then are the two people who chose to click the “Favourite” button, therefore showing that in their mind my work is at least somewhat elevated above the others things they read.
I feel like, when it comes to little rays of sunshine in your writing, you have to sweat the small stuff. You deal with so much criticism, constructive or otherwise, and so many rejections for a craft that is deeply personal. It’s like taking your heart out from your body, where it has the protection of your sternum and ribcage, and putting out for the world to handle. A world that frequently ignores the “Caution: Fragile” label. So when it comes to the negative stuff, sometimes it’s in your face, hard to ignore and easy to internalize.
Which is why successes, no matter how small, are a precious thing that require all your attention. They’re good for your motivation and even more importantly, they’re good for your mental health. Plus, if you choose to put them all together into a single mental reel, then you’ll be better able to see your worth as a writer above all that noise.
Not only that, but successes snowball. Sure, I have ten followers now, and sure, that might be the only ten followers I ever have. But that’s for the universe to decide, not for me to dwell on. Those ten followers could be the first ten followers out of that coveted thousand, or two thousand. That’s how I will choose to see them. If someone else chooses to think it’s not a big deal and thinks that I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill then guess what, every mountain starts with a molehill and I’ve still got a bucket and a shovel.
If my writing projects are any indication, when I’m presented with something shiny I get easily distracted. Apparently the same goes for my bullet journals. I’ve talked about my bullet journaling once in a while – first describing my main bujo and then highlighting some of its specific entries. I had been using my current one for four years, with different logs coming and going, but my writing logs being my favourite ones since they play a large part in my writing tracking and motivation.
Now comes this past Christmas, and my best friend gifts me a gorgeous new bullet journal, with a rich velvety cover.
Naturally, when presented with a new bujo, one must find a way to utilize it immediately (please don’t tell the several pristine journals sitting in my closet), so I decided to break away my writing trackers, and make this new one exclusively a writing bujo. My previous tracker called “10,000 Hours”, which tracks progress per project and ancillary activity, and “Wordsmithing” which is a heat map of daily word counts, will now live in this new journal.
The migration of the two trackers also allows me to switch things up a bit as I start afresh. Here’s the new entry, sadly with no room available for the title:
The main difference with this one is I took this opportunity to expand the number of columns. In my previous bujo, it had to share space with many trackers, whereas here, it would take up the majority of the journal. This gave me the space to add additional columns such as “promotion” which is when I do something that expands my online profile. It also gives me a buffer to be able to add new projects as well, given that I will keep a constant three months per two-page spread ratio. The intent is to be able to use this bujo for a full decade, and I wanted to make sure when I was adapting this tracker that it would be relatively future-proof.
The changes to the Words Per Day tracker is also largely informed by future-proofing. The two major changes here were expanding the number of word ranges represented by separate colours, and changing the colours themselves. The colour changes are relatively self-explanatory, with the added task of making sure each square is more easily identifiable.
I noticed in the last iteration that the purple blended in with the blue and was nearly impossible to spot. So I played around on the last page of the journal to preview the colour contrast and came up with this new heatmap.
Now here’s where the future-proofing comes in – previously, the highest category was over 2000 words per day and now I’ve split this off into three: 2,000 – 2,999, 3,000 – 4,999 and over 5,000. These new thresholds are very ambitious, considering that I have written over 2,000 words in a day only a couple of times in the last few years. But I intend for this journal to last twelve years, and the fool’s hope is that at some point during this time period I could get to the point where I’m able to occasionally write over 5,000 words in a single day.
Thank you for indulging me in my little bujo rant. I hope the few of you that are here because of bullet journal entries enjoyed it. And for the writers out there, if you hadn’t seen my trackers until now, hope some of you have gotten ideas for your own way of tracking productivity.
A few months ago, I came on here to extoll the virtues of bolstering your writing with Google Street View – sinking into the locales you want to write about without having to actually be present there. I also said that there are limitations to this method, as one never quite gets the feel for a place through static images. In my case, I had been using it for walkabouts of Moscow and reminding myself of places I hadn’t visited in more than twenty years, using Street View more to document changes and to jog my memories.
The plot of the same novel that required descriptions of Moscow has now moved beyond the city limits, following the route from the city to the remote village in the Russian countryside where my great grandfather spent the last years of his life. I’ve been using Google Street View to not only reconstruct the actual route there (I remembered certain population centres along the way, but would not have been actually able to wayfinding without technological assistance) but also to take snapshots of what it looked like along the way in order to provide richer descriptions.
I’m not entirely sure yet how this will shake out in a final draft – creating a detailed play-by-play of a four-hundred kilometre drive through the countryside may work in a different kind of novel, but in this book, it would just grind the pace to a halt. So what I had been doing initially is retracing the route, noting anything interesting, then combining the snapshots into single descriptions – sometimes from two or three locations at a time – and then throwing these into my first draft. The goal would then to go through it during an edit and then try to strike that balance between not overburdening the reader and providing the right kind of description and atmosphere that I want to invoke.
This is a perfect illustration of why I’m glad I ditched editing-on-the-go. It would be such a waste of time to figure this out without the context of seeing how it fits in the overall work and how it affects the overall flow. Before, I would make sure to clean up the descriptions into a neat few paragraphs before moving on – and then probably having to go through it again on subsequent edits.
Not to say that I’ve completely embraced unfiltered verbal spew. This was never the ultimate goal and in the end I think would make the editing process a bit overwhelming. So there’s still sometimes dialogue or descriptions that I polish off to a certain degree of satisfaction before including them even in the first draft. But generally throwing words down and moving on is so liberating.
The trip through the Russian countryside presented an additional challenge that I should have expected. The country retreat, if it can be described like that when there was no central heating or plumbing, as close to rustic living as one could get in 90s Russia, is the one thing I’m so nostalgic for about Russia that it almost manifests in physical pain if I think about it too much. It occupies such a dear place in my heart that I’ve had nightmares of finding it demolished, or more absurdly, replaced with a theme park. For this reason, the choice to set part of my novel in the village of Komkino is an exercise in self-torture.
Whether it’s the birch forests, the quaint villages of no more than two dozen houses made of dark grey wood, or rutted muddy country roads, each is a small piece of my childhood that now seems unreachable. I know the area has changed in the twenty years since I’ve been there. More and more homes are being converted to dachas, pushing out the year-round residents, who are likely coalescing in the towns. In a way, I’m fortunate that the village itself and its immediate surroundings aren’t actually available in Street View, otherwise I would have spent hours examining every square inch of familiar locations or else find myself awash in heartache at seeing what’s different.
Best I can hope from this exercise is to use Street View to augment my own memories and present to the reader a slice of a place that is very important to me. Whether it will seem like an unnecessary detour in the novel remains to be seen.
Sometimes my past writing decisions make me scratch my head and wonder why I insist on doing this to myself.
Alright, I get it, as The Bloodlet Sun was ramping up last summer before its release in September, I had to give it undue attention in order to fill up my buffer. I can respect that. I can also understand that because of this redistribution of time, I sidelined my goal of churning out two new revisions for my novel. I even, under different circumstances, would have understood not even finishing that first revision, especially since we then had a baby and it took me a while to get back into my writing routine.
What I refuse to understand, as I finally pick up my Wake the Drowned again to see if I can take a crack at one more revision before going on the attempted publication journey, is abandoning that revision with three(!) pages left. Seriously, between the three pages left to edit on physical paper and a dozen pages left to input into my digital version, this is, at best, forty minutes of work. Forty minutes! When I had like five months in the year that I could have done it.
So instead of putting a tidy ribbon on one revision, stewing on it for half a year, and coming back to it with a fresh approach, I have to deal with this scrawny little tail end of my work, shake it off and dive right back in. So naturally instead of just getting it over with, I’m letting the daunting task of my next revision weigh on me, scaring me away from finishing the last few pages, even though this particular task is so small and discreet.
I know I come in here saying that writers shouldn’t see themselves as some special tortured souls for their writing. Yes, we share some common traits and there’s no shame in that but doubling down on it just seems exclusionary. And I know it sounds like this is what I’m doing right now, but it’s really just an example of my own neuroses translating to my writing work. I personally also find it ridiculous and a colossal waste of my time.
I know in the end, I’ll tear this Band-Aid off at some point. Right now, I’m constructively procrastinating by pulling up a short story that I started writing a couple of years before the pandemic started but that touches on themes of quarantine and giving it some final edits using lessons learned from the actual quarantine we’ve all experienced. Not a waste of time by any means, but still not the thing I need to be working on to clear the logjam that’s been preventing me from putting the finishes touches on this novel and finally letting it rest.
So I’ll just say this one was a lesson learned – procrastination now can only lead to worse procrastination later. Sounds like a tidy morale, but knowing how easily I get distracted from project to project, let’s see if this one has any chance of sticking.
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.
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.