Crutch Words – the Word Police

wikimedia commons: keystone cops

The Word Police are back at it, rapping on my door and handing out citations. I plea-bargained my way out of jail by agreeing to publically share some of my past transgressions. The hope is that other wayward writers will take heed and avoid my mistakes. Crutch Words is the first in a series of writing tips from the coppers.

What are Crutch words?

Crutch words are words that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence. They’re hollow words that we automatically insert and frequently don’t notice. We want our writing to be tight and sharp. Too many crutch words will slow down the pace and dull the impact.

An interesting thing about crutch words is that we often have favorites. You may never use some words from the list below and use others more than you want to admit!

As a condition of my parole, I provided examples of these sneaky words. And I remind you that it would be impossible to remove every one. Sometimes you need them (in which case they aren’t crutches at all). Simply be aware of yours and edit when appropriate.

Here’s a list of some common crutch words:

that, then, next, just, actually, really, still, yet, only, so, even, began, started, going to…

Below are some examples of these sneaky words used in sentences. Notice how they nothing to the meaning.

She missed all the targets he’d lined up for her.
She missed all the targets that he’d lined up for her.

He grabbed the towel hanging over the rail.
He grabbed the towel that hung over the rail.

Mary knelt in the garden, yanked on her gloves, and spent the day weeding.
Mary knelt in the garden, yanked on her gloves, and then spent the day weeding.

Burt finished his breakfast. He delivered the packages and stopped at the market.
Burt finished his breakfast. Next, he delivered the packages and stopped at the market.

I’m trying to push the boat from the dock.
I’m just trying to push the boat from the dock.

If he intended to use the knife, he’d need to sharpen it.
If he actually/really/still intended to use the knife, he’d need to sharpen it.

He didn’t know whether he’d attend the wedding.
He didn’t know yet whether he’d attend the wedding.

If she could read the sign, she’d know which way to turn.
If only she could read the sign, she’d know which way to turn.

Teenagers rarely wake up early.
Teenagers so rarely wake up early.

He tried to climb the tree, but couldn’t reach the first limb.
He tried to climb the tree, but couldn’t even reach the first limb.

I chatted with Betty as we walked down the path. The lake sparkled in the distance.
I chatted with Betty as we began/started to walk down the path. The lake sparkled in the distance.

This will be the best day to hunt for shells.
This is going to be the best day to hunt for shells.

Next from the Word Police: Vague Words.

Happy Writing!

8 Reasons to love a Ninny Rhino

I told my husband it’s time for a mini-WriMo.

A ninny rhino?

No, a mi-ni-wri-mo.

He lost interest at that point, but maybe you want to know more.

What is a Mini-WriMo?

I first heard the term Mini-WriMo years ago after nearly collapsing from exhaustion after a full-fledged NaNoWriMo. And since that mention, I do various versions of mini writing bursts throughout the year.

It’s basically a time-limited, personal challenge to focus on writing. The best part? You set your own goals based on what’s achievable for you and what you want to accomplish.

Why does it work?

1. Because it’s supremely flexible. What we write, how we write, and the needs of our projects are all different and constantly evolving. A mini-WriMo can be whatever you wish based on your goals.

2. You pick the time period – a week, two weeks, a month.

3. You decide on the measure – a certain number of words, a finished outline, completed character bios, or an hour of writing 3 times a week. Perhaps daily journaling to brainstorm ideas. You can write a paragraph a day, or give yourself editing or blogging goals. How about developing a marketing plan (something I’ve been meaning to do for 10 years!).

4. You can under-promise and overachieve. If you think you can consistently write 1K words a day, make your goal 500. If you go over, that’s just fine. You want to make your goal easy to accomplish.

5. No one needs to validate your efforts – you’re only accountable to yourself, your muse, and the writing gods.

6. It can loosen a block. If you’re feeling blocked, it forces you to write at least a little bit, and sometimes, that’s all it takes to get the keyboard clacking.

7. It’s “official!” You get to explain to your family your “official” and “very important” challenge that you committed to as well as your “critical” time requirements.  This is extremely helpful in my family. If I simply want to write, I don’t get the same kind of time and space as when I sigh and inform them that I’ve made an “official commitment.”

8. You get a badge – even for an attempt to meet your goals. Here it is for your downloading pleasure (pixabay images):

Why am I telling you this?

Because I’m tending to a Ninny Rhino for the month of March. Want to join in? At the end of the month, I’ll set up a post so we can all share our successes in the comments. 🙂

 

 

3 Fiction-Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

While some of us are pushing through the last week of Nanowrimo, noses to our keyboards, an editing-monster looms in our future, packing on problems like a glutton.

Kathy Wagoner wrote a great post clarifying three different writing terms that carry a lot of unwanted calories. These are often newbie problems, and I’ll confess that they gave my early writing serious indigestion. The good news is that after fixing them thousands of times (literally), I do a better job of avoiding them in the first place.

Are these important? Yes. All three of these can knock a reader out of the book or reduce a reader’s engagement by distancing them from the characters and story. For me, head-hopping will usually result in an unfinished read.

Even after years of vigilance, I still have to put my monster on the editing treadmill to trim away the fat and give my writing more muscle. Kathy did a thorough job of explaining the terms and providing examples. It’s worth clicking over for a look. 🙂

via 3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

Gardeners and Architects

I’m working on the outline for my new trilogy, and it’s not going well. Summer is such a distraction, isn’t it?! The muse is not amused. I dug this post out of the 2015 archives to give me some inspiration. I hope you enjoy it.

***

When I plunked down to write my first book, Myths of the Mirror, I was on a mission of discovery, led by the muse and sheer inspiration.

I had no plot in mind beyond a mental sketch of a couple things that could happen maybe sort of somehow. It was all incredibly vague, but what did I know? Nothing. I wrote like a woman obsessed, relishing every moment of my creative forage and traipsing along behind my characters down whatever path they chose to wander.

Halfway through my journey, a secondary character whom I was in the midst of killing off stood his ground. With the unwavering support of his companions, he argued that he should not only survive but should become a main character. “Oh, okay,” I said, and skedaddled back to the beginning of the book to start over. That happened a lot.

A year later, once every character had their say and did as they pleased, my masterpiece was almost 190,000 words long. Ta da! Ready to celebrate, I enlisted a few courageous readers.

Uh oh.

For the next two years, I peeled away words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters! Deleted. Recycled. 65,000+ words forever gone. I felt as though I’d been flayed.

Then an editor wielded a red pen and lopped off another 4,000. After all the anguish and suffering, I had to finally admit it – I had a much better book.

Nature-Multicolor-Flowers-Garden-Summer-Bees-Depth-HD-PhotoGeorge R. R. Martin separates writers into Gardeners and Architects. Gardeners are discovery writers, planting seeds and digging around in the dirt of writing because they can’t wait to see what grows. They thrive on a process that is full of surprises and let their stories develop organically. To them, outlines feel like straitjackets, stifling the natural unfurling of character and action.

images (22)At the other end of the spectrum, Martin’s architects are outliners. Structure is key. Charts, graphs, and spreadsheets abound. Every step is planned in advance: the story’s try/fail cycles are mapped, the hero’s journey arcs through its phases, the turning points and pinches are set in stone. For outliners, the steps of each plot and subplot form the stairwells in a skyscraper. An architect has an eye on the penthouse and knows how to get there.

awesome-tree-houses-to-live-in-plextm4bAfter my trials and tribulations as a gardener, I brushed off my hands and applied a bit of architecture to my stories. I wouldn’t say I engineer skyscrapers – that’s still too much concrete for me. In my mind, my method is more akin to building tree-houses, leaving plenty of space for nature and play.

I plot out the story’s threads and set the characters off on their journey, letting them be who they are. Occasionally we have to negotiate and backtrack, but overall they cooperate. It’s collaborative; they know their goals and I know mine.

My guess is that most authors engage in a little gardening while they construct their cottages, fortresses, and stone towers. Or they have a few fences to keep the growing things safe from rabbits. How do you bring stories to life? Are you a Gardener? An Architect? A builder of tree-houses?

The Word Police

keystone-kops-granger

I’m back from my break and it wasn’t all about relaxing. In fact, I spent a good deal of time in custody. This post is about 3 years old, but the Word Police continue to visit me every time a WIP starts throwing it’s weight around and threatening to take hostages. While I catch up on reading posts and replying to comments, I hope you enjoy this oldie, but goodie.

***

Your WIP is looking respectable. It kicks off with a barbed hook and wraps up with a big fish. You’ve plugged up the plot holes, got the dialog flowing, the pace humming, and planted Chekov’s gun on the mantel. The characters are consistent, motivated, and true to life. The structure can withstand a windstorm.

The time has arrived for a visit from the Word Police,
and they’re a humorless bunch.

This is Step 3 in my editing process, the epitome of tediousness, a procrastinator’s nightmare. This is when writing is unadulterated, grueling toil. It’s time for me to weed out all those lame words, wimpy verbs, and crutch words that add no value to my prose. They’re plain old polyester when I strive for silk.

We all tap ordinary words. This post brims with them. Sometimes they’re the perfect choice, and sometimes there’s no wriggling around them.  In dialog, where characterization drives dialect and word choice, an attempt to police your words could prove foolhardy.

Yet, on the whole, if we explore more colorful options, delete the meaningless fillers, and zero in on those “telling” indicators, our writing will grow richer and more compelling.

In my case, the Word Police handcuff me to my recliner for weeks on end, inject me with caffeine, and force me to use the “Find” function in Word until my eyeballs dry out and my brain shrivels. They know my lazy words well, those I’m oblivious to as they tiptoe into my WIP. For starters the Crutch-word Cops make me look up 561 “that’s.”

I look at thousands of words, one at a time. When I can, I switch them out, thin them, delete them, or rewrite them away…depending.

word-police

Here’s the full list (except for the ones I missed). Get to know your favorites and feel free to add a few!

Wimpy Verbs: was/were, has/had, have, be, been, could, got, did, put, needed, wanted, gave, took, saw, walked, ran, sat, liked, moved, looked, appeared, seemed, made, turned, came, went, became…

Crutch Words – fillers:  that, then, next, well, OK, just, actually, really, only, still, yet, since, perhaps, maybe, so, even, tried, began, started…

Vague Words:  very, quite, rather, more, almost, about, around, often, some, somehow, somewhat…

Lame Words: really, awesome, amazing, great, better, dark, sad/happy, cold/hot, fast/slow, old/new, big/small, bad/good, nice, fine, interesting, beautiful, wonderful, sexy, for a moment, a bit, a few, lots, someone, something …

Telling Words – thinking/explaining: knew, thought, suspected, remembered, believed, understood, imagined, doubted, supposed, realized, wondered, guessed, hoped, wished, because…

Telling Words – sensing: Watched, saw, observed, felt, smelled, tasted, heard…

Telling Words – adverbs: Hopefully, quickly, slowly, slightly, sincerely, personally, possibly, certainly, exactly, finally, suddenly… (search by “ly”).

Any others I should add?

Keystone-Cops

The HeArt and Craft of Writing

pixabay image

My blogger friend Sean Carlin wrote a post a few days ago about Artistic Originality. He’s a writer with a background in film, and he often laments the industry’s sequels and reboots that sacrifice the original film’s creative power for a guaranteed (but unsatisfying to the viewer) box-office bump.

His post got me thinking about the same phenomenon in books and what makes a story original.  We may disagree on the number of plots available to us, ranging from 4 (man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. himself) to Polti’s 36 (here’s the list). But we can all agree that the number we have to work with is limited.

Since we’re essentially rehashing the same plots millions of time (sit with that thought for a minute) how is it that we aren’t bored to tears with writing and reading? Aren’t we all, in a way, regurgitating our favorites?

Sean Carlin

Carlin concludes his post with a reflection on his current writing endeavor Escape from Rikers Island, and to me, he defines what makes a piece of art original:

“For better or worse, it is a reflection of my personality, my interests, my sensibilities, my experiences. When I read it back, I …hear myself. It sounds like me.”

In lauding George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, Carlin writes:

“… he diversified his influences, internalized them, developed an authentic voice all his own, and—this part is key—summoned the courage, without any assurances of a receptive audience, to make it heard.  If all artists took inspiration from that and aspired to the same, our popular culture would yield a limitless bounty of originality.”

I find these conclusions both wonderful and daunting because they place originality in a realm where we, as artists, have full control—our individual collections of experiences, imaginings, and most important of all, our hearts.

My reflection on Carlin’s post led to the core of what makes a piece of art compelling and memorable to me, which is the artist’s internal investment, the deeper the better. In writing, it’s an author’s emotional soul that feeds a story and evokes a reaction. That personal vulnerability requires courage, but it’s worth it because readers perceive the authenticity of the human experience unfolding in the books they love.

The blogosphere is full of spectacular advice on the “craft” of writing, but not so much on the “art.” Because heArt is like a fingerprint—personal and one of a kind. It isn’t something taught, but a rich quality mined from a soulful place within us. You are sublimely unique, and therein lies your source of originality.

Carlin wrote in his comment to me:

“…tools, techniques, and even theory are cool, but they’re only there to help us create an authentic emotional experience, and we can’t do that unless we write honest stories, drawn from our own experiences, imparted with a piece of our souls … I think that goes to illustrate just how sensitive storytelling is—what a delicate balance between heart and craft we have to strike in order to get it right.”

I love that.

Happy Writing. ❤

Writing Tip: Names versus Pronouns

My guess is I don’t need to tell you what doesn’t work about this passage:

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “John, have you seen my camera?” Mary’s hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it, Mary.” John scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time Mary had forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Mary, where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table, John.” Mary huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

John retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost John a fortune, but Mary had insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. John emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain Mary would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here, Mary.”

“Oh, crap, John!” Mary stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”

Did you notice all the Mary’s and John’s?

If you didn’t, trust me that after a few pages you’d be pretty tired of Mary and John. When I’d started writing, my publisher made me go through my manuscript and edit out first names whenever they weren’t needed. Here’s why…

1. Pronouns create a tighter POV.

Generally, we want a tight POV because it draws the reader deeper into a character’s experience.

Whether we’re writing in 1st or 3rd person (except omniscient), we’re sitting inside the POV character’s head, looking through her eyes, hearing what she hears, feeling her emotions, living out a scene from his/her perspective. Authors work hard to achieve the immediacy of a tight POV.  When clarity isn’t at stake, POV character’s will always refer to themselves with pronouns.

This is easiest to see in 1st person books where the POV character always refers to him/herself as “I.” Another way to think of this is in your daily life. When you’re hanging around the house you don’t refer to yourself by your name. I don’t say to my husband, “Diana’s going to make tea; do you want some?” That would be weird. I use a pronoun. “I’m going to make tea…”

3rd Person is subtler, but the same reasoning applies. We’re still sitting inside a character’s head, viewing the world through their perspective. Though the pronoun in this convention is a “he” or “she,” it’s still a pronoun. POV characters wouldn’t naturally refer to themselves by their names.

2. We don’t talk that way.

Next time you’re in for the evening with one other person, pay attention to the conversation or record yourselves for a short time. If names are used at all, it’s with purpose – primarily to get someone’s attention (“Hey, Randy, have you seen my keys?”) or for emphasis (“Listen, Randy. You lost them, you better find them!”). Do the same with a group of people and you’ll notice more first names, but still surprisingly few.

When are names necessary?

The answer is pretty obvious – to avoid confusion. And it’s easy to identify those situations:

  • When starting a new scene
  • When there are more than two characters in a scene and the dialog and action is jumping around
  • When two characters are talking about another character(s).
  • When two characters are the same gender.

Now, like anything in writing, this “rule” is meant to be broken, and broken for all kinds of reasons: reminders to the reader, to get a break from all those pronouns, sentence pacing, etc. This is simply something to be aware of when crafting your prose.

Here’s that paragraph all cleaned up.

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “Have you seen my camera?” Her hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it.” He scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table.” She huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

He retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost him a fortune, but she’d insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. He emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain she would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here.”

“Oh, crap!” She stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”