Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I often find that being a writer is a game that involves a carrot and two sticks. One stick dangles a carrot in front of you, the carrot being complete and utter satisfaction with your finished product. And the other stick is self-doubt which flagellates you as you hobble along towards the carrot you vainly try to convince yourself is pointless to reach. Anyway, that was the obligatory woe-is-me artist rant with a further obligatory disclaimer that I don’t think every writer is destined to think their writing is garbage, but we’ll never expect our writing to be perfect, which is fine, because that’s the carrot that takes us to our ultimate destination.
In an earlier entry, I described some ways in which I keep myself motivated to keep writing. In this entry, I want to talk a bit about one of the tools I use to get myself to improve that writing, and that tool is word clouds. My preferred online word cloud tool is WordItOut, but feel free to find your favourite.
There’s two ways in which word clouds could potentially help you, though one of them is less useful for longer pieces.
The first, is trying to see if you’ve used any unusual words more frequently than you intended and as a result lessened their impact. For example, I read a history book a couple of years ago where I found the word “embryonic” used three times within a hundred pages to refer to a fledgling political movement. The first time it was a neat way to describe it. The third time felt like someone’s thesaurus malfunctioned.
The way you can avoid this problem with a word cloud is throw your text in, and then study the words that appear at the bottom when sort by frequency. That way you can pinpoint the impactful words whose use short be minimized. Of course, the longer your work is, the more words you have in that low range, so it might be a tonne of work with little payoff. But try it anyway to see if there’s maybe words you really like, but whose use you should spare. Yes, it will be painful to do, but overall your writing will have more punch.
The second method I’ve come to use for all my writing is using the word cloud to visualize which common words I overuse, and then track the progress I make in freeing myself from them. For example, check out this word cloud from the first draft of a story about the interaction between two Russian schoolchildren.
That “about” sits there pretty heavily in the dead centre of the generated cloud. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with using the word ‘about’ – it’s a useful word, but if it’s appearing in a story so much that it takes centre stage here, then it has become a crutch word or a “junk” word. It’s the kind of word that doesn’t by itself detract from your writing, but if you challenge yourself to reduce its frequency, you may finds yourself writing simple things in more creative ways.
Same with that “like” hanging out in the top right corner. A very useful word for similes, but its heightened frequency could mean either that your writing is turning into simile soup or that you need to look for different ways to introduce comparisons. For instance “he was angry like a raging inferno” could be “he was a raging inferno”; “ash landed like snowflakes on the pond” can be “snowflakes of ash landed on the pond”, and so on. I’ve once read a page of my writing that had four “like” similes across four paragraphs. Believe me, by the third instance, your eye notices it, and the writing no longer sounds polished.
Mind you, I don’t mean that these words have no place in your writing. On the contrary, eliminating all use of them would be both burdensome and risks making your writing gimmicky. These are simply words that require a second look, and sometimes you’d be surprised by the results.
Nor does every large word in a word cloud require a second look. While I eliminate most character names and other plot-heavy words to clean up the word cloud, sometimes you’re left with something like the following word cloud of a sci-fi story about a human writer in an alien publishing business.
“Yes” sits here like a Christmas tree topper, looking completely out of place. But then I realize that one of the characters in the story has a very peculiar way of talking that relies on repeated uses of the word “yes”. I made sure I wasn’t using it so heavily that it might annoy a reader, but I certainly wasn’t going to cut down its usage in half to achieve some artificial goal.
Same goes for “human” in the same word cloud. However, “through” did catch my eye. Apparently a lot of the movement in the story was “through” something, and I’d figure I’d make the movements a bit more varied, or eliminate it altogether where the description of movement didn’t add anything to the story.
So how do I actually get to the result I want here? Let’s take a world cloud from an early draft of a short story about parallel universes and the local housing crisis (name me a more iconic duo …).
I particularly like this example because it highlights some of my archnemeses: “like” (dead centre), “just” (bottom right) and “only” (bottom left). These have been my junk words since I started this word cloud strategy a few years ago.
So what I do after I generate the word cloud is I open my Word document, and use the “Replace” function. Except instead of replacing the word itself I got to the “More” tab and then “Format” and then select “highlight”. By putting in “just” in the “Find what” field and “just” with highlight in the “Replace with” field, every instance of “just” in the story is now highlighted. I go through the list of my words, doing around 6 or 7 of the top ones to not clutter the writing with highlighted words, and then print it off.
Now that the fugitive words have been highlighted, I notice them more during my editing, and eliminate them where I can. After I finish the next draft, I repeat the process. Sometimes the same words are in the top seven, so it’s a similar deal. Sometimes another word sneaks to the top and now they’re on the hit list.
Keep doing this until you’re satisfied with the draft, and then behold, the word cloud for the final draft of the same short story.
In hindsight, I should have eliminated “Glenn” from the earlier wordlist, but even then, you can see the results. “Like” which is in the bottom centre, has shrunk. “Only”, which is now in the bottom left corner, is considerably smaller. And “just”, which is hiding above “like” is no longer even remotely significant. I don’t know what it is with me and that word. Maybe it’s a quirk of my way of talking but it tends to seriously clutter my writing. When I edit, I find that the majority of its appearances can be deleted without editing anything around it, so I’m pretty ruthless.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that between the two clouds “think” and “know” have moved in, and I definitely had those words on my list during later drafts, but sometimes you do have to call it a day.
And you know what the best part about this process is? I know I mentioned “just” as my biggest Achilles heel, but take a look at the first two clouds in this entry. “Just” is not a significant word there despite these being clouds of first drafts. By continuously drawing my attention to those words, I am naturally eliminating them from my writing. I don’t slave away trying to find better ways of saying something without using that word, but rather, I have a decreased urge to write it in the first place.
So that’s my bit of advice to you. It certainly won’t make or break your writing, but I found it a very useful tool, and I hope you will too.
I’m flying pretty high right now. I received some good news on the eve of my first week off in eight months and that is that my short story, Ursa Major, got posted on the Passages North bonus content website. I’ve shared the news of its acceptance in an earlier post, but now it’s become a reality so I wanted to let you guys know that you can read the whole thing here.
Once again, a big thank you to the folks at Passages North who saw something in my story and decided to share it with the world. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.
I recommend reading the story before you move on with this entry, as I’m about to write about my writing, which will either be the really easy, or I’m about to have regrets.
Firstly, I want to say, I have no idea how this whole thing started. This is probably the most unusual of my stories, but looking at Nightfalls, the other story that’s scheduled to be published in December, it’s perhaps not entirely out of character. Just one day I happened to be brainstorming and thought of the first line in a form quite similar to the final version. What if someone had an appointment with a bear?
The next natural question was of course why would someone have an appointment with a bear? No, scratch that. My first thought was whether I was losing my mind, and when I reasonably concluded that I was probably still sane, that’s when I went deeper into the story.
The next inspiration came from Babylon 5, my favourite sci-fi television show whose praises I have sung before and will sing again at any given opportunity. Very early in the series, a character named Londo Mollari of the Centauri claims that his people have recurring dreams of their death, and G’Kar, one of the other main characters in the show, was the man he always dreamed would choke the life out of him. If you want to find out more, better watch the series, but I won’t spoil it here. It was just such a delicious plot device to examine choice and destiny, it seemed perfect for a story where a pre-scheduled meeting can be arranged with a wild animal. There’s one more very subtle B5 reference in there. Let me know if you can spot it.
So with the first line and that element in place, the story kind of rolled along. But it’s a prime example of never shying away from seeking inspiration wherever you can find it. The layout of the cabin in my mind was mostly based on this vacation home in Egmont, British Columbia where we hosted my best friend’s bachelor party. The childhood dream sequence was based on the first nightmare I can remember, except there the villain was a wolf (there’s a Russian lullaby that very nonchalantly tells you not to sleep on the edge of a bed or a grey wolf will chomp on your side. Thanks for that, motherland). And that bit where the narrator bites his own arm to fool the bear into thinking he tasted gross, was based on my own night-time ingenuity, except it actually worked while dream-me smirked: “Stupid bear; I’m delicious.”
As much as the mostly nonsensical narrative was fun to write, before it was done I had a pretty good idea of what it was about. And I decided to double down on my interpretation, trying to hammer the point home like a screw. By the time the first draft was done, it was about 25% longer than the final product. It didn’t feel right. So don’t worry, it never does. It’s okay to question your writing because sometimes you produce a block of misshapen stone. But that sculpture is still hiding somewhere inside.
So I trimmed all the parts where I thought I was beating my reader over the head with what I was trying to say. Philosophical thoughts that perhaps sounded good on their own (or horribly pretentious, I guess we’ll never know since into the dustbin they went) sounded shoehorned-in when read in context.
So off I went, murdering my darlings without shame until arriving almost at the version that you now see.
But something still didn’t feel right. Like a picture hung on the wall that’s stubbornly askew. And so it sat, in a form that I thought was final, for a few weeks, with me occasionally reading the last couple of paragraphs trying to figure out not only what it was missing, but what it ultimately was trying to say. The theme was there in my head from early on, but not its essence. Like many of my readers, I too was confronted by a work that just came out me and offered no explanation and apology. It was a different sort of feeling. Normally I’d set out on my writing with a goal in mind and tailor it to that goal. But this was different. The writing came first, and the goal one day just clicked into place.
I can’t tell you how I figured it out, mostly because I don’t want to tell you what “it” was. I’ve got my own interpretation and I think most interpretations are as legitimate as mine, unless completely antithetical to my writing. In any case, I arrived at my own personal version of what the ending was about, and realized that I needed one final brushstroke to bring it completely in line with that vision.
And thus the penultimate paragraph was formed and sealed the oddest tale I have spun to date.
I’ve had people tell me the story made them laugh, others who said it made them pause. Others still who rightfully chastised me for sending them into the dictionary – my vocabulary here was admittedly self-indulgent. It’s been really cool to see people react to my writing. It’s one of the reason why I write, not just for the pleasure of it but to see the effect it has on people.
It’s like being in a relationship and feeling your partner’s body react to your touch. I feel a similar intimate emotion when others comment on my writing. So I hope Ursa Major had an effect on you, whatever that might be.
There are constantly shifting periods within my life that my wife lovingly calls “side-projects” but most of which she wants to call “What the hell are you even doing you’re a grown ass-man.” This is why I married someone who knew me in high school, because if she could like me through that, she would be able to handle anything. These side projects are as varied as they are ill-advised. For instance, for three years, I drew a webcomic (it was terrible and needs to be burned with fire but I had fun). Or how about that time I built a little house with popsicles, carpenter glue, and a pocket knife, and used our clunky second-hand CRT television as a work bench?
These little flights of fancy stick to me too easily, so it’s no surprise that when my wife and her sister were one evening going on and on about bullet journaling, my ears pricked up.
Graphs are an obsession of mine. If there’s anything that I learned in high school that came to any use in my later life it would be learning to use Excel in Ms. Hubbard’s Info Tech class. Whether it’s our car’s mileage, the success of national hockey teams or my words per day output since 2005, there is a chart or graph on my computer that covers it.
So when I found out that someone invented a paper journal (despite my affinity for Excel, I am still a sucker for physical media) whose dot pattern could help track a bunch of my goals and habits, I hit up our local bookstore and impulsively bought the only one that was available at the time, despite its slightly nauseating colour and the fact that the entire lineup appeared in the same store only a couple of weeks later.
My entry into the world of bullet journaling also coincided with an important life milestone. Despite my best efforts and pleas that had fallen on deaf ears, I was turning 30. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the way I handled my 20s, but I was determined to “Do my 30s right”, and if I could track sleeping, eating, exercise, language learning, productivity and a bunch of other crap found in self-help seminars, and put it in a neat little notebook, well then there was something right with the universe.
For those of you that are familiar with certain aspects of bullet journaling, you’re probably asking: “But Michael, you can’t draw for crap, what the hell are you doing getting into the girly art of bullet journaling?”
Firstly, I resent that first accusation. I’ll have you know that my stick people have the most intense expressions. Just look at this son of a bitch over here, judging you silently (may have been a product of 5 hours of intense sketching.
And secondly, there is nothing inherent to bullet journaling that requires artistic flourishes or stickers. Outdated gender norms aside, there is nothing preventing anyone from becoming a bullet journal enthusiast. I mean, sure, did I immediately go to Michael’s and buy a set of 20 Staedtler coloured pens? And did I update my hideously overpriced Micron pen collection? Maybe. But I didn’t need to do any of these things. I could just as well have pulled out a Bic pen and set to putting my bullet journal entries together.
So, what exactly went into the goal of doing my thirties right? With two young kids, one of whom was five months old at the time, it comes as no surprise that sleep was an important factor. Kids will eat away at enough if it without any effort on your part, so I figured I could tackle getting to bed on time easily. It’s not the easiest thing to do to go from 12:30 am bedtimes on weekdays and 2:30am on weekends only four years ago, to desperately trying to get to bed before 11:00 pm every day just so you wake up a semi-functional human being. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not whining. Kids are the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life. But they take their toll, and I needed to track to make sure I wasn’t exacerbating the problem.
Okay, given how that went, perhaps that wasn’t the best example to lead with. Another endeavor that I started to immediately track was my feeble attempts at learning Spanish through apps and reading literature I don’t understand. I recognize my failure as a Canadian in my inability to speak fluent French and then hopping on to trying to learn another language. But I will blame my teachers for compromising my love for the French language and my eternal fascination with Cuba for my attraction to Spanish. I put together an entry that tracks my use of the Memrise and Duolingo apps and whether I read or listen to any Spanish that day. As you can see from the tracker below, my results have been streaky.
Here you have another entry that doesn’t show the most stellar track record. But that’s the beauty of it. Even if I hit my lows or my busy periods, the fact that I’m still tracking this keeps pulling me back, and I’ve never fully given up on my goals. That’s kind of what I discovered on this journey, there’s only so many hours in a day, so there’s only so much you can do. Requiring perfection from yourself is about as unfair as requiring perfection from others, but as long as you keep trying at least the journey would be fun.
So now you’re thinking, “Thanks Michael, I don’t need a journal to tell me I don’t sleep and for my own sanity’s sake I won’t track my caffeine intake. So how will this help me in my writing?” Ah, there’s another advantage to bullet journals – you’re only limited by your imagination. Anything you want can be tracked, if you’re brave enough.
Take this spread here, which tracks my general types of writing output. This hits on everything from novels, to blog posts to time taken for my publication efforts. Even my hesitant forays into poetry are tracked here. Sometimes it’s hard to see what we’ve done, especially when jumping from project to project without taking anything to completion. But here I can quickly see where my time goes, and be assured that I’m putting in my hours to chip away at the coveted 10,000. Not a magic number, necessarily, but I thought it would be nice to take inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he talks about how most experts at something tend to clock at least 10,000 hours in that activity. It's also a pretty sweet Macklemore song.
And that’s not the only writing-related bullet journal entry that I have. Since about 2005 I have been tracking, on-and-off, my writing output in terms of words per day. I know some people feel that this turns writing into a chore, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why I would stop for long stretches at a time. But I found over the last couple of years that now it aids in motivation, and going back at the end of the month and seeing production in graphic form encapsulates what I had done nicely. So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to do this in bullet journal form, where I would track the days using colour-coding based on how many words I wrote, with a little legend on the side to help me remember what the colours mean.
As you can see there is a significant bite taken out of the middle of 2017, and I elaborate on this a little bit in an earlier blog entry. But aside from that stumble, I think it’s pretty neat. You can easily see how 2018 has been significantly more productive than 2017, due to several factors of maintaining a good streak, having a variety of projects, and being in a good general state of productivity since November 2017, which again is covered in said blog entry. I want more days to be in the blue rather than in the green, but with work and other commitments it’s tough to fit that much writing into my day.
So there you have it, a bit of an insight into one of the many things in my writing toolbox. I would encourage you to pick out a bullet journal of your own and see where it takes you, or otherwise find a way of tracking and visualizing your progress. But remember, steer clear of anything that will suck the joy out of your art. Track to write, not write to track.
Despite having written for a long time, half my current struggle is not my writing itself but rather how I write. The most recent battle has involved starting my next novel project. My first and currently incomplete novel had finished its first draft stage two years ago. Since then, it has undergone one massive revision and is currently going through its second one. Editing is its own kind of challenge and reward but it isn’t as fulfilling to me as putting new words on paper.
I have been able to satisfy my appetite with a few short stories in the meantime, but I’m feeling about ready to launch into a new novel, and have spent months failing miserably at it. There’s close to a dozen ideas I’m itching to rip into, but I also have the approximate confidence of a field mouse staring down a parliament of owls.
So what’s the problem? And I mean, other than the fact that I think my plots are a snooze-fest, my characters are flat and my prose is self-indulgent? Well, the problem is that in my mind none of those novels feel like they exist. I see them as nebulas floating in the cavernous universe of my mind, and once I try to distill them into something tangible I get a few drops, not the roaring hot ball of a star.
The answer, according to my epiphany which like many of my epiphanies may turn out to be an episode of self-delusion, is outlining. I can’t not outline. And I hate it.
The answer, according to my epiphany which like many of my epiphanies may turn out to be an episode of self-delusion, is outlining. I can’t not outline. And I hate it.
But why hate it? Because like any writer, my mind latches on only to such evidence that can be used against me at times of insecurity. Take the following tweet from one of my most admired writers, J. Michael Straczynski, who played no small part in my childhood as the creator of Babylon 5 (seriously, free up your whole week and enjoy the ride if you can get your hands on this show):
Now here’s someone who has come up with one of the most brilliant multi-season arcs of a TV show telling me he avoids outlining because his characters act on their own accord. In my situation, on the other hand, I feel like my characters are comatose unless the plot drags them kicking and screaming into doing something interesting.
And then there’s an uplifting post on the New York Book Editors blog which gut punches you by telling you that “planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival” and that “the less you know before you start, the more you stand to uncover as you write.” So great, if I choose to outline, my novel will likely be a predictable limp fish that will likely be euthanized by discerning publishers.
And then there’s the description of “Macro Planners” by Orange Prize winning author Zadie Smith, who says you will recognizes a writer who plans and outlines excessively “from those Moleskines he insists on buying”. This seems needlessly personal:
So now that I’ve been officially relegated to a walking stereotype, why continue to rely on outlines? I certainly see merit in the argument that a robust outline takes some of the magic out of it – once plot elements and characterization has been summed up in bullet point form, it might feel like there’s nothing left to the process. Neil D’Silva went so far as to say that outlining “makes the writing formulaic and there’s no adventure left in it for me” So why do I insist on it?
Because I’m not sure if I’m able to write any other way. Let’s take my first novel for example. When I first starting putting it to paper, I set out to write a longish short story. About 8,000 words in, and having barely scratched the surface of the plot, I found myself staring at a project I hadn’t anticipated. It grew in spurts and starts, climbing approximately to 25,000 over the course of the next four years. Not exactly the most efficient pace, is it?
And then, I decided to outline the whole sucker. I spent a few brainstorming sessions laying out the chapters, arriving at approximately 20, with a whole fleshed-out paragraph for what was going to happen in that chapter. And that’s when the ball started really rolling. I was able to focus on my present writing but keeping an eye to the future and the past. Sometimes when I was stuck on a current chapter, but inspiration struck for a later scene, I would skip ahead and start writing that out. It was great insurance against writers block. I had reworked my initial summary significantly, but I feel like that’s what really got me to the finish line.
But that was just my first novel, right? Amateurish stuff where crutches are needed before I could learn how to be a proper writer? That’s what I assumed. So for my next project, I took an idea that had been percolating in my head for years – I had a vague plot outline for the work but it was entirely in my head. I thought it would be a great start. Over 5,000 words in and I’m convinced it needs to be burned with fire. Nothing has happened, the plot has barely trudged forward, and I personally want to strangle the main character to death.
But maybe I haven’t gotten deep enough. Maybe the issue is I had that outline in my head and it’s stifling my creativity. So I tried again from scratch. Now I took something that was only formulated as a vague idea and I was about to write it furiously. I stared at the page for a half hour. Nothing happened. Then I tried with a different idea, and nothing happened. So what the hell?
As writers, we’re all different, and we need to embrace those difference. Forget the hard and fast rules. The same Book Editors of New York piece also concedes that if outlines help get you started, you should keep them. And I think that part is key. The outline may be the skeleton of the work but the work itself should be organic. It should be a living creature that changes and evolves into something new. It could be a caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly but the blueprint for that butterfly was still contained in the caterpillar.
I will probably share my exact outlining process in a later blog post, but I can already tell you these can come in various shapes and sizes.
You can have a sheet full of bullet points that just keeps you on track. Or something that follows the rise and fall of all the plotlines to ensure they’re tied together. Or you can have an outline that sketches out the structure of the finished work in a very technical sense – a breakdown between three Acts, each occupying a certain percentage of the work (often 25/50/25), a major inciting incident, and the elegant sinusoidal curve of action that alternates between successes and failures.
A lot of great works can be broken down into this kind of structure, but then you’re faced with a chicken or egg problem – did we distill the structure out of great works with effective plot, or was there some kind of conscious or semi-conscious effort on the part of the authors to get their works there?
The important lesson I had to learn with outlines is that’s it’s okay to rely on them. And it’s okay to wing it. It’s okay to be the writer you’re comfortable with being, because in that blanket of comfort is where your creativity will flourish.
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.